Ivan Krastev; Police in Moscow on March 6

Ivan Krastev; Police in Moscow on March 6

Foto:

Markus Tedeskino / Agentur Focus; Evgeny Odinokov / SNA / IMAGO

Russia's Invasion of Ukraine "Putin Lives in Historic Analogies and Metaphors"

Political scientist Ivan Krastev is an astute observer of Vladimir Putin. In an interview, he speaks of the Russian president's isolation, his understanding of Russian history and how he has become a prisoner of his own rhetoric.
Interview Conducted by Lothar Gorris
About Ivan Krastev

Ivan Krastev, born in 1965, is a researcher at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. From Bulgaria, Krastev is widely seen as one of the most original thinkers in today's Europe.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Krastev, have you ever been to the Kremlin?

Krastev: No, but I once met Vladimir Putin in Sochi, on the sidelines of a conference shortly after the annexation of Crimea. The president was hosting a dinner. An American colleague of mine was there, but so too was the Austrian chancellor and the foreign ministers of France and Israel. It quickly became clear that Putin felt like he was completely misunderstood. He spoke about Western chauvinism and its hypocrisy. He said people didn’t understand that Crimea is Russian. They are the same arguments we are hearing today, but I wouldn’t say that Putin back then had this messianism.

DER SPIEGEL: Why is it there now?

Krastev: If you’ve been in power for 20 years in an authoritarian state, nobody dares to contradict you anymore. You have established a system, you have become the system yourself, and you can’t imagine that the entire country doesn’t reflect that. You also can’t imagine there being anybody who could be an adequate successor. So, you have to solve all problems yourself for as long as you are alive. For Putin, Russia has long since ceased being a country in the standard sense; it is a kind of historic, 1,000-year-old body.

President Vladimir Putin with flight crew members of Russian airlines on March 5.

President Vladimir Putin with flight crew members of Russian airlines on March 5.

Foto: Mikhail Klimentyev / Russian Presidential Press and I

DER SPIEGEL: What was your impression of Putin?

Krastev: Very intelligent and quick, forthright, confrontative. Sarcastic when speaking with someone from the West. But it is the small things that reveal the most about people. He held forth about the situation in the Donbas like a foreign service agent who knows how many people live in each village and what the situation is like in each of them. He considered the fact that primarily women were responsible for Russia policy in the Obama administration to be an intentional attempt to humiliate him. The hypocrisy of the West has become an obsession of his, and it is reflected in everything the Russian government does. Did you know that in parts of his declaration on the annexation of Crimea, he took passages almost verbatim from the Kosovo declaration of independence, which was supported by the West? Or that the attack on Kyiv began with the destruction of the television tower just as NATO attacked the television tower in Belgrade in 1999?

DER SPIEGEL: Why does he do such things?

Krastev: Because he wants to teach us a lesson. Because he wants to tell us: I have learned from you. Even if that means doing exactly that for which he hates us. On that evening in Sochi, he expressed outrage that the annexation of the Crimea had been compared with Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. Putin lives in historic analogies and metaphors. Those who are enemies of eternal Russia must be Nazis. And so, he was quick to portray the conflicts in the Donbas as a genocide. Putin’s overstatements became so extreme that they no longer had any connection to reality. He has become hostage to his own rhetoric.

DER SPIEGEL 11/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 11/2022 (March 12th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

DER SPIEGEL: Is Putin an angry individual?

Krastev: He is constantly speaking of betrayal and deceit. From the West. From individual, former Soviet republics. In 2008, during the war against Georgia, he met with Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, which was one of the last critical media outlets in the country until it was shut down last week. Putin asked if Venediktov knew what he, Putin, had done in his previous job. Mr. President, Venediktov replied, we all know where you come from. Do you know, Putin said, what we did with traitors in my previous job? Yes, we know, said Venediktov. And do you know why I am speaking with you? Because you are an enemy and not a traitor! In Putin’s view, Ukraine committed the greatest crime imaginable: It betrayed Russia.

DER SPIEGEL: In the spy novels of John le Carré, everything hinges on betrayal.

