TIME: 13:00 – 14:00, Tuesday 20th February 2018
VENUE: Committee Room 1, House of Lords, Palace of Westminster, London SW1A OPA
SPEAKER: Shaun Walker
EVENT CHAIR: The Rt. Hon. Lord Risby
The Rt. Hon. Lord Risby
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen may name is Richard Risby and may I welcome you all here to the Palace of Westminster and particularly on behalf of everybody thank The Henry Jackson Society for what I know is going to be a fascinating discussion but for also their magnificent contribution to the thoughtful life of our country by producing endlessly brilliant speakers full of insight who come to the Palace of Westminster on a regular basis so we are very, very grateful.
It’s a real pleasure personally for me to introduce Shaun Walker who I’ve met over the years, I happen to chair the British Ukrainian Society so we have met in Kyiv on a number of occasions but I think that after 14 years in Moscow, he is now moving to Budapest, but they’re very, very few people who have such an incredible insight into Russia having lived there, and whatever we think about Russia it’s on the world stage, has been put on the world stage by one very remarkable individual Mr Putin, so Russia counts in the world today which was unimaginable just a few years ago. And what Shaun has done in this book, I don’t know where you buy it from, where does one buy it from?
We have these flyers where people can get a discount online, Amazon, bookshops.
The Rt. Hon. Lord Risby
Good well I’m looking forward to reading it because I know it will be a brilliant read. But what he’s doing in this book is examining what actually Putin has done, what the motivation of Russia happens to be and of the Russian people. So it is a great pleasure to welcome somebody who has real expertise on the subject, Shaun over to you.
Thank you very much. So yes thank you for inviting me, thank you for agreeing to chair and thanks everyone for coming. So yes I’ve lived in Moscow on and off for 14 years, my first visit there was in January 2000 just after Putin took over and the book is sort of my attempt to make sense of this whole 18-year period and to look at Putin’s attempts to create a new sense of nation in Russia and to overcome their psychological ruins on the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. So you know Vladimir Putin is a character in the book but he’s not necessarily the main or the only character. I’ve tried to tell the story of the trauma of 1991 and this search for a new identity through sort of portraits of very different people whether it is a separatist commander in the East Ukrainian war, a war veteran who fought at Stalingrad, fighters in [inaudible], fighters in Chechnya and so on. So what I’ll do is I’ll just try and give you a brief sense of the main argument and then hopefully you can read the book for the more colourful version and you know if anyone has questions either on the book or on Russia more broadly and where we are at this point with Russia and Putin I’d be happy to answer them.
So one of the starting points I take for the book is a newspaper column which was published by Putin in 1999 a few days before Yeltzin made him acting President and he took over. And in this column Putin sort of bemoans how weak Russia has become and he writes that for the first time in the past 200-300 years, Russia faces the real danger that it could be relegated to the second or even the third global powers and he called on Russians to unite to ensure that Russia remains what he called ‘a first tier nation.’ In this article he also talks about the economy, he talks about social indicators, but you get the sense that all of that stuff would sort of come naturally if this first tier status was re-attained. So perhaps maybe like in many post-imperial States dealing with this loss of importance was more pressing than dealing with the loss of material wealth.
So Putin takes over and he knows he wants to restore this status but he’s not really clear what this new Russia should look like, who it’s heroes should be, what it should be based on. And you know by this point the 15 nations that have come out of the Soviet collapse, have all taken quite different approaches from dealing with their pasts and building new identities in the 3 Baltic States you have 1991 of course as a celebration, it’s the end of oppression it’s the return to Europe. In Belarus it’s kind of though nothing has changed and 1991 was an irrelevance, in the new States in Central Asia new national identities are kind of manufactured on semi-historical grounds. But when Putin takes over in Russia there’s little sense of what this country is or what it should be and perhaps Russia and Ukraine where the only 2 of the 15 countries that hadn’t come up at this point with a coherent historical narrative that unified the whole of their countries. And I think the events of 2014 you know Maidan in Kyiv, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, I mean there were that many things but in least in part I think they were a clash between competing Russian and Ukrainian attempts to transcend this 1991 conundrum amidst new national identities.
And most of the second half of my book is about that conflict in 2014. The first half deals with this creation of a new national idea in Russia so you know for many years of course it’s been quite well established common historical triumphs or defeats are a good way to rally people behind a national idea to create a sense of nation.
So if you look at what Putin had available to him, you know the collapse of 1991 was mostly something he could use, appealing to what the Russian philosopher Svetlana Boym called restorative nostalgia and perhaps not that dissimilar to some of the things we’ve seen with Trump or Brexit. But while it was much nostalgia for the Soviet period in Russia, simply calling for it to return or rebuilding the Soviet Union was not going to work because it would alienate the business community, it would alienate younger Russians who enjoyed the new opportunities they had. So Putin on this point equivocates as we know is often repeated he did call the Soviet collapse the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 21st Century. But he also said that only a person without a heart would fail to miss the Soviet Union only someone with no head would want to restore it.
