On 4 November 2014, Digital Report attended a talk with Dr. Piotr Dutkiewicz at Carleton University, discussing his impressions from his meeting with President Vladimir Putin. Piotr Dutkiewicz is a member of the Valdai Club, a group of forty world renowned experts on Russia; in 2009 he received the Russian Federation’s Order of Friendship from President Dmitry Medvedev. His full bio can be found here.
This interview was conducted after Dr. Dutkiewicz’s talk at Carleton University, where he discussed his impressions from the Valdai Club meeting and President Putin’s speech at the event (English, Russian). Professor Dutkiewicz very graciously offered his time to Digital Report in order to answer some questions on his reflections of Valdai.
#1In your talk, you discussed the realignment of Russia’s social and security policies. We see the authorities limiting the discussion space and cracking down on online criticism of Russian leaders. Is this an example of a realignment of social and security policies? If not, could you please expand on what you mean by a ‘realignment of Russia’s social and security policies?’
The sources of instability are different in each country, but what is common between Egypt, Syria, France or Russia is that most “instability” comes from within each state. So-called international problems more and more frequently “start at home.” For Russia – as for most countries – the pressures that are coming from outside are compounded by pressures that are coming from within her own society. People have high expectations after fifteen years of stability, higher wages in all sectors of the economy, and pensions that have been raised with no connection to the productivity of Russian labour, but were related to the high oil rent. If their standard of living diminishes as a result of lower oil prices and sanctions, people will – eventually – start to question state policies. It will not come soon, as popular support for the system is very high, but rather in the longer term, pending the rate of employment. Russians can deal with hardships, but not with increasing unemployment. Thus security policies are closely linked to the performance of the state in making society content and supportive of those in power in a very direct way – the more stable the social system, the more attention (in a security sense) can be devoted to perceived and real outside threats and concerns. Moreover, a supportive society provides the necessary legitimization for Russian foreign policies. The Russian elite – those in power and those in opposition to it – have one thing in common: a barely hidden distrust of society as subject of change. Both treat society as an object of their own creativity, but at the same time they are willing to “have society engaged” to gain basic legitimization and keep targeted political and economic interest groups (such as – for instance – bureaucracy or some oligarch) in check.
#2One of the new features of Russia is the blurring of lines difference between foreign and domestic policies. It is unclear where the separation of Russia’s foreign and domestic policies occurs; it can be argued that the events in Crimea served either the domestic or foreign policy objectives of Russia. They occurred in the post-Soviet space that Russia considers its sphere of influence. From your conversations with Mr. Putin, and your impressions at the Valdai meetings, how would this blurring of policies manifest itself in the future with regard to post-Soviet space?
Good foreign policy always starts at home as it reflects domestic interests, the range of openness and closeness (to countries and markets), and a cultural perception of others by Russian society. My sense always was that Mr. Putin takes opinion polls seriously and avoids policies that might not be supported by the majority of Russians; that is contrary to the perception that he does things based solely on his own plans. Societal support or disapproval (even a silent one surfacing thanks only to the pollsters) plays an important role in Russian foreign behavior. As for the future it means – for instance – that Crimea’s status is non-negotiable in talks with Ukraine, it means that Russia will go forward steadily but also cautiously in relations with China, it means that relations with the USA are badly damaged for a relatively long time, it means that Russia will try to manage her international relations via existing institutions and norms, and it means that Russia will focus on the “non-Western world” in looking for political and economic partners.
#3You listed the main points of President Putin’s speech and you termed them, as a reference to Woodrow Wilson, Putin’s 14 Points. The Valdai speech appears to demonstrate Putin’s realpolitik, while Wilson’s 14 points were initially panned for their naiveté. Why did you choose to compare President Wilson with President Putin in this context? People accuse Putin of many things, but never of naiveté.