Krastev: It should also be mentioned that the Western media has contributed to creating a false image of Putin. First, they say that Putin is corrupt. That is true. But does it explain his politics? Putin has been the leader of a nuclear power for 20 years. He thinks in terms of history, betrayal and malice. For such a person, corruption is merely an instrument of power. Money may have been important to Putin when he was younger, but it isn’t any longer. Second, they say that Putin is a cynical gambler, a trickster. In 2011, Putin said that the protests against him had been organized by the American Embassy. Western analysts said that was propaganda, because he knew that wasn’t true. During that dinner, it became clear to me: He really believes it. In his understanding of history, things never happen spontaneously. If people demonstrate, he doesn’t ask: Why are they out on the streets? He asks: Who sent them? When we take him at his word, he won’t surprise us anymore. If you read his essay from July of last year, in which he wrote that Ukrainians and Russians are a single people and he would never accept an anti-Russian Ukraine, you find out exactly what his intentions are. And third, they say that Putin is somebody who is extremely strategic and tactical.

DER SPIEGEL: You don’t believe that he acts rationally?

Krastev: It is said that Putin watched Gadhafi’s end on television for several hours. And that his decision to retake the position of president from Medvedev, which hadn’t initially been part of the plan, was a reaction to that, because he didn’t want to meet the same end as Gadhafi, executed by his own people. It is possible to negotiate with cynical, calculating people, because they know that they, too, can benefit. But Putin seems to have radicalized as he has aged, perhaps even during his COVID isolation. He is on a mission, and risk avoidance is no longer a category for him. This may sound too psychologizing, but he is part of the last Soviet generation. His job as a KGB agent was that of defending and protecting the Soviet Union. But he and his fellow agents were unable to protect it. The Soviet Union collapsed overnight without a war, without an invasion. Putin and the KGB didn’t understand what happened. They failed. I think he has a strong feeling of guilt.

DER SPIEGEL: Putin was stationed in East Germany at the time.

Krastev: Which makes things even more interesting. It is difficult to understand your country when it is changing dramatically and you are living abroad. From outside, the occurrences seem like a mystery, as a kind of conspiracy that is incomprehensible. But what he experienced and comprehended was the national euphoria in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell, because he was there. In his essay, he writes that a wall was erected between Ukraine and Russia and that this wall must fall. As such, what is currently taking place in Ukraine in Putin’s eyes is a peaceful reunification.

DER SPIEGEL: Sounds tragic.

Krastev: The tragedy is that we are seeing a violent recolonization of Ukraine and not a peaceful reunification. This misunderstanding about how the world works produces Putin’s unhappiness. He really believes that it’s not a war, but a special operation, because there can be no war between a single people. And he will never believe those people who tell him it’s not true. Putin sees himself as the father of the Russian nation. Perhaps he is, perhaps he’s not, but one thing is clear: Putin unintentionally became the father of the Ukrainian nation. It was the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas that initially created a Ukrainian identity, one which is rooted in two principles: opposition to Russia, and opposition to Putin. Now, he finds himself in a situation that we know from Russian literature, when the father says to his son: I have created you, but now I must kill you. At the same time, Putin is destroying precisely that Russian identity that he is constantly talking about. In 2014, a large majority of Russians supported the annexation of Crimea. But they were just members of the audience, applauding as they looked on. Now, Russian soldiers aren’t just dying, but they are also killing those who Putin himself said were their brothers. And the population is suffering under the sanctions.

DER SPIEGEL: Is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy something of an anti-Putin?

Krastev: Putin embodies Russia, but in Ukraine, there had never been anybody who embodies this country. Two weeks ago, this became a fight between two men. There is that famous video of the final minutes of the Ukrainian border guards on Snake Island in the Black Sea, who were threatened by the Russian navy and responded by saying: "Go fuck yourself." It reminds me of the battle of the Brest Fortress in the Fatherland War of the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. For 40 days, they were besieged by the Germans, but the Soviet soldiers refused to give up as Hitler’s troops gathered before Moscow. Now, Zelenskyy is standing in Kyiv and saying: We are here underground. We are going to defend Kyiv. And we will be victorious because we are on the right side. The myth of the Soviet Union and the heroic fight against the Nazis is not, in fact, embodied by Putin, but by Zelenskyy.

DER SPIEGEL: The roles have been reversed?

Krastev: Exactly. Putin wanted to legitimize the invasion of Ukraine with claims that Russia once again had to defend itself from the Nazis. Which is why he has been constantly talking about the denazification of Ukraine. In fact, though, it is President Zelenskyy, himself a Jew, who is resisting a superior power.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you believe that the Russian people support the invasion just as they did the annexation of Crimea?

