By Mark Narusov
“A government that goes for disinformation of its own population, goes for disinformation abroad, ends up being “disinformed” itself. It’s very difficult for such a regime to be objectively, clearly, fully informed. You become part of the big emotional bubble” — Marie Mendras
It is easy to assert without further elaboration that the threat of Russia’s geopolitical expansion, and in particular its leadership’s employment of subversive means to achieve that goal, has become the most talked-about geopolitical challenge the еransatlantic community faces at the moment. The questions that until recently were closely examined only by a few seasoned experts and interested researchers are now on the minds of most politically minded residents of the political West: Is Vladimir Putin’s Russia a threat? What are its intentions? Is the West-Russia adversity irreversible? It is a testament to the relevance of these issues that over 30 people — a packed audience, by our campus’ standards — decided it worth their time to spend their two hours listening to the Russian foreign policy expert Marie Mendras last Thursday. She was invited to speak by the Sciences GéoPo association, whose efficient advertising and flawless management of the event deserve special recognition.
Mendras began her lecture with a summary of her academic and professional background. Currently a professor at Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs, she has worked for the French government in the capacity of a consultant in the 1990’s and as Director of the Policy Planning Staff in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2010. Mendras’ research has focused on both the external and domestic realms of Russian politics, as well as the “in-between” states, the unfortunate bunch caught between the EU and Russia. In 2012, she published her first book, “Russian Politics: The Paradox of a Weak State”, conveniently available in the library of the Reims campus.
Not following a well-defined outline, Mendras went on to tackle the issues necessary to grasp in order to answer the question posed in the title of the event: “Is confrontation reversible?”. Understandably, much of the discussion centered around the events of the spring of 2014 — the pro-Western Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the beginning of the Russian-assisted takeover of the Donbass region by pro-Kremlin separatists, and the transatlantic response to Russian aggression in the form of sanctions. Mendras described these events as the “watershed” moment in Russia-West relations, having served as a “wake-up call” in many European capitals. To comprehensively explain why the Russian government decided to act as decisively and aggressively as it did, the expert went on to examine the recent history of Russian-Ukrainian relations, as well as the basic worldview that has become the framework within which the Russian ruling elite views its relations with the outside world.
On December 1, 1991, the Ukrainian people made it perfectly clear that they’d had enough of Moscow’s control of their country and overwhelmingly voted in favor of the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine. The overall vote for the declaration was 92%, with no region voting below 80% except for Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, 54% and 57% respectively. As Mendras herself admits, in subsequent decades Ukrainian public opinion was volatile on the question of the country’s desirable geopolitical orientation, but the fact remains that Ukrainians decided that their country’s future should be that of an independent state, not of a Russian province.
The Russian leadership, however, never really reconciled itself with the fact that Ukrainians want to be independent of their grip. In their mind, the Russian state has legitimate grounds to be the hegemon of the post-Soviet space, bar the Baltic states, and as such has the right to act, through military means if necessary, when the Russian control of its sphere of influence is endangered by pro-Western movements or perceived external interference. It is because of this sense of possessiveness towards what the Russian elite calls the “near abroad” that the wave of the so-called “color revolutions”, democratic and pro-Western in orientation, in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-2005 aroused so much indignation in the Kremlin. As Mendras recalls from a meeting she had with Vladimir Putin in the aftermath of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004 that brought the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko to power, the Russian president was noticeably, genuinely angry at the developments in the neighboring country.
Perhaps the only significant point of analysis I found objectionable during the whole lecture was Mendras’ views on the primary cause of Putin’s outrage at the color revolutions. According to the expert, Russia’s leadership was anxious “not so much because Vladimir Putin was afraid of a similar revolution in Russia”, but rather due to the prospect of Ukraine’s falling out of Russia’s sphere of influence. Without a doubt, the latter reason played a role, but there is undeniable evidence to suggest that it is precisely the domino effect that caused the Kremlin’s outrage. As the renowned journalist Mikhail Zygar illustrates in his book “All the Kremlin’s Men”, based on mostly anonymous interviews with Russian officials, much of the behavior of Putin’s regime after the Orange Revolution can only be explained as a preemption of a “color revolution” that would depose the Russian government. Operating (Ch. 5) under the assumption that the West instigated the uprising in Ukraine, the Kremlin acted to secure itself from Western interference. Western-based NGOs like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Doctors Without Borders, viewed by Moscow as serving Western geopolitical interests, “had been forced to temporarily suspend their activities” (Ch. 6). It is in the aftermath of the color revolutions that the concept of “sovereign democracy” had been invented by the former gray cardinal of the Kremlin, Vladislav Surkov, justifying measures to curtail civil liberties by the perceived Western threat to Russian statehood. Zygar quotes Gleb Pavlovsky, at the time a political technologist working with the government, as remembering that “the Kremlin thought that Bush would soon set his sights on Russia”, particularly after his second inaugural address that emphasized his goals of promoting democracy in unfree states. My criticism of Mendras on this point may seem excessively meticulous, but the implications of this argument are important. A statesman is ready to go farther and take more risks if he believes that the issue at hand threatens the very survival of his state, rather than if it is a question of mere geopolitical advantage.
