Interview with Andrei Grachev, spokesman, and advisor to the last Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev

By Cecilia Capanna

Putin didn’t get crazy suddenly; his plan has been clear for years. That’s what Andrei Grachev said, spokesman and advisor to the last Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev. He explained Putin’s plan, the obvious signs that preceded his attack on Ukraine and why he decided to act right now.

It is the second time I have had the chance to talk with Mr. Grachev. Exactly one year ago I interviewed him on his 90th birthday as the last president of the Soviet Union.

In retracing the salient moments of Gorbachev’s historic regency and his transformation of Russian politics and society dictated by a pro-Europe vision, at the end of our stimulating conversation, Grachev hinted at Putin. He explained the reasons why a character so different from Gorbachev, the opposite, is leading Russia.

Has Putin gone crazy?

What’s the explanation for the sudden radicalization of a Russian president that led to the unprecedented situation involving Russia, Ukraine, and Europe?

A few months ago, at the end of 2021, nothing seemed to announce this geopolitical catastrophe. Apparently, the only thing that could give a clue was a declaration made several years ago by Vladimir Putin, who called the Soviet Union’s breakup, “The biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.

However, these days in Ukraine we can clearly see the origin of the political catastrophe of the 21st century. Hopefully, there will be no other worse than this one.

22 years after he became the president of Russia, precisely 30 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, but also 8 years since the Maidan revolution in Kiev and the crisis in Donbass compromised the relationship between Russia and Ukraine (2014), Mr. Vladimir Putin apparently decides that his previous challenge to keep the status quo doesn’t correspond anymore to his intentions. anymore.

I think, approaching the end of his “reign”, when it’s time to fill the balance sheet about how he ruled Russia, he feels he must think about his legacy in Russian history and about the shape he has given to the country. He is preparing to leave, and he cares about Russia’s place in the current world.

Apparently, he is anxious about that, since he’s approaching 70 years old and that’s also the time when many people start to think about succession and successors. I believe he has reasons to feel both satisfied and anxious.

Here’s an explanation: he has had to consider that during his 20-year reign, he achieved important results for his country, such as the stabilization after the chaotic years of Yeltsin, the maintenance of Russia’s integrity, the price of his approved wars, and the bleeding of the Russian federation that included the real danger of its breakup.

What’s Putin’s Balance Sheet?

1 – From the economic point of view: Vladimir Putin can assert that Russia’s stabilization takes advantage of the prices of oil and gas, a very profitable situation.

2 – Internally: The internal political situation gave Putin reasons to feel satisfied. Besides reaching political stability, he also neutralized any possible opposition. He has created and solidified a sort of specific model of governing post-soviet Russia. This model is unique, integrating more than 70 years of the Soviet Union’s communism combined with new experiences. Russia made a transition to a new world, open to a new economy, and must be competitive in the world.

From this point of view a model that I would call “Putinism” was created. This model has a particular feature: it matches the privileged monopoly of the Soviet Union’s political features -the monopoly of a “one-party system”- with the domination of the pro-Putin party over the society and the monopoly by its ownership of most of the country’s wealth. This is an exceptional situation: the monopoly of political rule, “vertical power”, reposes on the dominant position of the same political groups over the economy and with the development of the market economy’s lower-level features. So, profiting from the support of the important part of the population, and satisfied with the improvement of economic conditions, Putin could feel quite safe at the top of this pyramid of power.

3 – The third element that must be mentioned is the improvement of Russian status in the world scene. Putin could claim that Russia is back on the world scene. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to face a very fragile position in the world because of the chaotic relationship with the neighboring countries and the West. This gave Russia the image of a country that lost the Cold War, in which Russia was defeated by the West and humiliated. Putin has managed to improve this image of the country, he brought it back to the standard of equal partners with the main players of the world.

