The Nature of Putin’s Regime and the Reasons for its Foreign Policy
(David Satter, October 10, 2020)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent, is a long time observer of Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Satter was born in Chicago in 1947 and graduated from the University of Chicago and Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar and earned a B.Litt degree in political philosophy. He worked for four years as a police reporter for the Chicago Tribune and, in 1976, he was named Moscow correspondent of the London Financial Times. He worked in Moscow for six years, from 1976 to 1982, during which time he sought out Soviet citizens with the intention of preserving their accounts of the Soviet totalitarian system for posterity.
After completing his term in Moscow, Satter became a special correspondent on Soviet affairs for The Wall Street Journal, contributing to the paper’s editorial page. In 1990, he was named a Thornton Hooper fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and then a senior fellow at the Institute. From 2003 to 2008, he was a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. In 2008, he was also a visiting professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He teaches a course on contemporary Russian history at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced Academic Programs.
Satter has written three books about Russia: Russia: It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (Yale, 2011); Age of Delirium: the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (Knopf, 1996; paperback, Yale 2001); and Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale 2003). His books have been translated into Russian, Estonian, Latvian, Czech, Portuguese and Vietnamese. His first book, Age of Delirium, has been made into a documentary film in a U.S. – Latvian – Russian joint production.
Satter has testified frequently on Russian affairs before Congressional committees. He has written extensively for the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. His articles and op-ed pieces have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The National Interest, National Review, National Review Online, Forbes.com, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, The New York Sun, The New York Review of Books, Reader’s Digest and The Washington Times. He is frequently interviewed in both Russian and English by Radio Liberty, the Voice of America and the BBC Russian Service and has appeared on CNN, CNN International, BBC World, the Charlie Rose Show, Al Jazeera, France 24, Fox News, C-Span and ORT and RTR, the state run Russian television networks.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello, and welcome to the Westminster Institute’s ongoing, online series of lectures. Today, I am particularly gratified to welcome David Satter as today’s speaker. David is a leading commentator on Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is the author of five books on Russia and the Soviet Union, and the creator of a documentary film on the fall of the USSR. His most recent book is Never Speak To Strangers and Other Writing from Russia and the Soviet Union, an anthology of his writing from 1976 to 2019. It was published this year.
David is a former Moscow correspondent and he is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. David graduated from the University of Chicago and Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar. He worked for four years as a police reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
In 1976, he was named Moscow correspondent of the London Financial Times. He worked in Moscow for six years from 1976 to 1982, during which time he sought out Soviet citizens with the intention of preserving their accounts of the Soviet totalitarian system for posterity. After completing his term in Moscow, Mr. Satter became a special correspondent on foreign affairs for The Wall Street Journal.
In 1990, he was named the Thorton Hoover Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and then a Senior Fellow at that institute. From 2003 to 2008, he was a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. David teaches a course on contemporary Russian history at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced Academic Programs.
Mr. Satter’s other books about Russia include It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, and Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State. His books have been translated into Russian, Estonian, Latvian, Czech, Portuguese, and Vietnamese. It is his first book, Age of Delirium, that was made into a documentary film.
Mr. Satter has testified frequently on Russian affairs before Congressional committees. His articles and Op-Ed pieces have appeared in all of the major newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The National Interest, The National Review, The New York Republic, The New York Sun, The New York Review of Books, and many others. He is frequently interviewed in both Russian and English by Radio Liberty, the Voice of America, and the BBC Russian service, and many others. Today, David is going to speak to us on the nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime, and the reasons for its foreign policy. Welcome, David.
Bob, thank you very much. I am very glad to be here and very glad to talk about a subject that is often not very well understood, which is Russian foreign policy, and especially the sources of Russian foreign policy. We talk a lot about Russia and what it does in the world, but much of the discussion is distorted by the fact that we are assuming that Russia acts on the same general assumptions and with the same general goals as other countries. That is not the case.
Russia has always been motivated by factors that are outside the typical Western frame of reference when it comes to making foreign policy decisions, and this dates back actually to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was animated by its ideology and all of that ideology appeared absurd when viewed from the outside. It was the most potent factor in organizing the society and directing its actions towards the outside world.
Soviet Ideology and Afghanistan
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, our immediate reaction in the West was to assume that this was the first step in an attempt to seize the Persian Gulf or at least advance the Soviet Union to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, but in fact the invasion of Afghanistan was motivated by completely different factors.
