Andreas Umland, German political scientist and senior research fellow at Kiev-based Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, speaks about Russian domestic politics, the "Ukraine crisis" and what the European Union can do about it.
Andreas Umland
© DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

What did Putin’s sudden disappearance mean? Do you agree with experts who speak about the possibility of a coup d'état?

Putin's 10-day absence was ominous and untypical. It went along with news of seeming conflict or mis-coordination in the Kremlin, for instance around the official narratives concerning the murder of Boris Nemtsov, and prehistory of the annexation of Crimea (Putin and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided different stories about Russia's engagement in February-April 2014).

In general, the Kremlin's behavior is becoming more erratic, by the month. That may not yet indicate a coup d'état. Yet, it is a sign that various factions around Putin are not well-coordinated - or even already in conflict with each other. If nothing happens before 2018, that year will be crucial: Russia's "selectorate" (i.e. the Moscow elite circles) will have to agree on putting forward again Putin's candidacy, or that of somebody else, to become president (probably, against the background of a withdrawal of the soccer world championship from Russia). Such an agreement between different groups in Moscow may be difficult to reach.

What is it said in Germany now about Russia, Putin and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict?

The Kremlin is now seen with increasing mistrust. The so-called "Russlandversteher" ("Russia-understanders") are in retreat. That is a deep change from the situation about two years ago when a cooperative approach to Russia was dominant. Now the faction of pro-Putin commentators has shrunk to some obvious industry lobbyists, right- and left-wing radicals, as well as some retired politicians (esp. from the SPD). There are few active politicians with influence left who promote the earlier approach. Schroeder's "New Ostpolitik" is over.

Putin, in fact, gives evidence against himself in a potential international crime case, in the film “Crimea. The way to home”. Why did he do this? Is he not afraid of punishment?

My interpretation is that (a) Putin's image in the West has suffered to a degree that to uphold the former implausible narrative of a local upheaval does not make sense any more, and (b) the Kremlin has decided to go on the offensive concerning its annexation narrative for domestic consumption. By way of admitting that Russia stood behind the events in Crimea in spring 2014, the Kremlin is making the entire population of Russia a hostage to its foreign political adventurism. This strategy is designed to create a "fortress mentality" in Russia. The trick seems to work. Sooner or later, Russia will also admit its military involvement in Eastern Ukraine, although the Kremlin will insist on merely having intervened into an already ongoing "civil war" in the Donbas.

The Minsk II agreement was, as implied, a last warning for Putin from the EU. Now it is clear, Mink II has failed, Putin ignores not only this agreement, but, in fact, Hollande and Merkel as well. How should Merkel and Holland act now?

I assume that the EU and US have already formulated a new list of sanctions for the case that the demarcation line between the two pseudo-republics and Kyiv-controlled area will be violated again, e.g., if there is an attack on Mariupol. I hope that the West will, in that case, be ready to tackle such hitherto "holy cows" as Russia's participation in the SWIFT payment system, and Russia's huge oil exports to the EU. Western import sanctions, in particular, would hit the Kremlin hard, as the Russian state budget and economic system are built upon the large monthly inflow of petro-euros.

The really interesting question, however, will be if the ceasefire materializes, but parts of the Donbas remain under de facto control of Moscow. That would also grossly violate the Minsk I and II agreements. Then the EU, in particular, will have to show what its position towards Ukraine is. Should the EU reduce sanctions, uphold the current sanctions, or add new sanctions? It is difficult to predict what the result of this discussion will be.

Many people in Ukraine consider that Putin politically and diplomatically defeated the EU, in particular Hollande and Merkel. What is your opinion?

If the Minsk agreements are not fully implemented, that could be seen as a certain defeat for the EU. However, one has to admit that German or French public opinion is not very concerned about Ukrainian territorial integrity. What ordinary people in the EU are interested most is whether the war continues or not. Most EU citizens would be happy to accept another frozen conflict area in Eastern Europe, if only the shooting stops.

Putin's regime is pursuing a policy that seems to go against common sense. Do you see any a logic in it?

The logic of that behavior looks like imperialism, chauvinism, colonialism, and revanchism - i.e., stories we know well from 19th- and 20th-century European history. The deeper issue is: How can the current ruling circle in Moscow legitimize its power in times of economic recession and stagnating living standards?

The new social contract that the Kremlin seems to be successfully proposing to Russians is: You will not any longer live better, but be again a feared, missionary and important nation in world politics. This contract, however, only functions as long as the drop in living standards is not too steep. Whereas before the "deal" was "No serious political participation, but Bread," the new "deal" is "No serious political participation, but Bread and Circuses." Some "bread," however, is still part of the deal. That is the pressure point which the West has to use.

How do you think, can new sanctions help stop Putin? If not, what can stop him?

The pressure potential of decisive Western sanctions is undervalued. Russia is (a) highly integrated into the world economy and (b) an industrially and infrastructurally underdeveloped petro-state. (I once told the Russian ambassador to Germany that his country was a "Potemkin village in an oil rush." He was not amused.) The Russian economy and budget are highly dependent on Western cooperation. The Russian population is less ready to suffer for some elusive foreign policy agenda than is usually assumed. The currently high support of the Russian population for Putin is build on an understanding that the current living standards will remain largely in place. If that equation discontinues, the Russians' support for Putin will decline.

In your opinion - could the situation around Ukraine turn into a third world war?

It is a risky situation. I have explicitly warned about a possible World War III between the West and Russia, six years ago, in an article for "The Globalist" published in January 2009.

However, the West should not be timid, in view of this prospect. To prevent further escalation, the EU needs to become more decisive and true to its own values regarding Russia. That will impress the Kremlin more than yet another round of toothless negotiations. Robust diplomacy has to be accompanied with an effective sanctions agenda as well as a clearly stated readiness to fully support Ukraine in any further military confrontations with Russia. Some countries could do so by providing defensive weapons (drones, radar, anti-tank missiles, etc.). Other countries, like Germany and Austria, would do so via non-military assistance.

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