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Finding Putin’s Pressure Points
The American Interest
Finding Putin’s Pressure Points


TAI’s Damir Marusic and Karina Orlova recently sat down with Vladimir Milov—a Russian opposition activist, adviser to top Putin opponent Alexei Navalny, and former Deputy Energy Minister of Russia—as he was passing through Washington. Tune in this week for a special episode as they discuss the strategy of the Russian opposition, the growing discontent in Russia’s regions, and the fate of U.S. foreign policy in the age of Trump. And follow along below with our lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Damir Marusic for TAI:  We’re very pleased to have Vladimir Milov here with us today. Mr. Milov, welcome.

Vladimir Milov: Great pleasure. Thanks for having me.

DM: Here in the States we’ve been paying close attention to the protests that have been roiling Moscow, but also all across Russia. You spent some time in prison as a result. Could you tell us a little bit about what’s going on to orient our listeners?

VM: I think what happened this summer was a big first test for Vladimir Putin since his triumphant re-election in March 2018. The authorities did their best to demonstrate huge numbers of support during the presidential election that we had a couple of years ago. But it’s pretty obvious for everybody involved in Russian politics that since then he has experienced a tremendous collapse in public support. And this has happened for a variety of reasons. The bottom line is that we have an unprecedented economic crisis by length, probably the biggest since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This year we mark the 11th anniversary without meaningful economic growth. We’re essentially back to square one, where we were before the financial crash of the autumn of 2008. And we are right now having the sixth consecutive year with a decline in real disposable incomes. They shrank roughly by 15 to 20 percent since 2014 and obviously Russians are not happy about it. Moreover, they don’t see a good economic prospect for recovery, which is bothering them even more. They want Putin to reshuffle things, and I don’t know, appoint a new energetic government, come up with a plan to do something about the economy, because this is really beginning to bite.

And we in the opposition actually saw something like this coming. We saw a big growth of discontent and we wanted to channel it into political support for change, for an alternative, because many people are realizing that 20 years is a long time and enough is enough. When people sit in power for too long they lose the motivation to improve things.

So what happened was one of the biggest elections besides the federal Parliament and President: the elections for the Moscow City legislature, which is the third biggest parliament in the country. You can do a lot of stuff if you control the Moscow City Parliament.

The opposition presented a pool of really good candidates. Nearly all of them were banned on absolutely ridiculous grounds. We protested, and at the end of the day issued an ultimatum to the authorities that if they don’t register us by a certain date, we’d come in big numbers, take it to the streets. We really came in big numbers. The authorities were not happy. They jailed all of us, but then more people came. Because of this great increase in the extent of repression many apolitical people started to express concern. We saw many videos posted online and on Instagram by leaders of public opinion, artists, bloggers, and rappers to an extent unseen before.

So the authorities have calmed down a little bit, and released many of us including myself. I spent about 30 days in jail this August. Then we had the actual voting which was pretty successful in terms of mobilizing the protest vote. Bottom line, what happened shows that this picture that you see in the headlines in a lot of the Western media, that Putin is super popular, is just not true. There’s growing discontent among the public. A lot of Russians are unhappy that they don’t have a say in Russian politics. They don’t have any influence on the decisions that have been made and they don’t have anything to say in connection with this terrible economic situation that we have.

So we expect these trends to continue to grow. We’re looking forward to reflecting on this experience and taking it on to 2021 when we have federal parliamentary elections, the State Duma elections.

Karina Orlova for TAI: Since we’ve touched upon protests, I’d like to ask you how do you think the protests have changed since 2011 and 2012, when huge masses of people showed up. I participated in almost all of those protests and I know for sure that  the economy was strong, oil was extremely expensive—this was before Crimea and so everything was more or less okay. The people who took to the streets then were the so-called creative class: the Muscovites who were relatively well-off, the intelligentsia who were disappointed and discontented with the political situation.

But the rest of the country, they just didn’t feel any anger or disappointment, so there were just these Moscow protests. Now the economy is weak, there’s simply not enough money to go around, there’s been the pension reform and all that. How do you think this change in the economic situation has changed the prospects for the protests?

VM: There are several distinctive features, which make it very different from what happened in 2011-2012. When the oldest protests erupted on Bolotnaya and Prospect Sakharova eight years ago, I was very often not at the podium but in the crowd, so I talked to a lot ordinary people who were there. They were surprised by their own bravery. This was the first time in almost 20 years that Russia saw mass protest rallies.