Soviet ideology held that a communist regime once it was established could not be displaced, it could never be overthrown. And this was not a matter of politics, this was a matter (according to the ideology that was inculcated in people’s minds for decades) this was a matter of science. Lenin himself said that the ideology is irrefutable, Marxist ideology is as irrefutable as the axioms of geometry, so for a country on Russia’s borders, to witness the overthrow of a communist regime once that regime had taken power, would have been destabilizing for the Soviet Union itself.
There is evidence that the Soviet leaders, in fact, were unaware that the Afghan communists were plotting to take power, and their seizure of power in the country in 1978 took the Soviet leadership by surprise. But once they were in power, once they were aligned with the Soviet Union, once they were identified as communists, there was no longer a question in the eyes of the Soviet rulers of allowing the Afghan people to overthrow what was really very much a foreign implant and a regime that was contrary to the traditions of what was at one time a relatively peaceful country.
We began a tremendous build-up at the time in the Persian Gulf and in the Middle East. In fact, our major commitment in the Middle East in that part of the world dates back from a misreading of what happened in the Soviet Union and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And we continued to misread the situation vis-à-vis the Soviet Union throughout the final years of the Soviet Union, during which time we neglected the fact that the Soviet Union was not interested in building an empire per se, it was interested in turning its fictitious ideology into reality, and the only way to do that was by force.
Post-Soviet Foreign Policy
When the Soviet Union fell, the ideology disappeared with it. The Soviet Union that existed was not a normal country. Russia is a traditional country, Ukraine is a traditional country, Armenia is a traditional country, Georgia is a traditional country. The Soviet Union is a collection of traditional countries organized to realize an ideology, and without the Soviet Union, the ideology could not any longer be the motivating factor in the actions of the countries that at one time were part of the Soviet Union.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the countries that emerged from the wreckage of what was in fact an ideological empire had to find new sources of motivation for their foreign policy, and in so far as what happened in Russia, and we will get to this in a moment, was a criminal takeover of the country by a small group. Russian foreign policy, again, began to be motivated by the power considerations of a very restricted elite, no longer for ideological reasons, but rather in order to keep that small group (I do not like to use the word elite because there is nothing elite about them), but this small group, which monopolized property and monopolized power to keep them in control, basically forever.
And we have seen that and we do see it. We saw it recently with the vote in Russia to remove the last constitutional limits on Putin remaining in power indefinitely, although he always intended to remain president for life. Under these circumstances, Russia makes war for internal reasons. It does so in order to distract the population from the way in which they are misruled.
The First Chechen War, which began at the end of 1994, actually in December 1994, and there was a decisive battle on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in Grozny. It was undertaken, in the words of Oleg Lobov, who was the head of the Security Council under Yeltsin, in order to boost the ratings of President Yeltsin. He said, ‘We need a short, victorious war in order to boost the president’s ratings.’ This is the same formula that was used to describe the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905, which, in fact, was decisive in setting Russia on the path to the Russian Revolution.
The war was neither short nor victorious, and it did not seem to occur to anyone at the time that this was an unacceptable reason for starting a war, but nonetheless, this was the explanation given by Lobov, and all evidence supports the idea that the war was motivated, basically, to shore up Yeltsin’s political position. The First Chechen War was followed by the Second Chechen War, which was necessary in order to put Putin in power. The Second Chechen War was followed by the seizure of Crimea and the intervention in eastern Ukraine, which was necessary in order to distract Russians from the true meaning of the Maidan Revolt in Ukraine. The war in Syria was launched in order to distract Russians from the failure of the intervention in Ukraine.
In every case people were killed, devastation was inflicted upon innocent populations in order to protect the small group of people in Russia who monopolize property and power. Well, how did all of this come about? In fact, it is the product of a long evolution and a very tragic evolution, but something that is frequently seen in human history.
False Ideas from the Communist Past
Russia emerged from the Soviet dictatorship with a great opportunity, the possibility of becoming really a respected and prosperous member of the international community. And that possibility was lost because Russia proceeded on the basis of false ideas, and those ideas were unconsciously inherited from the communist past.
One of the fundamental principles of the communist ideology is the notion of economic determinism, the idea that the base of society is always determined by the nature of economic relations, and those relations dictate everything else. They dictate the laws, the culture, the education, the mentality, and the psychology. This was taken for granted by the Soviet regime, which assumed that a country run by the working class would be automatically just, and Marxist theory was turned on its head by the young reformers in the Russian period, in the post-Soviet period, who assumed that all that was necessary was to put private property into the hands of private owners, and a democracy and rule by law would automatically result.
