Expert: Attack on Ukraine a shock to many in Russia itself

Kadri Liik.
Kadri Liik. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The Russian attack on Ukraine on Thursday has come as a shock to many in Russia itself, and will have significant long-term effects on Vladimir Putin's relationship with the Russian elite propping him up, foreign policy expert Kadri Liik said in an interview given to ERR, which follows in its entirety.

How has Russian society reacted to the offensive? What signals are we seeing on social media? Not all journalists in Russia have approved the events, either.

Yes, I think that this war still came as a shock to Russian society, and to a large part of its elite, including foreign policy experts. 

Like me, they interpreted Russia's foreign policy goals and methods differently, so this came as an extremely unpleasant surprise to all concerned that, indeed, Putin's seeming personal obsession with Ukraine has immediately transformed into state policy, one which has led to a major conflict.

I am aware that journalists and foreign policy experts [in Russia] have penned an open letter stating that they do not support the war, while more and more signatures are being added. 

Such individual actions exist, and people have also brought out anti-war slogans in the streets, in some cases. Naturally, none of this has had any immediate effect.

However, I would venture say now that Putin's relationship with the society and the elite will no longer be as it was even as it had already changed a lot compared with earlier. If you watched that security council meeting on television on Monday, it was not a meeting of the country's leadership, but instead one of hegemony and subordination.

I think that Russia's domestic policy could change quite significantly.

In fact, this security council meeting was a performance in which Putin signaled that they were his companions, subject to himself and his decisions. Since he found his accomplices via this farce, he forced their hand. Is that the case?

I don't know why he thought it necessary. However, it was clear that these people did not feel at east whatsoever, and some were still completely terrified. 

I do not know if they knew at that time that they were sanctioning a war. They may not have been aware. 

As late as Tuesday, there was a great deal of confusion in Moscow about the extent to which these so-called people's republics [of Donetsk and Luhansk] were to be recognized, and no one could answer that.

In my opinion, this demonstrates that political decision-making has lost more or less all its collectiveness, and has shifted to one person. 

Whether, and with whom Putin consults, if he consults at all, is quite a question for me.

It is also an extremely dangerous development for us in that there is still no rationality in this collectiveness, and decisions can be emotional.

No, they don't even come based on emotions, but they come based on Putin's priorities.

In recent years, such a historical-revanchist or Slavic romantic line has deepened in him.

He really clings to the past in some very strong way, one which is difficult to comprehend. 

This is not a restoration of the Soviet Union as such, nor is it Russian nationalism in its classical form.

It is something a little different from that which drives him, but it is a dark force nonetheless.

There will certainly be more sanctions from the West now. If we look back a little at Russia's history after the Crimean War [of 1853-1856] that defeat [by an alliance of Great Britain, France and Turkey] was followed by reforms. If we think of the Russo-Japanese war, that was followed by the 1905 revolution. And then if we consider World War One, there are the Revolutions which took place in Russia in 1917. We might also think of what happened to the Soviet Union after the Americans pushed down the price of oil for an extended period of time. Maybe such chains of event no longer occur in Russia; nothing happens overnight. But are we now entering a time of anticipation where, little-by-little, the lives of those around Putin will become so uncomfortable that some other way out will be sought after?

I do not think this is due to discomfort.  These historical parallels all have their own specifics.

The current situation is what it is. What I can see is that society is tired of Putin, and the elite are tired of no rotation of power. This has been a deepening trend since 2018. Everyone was hoping that when the 2018 presidential election came, Putin would give some indication of when and how he might be leaving office. And the whole bureaucratic elite has been awaiting that. People's personal career plans have been hampered by the general political stalemate in the country.

It is quite clear that any war is very stressful in such a demoralized political landscape, and I am not sure that it will be of any benefit in the long run.

At the same time, there is no reason to expect a rapid collapse, especially economically. Russia really has plenty of reserves of all kinds, and they have a society ready to accept as little as they need to get by. A hope that we would be able to squeeze Putin's cronies or the elite economically to the extent that they would change state policy may not be the case. But certainly, some kind of cumulative process, with different strands, can shake domestic political stability quite a lot.

Kadri Liik is Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and was talking to ERR's Indrek Kiisler.


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