A side effect is certainly that Russia cannot be compared with the Soviet Union, it is no more the superpower that the Soviet Union used to be, except for nuclear weapons. Certainly, the country has less power from the point of view of the capacity to rule in comparison to before, but at the same time, it has its own advantages. Putin is involved with different governments in the world, both with the West and the East. He may feel he has the power to recover some positions of the Soviet Union, not only in Europe but also in other parts of the world, like in the Middle East, Syria, Africa, and even Latin America.

What are Putin’s concerns?

We are speculating about Mr. Putin’s thoughts, but he may be satisfied with his position. His popularity was around 60-70% and he was not risking any kind of challenge from any kind of opposition.

The very uncertain crisis and the risk in the relationship with Ukraine led him to make a kind of “jump in the dark” – just to quote the Germans say at the beginning of World War I. He thought invading Ukraine wasn’t such a risk because he felt the whole structure he had built although still fragile, had all the features of Soviet success.

The Russian economy is still very modest, as in Spain or Italy which would like to be a superpower status but does not provide enough assurance.

With USA and China, Putin believed Russia needed to be confirmed as one of the poles of this emerging paradigm, on the basis of his country‘s advantages.

What are these advantages? Russia’s geopolitical strategical position between East and West— the West and China and the Muslim world. Russia is considered an energy superpower with its oil and gas. This is almost as important as its nuclear weapons were during the Cold War. Russia would have a very privileged position as an exclusive part of the 21st century power brokers and their profits.

Putin blames Gorbachev

To fulfill this role, Putin believes Russia must recover. It had to repair the damage it had suffered after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin considers Gorbachev responsible for what he calls a “catastrophe”. Gorbachev, he believes, was naive enough to accept a union letter of policy for opening doors to the West, without putting boundaries, without formulating clear conditions for ending the Cold War and for dissolving the URSS, evacuating Eastern Europe, for allowing Germany to unite as well as Europe.

Putin wanted to rebuild a kind of new Russia’s not in the form of Soviet Union 2.0, but in a kind of “after all Russian Empire”, even if he doesn’t like the term.

He also dislikes the term “Soviet Union” because he believes that even the Soviet period was traumatic for Russia. He started to consider himself the heir of the Czars, with Russian imperial status, rather than of the Soviet leaders.

So, to make Russia play a significant role in the world in this 21st century, he starts from the belief that in this century when Western countries, starting from the US, cannot claim dominance nor can they impose their rules of behavior on the rest of the world. Putin wants to announce to the West that Russia will not follow its rules, the rules of international structures and organizations, and international norms that he considers as the legacy of ending the Cold War. He believes that while the West is trying to impose its rules it respects international laws and UN’s decisions just if they correspond to its own interests. Examples are Yugoslavia, the Iraq war, Afghanistan, and Libya, where the West wouldn’t hesitate to behave as the only master of the world.

This kind of situation from Putin’s point of view was reducing Russia’s role just to a role of a subordinate country obliged to follow the rules of the Western world.

How does Putin want to reformulate rules in the 21st century?

It was first announced at the Munich conference in 2007, then it was confirmed by the definition of Russia’s so-called “red lines”, beyond which Putin has announced that Russia would not accept the continuation of Western fear influence. This primarily concerns the extension of NATO. While Russia had to accept the entry of former East European members of the Warsaw Pact and Baltic Republics into NATO, as its strength increased, Russia refused to accept this kind of “colonization” by the West. And that was also the real explanation for the 2008 war in Georgia, when Russia announced its opposition to the use of force Georgia entering NATO, announced in during a 2008 NATO meeting. And so, enters the situation of Ukraine, because during the 2008 NATO summit the invitation was formulated for two former republics: Georgia and Ukraine.

Was the war in Georgia a warning?

Georgian war had to be interpreted as the signal of a “red line” also concerning Ukraine. But the signal was neglected, and the evolution of Ukraine led to the crisis of 2014, with the sudden change of leadership in Kiev and the announcement of a new orientation of the country. That’s when Ukraine’s new political leadership was openly challenged its traditional relationship with Russia and announced its intention to join the European Union and NATO. Putin’s reaction to that was the annexation of Crimea: since he had lost his influence over Kiev, he had to compensate. And then, in the same year, the mobilization of separatist forces in the east of Ukraine occurred.
All these considerations necessarily lead us to better understand the origin of the current dramatic situation.

