We discussed the Polish-Ukrainian relations, the „deputinisation” of Russia, the ongoing war, and the rapid changes in world politics and history with the Polish historian Jan Malicki. Strong statements, possible solutions, and bold conclusions in the exclusive interview he gave to Hype&Hyper. Part II.
Jan Malicki is a Polish historian. He was involved in the democratic opposition movement during the communist period, and he was a co-founder, then head of the Centre for East European Studies at the University of Warsaw. The Centre for East European Studies is one of Poland’s most prominent centers for learning in Eastern European politics.
You just mentioned Putin; allow me one more quote, please. Back in the communist era, a foreign policy adviser of Jaruzelski described Gaddafi in a report: “In order to understand the leader of Libya, we must distinguish between two basic psychological disorders, namely paranoia, and schizophrenia; in the speech of the paranoid nothing is right, in the speech of the schizophrenic everything is right, except the starting point of the argument; well, the leader of the Arab socialist revolution suffers from both.” Do you think this could also be true for the President of Russia?
No, I do not think Putin is insane. He may have schizophrenic symptoms because of his isolation due to Covid, but only in the sense that he does not really talk to anyone because of his fear of assassinations and the virus. Thus, he makes his decisions only based on the papers he receives. This is a problem since if you talk to flesh and blood people, you can filter out whether they are lying or hiding something. That is probably why he is still convinced that the Russian army is the second strongest in the world and that they can defeat anyone. Moreover, closely relatedly to the misbeliefs above, he is also convinced that what he stated in his long speech on the day before the invasion is true, namely, that he can rebuild the „Soviet” Russia. For me, it sounds as absurd as if Poland, with its current GDP and the small Polish army of 200.000 personnel, would want to take back its territory until the Dnieper just because Ukraine is weak. I know that this is impossible. We could also create an ideology, of course, about how many things the Poles have created in the East, how long they have been there, how many cathedrals they have built, etc. It would even sound quite good, and there would certainly be many true elements. Among other things, the Poles built the cathedral and the opera in Lemberg (Lviv), and I could bring several other examples, even from Kyiv; even the Presidential Office Building was built there by a Polish person. But the world simply cannot work like this. A hundred years have passed, and we live in a different era. Nonetheless, Putin does not care; he wants to undo everything. Yet, he does not have schizophrenia, and he is undoubtedly not paranoid. He started the invasion because of logical assumptions. In 2015 Ukraine was shamefully handing over a chunk of its territory to Russia without firing a single shot. Putin concluded from this disgrace that his time to restore the Soviet empire had arrived. The fall of Kabul and the shameful US withdrawal gave the final push. It was perfectly logical to assess the situation in a way that the US is being led by a demented old man who just humiliates his country. Kabul is a real shame for the United States. After the Afghan tragedy, Putin thought the US would continue to back down and go into a „splendid isolation” regarding Europe. He believed that if America left Europe, he would have so many agents here, so much room for maneuver, that no one could stand in his way. That was the time when he decided about the invasion of Ukraine. The plans and scenarios were prepared; they are always worked out beforehand. Putin just had to decide when he wanted to implement them.
What went wrong then?
Putin made a fundamental mistake, which was a base for further errors. Firstly, the Russians reasonably anticipated that the population of Donetsk and Luhansk is pro-Russian, and they did not expect that Putin’s invasion would unite the Ukrainian nation against Russia. Secondly, the aforementioned demented old man on the other side of the ocean could not change his date of birth. He is still 80 years old, but he braced himself, and it turned out that he is surrounded by a bunch of relatively young, skilled, and tough politicians. Most importantly, Antony Blinken, Secretary of State. Moreover, Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor, who talked much nonsense at first, but then it turned out that he has some reaganist characteristics. Kirby and Austin eventually also proved that they are tough politicians. It turns out that this is a ballsy US government. Thirdly, it is possible that the Russian intelligence service still said that the Ukrainian army is the same as it was at the time of Crimea’s annexation. It is evident that the Russian military expected that the invasion would go as smoothly as in Crimea. In 2014, the Ukrainian military forces were a post-Soviet army infiltrated by Russians to an incredible extent. When the annexation happened, some top leadership members immediately switched to the occupier’s side—for example, the commander-in-chief of the Crimean forces. The Russians believed that this would happen again. However, the Ukrainians braced themselves up to defend their land and reorganized their entire army; today, we can see the reform’s results. They fired all the old personnel suspected of collaborating with the Russians, reorganized their operational and tactical strategy, and started immediately training new officers and troops in Yavoriv.