In both cases what was missing was an appreciation of the importance of the rule of law, of a moral framework, of the authority of transcendent values, so in a true sense there was a revolution when the Soviet Union was overthrown. In terms of the economic system, one economic system was replaced with another, but in terms of the mentality of people, in terms of the moral framework of society, things remained absolutely the same.
No Rule of Law
Anything that the authorities did was considered to be justified. The justification for any act, no matter how barbaric, was considered to be the economic system, and the attitude toward crime was absolutely casual because the criminals were seen as socially friendly. They were on the side of the new emerging capitalism, just as they had been on the side of the authorities in their terrorizing of the political prisoners under the Soviet regime.
Country without law, undergoing a massive economic transition from socialism to capitalism, could not have any other fate than complete criminalization. Too much money was at stake. It was too easy simply to grab what already existed, and the most clever predators rose to the top under these conditions. Yeltsin was the creature of these criminal groups, and he had no intention to share power.
In 1993, the last remnant, really, of democratic rule was destroyed when Yeltsin unilaterally (ignoring the law) abolished the parliament, and then engaged in a massacre at the Ostankino Television Tower, in which dozens of people were mowed down. And then at the White House the next day, using tanks to shell the parliament building in order to establish a new political system in Russia in which there was no challenge to executive power. And there was no challenge also to the illegal accumulation of money.
Well, privatization proceeded. The former socialist economy was put into private hands. It was the greatest peaceful transfer of property in human history, and it proceeded at break-neck speed. Anyone who had corrupt connections to the authorities could be basically appointed a millionaire. Property that had been created through the collective efforts of the entire population was handed out to criminal gangs, to businessmen with corrupt connections to officials, to those who had worked in the economy previously and were adept at taking over what had originally been given to the workforce as a whole, and a ruling group was created in Russia that was composed almost in equal parts of organized crime, corrupt officials, and corrupted former factory directors.
This group began to experience phenomenal wealth as reflected in their ostentatious spending. Under the Soviet regime there were inequalities, but they were hidden. Under the post-Soviet regime inequality and difference in wealth, ostentatious consumption, became one of the most defining features of the urban landscape.
At the same time, the economy collapsed. World War II veterans were driven into the streets to sell their belongings. Beggars appeared everywhere. The number of unsupervised children abandoned by their parents reached unprecedented levels. They lived under railroad bridges, at stations, begging and suffering, committing crimes.
Prostitution became inescapable. It began to be taken for granted that the big streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Gorky Street and Nevsky Prospect, would be lined at night with women selling themselves. Under these conditions there was a psychological crisis that was experienced by millions of Russian people. It is no justification of the Communist regime to say that for millions of Russian people, communism defined the framework of their lives.
Communist Values in a Capitalist System
The values of communism, the mythology of communism, they were inculcated in people, generation after generation. These values, of course, because they did not allow for any kind of religious or transcendent point or moral reference were incapable of creating a moral society, but at the same time they did propagate certain practices that were not all bad. Russians were encouraged to care for each other, to look out for each other, and to a certain extent this ethos was assimilated.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, it was important that that communist constellation of values and practices be replaced by a new mentality based on genuine universal values and genuine fairplay. What Russian former communist citizens saw on the contrary was that the country was taken over by obvious criminals.
In the eight years that Yeltsin was in power, the death rate in Russia achieved unprecedented levels. Demographers looking at the rate of mortality in Russia beginning in ’92-’93 could not believe that so many people were dying under peacetime conditions. They died from accidents, they died from illness, they died from suicide, they died from despair. Many Russians, trained to rigidity and obedience, could not adapt to the new situation. And add to the fact that the new leadership did not consider seriously the importance of any kind of social protection in a transitional period, they felt abandoned and helpless. Yeltsin himself said – in this respect he was right – he said, “We jumped into the water without knowing how to swim.”
At the same time, it is estimated that the number of surplus deaths in Russia in the 1990s was about six million people. Surplus deaths is a term that is used by demographers. It refers to deaths that could not have been anticipated by previous conditions, by projection based on previous conditions. The Russian population’s longevity, especially male longevity, was reduced to a degree that had not been seen in the twentieth century in any other industrial country except under conditions of war.
Hardship and Suffering of the Average Russian
At the same time, the hardship for normal people was simply unbelievable. I got a sample of this when I went to Vladivostok. There was one incident that stuck in my mind. People were fishing on the ice in the bay outside the city, and police were continuously chasing them off the ice because the ice was breaking and there was one drowning after another.
