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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: ‘What next for Putin’s Russia?’

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Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome back to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. And this is our first podcast of 2023. The issue that defined last year was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Russia-Ukraine war may still shape and dominate international affairs in the coming year. My guest is Professor Angela Stent of Georgetown University in Washington. She’s author of a book called Putin’s World, published in 2019 and recently updated to take into account the invasion of Ukraine. So, as the year begins, how will Vladimir Putin be looking at the world?

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Gideon Rachman
At the end of the year, Vladimir Putin usually holds a large press conference for Russian and international journalists. But in 2022, for the first time in a decade, it was cancelled.

President Putin did, however, deliver a New Year’s message to the Russian people. It was bleak in tone, denouncing what he called western hypocrisy and aggression.

Vladimir Putin via interpreter
The west lied about peace while preparing for aggression. Today it acknowledges this openly and is not ashamed of it. They cynically exploit Ukraine and its people to divide and weaken Russia. We will not allow this to happen. We never did and we never will.

Gideon Rachman
But just days later, Russia was coping with further setbacks in the war with the news that scores, perhaps hundreds, of Russian troops had been killed by Ukrainian missile strike.

News clip
The attack is said to have taken place two minutes after midnight on New Year’s Day on a city in the Russian-controlled part of the Donetsk region. The missile targeted a building in Makiivka, where it’s thought hundreds of recently mobilised troops were stationed alongside an ammunition dump.

Ukraine says 400 Russian soldiers were killed here. (Man speaking in a foreign language) Russia’s defence ministry put the number at 63 and say the building was hit by six US-made Himars rockets.

Gideon Rachman
So, is Vladimir Putin trapped or does he have a strategy for the year ahead? That was the question I posed to Angela Stent.

Angela Stent
Well, he certainly doesn’t look as if he has a strategy at the moment. I mean, we’ve just had a massive Ukrainian attack which killed maybe a few hundred people. We don’t exactly know what the numbers are. This is partly because of bad Russian planning — too many soldiers huddled together very near ammunition deposits. So one can really question the tactics of the Russian military. What have they learned from this? And so it seems that, you know, what Putin’s doing at the moment is just continuing to order all of this indiscriminate bombing of Ukrainian infrastructure, depriving Ukrainians of electricity and water, and heat and light, and hoping that the Ukrainians will capitulate or that the Europeans will force the Ukrainians to the negotiating table. But I’m not sure that this strategy is working out. It hasn’t yet. We have a few winter months to go through still. One hears that there will be a new offensive in the spring and that these newly mobilised soldiers are being trained. Maybe that’s his new strategy for this year. But I remain sceptical about that.

Gideon Rachman
I mean, his New Year’s message sounded, I mean, it was very defiant, but it sounded pretty bleak. He didn’t really offer Russians a vision of how all this is gonna end.

Angela Stent
He certainly didn’t. And he just repeated all the tropes about Nazis and Russia being existentially threatened by the west. And of course, this was against the background of what were purported to be newly mobilised soldiers. But in fact, if you look on social media, apparently these were actors that were dressed up to look like soldiers. So that in itself and the fact that that’s all out there on social media will also call into questions the effectiveness of that message.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I mean, looking back, you published the first edition of Putin’s World in 2019, and then you revised the book in the light of the invasion. How has his decision, a very radical decision to invade Ukraine, and the way it’s gone wrong, has that changed your view of Putin and his foreign policy?

