Kadri Liik: Russia has gone from an authoritarian to a totalitarian state

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

Foreign policy expert Kadri Liik finds the past year's greatest change in Russian domestic politics the country going from an authoritarian state to a largely totalitarian one. Liik talks in an interview about Russia, the Ukraine war and challenges Estonia faces in today's turbulent world.

You are a foreign policy expert. How difficult is it for you and your colleagues to work in today's world?

Yes, my work has become more complicated because I used to analyze Russian foreign policy and tried to visit Russia and understand what the Russians think. This is no longer possible in the same way. It is not easy to travel to Russia, conduct professional interviews, and foreign policy as such has taken a back seat this year – weapons are doing the talking.

How many Russian contacts have been severed or suspended?

It's difficult to say. People I have tried to contact are still talking to me. We have fewer topics as everyone realizes Russia's next move is decided almost exclusively by Putin. Which is why the experts have no clearer view than I perhaps do from here. It makes no sense to ask. But we can talk about other things.

What can you discuss with Russia experts?

Moods, for example. It is crucial how the situation is perceived in Moscow, and I still have people I can ask about that.

What about body language? What is their actual attitude toward the war?

It seems to me that it took everyone by surprise because the war is largely President Putin's personal project. I do not agree with those who suggest there are structural reasons in Russia-NATO relations etc. No, it was Putin's choice pure and simple.

Russia's foreign policy elite did not perceive it as unavoidable or even desirable.

I spent a month in Moscow in late 2021 – it was quite an interesting foreign policy debate. People were discussing where Russia might be headed. It was clear some old paradigms would no longer be valid, there were attempts to look to the future with eyes open, while no one recommended a large-scale conflict in Ukraine. The idea was ridiculous enough not to be debated, even though the U.S. was clearly talking about the possibility at the time.

When the war started, Russia's expert class at first saw it as a disaster and a crime by Russia. It was clear – they felt terrible and ashamed for what happened.

However, it seems they have somehow adapted by now and started interpreting the situation as a conflict between Russia and the West, which makes it more comfortable for them. It is one thing to think of Russia as a country bold enough to challenge the U.S. hegemony and now fighting for it. It is another to see Russia as a country that sordidly invaded a smaller neighbor.

I see the Russia versus West conflict and corresponding focus as widespread in Russia's foreign policy debate, which, of course, saddens me. We do have a standoff between Russia and the West today but it started when the former invaded its neighbor.

Without it, Russia and the West could perhaps have reached a different way of coexisting.

Russia never became a democracy like the others and always saw its interests in a different light – parts of it legitimate, others less so.

We always harbored hopes for Russia that it failed to meet.

And vice versa – Russia wanted the West to welcome it, while it was not welcomed because Russia did not qualify as a democracy. Objectively, they did not have free elections, and that was that. Tensions lingered.

I feel that under Biden we could have finally come through that phase, reached a point where Russia and the West would admit that they think differently and sport different systems, accept it and find ways to still talk to one another.

To cooperate where possible without trying to change one another?

Or at least avoid direct conflicts; and if Russia defines itself as a country the interests of which clash with those of the West, for that to be seen differently. Arms control treaties and other such things we had during the Cold War could make the agenda again in that case.

And Biden basically made the offer – don't attack Ukraine and we can talk about security concerns. This was hugely unpopular in Estonia as it would have been very uncomfortable for us had such conversations landed on the agenda.

However, I do not think it was a mistake in terms of global politics. I believe Putin was very foolish to brush the offer aside and concentrate on dividing or occupying Ukraine, or whatever the goal of his war is, which no one to this day fully understands.

If you allow me to go back a year – to January-February 2022. You also did not believe something like that could happen, you were among only a few analysts in Estonia to suggest Russia did not want to fight, bring weapons to bear in Ukraine and was after a situation where the West would be forced to discuss certain matters. Did you underestimate if not Russia, then Putin's ambition?

Yes, I underestimated just how irrational Putin's isolation has made him. I also underestimated to what extent the Russian elite no longer understands or knowns Putin.