There was one particularly bad incident in which the ice broke and a whole group of people drowned, and the next day the police were out there and chasing again fishermen, who were out on the same dangerous ice. And one old man absolutely refused to leave. Finally, the police went out and got him, taking a risk themselves, and afterwards he was asked why he had not listened to the police, who told him to abandon his post, and did he not realize that he was risking his life? His answer was something I will never forget. He said, “I would rather die than live like this.”
And that was not an aberration. At the largest graveyard outside of Moscow where a whole tract of land had been set outside for fresh grapes, gravedigger told the Journal, he said, “You see these grapes? They are all young people. We never had it like this before.” Under these conditions, needless to say, Yeltsin’s popularity with the population collapsed, and no number of short, victorious wars or other stunts were capable of restoring it.
Russian Apartment Bombings
In 1999, Yeltsin’s popularity rating was 2%. Now, those pollsters will attest that in almost any survey, 6% of respondents do not understand the question, so that will give you an idea of just how hated Yeltsin was at that point in time. It was considered to be impossible for Yeltsin or for anyone he supported to be elected the new Russian President.
Then, at that point, rumors began to circulate that something big was going to happen. It was going to be some type of provocation that would make it possible for Yeltsin to declare martial law. I was in Moscow at the time, and there were conflicting rumors. One rumor was that there was going to be a war between criminal gangs unleashed in the center of Moscow. The other was that famous celebrities were going to be kidnapped and tortured publicly, and then killed, and another was that government buildings were going to be blown up.
And a short time after that buildings were blown up, but they were not government buildings, they were buildings in which ordinary people were living. This is the most important event in recent Russian history. The bombing of the apartment buildings, first in the city of Buynaksk in the Caucasus, then in Moscow, then in the city of Volgodonsk. Apartment buildings were blown up in the middle of the night for maximum casualties. The Chechens were accused of being responsible.
A new war was initiated in Chechnya. The Russians had been opposed to a new invasion because the previous invasion had been unsuccessful. The new invasion was launched after initial successes based on the indiscriminate use of banned weapons, including cluster bombs, on civilian areas, the popularity of Yeltsin’s designated successor, Vladimir Putin, a person who had been the head of the KGB and had been virtually unknown, began to rise. On September 8, Yeltsin in a conversation with Bill Clinton said that, ‘Vladimir Putin is going to be the new president. You will be able to work with him. He will be a good partner for the United States.’
First of all, the very idea that Yeltsin could determine in advance the new president showed you the mentality and the respect for democracy, but second of all, it was somewhat mysterious how a person with a popularity rating of 2% could be so sure that he had the power to designate his successor, but on September 9, the next day, the apartment building on Guryanova street in Moscow blew up in the middle of the night.
From that point on, the scenario played itself out perfectly. Russians all over the country were terrorized and afraid to go to sleep at night. Putin, the newly-designated Prime Minister, vowed that he would pursue the terrorists wherever he could find them, even in their outhouses, and kill them. A massive invasion was mounted and Putin was transformed from an anonymous stooge of Yeltsin into the savior of the country, and he was elected president.
Now, all of this would have worked perfectly had it not been for one hitch, which is a fifth bomb was placed in a building in the city of Ryazan. And that bomb was discovered in time by watchful residents and deactivated. Three people were arrested in Ryazan because the whole city was cordoned off. They turned out not to be Chechen terrorists, they turned out to be agents of the FSB. Our government made a decision not to raise this issue. I know this from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiries that produced documents that showed that they were informed there was something deeply suspicious about those bombings. And the the Ryazan incident was capable of creating a massive crisis in the country, in the interest of the truth, of course, if it was revealed.
But in any case, three hundred people were killed. Putin’s power was firmly established, and the present regime embarked on self-enrichment and a program of assuring that it would never lose power. The ruling group in Russia became former KGB agents and cronies of Putin’s. The methods that they used throughout the 2000s and the 2010s were terrorist methods, beginning with the siege of the Dubrovka Theater, the Beslan school massacre, the assassinations of Anna Politkovskaya, the leading investigative reporter, Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with a nuclear isotope in London, Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader, the shooting down of the Malaysian Airliner in 2014.
All of this was intended to consolidate the power of this group that acceded to the presidency, acceded to total authority as a result of a terrorist act the FSB carried out against their own people. What makes it positively blood-chilling is not the fact that they killed political opponents. A lot of people do that. But they killed people at random. They were ready to just blow up buildings in a working class area, and all for political goals.
