“Let’s stop to judge the Russians on the basis of our own criteria”

Interview with Dr Hélène Carrère d’Encausse*, “Secrétaire perpétuel” at the top of the “Académie française”

Le Figaro: President Hollande and the German Chancellor meet President Poroshenko in Kiev and President Putin in Moscow. What is to be expected from these meetings?

Hélène Carrère d’Encausse: François Hollande and Angela Merkel, have taken the only reasonable path, seeking a political solution, avoiding the return to a climate of the Cold War in Europe. They do it now, when the question of arms supplies to Ukraine has come up, a development which would be extremely dangerous and counterproductive. We have seen the consequences of arms sales in the Syria conflict and the Libyan intervention, an uncontrollable distribution of weapons to all camps. Arms sales, above all from NATO countries can only worsen relations with Russia. The Minsk Agreement may be reinstated as a basis for the search for a compromise. It provides for the release of all prisoners of war and hostages. For the separatists, lacking the federal status, it is to open the way to a “special status” for the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, where a significant proportion of Russians or of the Russian-speaking population lives. The Ukrainian government refuses to even only talk about such a status. Don’t let us not forget that the fire was lit in February 2014, when the new Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, wanted to refuse the Russians and the Russian-speaking inhabitants of these regions the use of their own language. This decision stirred up the Crimea and offered Vladimir Putin the opportunity to capture it.
Ukrainian President Petro Porochenko continues to express his wish of wanting to join NATO, which is like a red rag to Vladimir Putin. He objects that Gorbachev when he accepted the reunification of Germany in 1990 to which no great power had pressed him had been given the assurance that NATO would not move up to the borders of his country in the future. Ukraine’s joining NATO would mean to create a long shared border between Russia and NATO. Putin’s position is supported by Germany and France.

Can Putin maintain his ground for long, when the economy of his country is harmed (reduction of GDP, capital flight, price reduction of oil)?

The economic sanctions mean much trouble for Russia already. But things could be worse. The worst measure is the reduction of oil prices organised by the US and Saudi Arabia. In 1984, shortly before the inauguration of Gorbachev, Russia was already exposed to such a measure. The reduction of oil revenues is going to weaken the Russian economy, which is already on the brink of a recession, above all it would weaken the active and educated middle class that has emerged in recent years and forms the backbone of modern Russia. Raising its form of life to question would have a negative impact on Putin’s popularity, or even destabilise him.
Another risk is the West’s disdain for Russia, as perceived by the Russians. It hurts their national pride. This might induce Russia to be more oriented towards Asia. For Europe, it would result in distancing itself from Asia, where international life is happening now, because Russia is the link. Russia is the necessary bridge between Europe and Asia.

Can Putin really count on China, which has abstained from voting on Russia’s annexation of Crimea in the Security Council?

China and Russia have many common interests, especially the alliances in which both countries are involved, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). The next meeting of the of G-20 summit is held next year in Beijing and elsewhere in Asia. Both countries also complement each other in the economic field and have opportunities to function in the world. The Far East of Russia forms a bridge between the two countries, where the lives of the peoples are mixed. Thus, it constitutes a real platform for the development of Eurasia.

Why does Putin not use his historical influence in the Middle East to prove beneficial in the fight against terrorism and this way reconnect with the West?

We could turn the question around. Why does the West not ask Russia for help regarding the situation in the Middle East, since it is not able to solve it on its own? Why is the West fighting at two fronts simultaneously, in Ukraine and in the Middle East? Would it not be easier to reduce the pressure in Ukraine and give a guarantee that NATO does not spread there, an then ask the pacified Putin for help in the Middle East, in the Syrian and Iranian question and in the fight against extremism? The Russian President is afraid of radical Islam, even more than we are. At the gates of Russia there is Afghanistan. Its future is more than disturbing due to the withdrawal of Western military forces. In addition, Russia faces 20 million Muslims on its borders, united in mighty small states such as the Tatar and Chechen republics that feel solidarity with Muslims. The risk of infection by extremism must certainly be taken into consideration.
In the face of the challenges of terrorism which our world is currently exposed to, it would be high time indeed that Europe and the US would arrive at an overall view of the current crises and classify them according to severity. Is it not much more important to fight extremism and restore peace in the Middle East than contain Russia’s importance in Europe?

Does Putin not destabilise Europe with his rapprochement of Greece and its new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras?

This is quite questionable. First of all, it is Alexis Tsipras who tried to get in with Putin. Furthermore, Greece can provide some excitement, but it is not really in a position to effect a lot in the current crisis. Putin is a very clever man who takes advantage of opportunities as he has demonstrated in Crimea. Nonetheless, he has absolutely no interest in contributing to the collapse of the euro, as some would like to see. Moreover, he knows that his own people would not like this.

What is really going on in Putin’s head? Does he want to create a Grand Russia, which is in complete contradiction to the West and is based on the Orthodox religion?

Putin is presented as a dictator, as chauvinist, characterised by extreme ideas, such as Eurasianism along the lines of Dugin1. That is totally exaggerated. The Russian President has completed university education. He is fascinated by history, particularly that of the early Russia which was discovered after the dissolution of the USSR. He wants his country to be recognised in its great history and culture as such, which is not always the case.
Basically, he is not opposed to the West. His only question is whether, in order to modernise a country one needs to copy the West by all means. For the Russians, this is a very old debate. In the 19th century, this question divided the “Westerners” and “Slavophiles” who were neither “fascists” nor prospective dictators, but very important Russian intellectuals. On the road to modernness, Putin cinsists on his right to have Russian culture involved. Here, also religion must have its place. This seems all the more necessary to him as in the 1980s the long persecuted Orthodox Church played a key role in the revival of Russia and the collective consciousness in the 1980s. If we stop to judge the Russians on the basis of our own criteria, this will help to revive solidarity and a peaceful climate in Europe. This will facilitate the rescue of the unity of Ukraine, which is vital.     •

Source: Le Figaro of 6.2.2015, © Marie-Laetitia Bonavita

1     Eurasianism is a geopolitical ideology formulated by Russian emigrants in the 1920s. It represents that Russia stands as a continental power in a fundamental opposition to the Anglo-Saxon Western world. Alexander Dugin is a current representative of Neo-Eurasianism, who, in 2002 founded a Eurasian Party in Russia. (Translator’s note)

(Translation Current Concerns)