Mr Putin convinced many people that Russian military power has to be integrated in the Western strategy

New World Standard Critique sat with Professor Paul Goble, who has unique knowledge and insight into the reality of Russia. His superb expertise in the problems of nationalities of former Soviet Union combined with in-depth understanding of Bolshevik Russia allows him to interpret current situation in Putin’s Russia and translate it to Western observer.

Since at least the time of Russian invasion of Ukraine and occupation of Crimea Russian state runs intensive disinformation campaign to conceal its short term and strategic goals.

This practice widely used by Bolsheviks from Lenin to Gorbachev did not die after the collapse of Soviet Union. It was re-designed and recently Kremlin began streaming it through all of media, diplomacy, military, politicians, scientists or any other useful forum. The disinformation is aimed at helpless Western population to confuse and convince to the truths with “Kremlin characteristics”.

This aggressive campaign conducted by Kremlin specialists  is rarely understood by reporters or editors who every day choose what will be shown on television or reported in Internet. Journalists let alone politicians are not able to identify disinformation themes, which Russian government is periodically changing. Professor Paul Goble is also expert on Russian disinformation. So we started our discussion asking him to explain what are the most important thought-concepts that Kremlin wants Western audience would accept.

New World Standard Critique: What are the main disinformation themes, which Russian propaganda is using now?  Why Western politics has such difficulty in decoding them? 

Professor Paul Goble: I would point at three ideological themes. The first is that anything the United States has done, it has to be allowed to Russia. Russia should be treated exactly the same way as the United States. If the USA sends its forces into Syria or Afghanistan then it has to be accepted that Russia has exactly the same right. Even though Americans have the backing of international community but Russia is alone. The point is that Russia has to be treated as if it is co-equal power to the United States in the world. And this is very important for Mr Putin’s standing at home..

The second theme is that Russia is doing everything it can, I mean everything it can, including breaking trust and spending money to break apart the Western alliance in Europe – to undermine NATO and European Union. It also uses its influence to split the alliance between USA and Japan and even to call into question what is the strongest of alliances in the world, the alliance between USA, New Zealand and Australia. Russian government believes that it can achieve instant calls overly by breaking up other alliances.

Third is that in the past two years Russian government has insisted on three things that are very subversive of international order. They are so subversive that the international community has to respond because it is an existential threat. First, Russian government has insisted that empires are appropriate for organisation rather than nation-states which opens the way to very real threats to many smaller countries in the world.

Second, which is even more dangerous – the Russian government has insisted that ethnicity is even more important than citizenship. This means that being an ethnic Russian or even just a Russian speaker is more important than being citizen of Ukraine or Georgia or anywhere else.This is was one of the reasons of the World War II. Germans believed that, Nazis believed that and Mr Putin believes that the ethnicity is superior to citizenship. But if that is allowed to stand than the entire international order collapses.

And the third is that what we call the chief international organisation of the world, the United Nations, we do so only because there was a country called the United States, in fact the UN is a kind of supranational United States. This is the government of states but nations. The primary raison d’être of the United Nations is that international orders cannot be changed by force alone. Mr Putin has rejected it. This is one of the main sources of destabilisation in the world.

Russia no longer has the kind of resources that it would be necessary to take over the West economically or in terms of ideology or in terms ideological attractiveness so it is using one thing which it still has, which is, very large military power and insisting on the rights to change orders whenever it wants. These are existential threats to the international system and they need to be identified and opposed.

How can they be opposed?

The first thing it has to be done is to recognise what is going on. The willingness people of the West to use the Russian expression a hybrid war, as if because of the adjective that fact that is it is a war of aggression does not mean the same thing, has to be rejected. Mr Putin has not engaged in hybrid war by annexing Crimea or invading Donbas in Ukraine. He is engaged in the old-fashion aggressive war. We need to be very clear about it. We can’t allow somebody to say this is not an aggression and this is not a war. The first thing is to recognise reality, to recognise that the image, which Russians are putting, is simply untrue designed to serve the Russian aggression and not a reflection of reality. This is the first thing.

Secondly it seems to me we have to recognise that Russia is revisionist state as long as Mr Putin is in office and probably longer. It wants to change the international system in negative ways. I am persuaded that to that end the international community through its various institutions like European Union or NATO should take steps to contain Russia. I certainly believe that when Russian invaded, Anschlußed  Crimea that the United States and its NATO members should have immediately pre-emptively offered a membership in the alliance to Ukraine.