I did not believe there would be war, and it is an incredibly stupid war – I cannot see it benefitting Russia in any way. I will stand by that much. I did not believe Russia would do something this stupid and self-destructive. Whereas it was not just my personal good-hearted prejudice. I had seen the Russian elite discuss the future of its foreign policy. And truly, war against Ukraine did not come into it.

In hindsight, it would have paid to be less unequivocal in my assessments, talk rather in circles, while it seemed disingenuous to me. Why should I hide my opinion if I have one?

On the other hand, there are those who say it was enough to look at Putin: the Munich conference in 2007, Georgian war, start of the Ukraine invasion, all those games of musical chairs with Medvedev – Putin came back and solidified his position as supreme ruler – all of it pointed to this being a one-track process.

Depends. I see this war as uncharacteristic of Putin, unprecedented. The examples you gave are different. Reading the Munich speech in hindsight – it was rude, a kind of speech to tell one what their problem is. But what did he say there – that the U.S. had made a mistake going to Iraq – well, it is true. I would not interpret that speech as a declaration of war on the West. Rather, it was an attempt to suggest the West had messed up.

Putin is consistently bad at communicating things. He thinks the West fully realizes what it does wrong and does it out of pure cynicism. He plays along with that cynical game to a point, using Western terminology, before suddenly blurting out what he thinks is the truth. That is when we see statements like "Ukraine isn't even a country" or that same Munich speech.

He is bad at communication. The effect would have been quite different had he said sooner that the West was being foolish and jeopardizing everyone's security – the weight of something like that would have been different. I believe he's own cynical worldview gets in his way.

Leaving Munich aside, Georgia and Crimea were, of course, not legitimate acts in any way, while he always left himself a way out, never bet it all on one card. He kept a way out that would not have forced him to sever all ties to the West. I expected him to do something like that again. I did not think a limited military venture was out of the question. I believed he would stop short of irreversibly destroying relations.

The position Russia was in [before the war] was highly beneficial – it could talk to China and the West, be an influential player in the Middle East and the only major power with lines of communication running in every direction.

I believe Russia was finding its place as a category two global power. It is no longer a superpower. The superpowers of the future will likely be USA and China.

But in this third category, Russia has a lot of wiggle and maneuver room, provided it can keep things balanced and maintain its ability to talk to very different partners. That is what it has robbed itself of with this war.

In your opinion, how are things seen from the Kremlin 12 months into the war and without a breakthrough? At the same time, Ukraine has also suffered major losses and is still on square one – there has been no progress, so to speak.

Are we talking about people who work in the Kremlin, or are we talking about one particular person?

You still maintain that Putin is alone in this war?

Quite. I do not think there is anyone he consults in earnest. In the sense of taking what they have to say seriously.

We can see Putin's press representative failing to communicate matters –because he doesn't know what Putin is going to say next. And they even let it how.

One of the most grotesque moments was when no one in Russia knew to what extent it had recognized the independence of these so-called republics. That grotesque security council sitting a year ago on Monday that culminated in Russia recognizing the Luhansk and Donetsk people's republics in the evening, whereas no one knew whether they were recognized in their administrative or factual borders.

It would have been comical had it not been so tragic.

It is said that Anton Vaino did not know there would be war. Lavrov also didn't know, but Vaino ranks higher than him. Lavrov is just the foreign minister, while Vaino is head of the Kremlin administration. I believe that Kremlin officials might not be deep in the know.

All manner of special services, military personnel know more and are consulted more often by Putin. But also alternative military figures as Putin no longer trusts the info coming from his military staff.

Putin has met with military bloggers who support conquering Ukraine but are critical of how it is being done.

It is also claimed that Putin calls commanders on the front – whoever they may be. I do not know whether that's the case but it's possible.

Kadri Liik. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

How much of it is mythology? If we consider there is only so much a person can do in 24 hours, so many things he can consider in such a large country with such a massive army. Perhaps we're overestimating Putin.

Absolutely. There is a limit to how much you can micromanage. A lot of things are on autopilot or have been entrusted to officials or military staff who know the broad strokes of the chain of command.

But I believe that the attitude – that the war is not going as well as we planned and will take a lot more time, while we will stay the course – is coming from Putin and he will not allow anyone to thwart it.

