Jacob Heilbrunn: Is there a way out of this crisis for Ukraine, Russia, and America?
Konstantin Remchukov: Theoretically, there is always a way out. Practically, at this moment, I don’t think it’s going to be finished soon.
JH: Why not?
KR: We are witnessing the rise of a cancel culture directed against Russia. I don’t understand the mechanism to end it. Each day companies—McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Adidas—are leaving Russia. It is often driven by emotions and an evident lack of presumption of innocence. I fundamentally believe that sooner or later things will settle down. But I also believe that canceling Russia is a huge difference as opposed to previous rounds of sanctions.
By contrast, in the concrete case of Russian and Ukrainian military confrontation, it could end, if Ukraine meets the fundamental demands of Russia on NATO. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may prepare his people for why he will change his attitude. But Zelenskyy also wants guarantees for neutral status. What kind of guarantee could there be in this atmosphere of distrust? How should we implement the Budapest Memorandum and what would be the obligations of the parties? We need to start thinking about this.
JH: Why did Russian president Vladimir Putin march into Ukraine? Many Western observers did not believe he would attack and the view is now widespread that Putin blundered, the Russian Army is a Potemkin Army, and Putin is mired in a war Russia ultimately cannot win.
KM: I think we know why he entered the conflict. His address on February 24 made it clear. When you analyze the consequences of any aggressive move against Ukraine, I personally do not see any pluses. Since I don’t see external things which would be good for Russia because of war and sanctions, I thought about internal motives.
The internal motives brought me to the conclusion that Putin has stopped any rhetoric about a transition. There is no more talk of a transition of power. Putin ended it. Now being surrounded by unfriendly states—they are officially called unfriendly by our authorities—it is unacceptable for our leader to leave.
In addition, if you look at his address, he gave a clear-cut system of arguments for what is going on. He said the international rule of law does not exist any longer. The West misuses the General Assembly. They could bomb Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, and recognize Kosovo. In all those cases it was against international law, he said. If the West would accuse Russia of breaking international law, please read my points of where the West violated it. He also spoke of a moral failure of the West—the empire of liars. He said it is impossible to talk with the West because they will always cheat and deceive you. They are immoral.
He also mentioned that Ukraine as a state is not valid. It could be rearranged. He appealed to the fact that modern Ukraine borders were created during the Soviet time. Limited sovereignty doctrine. Remember that Leonid Brezhnev used it in Czechoslovakia—they didn’t have the right to develop their relations with the West because they didn’t have full sovereignty.
Now I see the same approach. Russia denied the right of Ukraine to choose its partners. At the same time, the Kremlin insists that Russia has the right to a peaceful and at least neutral country on its borders. Russia, Putin says, has geopolitical and national interests, which Moscow will determine like Washington does. There are only three countries in the world that have these geopolitical interests. The rest of the world does not.
JH: Putin seems to be thinking big these days.
KR: Putin believes that the world in the last hundred years is based on the end of world wars. World War I resulted in the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations; World War II, in Yalta, Potsdam, and the United Nations. Now I understand that Putin thinks we shouldn’t wait until the end of World War III to set up the new world order. He tried to impose his vision and to create a crisis so that the world will think it is on the brink of a nuclear disaster, prompting it to sit down and negotiate a new world order recognizing the national and geopolitical interests of the Russian Federation.
JH: Hasn’t the war backfired and turned into a military catastrophe?
RM: I can’t confirm that it’s catastrophic. I think it’s a lack of good intelligence, which suggested Ukrainians will meet Russian soldiers with bread and salt. It’s a miscalculation because those advisers who provoked Russia to enter said Zelenskyy wasn’t popular. I think now they understand how dramatically mistaken they were.
Most of what I thought we could do was to push Ukrainian forces from Lugansk and Donetsk. I do not understand what we could do with Kyiv or Lviv. I don’t see the ultimate image of the war. World War II was the Red Flag waving over the Reichstag in conquered Berlin. Putin says we don’t want to occupy Ukraine.
JH: A Washington Post headline today says a new iron curtain is descending on Russia.
KR: From my point of view, it’s even worse than that. It’s isolation unseen on this scale in our history. We are fully switched off from the West. In the Soviet era, there were trains that went to Berlin or Paris. Now there is not even a flight. The income of the middle-class is frozen. They’ve become like paupers with the fall of the ruble. With the iron curtain, we had imports. You could travel to Paris or New York. Now it seems to be over.
There is no competition of information. It is all propaganda again. No transition of power. No competition in the information field. No alternative to what the Kremlin imposes with its media resources. Donald Trump’s policies led to the division of West. Putin’s policies brought about the union of the West. I don’t think this was the goal if there was any goal.
JH: If the war is grinding on in two to three weeks, do you believe there is the potential for a power struggle in the Kremlin? Or is this a fantasy in the West?
KR: So far, it is a fantasy in the West. It will be quite clear that the current ministers responsible for foreign and military policy failed to implement their promises. They will be removed. New people will be appointed and they will achieve peaceful negotiation results.
JH: Some in Washington want to topple Putin or hope that he will be toppled from power.
KR: Not now. Not now.
JH: What about China? Are relations improving or will it move in and strip-mine Russia’s natural resources?
KR: Of course, they will profit. Of course, they will tighten their grip. At the same time, their strategic relationship is as strong as any time. China is watching the direction of the West. Everyone is assessing what will happen in Taiwan. Is the West ready to impose sanctions on China? The West depends more on China. Everybody is watching. China proposes new channels to finance Russia with the yuan. Turkey also proposed to increase trade and that we conduct trade in rubles. India watches for its opportunities. Then there is Iran. I don’t think China will swallow Russia very soon. They will be together against the West.
JH: What about the closing of the radio station Echo Moskvy? Why was it shuttered?
KR: They invited some people from Ukraine. One said Putin should be murdered. There was no disclaimer. The other said that nuclear bombs should be used against Moscow. The authorities decided that in the condition of special military operations, it goes beyond information; it is hostile propaganda material on the radio.
JH: The perception in the West, based on the recent law mandating fifteen years in prison for fake information, is that Russia is returning to a totalitarian state? Do you agree?
KR: In this respect, yes. Absolutely controlled. Today, I signed a letter which was demanded from a publishing facility, which prints our newspaper. Every night before each issue I am supposed to give a brief account of what we write about and to sign that there is no material against this particular war. If the printing house gets my paper, it is distributed and then they find something against the war, and when the procurator’s office will say, “What are you publishing? You are publishing materials against the government.” The printer will say, “look this is his signature, he deceived me. There is nothing against me.” They’re creating a bureaucratic procedure to exert control.
JH: How effective is the Kremlin’s ability to control the dissemination of information? Do people understand what’s happening in Ukraine?
KR: No. When they switched off FaceBook and Twitter and even a lot of rumors about YouTube being switched off, the ability to learn about this will be limited. If America switches off the internet or the television companies go away, then Russian customers know less. That would be a vacuum. But as I told you, it’s really not about information. It’s basically about propaganda.