Ambassador: Mistake to think Putin enemies automatically on our side

Moscow. Source: ERR

Believing that everyone who is against Russian President Vladimir Putin is on our side amounts to making a big mistake in Estonia and elsewhere, Estonian Ambassador to Russia Margus Laidre told ERR in an interview. He added that the Ukraine war will not end for as long as Putin remains in power.

What went through your head when the war started?

I'm a morning person. I usually get up around 6 a.m., while I decided to sleep a little longer that day since it was February 24, the Estonian Independence Day. My phone rang at 7:36 a.m. It was my son, who works at the Estonian Embassy in Stockholm, calling with two surprises for me. The first news was very good as I learned I now had two grandsons. The other was the war. Those two things coinciding – great joy that I had a grandson and the terrible news of the war... A difficult moment and one of uncertainty.

Thinking back to Putin's rhetoric at the start of the war, threatening an unprecedented response if anyone tried to stop him, if memory serves... It gave us pause and prompted a meeting at the embassy. A joint meeting of envoys from the EU, Canada, USA and the U.K. followed. And the war started unfurling from there.

If the view in the West is that the war has not gone well for Russia, does the Russian person realize their leaders have miscalculated?

Talking about Russia, we need to first realize that we have to talk about several different Russias therein. Therefore, public opinion is much more diverse than it may seem. Looking at the periphery, loyalty to the state and patriotism are felt much more strongly compared to major cities. Let us say television is still the dominant source of information in the border regions. While this dominance has been weakened of late, dropped from 90 percent to 60 percent, it is still the main source of news.

Things are quite different in larger cities. People are relatively well-informed in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. People in my circle use alternative sources of information. They are up to speed on developments, while the relevant question is whether they always want to admit what they see. Trying to mentally distance oneself from the war is a common reaction – it does not concern me, it is not my war and I have nothing do with it.

Things have changed since the partial mobilization. I have suggested in the past that it constituted a mental divide. If until then people were perhaps tuning in to a TV series they could just as easily tune out of if the script was not to their liking, now [since the mobilization] it is more akin to seeing a play in the theater where it is awkward to get up and leave in the middle of the act. That much has changed for people. Russians are also reacting painfully to sanctions, which suggests they are working and serve their purpose. But they feel it [the war] does not concern them and that they're being punished instead of those responsible.

In other words, there is dissatisfaction in major cities, but it is not something that has an effect on the leadership or could cause them to reevaluate?

That is a question we often ask ourselves – why have the Russian people not taken to the streets. Russian observers, those worth listening to, suggest there are no protest moods in major cities. Hoping that the people will come to the streets... On the one hand, the authorities have done everything in their power to prevent such demonstrations and protests with draconian regulations. Recent amendments to the foreign agents law can see a person put in prison for a long time for merely visiting a foreign embassy.

We have already felt the law's effects. People we have invited to the embassy have apologized and said they cannot come. Others have asked to use the spare entrance, and the Estonian Embassy only has two entrances. The authorities have also held widely covered show trials to demonstrate that bad things will happen to those who refuse to obey the law.

Protests could follow Russia's economic collapse. But leading economists say that this will not happen, there are no lines in shops, no [spike in] unemployment, and the fading will rather take place over a long time. While the Russian economy is surely stagnating, this will not happen overnight. There are attempts to realign the economy to meet political needs. For example, RosAtom and other military industries in Sverdlovsk Oblast have switched to a six-day workweek and 12-hour days.

One example is when a girl showed up with a poster that read, "I love my father." Svetlana Poteryahina was ordered to pay a fine of 30,000 rubles for discrediting the army and threatened with terrorism charges during interrogation. There were protests when the war started, while no one is keen to demonstrate now. What would have to happen for people to want and dare to come out? Let's be honest, law enforcement should realize they can no longer just quash protests and attack people.

That question should be put to the Russian people. There were indeed more protest moods when the war started, while there were also more avtozaks or mobile detention cells and riot police. I can remember an incident where young Russian women wore a green scarf. How is a green scarf dangerous, one might ask. Simple – green is the result of mixing yellow and blue. I think that economic difficulty is the biggest, most important factor with the potential of affecting people's behavior. A rapid economic decline would set people in motion. However, as we have said, the authorities are doing everything they can to avoid that. We need to remember that the real income of Russians has been in decline for 10-15 years. The situation is not new.