Now we have a very strong core of really determined folks who demand political change pretty consciously and in big numbers. So this is not just a crowd of first-timers who really have a very rough idea about what they’re defending. This is a crowd of very determined people who know what they want, who are determined to stay regardless of all the police pressure and all the arrests. This is point number one.

Point number two is that eight years ago there was still a chance for Putin to convince people that we’re going to get better, we’re going to improve. We’re going to reshuffle something, and you will see a new Putin who will take us onwards from here. Now, 20 years is a long time. A lot of people are saying enough is enough. Many people have lost faith that this government, which has been in power for so long, is actually capable of delivering any positive change or reform whatsoever.

And third is obviously what is most important, the economy. In 2011, we were at just the beginning of this huge stagnation period that we’re now so deeply into. Now, I think more and more people have come to realize that this is a systemic thing. This stagnation is a result of a total lack of motivation for the government to deliver anything, any goods for its people, and that is just irreparable. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. These guys who were not able to fix the economy for such a long time, why would we have any expectations about them? So, enough is enough and economic issues are extremely important factors contributing to this progress.

DM: I know that Alexei Navalny has managed to create a network of offices outside of Moscow, and that’s a heartening change from years ago when it was very much a central thing. Is the opposition managing to connect with all the different protest movements that are happening across Russia, whose grievances are narrowly economic, and not necessarily connected to sort of this broader sense of change and frustration? Are you offering something to these voters?

VM: Yeah. A remarkable feature of the moment is that if you Google Russian news, you will see that major protests are happening out there in the provinces almost every day, which is unprecedented. I haven’t seen it to the same magnitude since the late Soviet years. And of course, we try to connect with most of these protests which are not initially political, they start with some local issues. For instance, I’d say the biggest problem right now in Russia is the environment, because, bottom line, the current system is about exploiting our natural resources and exploiting people for the benefit of a handful of oligarchs close to Putin, and that’s it. So they totally disregard environmental issues.

KO: In particular landfills, they’re trying to organize around landfills.

VM: Yes. So one of the biggest issues you will hear in Russia in connection with the protests is the garbage crisis, because Putin has failed miserably over 20 years in power, despite all the rhetoric about recycling garbage, which is a pretty casual thing in Europe.

KO: No one is recycling anything in Russia.

VM: Yeah. So they offer a very binary choice between landfills and incineration, and people are against both. Because a landfill is poisonous. It’s poisoning the underground waters, and it emits poisonous gases which people have to breathe. This became a huge problem in the region surrounding Moscow because we have a lot of garbage dumps and landfills out there and people really suffer. Then there is the other alternative which is offered by one of Putin’s oligarchs. He said, “Okay. Let’s build incineration plants and burn this stuff,” which will emit all kinds of nasty poisonous substances that will really damage health, so people are protesting against that as well. So bottom line, there are many other social issues, like doctors and teachers not receiving decent salaries or. . .

KO: Being fired en masse, right?

VM: Yes, or the general issue of systemic policies of cutting spending on healthcare and education in the Russian regions. People are protesting against that. In certain regions there are specifics like in Kemerovo [the site of a deadly mall fire in 2018 – ed.] where I was born, and Kuzbass, the main coal producing region in Russia. They’ve seen a rapid development of open-pit production, which emits a lot of coal dust. I mean, you cannot put out laundry to dry on your balcony because it becomes black. That’s the point. They have black snow and stuff like that. And I’m not even mentioning what you get if you do an x-ray of their lungs. But people get that this is a sort of existential problem.

We try to connect with all these movements. It works more successfully in some cases or a bit less successfully in a lot of cases, but it’s remarkable that many people actually come to realize that it’s all about politics. It’s all about the way the country is governed and exploited by a very narrow circle of Putin’s oligarchic mafia. Now, there’s a remarkable moment, which is available on YouTube, where there was a rally against imports of Moscow garbage in one of the cities in the Arkhangelsk region.

KO: Shiyes, right?

VM: No. Shiyes is just a station where they want to dump all this stuff. But all of the cities in Arkhangelsk, actually, had a single protest day. All of the cities came to join in the protests in solidarity with other residents of the regions. It was either Kotlas or Severodvinsk, I don’t remember precisely, but the video is available and it’s remarkable. There are some 5 or 7,000 residents protesting,, which is huge for that city. It’s like several percentage points of the population. And one of the speakers comes up and says, “Please, raise your hands, who trusts Vladimir Putin.” And no one, literally no one of the thousands of folks actually raises their hands. People actually braced themselves to specifically show that, “No, no, no. I’m not going to raise my hand.” So that’s remarkable. Many Russians tend to understand that the origins of many of these problems are in the way the country is governed. So they relatively rapidly shift to political protests.