Few would even dare try. And Putin is not prepared to lose. I believe that is clear from quite some distance.

Like in any country, leaders need the public opinion to be behind them also in Russia. I'm sure Putin considers this. In your opinion, is the Russian society still in favor of a military confrontation with the West should things come to that?

Yes, I believe the Russian society is largely rallied around the Kremlin today. Partly because they support the war they are being shown on television, and it is different than the war we are seeing on ours.

They do not believe reports of crimes in Bucha and other things that have made an impression in the West. They believe the U.S. made Ukraine fight and Putin had no choice but to make the first move as things would have been worse otherwise.

They buy all that pitiful propaganda they are being fed. There are no alternative sources of information. They have been virtually shut off in Russia.

People who inhabit an alternative information space, which they can access through Telegram or other channels, have largely emigrated. They are no longer disseminating that information in Russia to the same extent.

It takes great courage because it has been criminalized – people have been handed lengthy prison sentences simply because they shared photos of Bucha.

A child was placed in an orphanage and their single father sent to prison because they drew an anti-war picture – this is from the last few days. Russian society really is cut off from reality.

At the same time, public opinion in Russia has a peculiarity once described by a Levada Center sociologist – that if Russia attacks someone, let's say Georgia, the West will lay down sanctions, which will see the Russians decide that the West is against them and work to galvanize them. The fact Georgia was in the middle of it all somehow fades away. Georgia doesn't really matter, what matters is our confrontation with the West. I see the same mechanism at work now, also among experts.

They are interpreting it as a Russia-West confrontation not just because it makes it easier to talk about but because it makes it easier to fathom.

What do you see as the biggest change in Russian domestic politics over the last 12 months?

Russia has gone from an authoritarian country to a more or less totalitarian one. How different opinions are punished, social and media organizations simply shut down.

I can see ties being severed not just between social groups but groups within the elite. Russia used to have people who got along with the rulers as well as the opposition. And it seemed a good thing for the future.

While change remains a theoretical possibility, it usually matures in heterogenous social conditions. Right now, such ties are rather being severed. People are being confined to their ghettos – those who are on a good footing with the state no longer talk to those who have been declared undesirables. The latter have a choice between going underground or closing shop. A rather grim outlook from where I'm standing.

Edward Lucas has suggested that there are early signs of civil war brewing in Russia where everyone has their own private army and has fallen out with everyone else. Is it an exaggeration?

Very few have private armies and it's not really a civil war. They are fighting over resources. And resources in this case include cartridges. Prigozhin has indeed said that Wagner's battalion is not getting enough munitions. But it does not mean there is civil war.

I don't know. We will see what will become of it all. Should the central power be weakened, these private armies will look very different from now. Right now, they pose no threat to Putin and are rather vying for his approval.

It is benefitting Putin?

It definitely isn't hurting him. Prigozhin and Kadyrov need Putin. He might need them, while he might also decide to end their existence should he deem it necessary – he makes the decisions.

Prigozhin and Kadyrov cannot really dictate terms to Putin, while he can.

Why is it that Putin's authority has not eroded in the last year? We've seen no one from inside the special services, FSB or Putin's own circle [challenge him]. No one who could take over. Are things not as bad as all that yet or does Putin enjoy total power?

There are many reasons. It is true that a part of the elite sees the current course as disastrous, while they lack a formal mechanism with which to alter it. They lack a formal say in the matter. At least the Soviet Union had the Politburo where some collective decisions could be taken.

As put by Estonian Ambassador Margus Laidre, you cannot really escape a submarine?

Yes, a good analogy! The elite likely feel they have nowhere to go. And they probably don't. What would Lavrov or Shoigu do without Putin? Perhaps Kudrin would land a gig.

I think they're afraid – going after Putin alone will not have a happy ending. I believe Putin has ways to ensure the loyalty of these people of which we know very little. We will read about them in archives one day.

What about fear of the oligarchical system coming crashing down – that while we might overthrow Putin, we would have nothing in its place. Is is total chaos people are afraid of?

The fear of chaos is ingrained in the Russian DNA, also in society. It remembers the chaos of the 1990s, which is still seen as worse than what Russia has now.

