Putin’s Russia: “Some elements remind us of the worst dictatorships in European history”

A year and a half after the invasion of Ukraine, American historian Anne Applebaum sees cause for optimism. Despite resorting to Stalin’s totalitarian arsenal, Putin’s war aims have failed. A growing part of the Russian elite also recognizes this. NZZ journalists Peter Rásonyi and Andreas Rüesch talked to Anne Applebaum in the context of her lecture at the Annual Research Night.

Interview by Peter Rásonyi and Andreas Rüesch, published in NZZ

Ms. Applebaum, how do you see Ukraine’s future – optimistic or pessimistic?
I characterize myself as an optimist who worries a lot. In the long run, thanks in part to the resources of the West, Ukraine will hold out and take back a significant part of its territory. The Russians have already failed in their original objective – to take Kiev and destroy the country. They have unified Ukraine, and they have caused young Ukrainians to refuse to speak Russian today. The war has also unified NATO. These are huge setbacks for Moscow. The fact that Putin is now negotiating with someone like the leader of North Korea is a reflection of the level of his remaining international contacts.

And what are you most worried about?
That the war will drag on. I fear not so much that Ukraine will lose foreign support, but that the population will get tired.

What conditions would be needed for Kiev to enter into negotiations and for the war to end?
First of all, it is not true that no one is talking to the Russians. The Americans and even the Ukrainians have channels through which they talk with the Russians, for example, around the exchange of prisoners of war or the export of grain. But for the war to end, there needs to be some kind of political change in Moscow. By that I don’t necessarily mean regime change. Russia does not need to become a democracy; it may not even need a new president.

What is necessary, however, is that the Russian elite – the army, the Kremlin – conclude that the war was a mistake and that the price is too high. They need to come to the same realization that France did in the Algerian War in 1962: “This is not our country, we don’t need to be there.” That’s an interesting historical parallel: it was also a long war, also back then many in France couldn’t imagine giving up Algeria since there were many French speakers there. And like the current war, the Algerian war caused a lot of political turmoil at home. The same rethinking must take place in Russia. Perhaps Putin will then simply invent a new propaganda story.

Hasn’t the Russian elite known for a long time that the war is a mistake?
Quite a lot know that. Prigozhin (the late head of the paramilitary Wagner Group, editor’s note) knew it, because shortly before his mutiny he raised the accusation that the Ukraine war had been launched out of greed. Many in the business and military elite also recognize the mistake. But it now takes the Kremlin to draw that conclusion. When the Russians withdraw their troops, we will see that it has happened.

Can Putin, after all, afford to admit a mistake politically?
Maybe he is afraid of it, but on the other hand, he controls all the media. He can shape the narrative that way. Public support for the war is purely a product of propaganda. There was no widespread hatred of Ukrainians before. There was no sentiment along the lines that Ukraine was Russia’s deadly enemy. In many cases, support for the official course is based more on fear and apathy than on conviction. Putin’s propaganda is designed so that people become passive and feel that they cannot influence politics. This is useful for him because the people stay at home and do not protest. But that also means that people don’t demonstrate for Putin. Would they care if something happened to him? I don’t think so.

But even if the Kremlin realizes its mistake and changes its course in Ukraine, Russia remains an imperialist, anti-Western power. Surely that doesn’t mean peace yet?
It will probably be a long road before we return to what we traditionally understand by peace. Russia is a frustrated, revanchist power that is unhappy with the order that emerged in Europe in 1989/1991 and wants to reverse it. It wants to undermine the EU, make the Americans withdraw from Europe, and weaken the democracy of individual states, including France and Germany. We therefore face a long-term problem – unless there is a regime change and a different kind of Russia emerges, which is not impossible.

What will it take to overcome this “disease” so that Putin’s successor does not simply pursue the same policies or even an even more extreme nationalist comes to power?
I am skeptical about the warning of an even more nationalistic president. Because I don’t see who could be worse than Putin. One thing is certain: the next president will not consider the Ukraine war “his” war, he will not be the one who started it, and will therefore have an easier time ending it. The next president will also by definition be weaker. Because however Putin departs or perishes, there will be an immediate power struggle. There is no legitimate succession process. Therefore, not only is the successor unknown, but also the way in which he will be selected. It will not happen legitimately. I don’t think there will be a civil war, but there could be a struggle between oligarchs.