Mr. Putin is both a hard-core realist and idealist in one person. I would say that realism is his dominant feature as power politics is his trademark, but a sense of social and historical justice (as he perceives them) is also part of his mentality. In his Valdai presentation, which unfortunately was evaluated by the majority of the Western observers as a purely anti-US speech, he outlined his deep sense of worry, and even helplessness, in confronting what he described as an international system that “has become seriously weakened, fragmented and deformed” and that might even indicate a “prelude to the collapse of world order”. Then he outlined the main threats to economic and political stability (in ten points as I counted them) and finally offered four ways to stabilize it (that is my “14 Points” comparison). I hope you agree that this is a serious statement by the Russian leader, as he does not lightly utter words that sound like a final warning before “something” will change (for the worse) the world we live in. Having watched his speeches for the last few years, I see this as the first one that not only paints the future in very dark colors, but also offers not too many solutions. The idealistic part of his speech lies in the belief that through the decisions of a few good men (key responsible leaders), a new “concert of nations” can be established and play the role of global stabilizer. This would form a “new version of interdependence” where regional organizations would take the lead in a post-global world both politically and economically, with a “top” concert of leaders evaluating and agreeing on how to establish balance within conflicting interests. It is interesting that during most recent APEC meeting, the Chinese president proposed something quite similar in the form of “new major country relations”.
#4In your presentation, you mentioned that the West in general, and Canada specifically, have no ways to truly interact with Putin, other than to isolate and demonize him. Current sanctions against Russia might be seen in the same way Churchill viewed democracy: the worst choice, with the exception of all the others. How would you react to this? What actions would you suggest in their place?
The key question for our policy makers is whether Canada shall stay of part of the problem in Ukraine or part of the solution. So far Canada is leading the crusade to punish Russia for her actions in Ukraine. Thus we lost an opportunity to be part of the solution, to be a broker, an able intermediary in finding ways to stop the bloodshed and re-establish peace. As we have a large Ukrainian diaspora that is politically and economically a vibrant part of Canadian society, our government decided to support Ukraine in part because of their lobbying power, but in doing so Canada became a hostage of Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora politics.
As for sanctions, I have not seen in my professional life a set of sanctions that ended exactly the way they were designed to or that fulfilled the intentions of those who introduced them. I see the same story with current sanctions, as unintended consequences are already outweighing intended ones. Yes, indeed, some sanctions have already hit selected sectors of the Russian economy and market (for instance the financial sector, industrial spare parts, agriculture) but most Russians – so far – are squarely blaming the West for some shortages, oligarchs are closing the wagons around V. Putin (as they are worried about their assets in Western banks and see him as main guarantor of their wealth), the financial system (which is blocked quite effectively from the West) is turning towards Asia and the Middle East, import substitution investments are being made to replace some Western goods and services, and the list continues. Can Russia grow without trade and investment from outside? The answer is no as it is the 9th most open economy in the world, but trade and investment can come – at least partially – from outside of the West, shifting Russia’s strategic interests permanently eastward.
#5In his Valdai Club speech, Putin stresses the need to start ‘a concrete dialogue between the Eurasian and European Union.’ Why is this dialogue important for Putin? What is the incentive for the European Union to draw closer to the Eurasian Union?
Let’s start from the obvious. The combined economic potential of the Eurasian countries looks staggering. For instance, the region has natural gas reserves of 2,177.800 trillion cubic feet (the world’s biggest). Secondly, the Eurasian Union and, more broadly, the Eurasian Economic Space, is surely Russia’s most ambitious political program since the end of the Soviet Union. As President Putin’s own brainchild, it is likely to become one of the top priorities of his presidency until 2018. To me this huge integration project is motivated in part by Russia’s desire to gain additional strategic weight and resources for a more equal relationship with the European Union, and partly to offset domestic economic weaknesses. It also may serve as a strategic bargaining chip in relations with China and EU. As for EU the picture is also rather clear. The EU is not currently interested in being more deeply involved in such grand projects, having plenty of its own problems to deal with and not trusting Russian strategic intentions. There is a sense of suspicion there that Russia is trying to counterbalance and compete with the EU via the Eurasian space by taking other countries on board with the goal of supplementing her economic and resource assets and filling gaps in her economic capacity.
Piotr Dutkiewicz, Professor of Political Science and former Director of the Institute of European and Russian Studies, Carleton University.
L.L.M., University of Warsaw; Ph.D., Russian Academy of Science, Moscow