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Mark Galeotti: Putin’s Goal to ‘Make Russia Great Again’

Mark Galeotti, Senior Researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague. spoke on the new U.S. administration, Ukraine, Georgia and the internal and external politics of the Russian Federation to Mark Galeotti, Professor and Senior Researcher at the Prague-based Institute of International Relations and head of its Centre for European Security.
Mark Galeotti has been researching Russian history and security issues since the late 1980s. He has a PHD in Government (Politics) from the London School of Economics and has published widely, with 14 authored and edited books (his most recent, Spetsnaz: Russia’s Special Forces, came out in 2015) and numerous articles in the academic, professional and popular press.

The present U.S. administration includes representatives of two distinct foreign policy trends. One is the traditional American and, especially, Republican foreign policy of vigorous defense of the existing world order. The other trend, exemplified by Steve Bannon, is neo-isolationist and tends to be sympathetic to Putin’s Russia. These two visions contradict each other on too many issues to cohabitate harmoniously. In your opinion, which will in the end succeed in defining the Trump presidency?

Honestly, I feel that in the final analysis the very incoherence – and amateurism – of the Trump presidency will ultimately ensure that it loses its capacity to force change onto the American foreign policy agenda. The natural tendencies of the system, which are moderately isolationist, will probably assert themselves, and while there will be a withdrawal from Obama’s avowedly more interventionist approach, there will be no great shift. This is in some ways the irony: as Congress pushes forward new sanctions on Russia, for example, and explicitly adds conditions preventing Trump from touching them, the very outspoken Russophilia – or rather Putinophilia – of the White House has actually managed to prevent it from actively working on any kind of serious rapprochement with the Kremlin.

During the last decade Russia has been periodically making bold steps that resulted in crises. Where in the Russian neighborhood do you see the highest risk of the next decisive Russian action – Ukraine, South Caucasus, or perhaps another area such as the Baltic?

There is a risk of some new adventure in Ukraine, more out of miscalculation than Machiavellianism. Kyiv has made great steps in building up its military – if only it had been successful in other aspects of its reform agenda – and so while Russia could make advances, this would be a bloody process. I do not get the sense that Moscow is seriously thinking in these terms. That said, Ukraine is the most likely flashpoint. Moscow is happy to play Azerbaijan and Armenia off against each other, but this works best when there is some kind of equilibrium, while its small-scale harassment in Georgia represents a political rather than military challenge. And there is even less, near enough zero chance of any adventure in the Baltic region. Moscow has very little to gain, especially as neither Sweden nor Finland seem ready to join NATO, and everything to lose. There is no real constituency for intervention even among the ethnic Russians of the Baltic states, and Moscow has a clear understanding that NATO is vastly more powerful than Russia. 

NATO is now doing much more to secure its frontier in the Eastern Europe than it used to do few years ago. Do you think that these efforts are sufficient at the present stage, or you would like to see more robust preparations for the possible new aggressive Russian moves?

I do not believe there is any serious military threat from Russia, especially now that NATO has implemented Enhanced Forward Presence, basing multinational units close to the eastern border, and its Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. NATO is simply far more powerful than Russia, and not only in military terms, and Moscow is well aware of this.

Yet precisely as a result, the Russians have shifted the battlefield into the realms of politics, launching an aggressive campaign of espionage, disinformation and subversion. Much more needs to be done to resist and deter this non-kinetic “political war,” but that is not really NATO’s job. It cannot parachute forensic accountants into a country to help fight Russian corruption, or send tanks against pro-Russian commentators! Instead, this is an area in which national governments need to be smarter, more serious, and more willing to spend money to address. It could also be an area in which the European Union could – and should – be far more active. NATO is a conventional warfighting alliance; the EU can complement it in Europe by addressing the “political war.

Russia’s present national borders are closer to those at around year 1700 than to the Russian borders in any other historical period. Do you think that Russia’s present attempt to re-expand from these frontiers is more or less inevitable, or you believe that it is a feature of the particular political regime that now sits in Moscow?