Kadri Liik and Kristjan Pihl. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The nightmares still come?

Yes. The 90s was a beautiful time for many as it was creative and full of opportunity. At the same time, for others, especially in the provinces, it was a time of no wages or pensions and people killing their neighbor over a basket of potatoes. With a past like that, a person takes a different view of Putin's stability. That said, I believe the broader elite no longer feel they can get back to where they were.

People realize that the war was a mistake. But it also seems to them there is no real way back either.

The only way to reach an acceptable model of existence is to come through it. Whether that's possible – reaching the far shore while keeping recent benefits as victor. I am not sure. Rather, it's questionable.

But yes, people believe that the price of giving up is so high as to be unfathomable, both in the personal and national perspectives.

Does President Putin still believe he can win the war, or what would that victory even entail for him?

I don't know, and I believe no one else does either. How should we know what he believes? Looking at his statements and body language, and having talked to a few people who have spoken to him, I rather believe he does believe that.

It seems he really does believe the Western hegemony will come crashing down. That it's just a matter of time before the West will stop supporting Ukraine. The rest of the world is not behind the West, and in this post-West world, Russia can win the war and restore its international prestige – something like that.

Putin has retreated into his own world, and the ideas he has there might not have much to do with reality.

But even Putin needs to realize that he will not take Ukraine according to the plan he had on February 23 last year. What is his calculation today?

None of us know his hopes exactly. Some hope that Russia will settle for a solution that will allow it to save face. At the same time, there are no signs to suggest it has dialed down its maximalist goals.

Perhaps Putin really thinks the war will go on for a very long time and Ukraine will eventually be worn out to the point of falling in Russia's lap.

He's right in that Ukraine is paying a colossal price. They are living off the spirit of resistance today, remain brave and impressive, while a time will come when they will no longer be able to carry out major restoration work. Minor repairs are, of course, being done all the time. But no one is investing in the country as those investments might be blown up at any moment. People have left.

A country at war cannot consider its future development in the same way a country at peace can. Maybe Putin expects the Ukrainians' resistance to die down. I don't know to be honest but the thought has been with me since Russia pulled back from Kyiv.

What are his hopes, and how does he fail to understand that it's probably impossible to win the war as he hoped?

You work as a senior expert at one of the largest think tanks in Europe – the European Council on Foreign Relations – and recently carried out an interesting survey where you asked policymakers from 27 Member States about their views on the Ukraine war. What are the main takeaways from this year in Berlin and Paris?

Yes, the work was interesting and I recommend people read it. I will not be recounting its every finding, while the consensus today is that Ukraine is worth supporting. There was no such conviction a year ago, no certainty in terms of Ukraine's ability to fight back. Whether military aid from the West would realistically allow Ukraine to turn the tables, or whether it is rather a symbolic show of support for a country that is losing the war, even though it is the victim and in the right.

It seems that the attitude shift now suggests Ukraine really can rise to the occasion.

The past year has changed how both Ukraine and Russia are seen. This idea that a stable or cooperative coexistence with Putin's Russia is somehow possible is gone. This is reflected above all in Germany's energy turn – Germany has stopped buying gas and oil from Russia. Recently massive economic cooperation is changing course.

Perhaps even more importantly, attitudes toward Ukraine have also changed. Over the past year, Ukraine has demonstrated that it can take responsibility for its fate. If earlier in the year, the suggestion that it is up to Ukraine to decide when and how to negotiate was uttered as a courtesy, people really mean it today. It is clear that what Ukraine says goes to a much bigger extent than before.

I read the study's summary where you point out that there is a problem with this newfound unity – that there is no leader to coordinate it all. You referred to its as leaderless unity, a situation where everyone knows what should happen, while there is no Merkel or Hollande to come out and say it in no uncertain terms.

We don't exactly know how it should end, and there is no one victory theory. But I don't think that should be counted as criticism. Rather, it seems like a constant process where every country asks itself what would be the best possible result achievable through acceptable means. It also differs from one country to the next and changes in time, based on what's happening on the battlefield.

