INTERVIEW by Mark Galeotti for EuroZprávy.cz: The Future of Russia? The oligarchy of pragmatic kleptocrats, says Professor Galeotti


Recently, speculation about possible preparations for the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine has reappeared in the world media. Bloomberg brought the warning with reference to its unnamed sources. How to access such messages?

Looking at the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, it is always dangerous to be overly optimistic, but we must be honest: we tend to have many such warnings every year. At the same time, there does not seem to be much reason to believe that Moscow is currently planning any major military operation. Although the Russian army is much larger than the Ukrainian, there is no doubt that if there was any open conflict, the Russians would suffer casualties. The Russian population shows no enthusiasm for a similar war, and it would further weaken the (Russian ruling) regime.

In what situation could an open Russian military operation in eastern Ukraine, which would go beyond strengthening support to the pro-Russian separatists, really take place?

It is still a possibility, especially if it always seems that Kiev will try to resort to a military solution to the war there. But Russia’s latest decision to liberalize trade with rebel-dominated regions suggests that (Russia) expects the current situation to continue for the foreseeable future and wants to reduce the extent to which pseudo-states must subsidize there. However, we should never forget that Putin and his closest allies seem to have a rather paranoid idea that the Kiev regime is just a NATO puppet. And Putin has made it clear that if it looks like Ukraine can join NATO, or perhaps the EU, then escalation (conflict) will be almost inevitable.

What internal problems is Russia currently solving? There is a lot of talk about economic problems, which are long-term. Do they result from the general structural weaknesses of the Russian economy?

In 2014, the Kremlin prioritized security and stability over (economic) growth, and although the economy is relatively stagnant, it certainly does not face an immediate crisis. Just because the (Russian) government has reserves worth more than half a trillion euros. Ordinary Russians are experiencing a slow decline in their standard of living, but the real impact of this is a simultaneous decline in the legitimacy of (Putin’s) regime. The Russians are not satisfied, though not so dissatisfied, that they are really willing to protest, but that may change. This is one of the reasons why opposition leader Alexei Navalny was first poisoned and then imprisoned: the Kremlin desperately wants to prevent the emergence of any figure, force or cause that could unite and inspire them and create a “coalition of dissatisfied”.

Over the coming decade, there will be serious challenges related to climate change, the (Russian) economy’s excessive dependence on oil and gas exports, and China’s rise, but these are not burning threats. It is still possible that the Kremlin – perhaps under another leader – will be able to resolve them.

How important is the Western sanctions imposed on Russia following the events in Ukraine in 2014 in Russia’s economic problems?

Honestly, not too big. Sanctions have had some impact on the (Russian) economy, but in fact have largely slowed economic growth, nothing more. However, they were at least a political rebuke. However, authoritarian regimes can withstand sanctions for a long, long time.

Last year’s set of constitutional changes theoretically allows President Vladimir Putin to run again and remain in power until 2036. But how strong is his position? Is it not threatened by growing dissatisfaction in Russian society in the face of stagnation and a decline in living standards?

Putin does not face any direct threat, only thanks to his strong control of the security forces. But in the end, he may not want to stay in power for so long. And the Russian population itself is starting to be, say, bored. The less legitimate his government and his regime are, the more likely he is to decide for himself that the time has come for a successor.

Can you imagine that after the eventual departure of Vladimir Putin, the character of the Russian regime will be preserved and there will only be a personnel change? Or will Putin’s departure inevitably cause a political earthquake?

I don’t think there will be an earthquake, but I think that when historians pass their verdict, Putin’s era will be seen as a temporary, lasting touch of “Soviet man.” Of course, the difference will be whether Putin personally manages the transfer of power or whether mortality (individuals) forces him on the system, but as a result, I suspect that he will eventually be replaced by an oligarchy of pragmatic kleptocrats. They will not be Democrats, and they will be hardened Russian nationalists, but apparently with a greater interest in improving relations with the West. They will want to use the local banks, enjoy the luxury there and attract local investors. Although at the same time they will continue to steal at home.

Russia’s rise on the international stage has long been talked about in the media, sometimes even the restoration of Moscow’s Cold War prestige. But didn’t these views turn out to be exaggerated? What is Russia’s current international position compared to the beginning of the millennium?

Russia is undoubtedly a different player on the world stage than twenty years ago. This is partly because it regained some vision and strength after the chaos and decline of the 1990s, and also because it has a clear new goal, which is to restore Russia’s status as a superpower. As a result, what Russia can do and what it does is greatly exaggerated. His willingness to spend more of his money on the military, to break the rules of the international order – remember the Vrbetice incident – and to take risks that others do not take, in fact, means that Russia is beating out of its weight category.

However, this approach has serious long-term consequences. Russia is also used as a scapegoat, to which various disturbing things are attributed, from the election of Trump to Brexit, although it did not play a significant role in them. Thus, this interpretation creates the image of Putin as a global super criminal and a geopolitical chess grandmaster who does not really belong to him.

Many commentators expected US President Joe Biden to take a much tougher stance on Russia than his predecessor, Donald Trump. After eleven months, however, there does not appear to be a radical change. What do you attribute it to?

Biden has other priorities, especially in China and at home reconstruction, he wants to devote as little time and effort as possible to Russia. He dealt with this quite well at the Geneva summit, keeping his criticism of Russia and Putin for the closed part of the talks, but at the same time making it clear what “insurmountable lines” are for him. Biden knows that if he took a tougher line on Russia, Russia would retaliate, and that could disrupt its entire political agenda.


Source: EuroZprávy.cz by eurozpravy.cz.

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