Under these circumstances, nothing that Russia does today in foreign policy is really surprising. The Soviet Union wanted to act out its ideology. In acting out its ideology, it ensured that the group which consisted of the guarantors, the protectors, the interpreters of that ideology be permanently in power. In post-Soviet Russia, the animating factor is to protect this corrupt, and otherwise totally undistinguished group that was able to seize power because of their willingness in the first instance to protect Yeltsin and his family, and in the second instance their determination to protect themselves.
Now, we in the U.S. have been really convulsed with various Russian related scandals. We are absolutely outraged that Russia would try to interfere in the U.S. election, and there is a good likelihood that they did interfere in the U.S. election. That would be very typical of them to do that. They are not really able to influence a U.S. election very much. They do not say anything that is not said more often, more forcefully, and actually better by the American political opponents themselves. What they are able to do is to do something that the KGB was expert at doing when it was fighting dissidents in the Soviet period. They are capable of turning people against each other. They are able to create chaos in American society.
The most dangerous accusation against a dissident was that he was really a KGB agent, and with that in mind the KGB tried to infiltrate the dissident milieu. They did have their agents and provocateurs. The standard Russian-Soviet technique for discrediting somebody is to try to create the impression that they work for Russian intelligence, that they are an asset, that they are in some way serving the interests of the Kremlin.
The Steele Dossier
And this is what happened in the 2016 election with the Steele Dossier. It was not that the Dossier was convincing or was not. Anyone with real knowledge would have read it and immediately seen that it was an FSB fake, but for those who are already at each other’s throats, it was brilliant in that it could be used as a weapon inside the American political competition. And with the Russians basically doing very little. They understood that one said was hungry for a dossier of this type. They provided it. They did not have to do much, the opposing sides did everything themselves.
And for two-and-a-half years, of course, we were transfixed with phony stories, anonymous sources, a fraudulent investigation that should have never taken place, and Russian crimes in the meantime were completely ignored. Serious issues affecting the United States and Russia, such as the murder of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, the shooting down, deliberately, of a civilian airliner, on which, by the way, there was an American passenger, the assassination of opponents of the regime abroad, the use of chemical weapons as instruments of murder, for example, in the Skripal case, these are the real issues in U.S.-Russian relations.
But this is what affects the stability of the regime. This is what those who rule Russia would like us to ignore, and they have tried and true methods of getting us to ignore what they do. And one of the most important is to make sure that we are fixated on our internal animosities, which revolve around issues which are of no real importance.
The Russians act similarly in the case of Ukraine. The Maidan revolt was a fundamental challenge not just to the rulers in Ukraine, but also to the Putin regime. The Putin regime controls all the principal levers of power in Russia, but it can still be threatened by a massive revolt, a massive, spontaneous, self-organizing revolt, such as what took place in Ukraine, where you had hundreds of thousands of people on the street. Under those conditions, the instruments of oppression are no longer reliable. It is no guarantee that you can order troops and police to open fire on civilians when their numbers reach that level, and the Russian authorities know that.
Just as they sought to distract Americans, they sought to distract their own people with the invasion of Ukraine. Nothing could have been better calculated to play to nationalist instincts in the country than an invasion, which was supposedly taking place in order to protect the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, which in reality was not in any danger.
Making the World Fear Russia
Similarly, in Syria, the Russian leadership is acting not so much in the pursuit of specific goals, and certainly not specific geopolitical goals, but rather in order to strengthen its hold over its own population. Russia is half of the Soviet Union in terms of its economy, in terms of its population. It is not in a position to become a world power, nor does it have any ideology that it is seeking to propagate. Its interests in having a presence in the Middle East is a tribute to its vanity and to the idea on the part of many Russian people that Russia should be a great power.
When the Soviet Union fell, a void was created in many people’s lives. It is important to bear in mind, I can describe an incident that took place when I was in the Soviet Union. I was standing in line in a store, actually waiting for potatoes, and a man in the long queue began shouting, “How long can we wait in these lines? How long can this go on?” And a woman started shouting back at him, “Never you mind. The whole world is afraid of us.”
And this reflected very much the attitude in Russia in the idea that we should make people afraid. ‘Yes, we do not live very well. Our lives are miserable. People in the West probably live better, but we are part of a great state, and we determine what goes on in the world.’ This compensatory mechanism was very effective.
And when the Soviet Union fell and Russia suddenly was an indigent and largely impotent power, it created a psychological vacuum that any nationalist would ultimately be able to fill. To a certain extent, of course, some of the same mechanism played itself out during the Weimar Republic in Germany.