But the question of leader is, well, true. And the contrast was clear in that it was Germany that brought Europeans together after the events of 2014. There is no such leader in Europe today, while we have one in the United States. The Biden administration has taken care of leadership also for Europe. And they've managed it because they understand the concerns of Europeans in the east as well as in the west.

Our fears differ. Eastern Europe fears a new occupation. It is evident in Estonia; Western Europe is afraid of nuclear war. Both fears are justified – both are dead serious, terrible things.

Biden can accommodate both in his politics and facilitate – bring Europeans together in a way that would perhaps be impossible without the Americans. It is paradoxical.

I was listening to the German ambassador in Poland who described a peculiar situation where Berlin believes we all think like the Americans, as does Warsaw, while Berlin and Warsaw think nothing alike.

Would you dare criticize Germany or France for lack of initiative or even reluctance to see Ukraine win quickly over the last 12 months? Weapons aid has been gradual to say the least. Do you believe that fear of nuclear attacks is paralyzing Europe?

I do not think this fear is baseless. Rather, I feel we are not taking it seriously enough in Estonia.

As long as we're not occupied?

Well, yes. People here say it's all a bluff. But what if it's not? Allow me to give a comparison from my colleague Ivan Krastev – Eastern Europe thinks that Putin is pure evil, has gone insane but will not launch a nuclear war. Those three things cannot all be true at the same time. He might be pure evil and insane, while we have no certainty that he will not start a nuclear war in that case. We do not know, which fact we should keep in mind.

Germany and France have moved slower than many would like, while this has reasons. We did not know at the start of the war how Ukraine would fight.

Personally, I was convinced they would fight like lions, while it surprised even me just how skillful they've been. But I never doubted their dedication for a moment.

And their performance has gradually influenced where the West stands, as have Russia's actions. War crimes, like Bucha, lack of diplomatic initiatives which would go beyond a farce. They have left Germany and France with rather single-valued positions, while Germany has become the largest backer of Ukraine in Europe now.

We might criticize them for taking their time getting there, while it also had a positive effect. My survey found that Germany's domestic debate and doubts have lent certainty to many EU members, especially in the south. We (Estonians) are deranged maximalists and, therefore, dangerous to follow. For Greece, Portugal or Malta, for example.

Our approach to Russia is too emotional?

Yes, and also they believe we are willing to sacrifice anything. That we are not considering the possibility of nuclear war, the risks we're taking.

That Germany has moved more slowly and passed through a dramatic domestic debate – from seeking diplomacy, asking whether it's possible, to realizing it is not; from the need to give weapons, while looking to retain gas trade, to the realization that this, too, is impossible and needs to change – that they have debated all of these aspects. This gives others certainty in you having considered all of these things and being safe to follow. Instead of taking after Estonia where the same realization has ruled since the dawn of time.

Kadri Liik. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

We said that the U.S. has taken the lead. They have also made several major aid packages available to Ukraine. Do you worry about looming presidential elections in America?

I do worry. There are no forecasts yet, and, admittedly, it's too soon. I do not even know whether Biden will run. The country is deeply polarized and has domestic problems for which no quick fixes exist. There are plenty of political forces that find it a good idea to pour populist oil on those flames. Of course it worries me.

What is China playing at?

I believe China is working in its own interests, as are many other countries. China might not want a Russian victory but it definitely doesn't want it to lose either as that would cause USA to turn its attention eastward.

They are not bothering to hide the fact that the China-USA confrontation or competition has not gone anywhere during the war, which motivates China to support Russia just enough to make sure America's attention stays on it.

China's peace plan has already been described as extremely self-serving and having nothing good in store for Ukraine. Biden's security advisor Jake Sullivan said that the only usable part of the plan is its first item that urges recognition of every country's sovereignty. The rest is fundamentally out of the question. What is China's long goal? Will they give Russia lethal aid?

I don't know. We will have to wait and see. It's their decision and they have different considerations for making it. I cannot make any predictions, while I believe they will try to balance somewhere in the middle, make themselves appear as peacemakers while not really working toward peace. China could have the power to force Russia to sue for peace by not providing the latter with technology, refusing to buy Russian energy etc. But it is another matter whether that's realistic, considering China's hunger for energy.

