Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Putin "Admires 19th Century Russian Monarchists"
Vladimir Putin, at the time Russian prime minister, with Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in 2011. (Photo: Russian prime minister's website/Wikimedia Commons)
In an interview for Espreso.TV, Russian dissident Alexander Skobov has spoken of President Vladimir Putin’s obsessions and outlines his reasons for backing his “poor vassal” Viktor Yanukovich.
[Espresso TV] In Ukraine, there’s an impression that one’s worst nightmares and dreams of the Lubyanka [KGB headquarters] are starting to become reality. There are unexpected developments, odd behaviour from the Kremlin, and a constant ramping up of the situation. After such terrible dreams, we are afraid we will awaken to a terrible reality.
[Alexander Skobov] Sadly, I am not surprised by what’s happening. After the war in Chechnya, I can see that opting for violence and bloodshed comes naturally to the current regime. The only question is whether there is anything Putin's regime is afraid of.
Until recently, everyone believed that Putin was not ready to break with the West, and that the ruling elite was intertwined with Western interests and thus limited in its scope for action. Sooner or later, though, the question of a break with the West had to arise.
The general consensus among political scientists now is that the present confrontation with the West is different in nature from the one between the West and the Soviet bloc. That conflict was ideological in nature. It was a struggle between two models of social development, between two ideologies that sought to assert themselves in as many areas of the world as possible – if possible globally. And the current confrontation is [not seen as] a clash of ideologies or social models.
But I think that’s an outmoded concept. The current conflict is indeed increasingly reminiscent of the old ideological conflict.
Ideological confrontation is one thing, but a willingness to shed the blood of a nation that was until recently called “fraternal” is another. It transpires that that the "fraternal Russian people" are ready to teach the Ukrainians a lesson, and forget about brotherhood. Are they ready to shed blood?
I am certain that the Russian leadership is prepared for bloodshed. How ready is the Russian public, though? It has certainly coped with the Chechen campaign, which killed tens of thousands of people on both sides, and Russians are well aware of the brutality of war. But they have come to terms with it. They found justifications and explanations for it, or tried not to see it or be aware of it.
In that sense, it is unfortunately not worth expecting the Russian public, in the shape it is now, to voice any protest against bloodshed. The only exception will be when it comes to counting the cost.
In other words, no moral boundaries or ethical principles apply?
Sadly, there are no moral bounds at present. I find this hard to say, but they do not exist among the ruling elite, nor have they for a long time, and I am not sure whether they exist for ordinary people.
Putin has succeeded in playing on the “post-Versailles syndrome". A lot has been said about the psychology of German society after its defeat in the First World War. The perception was that it was a geopolitical defeat for the German state.
The [post-Soviet] transition came at a high cost. People struggled just to survive. They encountered numerous injustices, and a mood of anger, protest and discontent grew. The question was where this would go, and Putin’s regime succeeded in channelling all this discontent into revanchism.
What is Putin’s inner motivation? He isn’t the last emperor of Rome or Byzantium, after all. Tectonic shifts of this kind can be explained in either rational or irrational terms. We are still unable to understand what drives Putin and his clan. What’s it about? They risk losing money and destroying Russia within a few years.
It’s a mix of the rational and the irrational. The Putin regime has long been searching for some kind of ideology for itself, specifically one that it could deploy to mobilise public support. Many people have said that this new ruling class has no real ideology; that it is looking for some kind of substitute or simulated version.
As the regime has become increasingly authoritarian, it has begun to need an official ideology. It has been looking for one, and it seems like it has found one.
There is some evidence that Putin himself quite seriously admires the works of 19th publicists in the monarchist camp such as Konstantin Leontiev, Konstantin Pobedonostsev and Ivan Ilyin. This ideology is anti-Western, anti-liberal, and favours the monarchical, imperial state.
He really has found an ideology for himself, and I think he truly believes in it.
It’s an odd choice. He had a choice between the likes of Pobedonostsev and the likes of [Soviet dissident Andrei] Sakharov, in other words to opt for a completely different kind of Russia. Why such an odd attraction to a fairly primitive set of ideas?
The ruling elite has opted for its own permanence, for being beyond scrutiny, and for authoritarian methods of governance. So it could not have chosen Sakharov. What it has gone for instead is something that – in its own imagination – is the best reflection of the social order.
And they really don’t believe that true democracy exists anywhere else. When they hear talk of true democracy, they immediately suspect it’s a trick, a staged thing where there are puppeteers pulling the strings and controlling events. They are profoundly convinced that there is no such thing as democracy; that it is all trickery. That is really the way they think, and it is clear why they think that.
And they assume their way of thinking is shared by everyone else. You see, when gangsters have their own particular outlook, they believe that everyone else is a gangster, too. Some might be more successful, others less so, but the world operates by the laws of gangsters.
So what does the future look like? We can hear the voice of liberal Russia, but we get the impression that in the main, Russia has been swallowed up by the regime.
After the election in 2011, there was an opportunity to bring together much of society with some general democratic slogans and demands. Demands for government to be accountable and subject to scrutiny, demands for fair elections.
That opportunity is now lost. I think the chance of a broad coalition emerging did exist, but Putin’s success in unleashing a revanchist mood has eliminated that chance. Using revanchist slogans, Putin has managed to mobilise people on his side, including some of the opposition.
We’re talking about the Kremlin’s revanchism, but no one actually wanted to do it any harm. The main aim was to get away from it. The Baltic states moved furthest away, and Ukraine is now trying to get away.
I think there are hotheads who seriously intend to slice off part of Ukraine’s territory. That no longer means Crimea; it’s the southeast. But even that is not the end strategy. A puppet regime would be imposed on the rest of the country.
Putin’s explosive response to the fall of Yanukovich was because he saw it as the collapse of a kindred regime. It was a regime which imposed a distorted, fictitious democracy – albeit in less acute form [than Russia] – in which an unsupervised, fairly criminalised elite pulled all the strings. To him, these were kindred regimes.
Look at how Putin's Russia has consistently defended dictatorial, authoritarian, outcast regimes around the world. It isn’t just to spite America – there’s a profound sense of connection there. That is why I say the current global confrontation is once again ideological, and is a clash between different models – one model where the ruling elite takes precedence over its people, and another where it’s the other way round.
How is Russia dealing with Yanukovich?
I don’t think there’s any sympathy or respect for Yanukovich there, either among Putin’s opponents or his supporters. Everyone more or less understands what Yanukovich was. Those who have fallen for this imperialist, chauvinist mentality don’t really care whether a vassal is likeable or good. He’s just a vassal; he belongs to us. Their reasoning is that "you have encroached on our domain, on our vassal. It’s none of your business whether the governor we impose on you is good or bad." That's the psychology behind imperialist thinking.
Criminals use the term “a parting of the ways”. How can Ukraine part ways with Putin so as to avoid a negative outcome?
At the moment, Moscow wants to at least dictate what kind of constitution Ukraine should adopt, who should be in the government, and what kind of coalition there should be. Moscow wants everything decided in Moscow. And if Ukraine does not wish to be dictated to, then riots will need to be incited there. Sure, it isn’t nice to take advantage of your neighbour problems by twisting his arm. But that's what they will do.
I am sorry to say it, but I doubt there is going to be a parting of the ways. I am in St. Petersburg, and while it may be cynical to say so, I doubt the Ukrainian army is going to shell St. Petersburg in the event of a major war. But right now, the only thing that can stop Putin now is a will to resist on the part of Ukraine’s people, and that includes armed resistance.
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