Arkady Moshes: Moscow learned the lesson, which the Soviet Union could never learn
Russia is an ever-prevalent discussion topic when it comes to Baltic security, be it regarding its 2014 annexation of Crimea, be it regarding what could occur following civil unrest in Russia itself or be it when Russia’s influence is felt reaching out into NATO and EU countries. The Lithuania Tribune interviewed the programme director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs’ EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia Research Programme Dr. Arkady Moshes at the Riga Conference 2018 on how the West can respond to Russia and how Russia’s internal workings operate now and will continue to operate in the long term.
There seems to be a paradox because the West or NATO, or whatever you have it need to respond to Russia's actions, be it in Ukraine or be it elsewhere, however at the same time, responses such as this can be used by the regime to fuel a sort of siege mentality among the population. How do we cope with that?
Well, that's a difficult question. I think the West has to respond, maybe prioritising other components than that. After what happened in Crimea and the East of the Ukraine, a response was necessary and it was inevitable. We can discuss if it was adequate, if more would have had to be done, but the point is that the response was there.
I'm not sure if it actually contributed to the siege mentality because the rally-around-the-flag effect and mobilisation happened not because of the Western response. It happened because of A) very effective work of the Russian propaganda machinery, but B) - and I don't know what is A) and what is B) here because these things can work interchangeably - because there was a certain imperial or post-imperial sentiment in the country already. So the basic question here is whether the Western counter-actions increased that sentiment. I would say it's academically not proven. It's plausible, it's possible, but it's not necessarily the case and in my view it's not the primary thing.
And again, what we see now, is that despite all these responses and despite the basic components being still a part of the picture, the mobilisation effect is weakening. I mean, the public opinion polls that we have been having this year, with the caveat that we haven't yet seen what happened after the most recent... let's say activization on the sanction front, but the views, public opinion views towards Europe and even towards the United States were getting better.
So how is it possible if, let's say, does it mean that the Kremlin propaganda is not working well enough any longer?
It works to the extent that it can. But first of all there are other things. I mean people have to react to the actual daily problems that they are facing first. And second, most important part of that mobilisation mechanism was linked to the things happening in Ukraine, but the situation has been at a certain level for four years now and it's very difficult to maintain the same level of mobilisation for years even if the propaganda machinery works. There's more in the world than the propaganda machinery and that's why I think that finally the effect is fading away. It's not going away completely, but it's getting weaker.
And does it mean that since now the Kremlin, in order to regain or get something like put some "water" on the propaganda mill, may need something, some more "water"? Does it mean that the situation, security situation, is getting worse? What are they going to do in order to get that "water" on the mill?
I don't know. I mean, the point is that again, Ukraine and the sentiment towards the Ukraine, and the neuralgic, neurotic reactions on everything going on in Ukraine, is, in my view, a unique thing. Neither Syria, nor whatever you can think of would have the same effect. We had a similar effect during the times of the Russian-Georgian war, but that was even more short-lived. Although normalisation in real terms did not happen back then, the issue was of the screen. You cannot keep the same level of interest to issues, which do not concern you personally that much and I don't know, I mean I don't want to give people any advice, but I actually don't see any other issue than Ukraine. Nothing else, be it even Western sanctions, be it the Western decisions and moves in the military and political sphere can go so quickly and so powerfully to the hearts and minds of the average people in Russia as Ukraine did.
So in that sense, the Russian propaganda machinery is running against the current and being effective is becoming more difficult for it. It's doing its best, but it's doing the same things and there are no new themes, which would be as powerful for the people as Ukraine issue.
And you mentioned that this siege mentality, the Russia fortress mentality is not working any longer. This is a very good ingredient in the propaganda machine, is it not working?
Again, what I said is that it's a post-imperial mentality, it's something different than the siege mentality. People think that Russian annexation of Crimea is fair and just whether there is a response of the West or not, but the understanding that Russia is under siege is much less universal. It's much less overwhelming in the country. It's simply a different story.
Looking in the long term, now that you mention that after Ukraine, the propaganda machine has perhaps struggled a little. Looking at the longer term and perhaps post-Putin Russia, do we see him as just a figurehead or perhaps as more a mastermind and will a post-Putin Russia develop more stability, become more moderate or is it just going to be business as usual?
Putin is probably neither the mastermind or the only mastermind, nor certainly a front figure. Putin is part and parcel of the Russian ruling elite, of the elite that makes the decisions. You could argue whether every big business belongs to it, maybe not, but people, who take decisions, this is what they think. They have very bad feelings about the ending of the Cold War, which they think is unfair. They think that Russia was not treated fairly throughout the 90s when it was weak. They think the West was taking advantage of Russian weakness. They think that in the 2000s, Russia was still extending the hand of cooperation in the context of fight against terrorism and it was not understood. So now, the thinking is that Russia got stronger, it can afford to play nasty and that's a way towards respect internationally.
This is a collective view. This is a very entrenched collectivised view. Replacement of one person or even let's say a very close group of close friends of one person from the top is not going to change much, I'm afraid. That's why I have a problem looking now forward in terms of even constructing a post-Putin Russia. There might be a post-Putin list of ministers, but that thinking is not going to go away, it's entrenched, it's euphoric and that feeling of success is there.
To make the story worse, when you think about post-Putin Russia, you do not necessarily expect a very liberal-minded peaceful type of Russia. What we will definitely hear at this conference is the analysis of the recent gubernatorial elections where the opposition figures either won or featured very strongly, being able to mobilise the protest electorate. Well, the problem is, the people, who won, they promise even more state and even more paternalism as compared to the current incumbents.