But we also understand that the Russian person is willing to suffer and suffer greatly. People in the West hardly realize how much a Russian person can take.

Yes, the suffering of the Russian people is almost a historical concept by this point, while I also believe that the new generation of Russians, especially those inhabiting major cities, has become a little more comfortable in a good way. A lot of Russian youths are apolitical. Allow me to give a real life example – a good acquaintance's 21-year-old son left for Kazakhstan to escape the draft. He drives a taxi there and has nothing against Putin. But he went to Kazakhstan because he does not want to kill people or die in the war himself. There is a widely used expression in Russia – krutost, which can be translated as coolness or toughness. Some apolitical Russian youths say that Putin is krutyi (cool). Why? Because he has the stones to stand up to the big boys. While they find it cool, they refrain from judging it either as right or wrong.

I dare not say what could bring the Russian people to the streets in force. But you are right in that it was suggested even before the war that if 100,000 people took to the streets in Russia's ten largest cities, which are home to a little under 30 percent of the population, it could see law enforcement switch sides and join them. But when or under which circumstances this might happen is virtually impossible to say.

What effect do sanctions have on people's everyday lives?

They first manifested as logistical problems. Certain food products were out of stock, while the previous situation was quickly restored. Inflation of 12-14 percent is another aspect. People have started saving money, buying less food, and while traveling is restricted anyway, spending on entertainment is also down. These are the most direct ways in which they manifest, but, and as I've said, there can be no doubt that the sanctions are working. We also need to have patience in this matter.

/.../ I believe we need patience in the occident to see the sanctions start working and to be prepared for side-effects, strike a balance to make sure the latter do not outweigh the sanction itself. Again, it is clear the sanctions are having an effect, even though the political brass in Russia was given time to prepare. It is surprising compared to 2014, but they did not expect such tough sanctions and admit the latter are having a crippling effect.

While we're on the subject of social perception. We are seeing explosions, fires and other inexplicable circumstances in various institutes, shopping malls, military camps. Is the reaction in Russia that someone has done something wrong somewhere? Is blame being placed and accusations of treason thrown around in Russia?

The older generation knows that the historical question is kto vinovat? (Who is to blame?) There are three possible explanations for these explosions. The first and most traditional is carelessness. It is bardak, if you'll excise the expression, or disorganization. There have been 12 major fires this year, while there were just three last year. An increase of four times.

The other possibility is that these are successful Ukrainian operations behind Russian lines, which could have something to do with the continued flight ban to 11 cities in southern Russia until December 25 or 27. They include Belgorod, Voronezh and others that can be associated with the war.

The third option, which has been suggested by the embassy's contacts, is that these things are self-organized. So much fuel and other materials were stolen during the Zapad exercise that some of these things have been set on fire in military warehouses and military commissariats to hide the chaos. Once mobilization sorted out the documentation, fires started happening. In the case of shopping centers, we also cannot rule out economic deficiencies, investigations etc. All three possibilities are on the table. Which one is most at fault or dominates is difficult so say.

Has the tone of television talk shows changed in terms of not being able to maintain hurray moods in society?

The tone has changed. It has become surprisingly critical through the mouths of strong Putin supporters. Simonyan and others have publicly asked critical questions, which suggests there is a school of thought in Russia according to which the war is not being conducted decisively enough. These voices have become louder as of late.

To what extent is the Kremlin allowing them to say these things or curating such remarks?

Again, it is impossible to say for sure, but I believe most of what is happening in the Russian Federation is under the authorities' control, there is no purely spontaneous action. Some measure of it might be permitted, while the Kremlin is still in control.

It has been suggested that while the war was initially justified through the need to denazify Ukraine, there is increasingly talk of just taking what's needed in Russia. Has this not altered perception of the offensive message in society..

It is the Russian axiom, which many political analysts have pointed to, that it is defending itself even when it looks like it's on the offensive. This helps explain quite a lot. Or emphasizing the need for security guarantees-certainty in that the securest border for Russia is one that has Russian troops on both sides of it. These things perhaps best explain the situation.

Is Russia's proposal of peace talks genuine, or is it rather meant to buy the Russian military time to recuperate?

This has been widely debated. As a former historian, I must say that wars and peace talks have happened simultaneously for centuries. There is nothing strange about waging war and negotiating at the same time. This time, the proposal rather comes off propagandist, that Russia has good will, wants to negotiate and end the war, while the covert aim, because Ukraine has clearly held the initiative on the battlefield, is to take a time-out, build up reserves and reinforce, and there is talk of an additional mobilization. Some have suggested this could happen before the year is out, while I hold that to be unlikely. Rather, the authorities will allow people to welcome the new year and celebrate Christmas, and we might see something then.