Angela Stent
So I would have said before February the 24th 2022, Putin, certainly the relationship with the west was getting worse, but that he wasn’t a major risk taker. I mean, if you look at the war in Georgia in 2008, the Russians could have gone on, they could have taken Tbilisi, the capital. They could have ousted the leader, Mikheil Saakashvili. But they didn’t. They stopped. They declared the two areas of Georgia that they occupied were independent and they didn’t go further. And even in 2014, when they annexed Crimea and they began the war in the Donbas southeastern region of Ukraine, you know, they did work out an agreement with the Ukrainians, the Minsk agreements, which, of course, were never fulfilled. In other words, it wasn’t reckless. I think the other difference is that despite the deterioration of Russia’s relations with the west, Putin was still interested, in those years, really, leading up to 2020 at least, in interacting with western leaders, European leaders, American leaders. And he still wanted to be a member of the global board of directors and sitting at all important meetings. And I think what’s changed — and I would attribute some of that maybe to the two years of isolation during Covid — is that he seems to have been determined, only having listened to a few advisers, I think, for two years and not having met with any world leaders, determined to implement his legacy. And that is really something he’s been interested in since the beginning but hadn’t really acted on it. And that is really to revise the post-cold war settlement, to relitigate it — he doesn’t believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union was legitimate — and to restore to Russia at least some of those lands that it lost control of when the Soviet Union collapsed. And he appears to have planned this invasion very much by himself and has taken what appeared to be quite reckless moves that have really backfired on Russia itself.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I mean, from what we can gauge from his public statements, he is casting himself very much in historical terms. He makes references to Peter the Great and other Russian leaders and I think has tried to use this as a source of comfort as the war has gone wrong, saying, you know, well, Russia has faced adversity in previous wars and have ultimately prevailed, you know, against Napoleon, against Hitler and so on. But it strikes me that one big difference with those conflicts, aside from the fact that, you know, it’s a long time ago, is that Russia is very isolated in Europe. I mean, in those previous conflicts, Russia always had allies within Europe, but it doesn’t now.

Angela Stent
It’s so interesting because until recently, Putin would always uphold the 19th-century concept of Europe powers as the model. You know, there are four or five really important sovereign states in the world, and Russia’s one of them and they sort of rule the globe and they divide it up between them. And yet, if you look at Putin’s policies in the 22 years that he’s been in power, he has deliberately not forged alliances because, and I’ve heard him say that on various occasions, he has said that alliances limit one’s freedom of manoeuvre and that there are only a few truly sovereign states, that Russia is one of them and it wants to act without any restraints on what it can do. But this has now backfired on him, I would say, because he’s launched this war without any allies or partners, and Russia is very alone in it.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, and I suppose it’s also, he has failed to acknowledge or accept that Europe has moved beyond the kind of great power era that he looks back to through the European Union, where a lot of these former adversaries are now in a single bloc. And although the UK has left, it’s essentially, on these questions, on the same page as the EU.

Angela Stent
He doesn’t understand that Europe has moved way beyond that and he’s seeing that now. But I think he would understand that it’s just that the US is imposing on the Europeans, you know, policies towards Russia now. So it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that European politics works.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, he does, doesn’t he, very much see America as the great force and as the Iranians would call it, the “Great Satan.” And everyone else is essentially manipulated by them.

Angela Stent
Right. Because he’s projecting on to the US what he would like Russia to be, which is that Russia could dominate its neighbourhood as it has for centuries.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. His rhetoric, though, also seems to me to be increasingly directed not to other Europeans but — it was interesting looking back at the speech he made when they annexed the four provinces of Ukraine — a lot of it seemed to me to be pitching to Asia, to Africa, saying that he was their representative in a battle against this kind of evil west.

Angela Stent
Putin has consciously, in the years that he’s been in power, developed relations with what we call the “global south”. Russia’s gone back into areas where it had to withdraw after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And you see that in the increasing influence in Africa, particularly via the mercenary group Wagner in the Middle East, even in Latin America. And so what’s happened since the invasion of Ukraine has been that a large number of countries in the global south, in fact, nearly all of them have neither condemned Russia. They haven’t sanctioned it. They’ve either abstained on United Nations Security Council or General Assembly votes, and they do not see this as any kind of colonial grab, what Russia is doing. And they look to the United States and say, well, what Russia’s doing, is it really very different from what the US did in Vietnam, Iraq, you know, name your war? And India, I think, is a prime example here, a country which does have a formal partnership now with the United States in the quad and has neither condemned Russia or is now buying more oil from Russia than any other country is, and whose foreign minister was recently in Moscow and said Russia has been a reliable and good partner for India. And I think, again, this is the result of conscious policies by Putin over the decades.

Gideon Rachman
How helpful, though, is it to Russia? Do you think it is a kind of insurance policy because obviously, you know, viewed from Brussels or Washington, Russia looks very isolated?

Angela Stent
It certainly isn’t isolated. I mean, Joe Biden said at the beginning of this war, Russia will be a pariah. Well, it is in most western countries, but it certainly isn’t in the rest of the world. So that’s useful. The Ukrainians may have called for Russia to be ousted from the Security Council, but that’s never going to happen. It’s morally useful for Russia to have these countries unwilling to condemn what it’s doing, and it means that when this is over, however it ends, Russia will still be able to interact with and have the support of a large number of countries around the globe.

Gideon Rachman
Do you think, though, at some level he’s a bit disappointed by some of the support he’s been getting? I mean, obviously, the key relationship is China, and I’m sure a lot goes on that we don’t see, but they haven’t sent weapons to Russia as far as we know, and they do seem to be indicating that they have concerns about the war. Plus, of course, he’s now increasingly dependent on the Chinese as a consumer of Russian energy.

Angela Stent
Well, certainly. I mean, one result of this war is that Russia will be a very junior partner to China. So, yes, the Chinese haven’t supplied weapons, as far as we know, because I think they’ve been warned by the western countries that if they do that, they’ll be subject to severe sanctions. And they are observing the western sanctions. So what Russia gets from China is certainly rhetorical support. The Chinese repeat all of the Russian accusations about Nato threatening Russia and provoking it and things like that. And Xi Jinping has made it clear recently that China wants to deepen its relationship with Russia. I think that this is partly economic and partly in terms of ideological commitments too. And we know that Putin has invited Xi Jinping to visit Russia in the spring, but China has also indirectly expressed concerns about the nuclear threats that we’ve heard from Putin and from other Russian officials. And one has to assume that the Chinese have made it clear to the Russians that were Russia to detonate a tactical nuclear weapon, this would be something that the Chinese would really frown on. What they do about it, we don’t know. But it hasn’t been the kind of wholehearted support that the Russians must have wanted or maybe hoped that they would get. On the other hand, China will be increasingly important in enabling Russia to function economically and also a key ally, if you like, in the United Nations and in other global fora.

Gideon Rachman
And India — I mean, you mentioned before, but again, they’ve played a very interesting role. I mean, they bought all this oil. But Modi chided Putin in public, didn’t he, at the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?

Angela Stent
Yeah, he did. And he said this is not the time for war. And the Indians, I think, are equally concerned about these nuclear threats. On the other hand, as I said, they have said that, you know, Russia remains an important partner for them. So, I think from the Russian point of view probably, the Indian support is very welcome, despite the public, if you like, chastising by Prime Minister Modi.

Gideon Rachman
And the other player that suddenly entered in a military sense is Iran, which has been supplying Russia with these drones, which are crucial to their attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. How significant is that intervention and how do you think they’re thinking about it in Washington?

Angela Stent
Well, I think it is very significant. Because I think, what we’ve seen up till now is a kind of ambiguous Russian-Iranian relationship. They were certainly working together in Syria. There are other areas, obviously, the Bushehr nuclear power plant, there are other areas where they were co-operating, but they were wary of each other. And now I think what you’ve seen is Russia deciding to go wholeheartedly in for a much closer relationship with Iran. Those drones are essential in the Russian prosecution of the war at the moment, and we don’t know what other things Russia may have promised Iran. But clearly, this is a relationship which is now going to get increasingly close. And so I think it’s going to change the balance certainly in the Middle East. It’ll be very interesting, I think, to watch what’s happening with the new Israeli government, which appears to be drawing closer to Russia again under Prime Minister Netanyahu but it is also extremely concerned about the deepening Russian-Iranian relationship.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I mean, I remember last time I was in Israel, I mean, they tried to explain their relationship with Russia partly in pragmatic terms, and said, “Look, they are virtually our neighbour because they’re fighting in Syria and we have to co-ordinate with them so as we avoid basically shooting at each other by accident”. But how much capacity do you think Russia has left to play this very active military role that it was playing, particularly in Syria, but also a bit in Africa, a bit in other parts of the Middle East?

Angela Stent
So I think in Syria, it was mainly air power. Obviously, there weren’t that many Russian troops there and they’re still involved there. And in Africa, it is Wagner, it’s the mercenary group, that’s Yevgeny Prigozhin, who now has sort of come out and publicly admitted to the things that Wagner has done, but also to interference in the US election. So, it’s not Russian state troops that are doing this, it’s these mercenaries. And of course, in places like the Central African Republic, they’re getting very rich. They control many of the natural resources there. So I think, the capacity of the Russian state is infinite. But Mr Prigozhin seems to do pretty well. And because Wagner is so intimately involved in the economies of some of these countries, I think it enables them to do what they’re doing.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. Look, we’ll talk a little further about Mr Prigozhin in a while. But, just while I’m doing this sort of tour d’horizon of Russia’s relationship with non-western powers. I mean, another area that I think obviously must be of huge concern to them is central Asia, the former Soviet republics, which they saw as part of their sphere of influence, which obviously matters hugely to Putin. The invasion with Ukraine seems to have damaged them a bit there, I mean, with the Kazakhs in particular.

Angela Stent
Oh, yes, particularly the Kazakhs because, you know, when Putin talks about recreating a Slavic Union state, part of that would be northern Kazakhstan, which has had a significant Slavic population there. So the Kazakhs have been particularly affected by this. And even though Russian troops were instrumental in January of 2022 in enabling President Tokayev to stay in power after there were riots, Russian troops were there, but he has distanced himself, President Tokayev. He has refused to recognise the annexation of these territories and he has said publicly things to Putin which were quite surprising. Now, having said that, he was reelected recently and his first trip abroad was to Moscow, but then he went straight from there to Paris. So, what Kazakhstan is trying to do is, it’s certainly intensifying its ties to China, but also to Europe and the United States, in other words, to distance itself from Russia. And the other central Asian states have also been wary. When they had the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization it was interesting the way that some of the leaders didn’t want to stand too near to Putin, kept him waiting, things like that. So, I think that the dynamics in central Asia are changing as a result of this war. And I think China, again, will be a winner from this. It’s already very active in countries like Kazakhstan, but I think it’s gonna become more active.

Gideon Rachman
Now, of course, all of this must be very uncomfortable for Putin. As you say, he was, to use the American parlance, dissed at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s meeting. He didn’t go to the G20 because it was just too difficult. But I guess his primary concern must be his domestic situation. Now, there’s been speculation right from the beginning of this war that it could spell the end of his period in power. Do you see any sign of that?

Angela Stent
So far, he’s holding on. This is a highly personalistic system. It’s run by people from the intelligence services. And he has, you know, a pretty good protection system around him. And when you look at sort of interviews with different members of the elite, they say, “Well, we may not like this, but he’s our leader. And this, you know, we have to buckle down and do what he wants us to do”. And of course, we know that there are clearly people who are complaining about what’s happening. Also, up to one million people have left Russia. And this is one of the safety valves that Putin has. As long as you can still leave Russia, then the opponents can go away. And that would presumably lessen the likelihood of a revolt against him. So at the moment, I would say for 2023, it still look as if he’s firmly in power, despite the really dismal performance, I would say, of the Russian military.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And of course, a lot of people in the west have imagined a liberal backlash against him. But another possibility is a nationalist backlash, people who accuse him of being too weak. Which brings us back to Mr Prigozhin and the head of Wagner Group, who seems to be increasingly openly critical of the conduct of the war and suggesting that the troops at the front are being betrayed. What do you read into all of that?