People tend to forget when they talk about the late 1930s that when Hitler violated the Munich accords, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who is viewed as appeaser of all times, issued a statement in the House of Commons that Britain was prepared to offer security guarantees to any country in Europe that felt threatened by Nazi Germany.  I do not see why we should have done less. USA and its NATO partners and international community should have been willing to do that. We should have done it at the time of Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. We didn’t. We should have done it again when Russians invaded Ukraine. We didn’t. We have only encouraged Moscow to think that they can get away with these things. I personally have no problem with an idea that many, many countries that emerged out of the Soviet Union in 1991 should been members of NATO. And it would welcomed be members of NATO with Article 5 having the full meaning that all of them believe it has.

Russia uses its influence to call into question what is the strongest of alliances in the world, the alliance between USA, New Zealand and Australia.

West eventually, after Russian invasion of Ukraine was forced to oppose Putin aggression but it made mistakes. One of them was a security guarantee short of NATO membership offered to Ukraine and Georgia. What are other mistakes?

We have made horrible mistake in acting as if there is little or nothing we can do. There is an enormous amount of what we can do. The fact is that what we have done so far, the sanctions regime has not hurt Mr Putin but it hurt Russian people. It should be done things that would have hurt Mr Putin. One of them is simply announce that we will no longer meet Mr Putin and his representatives around the world and certainly not in Moscow until the end of occupation of the Ukraine.

Mr. Putin and his regime must be exposed for the criminal enterprise it is by going after all of ill gotten gains that Putin and Co. have hidden in Western banks. The Russian government should be tied up in various kinds of criminal investigations so they would loose their wealth. If people around Putin would realise that the international community was prepared to strip Putin and them of all of ill-gotten gains, many of them would conclude that it would be better to get rid of Putin than to loose their wealth. Getting rid of Putin is absolutely a goal that should be articulated as the goal of Western powers.

He has violated international law. He has violated human rights. It is mistake, profound mistake to think that people who behave like that should be negotiated with. I am not suggesting bombing Moscow or anything like that. I am not suggesting that the United States take the risky kinds of military actions that Mr Putin did.

I am saying that we can play defence in a tough way that will hurt Vladimir Putin and his regime. We have not done it yet in a serious way precisely because we appear to be afraid that Mr Putin may do even something worse.  That he might do something worse is precisely to take steps to make sure that everyone knows that all of those things will have cost.

The expansion of Western Alliance to Ukraine, Georgia and countries, which wish to join, is the minimum requirement. Unfortunately it is not one that very many people in the West are prepared to assume.

Getting rid of Putin is absolutely a goal that should be articulated as the goal of Western powers.  

This comes down to the proper reading of events that took place in late 1990s that began from the partially free elections in Poland, collapse of Berlin Wall, Velvet Revolution, the fall of Soviet Union and independence of post-soviet states including independence of Baltic countries and Ukraine. Why do you claim that West misinterpreted those events? What aspect? 

The Cold War was prosecuted in the West by combination of two distinct forces. People were concerned with democracy, human rights and the rule of law. These people wanted to see the Soviet system overthrown precisely because it represented the challenge to the most battened (hit the most) because of that. The other part of the alliance in the West against the Soviet power, which was the core of the Cold War were those people who believed that the Soviet economic system of state socialism was a danger. It prevented them and others from profiting from the kinds of economic growth that modern free market capitalism makes possible.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the alliance that existed in the West collapsed as well. Many people who had been interested in the rule of law, human rights continued to be concerned. But many people who thought that Russia was now capitalist economy and not a threat no longer were prepared to stand up to Russia. So what that’s meant is that alliance, which kept the West up to the mark for all of 50 years during the Cold War has disappeared.

There are still some people, who are concerned for democracy and human rights including respect of the borders, but those people can not longer contain alliances that the business community that they had during the Cold War. In consequence whenever anyone tries to make case that the Russian government must be contained in its violation of these important principles there is no longer willingness (in the entire alliance) to support that decision. It has to be changed. It is now increasingly difficult for Western capitalist to insist that Russia is capitalist country as any other.

People who argue for democracy and human rights and rule of law need to be making their case on a daily basis. Unless Russia becomes a part of the international community on the basis of those principles the fact that it has a forms of capitalism in its social-political system is meaningless, utterly meaningless because the Russian State still aligns the Russian economy to criminal enterprises linked to Vladimir Putin.

