Finnish professor: Putin is seeking cooperation

Nils Niitra
, reporter
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Photo: Tampere ülikool.

Last week featured a lecture at University of Tartu by Tuomas Forsberg, international politics lecturer at Tampere University and a leading Russian expert in Finland, who says the West was overly optimistic regarding Vladimir Putin at the beginning of last decade, but extremely pessimistic now.

-Estonian journalism has abounded with endless writings by all sorts of experts on Russia and Putin. Reading the analyses, one feels they may know a lot about Putin but then again one begins to deeply doubt whether they know a thing about the man.

In the Soviet times, there was this entire separate trend in research called Kremlinology. We have Putinology now, dealing with speculations about who is Putin, what he thinks and intends. It is analysed, what are his psychological and other motives. We do not know that. The more closed up a system, the smaller the circle of decision-makers, and the greater the weight thus of an individual and his psychological profile – in a way, it might be easy to predict decisions and aims on basis of that, but paradoxically we have very little information.

With open and democratic systems, predicting is a lot easier though there much less depends on decisions by individuals.

-What are your instruments to get to know Putin, and to predict his behaviour?

A main method is analysis of his speeches. There are the researchers who think that is actually enough, but speeches are only speeches even if it is personal and lengthier interviews. Putin is aware that in these cases he is addressing either the audience at home, or abroad.

Secondly, we must go by his actual behaviour, like the operations in Georgia, Ukraine or Syria. In these cases, his behaviour pattern opens up a bit. Thirdly, one must evaluate the behaviour of leaders in a broader sense –what they do in certain situations. Here also psychology comes into play: does Putin feel more like a loser or a winner on the political arena right now? If he feels he is with the losing side, this may inevitably lead to greater risk-taking. Like he has been talking about a cornered bear, and such.

With East-Ukrainian and Syrian operations, Putin is already assuming large risks. Chechnya, Georgia, and even Crimea, these were carefully planned and the risks minimised. With East-Ukraine and Syria, this can no longer be claimed.

-Do you think it was actually Western European nations and the USA who, by their behaviour, triggered Putin’s action in Syria?

I do not know why he is involved in Syria. Most probably, it is indeed a desire to send the rest of the world a message that I am in the game and you cannot ignore me. Everywhere, you must take me seriously. The other reason may be to divert attention from East-Ukraine.

But there may be other reasons – like desiring to test Russian military forces in real operations.

-How far might Putin actually go in his desire to convince the world he is a serious player?

He has already gone very far. Two years ago, who would have thought he might go so far sensing his limitations and risks. Now we no longer know what he might do next.

What is most troubling is his hints at the nuclear weapons and their possible use – this talk alone creates worries with Putin which were not there, earlier.

-A part of the Putinologists say that Putin is totally unpredictable and dangerous, while others describe him as the usual crook or con man who irritates and tests the limits while not fatally crossing them.  

Naturally, Putin brings a measure of unpredictability. Is he dangerous? Yes, but we cannot get into extremes here, either. At the beginning of 2000ies, they were overly positive regarding Putin in the West, ignoring the negative tendencies and risks. Now, also, there is no need to be panicking that this is a terrible and dangerous individual.  

During the past half year at least, Putin is sending the West signals that cooperation is necessary and actually possible. Even the Syria project is a kind of a call to cooperate: you can’t act here without considering us, we need to destroy ISIS together.

-Putin became president in 2000. What were Russia-experts thinking of his plans then? Come to think of it, these were really rather optimistic.

During the first few years, his clear message was to bring the nation out of the Yeltsin-era chaos, and to restore order in Russia. In foreign policy, however, he was apt to cooperate and was actually reprimanded for that by Russia’s communists and nationalists. As an example of that, he closed down the Russian military base in Vietnam, and did other things as a sign of good will.

While all were aware of his KGB-officer background, one may also have thought that working in Germany broadened his mind.