And so instead of focussing on 1991 Putin turns to the one event that has the narrative potential to unite the country and to serve as a sort of foundation stone for this new nation and that’s victory in the Second World War or as it’s still known in modern Russia, the great patriotic war. One of my key arguments in the book was that this victory becomes a kind of national building block for the new Russia. Views on 1917 and 1991 where divisive but pride in 1945 transcends political allegiance in a generation, economic status, pretty much everything.
Part of the reason for this of course is part of the Russian war narrative really was very inspiring the Soviet Union did play a decisive role in defeating Nazism, the soviet’s suffered incomparable losses with the other allied nations and almost every Russian family has a personal history relating to the war. It was also real in an important way, covering Russia you get used to the idea that people don’t really believe in anything like values or ideology or a means to an end rather than things that are used sincerely. The war was different it evoked real and genuine feelings in a rare case of me agreeing with a rather, let’s say eccentric Russian philosopher, Alexandra Dugin, when I asked him about this he said that the war is the national idea in Russia came about organically. Like you can’t say that Putin imposed it on people but you also can’t say that the people demanded it, it was kind of symbolic natural occurrence. It was also of course a victory and quite a rare one in the recent history of Russia.
I always think back to the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics which you know if obviously the chance that you have to show on the worlds stage all the things your proud of about the history of your country. And so we had this beautiful, sumptuous, avocation of czarist Russia with classical music and balls and dancing and then we had the sort of sexy portrayal of 20s and 30s industrialisation in the Soviet Union with driving music and a big locomotive coming into the stadium. We didn’t have the war on this occasion because you can’t have military imagery in the Olympics but we had 1961 Yuri Gagarin the first man in Space and then that was it, it finished in 1961. So you sort of had the sense in the 53 years between 1961 and 2014 there was nothing that was deemed worthy of celebrating, not even the country that we are all sitting in coming into existence.
So you know the victory when you look at this difficult, messy history, emerges as something that was quite powerful. Of course the victory though and the war narrative wasn’t all black and white and during the [inaudible] in the 90s people started to look into the darker sides of the Russia war narrative, the deputation 2 million soviet citizens, Stalin’s tactics on the eve of the war and so on and there was little celebration of this victory.
In 2000 victory day came just 2 days after Putin’s inauguration and this time he had the biggest ceremony since the soviet collapse. And on red square thousands of modern Russian soldiers lined up alongside veterans who were wearing their medals and they marched along the square together. Putin addressed the veterans and he said today you stand together with a new generation of defenders of the motherland. Through you we got used to being winners, this entered our blood. It was not just responsible for military victories but will help our generation in peaceful times, help us to build a strong and flourished country.
So this idea of winning became very important on occasions we even had the explicit ritualization’s handing down the victory, we saw youth groups marching through Moscow and taking an oath from veterans who they met and saying you know I take the homeland from the hands of the older generation, yesterday you fought at the front for freedom, today I continue this fight wherever my country needs me. Just year by year this gradually becomes more and more present. Anyone who’s been to Moscow in April or early May will notice that the city is covered in these orange and black victory St George’s ribbons which became the symbol of victory. They were introduced in 2005 and every year they became more and more widespread, the city is covered in orange and black for sort of weeks before the date. In 2008 the parade has heavy weaponry for the first time since the Soviet collapse and of course about 3 months later we have the Russia-Georgia war. And as time passes this victory rhetoric becomes ever more linked to cotemporary Russia.
Every year on victory day you still have veterans putting on their uniforms proudly walking through the streets, people giving them flowers and affection which is quite touching. But each year the day seems to be less about remembering the war dead and of course there are fewer and fewer veterans alive each year and more about projecting this military might of modern Russia. The message is unity around the idea of a resurgent, victorious nation.
But of course as I said there were other parts of the war narrative and when you close down these discussions about them you can no longer talk about for example, the deportation of the Crimean tatar’s or the Chechens during the war, or the post-war deportations of the Balks and the Western Ukrainians, and if you can’t talk about that it makes it harder to understand, or if you don’t know about that, it makes it harder to understand some of the contemporary grievances that those groups might have.