I do not actually see – with the exception of Crimea, that pretty much every Russian considers historically “theirs” – Moscow having had any particular territorial ambitions, let alone having any in the future. Donbas, South Ossetia, and the like were and are instruments for asserting regional political hegemony, not prizes to be assimilated. After all, these all represents drains, not gains for the federal treasury. Even in those few areas where there are still substantial culturally and linguistically Russian populations, such as northern Kazakhstan, there is no enthusiasm for expansion.

Putin’s goals are rather to “make Russia great again,” to assert its position as a great power. He has a very nineteenth-century notion of what that means: a voice in the most important discussions, whether or not they directly affect Russia; absolute independence from any outside controls (such as the UN or international law); and a sphere of influence. That last determines his policy towards the post-Soviet states (with the exception of the Baltics, which I think he accepts as “lost”). As far as he is concerned, those nations once part of the USSR should accept that they are part of Russia’s sphere, and certainly not seek closer ties with the West. For Ukraine and Georgia, and to a much lesser degree the other states, this helps explain Moscow’s determination to establish ways of bringing pressure to bear on neighboring countries when he wants to warn or punish them.

The material conditions for a large portion of the population within Russia have deteriorated since 2014. The Kremlin, however, retains a firm grip on power. How would you assess the resilience of the present Russian regime in the face of an apparently growing dissent in the society?

Putin’s regime is a kleptocratic authoritarianism – but it is not entirely stupid. It understands the logics of power and control, and has therefore ensured not only that it still has a formidable internal security apparatus but above all that it extinguishes any hope of change. If you do not believe that change is possible, why put yourself in harm’s way to protest? Dissent is growing, visible both in Alexei Navalny’s anti-Kremlin movement but also myriad local protests driven by economic, ecological and similar practical concerns. But so long as an authoritarian state maintains its will and its unity, it can marginalize people power, so we are talking about a slow burn process. When Putin dies, steps down or otherwise leaves the Kremlin, it will be interesting to see how Russian society responds.

What do you make of the possible futures of the regime in Chechnya – a self-governing absolute principality with considerable armed forces of its own? More specifically, if at some point Russia does democratize, what would be the chances of the new Russian government to avoid the choice between Chechnya’s secession and war?

Chechnya’s warlord-leader Ramzan Kadyrov rules by a mix of terror and corruption, and so long as he or someone like him is in power in Grozny, then it cannot be brought back into Moscow’s genuine control. This is doubly so if Moscow has democratized, as Kadyrov and his thieves and murderers would have everything to fear. Bringing Chechnya back under Russian control would, unless things change dramatically inside that country, require another bloody war, and no one in Moscow has the stomach for that. On the other hand, if and when Moscow stops the current massive subsidies to Chechnya – which essentially means to Kadyrov and his cronies – then the system there may collapse, or Kadyrov may feel forced to start destabilizing the rest of the North Caucasus precisely to try and force Moscow to resume the payments: extortion as policy. In short, it is hard to see any good options for Chechnya.

The ‘mere’ occupation of the two Georgian provinces does not appear to be Russia’s end state in Georgia, as its assets are now actively trying to promote the same extremist agenda in Georgia as they do in Europe, while at the same time vehemently attacking all the local pro-Western political forces. In your opinion, what is the Kremlin’s final goal in Georgia?

As I mention above, I see Putin’s goal as essentially a hegemonic one: he wants to ensure that Georgia, like the other post-Soviet states, is forced to accept its “rightful” role as part of Russia’s “sphere of privileged interests” to use Dmitry Medvedev’s phrase. Georgia (like Ukraine) represents a particular challenge, not simply a geopolitical one because of its ambitions to ever-closer relations with the West, but also a normative, values-based one, because unlike so many other states in the region, it has made serious strides towards becoming a genuinely democratic, law-based nation. So, to Putin, Georgia needs to be punished and tamed, and in part that means dividing it, as well as subverting it, so that it loses the unity, coherence and common vision that is driving it.


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