Krastev: There are many Russians who don’t like what is happening and who aren’t necessarily fans of Putin, people who are suffering under corruption and his repression, but who have thus far remained silent because the situation is what it is, and it has always been so. They lived their lives, weren’t interested in politics, and what would be the alternative to Putin anyway? But we should be honest: These Russians also haven’t always been happy with how they have been treated by the West, and they also wouldn’t be happy if Ukraine were to join NATO. Such is Russia. But this isn’t a war of the Russians, this is Putin’s war. All of these apolitical supporters of Putin – who nod along when Putin says that Russia must rise from its knees and be proud – are now, for the first time, asking themselves the most painful question one can ask of an authoritarian leader: Does he know what he is doing? Is he still in his right mind?

DER SPIEGEL: There are those photos of Putin sitting at an endlessly long table, far away from other meeting participants. A recent one showed him with advisers in the Kremlin at the beginning of the invasion. The photos certainly cannot be an accident, but what is Putin’s message?

Krastev: There appears to be a deep obsession with COVID in his circle. Plus, Putin has always been seen as someone who is far away from his advisers and from the political elite. There is a certain solitude surrounding him, one that is somehow reflective of Russia’s solitude. Which is why he’s not concerned about Russia’s isolation, since he, himself is alone. He also sees himself as the only one who really understands what is going on. I was shocked by that video showing him meeting with the Russian Security Council. All of these important figures who clearly didn’t know what was expected of them and felt uncomfortable because they of course knew that they could never show any dissent, even though some of them are likely concerned about the self-destructive path Russia is now on. And then there was Putin’s aggressive, humiliating dominance, openly demonstrating that he didn’t share their views and that he didn’t care at all about what they had to say.

DER SPIEGEL: But what was the point of the whole thing?

Krastev: He wanted to show the world that these people are not without guilt. He wanted to share responsibility. And I learned something else as well: that the Russian elite was perhaps taken by surprise to an even greater degree than we were in the West. And I think that the American government’s radical approach of making its intelligence information public helped to destroy Putin’s narrative.

DER SPIEGEL: What narrative?

Krastev: That Russia is a victim. You can criticize the Ukrainian government and reject the West, but when you say that Zelenskyy is a Nazi, that’s not just absurd, it destroys the world’s post-World War II intellectual and moral foundation. One of the most important rules is that you’re not allowed to trivialize Nazism. And he also violated another important post-Cold War rule: Don’t talk about nuclear weapons. The weapons are there, they always have been. We know that Russia has them. We know that the U.S. has them. But in the last 30 years, politicians have agreed not to discuss them, much less threaten to use them. On the third day of the war, as the invasion was stumbling, that’s exactly what Putin started to do. And warning that Ukraine could acquire and use them. That is brutal, and it’s also a bit dumb: If you are hoping for appeasement from the West, you should present a story that people will believe. But there isn’t one.

DER SPIEGEL: Is Putin so isolated that he could simply push the nuclear button on his own?

Krastev: His isolation could lead him to do anything. On the other hand, the situation is so challenging that he could pursue Nixon’s madman strategy.

DER SPIEGEL: For a time during the Vietnam War, U.S. President Richard Nixon allegedly pursued a strategy of trying to seem so irrational and angry that he would even use nuclear weapons, all in an attempt to force North Vietnam to surrender. As we know, the tactic didn’t work. On the other hand, Nixon may well have been a bit off – depression, insomnia, alcohol.

Krastev: I don’t know if Putin would ever deploy nuclear weapons. I listened to U.S. General David Petraeus at the Munich Security Conference, a man who has led several invasions. I know how it’s done, he said. Military leaders are only interested in capacities. Even if it’s not an approach I agree with, it’s a pretty rational way of thinking. Petraeus said that Putin had all the capacities necessary for an invasion, which is why the likelihood was significant that he would go through with it. Fiona Hill, who wrote a great book about Putin, recently said in an interview: Putin will do what he says he is going to do. That, too, is one of Putin’s messages in the video with the Russian Security Council: Does anyone seriously believe that these people will stop me? People, by the way, who are certainly not suspected of harboring sympathies for the West, just that they think that there might be better ways to handle Ukraine than destroying it and killing Zelenskyy.

DER SPIEGEL: Analysts believe Putin is surprised that his plans didn’t work out as he thought they would.