And of course there was this issue of the regime which won the war. I don’t think it has ever been Putin’s desire to lionise Stalin but for the war to make sense he at least needs to neutralise him because obviously this victory is no use if it comes in the service of a criminal regime. And I’ll just tell you a very short story from the book which I think was one of the most interesting illustrations of this. So I had taken as a trip to Magadan in the far east of Russia which was the biggest gulag region in the late 20s and early 30s through gulag labour. And there’s not much today in Magadan which would remind you of this history in terms of official monuments and so on but I read an article that 10 hours away in this sort of middle of nowhere town, there was a guy who had spent the last 20 years collecting, driving around all these abandoned gulag sites, collecting all this memorabilia and he had made in his own apartment a museum of the gulag. He seemed to be one of the only people to have this memory like this so I drove out along these kind of bleak roads to go and see him and I knocked on the door expecting him to be quite pleased to have a sort of visitor and he started shouting at me, he said you’ve come here your Western media, you want to lie about the gulag, you want to say it was all bad. And I said to him ok that’s interesting because I read an interview with you from 10 years ago online and at that point you seemed to be saying you also thought the gulag was quite bad and that your job was memorialising it. And he said yes I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in the last 10 years and actually you know we mined 500 tonnes of gold here during the war if we hadn’t of done that maybe we wouldn’t have won the war, you know it was a cruel system but perhaps that was what we needed to have this victory. And you know when we drove to the monument that he himself had set up to people who had been shot in 1937, 1938, this monument was covered in flags celebrating 9th May, 70 years of victory, it was in 2015. And yes so turning these people from being shot by a criminal regime into martyrs, martyrs in this bigger cause of the war victory.
So I found that really telling that even the man who had seen it as his mission to memorialise gulag was now saying even that was sort of secondary to the war. And this continues, of course all countries have selected attitudes to their history and especially the war time histories but in Russia questioning this war narrative becomes almost like Holocaust denial in the West, it’s just a sacred cannon which you cannot touch. In 2009 the Kremlin sets up a commission to prevent the falsification of history to the detriment of Russia’s interest with the obvious implication that if you falsify it to the benefit of Russian interest that would be fine.
It’s also important to note that both sides of the war narrative are painted in black and white so whilst the difficult pages of the soviet narrative are hashed up, Nazism as a concept is also simplified. So Nazism doesn’t mean militarism, cultivate personality, holocaust, the cardinal sin of the Nazis was that they invaded the Soviet Union and there’s not much discussion of anything about them except that fact. So that makes it quite easy to transpose that ideology and that narrative onto the present day and that’s what we saw in 2014. Ukraine of course was going through its own difficult process of creating a national narrative which is also complicated and also has a lot to do with the Second World War and I deal with that in the book so I won’t go into it here. But the fact that there were elements on Maidan that did tap back into this wartime imagery of the Ukrainian nationalists allowed the Kremlin to repaint the choice in 2014 with the colours of the Second World War. So during a referendum in Crimea posters offered people the choice between on the one side a red white and blue Russian Crimea or on the other side a Ukrainian Crimea with a big swastika on it. On March 18th 2014 when Putin appears on Red Square with Sergiy Aksyonov, the Kremlin appointed leader of Crimea at a rally just after they’ve signed the annexation documents in the Kremlin, Aksyonov, if you look at what he’s wearing, he’s wearing a black coat and on his Lepel he doesn’t wear a Russian flag, he wears the orange and black ribbon, the symbol of the Second World War victory. So in Western Ukraine 1945 was seen as the tragic imposition in Soviet rule and 1991 a celebratory independence for many people in Crimea, 1945 was the triumph and in 1991 a tragedy.
The conflict that broke out in East Ukraine also borrowed a lot from the Second World War. The day in 2014 when I first realised there would be a war was on victory day when I was in Donetsk and it was a city really on the brink, everyone was covered in orange and black, everyone was declaring the fascists in the Ukraine and the US and in [inaudible] city just to the south there was serious violence where the Ukrainian army units entered the city, there were clashes, several people were killed. And the city at that time, I thought when I went and talked to people, there was a split of about 50/50 of those who supported Russia and those who supported Ukraine and the arguments people were having with each other where as often about the Second World War as they were about the events of the present day.
Coming towards the end now. So I tell the story of the Donetsk separatist movement largely through a man called Alexander Zakharchenko who was the number two in this so-called, self-declared Donetsk people’s republic and perhaps one of the only people in the separatist movement who was capable of sort of explaining in some kind of terms why he was doing what he was doing. He wasn’t one of the Russian’s who had been parachuted in by Moscow of which there were many but he was a local who had grown up in the Donbass in the 1970s. And he told me that he remembered the 1970s were the first alliteration of the war cults it was [inaudible], stagnation, the regime could no longer talk about the great socialist future that was coming so it moved its legitimising to the past on the war victory. And he said when he was growing up all the books he read where about the war, all the films he saw where war films, he remembered him and his friends getting some red fabric from a factory, mounting it on a spade and running up to their balcony taking turns to pretend that they were soldiers storming [inaudible]. He had this sort of genuine attachment that he felt he had grown up with this idea of war victory and that made the modern Russian narrative attractive and he also recognised its use as a sort of political tool. He said when you start talking about victory all arguments end. I say this without irony or synisim but from the point of view of internal political tasks and consolidating society, it’s an excellent devise, after all there is nothing else to use.