So, it was no coincidence that the Russians were bombing there…
Exactly. They have replaced the leadership and restructured the entire operating style. There is a flaw in the Soviet system: you always have to report what your superior wants to hear. If the orders do not come from the Kremlin or the generalship, nothing happens in Russia. They still operate this way. On the other hand, Western, European warfare is based on small tactical troops: where a Kmicic or Bem type soldier can make a decision on his own authority. The Russians are always waiting for orders from their superiors. Perhaps not from Shoigu himself, but the chief of operations. Moreover, there is an incredible level of corruption in the army. We saw how it contributed to the First Chechen War where the Russians lost. Allegedly they are still selling stuff on the Ukrainian front now. For example, the head of a regiment reports to the headquarters that they have much equipment in excellent condition. The head of the division receives five such reports, and he further exaggerates the situation, that everything is fine and running smoothly. So, Putin gets a message that everything is perfect, and that Russia has the strongest army in the world, while, in reality, the soldiers have long since sold the fuel, or there is no spare wheel or engine oil. This has been how things go in the Russian army for a really long time. Another huge error was that the Russians launched a frontal attack on Ukraine. I made a mistake with many others when we repeatedly stated that Russia would not attack Ukraine frontally. We thought that a frontal assault was not worth it for them because it is risky. According to the classic rules of warfare, the aggressor must have at least three times more weapons in all arms. But Putin believed that the Russian army would be welcomed because he relied on reports from places such as Sievierodonetsk and Kramatorsk, where the majority is Russian, and the community is generally pro-Russian. The long and short of it is that I seriously believe for about a week and a half now that the Ukrainians may have a chance to win since the Russians cannot even take the Donetsk region. On one side, there is the Ukrainian army, equipped with Western weapons, which has incredible morale. On the other side are the Russians, who are constantly attacking and constantly losing and who should have captured Kyiv almost two months ago. What morals do one and the other have now?
But there is still the danger of the red button.
Yes, the Russians’ only hope may be tactical nuclear weapons. But this is merely a hope. We know how the Krasnaya Knopka works. You cannot just simply press it. Allegedly, there is the main computer and three additional computers with dual coding. So, six senior officers are needed to activate it. I think one of them will shoot Putin.
But removing one person does not solve anything…
Do you remember what Biden said at the end of his speech in Warsaw? He said that Putin can no longer rule Russia. He did not read this from a paper. The State Department said immediately after the speech, twice in an hour, that Biden implied that Putin can no longer rule in the Donbas. However, it is apparent that Biden meant that Putin cannot remain in power in Russia. You know how the old saying goes: only those statements are credible that have been officially refuted. So, I think now even the Americans understand that it is no longer just about Ukraine and Putin. The stake is Russia’s future; Russia should change to achieve deputinisation. I hope that in the Oval Office, they have already decided that the main aim is not just to defend Ukraine but to overthrow Putin. You can wonder now how we should do it?
I would ask instead: what kind of Russia does Poland want?
We want Russia without Putin. What kind of Russia…? Well, I do not say democratic because it would be nonsense since there are no democrats in Russia. Russia in the Yeltsin era was a country with whom we could communicate. But I do not know who could be such a leader now. Therefore, it would be essential to train a new elite in Europe as soon as possible, who are committed to democracy. Russia will always remain an enormous country, and if one lives in a huge country, their mind adapts to it. We cannot change this. In any case, I see the following options: First of all, we need a worldwide anti-Putin alliance in which the democratic countries decide that the primary objective of the war is to overthrow Putin. After this agreement, we have two paths. The first possibility is establishing an interim government and simultaneously training a new, pro-Western democratic elite who can later take power. The other way is partitioning Russia. But no state has enough capacity to invade such a vast country, so we must return to the first option. After all, who could partition Russia…?
I can imagine that there might be some applicants…
But I do not think that our goal should be to give Siberia, and all its raw material resources to China, making them an even stronger threat to the world. By the way, Llyod George, who was also a terrible person, was talking in Versailles about the need to partition Russia. He believed that if we did not split the country, the whole world would be in danger. And at that time, the Transcaucasian countries were independent de facto. How could anyone separate Siberia and all the small nations? It is not an option. It could be a possibility only if Russia loses a nuclear war.