KO: In particular, in Shiyes as we’ve mentioned, it’s a remarkable process because it’s been going on for a year now. It’s a permanent protest. So did you in Navalny’s team try to connect with them? How popular is Navalny there and in such local cities and towns where people protest not against political matters, but against local stuff? How big are Navalny’s chances to capture the moment?

VM: Look, we obviously try not only to connect with these people, but we are there because Navalny has his headquarters in Arkhangelsk. Recently, the authorities have tried to open a criminal case against one of Navalny’s activists in Arkhangelsk, where we were always present. But of course there is a certain gap, there is a certain lack of trust because there are many people who say, “We are not political. We don’t want to engage in the federal political agenda.”

KO: Why do they say so? Did they fear that they will be imprisoned? Are they aware of political repressions?

VM: Bottom line, Karina, yes, because they don’t want to take all the burden of this standoff between Putin and his federal political opponents. I mean, it’s just part of them. There’s another part which is loudly saying, “No, no, no. We need to engage politically. It’s the only way to go because they will bury all our protests if we get localized.”

KO: So do people still divide Putin from the governors who are actually appointed by the President in Russia? Is there such a division in their heads? Do they still think that they can protest the governor or mayor and it has nothing to do with him?

VM: No. In Arkhangelsk, I think no. Arkhangelsk is one of the regions which I would deem to be totally lost for Putin. His approval ratings there are negligible. Just the story which I told you earlier about people not raising hands in answering the question about “do we trust Putin”—that’s very remarkable, and that’s a remote, small town somewhere in Arkhangelsk Oblast. Not even the regional capital. So I think in Arkhangelsk, they’ve already figured out that Putin is to blame. But there’s still these natural gaps and divides. People were disengaged from federal politics for a long time, so they have this sort of fear and hesitation to re-engage.

They see that a lot of risks and troubles are associated with engaging in politics so a lot of them actually hope that they might walk this thin ice, solve a local problem through protest, but at the same time not step on this big minefield of federal politics which might be dangerous. But, again, I would say there is a sizable group which thinks that way, but that’s still a minority. The majority is big-time supportive of re-engagement, and also Navalny has done a lot for Shiyes. We have this permanent communication with folks in Arkhangelsk and Shiyes, where we permanently broadcast their messages, their announcements.

On the Navalny Live channel, we made a big film about Shiyes and it’s worth seeing. It was quite popular and they were grateful that we keep highlighting their problems at the same time that most mainstream media is silent on the issue. So we try to engage with them. It’s not a very easy and fast process, but there’s a lot of progress.

KO: Did Navalny ever go there?

VM: Navalny went to Arkhangelsk. He had a huge rally in support of him in the city during his presidential campaign two years ago. He never went since, but he will go. The time should come. We need to better prepare this.

KO: Does he ever go anywhere outside Moscow to protest?

VM: Absolutely, absolutely.

KO: Where, recently?

VM: For instance, we had this huge rally in Novosibirsk against an increasing of communal tariffs which was unjustified and the result of a cartel agreement between the government and a local monopoly. People protested, the decision was abolished, and Navalny went to speak up. Some of the people were against him being present, but the host of the rally actually said, “Raise your hands, who wants to hear Alexei Navalny?” 90 percent said yes, we want to hear him, and he spoke. He spoke in Chelyabinsk at an environmental rally against the construction of major toxic plants near the city. In many cases he loves going into regions and we’re picking the appropriate timing and the cause for his presence, but he loves to go.

DM: So you’re looking at 2021 as the timeline, and the parliamentary elections are the next inflection point?

VM: That’s right. It comes in waypoints. Russia’s such a strong and capable dictatorship so we cannot really outline a detailed plan of how we go from point A to point B, so what we can do best is to try next time to take on Putin, see how it goes. If we’re successful we try to capitalize on the success. If we fail then we learn from the mistakes, but then take him on forward and hit him next time. So 2021 is the next big thing but it’s not the end of story. For us, it’s always just the beginning.

KO: So you don’t have a plan for 2021?

