Putin Has Fallen Captive to the Nationalist Fever That He Has Generated Himself, Shattuck Says

April 16, 2015

Hungarian weekly HVG interviewed CEU President and Rector John Shattuck. The following is a translation of the article, which appeared in the April 16 print edition.

The key politicians of neither the US nor the EU will attend the May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Moscow. What has gone wrong in the relations between Russia and the West?

At the time of the political changeover and democratization in Central Europe, Boris Yeltsin came to power in Russia. The principal achievement of this time period was that the dissolution of the Soviet Union took place in a relatively peaceful manner, but the disintegration of the Russian state also began in this period. Another major event at the end of this era, hallmarked by chaotic privatization and the rise of oligarchs, was the nomination of Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin’s successor. Contrary to his predecessor, the new head of state came from the KGB, the Russian intelligence service, he was a representative of the “deep state” composed of the secret police directing the country and other security services. Putin tried to recompose his country, and he created a new narrative for that, the essence of which was that NATO and the EU had cornered Russia by their enlargements. In the meantime, democratization processes started in Georgia, Ukraine and some additional former Soviet member republics, and these countries wanted to draw closer to the West. Putin perceived this trend as a threat to his power, and accordingly, he developed the strategy that he is applying today: the launching of a new but different form of Cold War.

What is the aim of Moscow?

Putin wants to create frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet region that can be revived any time, and by the manipulation of which he can restore the Russian influence. The other objective, perhaps even more worrying, is that Putin seeks to crack the union of the EU and the West because he believes this way, crises similar to the ones in Moldova or Ukraine can be kept alive longer. A part of the strategy is hybrid war mixing military force and non-military ways of pressure, the deployment of the energy weapon, and the efficient use of traditional and social media. As manifested several times in the past, Moscow wants to have an influence on European decision-making processes; it offers financial support to Western European parties, for instance, in France and Greece. An indirect consequence of that is that one-fifth of the European Parliament is now composed of anti-EU representatives.

And if he puts it this way, how come we are the good guys and Moscow is the villain…

Because the West is not trying to modify international borders. It seems that Moscow has no consideration for borders – especially in the case of Ukraine.

How can the West react to the new Russian policy?

The West is still struggling to find the appropriate answer. First, certain fundamental principles need to be laid down, i.e. that the violation of international borders causes serious international instability. There is, for instance, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for the recognition of its national borders by Russia and the other powers. At the same time, the West – and this is a crucial element – needs to condemn military aggression unanimously, especially if it entails the violation of international borders. The third thing, which is important in my view, is that the EU should increase its economic support for Kiev so that Ukraine could stand on its own feet. A solution similar to although smaller than the Marshall Plan provided to Western Europe from the end of the 1940s would be necessary.

Should Ukraine be furnished with arms as well?

I am against supplying more arms to Ukraine as it would only increase the chance of further military clashes, but the West should pursue a very strict policy of sanctions: the punitive measures on Russia should stay in force until the termination of military aggression. However, Eastern Ukraine should be given more extensive autonomy – this is what Moscow could earn in exchange for a real ceasefire and the ending of trans-border aggression. Finally, I would hold out a big carrot: the possibility of the enhancement of economic and political relations between the EU, the US and Russia as well as the Eurasian Union.

Apparently, Putin has managed to reach his objective: Crimea now belongs to Russia, Europe is divided, and he is popular at home. Can you see any willingness in the West to become more self-assertive?

Europe will suffer serious damage if Russia is able to divide the countries of the continent. In spite of being divided, all EU member states have voted for the sanctions in the end.

Moscow has been showing more and more force. Putin almost put the nuclear forces on red alert, and ordered the Northern Fleet on alert as well. Can the new Cold War turn into a real one?

I do not think so. However, there is a paradox: the worst can be avoided if the West sends strong signals that aggressive actions are unacceptable. In several articles of mine, I called on NATO to send a rapid reaction force to the Baltic region. In the domain of nuclear arms, the West has a major advantage, so it would be a very foolish move from Russia to shift towards real war. NATO has the means to give a decisive answer.

In Russia, political changes usually happen in an explosive manner. How can the Putin regime come to an end?

I do not believe in a revolution. What can make Russia crumble is the state of its economy. The country is so dependent on its energy export that serious trouble can arise even in the short run. The other thing is that Putin has fallen captive to the nationalist fever that he has generated himself. It seems that the more aggressive Putin is, the more popularity he has, so the head of the Russian state has maneuvered himself into a trap in which it is difficult to negotiate because of the nationalist pressure. It is possible that if he does not demonstrate enough nationalism, then somebody from the extreme right might push him out, and that would not be a good prospect.

In order to be able to close the debate of “Who is right?”, it would be important to know whether Western politicians had indeed promised to Moscow that no Central European states would be admitted to NATO, as Moscow claims…

I was not present at the negotiations, and I have only dealt with the matter as a historian. However, it is clear from the documents that NATO led talks with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev about the bilateral relations, and at the beginning of the Yeltsin era the relations with NATO and the West were good. I do not think a specific promise would have been made by NATO about the non-admission of Central European countries. The EU consolidated its position, and it is Putin who presented the whole enlargement process as an aggression.

You had a considerable role in the termination of the Bosnian civil war. Do you think Bosnia is also a conflict which has frozen over? Many believe that it makes no sense to preserve something in small scale that had not worked in the former Yugoslavia.

I am really worried about the Republic of Srpska (the Serb entity in Bosnia Herzegovina called Republika Srpska), which has been increasingly shifting in the direction of nationalism. In my opinion, the biggest mistake of the Dayton peace process, which put an end to the civil war in 1995, was that we did not arrest the perpetrators of the gravest crimes in time – many of whom were Serbian leaders of Bosnia –, and now we have witnessed the return of some of them into power. We did not take this job to the end, and this is why we have a frozen conflict at hand. But I am not pessimistic. I put my trust in the new generation: the youth – many of them present at CEU – are different, and I think demography will resolve the Bosnian conflict in the end.

Speaking about CEU, the university aims at building an open society, which Hungary resembles less and less today. Do you feel any kind of pressure on behalf of the government?

I do not want to talk about Hungarian domestic policy, but the role of CEU here and in the region is greater than ever: many students come here to study international law, political science and other subjects, and there is a lively debate about what open society and democracy should mean today. CEU is firmly embedded in Hungary, and we are very proud of the fact that the university is a Hungarian, American, and European institution at the same time. In general, we maintain good relations with the Hungarian government as well as with the other universities of Hungary.

Since you live here, you can also see that a new kind of Russian-friendliness has been evolving in Hungary. What could be the reason behind that?

People are confused: they do not understand perfectly what is really going on around them and where their genuine interests lie. I do not want to make guesses about the considerations behind certain decisions of the Hungarian government with respect to Russia, but Hungary should maintain its relations with Moscow by which it can also improve the relations between the EU and Russia. It is clear that the interest of the Hungarian people is to live in a democracy and in an open society and benefit from the economic advantages due to the integration as members of the EU.