So 2014 is obviously this watershed moment in relations between Russia and the West. It was meant to be the year that Russia was welcomed back into this first tier of nations that Putin had wanted to achieve by successfully hosting the winter Olympics. Of course instead it became the year that Russia asserted itself in Ukraine. From then on Putin’s messaging becomes much more nationalistic and ideological and 2014 almost becomes a companion day for 1945. It’s another narrative of Russians triumphing against the powerful enemy.
So if we look at all of this from the point of view of today you know in many ways Putin has succeeded in his attempts to turn Russia into a first tier nation as he wanted to in 1999. A few months ago I embedded with the Russian army in Syria and saw this close up this kind of extraordinary intervention that whatever you may think of it has changed the complexion of the Middle East. The whole world is fretting about Russian interference in elections.
But about the time I was finishing this book last February I took a trip to Itcus? About 6 hours from Moscow and it was about the time that CNN was running a documentary about Putin called the most powerful man in the world, so you think he’s pretty much succeeded in this task. And I went to Itcus because more than 80 people had died in one of the suburbs because they’d been drinking a poisoned consignment of something called [inaudible] which is basically a bath fluid that people drink because it’s cheaper than vodka and it contains a good percentage of chemical ethanol and an underground lab in Itcus had made a toxic batch of this stuff which had methanol instead of ethanol in it and people who ingested it they were rushed to hospital and most of them died the same day following complete failure of their internal organs. Health experts estimated that there were still more than 10 million Russians who were drinking this kind of booze substitute on a regular basis. And while I was doing this story in Itcus because I was just coming to the end of this book, I actively was keeping an eye out for things to do with the Second World War and you start to realise that it’s everywhere nibbling away at your sub-conscious. So you know the hospital where I was talking to the doctor about this treatment, he had a giant 9th May victory flag on his desk even though this was February. An ambulance outside the hospital had 1941-1945 painted on it, when I left the hospital my driver was listening to a radio documentary about the fall of Berlin. I picked up a copy of the local Itcus newspaper for that week and there were 3 large articles about the war in it made up about 20% of this random edition of this local newspaper for that week.
I visited a local school and the kids were marching up and down singing war songs in preparation for a parade on army day, the 23rd February and the head teacher told me how proud she was that the children still remembered their heritage. So you know obviously as I said much of the Russian war story really is inspiring and Putin’s use of the war as a unifying experience was understandable, when he took over in 2000 he had a really difficult task to bring together this wounded nation but from standing there in Itcus and thinking it’s 17 years into Putin’s rule over Russia and here in the Russia heartland people were drinking themselves to death on poisoned bath fluid because they couldn’t afford vodka while being bombarded with never-ending tales about the glory of a victory that happened 72 years ago.
And so while opinion polls show that the euphoria over 2014 and Crimea and this resurgent Russia is starting to die down my feeling that the patriotic rhetoric around 1945 is likely to endure and that even if protests against the current corruption levels become a serious threat for Putin or perhaps one-day lead to a change in government, these ideas have formed the basis for the upbringing of a whole new generation of Russians and I think they will continue to influence the collective Russian psyche long after Putin parts from the Kremlin.
As a final example there was a recent incident where there was a Russian/German sort of friendship group that were Russian schoolchildren looked into the biographies of Nazi soldiers who have died at Stalingrad and German children looked into the biographies of red army soldiers and they sort of made projects about them and tried to look at the battle of Stalingrad that way. And there was a boy from a Siberian town who went to give a speech in the Bundegstad and he didn’t pick his words particularly carefully but he said something quite understandable that when he was looking at the graves of all these soldiers he thought that perhaps many of them had not wanted to fight and he felt pity for them and that war is a terrible thing. And he was a 13/14 year old boy who was faced with this enormous societal backlash that this is disgusting how could anyone say this about the Nazis, you know people where calling for his parents to be arrested, the head of the local region was sort of called in to talk to the head of the FSB to ask what are you teaching in the school that the child would say something so outrageous and it was actually people like Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov who were the one’s saying hold on calm down a minute he is just a kid he was just making a point, just made it badly. So this to me was a sign that this is actually grown out of being simply something that’s used as a careful sort of political tool and something that has real and possibly dangerous resonance in Russian society.
