Interview by Erik Eenlo, BNS
Q: You have written extensively about Russia. One year into Vladimir Putin´s fourth term as president of Russia – how would you characterize the health of his regime?
Mark Galeotti (MG): It is paradoxically strong, brittle, and drifting towards its end. Strong, in that there is no serious challenge to the regime, and Putin’s personal control over it. Brittle, in that it lacks resilience or the capacity to evolve, at a time of growing dissatisfaction. And drifting in that I feel Putin himself is tired, disengaged from much of the job, looking for some combination of a constitutional reform and a trusted successor that would allow him to retire from the day-to-day management of the country. I am struck by the pervasive sense of an end of an era that I encounter in Moscow, where the political classes are obsessed with the sunset of Putinism, even if they do not expect it to be imminent.
Q: You comment regularly on intelligence matters. Retrospectively, what was the main fallout from the botched GRU operation to kill former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury?
MG: This is an interesting question. Some very-informed sources tell me that the operation was seen as botched and that the GRU suffered as a result. However, I do not see evidence of that, and I suspect that – in the context of Russia’s extremely active and aggressive intelligence campaign – Moscow rather accepts that not every operation will be an absolute success. Given that I anticipate the aim was not simply to kill Skripal but also to send a message to London and beyond that Russia will avenge perceived treachery, the operation was certainly not a complete failure.
The real fallout was the multinational campaign of expulsions that followed. I certainly believe it caught the Russians by surprise, that they anticipated their people from London being expelled, but nothing more. I think this is a very powerful lesson; just as NATO embodies collective solidarity against military attack, the West needs to demonstrate a similar willingness to act with solidarity against other forms of hostility. This is an area in which we have failed in the past.
Q: With European Parliament elections looming and anti-EU forces gaining ground in many member states, is it fair to say that domestic politics and its polarization is currently the main domain where Russia is trying to weaken the West precisely through stoking this kind of polarization through hybrid warfare?
MG: I confess I am not a fan of the use of the term ‘hybrid warfare’ for the Russians present active measures campaign, as it implies that behind the subversion and disinformation lies the serious threat of military action. I much prefer ‘political war,’ as it captures better the sense of Russia’s campaign. This is precisely intended to divide, distract and demoralize us by any means possible, and at present is does indeed mean largely focusing on our contradictions and weaknesses. This is the irony, but also the opportunity: we create the opportunities the Russian exploit through our own failures of governance and politics, but likewise it means that by addressing them, we largely make Russian impotent against us.
Q: A few years ago you said in a panel discussion at LMC that you consider it plausible that Russia will in one way or another insert itself into Afghanistan to influence processes there. Are there any signs of this?
MG: Moscow is already involved in Afghanistan, in pushing its own talks with the Taliban separate from US-led efforts. After all, the Russians not only have clear practical interests at stake, from concerns about radical Islam to the opium trade, but also the goal of demonstrating that they are global players. Barack Obama may have written Russia off as a mere ‘regional power,’ but Putin’s attempt to (re)establish its status as a global power means that he wants to insert himself into areas of importance to Washington – and, to a lesser extent, Europe – and create leverage for deals or at least prove that there are no significant issues, from North Korean de-nuclearisation to the Venezuelan crisis, that can be resolved without Moscow being at the table.
Q: What is going on in Russia-Belarus relations? At a time when ruling regimes are being toppled in Sudan and Algeria, does Russia fear the same might happen in Belarus?
MG: I don’t think Moscow fears the Lukashenka regime being toppled – at least, not by anyone else. The relationship between Russia and Belarus constantly goes through cycles, from antagonistic to amiable, and at present we are in the former stage. However, Putin has his hands full (and few Russians are at all interested in closer integration with Belarus) and Lukashenka is too wily a survivor to let the current spat go too far.
Mark Galeotti is an Honorary Professor at UCL SSEES and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague.