Transcript: Russia, Ukraine and the Future of Global Power
[Preamble: On May 12, 2022, the Canada School of Public Service hosted Fiona Hill, one of the most authoritative contemporary voices on Russia. In a wide-ranging discussion, she explored authoritarianism in Russia and the challenge it poses to advanced democracies, the current conflict in Ukraine, and the reaction from the West.]
We describe him as the statist. You know, somebody who we said from the very beginning was serving the State, he wasn't out for himself. Well now he thinks that the State is him. 'L'État c'est moi'. That's very much, rather than in a 'Sun King' kind of idea, but more as he sees himself as a defender of the State, and therefore a defender of himself. Many of the aids around him basically said there's no Russia today without Putin. And Putin sees himself as the embodiment of the Tsars. And I often tell a story, you know, about being in the reception areas of the Kremlin, the place where we see him in a meeting with everybody from Macron to Guterres and to, you know, others recently, and even members of his own stuff where he looks like he's 600 feet away from them at the end of some in a giant white tables in a rather or net room with a parquet floor. But those rooms - and I actually got a picture of one of them on my shelfs over here from when I was in there when I was at the national security council – and there is always statues of Russians Tsars there. And there is no paintings, other than the decoration and statues of the Tsars that he's probably selected himself. It's meant to give this impression of not a Soviet leader, it's Tsars, as he is this continuation of the great Russian states.
Remember, he was born in 1952, at the end of World War II. His family have gone through the siege of Leningrad. There is all these kind of stories about World War II and apparent exploits of his father in a destruction battalion that was sent behind enemy lines to wipe out collaborators and traitors. That kind of shapes his mind. And so he grows up in that kind of period that merges into sort of stagnation, but also the kind of peak of the Soviet power. He's going through the KGB Red Banner Academy and that is a training that is very different from the Canadian schools that we are all talking on behalf of now. It's not those kinds of open debates. But a time when they're kind of inculcating, and dealing with a main opponent, which is United States. And it's the height of the Cold War and he's then in Dresden and East Germany, when East Germany is crumpling as a State. But it's also, East Germany, interesting enough, is kind of cut off in where he was in Dresden from information coming from West Germany and other parts of Germany it's the area that is the kind of most extreme in terms of its lack of information about what's happening anywhere else and he completely misses perestroika and glasnost, the whole truth telling of Mikhail Gorbachev, of trying to come to terms with all the crimes of the Soviet past. And by the time he comes back to the Soviet Union, to Russia, it's in it's death throes. And his whole feeling is one of loss, of crumbling, of the Soviet Union and Russia losing its place in the world.
Putin's View of History
Putin's understanding of history is very Orwellian. You know, if you control the past, you can share politics it in the present, but you also use that for the future. And right now what we see with what Putin is doing, he's just selling the past and Russia's past to everybody in the neighbourhood and to us as well. There is no feature perspective it's basically revisionist revanchist sentiment taking Russia back to the past, to the choice of the Tsars and the Tsarina, Catherine the Great, in these antechambers and reception rooms in the Kremlin.
Russian Imperialism in Ukraine
It was very obvious in 2014 that Russia wanted to take control of what they're called Novorossiya, New Russia, now they are calling it 'Southern Russia', the whole swathe of territory was actually annexed by Catherine the Great to the Russian Empire back in the 18th century from the Ottoman Empire. I mean there's very much again his historical bounds of what he thinks is Russia. New Russia was also the place of Potemkin villages. It was that kind of all area that Catherine the Great brought in and that Russia now lays claim to. The Sea of Azov, one of the first regions that Peter the Great moved into, and the origins of the Russian Black Sea fleet, which was initially at Taganrog on the Azov Sea, not on the Crimean peninsula until Catherine the Great came along. There is again, there's been a fixation on particular territories, including Odessa, and we've heard in the menacing [rhetoric] already and for some time of Moldova, Transnistria, because that was also part of that expansion of the Russian Empire under Catherine, General Suvorov, and there's getting to Bandera, Tiraspol and other places. These are all these historic lands, and in his map of what he sees as sort of the Russian Imperium, the Russian world, those are very firmly part of it.
Invading Ukraine to Restore the Russian Empire
And we know that he [PUTIN] said that the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union but he would also say that about the Russian empire. An indeed, in many of his writings about Russian history, he refers back to Vladimir Lenin as being the person who ruptures the continuity of the Russian State with the Bolshevik revolution. and what is the relevance of the invasion of Ukraine by creating Ukrainian Socialist republics the breaks up the Russian world, Ukrainians being in his view little Russians not Ukrainian, separate people, separate ethnic group with their own language, their own history and Heritage. But being just an offshoot of the larger Great Russian world.
War on Ukraine: A Domestic Issue
Putin planned this war, not with military generals or even with his foreign intelligence: it becomes very apparent. He appears to have planned the war with Sergei Shoigu, his defense minister who is the former minister of emergencies and a civil engineer and not a military specialist, perhaps with general Gerasimov of the joint chiefs but not with all the other generals who might have given him a different viewpoints on military intelligence, and with the FSB, domestic intelligence. He thought of Ukraine as a domestic issue.
The Strength and Unity of the Western Response
Well, we might just disunite ourselves with our own domestic politics, to be frank. I think a lot of this is on us [...] the politicization of foreign policy and national security is the greatest risk to people trying to play it back domestically. But I think then that it becomes incumbent upon us in this intermediate time to try to engage in as much public diplomacy as we can, and as much coalition building that will be sustainable. And part of it is going to be a diplomatic effort that's not just about us, the united allies, or rather NATO, the transatlantic larger space—countries like the Japans, New Zealands, Australias, and South Koreas—countries that are traditionally allied with us along traditional Western lines. We've got to be able to tell other countries what is actually happening here, and to be able to explain this in a larger case, because there is going to be cracks in our unity.
The Destabilizing Nature of the Conflict
It is deeply destabilising for a number of reasons. First of all, it is a blatant, imperial, post-colonial land grab. It is a revanchist, revisionist action on the part of Putin. He can cloak it in saying this is all about NATO—we've done this, and there is plenty of people who will say this is all of our fault because of NATO enlargement. But the whole fact is that we have Sweden and Finland—now NATO doesn't enlarge as a centralized entity going out. Countries apply to enter because of what they perceive as security risks. And when President Niinistö of Finland said the other day when he was asked about this, what should Vladimir Putin do, he said he should go look in the mirror. That communication needs to be emphasized. Sweden and Finland need to go out and tell the rest of the world why they are doing this. They are not doing this because they are being forced to by the United States or by Stoltenberg in Brussels. They are doing this because of their own perceptions of security threat and their desires to be fully engaged with their allies and partners at this time of great peril.
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