So I think Putin has largely succeeded in this mission to create a sense of nation and to make Russians feel like they belong to a country and make Russia feel like a real thing which it didn’t necessarily in 2000. But instead of transcending the [inaudible] trauma of the Soviet collapse his government has exploited it and is focussed much more on the past than on the future. Thanks very much.
The Rt. Hon. Lord Risby
Well Shaun thank you very much indeed and of course I am going to open up the floor to questions, if you could indicate who you are but I would like to just mention sitting on my right is Andrew Foxall who is a Russian expert and who’s contributions for thinking on the subject of Russia via The Henry Jackson Society is very much appreciated and the chairman of the APPG on Lord Waverly is here, whose a distinguished colleague so it is excellent to have you both here. Anyway some questions please, the gentleman right at the back.
If I may ask two questions which are very much related to what you were saying. All of this there is [inaudible] a few days away for Russia and of course [inaudible] and [inaudible] Putin saying it’s all because it’s not a [inaudible]. What is your view as an expert on Russia given what you know [inaudible]… election do you think Putin would have still won given what the realities of Russia are perhaps by a small majority that’s question number one. Question two looking back on the last 20 or so years West to Russia relationship we remember the good days of the 1990s when it was very warm and [inaudible] so to speak but also see how it keeps getting worse slowly it zig-zags as we go. Do you think it’s all the fault of Russia, Putin and maybe other people or perhaps the West could at certain points made different choices, said different words, made different action which would of mitigated that?
Ok so I feel like those are the 2 sort of biggest and most complicated questions but I will try to answer them. So on the election I think it’s quite difficult to imagine what a really free election would look like, so much would have to be different at this point to imagine that, that its quite hard to say well if ok these 15 people are allowed onto the ballot what would happen. What I would say about Putin’s popularity is the figures that we see of 80,86% they are real. Those are people who you say do you support Putin they will say yes but when you breakdown that 86% you have perhaps a small, well you have the other 14% who are strongly anti-Putin, you have a small group who are passionately pro-Putin and you have a very large number of people who are essentially saying well who else are we going to vote for. And when you start to ask the second and the third and the fourth question they will say yes everything is terrible, life is awful, I want this to change, I want the local authorities to change, everything is corrupt but you know of course the one person who is trying to sort of deal with that is Vladimir Putin.
I always see it a bit like if you, the Kremlin’s whole narrative even now sort of 18 years on is that anything other than Putin would be chaos and they’ve done everything to make sure that’d actually be true so if you remove any opposition when it’s small grassroots then yes actually to change the government in Russia now probably would involve revolution and chaos and that may well be worse than sticking with Putin for ordinary people. So that’s been their narrative and they’ve made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I see those popularity ratings a little bit like, to use a slightly silly metaphor, but if you ask someone do you think the one café in the half an hours walk of your house would you like it to keep staying there even if you don’t particularly like it you would say well yes if I don’t have it where am I going to get my lunch but if there were real alternatives you might have a different answer. And I think the Kremlin’s goal all along is to make sure that they control the alternative so the opposition candidates who are out to stand in the last election they are people the Kremlin can actually remove from the playing field if there is any sign they get a bit too popular.
So that’s a sort of meandering way of saying you know yes I think Putin would win any kind of election we can imagine happening but I don’t know if he would win I think if we were really to have 2/3 years of free discussion but again the system is such that that’s not something you can imagine.
The last 2 years between the West and Russia I think there were undoubtedly times when the West made mistakes, there were times, essentially when you look at Russia and all the years that I’ve been a journalist working in Russia and listening to the debates about Russia abroad there’s been kind of 2 sets of people who are firmly set in their beliefs. On the one hand there are people that say Vladimir Putin is a chancer he’s going to do, if we give him an opportunity to take it he is going to take it so we need firm red lines, Russia only respects firm red lines. And then there are people who say look Russia is acting out of weakness, paranoia, out of this feeling it is surrounded by the West, if we step back and bring them into the tank then everything is going to be fine. And I think I’m very, very glad I’m a journalist not a policy maker because I think there are times when one of those things might be true, there are times when other things are true. Certainly I think when you look at the Ukraine crisis there were times when they stopped because they were firmly aware that there was going to be a huge cost if they carried on but the whole thing they did feel threatened, trying to stop Russia that’s not much of a constellation if you’re sitting in Riga or Tallon or whatever to say look Russia won’t do anything if it doesn’t feel threatened so we won’t threaten them.
So I think again sorry for a bit of a rambling answer, again I am glad I get to ask the questions and usually not answer them because it is such a difficult question.
The Rt. Hon. Lord Risby
Well clearly you’re not a politician because you’ve attempted to answer the question. This gentleman here.