Putin understood this and he understood the first thing he had to do to prevent Russians from imitating what happened in Ukraine or at least taking it as an example for how they could liberate themselves, he understood that distracting them with a successful war in Ukraine and a successful annexation would be all that he would have to need to change the subject and boost his own personal popularity, so that is what happened.
How to Deal with Russia
Well, under these conditions in which we have a small criminal group in power in Russia, which organizes the foreign policy of a great country strictly in its own interests, and is willing to sacrifice the lives of their own people and other people in the pursuit of the strengthening of their corrupt power, how ought we to deal with them? What should we expect?
Trump’s Approach to Russia
We have had a very controversial and in some respects uneven experience with President Trump, who is by all measures an unconventional president. At least he behaves in ways that were not typical of his predecessors. In regard to Russia, he began by making statements that I thought were exceptionally inappropriate. And by choosing foreign policy advisers who made statements that even given the relatively low bar in these matters were naive and harmful. In February 2017, President Trump when asked about killings in Russia, political killings, he said, “Well, we kill people too.”
Now, no American president had ever gone that far in justifying political crimes, but in Trump’s defense, it has to be said that he did not repeat that mistake, that the early advisers were eliminated, and despite the fact that he is an unnecessarily effusive in his attitude toward Putin, his decisions and his actions have been generally quite prudent. Trump has provided defensive weapons to Ukraine. He, of course, retaliated against the chemical weapons attack in Syria. He retaliated against violations of demarcation agreements by Russian-backed mercenaries. He has demanded that NATO increase their spending, and in that way made NATO stronger. He has redeployed many of our forces to the East where they are needed.
And he has retaliated appropriately to events like the poisoning of the Skripals in the United Kingdom, even though they took place not on American soil, but in the United Kingdom. In other words he recognized that this kind of lawlessness affects everyone, so in a second term, if he has one, and whoever is our president next year, it will be important to drop the friendly rhetoric, which in fact gets us nowhere. The Russians do not do anything on the basis of that, that they would not have done otherwise. And it diminishes the ability of the United States to exert influence in the world. It is self-defeating even though American Presidents who are often quite naive may not realize that.
The people who have taken power in Russia are dedicated to their own survival. And that takes precedence over anything else, over human life, over the welfare of the country, over the welfare of the world. You cannot talk them out of it, you cannot charm them out of it, and that is something that every American President needs to realize.
At the same time, Russia is an immensely powerful and deeply cultured country that needs to be part of the West both for our sake and for the sake of the people who live there, and we can have a role in that through the simple exertion of moral influence, and that means speaking out in the case of events that are important.
Disarming the Regime with Truth
If there is a crisis of power in Russia, we should bear in mind the example of the 1991 August Coup. The GKChP, those were the coup plotters, had the ability to drown the opposition in blood just as what happened in Tiananmen Square in China. They did not do it. The reason they did not do it is because in 1991 the ideology had lost its force. Four years of glasnost had so discredited the ideology that it could no longer motivate people to kill.
There is no ideology in Russia now that is comparable to what existed in the Soviet Union, but there is nationalist feeling and there is the delusion that the rulers of Russia are on the side of the people. The truth about what happened in Russia, including, first of all, the truth about the apartment bombings, is important in order to disarm the Russian regime in the face of a future confrontation if it takes place, or more appropriately, when it takes place.
And that is why the foreign policy of the United States in dealing with Russia should be based on fundamental principles, readiness to enunciate those principles, the absence of any desire to be ‘friends’ with the Russian leaders, who are not worthy of any friendship, and an awareness that our internal conflicts in this country are simply not that important compared to the stakes in the broader world. Under those circumstances, we can feel reasonably assured that the challenges that await us, and there will be challenges, will be challenges that we can handle for our good and for their good, as well.
Will Russia Invade Belarus?
Robert R. Reilly:
You mentioned at some length Ukraine. Could you talk a little about Belarus and the situation developing there now, and whether Putin is sufficiently concerned that he would move militarily there?
Well, there is a danger of that. Here again this is why we should never underestimate (in our dealings with Russia) the importance of deterrence. Deterrence always has an important psychological element. The Russian authorities are interested in understanding the character of the person with whom they are dealing. How is he likely to respond?
They do various types of psychological profiles, but they are also informed by experience. How will a person react? This is why when President Obama hesitated to respond to the chemical weapons use in Syria, it reverberated throughout Eastern Europe, and throughout the former Soviet Bloc because it suggested that in the case of aggression addressed against them, he would be similarly irresolute.