So at the beginning the West was very optimistic regarding Putin, actually. The second and more complex phase in the relations came with the invasion of Iraq initiated by USA and started in 2003. Then, Putin’s relations with America grew worse while staying good with lots of Western European nations. Indeed, Putin got along well with German and French leaders, and the Schröder-Chirac-Putin trio formed a kind of an anti Iraq war coalition.

The next major breaking point was somewhere after the orange revolution in Ukraine which begun at the end of 2004. It was then that Putin arrived at the conclusion that Russia and its sphere of influence was endangered and the threat was the West which was pushing into his playground.  

Afterwards, we have seen the relations ebb and flow. Also, let us not forget Mr Medvedev’s time as President (2008–2012). Medvedev was a puppet for Putin, and not a person who may have liberalised or modernised Russia as he used to declare. Falling in between there are lots of things, including the so-called reset-policy in relations with USA.

Even so, as time went by distrust has deepened and people’s liberties in the land are increasingly being limited.  

-In my opinion, Putin has his reasons to also criticise the activities of Western states. You were mentioning the initiating of the war in Iraq by USA, and there has also been quite a lot of talk about Kosovo.  

The NATO interference in Kosovo war may have differing interpretations, but with the war in Iraq it is obvious that the reasons cited to trigger it didn’t exist.  

Naturally, the West has also done a lot of things wrong. On the other hand, it would be wrong to claim that Russia as the loser of the cold war was mistreated somehow. It cannot be claimed that it was not attempted to respect Russia or hold a dialogue with it. Of course, it may not have been to the degree that the Russian leaders may have wanted.

I do not think that the expansion of NATO thus far has been a mistake. Much more problematic, however, was the Bucharest meeting of NATO where promises were delivered regarding Ukraine and Georgia becoming members of NATO. That was not too smart, and the West did not need to do that.

-But why is the attitude of Finns and Estonians so different towards Russia? Can we also look into the 19th century when the Czarist Russia, having conquered the Finnish territories from Sweden, provided a development push to the former periphery of Sweden?  Finland acquired a lot of independence and developed both culturally and economically.

As assessed by historians, the 19th century was indeed favourable for Finland; the Finnish nation as such was formed, and the independence as prerequisite for statehood. Meanwhile, such thinking does not linger long in people’s historical awareness. During the cold war, it of course helped to shape the positive relations narrative between Finns and Russians.

Meanwhile the Finns are also reminded of the Russification that begun at the end of the 19th century. Understandably, the Finnish historical memory as related to Russia is of greater variety. (At that, Mr Forsberg utters not a word about the Winter War and Continuation War). 

Judging by opinion polls, it may basically be said regarding Finns that a third feels very positively about Russia, a third negatively, and the remaining third neutrally.

-You have advised that Finland consider joining NATO.

I wrote a book on NATO in 2002 and was, back then, of the opinion that Finland might join NATO which had become the strongest security guarantee for Europe. This was the time when even Russia was in cooperation with NATO. Back then, the situation was altogether different.  

Then, in Finland the debate rather centred on whether we should send our troops to Iraq and, as members of the organisation, essentially obey USA. Truth be told, during the time Finns were rather troubled by the United States than Russia.

Currently, I think that it might be more secure for Finland to belong to NATO, but the issue is how to become a member. In the current political climate, it would be a very risky step.

For Finnish security, belonging to NATO would surely be helpful, while provoking Russia.

(Present at the talk is political scientist Andres Kasekamp, who provides references to his discussions with Finnish colleagues: Finland ought to have joined NATO 10 or 15 years ago, but it cannot do so now. Paradoxically, back then Finland never joined NATO because there was no need – now with Russia having turned dangerous and membership thus making sense, for that very reason the Finns think joining NATO to be risky.)

At University of Tartu, Mr Forsberg held a lecture as invited by Finnish Institute, Granö Centre of the University of Tartu, and Centre for EU-Russia Studies.