Krastev: Because the Ukrainians are defending themselves and Zelenskyy stayed in Kyiv. Putin must realize that simply killing Zelenskyy won’t bring things to an end. Normal Ukrainians way out in the countryside are confronting Russian soldiers and shouting: Go back! What are you doing here? The soldiers don’t have answers. The sanctions will also have surprised him. Putin’s image of the West is something like a caricature. It’s as if the condition of the West reminds him of the final days of the Soviet Union. It happened to us, now it’s their turn. They are collapsing. Putin thought that Europe would try to dodge difficult decisions. The sanctions changed everything. They change the daily lives of the Russian middle class. They used to just be observers, but now they can feel the effects of Putin’s politics firsthand.

DER SPIEGEL: The Russian middle class could radicalize, either against or in favor of Putin.

Krastev: During the pandemic, I traveled quite a bit. There is nothing more depressing than these empty airports. Now, the war is bringing people into the streets. Ukrainians, who are fleeing. Europeans, who are demonstrating. And there is one video from Moscow that shows a huge crowd of people in front of IKEA, taken on the last day before it closed. They all wanted to go shopping one last time. Shopping at IKEA is part of their lifestyle, something that distracts them from the authoritarian reality just as do trips to Germany, ski vacations in Kitzbühel and summers spent on the Mediterranean.

DER SPIEGEL: They were part of the global middle class. They wanted to live nice lives and travel like everybody else.

Krastev: And suddenly, it’s like an island separating from the mainland and sinking into the ocean. And nobody knows if there is a way back. The changes they are experiencing are not trivial. They know that it will take a long time, if at all. That is the difference between the pandemic and the war. There were justified hopes that once the pandemic came to an end, the old normal would return. But after this war, there will be a realization that there is no old normal. And the Russians? They will hardly be able to say that it wasn’t that bad and that nothing tragic happened. There could be a cease-fire or maybe even a peace treaty, but will the West remove its sanctions? Will the people of Europe forget that the pharmacies here in Vienna were sold out of iodine for several days? Our world has changed. We used to be in a postwar world, now we are in a prewar world. That is the change, and it is taking place in people’s heads.

DER SPIEGEL: Should the Ukrainians be fighting a war that they cannot win?

Krastev: There is a Harvard study about the results of asymmetric wars. At the end of the 19th century, the stronger military power almost always won. In the second half of the 20th century, the militarily weaker side won in 55 percent of the wars. Did anyone think that Afghanistan could fend off the U.S.? I don’t think the Ukrainians can hold out in the long run, but I also think that a long-term occupation of Ukraine is impossible – because of the uprisings that are to be expected and also because of the economic costs of such an occupation. That is the terrible paradox of this war for Putin: The only thing that the world has learned in the past weeks is that Russians and Ukrainians are not a single people. In a certain sense, Ukrainians are even prepared to let their own state founder as a way of gaining an identity.

DER SPIEGEL: That sounds a bit romantic.

Krastev: It is a situation like in the 19th century. Russia as a classic imperial power. And Ukraine in an anti-colonialist fight against it. And that is, of course, a romantic constellation. Again, if you follow the Russian narrative for the war, there are no Ukrainians because they are actually Russians, while the real enemies are the Nazis and the Americans. So there are only Russians and anti-Russians.

"The most painful question one can ask of an authoritarian leader: Does he know what he is doing? Is he still in his right mind?"

DER SPIEGEL: In your research, you have long focused on the relationship between politics and demography. Does that play a role here?

Krastev: Absolutely. Putin has a certain demographic fixation. Since the publication of his essay last summer, he has said on several occasions that had there been no revolution and had the Soviet Union not collapsed, Russia would today have a population of 500 million. He believes that Russia needs the men and women of Ukraine to survive in the new world. On top of that, the pandemic is thought to have caused 1 million deaths in Russia and the country’s birthrate has dropped. Russia is a vast territory that is continuing to depopulate. A large number of labor migrants, most of them from Central Asia, are arriving, to be sure, but the Slavic core of the country is shrinking, which is why Belarus and Ukraine offer the promise of a kind of demographic consolidation. It’s not about the territory of Ukraine, but about the Ukrainian people.

DER SPIEGEL: Putin thinks in ethnic terms?

Krastev: Putin believes that Russia is its own civilization. Putin began his career as a Soviet agent. He wasn’t a nationalist in the classical sense. It is said that he has been strongly influenced by the memoirs of General Anton Denikin, one of the leading officers in the White Army, which was defeated by the Bolsheviks in the civil war of the 1920s. In the speech in which he declared war on Ukraine, Putin also attacked Russia’s Soviet legacy for the first time. Lenin, he says, was the one who created Ukraine. It was the speech of a nationalist, of an anti-Bolshevik.