And the present situation in Belarus differs from the situation in Ukraine. In Ukraine there was a large Russian-speaking, pro-Russian element. Crimea itself is majority ethnic Russian, whereas Belarus is relatively homogeneous. There is no obvious group of collaborators in the case of a Russian invasion, and once again the calculus becomes how advantageous would it be to the power structure in Russia to become involved in fighting in Belarus, that might not prove controllable? How serious would be the reaction of the outside world?
One of the things that the late Boris Nemtsov and I tried to explain to a person who become adviser to President Obama, was that the appearance and the impression of commitment to principle in critical situations can have a very important deterrent effect, and one of the factors that is being weighed in Russia right now is the capacity of Donald Trump is he is president or whoever may or may not succeed him, depending on the results of the election, to what degree would they react and what would they be likely to do?
I think under the present circumstances, the Putin regime is hoping that Lukashenko can hold onto power without them, and that may or may not prove to be true. If he is overthrown or if he is on the verge of being overthrown, the decision of whether or not to intervene will be greatly influenced by their perception of our determination not to let it happen or to react to it forcefully if it does.
Is Nord Stream 2’s Future in Danger?
Robert R. Reilly:
Another issue, David, is the reaction in Europe to the poisoning with the Novichok nerve agent of opposition leader Navalny is quite interesting, that the Europeans and the Germans are indicating that they will stand together against this behavior they assume by Putin since it was a military grade nerve agent. Might this throw in doubt the continuation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which Germany is relying on as a major supply of natural gas, and on which Putin is relying because it is a huge source of income for his regime? What do you think might happen there? Would the Europeans actually be tough enough to do something like this?
We will see. They might be. Putin’s behavior is very provocative. The Europeans took part in the sanctions that were imposed after the poisoning of the Skripals, and if he is using exactly the same poison or a poison that is related to it to murder or attempt to murder an anti-corruption fighter in Russia, who is probably the most prominent opposition leader in Russia at the moment, that indicates that previous sanctions did not work. They did not have any effect, so the question is is it really sensible to repeat sanctions on the same level as those that were in effect in the past or does it make sense to escalate? I think that a logical person – and President Trump, in fact, urged this – would understand that under these circumstances, continuation of the Nord Stream project is not advisable for anyone, not for any of the Western parties.
A Religious Revival in Russia
Robert R. Reilly:
On another issue you mentioned that the Soviet ideology is no longer operative in Russia, and you indicated that nationalism is part of a replacement.
It is an attempted replacement.
Robert R. Reilly:
An attempted replacement. You also mentioned the word transcendent several times, the lack of a transcendence. Certain people believe there is a religious revival in Russia, that the Russian Orthodox Church is gaining in strength. You know the hierarchy of that church was so seriously compromised in the Soviet regime. Do you think there is a genuine religious recovery in Russia? And, of course, Putin tries to portray himself as a believer and attends some Orthodox services. Is that just a charade?
Yes, it is just a charade. The people buy the costume, the Cossacks and the paraphernalia. They love to appear on religious festivals. There is nothing religious about them. As for a religious revival in the country, people have been saying that for decades. I think it is pretty superficial if it exists at all. What you have in Russia is that the village priests, the local priests, do a lot of good in comforting people, in giving people some support, but the hierarchy of the church is rotten. The church is a national symbol, but it is manipulated by those authorities.
Those observances that you note, and Putin’s attempt to depict himself as deeply religious, largely for the benefit of the West, it is all false. The Church has not spoken out against corruption. Just to give you an example the Church received under Yeltsin special privileges to import tax-free, duty-free cigarettes and alcohol, although smoking in the Orthodox Church is considered a sin. They made huge fortunes on that, the higher-ups did. A photo was taken of the present Patriarch, wearing a very expensive watch worth tens of thousands of dollars. In the official photograph they removed the watch because it had been noticed, but they forgot that the reflection of the watch was still present in a polished table.
So I would not attach a great importance to the so-called religious revival in Russia, and people in the West, particularly American conservatives, should be aware that there is nothing religious, for example, about ordering groups to open fire on women and children, hundreds of hostages, with, for example, flamethrowers and grenade launchers as if this is a military objective. There is nothing religious about blowing people up in the middle of the night in order to seize power. The Russians are are that the Americans are in many ways very parochial, and do not understand that there are places where the mentality is very different.
What is Russia’s Geopolitical Strategy?