Another thing the West might be miscalculating is military activity subsiding in the winter. This is a Central European view. The winter in Central Europe is what we call autumn – muddy roads that are impossible to traverse. Wars have always been waged also in the winter in Northern and Eastern Europe as frozen lakes and rivers become roads. We have no reason to believe the war will quiet down for the winter. Someone who recently visited us in Moscow suggested that a decisive struggle to determine the future of Europe will take place in the next month or two. That there will be a so-called decisive battle. But talking about decisive battles, the Battle of Poltava that saw the destruction of Karl XII's army took place in 1709, while the Great Northern War continued for another 11 years after that.

Will we see nuclear weapons used in that decisive battle or should such remarks be seen just as intimidation?

Russian analysts have said that using nuclear weapons would yield no rational benefit. What would Putin use them for? They say that using them against Ukrainians would be pointless. Bringing nuclear arms to bear against London and Washington would result in Russia being wiped from the face of the Earth. I say again that these positions belong to Russian analysts. That nuclear weapons are for deterrence and blackmail. However, all such estimations are based on people acting and thinking rationally.

Now, thinking about traffic, there would be no accidents if everyone acted rationally all of the time. And yet, accidents do happen. Therefore, it is a very fine game and devilishly difficult to say when deterrence or blackmail might morph into action. We can also draw a parallel with the period immediately before the war when Russia was publicly building up troops on the border. Everyone said it was blackmail and deterrence before it all kicked off one morning.

Unpredictability has always been a keyword when it comes to Russia. You never know when the people in charge, who might paradoxically be cut off from information, decide that push has come to shove. The reason I dare suggest somethin like that is we got a very interesting visitor, who used to belong to the inner circle back in the day, and who said that Moscow was seriously considering a nuclear strike for a moment during the Yugoslav Wars. We don't really know about such moments or when they arrive for decision-makers, but firmly believing that they are just saber-rattling and will never do anything would also be self-deception.

Can we then say that the Kremlin and Putin have a secure footing and there is no inner conflict?

As much as I would like to be a fly on that wall, we have no such perspective, nor do others in Moscow. Which is not to say that being here and looking at [Russian] society from within one does not develop a different feel for it than viewed from a thousand kilometers away.

Could we suggest that even those supporting a more liberal-democratic worldview are in favor of the Great Russian idea and aren't opposed to imperial expansion?

There is another term that has characterized Russia throughout the years –imperskost, or the imperial spirit. I believe that all major nations versus small nations sport different mentalities. It is inevitable. People think differently due to cultural, historical and other factors. Therefore, I believe we are making a big mistake in Estonia, but also elsewhere, in thinking that everyone who is against Putin is automatically on our side. Unfortunately, that just isn't the case.

Perhaps the brightest historical example of this is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who was a sworn enemy of the Soviet regime but every bit a Great Russian chauvinist and imperialist. Which is why I would urge people to refrain from quoting him in Estonian national holiday speeches as the context is way off. Some who are without a doubt liberals in Russia are proponents of Great Russia at heart, and not in a bad way. When you ask them when Russia might fall apart, they take offense because they do not want Russia to be dissolved as patriots. These nuances are important and should not be forgotten.

Will Surovikin succeed in making sure the empire will last for a good long time?

Who knows. We will have to see what happens next.

How do people see it today and when will the war end?

Every war eventually ends. That much is clear. The question is when and how. I happened to read an opinion by former Swedish PM Carl Bildt today and I tend to agree with him in that one of the main characters in this war has painted himself into a corner and the paint he used to do so is drying slowly, meaning that the war will likely not end until Putin's time in power will. Making such predictions is a thankless task, but if I had to guess, I would say we need to be prepared for the war continuing for years.

How difficult is it to work at the embassy today?

We are in a relatively unfriendly environment that limits the embassy's work and places colleagues under quite a lot of psychological pressure. This was felt especially when the war started. Plus the widely discussed state-organized protests, threatening letters etc. It has had an effect on people, while we have held out just fine. The team is strong and no one needs to doubt that the Estonian flag is flying proudly just 800 meters from the Kremlin.


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Editor: Karin Koppel, Marcus Turovski

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