For Europe to evade the Russian threat, Russia needs to slip into a period of instability once Putin is gone, says Vladimir Socor. In an interview to Veridica, Vladimir Socor says the early signs of post-Soviet expansionism became transparent in the 1990s, also referring to Ukraine’s chances in the current war.
“Putin is the living proof against the West’s illusion of Russia’s liberalization”
VERIDICA: I would start by asking you if what we’re seeing today is actually part of, let’s say, a plan that started right after the collapse of the USSR?
VLADIMIR SOCOR: I believe that, shortly after the fall of the USSR, the Kremlin leadership didn’t have a specific plan for re-expanding post-Soviet Russia within the territory of the former Soviet Union. It did, however, have some ideas and felt compelled to expand without a specific vision. These ideas became transparent after Russia’s military intervention in Transnistria in 1992, which continues to this day with the military occupation of a part of the Republic of Moldova’s territory. Its actions were symptomatic of its future intentions in an area that was iconic for the former Soviet Union and Russian Empire. Another clue indicative of the danger that was to come were the statements of Russian officials close to Boris Yeltsin, ever since the autumn of 1991 and the spring of 1992, who warned that an independent Ukraine would have to renounce those territories that Soviet Russia allegedly entrusted to Ukraine. And we’ve seen the same intentions in the case of Georgia, where Russia invaded Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 1991. There was no pre-arranged plan. But there was some concept, the kind of intervention at local level that foretold an overarching strategy. It falls unto Putin to fulfill the historical role of devising a general strategy.
VERIDICA: But what does Putin stand for? We if take a look at the history of Russia’s relations with the rest of the world, there has always been a leader that represented a specific system. What system does Putin stand for?
VLADIMIR SOCOR: Putin stands for historical Russia. Eternal Russia, a Russia that is impervious to change. Putin is the living proof against the West’s illusion of Russia’s liberalization. There are no historical premises to expect a liberalization of Russia. Even those elements in Russia that support a modern type of administration, not an autocracy, but a modern one based on institutions, these are Russian liberals, and even they have a propensity for empire-building. I’ve talked in my lecture today about the ideology of White Russians, Civil War-era monarchists who would think of Ukraine as ‘Little Russia’, an annex of Great Russia, a Ukraine that had no right to call itself Ukraine and lacked any national identity. Putin is tapping into this narrative. There are liberals in present-day Russia who are also clogs in the wheel of Russia’s system. Their detractors ironically call them “Sislibs”, it’s a sarcastic term short for “Systemnyi Liberala”, liberals who are part of the system. These are close associates of Dmitri Medvedev, oligarchs such as Anatoly Chubais, Liberals working in finance such as Finance Minister Kudrin or the chairman of Sberbank, Herman Gref. These are all liberals who are embedded in the system and who feel the same about Ukraine. Dmitri Medvedev has been the most adamant in this respect. Ukraine is an appendix of Russia, it doesn’t have a right to exist outside Russia, whereas any industrial advantages Ukraine might offer should be integrated into Russian economy.
If Russia grows unstable post-Putin, Russia might no longer pose a threat to Europe
VERIDICA: What would happen if we take Putin out of the equation, because he is, so to say, the face of an entire system that backs him.
VLADIMIR SOCOR: It would very much depend on how Putin will walk out. I, for one, hope for a Smuta. Smuta is a Russian historical concept associated with the demise of central authority, a time of turmoil, anarchy and violent struggle for power between various factions. Smuta was originally the term designated to the early 17th century in Russian history, a time when Russian arts and music flourished under Boris Godunov. This was actually a Time of Troubles, when the Tsardom of Russia collapsed. A number of suitable candidates emerged, claiming the title of tsar, hence a long period of anarchy followed suit. It wasn’t even a civil war, but a time of lawlessness and anarchy, which eventually ended with the ascension of the Romanov dynasty. The Smuta was over and Russia eventually resumed its expansion campaign, which meant annexing Eastern Ukraine in 1654. We had two Smutas in the 20th century: the collapse of Russia at the end of the First World War, due to Germany’s victory. This is insufficiently or not at all acknowledged in the collective mindset in Romania and in Eastern Europe: Germany defeated Russia in Eastern Europe, it simply crushed Russia’s military might and dictated the terms for peace in Brest-Litvosk, which tore apart the Russian Empire.
VERIDICA: So this was the first Smuta of the 20th century…
VLADIMIR SOCOR: Yes.
VERIDICA: And the second one?
VLADIMIR SOCOR: Russia’s defeat by Germany led to a Smuta at home, the collapse of the central authority, anarchy and civil war. This Smuta ended in 1921, and it triggered the restructuring of Russia in the new Soviet Union. And the second Smuta was the collapse of the USSR in 1991, with the creation of this huge window of opportunity to disband the USSR and allow a number of independent states to rise from its ruins.
VERIDICA: Alright. You said you were hoping for a new Smuta now. How would that be beneficial in the current context, in the 21st century? How would a fourth Smuta benefit not Russia, but the whole world that watches in shock and awe a series of actions whose meaning it more often than not fails to grasp?