VM: No, we do have a plan for 2021. We’re working on it right now, but we have to fully reflect on what’s happened in the summer of this year. We have to process this experience. We have to study the consequences because we were also hit severely by the authorities with all these raids, seizure of equipment, blocking of accounts, and essentially attempts to block all our organization and financial activity. We’re circumventing that. We’re pretty successful at still going on despite all this pressure, but we need to enhance our tools of resilience so it takes a bit of time, thinking, and processing.

DM: It sounds like you have a certain sense of cautious optimism about Russia or at least believe that the situation is becoming untenable. But if you look at the broader situation right now, Emmanuel Macron is making all sorts of noises about rapprochement with Putin. We’ll see what happens at the Normandy talks vis-a-vis Ukraine. And in general the West seems to be having an inward moment. I personally wouldn’t necessarily characterize Russia’s success in Syria as a success, but it certainly has been reported in such a way. Can you talk a little bit, now that you’re traveling abroad and talking to people, about your impressions? Are people seeing the right situation that’s going on in Russia? And how are you seeing the situation abroad as you’re out?

VM: First, on what’s happening in the world, I think it’s a pretty natural reaction to globalization, because we have an absolutely unprecedented level of peoples, of different nations coming together, migration flows, communications made easier, trade flows, and liberalization of global trade. I think humanity has never experienced this extent of interaction between nations. So there is a natural setback. People who used to live somewhere out there in the outback, in the countryside, they are right now losing jobs, losing economic prospects. They’re not happy about it. They don’t understand how they continue the good old way. Looking inward, as you say, is a pretty natural reaction to all these global processes. We all have our moments.

DM: Do you think Putin is taking advantage of it successfully?

VM: He tries. Also, my point is that 20 years ago when Putin began to attempt to seize power, we really thought that this is a deviation from a natural democratic trend that Russia should embrace to become a successful, normal market democracy. Right now, looking at what’s happening in the U.S. and UK, and Italy and Austria and many other places, we see that was probably an early part of the global trend. Putin was one of the early Trumps, or Orbans, or Erdogans sent into this world as a warning. People didn’t listen. But essentially this new chauvinistic, egoistic, anti-globalist trend that we see emerging in the world politics is a pretty natural response to globalization.

Many people are frustrated by globalization. You would expect an emergence of politicians who would come and say, “I’m going to protect you.” This is what we see across the globe. Putin was one of the early folks to offer that, and of course he tries to capitalize on all the cracks in your system, all these bitter disputes, all this inward looking and so on. I think, fundamentally, he will never succeed because he has nothing to offer. He has nothing to offer as a decent model of living. It’s still pretty much the Western world that is a model, the liberal international order that is a model. What does Putin have to offer? When you talk to taxi drivers in Washington DC, they tell you how great Putin made Russia. I say go and visit yourself. Where are you from? Bangladesh. Okay. Please come and take a look.

KO: Maybe Russia is actually better off than Bangladesh, but not Washington, DC.

DM: Point taken, I think you won’t find much disagreement here. But, for example, on a very narrow thing: You were energy minister. TurkStream is opening in January. Wasn’t there supposed to be a big ceremony?

VM: I think so, yeah. And the Power of Siberia opened a couple days ago.

DM: And then Nord Stream 2 seems to be making good strides with the Europeans despite the energy directives and the rest. What Putin does have to offer Europe, in any case, is a lot of energy.  The Germans have played a strange, at times puzzling game, and now the French are on board in many ways with this kind of transactional attitude. Do you see this? It’s interesting because of your optimism domestically that it’s falling, and yet. . .

VM: Let me tell you something about all these pipeline streams. Guess who’s paying for all this stuff? The Russian taxpayer. Because Gazprom receives obscene tax exemptions and dividend exemptions just to finance all these things. There’s this perpetual debate going on between Gazprom and the Russian Ministry of Finance because there’s a formal requirement set by the Russian government, the state-owned companies pay not less than 50 percent of the net earnings in the form of dividends to shareholders—that means to the state. Gazprom never complies, pays a quarter at best. It says, “I do this. I need exemptions from dividends because I need to invest.” Invest where? In all this unnecessary stuff because we had the cheapest possible option of just investing 5 billion euros in upgrading the Ukrainian gas transit networks.

