Interview with Michael Romancov: Russian foreign policy in Europe

  • Vojtěch Andrš
  • 29.8.2016 22:29

Why Russia annexed the Crimea? When will sanctions against Russia end? Are we witnessing a new "Cold War"? These are the questions answered by the political scientist Michael Romancov in the second part of the interview about Russia nowadays.

What reasons had Russia to annex Crimea and to support separatists in the Eastern Ukraine?

I think those reasons are internal. In Ukraine, a post-Soviet governance model collapsed before the events in Crimea. With the exception of the Baltic countries, all twelve remaining post-Soviet states were governed in a similar way. Two exceptions – that not very successfully tried to break free of it – were Ukraine and Georgia. It is no coincidence that both these countries became targets of Russian aggression precisely because the legitimacy of the post-Soviet rulers was questioned there. All regimes in post-Soviet countries are oligarchized and corrupted. In every one of them we can see a strong leading figure. Ukraine is the most important state in the post-Soviet space after the Russian Federation, so when Putin saw the collapse of the former Soviet type of government, he got afraid and reacted by sending troops there.

Are there any other reasons besides the fact that President Putin feared that Ukraine would set a bad example?

In retrospect, there was an effort to find other excuses. To justify it by impending genocide of Russian-speaking population, there was also a story about the expansion of NATO. Just to remind you: what Ukraine signed was the association agreement with the European Union, not with NATO. But none of the excuses Moscow came up with had rational basis that could be verified in some way. Moscow claimed it prevented something that in my opinion was not on the agenda. Of course it is an argument that is largely indisputable. Most of all it reminds me of the North Korea's arguments regime that started the Korean War in 1950. At that time, the North Koreans claimed they started a war because they knew that the South Korea would attack soon. That is indisputable. By "preventing" some development they prevented any scenario in which the event could happen.

Do you think that the annexation was supposed to increase domestic popularity?

Immediately after the annexation Putin's popularity went up dramatically, but he was popular regardless of the annexation. He did not need to increase his popularity at the moment. At that time, the Sochi Olympics, where the Russians ranked first in the overall medal count, were ending. I am convinced that it was a prepared triumph that Putin planned to offer to domestic audience. Until then, Russia has invested an enormous amount of energy and strength to present itself to the world as a modern, successful and smiling country. That was the plan. Then the annexation of the Crimea and the war in the eastern Ukraine came out of the blue, for both domestic and foreign observers. I am convinced that it was an improvisation that came after what happened in the second most important post-Soviet state. This means a break with the post-Soviet way of governance.

Successful Olympics and achievements of Russian sportsmen are, according to you, major source of popularity then?

Yes, definitely. When we look at what has begun to happen in Russia since Putin's second term of office, we find that the regime decided to build its PR on the hosting of major sports and political events that would attract the world's attention. That was the case of, for instance, the G20 summit in St. Petersburg or the APEC summit in Vladivostok in 2012. Then it was the Olympic Games and the Universiade in Kazan. The highlight is to be organizing the FIFA World Cup in 2018. All of these events should have brought Russia into the center of media attention and present its president as a recognized, popular and energetic leader of world politics.

Do you think that Crimea will ever be returned to Ukraine?

So far there is no state in the whole world community that would recognize the Russian annexation of the Crimea. The Russians were very offended when the representatives of Ukraine were presented at the start of the Olympic Games in Brazil, Crimea was marked as a part of Ukraine. De jure Crimea is part of Ukraine but de facto Crimea is a part of the Russian Federation. This situation can last for decades. A similar case occured when the Soviet Union first in 1940 and then in 1944 occupied the Baltic states. And they were from 1944 to 1991 an integral part of the Soviet Union. There were still countries in the world system, such as the US, that never legally recognized the annexation of the Baltic countries. The Americans could not do anything about the reality, but the international system has its significance. In the short term, it does not seem that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine or that Crimea should become an independent Crimean Republic "spit out" by the Russian Federation. I cannot even imagine that, but the fact that the act of Russian aggression will not be recognized can take a very long time. We'll see in 40, 50, 60 years. Of course it sounds terrible, but that is a reality, it does not mean that it must be accepted. And acceptance or non-acceptance of some step by the international community is important.

Do you think the situation could similarly escalate in other problematic regions of the post-Soviet space, such as in Transnistria?

Transnistria has probably similar potential because it has Ukraine on one side and Moldova on the other, that do not have as strong institutional coverage as has e.g. the Baltics. However the question is, what would Russia gain and lose. Crimea itself meant huge problems and Transnistria would only multiply them. Moreover, Transnistria is being used by organized crime throughout Europe for various financial or other transactions. In this regard, it is useful territory and Russians themselves take advantage of Transnistria. Other potentially vulnerable areas are Transcaucasia and Central Asia. There is a very complicated socio-economic, demographic and security situation. And as time will go by, the situation will be getting worse.

You mean Kazakhstan for instance?