VLADIMIR SOCOR: You are right. The benefits of a Smuta would eliminate the Russian threat in Europe. Just like that. Isolating Russia to where Russia belongs, far from Europe, somewhere between Europe and Asia, or even in Russia. That’s were Russia belongs.
VERIDICA: And do you believe European sanctions against Russia will not have that effect? Aren’t they supposed to leave Russia isolated, to collapse its whole system?
VLADIMIR SOCOR: We still cannot foresee the medium and long term effects of economic sanctions. For the time being, we are still witnessing short-term effects. In the short run, economic sanctions didn’t have the impact we all hoped to see. They might become transparent in the medium term, possibly contributing to triggering a new Smuta in Russia. We can’t tell for sure right now. It will also be conditional on the evolution of the war in Ukraine. Russia wants milder sanctions, since it would be unrealistic to want them lifted altogether. A truce with Ukraine, agreed upon with the latter’s consent, might also be used as an argument to ease some of the sanctions, selectively. But we can’t know for sure.
For the time being, Russia’s revenues from the export of oil, gas and other raw materials are higher this year compared to last year. Although the volume of trade has gone down, revenues went up due to the increase in prices. I repeat, the impact of sanctions is hard to predict at the moment. If the international community continues to enforce and multiply these sanctions consistently, then Russian economy might collapse, which would be in everyone’s interest. Not every country believes a Russian Smuta would help the West. That’s certainly not the case. Some governments, however, like France, believe Russia belongs in Europe and should be brought back into the fold. This notion has been a favorite historical narrative in France…
VERIDICA: Can you explain what made you say Putin is predictable?
VLADIMIR SOCOR: Yes, he is predictable. To experts, or at least to some of the experts. But Putin was the one who introduced this kind of legal confusion that confounds and baffles Western governments and their policies. In the case of Donetsk and Luhansk, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were expected to be part of Ukraine and not be part of Ukraine. They were due to be annexed and not to be annexed by Russia, it was all very ambiguous. In theory, Donetsk and Luhansk were due to be part of Ukraine de jure, whereas de facto they were already under the full control of Russia in military, economic and political terms. They were completely controlled by Russia, but from a legal point of view they were part of Ukraine. Therefore, Donetsk and Luhansk were expected to be part of Ukraine to the extent they were able to influence Ukrainian politics from within. This is the magnificent ambiguity of the Minsk agreements. The so-called agreements, which had been in fact dictated by Russia. Meanwhile, Russia revoked the Minsk agreements, saying that Donetsk and Luhansk are independent states, de facto annexed by Russia.
VERIDICA: …and it used the war to nullify the agreements…
VLADIMIR SOCOR: There’s a degree of ambiguity in this respect as well. Although Donetsk and Luhansk are an integral part of Russia at all levels, military, economic, political, cultural, psychological, they would be part of Russia any way you look at it, officially they were designated independent states. Much like Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They are de facto part of the Russian Federation at every level, but de jure they are independent states.
“To Russia, human lives never really mattered. Expansion at any cost is what truly matters”
VERIDICA: Where is the war headed?
VLADIMIR SOCOR: It’s headed towards a victory for Russia and a defeat for Ukraine. I never shared the outpouring of optimism in the West in March and April, when the West presumed Ukraine would win and Russia would lose. It was an artificial euphoria, and I fear that at psychological level, this euphoria served to justify the whole standby policy of the West, refraining to provide real weapons to Ukraine, waiting for Ukraine to win the war with minimum assistance. With every day that passes, Russia is gaining ground, little by little, in a very inefficient, incompetent and even archaic way, using obsolete weapons against Ukrainian troops that have so far performed admirably beyond all expectations. Still, Russia emerges as the clear winner. With every day it moves further inland, gaining more ground to the detriment of Ukraine. Every day it destroys more and more infrastructure…
Unless Western states stop wasting time and move to immediately supply Ukraine with real weapons, an infusion of heavy, offensive and long-rage weapons that would help Ukraine fight back. Ukraine takes responsibility for this counteroffensive, it has said so on a number of occasions, provided it receives proper equipment, as I’ve mentioned before. The window of opportunity will start closing in autumn.
VERIDICA: Why then?
VLADIMIR SOCOR: Due to the weather. A counteroffensive will no longer be possible starting mid-autumn. And Ukraine needs this immediate infusion of heavy weapons, and it will take a few more weeks for Ukrainian troops to learn to use this equipment. Then, the counteroffensive will become possible in late summer. The window of opportunity might start to close in early autumn. It might be possible, although only in hypothetical terms, for Ukraine to have a new window of opportunity next spring, unless Russia fortifies its position along the frontline, which would make it very hard, it not outright impossible, for the Ukrainians to launch a counteroffensive, since the cost of human lives would be huge. And unlike Russia, Ukraine does factor in the loss of human lives. To Russia, human lives never really mattered. Expansion at any cost is what truly matters.