Are Putinism and NATO are compatible?

The point is Putin felt strong but at the same time, he felt Russia’s fragility at an international level. He felt as if he was threatened, in danger, internally, not from the point of view of Russia’s security. Rather, it’s a problem of the fragility of Putin’s system inside the country. He started to interpret the events in the Middle East, in other countries like Yugoslavia, as a kind of quiet aggression, as a progressive Western influence challenging his model, eventually changing his regime.

He was quite right because the American war in Iraq meant a change of regime, the same for policy in Afghanistan, as well as Libya. It was a signal that NATO, had found a new function: to be the armed tool for imposing the Western model on the rest of the world. And for Putin that threatened his own system while internally it was challenged as well.

Where is Putin’s internal system weak?

Putin’s internal system was challenged also in the periphery of Russia, in Belarus, in Kazakhstan, as potential examples of the possible evolution of this situation in Russia itself.

He could stabilize the situation in Belarus as a big brother to Belarusians. At the same time, he would do the same for Kazakhstan, not only stabilizing the regime there but also building a protective border against the possible Chinese influence in Central Asia.

He could also act by building a protective wall in the Caucasus, in Georgia during the war in 2008, but also during the recent Azerbaijan–Armenian conflict. And again, he was on his way to build a protective wall against Turkey. So, in the last at least two-three years Putin’s intention has been to protect his internal world and the model he had built in Russia, against possible challenges from the outside world. Because he believes that he faces challenges not only from the West but also from China, Turkey, from the Muslim world on the Afghanistan border.

Ukraine: a stone in Putinism’s shoe

What remained uncomfortable for him was Ukraine because it was the only hole in this kind of protective wall he was building in order, above all, to protect his system, not the Russian security interest. He saw the possibility of a regime change not only for him personally but for the whole “Putin family”, politically speaking. In other words, he wants to protect Putinism and Putin’s clan, which is all of whom behave as private owners of Russia.

For these reasons, he started to practically destroy all the political opponents inside. Navalny is in prison, independent media are declared foreign agents and they cannot act in Russia, different NGOs and opposition figures are either suppressed or neutralized, or forced to the emigration. There are no checks and balances, no institutions that can control the “vertical power”, the parliament has no possibility to challenge the president, it is voting unanimously, even more unanimously than in the Soviet times. And there’s no independent jurisdiction, no independent court, the whole system is subordinated to this kind of model.

Why Now?

He apparently considered the moment very profitable, and Ukraine to be in a wick situation. He was then encouraged by the bankruptcy of the U.S., with Biden’s humiliation in Kabul. He saw that Americans are no more interested in Europe or Russia, but they are concerned by China. So, he thought there was no danger to be confronted by Americans in Europe, and Trump was there to show promote that. Also, sleepy Joe Biden was again giving the image of a weak president that couldn’t be feared.

In Europe, Putin thought that he could count on his gas pipelines, he could count on his privileged relationship with Germany, which is very dependent on the Russian gas supply, and with Eastern Europe as well. But also, he could count on the fact that Europe itself presents a very chaotic image. He is much more concerned about the Islamic invasion and Islamic immigration than by Eastern Europe’s affairs.

After Merkel left, the conflict between the West and Eastern Europe increased, and so he counted on his allies in Europe: Orban in Hungary, Serbs in the Balkans, Salvini, and those nationalists from radical right-wing in Europe, that wouldn’t allow Europe to behave as a serious opponent to him. That’s why it was a good moment to act.

He also believed that an operation in Ukraine would be a very simple one, like Crimea 2.0. He thought the weak Ukrainian President is not professional because he is an actor.

Stalin as well in 1930 was affected by this “vertige du succés”, by excessive optimism about his own power. On one side, Vladimir Putin made this overestimation, on the other side he also misjudged several things:

First, he was wrong about the 21st Century is being “post-Western”, in which the West is on the decline, having no capacity to resist and to oppose.