But won’t the next president also need the West as an atagonist to legitimize his rule?
Not necessarily. Boris Yeltsin legitimized his presidency by building on friendship with the West. Putin did the same in his first years in office. When he played host to the G-8 in St. Petersburg, he made a huge spectacle of it. There is no necessity for Russia to be anti-Western. On the contrary, sooner or later the Russians will realize that they are in danger of becoming China’s vassal. This opens the chance for someone to conclude that Russia would be better off as an ally of the West.

Back to the present: is the West doing things right in the Ukraine conflict, is President Biden up to the challenge?
President Biden has his political fortunes firmly linked to the Ukraine war. He traveled to Kiev last year and recently made it a campaign issue in one of his first TV ads. I don’t think he could drop his support for Ukraine. If the US had a different president, it might be a different story. But that question won’t come up for another 16 months.

And what about the Germans?
I was invited to a talk show on German television in January 2022. All the German politicians present at the time were bitterly against arming Ukraine. I stood all alone as a representative of the “evil” American position of arming Ukraine. Compared with this, the turnaround in Germany’s position after the invasion is truly remarkable. Germany today gives weapons and money to Ukraine, it is a very different country than before the war. I am more worried about France.

As long as Macron is president, it’s still okay. But the far right as well as the far left, as well as a part of the French business class, would very much like to support Russia again.

Shouldn’t Germany and France, as the traditional leading powers of the EU, also take a stronger lead in the alliance for Ukraine?
The two states never played a leading role in NATO. Germany didn’t even have its own foreign policy a few years ago, France pursued its own goals in the tradition of de Gaulle. In that sense, we are still stuck in the structures of the Cold War. I would welcome Europe having a strong defense capability of its own, but it simply does not exist. That’s why the US stance is still crucial.

What can be expected should Donald Trump be re-elected?
Trump wanted the US to leave NATO during his first presidency. But he was prevented from doing so by his own security policy makers, as well as thanks to the brilliant diplomacy of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. If Trump were to move into the White House again, which is very uncertain today, he would very likely try this again and stop supporting Ukraine. However, he would have to reckon with a huge backlash in Congress and also in his own party. How that struggle would turn out is up in the air.

So Republicans will remain a strong force behind Ukraine?
Many prominent security policy makers and virtually the entire armed forces leadership would oppose Trump on this issue. Most Republicans still have strong ties to the armed forces, and many military bases are important economic factors in their constituencies. A significant portion of Republican members of Congress remain in favor of supporting Ukraine.

As an author of books on the Gulag and the Holodomor, how do you view Putin in historical perspective? Where does he stand alongside figures like Hitler and Stalin?
In the beginning, Putin was not like Stalin. He didn’t order mass arrests or use mass terror. But today you see the return of the mentality and behaviors reminiscent of Stalin’s time. These include a paranoia about society, a mania for control, and the subjugation of all institutions to the state. This reveals a totalitarian mindset inherited from the Soviet Union.

Is this just a means of exercising domination, or does Putin really think in these terms?
He clearly thinks that way today. The behavior of Russian troops in the occupied territories of Ukraine is horrifyingly reminiscent of the period of Sovietization of Eastern Europe after World War II: the destruction of all institutions, the elimination of schools and culture, the displacement of Ukrainian by a new identity, the targeted attacks against the former elite, such as mayors, teachers, policemen, writers, who disappear into prisons. This is a Stalinist playbook that Putin has adopted. Even the occupation of Crimea by men without uniforms followed a model in the occupation of eastern Poland in 1944.

Russian television also increasingly uses genocidal language. There is talk of wiping out Ukraine, of Ukrainian as a disease and virus that has to be eliminated. This sounds similar to the way Stalin spoke about Ukrainian peasants and Hitler spoke about Jews. Some elements in Putin’s Russia remind us of the worst dictatorships in European history.

Doesn’t this system go far beyond Putin?
Of course, even Stalinism did not start from Stalin alone. There is a tradition of totalitarianism in Russia that the intelligence service studied to learn from for its own operations. What is happening in Ukraine today was deliberately taken from its own history and applied.

Consequently, must the West assume that things will hardly change once Putin is no longer in power?
Of course, Russia has its own traditions. But no country is determined by its history. Things can always change. If a man other than Putin had come to power after Boris Yeltsin, Russia and the world would probably look very different today.

The text of the interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. We thank NZZ for permission to use the interview for our website.

Read original interview in German