Thanks for the most interesting talk. Where do we go from here now because Russia if you look at it as a hard power is at a fraction of the GDP of the United States, fraction of the weaponry and it’s just talking big, making itself feel far bigger than it really is and it uses other forms of warfare, we hear a lot about cyber warfare. A person I know in cyber security reckoned that Russia corrupted the Brexit referendum, the Trump election and at the British, Scottish referendum. They did a dry run where they put millions of tweets and the things on the internet to make sure that Russia had the result it wanted. They reckon that vice versa the West that Putin wants to divide the West and divide and rule. But do you really think that he was able to pocket the results of these elections and referendums? They also said people in the West are extraordinarily naïve about Russia’s cyber capabilities. The Democrat party in the US seemed to be oblivious to the threat from Russian interference to the election and Hilary Clinton was just rambling on about all the policies and she seemed to be unaware.
Ok yes so I think there’s two parts to this, I think that there probably was a time when people were naïve about the sort of powers of cyber interference. I’m not sure that time is now I think if anything it’s become such a hot topic that there’s a tendency to look for cyber interference for where it may not necessarily even be there. I think yes certainly that is one line of Russian foreign policy and Russia if you take Europe I mean Russia is always wanting to deal bilaterally with countries it doesn’t like having a strong united EU against it so of course Brexit is something they would have been pleased about.
In terms of do I think they swung the votes I don’t know and nobody knows right, I mean nobody in the US knows if those Facebook posts and sort of weird demonstrations that seem to have been set up by Russian intelligence which is an extraordinary thing of course they should make sure that doesn’t happen again but nobody knows if that was the thing that caused 26,000 people in Ohio to vote for Trump instead of Hilary Clinton. And I do think there is a little bit of a danger of sort of fetishizing this Russian narrative which may be sort of some few thousand votes at the expense of all kinds of other things that were reasons behind either Brexit or Trump. So I would say it has been fascinating I mean I first went 2 years ago to this control factory which has been at the centre of this Muller indictment of last week.
I did a report and spoke to people who worked there 2 years ago and they were people who at that point were flooding the Russian internal discourse so these people would sit there and they were in teams where they would sort of flood the local chat-boards and one person would be to be very angry and say everything is terrible I’m furious with life then the other person would come in and say oh but you know the authorities are doing this or Vladimir Putin is doing this so everything is going to be ok. And they would set up this sort of whole narrative and again it is difficult to tell these things are very hard to measure what effect does that as an independent variable have on public opinion but clearly it’s a sort of, it’s a messy thing, it’s a potentially dangerous thing and it’s a sort of new challenge for people to work out how you deal with in the West.
So far what I’ve seen in terms of evidence with Brexit is there may well of been something there but it doesn’t seem to be quite as impressive as the operation with Trump and I don’t see anything that makes me think oh God it looks like they really swung this.
The Rt. Hon. Lord Risby
This gentleman in the front here.
Hi thanks for your interesting talk. I try not to see things these days, I spent years in the MOD which rattled the collapse of the Soviet Union and I remember we always used to think that Russia was a first class military ally to a third rate economy. Thinking about how Russia is these days the freeze on technology transfers, [inaudible] on BP probably questioning why on earth they ever got into Russia in the first place, would it be fair to say that Russia is yet again reverting to a first class military ally to a third class economy, world economy rather?
Yeah I mean in turn militarily I think what I said the 3 wars I covered during my time in Russia were the Georgia war, the Ukraine war and briefly as I said I went to Syria last year and you know when you saw the state of some of these units which were fighting in the Georgia war it was pretty messy, it was pretty unprofessional, it was a little bit better than what we’ve seen in Chechnya but not so much. And then when you saw these guys show up in Crimea without insignia these so-called little green men of course they looked super professional you knew that they knew what they were doing, very, very different to the east Ukraine war when they were a lot of sort of lunatics wondering around and then when the Russians did come in you could immediately tell when it was the Russian army and not the sort of separatist militias because the sort of precision and tactics and things were so much better. And again I think that’s still kind of limited to a few units and we’ve kind of seen in Syria so again you go there and much of their presence is impressive they have this new military police that actually looked exceptionally professional had modern vehicles sort of escorting everyone around everywhere but then they also reduced to using these sort of private military contractors who are less disciplined and this extraordinary incident a couple of weeks ago where it seemed that dozens of them were killed, coordination was all off.
So yes the military thing is sort of interesting they’ve developed like certain units which can fight kind of incredibly professionally but it’s still sort of far from going across the board. And yes I think the economy it’s a little bit depressing to see that yes the chances which where there for some kind of real diversification and real use of the incredible human potential that Russia has haven’t really been taken. You know the attempts to try and diversify the economy away have all been the classic one being Skolkovo this town innovation town outside Moscow which it was decreed that this town would be an innovation town and those are not normally the conditions that innovation comes in. So yes I think going forward those years of sort of easy oil growth are over even if the oil price goes up again that’s obviously much better for Russia but I don’t know in the second period of oil prices for 2014 we didn’t see the same kind of growth that we had in the first period I think that that easy oil growth has kind of exhausted itself and it economically doesn’t look great.