Unfortunately for Ukraine and fortunately for Putin, the Yushchenko presidency did not bring about the promised anti-corruption reforms and the rule of law in Ukraine. He was voted out of office in favor of the more pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych in 2010. In an inevitable failure to balance between satisfying the pro-Western inclinations of his population and appeasing the Russian president, Yanukovych reneged on his promise to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, thus triggering the second Orange Revolution, the Euromaidan, that succeeded in overthrowing the government in early 2014. It is in response to this uprising that the Kremlin decided to act against the new Ukrainian authorities. By mid-March, Crimea was officially under Russian occupation, and the instigation of separatist rebellions across Eastern Ukraine was well under way. The West delivered a united response in the form of coordinated sanctions by the United States, the European Union and a few other states. According to Mendras, both the Western governments and the Russian regime were surprised at each other’s reaction. The former had been too naive and complacent vis-a-vis Putin to expect him to act so assertively, a failure of perception she further explained later on, whereas the Russian state had no reason to expect a solid Western response after years of complacency in the face of Putin’s aggression.
This latter point deserves special attention. One should remember, for example, that there were no serious repercussions faced by Putin’s regime after its assault on Georgia in August of 2008, for reasons closely resembling those that led it to invade Ukraine in 2014. In fact, the Obama administration de facto rewarded the Russian government for its assertiveness by launching the now infamous “reset”. The lesson the Kremlin learned from this episode could have easily been that more aggression on its part leads to more concessions from the West. Putin could be forgiven for not believing in the credibility of Western threats, particularly in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s non-enforcement of his red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013. In fact, Russian officials, along with their Chinese and Iranian counterparts were overheard “discussing how weak the U.S. now looked on the international stage” in the aftermath of the incident. To simplify the matter just slightly, the whole crisis can be explained as a failure of deterrence.
As has already been mentioned, unlike some former officials employed by Western governments before the watershed spring of 2014 who feel the need to justify past American and European engagement with an aggressive Russian government, Mendras was unabashedly critical about the West’s naivieté with respect to the intentions of Putin’s Russia. As she summarized it, Western legitimate grievances were forgotten for the false hope that maybe both sides can sit down and work out a mutually beneficial security arrangement.
Mendras juxtaposed the credulity of the governments with the dismal but vindicated analysis of academics and journalists that warned about the threat Russia poses to its neighborhood since at least 2004. “That was a major mistake — lack of anticipation. We [the specialists] all knew that the situation was only worsening in all [neighboring] republics, that Moscow wasn’t bringing anything of value”. Western states “out of convenience and some laziness were contented to let Moscow deal with those in-between countries”. To drive the point home, she somewhat shockingly confided that in 2010, the Quai d’Orsay was actually relieved to receive the news about the victory of Viktor Yanukovych in the Ukrainian presidential elections. “[Yanukovych is a] terrible guy but he’s gonna get along with Putin and we’re not gonna have to really get involved too much”, she described the sentiment. The more one looks into the actual content of Western Russia policy, the more one has to recognize exactly how paranoid and fantastically insecure the Kremlin’s inhabitants have to be to see themselves as targets of a well-coordinated Western regime change plot.
While criticizing the past policies of Western governments, however, Mendras also warned against the pendulum’s swing in another direction — the hysteria about the apparently all-powerful Russia. A good part of her talk focused on the fact that the Russian regime, authoritarian, corrupt and inefficient as it is, cannot survive for long, that it is almost inherently unstable. As Hegelians would put it, the Russian system of government is full of internal contradictions that will, sooner or later, bring it down. As Mendras elaborated, even though Putin and his entourage had the fortune to preside over a country whose rise in revenues from energy exports coincided with their coming to power, thus creating the illusion that it was they who brought the economic prosperity, a considerable number of Russians, especially the young generation, find it intolerable to live under a system as corrupt, authoritarian and exploitative as that built by Putin and his clique. Raised in a much less closed society than their parents and having access to alternative media sources, the youth tend to have more of a capacity and will to question and challenge the existing order.