Before we started this aggression against Ukraine, we had the cheapest transit tariffs ever in the history of mankind. We spoiled all that. We threw away tens of billions of dollars just to build all these bypasses. Who’s paying? The Russian taxpayer. Putin does his best to hide this information from ordinary Russians and portray all this stuff as a huge success. Now, this is not a success. This is a terrible failure because if not for all these streams, we would not be forced to kill economic growth by raising the value-added tax. We would not be forced to raise the retirement age, which is terribly angering Russians and there is absolutely no economic justification for it. All these streams that are portrayed in the West as a success, as a matter of fact, are a deep policy failure because Russians suffer because of it.

KO: As a Russian, I should make a disclaimer that no one has ever been interested in cheaper or more cost-effective projects in Russia. Quite the opposite. The more you spend, the better, because the more you will steal from that because the main way to enrich yourself—and I’m talking about Putin’s friends and his closest circle—is to get a state contract. And we’re sensing something like that here in the States now with the remarkable story of a $400 million contract for building the barrier across the border with Mexico.

DM: The wall, yeah.

KO: It’s not the wall, actually, it’s a barrier. So it was given to a company from North Dakota affiliated with Trump.

VM: A kickback.

KO: Yeah, it’s kind of the same. What I think Damir was also trying to ask is that there’s so much talk now that the West is tired, Europe is tired from all this “Russia” stuff and now this talk is coming from the Republicans: “Oh my god, we’re so tired of Ukraine.” Tucker Carlson may be the first person to say, “Why should I be against Russia after all?” I mention Tucker Carlson because Trump listens to him—that’s probably his closest advisor. When you talk to people in Europe, do you sense that they are tired of this war with Russia?

VM: Not really because in continental Europe, I would say the political situation is much better and healthier than in the United States. I wanted to come back to this issue of race of populism and egoism across the globe. I think, partially, this is because we have a new generation of politicians who have essentially forgotten the legacy of World War II and the Cold War between America and Russia, and they got used to this pretty nice liberal international order that we have built in the past 30 years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. They began to take it for granted. That’s a very important point and coming back to what you just said, I think people in continental Europe have a much stronger realization of something good that they built over years that they need to preserve, and not just throw it away.

KO: By good you mean what exactly?

VM: The international liberal order. The bottom line is that we have a struggle between the international liberal order and the rise of dictatorships across the globe, in the 19th century-style type of governance—a cartel of monarchies who actually decide which territory will be whose colony and so on. On the one hand, we have a cartel of dictatorships: Putin, Xi Jinping, the Arab monarchies of the Middle East, and so on. We have Erdogan and folks like that.

On the other hand, we still have countries who want to defend the liberal democratic order. Primarily, these are the countries of continental Europe, the European Union. They’re not as strong as they should be to actually take on this global leadership role, but I hope they will. Unfortunately, the United States not only keeps withdrawing, but boy, in the past three years we hear such familiar music coming out of Washington, DC—like state contracts awarded to business friends, all this rhetoric. Even before Donald Trump was elected President, I remember—and I’m a frequent visitor to the U.S.—when I came in the morning to iron my shorts before I went to meetings, I watched some TV in the hotel room. So I happened to turn on Fox News Channel, and I was listening to that and I went, “Wow, this sounds way too familiar.”

KO: And who learned from whom? That’s my question. Did Russian propaganda learn from Fox News or vice versa?

VM: I think it’s symbiosis, but generally the net contribution in the past few years was mostly from the Russian side. You see this new trend emerging in American politics because of Trump. I would call it the “so what” formula. Okay, you made an impeachable offense. “So what? I wanted to and who cares, right? My base is still with me and I don’t care about anything else.” I wonder if only Nixon knew about this “so what” attitude. He’d probably be still in power.

KO: I’m not sure if that’s a reference, but that’s an actual quote from the trial of Roger Stone. His lawyer said “Yes, I mean maybe he tampered with witnesses, so what?” It’s a quote from a court hearing.

VM: That’s right, but this is also a very good formula in just two words and six letters. This “so what” attitude comes from Russia big time, because when I first came to the U.S. 25 years ago—and I’ve been frequently visiting here ever since I worked with the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration, and the Obama Administration, but not with the Trump Administration, fortunately—I always heard this talk that, “we have institutions, we have rule of law.” As you rightly say, a lawyer pronouncing the words “so what” while defending himself from some criminal offense that he was involved in—that’s a departure. And it comes from Russia. I’m 100 percent confident because we started it. It was Putin who first came and this is the concept he offered to Russians to say, “Let’s put all these institutions into the dustbin.”