Angela Stent
Well, it’s interesting that the only dissent that’s allowed to be public is indeed, the dissent from the more hawkish nationalistic wing. And maybe Putin feels that this is one way that he can remain in power, because most of these people are criticising the Russian army. Very few of them are criticising him personally, some are sort of bloggers are. But otherwise, people are quite careful to blame the army so he can sort of shift the blame to them. But it is dangerous because it lessens the likelihood that he might be willing at some point in the future to compromise. I mean, it doesn’t look like that at the moment. There’s no indication that Putin or anyone around him is interested in negotiation with the Ukrainians, you know, unless they accept all of Russia’s terms. I think the other result of what’s happening is that it keeps people in the outside world, particularly in the west, very concerned about the risk of escalation. And this is another part of Putin’s tactics. He thinks that if everyone’s worried about escalation and the possibility of the use of a tactical nuclear weapon, then they will be less likely to give Ukraine all of the support that it wants. I mean, that’s certainly a consideration in the White House, not to enable the Ukrainians to do things that might risk greater escalation.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I mean, of course, a lot of us in the west — I plead guilty to this myself — have hoped that, you know, one day we’ll turn on the radio and hear that Putin has been ousted. But perhaps that’s naive. I mean, do you think that it’s always a kind of slight trap to see this as all about one guy? I mean, you did suggest that the plan had been formulated very much personally by him. But you also wrote in the book that he represents a thousand-year-old state with traditions and self-understanding that precedes Putin and will surely outlast him. Is that still your view?

Angela Stent
Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s Putin’s war in the sense that he was the one who initiated it and conceived it. There are a large number of Russians in the elite and then among the ordinary population that really believes that Russia has a God-given right to dominate its neighbourhood. And that this idea of defensive expansionism, which goes back centuries, that because Russia doesn’t have natural borders except in the north, it’s had to expand to keep itself safe and to keep itself from being invaded by other countries. And, you know, Catherine the Great talked about it in the 18th century. Putin talks about it now all the time, somehow that the US and Nato were threatening to invade Russia. So I think the imperial mindset exists. It existed before Putin and it still exists. And even if Russia doesn’t do well in this war and irrespective of how it ends, it’s still going to take, I think, a long time to have a new generation of Russians that doesn’t have this imperial mindset. And the imperial mindset is there, not only in supporters of Putin, but even, you know, among people who don’t necessarily support this war. But they still do believe that Russia forever and in perpetuity is going to be this great landed empire.

Gideon Rachman
So to conclude, that doesn’t leave one feeling terribly optimistic, not just about this war, which does seem at a very bloody stalemate at the moment, but also about, if as you say at some point it ends, the possibility of a reconciliation between Russia and Europe. If Russia doesn’t repent in some form, or change, I can’t see Europe going back to the kind of relatively friendly relationship that existed for 20 years after the end of the cold war.

Angela Stent
I think that’s true. As long as either Vladimir Putin is in power or he’s succeeded by someone who has the same mindset, I think it’s very difficult to see that happening. And you see significant numbers of people in Europe thinking you can only have security in Europe without Russia. The idea that you could have a co-operative security arrangement in which Russia is a full participant — it’s very difficult to imagine that now. I think it would take the next generation of leaders in Russia to really rethink what their role in Europe is. Right now, what Putin has done is to jettison centuries of Russia wanting to become part of Europe, to be closely allied with Europe. And he’s gone completely the other direction now, just focusing on Asia. He’s closed the window to Europe, if you liked the Peter the Great opened. And until you have another generation that understands that that’s not in Russia’s interests and then is interested in renewing a relationship with Europe, that’s not going to happen. And I don’t see that happening for some time.

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Gideon Rachman
That was Professor Angela Stent of Georgetown University ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for listening and please join me again next week.

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