The Kremlin's initial, stated goals in initiating the war on Ukraine have become obscured, or even completely forgotten, during the two years since the invasion began, Estonia's former ambassador to Moscow and historian Margus Laidre said in an interview.
Currently, the Kremlin is waging what it sees as a defensive war of national liberation against the West and ahead of next month's presidential election in Russia, Laidre, who is Estonia's most recent ambassador to Moscow, told ERR, in a lengthy interview which follows in its entirety.
How are contacts with people living in Russia, and how difficult is it to now obtain information about what is happening in society there?
Now, a year after returning from Moscow, I no longer have contact with the sort of think tanks and analysts with whom I had enjoyed relatively frequent contact while working as ambassador. This is excepting those people, few and far between, who, for example, manage to get to the annual Lennart Meri Conference [in Tallinn], and so can be talked to. But this shouldn't be taken to mean that there are no Russian sources whatsoever.
As both a historian and a diplomat, I continue to consume a great deal of available reading material, and, based on my great teacher and supervisor at university, Professor Helmut Piirimäe, I utilize as many sources as possible.
There is a potential trap, here, however: Traveling only on that path that you feel most comfortable with, and in which you yourself believe in. But this may not give as true and full a picture as we can take overall, from present-day Russia.
How difficult is it to understand what is happening, in this picture?
There is also in fact plenty of available information on the internet, where, in particular, I have focused not so much on current political breaking news, but on longer analysis pieces. Perhaps the biggest difficulty that arises here is rather that even serious Russian thinkers can actually present quite opposing views. It is extremely difficult to cut through all this, and consider what might actually be correct.
Whereas at the beginning [of the invasion] it might have seemed the case that the Russian elite was perhaps confused or even ashamed by the war, now it seems that human nature has led to the point where everyone adjusts, and adapts to their situation, isn't that so?
Having been present in Moscow myself at the outset of the war, what happened undeniably came as a shock to much of society and I believe even to the Russian power elite. Yet indeed, during the past two years of war, attitudes have changed, and there has been a certain rallying around the flag, as this phenomenon is called, meaning around Putin in essence. meanwhile, the war's initial goals as they were stated by the Kremlin, have actually been obscured or completely forgotten.
Currently, Russia is waging a defensive war, in the name of the defense of national liberation; a war against the West. This war might be taking place in Ukraine, but the actual enemies are the US and NATO. Another interesting, relevant observation is that only around 10 percent of the Russian populace reported experiencing a feeling of moral guilt, which may have accompanied the initial shock, both two years ago and today That there is no direct empathy for Ukraine remains within a large proportion of the Russian population.
It's somewhere far away, and they're still enemies. In any case, throughout history, one strange phenomenon has accompanied Russia: No matter which war we look at and which involves Russia's participation, Russia's position has always been that we are defending ourselves, even as everyone else thinks Russia is on the offensive.
You just mentioned some of the various thinkers and opinions, that you regularly read. So what kind of picture do these present of today's society?
On one aspect, however, there is a general consensus: That a large part of society is in favor of, or approves of, the war. In answering the question posed as to whether the respondent supports a "special military operation", as it has been officially termed, somewhere between 73-76 percent say "yes."
Furthermore, 70 percent of such surveys' respondents are reportedly certain that Russia will emerge victorious from the current war. This is the prevailing attitude.
On the other hand, when being asked right now what victory specifically means, then the picture becomes very, very muddled; while the dominant attitude is that the victory equates to the restoration of the former situation, the "former situation" here refers to the absence of war (as opposed to the restoration of Ukraine's borders – ed.).
Isn't this explained in more detail, then, as to whether the former situation means within the limits of the pre-2014 border, or within the limits of the pre-2022 invasion? The overriding point is simply that there should be a state of peace?
It is not a "yes," in this sense. People basically don't know how to articulate even it to themselves, and, by the way, the same attitude can be seen about the prospect of losing. This is not completely ruled out in fact.
Whereas, let's say, the conditional 30 percent of Russians who want things to go to a victorious end, according to their understanding, which would then mean a victory parade in Kyiv itself, there is also another dimension in addition to this rabidly chauvinistic attitude; namely, quite a large proportion of those who are in favor of pursuing things to a victorious conclusion are actually afraid of the consequences of defeat for themselves. That this might lead to reparations, or to a decline in living standards
A year ago, when we were talking, you said that economic difficulties can affect a Russian person more than anything else. It has been said that the price of eggs has fluctuated wildly. Are things not yet so difficult economically that attitudes could change?