KO: But Russia never had these established institutions, per se. I mean, there were some, but they were developing institutions that were born in the ’90s; they were not even 20-year old institutions. But I agree with you that institutions don’t fall in one day.

VM: Let me tell you something. Karina, this is a popular perception right here in Washington, that Russia never had real democracy. Yes, we did, because when Putin just came to power, I was already a mid-level official in the federal government. I was head of the department at the Federal Energy Commission which regulated electricity and gas markets. So having that position, I openly supported the other candidate at the presidential election of 2000, Grigory Yavlinsky. I never hid it. I openly said so at my workplace.

It was a funny moment when Putin signed a law later that year about the return of the old Soviet anthem. They removed Lenin but they added some other nice sounding stuff. This draft legislation was sent to all the deputy chairmen and the heads of departments so that they could get familiarized with the new law. So I openly wrote on this, I refused to familiarize myself with the song. And I was promoted to the Deputy Minister position later. Actually, openly speaking against the President—this was allowed even early in Putin’s term, not to mention the ’90s. So we had very raw institutions.

I’m not saying that Russia had established institutions and in this regard you’re right, but we had a lot of freedom. And, the power grab that took place under Putin— I witnessed it from a very close range. I was not just an ordinary citizen. I discussed this with ministers, prime ministers, billionaires, senior members of parliament and so on as it unfolded.

Two points about the power grab. First, it never happens in a simplistic way, like a ruler comes and says, “We scrap democracy from tomorrow. I become a dictator and that’s that.” No, it comes in a very gradual number, with a myriad of moves—like they appoint a couple of friendly judges, they slightly change the rules, making it a bit easier for the incumbents to keep power and for their opponents to challenge them. They raise all this media hysteria. Again, what’s different about the Fox News and the real media? The real media might be biased but it offers you some picture like we want to make our country better, here are ways to do it. Let’s have a debate. You might disagree, but that’s the way to go.

Now propaganda is very different. It always has enemies who are to blame for our problems. With autocratic propaganda, it’s always enemies; we are never guilty. It’s enemies who create trouble. Liberals, Mexicans, foreign agents. And in this regard, Putin’s rhetoric and Fox News’ rhetoric is pretty similar.

DM: I want to actually ask you about Europe because I’m intrigued that you’re more optimistic about Europe than the United States.

VM: Because Europe was pretty successful in keeping all this aggressive egoistic and populist forces at bay.

DM: For example, the sanctions regime. It’s still important that that be kept in place, yes?

VM: Listen, I never openly call for sanctions against my country. I’m only offering you some advice and analysis, right?

DM: Yes, sure.

VM: So it’s pretty certain that sanctions such as they are have greatly contributed to all this economic stagnation that we experienced, because Russian companies and banks are effectively blocked from the ability to borrow money. There was this idea that we turn to China and borrow there. But point number one, the total assets of the Chinese financial system are like four times less than that of the U.S. and three times less than that of the European Union. And moreover, the Chinese banking system is not built to lend money to outsiders, it’s only for domestic consumption. Chinese bankers go crazy when they have to evaluate all the risks and other instruments which they lack.

So Russia is effectively blocked from international financial markets. And just to give you an idea, before July 2014, when we downed the Malaysian airliner and financial sanctions were introduced, very heavy borrowing at the international financial markets was the key driver of the growth we had. Modest growth, but we still had some growth.

And by July 2014, we had accumulated about a $700 billion total foreign loan portfolio for our companies and banks combined. It shrunk to below 400. More than a $300 billion credit crunch, that’s a lot. That hit the Russian economy pretty hard, and the stagnation that we are facing. . . Look, even ordinary Russians, when you talk to people on the ground in the provinces, realize by now that the dire economic situation has a lot to do with the standoff with the West, so we better normalize relations. By the way, interestingly even opinion polls would show you that there is a great majority calling for normalization of relations with the West in Russia.

DM: Is Navalny campaigning for normalization of relations with the West?

VM: We have to be very careful with foreign policy subjects because people are very polarized and infested with this fever, the poison that is being spread by Russian Fox News that is multiplied by several channels. This foreign policy debate is pretty charged, so you have to be careful. Moreover, one important advantage for Navalny is that his main message is that Putin spends so much time and resources on geopolitics while forgetting about Russia.