Second, he felt he couldn’t lose any more time in Ukraine after his attempt at an agreement that would have confirmed the special status of Russian speakers in Donbass and others. That would have been a solid condition for preventing Ukraine to enter NATO. But then he believed that Ukraine would not accept this agreement and that France and Germany weren’t ready to impose acceptance of the Minsk Agreement conditions upon the Ukrainian government. He also understood that Ukraine was changing and Americans were supplying it with weapons and the Ukrainian Army was being modernized. There’s no comparison between the Ukrainian Army in 2021 and what it was in 2014 when he could have defeated it.

Putin’s last piece to be included in the “security belt” was to surround Russia with the image of a kind of imperial status that from this moment on, would challenge the 21st Century.

Which are Putin’s mistakes and Putinism limits?

He proved to he may be wrong about several things.

– The meaning of the century. He behaved as if he was, as somebody said, a politician from the XIX century, a kind of Bismarck that was thinking in the terms of relationships between big empires. Instead, it turned out he is only and very modestly a man who is far from understanding the modern world.

– Perhaps, Covid as well has played a fatal role on him because he chose to be very isolated in the world. He is also politically isolated because with his vertical power, his model turned him into a dictator or into a kind of character from Gabriel Marquez’s novel “The Autumn of the Patriarch”. He is not surrounded by any institutions, nor even by advisors, but only by executioners. His position, his opinion is just the only one and it cannot be contested even by the people that support him. He is televised, as he was surrounded by his advisors.

– He ultimately underestimated Ukraine. He was totally wrong about its intentions and capacity to resist. In a certain way, he gambled.

Is Putin defeated?

Vladimir Putin has been defeated in several issues: he found himself in a war with a country that is turning united thanks to his attack. He is the creator of a new Ukraine State and even a new nation which will be born in the resistance.

Instead of diminishing Russia’s isolation in the world, he is worsening getting the situation. worsens. Russia has not been so isolated even since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

He also proved to be wrong about Russian society which is no more than the Soviet Union of 1968. The Russian society that had lived the experience of Perestroika and Gorbachev is different from the Soviet society. Few persons protested the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, yet now you have several thousands of people across Russia who openly protest Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, most of the dissidents and the opposition left Russia, waiting for a better time to return and rebuild post-Putin Russia.

How will it end?

While he targeted Ukraine’s regime change, Putin is shortening the time he’ll be in power himself, he is cutting off his regime’s life expectancy. He intends to move Russia toward Asia; he wants Russia to become the new Northern Korea. But Russia is a European country.

According to Mr. Gorbachev, Russia was a legitimate part of a Common European Home, and Russian society is not going to be like a Chinese or North Korean society because of its culture and its traditions. That’s another fatal mistake by Putin.

Unfortunately, this tragedy brings us to an important reflection on the power of one person in history. And we have two striking examples: Putin and Gorbachev.

We are living in a dramatic situation where ambition, but also obsession, paranoia, and uncontrolled behavior of one person can produce dramatic conflicts affecting the whole world, especially when we are facing the exceptional situation of this man, Putin, controlling a very big country, with his finger on the nuclear button.

And he leads a country that is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. That means that he is protected from any possible collective action of the international community as happened for example with Saddam Hussain in Iraq or Gaddafi in Libya. Putin is not afraid of this.

We’re having this kind of exceptional situation when the fate of the world depends on one person in a negative perspective.

And at the same time, on the contrary, we have a positive example in the same country, Russia: Gorbachev by himself too could change the fate of the world by profiting from this exceptional position in the Soviet Union. He managed to end the Cold War, he managed to relieve the world from the threat of a nuclear conflict, and he managed to open the borders and bring his country to join Europe.

The contrast between the two characters is certainly an unfortunate situation, but at the same time, it means that the real mediator, the real judge between the two is going to be Russian society.

Will Russian society be ready to follow Putin or will the “children of Gorbachev” resist, adding their resistance to that of the Ukrainians?