It is completely understandable, not to mention humane, that there is quite a lot of wishful thinking on our side in the sense that, first of all, the desire held by all or at least most of us is that this war would never have happened in the first place. And second, the war would have ended as Kyiv and Ukraine see and desire it to.
In this respect, I stand by the idea that I do not see any other factors and developments that might shake Russian society from the inside, followed by a very large and sudden economic collapse, exacerbated by the fact that this could be preceded by some sort of political or foreign political "black swan," (in Russian and other European cultures a black swan is a metaphor for an event that comes as a surprise, has a major impact, and is understood fully only with the benefit of hindsight, for instance the French or Russian revolutions - ed.) so to speak. Some kind of small, yet event with much impact and which acts as a catalyst, and induces the processes to go on. But indeed, when talking about the Russian economy, we can rather say that this economy has held out at least for the first two years of the war, and quite well.
For example, one of the many paradoxes is that last September, in response to various surveys, 23 percent of people answered that they had recently found a new job, or had set up their own company, had gotten a pay rise, versus 14 percent who had lost their job in that time. In fact, Russia also has quite a large number of people who responded that they are beneficiaries of the war in some way; nominally this figure stands at 20 percent.
If we take the Russian defense industry alone, there are somewhere between two-and-a-half to three million people employed in this sector in Russia.
But this economic well-being does not refer only to this demographic; let's say those places where the defense industry is present. In these areas, other firms in other sectors have also been forced to raise their wages, as otherwise people would leave them for somewhere else, where the income is higher.
The wage rises have also been somewhere around the 20 percent mark, although inflation eats up a lot of that total. However, people still perceive these accumulating economic difficulties, initially, as it were, in the form of unpleasantness.
That this bothers them can perhaps be exemplified by one of the external features that can be seen in Russia, namely that the bulk of private cars are largely Chinese-made; it is said that as much as 75 percent of the cars in Russia are of Chinese origin.
Whereas in the old days the epithet "kitaiski" (literally "Chinese," in Russian), meant something cheap and nasty and which was easily broken, but now these goods are acceptable.
Whereas the wealthiest component of society used to drive luxury Western cars, now they drive luxury cars of Chinese origin. But to render this picture even more confusing, according to many studies, two-thirds of the Russian populace: We are talking about 140 million people here who still live below the poverty line or report living in poverty. Only two to seven percent conversely have answered that they are satisfied with their current economic living conditions.
One Russian academic, whom I have met personally and whose analysis I trust very much, Professor Sobarevich, has said that the Russian economy will definitely survive intact through 2024 and probably 2025, again provided that nothing completely unforeseen transpires.
However, it can be added here that the Russian people have largely pushed this war out of their everyday consciousness or are in the process of doing so; this trend has been noticeable since the summer of last year.
It is true that almost 70 percent of the older population, meaning those aged 55 and over, tentatively follow the events of the war, but as for younger people, their indifference to it is quite astonishing. Leaving aside that we don't know what is behind this apathy, only between a quarter and a third of young Russians follow what is happening in the war in Ukraine on a daily basis, and they are reportedly fine with that state of affairs.
With this, if in an economic sense, Russia can afford to wage the war for two years, then this raises the question as to how long Russia can afford to, or wants to, continue to wage the war...
With regard to their economy, they are also subject to sanctions, which we have invested a lot in and which are completely rational and comprehensible.
The primary tool with which we have sought to influence the course of war, in fact.
But the issue with sanctions is that if we look at Russia in the context of the world map, we can observe that it is essentially viable to isolate Russia from the West only. Yet, almost two-thirds of the Russian border is thus completely open for business, so to speak. Changes have also taken place in that parallel imports and items that were previously not tolerated by the authorities, are now permitted. There is a perception in Russian society that the sanctions have in fact made them morally stronger. The sanctions have helped kick-start domestic Russian industry and have been beneficial as a result.
Given I was speaking about the defense industry earlier, we actually have to concede, objectively, that the Russian defense industry started much more efficiently and quickly than the military industry of Western countries.
But how long Russia will be able to hold this up is of course a question we would all like an answer on, but I would not venture to speculate. An important factor here is that as of now the image of a collective enemy like this has propagated, and this same image of a collective enemy has had a unifying effect on society. This is roughly the same phenomenon, if we remember George Orwell's "1984", as the "two minutes' hate", where the workers were gathered together, shown the horrible visage of the enemy (Emmanuel Goldstein - ed.) on the screen, which created this mass psychosis. So, since there is nothing or very little positive, in Russian society, what is now crystallizing is precisely this image of an enemy.