DER SPIEGEL: How will it be possible to transform this conflict from a hot war into a cold war.

Krastev: Ultimately, through exhaustion on both sides. Unfortunately, neither side currently stands to benefit from a resolution. If Putin yields, it’s over for him. So, he has to escalate in order to force the Ukrainians to capitulate. For the Ukrainians, neutrality and renouncing NATO membership would be a possibility. But the problem is, the only person capable of signing such a deal is Zelenskyy, because he is the only legitimate leader of Ukraine, the only one who has fought against Putin. But Zelenskyy is precisely the person that would never sign such an agreement. And even if the Ukrainians were to accept Moscow’s conditions, Western sanctions would also have to be lifted, and that is likely to be difficult.

DER SPIEGEL: Is the West really as tough as they are currently acting?

Krastev: The decisions taken are more severe that even the West itself would ever have imagined. Political leaders were able to make those decisions because they have the backing of the voters. But how long will that continue? There is a certain momentum at the moment, and not just in Poland and the Czech Republic, but also in faraway Italy and Spain. Putin very clearly started something. There was that one tweet: On a single day, Putin managed to put an end to Swedish neutrality and German pacifism.

DER SPIEGEL: What exactly did Putin trigger in the West?

Krastev: Solidarity. And resilience.

DER SPIEGEL: Yet Europe is continuing to import  oil and natural gas from Russia.

Krastev: Oil will soon be sanctioned. And gas? The West could stop it. Putin could stop it. Ukraine could blow up the pipeline. Whatever happens, and this is why it’s all so interesting: There is no path back to the way things were. Resilience means nothing more than: You have no other choice. Things are the way they are. And we don’t know where it will lead us.

"People die. That also applies to Putin."

DER SPIEGEL: The decisions made by Europe could have been largely driven by fear. Such decisions aren’t generally the correct ones, are they?

Krastev: Of course fear plays a role. There are two types of threats: One comes from people, the other from nature. Putin’s power to mobilize is greater than that of climate change.

DER SPIEGEL: Because it is easier to identify the enemy.

Krastev: This crisis has destroyed a couple of stereotypes. The Germans have slaughtered two sacred cows. Nord Stream 2 as a symbol of German mercantilism, and pacifism as a symbol of German moralism. Even stereotypes about Eastern Europe have disappeared. Suddenly, the unempathetic East is bending over backwards to take in refugees. And all that is happening because there is an identifiable enemy. The Polish government hasn’t suddenly become more democratic in the last two weeks, but it did realize that the true threat to its sovereignty isn’t coming from Brussels, but from Moscow.

DER SPIEGEL: And what about the United States?

Krastev: I think the strong sanctions from the U.S. have less to do with saving Ukraine. America is more strategic than it is emotional. By imposing the sanctions, they want to save Taiwan by showing China the price of an intervention.

DER SPIEGEL: How will Putin end? The Russians aren’t known for being particularly rebellious.

Krastev: People die. That also applies to Putin. The changes will be so significant that the regime will have to change in order to survive, just as will happen in Europe as well. Our economy will change, as will our understanding of freedom and democracy. Already, the media has changed in order to fight the disinformation coming out of Russia. That will have consequences.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you mean?

Krastev: We are closing down Russia Today and other outlets. We will become less tolerant.

DER SPIEGEL: We are betraying the freedom of opinion?

Krastev: Perhaps. Because of the pandemic and this war, the state again plays a larger role. In the pandemic, it was the welfare state that cared for its citizens and kept them alive. In this war, it is the security state that doesn’t just protect its citizens, but could also demand something from them: Namely, the readiness to make sacrifices. A friend of mine works at one of the biggest business schools. I told him: Everything you are teaching is useless. Just as useless as teaching socialism studies was in 1990. The world of globalization and free trade, in which the economy was only interested in bottom lines and not in politics, will be over. We don’t know what will happen in Russia after Putin, or in Europe, which currently finds itself in a romantic phase. But we shouldn’t make the same mistakes as in 1989. Back then, we thought the East would change dramatically, but not the West. Now, Russia is going to change dramatically. But so will we.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Krastev, we thank you for this interview.