Would it be possible to govern a huge country with such traditions democratically?
Everything that I said so far is just theoretical politics. Nonetheless, anything in Russia would be better than a putinist Russia. The problem is that at the moment, Putin is stronger than any General Secretary of the Communist Party has ever been. He is more powerful than Stalin was. During the Stalin era, there were politburos in Russia, and we found evidence in the archives that Stalin consulted them and relied on their opinions. There are no such people around Putin, and he rules harder than the tsars did.
Let us return to the original question. How can change be achieved? Since it is not decided what will happen even with the sanctions. For example, is Poland confident that they will work?
There is some resistance in Poland, mainly because of the economy, but they will work. Emotions are decisive in the current situation. It is like when the whole nation has automatically given shelter to refugee children. The governments can play political games, but if the people see the pictures of war, they will say they are willing to pay more for the gas to stop the war. We are going in that direction. The goal of the sanctions is to make it clear to Russia that its current behavior does not worth it. Since everyone is losing above a certain level with them, Russia itself as well. All Russians personally have to understand this. I have calculated that there are around 5 million people out of the 146 million in Russia who are hit personally painfully by the current sanctions. They are the Russian upper and upper middle class, people who earn more than the average, people who do some business or have some capital. They are the ones who travel to the West, so they feel the sanctions’ effects. They are probably more on the ball and understand that the current events and their consequences are bad for Russia and Russian interests. And they are either patriots or nationalists; thus, the sanctions are effective in that sense.
I see, but they are still just a small part of the Russian population.
Sure, but they are the crucial class, and we have no other weapons in our hands anyway. Never believe in the myth of the Russian revolution that millions will rise up. They will not. The villagers in the far-flung rural areas may not even have a bank card, they do not care about these sanctions, and maybe they do not even know about them. They know what they see on the television: Putin is amazing because he causes trouble for the Americans. It is not shown how much trouble he causes for his own people. Nonetheless, it is also true that sanctions alone cannot overthrow a regime; they need to be complemented by a few more measures. For example, they have to be extended to gas and oil since big money comes from them. In the last month, the West has given Ukraine $16 billion in aid and paid $350 billion to the Russians for raw materials as a correct businessperson. Therefore, Russia can afford the war. These channels must be cut now, all orders should be canceled, and we should find alternative sources to buy gas and oil. Australia or Nigeria can be alternatives; we definitely have other options than Russia. And there is something else that has not been mentioned at all, although there are historical precedents… Firstly, we intensify and speed up the economic sanctions, which means restricting economic opportunities. This will not destroy the regime, but it can cause severe problems such as slowing down economic and technological development. Secondly, we stop financing Russia. This is not entirely possible either since China and some other countries are still keen to trade with Russia. That is why we need a third pillar: After we limited Russia’s options to get money and slowed down their economic-technological development, not just the US but the whole West should start a dynamic arms race with which the weakened Russian economy cannot catch up. This will be the last straw. They must participate in the arms race since they will be afraid of being defeated, just like in the Reagan era. Putin will fall this way unless he gets a shot in his head before. Or if the Ukrainian troops march sooner into Moscow.
It is a pretty long shot.
I do not say that it is likely, of course. As an optimum solution, let us believe that the Ukrainian army will be able to defend Ukraine and push the Russian troops out. It would already astonish the world. We should notice the new tendencies. During the first days of the invasion, after the 25th of February, NATO officials kept saying that their troops would not enter Ukraine. We know this, and we accepted this decision. Nonetheless, they also said that there would be no arms deliveries to Ukraine because that would increase the number of victims. In other words, the West was sure that Russia would win. At that time, a German minister told the Ukrainian ambassador that he should not lobby for the sanctions because Ukraine would be defeated anyway in a few hours. But what has happened in the last month? First, the West said that we were not delivering any weapons, then that we provide only defensive weapons. But now, we have reached the point that the West recalled the UN resolution saying that a country under attack can be supported with all kinds of arms. That is already a fantastic achievement by the Ukrainians. They not only defended themselves heroically, but they changed the attitude of the whole world.
Author: Gáspár Keresztes | Hype&Hyper | Warsaw
Graphics: Roland Molnár | Hype&Hyper