Robert R. Reilly:
Russia, according to some accounts, has an economy smaller than Italy’s, yet it has developed a first class military in terms of modern weapons and, of course, it has used some of them in the Middle East. It is applying weapons in Libya. You seemed to indicate that Putin really does not have any geopolitical strategy. If not he has got to be one of the first class and most effective opportunists in terms of foreign policy, in gaining a presence in the Mediterranean. I do not know, perhaps in his alliance with China. We will see about that one, but certainly he seems to be successful in creating an image of having a geopolitical strategy.
They do want to create that image, you are right, but the strategy is not what the outside world thinks it is. Their strategy is to keep themselves in power. They understand that certainly the impression given to the Russian people, that Russia is once again a great power, will work to their benefit. Russia has an imperial mentality. It has had it traditionally. If you stop to think about it, what really could be their geopolitical strategy? What is it they are trying to do? What is it trying to achieve?
The Soviet Union had a geopolitical strategy. It wanted to spread communism all over the world. It wanted to save humanity from the oppression of capitalism, and create a world in which there was no war, no class conflict, everyone was guaranteed a job and so on, so that was their geopolitical strategy, according to the ideology.
But there is no ideology in Russia, so what is their geopolitical strategy? To defend themselves? Well, no one is attacking them. To dominate the Middle East? For what reason? Why is that in their interest, and why is it necessary? What do they gain from that? On the contrary, because of their actions they may create a kind of extremism, and encourage the kind of extremism that might rebound eventually against Russian civilians, as well as everybody else, although they have little concern for Russian civilians. We do not want to think in clichés. The government of Russia has an interest and it pursues it, making sure those who are in power, stay in power. That is their geopolitical strategy. Of course, the multiplication of weapons and so on goes on, but that plays into the traditional mentality of the country and its desire to make people afraid. Nicholas I in the beginning of the 19th century said that Russia should make people afraid. It is not something new.
Robert R. Reilly:
What about their objectives in respect to China. I would think that any long-term thinker on geopolitical issues would be extremely worried (as a Russian) about the burgeoning power of China.
They should be and they should see the West as their natural ally, and they should be worried about the power of Iran because of the crimes of which the Iranians are capable. They should be worried about a lot of things, and they would be if they were thinking in terms of the welfare of their own population, but they are not because what is good for the population is not necessarily good for those who rule the population. Friendship with the United States and close cooperation with the U.S. makes sense for Russia as a country.
It makes no sense whatsoever for a small group that has taken power in Russia, and was able to do so as a result of acts of terror. That is the point. For them, Western institutions, Western demands for due process… The last thing they need is a system in which they cannot go and kill their opponents. They can kill anybody now and nobody is going to go and squeak inside Russia. They do not want to have to be under pressure from the West. We saw what happened with Boris Nemtsov, my personal friend, by the way.
Could Russia Have a Vaccine for COVID-19?
Robert R. Reilly:
David let me close with asking you a question about the effect of the coronavirus in Russia, and the claim of the regime that it has now developed two vaccines. Is that also a charade?
They are capable of developing vaccines. Russia has many talented people. During the Soviet period and even afterwards they had an active research program in virology, and they developed many bacteriological weapons, by the way, in violation of treaties with the U.S. So it is not out of the question that they came up with something. What is a question is whether it has been adequately tested and whether there is a risk from the Russian vaccine because one thing we can be sure of is that they would not be overly concerned about the possible adverse effects on the population if they thought that it could get some propaganda benefits from this.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, actually, let me ask one more question. What ought the United States be most worried about in respect to Russia?
The most worrying possibility is that there will be internal instability, and that it could become uncontrollable because the regime is not fundamentally stable. If we define stability not as surface calm, but rather as the ability to absorb and handle unexpected internal and external shocks, then Russia is not stable. The present regime does at the moment seem to have a grip on power, and they do it with a relatively low level of violence, I must say to give them credit, compared to previous Russian regimes. they do so with corruption, manipulation, false information, the external threat, of course, which they need in order to consolidate the population.
But those instruments are unreliable in the long run, and history shows that no one can rule forever. We saw what happened to the Assads and the challenge that was posed to them, to Qaddafhi. We saw what happened to Ceauşescu and now the challenge to Lukashenko. Authoritarian regimes tend to degrade over time, and to become more corrupt, more intolerant, less flexible, and more lawless, and engender more and more discontent. Russia is not an exception to that rule.
Robert R. Reilly:
David Satter, thank you very much for joining us today at the Westminster Institute. We greatly appreciate your insights into Russia. I invite our audience to not only share the video of this lecture, but go to the Westminster Institute website where you will see the library of videos from our past lectures on subjects such as China, the Middle East, Islam, and other things of concern to the United States, and the West. Thank you for joining us.