I believe that this could make Russia realize they really are alone and in trouble. As long as China keeps bailing Russia our commercially, economically or technologically, Putin has hope he might eventually be able to save his bacon, at least to some extent.

But I think China will not put Russia in that position, while the extent of their support remains to be seen.

It is the time of income tax returns. What about Estonia's foreign policy balance? Have we learned something new, gotten new information about the world, our allies? Are we wiser than we were a year ago?

I believe we are. Acting in the conditions of existential threat makes people a little more serious, and I hope it has happened here too.

From the global or European point of view, we can say with certainty that Estonia is heeded more. In part because of our successful representatives, in part because people realize the threat is existential for us and deserves to be taken seriously.

Are we in danger of seeing the next year of war too emotionally? The war in Ukraine will likely not end in the coming months. How to maintain the initiative, make sure we keep being heard?

I believe that Estonia is behaving in the right way, while it may be based on a slightly wrong philosophy. Concentrating on helping Ukraine and sanctioning Russia is correct. But we must not overdo it. I find that Latvia sanctioning a liberal Russian news channel was entirely too much, but that is another matter somewhat.

We should realize the risks that our allies consider crucial, such as that of nuclear war. Simply shrugging it off as Russia bluffing is not enough to convince others.

This generally maximalist attitude that I perceive in public debate. I hope it is not the case in conversations between officials and the people running the country.

To be honest, this kind of infallibility in public debate rubs me the wrong way – that you didn't listen to us when we were right, and now you have to always listen to what we have to say. Even if that were true, adopting such an attitude is hardly a good way to make friends. Secondly, it is not the whole truth. What Estonia knew, what it didn't and why we were right requires separate analysis.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we should realize that the world has changed. We are acting as if it were possible to bring back the 1990s, make Russia lose this war and dictate to Russia and the rest of the world terms such as was done back then – everyone should get democracy, observe human rights etc. Rather, this will not happen.

Rather, the zenith of Western power is behind us, and it's an objective process that other regions of the world will increasingly come to compete with the west both economically and demographically. There is nothing wrong with that as such, while we need to learn how to live with it – the faster the West will adapt, the more effective it will be.

Why isn't the rest of the world backing Ukraine like the West is? Because the West treats it as a war between democracy and dictatorship, while others rather see it as a war of independence.

In Estonia, the two are completely intertwined. Democracy and independence arrived simultaneously here and we cannot keep them separate, ideologically speaking, which works to reduce our ability to find allies elsewhere in the world.

In short, I believe we are doing the right thing, while we could think critically of the context based on which we are doing them.

What should we be prepared for as a country next year? We recently learned that the Putin administration had drawn up very detailed strategy documents for taking over Belarus. Could our outspoken style and EU and NATO-level influencing draw us more of the Kremlin's attention? Perhaps similar documentation is being put together for us.

Russia has documents for everything. Their military planning happens on a scale where they have documents for conquering Japan. There's nothing tragic about that fact. I think America also has plans for conquering God knows who.

There is no scenario where we will be overlooked if we just keep quiet. I believe that membership in the EU and NATO is protecting us quite effectively. Which is not to say we should escalate every disagreement with Russia. It's not always dignified even. We need to keep calm and consider the long-term strategic interests of ourselves and the West.

Kadri Liik. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

How will the war in Ukraine end?

All options are still on the table, with the exception of Ukraine suddenly collapsing – I don't see that happening.

A long war of attrition, which will prove too much for Ukraine for objective reasons – that's a possibility.

It is also possible Russia will implode domestically.

Russia's disintegration?

No, I see no conditions for that. The regime might disintegrate but Russia will not geographically. And they are two different things, whereas I don't think we should seek Russia's geographical dissolution.

But a regime that stands on the shoulders of one person is frail by design. Even if it might seem monolithic right now, it has been frail from the first.

I would also not rule out the more dramatic moments of this war still being ahead of us. What might Putin do once he realizes he will lose on an existential level? Losing the war means losing pretty much everything for him. What will he do then? We don't know.


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Editor: Laura Raudnagel, Marcus Turovski

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