While it is quite a negative identity, it can bond society together quite strongly, as long as there is the perception that "we are being treated unfairly."
It is this question of justice that is vital both within society and among the Russian elite, because the Russian state, the Russian elite, see it as the case that they have been treated unfairly on the international stage. They thus have no rightful place in the world. This phenomenon is nothing new in history. Let us recall the period leading up to World War One, when Germany (and Russia for that matter – ed.) stated that it at that time it lacked the "place in the sun" that it was due. This is a recurring phenomenon, let us say.
Second, Russia somehow feels that the West has pigeon-holed it in the role of a "pupil." That Russia is, as it were, a remedial, who has been left to sit out another year in the class of democracy. At the same time, in Russia, and by the way, after the amendment of the constitution in 2020, this is also enshrined in the Russian constitution, that Russia has a 1,000-year-old history. So now who are you in the West to come and lecture us, we who have a thousand years of history behind us. We who defeated Napoleon, we who defeated Hitler. You who live in the world we actually created, the Soviet Union versus Russia, after 1945.
Perhaps the most telling proof of what I have just said can be seen in an episode from back in 2008, when Foreign Minister [Serge] Lavrov yelled at his then-UK counterpart David Miliband: "Who the f*ck are you to lecture me?"
This went viral. In Russia they really liked it, as in seems, we can decide things and live by ourselves. Plus by the way, I indirectly witnessed a similar episode in Moscow in the fall of 2021, when the sole lunch involving EU ambassadors together with Sergei Lavrov took place, during my tenure. After the introduction of the head of the European delegation, Markus Ederer, without ceremony, Sergei Lavrov informed him: "Don't give me that sh*t."
This is the image of a strong Russian man which was played out anew and, as they say, it tends to rub off on people.
We may commit another such error when we tend to look at Russia, of course; this is partly inevitable, given the person who is currently leading Russia.
In this case, Russia is now a Vladimir Putin-shaped keyhole, and we can only see as much as we can see by peeping through that keyhole. We then fancy, perhaps at least some of the people in the West in an over-simplistic manner, that as soon as Putin disappears, the situation is resolved.
To give an example, I was in Sweden last fall, attending a conference where I was on a panel with former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. He was also asked how long Russia will continue in this vein, and what will happen next. His outcomes included a "Stalin scenario," which is to say Putin dies, then the war is over within four months. I would put a question mark on this. Another scenario is that the war becomes a stalemate. I also stress that we spoke last fall, hence why he then predicted that the Ukrainian counter-offensive would not be as successful as we had hoped.
Russia will go on the counter-offensive again, so therefore the war will continue in 2024 and 2025, according to the Kasyanov scenario.
A third scenario he gave involved Ukraine winning and confusion in Russia. Putin himself resigns – again I would put another question mark here – and that in a couple of years the Russian people have been brainwashed; again I would put another, even bigger, question mark over this.
Instead, I would rely here on Mikhail Shishkin, who also said in his book, published in Estonian, that in order for something to change in Russia, it is not enough to replace only the Russian elite, but the entire Russian people must be replaced.
And as we already remember from [former Estonian president] Lennart Meri, changing a mentality takes a long time. Notably, Meri said that demolishing the Berlin Wall was physically easy, but it was mentally difficult.
However, I would add one more point, that is, if we started with Putin, it is not Putin who imposes his will and desires on the Russian people, so to speak, but it is he who reflects the expectations and perceptions of a very large proportion of the Russian people.
In the Russian language, there is a very good term for this: Umonastroenie (mentality or state of mind - ed) and it reflects exactly that. Even if Putin goes, "Putinism" as an ideology will continue, and several Russian analysts, who I have to say I agree with, say that no recognizable form of liberalism can be expected in Russia for at least the span of two generations, that is, around 40 years. Unfortunately, coming from a generation that has lived almost half of its life under occupation conditions, I fear even if this is viable.
In this case, the question remains: Why is it necessary to hold elections at all, if you are sure that people will support your vision anyway?
This is a kind of, let us say, tradition but perhaps also in a way a perverse reality check: To gauge what this situation and mindset is. A large part of the Russian populace also thinks that these forthcoming elections do not make sense. But at the same time, 70 to 75 percent of people are ready to vote for Putin. Why? Because he is seen as a decisive, experienced politician, and only he can wrap up this war. No other presidential candidate is seen as capable of that. And the average Russian person can be especially critical of any woman candidate. We remember that there was one potential candidate who did not pass this audition, so to speak. Then they say that a woman as president of Russia would negotiate a poor peace for Russia, and therefore would be a disaster. This is the type of attitude that currently prevails there.