So let’s refocus on Russia and get things fixed, and this obviously coincides with the aspirations of a great majority of the Russian people, so they’re on our side in this regard. Putin still wants to play his beloved geopolitics on the global stage. We want the government to refocus and fix the broken domestic issues. So in this regard, our priorities are domestic issues. But obviously Navalny supports normalization of relations with the West which, again, coincides with the aspirations of most ordinary Russians.

DM: On China then: There were these hopes that there would be money coming from China, and even on defense cooperation. How does that play with regular Russian voters in your experience, the relationship with China? And again, the reason I ask is because the United States is now really all about China, China, China.

VM: That’s a favorable topic for us because nobody likes China in Russia. Neither among the general public nor among the elite because it is Putin who loves this theme of dancing with Chinese and building some brotherhood partnership and so on. The elite is fearful because they understand that they’re going to be trampled underfoot and that’s the end. And more or less everybody understands that. So there’s this deep sense of inequality in this partnership even among ordinary Russians. They understand that China’s not only so much bigger, but it’s also extremely pragmatic in its approach and the partnership is not built on values and mutual respect, but only exploitation.

Let me put it in a simple way, OK? Look, I often talk to ordinary Russians doing political campaigning and when I meet a crowd of several dozen people, there’s always somebody, either a provocateur or like a genuine revolter, who asks me this question: “But you are pro-western, you are an American spy. What can you say in your defense?” I make a very plain and simple answer. “We live in the world so we have to make some connections, partnerships, and so on. And we have only three major centers of geopolitical influence: the collective West as we know it, the Islamic world, and China. Take your pick. With whom out of these three do you want to build a partnership and make friends?”

And believe me, here we reconnect with the point that Russians still want to come back to the family and normalize relations with the West. They have a slightly more positive view of Europe than the United States. But there is a natural connection and we are a European nation anyway. So this is good material to build on, but China is taken overwhelmingly negatively which is good. Putin failed in his efforts to persuade Russians that we need to be brothers with China. Everybody realizes that as a matter of fact we’re not, and it’s good.

KO: Yes, Russians hate America to the extent that they love it, and they love America to the extent that they hate it. America is a nemesis for Russia. I mean, no one would argue that America has always been a shining house on the hill for the Russians. But has it changed at all, especially since 2016? I’m not just talking about propaganda and brainwashed Russians. I’m talking about the intelligentsia, like liberals. How do they see America can now be a friend of Russia? Imagine Putin has a heart attack tomorrow and Trump is still there, what happens?

VM: It’s my third day in Washington and I’ve been asked this question about what happens if Putin has a heart attack tomorrow something like 20 times. Keep dreaming! He’s in good health, by the way. But America is pretty important and I have to make a disclaimer that this began to dramatically change under Trump because we saw a totally different face of America, something that we were unaware of before. Or at least we were unaware that such problems in American society exist to that extent.

KO: Which problems? Political corruption?

VM: Egoism. America was always a global nation. It was always a global leader. This is how it was always perceived. Some people hated it because America had too much influence. Some people loved it because America brought a lot of good to many countries of the world. But that was a matter of fact. The global leadership of America was a matter of fact and this was a significant part of the world order that we knew. It’s withdrawing. It’s becoming more egoistic and we see that it’s not just some guy elected president, but that’s a systemic issue which is somewhat deep-rooted in American society. We have yet to understand what comes out of it because the world without American leadership is something different.

You asked about Putin dying from a heart attack tomorrow. What we see is America not dying, but having a heart attack today as a global leader. So we have to transfer this nuclear suitcase to somebody else in the absence of American leadership. But going back, I would say that point number one is that I think that all this anti-Americanism in Russia is not deep-rooted. It’s artificial, it was imposed. I saw how it happened. Even before Putin, there were some nasty people like Yevgeny Primakov. I used to work in government when Primakov was Prime Minister and he was absolutely totally insane in his anti-Americanism, was very genuine and he was imposing it on the Russian elite and many people bought it.

So genuinely, Russians don’t have much against America. We had a historic periods when we reconnected somehow. So I use Apollo and Clinton. So when that happens you see that Russians are really ready to embrace and after Putin supported Bush after 9/11, all these goddamn Putin trolls on the internet were jumping around and saying how great a country America is and we need to stand behind it to fight Islamic terror threat and stuff like that. That was under Putin already. So this is not deep-rooted. You can see even by the results of opinion polls that all these foreign policy attitudes, they go on and off in connection with what propaganda is saying daily on television. So we switch propaganda off. After some time this will be healed.

