Putin mainly got from his subordinates the music that was pleasing to his ears. After all, they knew that he sincerely believed this: that Russians and Ukrainians are one nation intertwined in mutual love, that his mission is to liberate Ukraine from the Nazis, and so on. But this way of thinking applies not only to Putin – it is common in his administration and we should not ignore it,” says Prof. Robert Service in an interview with Onet.
Matthew Zimmerman: When did you realize that this war was really going to happen?
Prof. Robert Service: In some respects, it could have been expected as early as 2021. It was somewhat reminiscent of the situation in 2007-2008 when President Bush campaigned for Ukraine to join NATO. It didn’t end well then, did it? [referring to the war with Georgia.]
The grand Russian preparations and aggressive maneuvers near the Ukrainian border were alarming. I was betting half and half, but still thought Putin would act more cautiously and less recklessly – simply keeping in mind the costs Russia would incur from an invasion.
Either way, I believe that Western diplomacy in 2021 made serious mistakes on Ukraine. If Kiev was really going to be offered NATO membership in June, it should have taken some precautions and made some reassuring gestures to Moscow. Nor was it necessary to make false promises to the Ukrainians. A lot of mistakes were made here between June and November.
You wrote in your book: “The leaders in the Kremlin used to orient themselves in the differences between their own rhetoric and geopolitical reality. But when such rhetoric is repeated year after year, it can turn into a credo that distorts analysis and leads to serious errors of judgment.” This is a diagnosis from more than two years ago and it sounds, it seems, even more current.
The Kremlin has driven Russia into a terrible dead end. Until a certain point, Putin was able to balance two tendencies. On the one hand, there was anti-Western resentment, appealing among other things to a sense of shame about Moscow’s declining international importance and prestige. On the other hand, there was a certain openness to negotiate with the West and to coexist.
This openness was abandoned – in turn, Russia returned, fuelled by a sense of strength. What we see now is militant nationalism. Many Russians were susceptible to it already in the 1990s, but now it is the official ideology.
In the 1990s, Alexander Yanov wrote that he predicted that the Yeltsin era was just a democratic episode in Russian history and that the next phase would be fascist. He was looking for analogies between post-Soviet Russia and pre-war Germany. What do you think of this “Weimar complex”?
The parallels are there. Russia lost a war – a cold war, but still. It also went through a prolonged economic crisis. Democracy in the eyes of Russians has become compromised, because they associate it mainly with ostentatious oligarchic enrichment and corruption. This has fostered a longing for stability, social protection that can be relied upon, and of course – for a “strong man.
All these factors removed the barriers to the growing despotism that dominates today. The Russian 1990s were its cradle. At the time, too many Russians succumbed to the burden of meeting the basic needs of life to actively oppose it.
If we want to understand the force that is pushing Russian politics, we must recognize the enormous resentment that Russians are left with after that decade. The collapse of Russia as a global power, the loss of imperial dominance and international prestige – this was extremely acute for them. Putin and his kleptocrats sense this and exploit it. This is a hotspot of the political status quo in Russia. “Weimar” analogies actually allow us to understand something of all this.