Russian people are living in an alternative reality created for them by President Vladimir Putin, one completely disconnected from the rest of the world, says German political scientist Andreas Umland, senior research fellow, at Kyiv-based Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation.
Andreas Umland
© DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

Mr. Umland spoke with DELFI during his recent visit in Vilnius where he took part in the Intellectuals' Forum organized by the Eastern Europe Studies Centre and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

You have been working in Ukraine for a while. What is changing at the moment? What to expect from Russia?

There is now a historic moment in Ukraine. Normally the chances for a deep reform would be good, because the domestic and the international situation of Ukraine has changed deeply. We have a new parliament with a large pro-democratic, pro-European majority. Also, we have now in the parliament a group of about 20 civil society activists who have come out of the Maidan movement and who will be, I hope, determining how the parliament works. Finally, there is a signed and partially ratified Association Agreement with the European Union.

Normally this would be a positive situation. One could be optimistic about the chances of reforms and about the prospects of the new Ukrainian state. But, at the same time, there is a war in the east and involvement of Russia in Ukrainian domestic politics. That creates a problematic situation, because the conflict with Russia takes away time, focus and energy needed for implementing domestic reforms.

And the issues are huge, especially between Russia and the West regarding the sanctions.

Yes. That is another problem: Ukraine’s confrontation with Russia complicates Kyiv’s relations with the European Union and the West in general. There are many in the West who are more interested in the West’s future relations with Russia rather than with Ukraine. Partly, that is simply because they are afraid of Russia. They also understand, or they think they understand, Russia better than Ukraine. Many in the West have no real understanding of, and interest for, Ukraine and what the Ukrainian nation is.

This diversion is exactly the purpose of Putin’s policies in eastern Ukraine and on Crimea. He wants to draw attention away from domestic reforms in Ukraine, and to destabilize Ukraine as a whole, not just the east. He is using the Donbass to undermine the Ukrainian state as he does not want Ukrainian democracy to become a counter-model to his system. He does not want Ukraine to succeed.

Despite all the economic troubles, Mr. Putin seems to enjoy quite strong support in his country. What are the reasons for it?

The primary reason for Putin’s popularity in Russia is his far-reaching control over the media and the incredible propaganda campaign that is going on there every day on several channels in parallel. This is a huge brainwashing operation that has created, for tens of millions of Russians, an alternative reality. They live in a different world from us, in another universe where Russia is under existential threat from a coalition of Western secret services, Ukrainian neo-Nazis, European Russophobes, American conspirators and so on. This paranoia creates the support for him in large parts of the population.

Have you noticed particular hostility in the Russian public towards the Baltic countries? The "Russophobes"?

Yes, I think the Baltic countries are, in the state-manipulated Russian perception, largely similar to the Ukrainian government, to how Ukraine is now seen as anti-Russian, neo-Nazi, fascist, Russophobic. The Balts fit this image too. Yet, a crucial difference between them and Ukraine is that they are members of NATO. Therefore, the Kremlin is more restrained in, for instance, using Russian ethnic minorities in the Baltic countries for its purposes. Moscow does not want a conflict with NATO. That is something Russia is not ready for.

However, Russia is constantly teasing NATO, especially with military flights in the Baltic countries.

Yes, but it’s playing these games. Still, I think it is only doing enough to tease but not to really provoke something. Russia is behaving much more aggressively in Ukraine because Kyiv is weak and because the Ukrainian army is no threat to Russia. Ukraine is also no member of the EU which has still large trade and other economic relations As to the Baltic countries, the potential involvement of the US, of the major European powers, and of the EU as well as NATO as powerful organizations is something that Russia wants to avoid.

And there is the Russian opposition, we saw several demonstrations in Moscow, but the last one wasn’t very big, something like two thousand people. Does this mean that the Russian opposition is strangled?

One of the major purposes of the Kremlin’s purposeful involvement of Russia in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea was to restructure domestic political discourse and the Russian ideological spectrum. As a result, there is now a new ideological spectrum in Russia, a new set of political ideas informing public discourse. Russian domestic debates are not any longer so much about internal issues of Russia, but about: what is this or that person’s or organization’s stance on the Crimea annexation, on Ukraine in general, or on the US? Putin has successfully managed to restructure Russian political discourse. Thus, the Russian opposition is now divided between people who are in favor of the Crimea annexation and those who are against it. That domestic effect may have been one of the major purposes of the Crimea annexation.

This propaganda machine affects Russian people a lot, but how much influence does Mr. Putin personally have, his own charisma?

V.Putinas Sibire
V.Putinas Sibire
© Reuters/Scanpix

Without any doubt, he has charisma. That is not a question of who he is, but how he is perceived, and many Russians perceive him as a national leader, as a historic figure, maybe even as a hero. Yet, how will this image develop when the economic situation, and the social conditions of many Russians, changes for the worse?

So far, Putin’s charisma has risen in parallel or in combination with the rise of living standards in Russia. Yet, this period is now over. Moreover, living standards may now actually decline for many Russians, or even substantially decline. It will be interesting to observe what this will mean for his charismatic impact on society.

Maybe he will lose his charisma, but maybe only some. Maybe he will be able to still keep his charismatic position in this new different set of circumstances, where Russia is not any longer so much engaged with its domestic problems, but with seemingly deadly existential foreign challenges, like the Ukrainian new government, or the seeming the threats emanating from the West.

Mr. Putin recently admitted that economic troubles might last as long as two years. Could that perhaps shake up the Russian people a little?

I think that was a smart move on his part to admit these challenges and not to talk them away. But the problem is, if these economic problems become indeed deep, if many people, especially among the elites of Moscow and St. Petersburg, among the intellectuals, entrepreneurs and bureaucrats, become disappointed and if they do not see this period ending, if it lasts more than two years, perhaps three or four years, until the presidential election in 2018, he can run into trouble. The Russian elite, i.e. the apparatchiks, oligarchs, and intelligentsia may decide or many may think that he would not be a good next president for 2018-2024. The year 2018 will be, for several reasons, an interesting moment.

The world soccer championship is scheduled for 2018 in Russia. I cannot imagine that championship happening in Russia. So far, FIFA does want to conduct the championship as scheduled. Yet, if it indeed happens in Russia, it will be an event with a lot of political undertones. There will be protests or even large-scale demonstrations. It will not be as smooth a sports event as the 2014 Sochi Olympics (which also has left many with a bitter aftertaste). I wonder whether FIFA is going to take the risk of the 2018 championship becoming a PR disaster for the Association.

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