Kazakhstan is one example, but especially those countries that are in the south of Kazakhstan, that are bordering for example Afghanistan. These are countries that have socio-economic problems now and many people from these countries go to work in Russia. And as Russia gets into ever larger economic problems, it also impacts workers, both legal and illegal, from these former Soviet republics who until now earned their living in a relatively decent way. And by sending money home they were helping the Central Asian economies. There may be a concatenation of problems and it is difficult to predict how bad it can get.

Can you think of some scenarios?

Central Asia is a region where there is an intense competition between Russia and China. China is at least economically dominating those countries, if not economically controlling them. Russia has nothing to outweigh China's economic influence. Russians establish themselves in the region by supporting these countries in terms of security. But the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, which are immediately adjacent areas of the region (in the case of Syria, indirectly), might mean that the security situation will worsen. The question is what capacities will Russia be able to afford to send to calm the security situation. The situation can very quickly lead to bloody incidents that could challenge Russia's role as a guarantor of security in the eyes of these five republics. If these countries were economically linked to China and managed to take care of their security, it could become a huge problem for Russia.

How real is the conflict among the EU countries regarding joint action against Russia in the matter of sanctions? Some states, such as Hungary and Greece, have been having relatively friendly relations with Russia recently.

The European Union is a community of twenty-eight states that are not the same. Whenever there will be elections in any European country, Russia will have a chance to influence the situation in its favor. There countries that aspire to join the European Union. For example Serbiawhere Russia has a strong position. The European Union has to constantly renew a way to find consensus on all important attributes of its behavior, including foreign policy conduct towards Russia. So far, the game turns out well for the Union because from the moment the sanctions were announced, in spite of all the rhetoric, in spite of all the doubts, in spite of all the problems, the sanctions last. Every six-month cycle Russia claims that those sanctions will end, but it has not occurred yet. However, I doubt that the sanctions in their current form are sustainable indefinitely, but it will depend on how the Russian regime will behave. Whether Russia will use physical force in the post-Soviet space. How will the political situation in Russia develop if the regime used force against the protesters. These are all things that we do not know whether they will happen or not. Is it possible that something like this will happen, and if it occurs, it will probably retroactively affect the stances of European countries on this sanctions regime.

When do you think the sanctions will end if there is no other special reason to extend them?

The instigator of Russia's policies, that have been condemned, is Vladimir Putin. As long as Vladimir Putin rules and as long as he rules the way he does, there is a reason for sanctions to remain. The reassessment of the sanction mechanism could occur if there was a dramatic change in the political direction of Russia. Or if someone new appeared if Putin resigned, died or lost the election. Putin losing the elections is unlikely, his resignation is imaginable and his death is certain, only we do not know when.

Could we call the current deterioration of relations between NATO and Russia a new "cold war"?

From the media's point of view, it is a very attractive slogan. But the Cold War represented a very broad competition of two blocks that existed then. The Cold War had an economic, ideological and military security dimension. Russia has no ideology that could compete with ours. As for the Russian economy, it is a dwarf compared with the economies of the European Union or the United States. Moreover, not all economic relations were frozen by the sanction regime. So, it does not have this dimension, even though Russia is trying to present it. There are constant allegations that Russia and China attack on the dollar or on the regime of the World Trade Organization etc. So really there is only military security competition. If the Soviet Union was able to compete, if not globally, then in many places of the world, with the power of the United States and their allies, Russia is capable of such a thing only in Europe and let's say currently in Syria. In this regard, the comparison with the Cold War does not fit. On the other hand, in the narrow context of military-security in Europe, the use of that term is in place.

Do you think that the ideological struggle disappeared completely?

Russia has no ideology that it would be able to reasonably present to the world, or to the post-Soviet space. The exception is the so-called sovereign democracy ideology. But even by the fact that there is the word "democracy" in the "sovereign democracy" Russia tries to show that it is not so different from us. So Russia does not currently have a strong ideological concept like Marxism-Leninism.

Is there any effort to create such an ideology?

Apparently there is such an effort, but it does not appear that it would be anything other than the concept of sovereign democracy. Putin in his Valdai speech in 2013 Russia declared Russia the guardian of conservative values. But conservative values, at least as Russia understands them, exist all around the world.

Do you think that the start of the current "cold war", if we can call it as such, is influenced by the fact that the current Russian president spent much of his life during the original Cold War?

Definitely, but it's not only the president of Russia, there are also his European counterparts who grew up in a time when the Cold War was an everyday reality. For that matter, even the journalists who write about it grew up in that time. So the term was used because they were all accustomed to it, under that term everyone can imagine the rivalry between the USSR and its opponents, mainly led by the United States. Otherwise, there is no reason to use the term.

What I had more in mind is whether the tendency to compete with the West carries on from the Soviet-era, whether it continues the previous tradition.

Yes, but the tradition of defining oneself against the West, or defining oneself against all the neighbors, is something that is significant for Russia in the long term. It is something that is in the Russian "genetic code" from the moment when Russia crossed the border of Old Russia and began to conquer new territory. Which means it dates to the 16th century.

About author: Vojtěch Andrš

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