Campbell Conversations

Interview: Pavel Baev

An expert on Russian foreign and security policy

Pavel Baev, an expert on Russian foreign and security policy, is a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He spoke about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Grant Reeher (GR): What drove this conflict?

Pavel Baev (PB): It is typically a cliché that most of the conflict in the world is all about oil or something else. This isn’t. It’s about the trends in regime development and particularly about the maturing of a very peculiar authoritarian regime in Russia. And this kind of regime doesn’t really fit into our traditional academic perceptions. So for politicians, it was always a puzzle with how to deal with this. What was really going on in Russia? Can it be a partner or should it be treated as a potential adversary? The attempts to embrace Russia and to transform Russia continued, and they probably will come back in some years. But at the moment, Russia’s behavior clearly and firmly puts it as the main challenge to European security.

GR: Have things quieted, or is this something that we are just not covering as much as we used to because of the focus on the terrorists of ISIS?

PB: I think this dissipation of attention is natural. The active phase of fighting, of hostilities, have given way to a ceasefire — a surprising ceasefire, a very fragile ceasefire. Nevertheless, it holds. Small violations here and there, but generally on the part of all sides of the conflict. There are always two sides in every single war. They are committed to keeping it on track. At the same time, it is such an odd ceasefire. You see how unnatural the result is, and expectations that it will continue are rather slim. So it is entirely possible that the attention will come back to Ukraine despite the fact that through this half a year, Ukraine fatigue has derailed people. You know, many audiences are fed up with this conflict.

GR: What’s at stake for Russian President Vladimir Putin in this conflict?

PB: Everything. For Putin, it’s the only thing that matters, and this really started for him as just a chapter in his very highly advertised stance against revolutions. He sees himself as an international force, as a rock that stands against the tide of revolutions. For him, everything depends upon this, and the stakes are so high that nothing else matters for Russia. It appears to be a risk. As the whole world shrunk to Crimea and its surroundings, and this ceasefire in fact for Putin is a very odd situation because he cannot really present this as a victory. The project he advertised, the colossal propaganda machine geared up to propel, was far larger in its scale. And in its essence the situation — you won the prize in Crimea and you are now in charge of this very awkward bit of Ukrainian territory and in the east around Dzhankoy. What do you do with them, because the rest of Ukraine has become so alienated from Russia, this is what matters. This is the main result.

GR: Was this in part an effort to deflect attention in Russia away from domestic problems, away from economic challenges?

PB: Yes, it is. The regime was maturing and becoming more richly authoritarian. It became more corrupt at the same time the Russian economy has gone into a decline. It was a very clear sign that quarter after quarter you have a worse performance. Capital is escaping; no new capital is flowing in, just because of the nature of this regime. Something was needed to rescue that particular regime, because its social contract with the bulk of the population was eroding. A small and successful war appeared to be a solution, but then it turned out to be not that small and not that successful. And what you do in this ceasefire — your economy continues to decline — you cannot present the result as a victory. That propels Putin to continue along the war track, which is very worrisome.

GR: Is this a one-person decision-making process?

PB: The regime has become very uni-personal, highly personalistic, extremely centralized. It used to be a combination of clans around Putin, and he was playing the role of arbiter, generally playing the role of postponing the decision, playing one clan against another. It’s not the picture anymore. Suddenly, on this war track, everyone was rigidified, and it feels much more like a militarized structure, where indeed there is one person on the top with very little freedom of maneuvering, because he is a hostage of his own previous decisions. He needs to carry all the responsibility of his mistakes, and he never likes to admit any mistakes, or a theoretical possibility of any mistake.

GR: It sounds like entering into this conflict strengthened his hand. I understand that you’re saying that he finds himself in a box, so to speak. But from the standpoint of having power within Russia, is he stronger now?

PB: In some ways he is, because there is a very successful consolidation of public opinion around him. He has become the one and only. There is not even a shadow of question of who might possibly come after. He is the center of the universe in Russia at the moment. But this phenomenon is not very stable, not just because he is one person in charge of everything, but also he has to deliver on a lot of things,  and it is only him who can deliver and can solve all the problems. The bureaucracy in Russia – it’s a big country; it’s very complex. And when every decision depends on one person, it means that all the decisions are just not done. Many things are stalled, and many problems are hanging, and, yes, the initial impulse of mobilizing everything around him probably was very successful, but it cannot last.

GR: How would you assess the way that the Obama administration has handled this situation? What kind of grade would you give them?

PB: I would probably give him a higher grade than he normally receives. I think he deserves more credit than he gets, but then I think it is typical for media and for political opponents to come with criticism. It is always easier to find flaws in somebody who is travelling across unfamiliar territory and has to take leadership in this territory. Obviously, Obama was very hesitant initially. He invested a lot of personal capital into this “reset” with Russia and into trying to embrace, engage, and into trying to keep Russia on the track of modernization. It was in everybody’s interest. And it didn’t happen. It was a bitter disappointment for him, so probably in his reactions and his first response was that feeling: I don’t really want to deal with that anymore; I’m fed up. But nevertheless the conflict has acquired such proportions that Obama’s leadership was essential. He has been quite successful in both convincing the American public that the conflict needs to be addressed as a top priority issue and in rallying the Europeans and the West along this policy of putting pressure on Russia, because this sort of behavior cannot be tolerated.

GR: Do you think that Russia poses some further threat to other countries either in this region or in a different region? There has been some concern about the Baltic States, for example.

PB: There is no strategy in this regard. Russia isn’t really pursuing a plan; it is experimenting. So in this sense, Western responses matter because they influence this behavior. But there is a lot of, as we academics tend to say, path dependency. You started along this way, you mobilize your domestic support base, and you geared up your propaganda machine to a very high level, where it is in fact now a political force and not just an instrument. And you have to move forward. In every ceasefire and every time it escalates, suddenly Moscow discovers that they stopped winning and they started losing. Every force is against them because there is the domestic economy, because there is a Western opponent who gets its act together. They need to deliver something else to retake the initiative. How exactly to retake it and where to exploit the next vulnerability, whether it’s Baltic States, whether it’s something else? Putin considers himself very good at this game of exploiting vulnerabilities, of dividing opponents, of playing on their differences, so there is definitely more things to come in the crisis.

GR: What professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?

PB: I once wrote a paper about a possible breakdown of Russia, how it might suddenly turn very bad. It was 10 years ago, and then suddenly it was picked up by the Russian Communist Party, which thought that it is not my little bit of my dark fantastic thinking, but rather a kind of NATO war plan, and is in fact a plan to break apart the Russian Federation. And then I read that the leader of the Communist party, in one of his first meetings of the newly elected President Putin, brought it to his table saying, look what NATO is planning against Russia. I was really hugely surprised with that. It’s something I can’t believe still.

Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.

Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.

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