There are certain parts of industrial Russia which have been hollowed out during the 1990s and there is no signs of it actually being replaced it’s a bit like the Russian equivalent to Stoke On Trent really…
Yeah and I think that’s one of the reasons there was a really big socioeconomic part of what happened in East Ukraine that was another you know post-industrial area and it’s a generalisation but in general the people there who are more likely to support Ukraine where the middle class the people who thought their lives had got better since the Soviet collapse and the people who are likely to buy into the Russian narrative or the people who thought their lives had got worse since the Soviet collapse and indeed you can look at all these factories and you know in parts of East Ukraine and many parts of Russia and yes some of them have been modernised and some of them are profitable but you go somewhere like Magadan where sort of 50% of the population have left and you look at these places and you think sort of actually these were built for an economy that didn’t work, doesn’t exist anymore and there’s no possible economic regeneration that is going to turn this place into a thriving new community – it’s a 7 hour flight from Moscow, it’s in the middle of nowhere, it costs a fortune to heat it, there just sort of economically unviable places and there are really large parts of Russia which are like that.
The Rt. Hon. Lord Risby
Thank you, this lady.
I’m very happy that the President of France Macron wish to help President Putin to establish peace in Syria because it’s extremely important for humanity that we have peace in Syria what do you think about it?
Another sort of specific targeted question. Yes I think it is extremely important that we have peace in Syria. I mean I think that the Russia intervention in Syria I think that this thing that we saw a couple of weeks ago with these possibly over a hundred Russian mercenaries or Russian private military contractors being killed was a kind of sign that things are not going to be that easy in Syria and you know that Russia has gone in and has made its intervention which has completely changed, its kept Assad in power, it’s completely changed the complexion of the conflict…
Taken from both sides mercenary it’s not only Russia rebels die…
I mean I’m not talking about them I am talking about Russia specifically; I’m talking about the effect it will have on Russia. I’m not the kind of person to give you a complex analysis on whether there will be peace in Syria but I can say to you that I think it’s going to be messy for Russia that they’ve bought into this conflict and they’ve changed it and have made everyone take notice of them but they now kind of own it and there are so many different groups that have interest in Syria, that have competing interests in Syria that although Assad remains in power I don’t thinks it’s going to be this big diplomatic success that Putin was hoping for having the Sochi conference and this big agreement that kind of didn’t work and I don’t think we are round the corner from lasting peace.
But you know it’s very simple the reason why it didn’t work because the father of Assad and his brother they make judgement agreement [inaudible] and when he passed away he was hoped to become a President and the nation chose his son and he [inaudible] to undermined him and its very dangerous.
The Rt. Hon. Lord Risby
Thank you for that insight right at the back.
I am following on from the earlier one about the economy. You spoke very [inaudible] about the political structure and you eluded to the economic problems but I just wonder whether that will lead to some form of middle class instability that might lead to [inaudible]. There are very little exports out there as you said, oil and gas, if you go to Russia whenever I’ve been there, computers, mobile phones, even the aircraft, are all western [inaudible] in a time gone by and that means that the people themselves [inaudible] going onto the military. So do you think the increasing impoverishment of the Russian people might lead to a [inaudible] change?
As a side point before I answer the question about the aircraft I feel that I am leaving Russia just at the right time because they are starting to build a lot more of their own aircraft now, Aeroclart have just bought 50 of these things that have been built and the [inaudible] super jet as well which is flying around which is quite terrifying so I’m quite pleased I won’t be flying on those that much but they are trying to revive those sectors and in some cases I’m being a bit factious it has worked. But yes essentially there isn’t that much of that sort of production that goes on in Russia and in terms of the effects I think you know we are still, given that this situation has been created where there isn’t really an outlet for peaceful change and you know what we saw in 2011-12 the tactic was not mass repression sort of shooting people on the street but it was to pick people out at random who hadn’t really done anything, one person had thrown a lemon literally and give them long court cases, possibly real jail sentences just so people have it in their mind you don’t have to jail 10,000 people but you just have to know that actually if you go there, there’s a chance your whole life falls apart.
I think that for now and for the foreseeable future the kind of people who are likely to protest are more likely to be, feel like they have more to lose than they have to gain from going and protesting. So I think we will continue to see these sort of 10, 20 thousand protests whether that turns into 500,000 I think that is unlikely. I think that that sort of absolute desperation protests or sort of not the urban elite but people who are actually impoverished and angry I think we’re a long way from that but if that does happen it would be extremely nasty. I think probably for Putin the bigger worry in this next term is his people around him in his inner circle and not the Russia people.