So in a way, you definitely see that the support, which they have been able to mobilise, it's not the support that wants to make Putin's regime part of history; it's the audience, which is tired with some particular deficiencies of this regime, but not necessarily wants to overcome the system as a whole. So far, I don't see any powerful factors that would be really able to change the rules of the game in the country, but I am worried that the movement that we see going is not encouraging. I mean this protest vote may still be canalised through some kind of co-optation and agreement between the authorities and the opposition, but I don't see anything that would suggest that there is a massive awakening of more liberal political and economic type of thinking in the country.
So this social contract "we pay you salaries on time and you let us rule how we rule, and we do not give you freedoms, but we give you some kind of social security," with the latest events, with the pension reform and as you mentioned some activities in Russia, those who are not happy about the reform, do they look at Putin as a problem of that pension cut or is it the government, which is to blame? Will Putin's popularity go down in the long term because of this?
Yes, I think that now this is interesting because obviously, the Putin electorate expected him to be a solution and that's why many of the same people who support the systemic opposition candidates now, actually voted for him during the presidential elections. He tried to look like a solution, but obviously, from what we understand from the public opinion polls, he failed to perform that role. He's not viewed as the solution, he is viewed as maybe, not fully a part of the problem, but part of the mechanism that took the decisions to go for this raising of the pension age.
But then there is a question. How long can that dissatisfaction and frustration stay and what the demands will be. My instinctive take is that people will not accept it, they will stay offended, but that will not be translated into a meaningful political action. And actually, we already see the first signs of that. If you compare the Levada polls of two months ago and now, the number of people, who say that they are ready to protest - in reality, of course, there's always a huge gap between those, who say they are ready to protest and those actually protesting - but even the number of people saying that they are ready to protest is going down.
In that sense, the Kremlin might know its audience and the country better than many external analysts. They know that yes, it's not going to be liked, it's going to be resented, but it's not necessarily going to be protested in any meaningful way. I mean – true, there will be some negative feelings vis-a-vis the president as well, but they are not enough to change the rules of the game.
So that means that the drop of income of the ordinary Russians (because there's this kind of story assumption that Russians can put up with everything, doesn't matter the social issues, doesn't matter, they can eat potatoes and they can really, for the Motherland, they can do anything that is possible. So where is the red line where they cannot support?
First of all the country is still very far from any alarm. Even if the figures that the Western sources and Russian economists as well cite, they are talking about the decrease of incomes by 15% within the last four years. This is not much. This is very far from critical, this is still hugely incomparable with what the country was going through in the 90s and even ten years ago, frankly. So, the living standards, they have not yet fallen. Of course, Moscow is one thing, regions are another thing, there are regions where people really live poorly, there are certain things, which are not directly related to the level of income, but still worsen the quality of life, like the worsening state of the national health service, etc.
But we cannot talk about even approaching anything like a red line, even if current trends continue. The oil price can go up to one hundred US dollars per barrel, Russia still has a surplus budget, it has a surplus in foreign trade, it has about 500 billion dollars of golden currency reserves and practically no state debt. This is not a country, which is on the brink, this is not the Soviet Union in '88, let alone in 1990. This is still a country, which has huge resources and a government, which knows how to use these resources to buy people's support when necessary. And to maintain its police and repression apparatus.
What do we do? What can the Baltics or perhaps Lithuania individually do, is there anything we can contribute toward making a shift of any sort? It's naïve, but...
It's not naïve, but I mean realistically speaking, I don't think it's a task even to be thought of to be taken for Lithuania alone, the Baltic States alone or even a coalition of the willing. The general attitudes in Europe and in the West more generally towards Russia have been shaped in the way that Russia is a problem, a strategic challenge, which you have to deal with, and neutralise it concentrating on your own security. But the times of massive democracy promotion outside of the European Union are history.
It's true with regards to Russia, it's almost true with regards Ukraine, it's definitely true with regard to countries such as Belarus, which is a much easier case than Russia if someone really wanted to promote democracy, but nobody sets these objectives in real policy anymore. Even regarding Moldova, in Europe there's huge frustration with the results of the engagement during the previous twenty years and I don't think that's going to change.
So putting your own house in order, providing a good example of how things can be and how they can work, how the wellbeing of people living not far from Russia can grow – this is extremely important. And, of course, solidarity with those Russians, who still want to oppose the current system is important. That said, anything resembling the policy aimed at the regime change is not going to work and not going to help.
It seems that the opposite is happening – that Russia is already having some almost moral authority to intervene into European politics. Say, having a relationship with various right wing parties, exporting its ideology, mister Putin is the strongest politician, the best politician for those parties. Do you see that actually Russia is on the offensive now against the West?
I don't know if Russia is on the offensive. Russia, the Kremlin really wants to have a fighting chance. So it wants to use the advantages that it has. I mean, this is a hybrid conflict. This is how it's referred to and this is what it is. So, Russia will be using the instruments, which it thinks are available.
I don't know how much these alliances with the right wing parties can help, but Russian diplomacy is very disciplined, it's very experienced, it's actually a high quality diplomacy. When people can go to Berlin or to one famous wedding in Austria, these people do not necessarily need to deal with more marginal right-wing parties. Moscow learned the lesson, which the Soviet Union could never learn - the Soviet Union only wanted to engage with the Communist parties, with the like-minded people. Russia today engages with everybody. It just finds its ways to find a common platform. With some people it will be ideology, with some it will be money. But this is the world in which we live and this is not because Russia is "bad" because obviously Russia wants to use the asymmetry, it wants to play asymmetrically and it wants to exploit the strengths and the advantages that it has.
Thank you very much for the interview.