Head of the one-man firm called the Baltic Center of Russian Studies, Vladimir Juškin, dispassionately analyzes potential developments in Russia. He finds that sanctions that many have criticized are very effective in the long run, and that Putin is trying to shake them to avoid a domestic collapse.
Our national television is “making jokes” about survival packages lately: how many cans of food and batteries one needs to survive a crisis situation. How real is the danger in your mind, and should we be stockpiling canned food?
I find that a military operation by Russian armed forced in Estonia is rather unrealistic. First of all, such a venture, let us say in the Narva area, would be a direct attack against a NATO member, which would trigger Article Five of the Washington Treaty and cause a war with NATO. Why do I think Putin will not start a war with NATO? Because he is not an army officer; he lacks that particular mentality. He is a special services operative at heart; his way is to make preparations to act covertly and unexpectedly when the time is right – as was done in Crimea.
Such an operation remains a possibility. However, looking at potential staging areas for such an operation, I would leave aside the Suwalki Gap, as that would also constitute a direct conflict with NATO, as well as Estonia. The latter's difficult terrain – water obstacles and bridges that can be blown up – would cause major problems in terms of securing the rear.
The likeliest staging area is the Latgale region in Latvia. The terrain is excellent for bringing in supplies from the rear, and it has a much more powerful organization of reserve officers. The area is home to a very strong society of Alpha (former Soviet elite unit – ed.) veterans. The area has a lot of former officers capable of preparing a citizens' army – for example for an anti-government uprising that would take over government buildings – as well as protecting these strategic buildings by using the locals as a human shield. I believe that if something is in fact being planned, that is where it will play out.
Events in Latgale were the cause of a clash between Russian and the West in the BBC's “World War Three: Inside The War Room” film. What could have been the purpose of that film, and who ordered it?
I don't know who ordered it, while I can guess the purpose. It was made to show Russia that such a scenario would not come as a surprise: “We are making preparations, and we will even make a film depicting such a scenario.” It was psychological pressure on Russia's military leadership that might be planning and could execute such an operation.
What are we witnessing today? What is really happening in Russia?
Putin is replacing his recent inner circle. He is getting rid of people who might believe themselves to be his equals because they started out together. And he is replacing them with top echelon officials – like Anton Vaino, whom both the liberals and conservatives refer to as a public servant par excellance. Vaino is a brilliant executor and taskmaster, while he lacks all manner of political ambition. It is noteworthy that most of these officials come from two elite subunits: the president's security service and the federal defense service.
He is appointing his corporation's officers who share his understanding of truth and justice; who carry out their superiors' orders without hesitation; those whose career Putin has facilitated. All in all, he is choosing people who follow orders, instead of telling him “you're right”, “you're wrong”, or “it would be better to move in that direction”. That is to say he understands there is a crisis. Firstly economical, with a social one looming. People's income has been falling for 17 consecutive months. There is not enough money to rearm the army; sums spent on schools, hospitals, welfare are dwindling. The only thing for which there is money is the army and its equipment program.
It is tangible how the country is preparing to clam up. And for that you need people capable of carrying out repressions – not on mass scale, but selective. Putin knows that selective repressions are very effective. Khodorkovsky was imprisoned and… that's it! All major tycoons with apartments and cash in the West, whose wives go shopping and children to school there keep quiet in the conditions of sanctions and isolation. It is called “seven at one blow”. Now he is going after his close officials who went too far and started stealing too much. It is a signal for everyone else.
Putin understands that it is impossible for him to return to democracy – he would be taken out by the conservatives, the so-called hawks that handed him his regime. He also cannot give up military aggressiveness in foreign policy – for the same reason.
He knows that there is no threat from the outside, that no one threatens the position of the president of a nuclear power – perhaps only sanctions, calling for further budget cuts. However, the results of sanctions motivate people at home: some are worried for their accounts in the West, while others fear for their salary. He needs protection from them.
I understand that even during the Sochi games the administration stuck to its long-term activity plan that prescribed the annexation of Crimea; however, how much of what has happened since has been systematic and how much of it chaos?
Everything was handled perfectly in Crimea. Next preparations were launched for a similar operation in Novorossiya; however, Putin was let down. Those who planned the successful strategic-hybrid operation in Crimea were mistaken in their assessments of Novorossiya. They expected all Russian-speakers who live there under the influence of the Kremlin's television channels to support the self-proclaimed so-called Russian opposition leaders in Ukraine – as it was in Donetsk and Luhansk during the early stages of the operation in Novorossiya.
They were wrong; the mentality of the locals was misjudged, which necessitated the presence of the Russian army on the heels of the so-called little green men.
Why are these self-proclaimed leaders being murdered all of a sudden – most recently and famously Arseni Pavlov, known as Motorola?
I believe that all these murders – from the first to the last – are the work of Russian special services. Putin needs a semblance of keeping to the Minsk agreements. He needs to do something for the West to get rid of sanctions. However, how do you stop it once these characters are in the zone so to speak? Again we have the question: is the dog wagging the tale, or is it the other way around. They are downright forced to do it. Power needs to be given to leaders who are more or less able to hold talks, with whom an international compromise might be found – so both Kiev and Donetsk would fall back a little. So the European Union would say: “Yes, the Minsk agreements are being complied with, we can end the sanctions.”
No matter how the sanctions are criticized, they have proven pivotal – especially in the long run. Russia is being deprived of modern technology. For example, Russia stopped an oil drilling project in the Arctic Ocean for lack of equipment.
Will we be neighbors to the great North Korea soon?
Russia will not fall to that level. And at one point, when the entire ruling elite – military and business elite – realizes the path Putin and his closest allies have put them on is indeed a dead end, he will either be talked out of it or forced to stop.
People interested in politics tune in to news from Syria every day. What is the main goal of Putin's regime there, why get stuck there?
The aim of Putin's Syria-operation is to keep Assad in power – just to maintain military bases in Syria. That region will remain one of conflict for long years to come, whereas the presence of the Russian military gives Putin the chance to remain relevant in international politics; someone without whom it is impossible to regulate military conflicts in the world.
A lot of independent Russian experts find it absurd that Putin overlooked the fact that the majority of Muslims in Russia are Sunni when he made his decision to go fight Sunnis in Syria.
The thing is that controversy courtesy of Putin's regime has not yet reached a point where local Sunnis realize they need their own country. However, that danger is real – it covers the entire area around the river Volga and the whole of Northern Caucasus.
How do you keep yourself up to speed with what is going on in Russia; where can you get enough material for thorough analyses?
I do not watch Russian television, and I almost do not read Russian newspapers. However, I know all the smart people in Russia with knowledge of different fields – nuclear forces, armed forced in general, economics, sociology, history. I read their texts over the internet, only after which I dare voice my assessments.