Leading on from the question by the lady on my left, given that Macron is going to St Petersburg at the end on May would that suggest to you that there could be a parting of the waves between our continental friends with France especially Macron being in St Petersburg, maybe the necessity for gas into Germany and such matters and given are, and by are I mean the UKs hard-line position from all accounts, could be dividing waves between our continental friends and where were heading with the United States towards policy?
Yeah I mean the United there are sort of also two policies coming out of the United States right I mean there’s Trumps and everyone else’s which is also confusing. Again trying to answer the questions that I can and not sort of make stuff up on the things I don’t, my reporting has not sort of been on thinking in Paris and so on so it is difficult for me to say.
I think it’s certainly interesting and we’ve seen these times were there’s been a more or less a united front and these times when different people have tried to come out and say well actually of course we have to engage with Russia and someone like Macron going to St Petersburg they love that sort of thing right, that’s an excellent way for them to say here we are…
The Rt. Hon. Lord Risby
Anymore… sorry yes
Sorry I have a quick question about whether or not you had any sympathy whatsoever for the pro-Russian populations and or Russian speakers outside of Russia’s borders for example in the Baltics it is about citizenship rights because they went through exams in Estonia or those in eastern Ukraine who felt that they were undermined by John Kerry at Maidan and whether or not this is a genuine grievance on behalf of the Russians on their behalf or a pretext for Russian mischief which is often presented amongst us?
I mean so I think all of those cases are different. I think certainly in each of those cases there are elements of genuine grievances which are then kind of refracted and exploited through the kind of Russian propaganda lens. I think eastern Ukraine the answer to that question the last half of my book and the reason I wrote it; it was quite cathartic but I was so tired from having arguments with people from all sides about this. I think yes there where, the situation for people in East Ukraine they were not about to be massacred by Nazis in the West but there were definitely mistakes which were made by the post-Maidan government that where sort of structural things that I think that sort of for the first 2 decades of independence most of the times in Ukraine, sort of regions where allowed to essentially create their own narratives while the sort of central government was mainly involved in the economic stuff and sort of parcelling up the wealth so you know that by the time you get to 2010 you have in western Ukraine monuments to the Ukraine nationalists in the war and in eastern Ukraine you have the monuments to the [inaudible]. So you know in one country you have these two kind of competing narratives and I think that then when you suddenly have a government that sort of says well this is now the unifying narrative that becomes scary to a lot of people. So I have a lot of sympathy for people in east Ukraine have less sympathy for the sort of propagandists and people who kind of whipped up these fears.
The Rt. Hon. Lord Risby
Thank you, final question Andrew.
Dr Andrew Foxall
Thank you. Shaun, given your perspective somewhat unique perspective that you’ve had on Russia in the past 14 years being in the sense an insider but also an outsider, I wonder if you could just say perhaps what the one thing is that we in the West get wrong about Russia, the one thing that perhaps we misunderstand about Russia?
I mean I think it’s changed at different times, I think at the moment and this is perhaps a slight not quite the thing we get wrong about Russia but I think Russia at the moment is sort of its allowing us to make, we are sort of projecting things onto Russia that maybe we should be thinking about in different ways. The same question that was here I had a friend who was sort of comparing Russian interference in Brexit to if you’d arrived at the pub and you already had 15 pints and someone gave you a sixteenth and you then fell over and passed out I mean you might want to wonder why someone gave you the sixteenth pint when you were obviously in that condition and have a word with them but you should also sort of ask some questions of yourself. I think there’s a slight danger I find maybe just being a Moscow correspondent you deal with this more but some of the narrative in the States on Russia has become a little bit hysterical and so I think absolutely Putin’s Russia is a huge challenge and we need to sort of work out how we need to deal with it and they find low cost and high efficiency ways to do things that perhaps we were unprepared for but I also think we shouldn’t kind of get too hysterical about Russia.
The Rt. Hon. Lord Risby
Well Shaun you mentioned that one of the objectives of Putin was to turn the country into a first class nation because of all the historical reasons for this and indeed from some points of view that is exactly what’s happened in the sense that it is now a power on the world stage and the great question all of us have to then consider is how we deal with this country. You very modestly said that as a journalist you don’t have policy prescriptions but what you have done you have painted in the most comprehensive and balanced way a picture of this country and actually hinted clearly without realising that you have done so that there are some possible paths forward. But whatever I think all of us can agree that this has been an absolute treat from somebody who really has lived in the country and understands the country and to have shared your understanding and knowledge this afternoon has been exceptional for us all. So thank you very much indeed.