Some opinion polls here have also revealed that more than half of the people support peace, but of course, that can only be peace on the Kremlin's terms. Do polls like that have any effect on elections, at all?
Certainly not on the elections themselves. Let us say that the government may have chosen a different tactic compared with the previous occasions. I don't think that he considers these short-lived protests to be particularly dangerous to him, but he has chosen the direction of suppressing them from the very outset, nipping them in the bud, even in the smallest ways, in order to see that there will be consequences. Then to see who would like to be a provisional name etched on a marble tablet at a later date. To sacrifice themselves, in short. Second, and this is certainly a major difference when compared with the Soviet Union, the disaffected have been allowed to leave. Of course, with the clause that the outings of young men who are conscripts are limited. So with that the valve has been released.
If we talk about the opposition, in reality, it is not united; an opposition essentially does not exist. Those who have gone abroad are viewed critically by their compatriots living back home in Russia ("You ran away"). Their influence may be exerted on about 10 percent of the population, which again is still a very, very small proportion. Moreover, the opposition is also accused of not understanding why, for example, a large part of the Russian society as we have talked about supports this authoritarian regime, and why they are on Putin's side. Instead, their attitude is that we are waiting for this black swan, and we are waiting for the Russian people to rise up, and then we will come to power and then we will tell the Russian people how they must live. But this is a classic mistake. Instead, they should base themselves on different demographic groups, and their interests, not their corporate or party interests.
Does this also explain why the leading figures from the Russian opposition or their supporters were not present even in Bashkortostan, for example, when a demonstration was held there in defense of a local activist?
I do believe so, but again, we tend to overestimate all such protests, in being very sympathetic to the goals and desires of the people of Bashkortostan. I would also draw a parallel with the quite big riots in Khabarovsk Krai during my period in office, where Governor Furgal was shot. Some 30,000 people took part. These protests did not spread to the rest of the region, they did not spread to St. Petersburg, nor to Moscow. I still remember people whom I relate to with great sympathy and warmth; also when I met Vladimir Kara-Murza, and how he said with seemingly child-like, benevolent naivety that 30,000, now those are some major protests. But I was thinking 30,000 versus 142 million, personally. 30,000 would be a lot for Freedom Square in Tallinn, but for Russia it is not even a drop in the ocean, less than that even.
Why can't the opposition take such local demonstrations under its wing precisely by showing that we are also concerned about people's more minor concerns?
For this, the opposition should first of all be present. But if you are somewhere across the border and say that you go, do it, and then we go somewhere in Munich, we sip at a stein of beer, or in Paris we take a glass of sparkling wine, while others go to prison for 15 years, then people who live in Russia understand this situation. So we still come back to the point that the situation in Russia is not that bad, in the sense that people can overcome this internal fear of what might happen to them if they go out to protest. That moment may come, but again, when, under what conditions, is hard to foretell. But in general, major powers or countries in general collapse internally, not as a result of external influence. This collapse takes place internally.
Can Putin organize, for example, a mobilization after the elections? What other steps can shake up the society?
This is one of the two big fears that may be emerging now. The first is that there is even more fear of tightening the screws. At the same time, next to that is the attitude that yes, repression is bad, but now we don't have them. The word repression in Russian society is primarily associated with the Stalinist era. Of course, there can be a chain reaction, so to speak, if body bags start arriving in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the other major cities. This could then spark a protest movement.
Is the Soviet era still a "softer" version of the current social order in Russia, and even the freedom of civil society?
I think the Soviet era, again having personal experience of its being imposed, was harsher still. However, despite everything, we cannot compare present-day Russia with it. There is still a long way to go to reach a state as it was in the Soviet Union, even as there is no small number of political prisoners in Russia at present, too. The methods, or at least the atmosphere of fear that could be created by these methods, are largely absent in Russia at the moment.
Speaking of opposition figures, will the Kremlin struggle to keep the leading personalities: Vladimir Kara-Murza, say, or Alexei Navalny, alive and so be seen as actual enemies?
Again, without knowing what the Kremlin is thinking, I would say that at the moment it is still more useful for them to keep these people alive, which does not mean that this attitude will continue forever, as it were.
Margus Laidre was the Estonian Ambassador to Moscow 2018-2023 and is the author of several books on Estonia and the Baltic region during the early modern period. He was talking to ERR's Tarmo Maiberg.
Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Andrew Whyte