The Western companies that thought they could profit from the demise of the communist regime have found their expectations more proved out. There is slow remerging in the West the converging of a combination of frustration of what made possible to keep Cold War going as long as it did. It is quite remarkable when one thinks about it  – very few democracies are prepared to do anything for very long – people get tired, bored and began to looking for other issues.

For 45 years international community stood up to the Soviet Russia imperialism and to the authoritarian ambitions of communist regime. Many, many people wanted to proclaim victory in 1991 as if they assumed that there would be no more problems as Francis Fukuyama’s book in his End of History. It was in fact nonsense. Now people are learning since history did not ended in 1991.

Our responsibility is to stand against aggression and to stand for democracy and human rights. Our job is compelling as they ever were in the darkest days of the Cold War.

Is there any resemblance or any element in the Putin’s regime, which would remind of the Soviet Leninist ideology? Is the threat of his regime to the world is comparable to the Soviet Union? 

In regard to what Moscow wants I would say that Vladimir Putin regime represents the greatest existential challenge to the West since death of Stalin in March of 1953.  Mr Putin’s goals are not those limited even to the maintenance of the Soviet Empire that animated regimes of Khrushchev, Brezhnev and their successors. We are seeing someone who is prepared to use military power and subversion against a much broader world not simply to occupy but to disorder and cause a confusion as to allow the Russian state to do the things that Vladimir Putin wants to do.

Weak states can often make enormous damage if they are up against the states that lack an understanding of what is going on, an understanding of the existential threat they pose. We tend to forget that Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s was not stronger than the potential alliance that could be put together against it. It was definitely weaker. But Hitler acted as he did because he felt that Germany was weaker as it should have been and he indeed undermine through dividing and influencing the other countries that might have been united against him. I believe that Hitlerite regime is a better model for understanding what Putin is about than anything during the Soviet times in 1953.

The fundamental error in 1991 was thinking that some people in Moscow stopped calling themselves communist they stopped presenting a problem to the world. Russia is a problem now. Russia was a problem before 1917. Russia was a problem in Soviet times. 

 

In light of what you said how the Putin’s involvement in conflict in Syria should be interpreted?

Vladimir Putin actions in Syria were intended to show to the West that Russia has potential to intervene. Therefore Russia should be at the table. Russia as weak as it is, economically and ideologically, has still great military power. Mr Putin’s actions were designed to increase instability in the Middle East and he very much hoped that it would push price of oil up.  Mr Putin’s goals in Syria and West goals are totally different.

The Western powers made it very clear that they would like to see the end of the brutal Bashar Assad dictatorship. Mr Putin has been equally clear that he wants to save Bashar Assad.  Putin wants to save all dictatorship because from his point dictatorships provide stability while democracy is unstable. Mr Putin achieved all of its goals except price of oil. He has managed many people in Europe, especially; that “we may not like Assad but Assad will prevent the migration”, migrants coming to Europe. I think that Mr Putin convinced many people in Europe that Russian military power has to be integrated in the Western strategy.

After almost sixteen years of presidency of Putin, with some years concealed as Prime Minister, can one conclude what type of world the ruler of Russia would wish?

I would like to see a world in which no one would support the use of the military force to change borders against the will of people at home. I would like to see a world that governments would be ostracised for mistreating their own citizens and where international community would be prepared to support the population rather than police in such governments. I would also to see a world; this is the hardest thing of all that would recognise how difficult it is going to be to move in that direction and how long term that commitment that is going to require.

The fundamental error in 1991 was thinking that some people in Moscow stopped calling themselves communist they stopped presenting a problem to the world. Russia is a problem now. Russia was a problem before 1917. Russia was a problem in Soviet times. It is only one of the concerns that it is a problem in terms of respecting of human rights, democracy and rule of law. But backing those things while often not easy in short term is the best hope we have now for world where all of us can live in peace, cooperation for the better world for our children and grandchildren.


Professor Paul Goble is an American analyst, writer and columnist with expertise on Russia. He served as special adviser on Soviet nationality issues and Baltic affairs to Secretary of State James Baker.

He was an analyst on Soviet Nationalities, Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Central Intelligence Agency. He was Special Advisor to the Director of International Broadcasting Bureau. He was Director of Research and Publications at Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. He was Senior Associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He is the editor of four volumes on ethnic issues in the former Soviet Union and has published more than 150 articles on ethnic and nationality questions.