But America is taken negatively for two reasons. First, it is seen as a global competitor. A lot of Russians see the world as a competition of powers. We still yet have to explain that there can be a totally different win-win world and international democratic order where all of us are intertwined and borders reduced. We can trade with each other and be happy, right? Many Russians don’t see it that way. They see it more like the soccer World Cup where nations are competing for the prize and America obviously is the biggest competitor. That is one thing and the propaganda, obviously, supports that.

And the second thing, though not so much recently, but America has always been bombing somebody on television. And that took a toll. And particularly Yugoslavia was a terrible blow to America’s image in Russia because that’s a Slavic nation, historically pretty close or at least better understood and having certain ties in Russia. And many people projected this onto Russia itself when it happened live on television. “So they bomb a country as close to us as Yugoslavia, maybe we’re going to be next.” That raises a lot of negative attitudes, and then came Iraq and so on.

So America has to somehow work on this image of a country which always bombs somebody. I understand the reason why some of these things have been done. I still do not understand the Iraq invasion. At least the Yugoslav Wars are pretty understood, and the ’95 Bosnia bombing campaign was also undertaken with the participation of Russia, which was part of the coalition to stop Bosnian Serbs from the genocide and Siege of Sarajevo and so on. But despite such reasoning, image-wise this does not look good and it damages the image of America in the eyes of not only Russians but people of the world. So you have to work on it. You have to somehow fix this image problem.

DM: It’s interesting to hear you talk about Russia’s European aspirations because if Emmanuel Macron is listening to this, this is music to his ears. The challenge then becomes the fact that Putin is well in power, the structures that he’s set in place are deep. There’s a security state that, should he have a heart attack—and Karina’s written about this for us in the magazine several times—it’s not so easy to dislodge, despite your optimism that the economics are heading in this direction. This may be an interesting misplacement, or a temporal thing right now, that the Europeans are also feeling abandoned by the United States.

VM: Listen, let me add something because you are quoting these recent attempts by Macron to do another reset with Putin as a given, as a direction that Europe is heading. It is not so, because I deal a lot with many European politicians. The reaction to these naive Macron attempts is overwhelming and negative in Europe. A lot of prominent European politicians just keep saying this is stupid. There was a guy who looked in Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. It never worked. There was a guy who did the reset, it never worked. And why would it work this time? This guy’s now 20 years in power; we know all and everything about him. He can’t be trusted.

So I think simply Macron fell under the spell. Also, I think he went a little bit crazy over his feeling of mission and leadership in Europe. Obviously, he’s arguably the strongest political leader in Europe right now, now that Angela Merkel has announced that she will step down. So I think it drove him a little bit insane. He recovered from the Yellow Vest protests. His approval ratings are up. He’s a major reformer and actually doing a lot of good stuff in France. So he thought that now I’m the biggest leader since de Gaulle so I need to invent something of global significance. Let’s make peace with Putin.

So I think no, Europe has big resilience to all this populism, egoism, idiocy. Just take a look at the European Parliament elections in May. The predictions by many commentators were that there will be a huge populist wave and this alliance between Salvini and Le Pen would finish second. They finished fifth. The goddamn fifth losing to greens! This is how strong Europe is, and European elections nominally tend to have lower turnouts with a stronger mobilization by populists. So it gives even more understanding of what resiliency Europe has towards this populist wave. You have to learn something right here in the States from that.

DM: It’s an interesting time; it strikes me that we’re just at an interesting sort of mismatch. Hopefully your optimism for Russia pans out, that there are changes there in the immediate term and then the West heals itself. But it seems to me, being a Slav myself originally from the Balkans, like a pessimistic time—in fact, that the trials are very serious across the West. I perhaps don’t share your optimism about Europe’s resilience in the shadow of all these things.

VM: Listen, several times when you commented on my words, you used the word optimism. Let me clarify this. I’m not so much optimistic, because there are all the reasons for pessimism and for expectations that things are going to get worse before they get better. What I have is maybe not exactly optimism, but hope. There should always be hope and there are all the reasons to have hope. Even in the most dire circumstances when we’re cornered and we seem to lose, we’ve got to have hope and fight through. This is the message that I’m telling to the Russian people and it’s my favorite quote from Hemingway: “This world is a fine place and worth fighting for. Let’s never give up this fight.”

DM: Terrific. Let’s call it a night. Thank you, Vladimir. This was wonderful.

VM: It was a great pleasure. Thank you.

Published on: December 21, 2019
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