Besides, even though it may seem like the Russian economy, threatened since 2014 with lower oil prices and Western sanctions, may be handling the situation relatively well, quite a few problems persist. Lack of infrastructure development and thorough rule-of-law-oriented economic reforms mean that the number of those with economic grievances against the regime is going to only rise. As Mendras pointed out, stagnation also means that the “collective pie” the ruling class thrives upon is shrinking, and hence intra-elite conflict and divisions are set to intensify. Mendras argues that faced with these mounting problems, the Putin regime has entered “survival mode”.
Discussing the “often overlooked” considerable costs of Putin’s confrontation with the West, Mendras pointed to four self-inflicted wounds. First, Russia has, in the long term, lost the Ukrainian society. The damage inflicted by the Russian state to the neighboring country in the form of subversion, cyber attacks, smear campaigns and war have proven to be not only fundamentally immoral, but also counter-productive even examined according to the Kremlin’s own goal of keeping Ukraine in its geopolitical orbit. Second, Putin’s Russia crippled its own economy. The West’s sanctions pushed Russia into even more retrenchment and served as one of the reasons for the Russian economic crisis, from which it has not yet fully recovered. Third, Russia harmed its own international status. It is no longer part of the G7 and was suspended from the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly. Continuing aggression has also harmed its standing in the UN. Finally, by employing such drastic coercive measures in its war on Ukraine, Putin’s Russia has damaged its appeal as a partner in the post-Soviet region.
Even though it does not directly concern the topic of the lecture, it would be criminal on my part to not also give some publicity to Mendras’ opinion on Alexey Navalny, the foremost opposition figure in Russia. While he enjoys the support of most liberal-minded Russians, a few still remain sceptical, largely because of the more nationalist views he had espoused earlier in life. For example, in 2008 he criticized the Russian government’s handling of the war with Georgia, on the grounds that the Russian military did not go far enough. In response to a question about the oppositionist, Mendras spoke of the long conversation with Navalny where he asked her for advice — a rarity among Russian prominent figures, according to the expert. He reportedly took a genuine interest in how politics work in the free West and was keen on understanding the French electoral system. This is as good indicator as any that Navalny has truly reformed as a thinker. Mendras described Alexey as a “remarkable individual — bright, honest, direct, extremely brave”.
In conclusion of her lecture, Mendras offered her answer to the question posed in the title of the event. As she confessed, “what strikes me when I talk to people that have authority on those issues in Russia, in Ukraine, in Europe, in Washington … at the end of the conversation, the conclusion is always the same: as long as Putin is in power and the same people around him, we don’t see … how a [rapprochement] can happen”. According to her, there is a profound breakdown of trust between Western and Russian governments, aggravated by subversive measures used by the latter to influence the outcomes of democratic elections. Mendras decried the fact that there was “no opening from Moscow” when it comes to finding a settlement in Eastern Ukraine and spoke of the diverging perceptions of the world within the governments of Russia and the West that make it so difficult for the two sides to even begin to construct a meaningful rapprochement.
Mendras was met with about a dozen of questions from engaged members of the audience during the Q&A session. Mostly questions, that is. One student decided to make a minute-long remark on the West’s hypocrisy revealed in its policy towards Russia and asserted that the principal reason behind the EU’s support for the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution was the quest for access to new markets, particularly in the needs of Germany. Having slightly lost her composure, Mendras responded with “don’t you listen to Russia Today a bit too often?” and, referring to the student’s country of origin, “I’ve often been in Spain, and I know that the perception is a bit different”. Though perhaps improper, Mendras’ tone is understandable. The remarkable distance from reality that Russian propaganda enjoys, coupled with the fact that it is regarded as credible by scores of people in the country and elsewhere, can profoundly annoy even the most restrained personality.
Even though two students that I spoke to after the talk described it as too one-sided and biased, I found it perfectly reasonable and sober. In some disputes, the truth simply resides on one side. When analyzing Russia-West relations, Mendras does not run away from moral clarity, a trait undervalued in a Europe impaired by relativism and self-doubt.