Paranoia is raging in Russia, and it’s not only about the regime. If we want to influence something in Russia, the political future of Russia, we can’t do it without the support of leading opposition figures, and there’s no certainty these figures will be liberals, – Bruno Tertrais, Paris Strategic Studies Fund researcher, told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service while attending the 7th Tbilisi International Conference organized by the EPRC, Bush and McCain Institutes.
We want a lesser evil. Any leadership that agrees to live peacefully with its neighbors, even if it’s an autocrat, will already be progress
“To defeat Putinism, it’s useful as a template to look at the fight against Putinism, and our dealings in future with Russia, via a medical analogy,” he tells us. “First of all, you have to isolate yourself from contagion. I think Putinism is a disease, a type of a political disease. And what happens next, after the war? Well, we can put the sick person, Russia, in the isolation ward, literally cut off, or amputated, from all possible connections, maybe with just a bit of trade, but isolated, so that it heals at some point, which might take decades. Maybe we’ll have to build a wall. And I don’t know what it would mean, for a country like Georgia, which still has to trade with Russia, which wants to be trade corridor. It may be a problem for countries such as that. Another way is to help the sick person produce antibodies, like helping the liberals, the opposition, the less nationalist forces, and in that way contribute actively to healing the Russian body.
What would that be called in medical terms? Therapy?
It would be a light therapy. Then we could have radiotherapy, where we actively promote a regime change in Russia. That’s the first possible strategy. I’m not saying that I favor one over the other, but I think these are choices that will present themselves to Western countries. Very soon, I hope. And we have to think ahead. At this point, I’m more in favor of isolation. I think that Russia is leaving Europe, Europe is leaving Russia, and we have to separate for a while for our national health.
And the amputation bit?
Well, that’s the extreme. Amputation is if you want to finally defeat Russian imperialism, then you need to contribute to the dismantlement of the Empire. Now, I’m of two minds about that. This is not the game that a European leader can easily play. It’s an extreme strategy. I not sure I would recommend European leaders to contribute to it. I think the debate will be more on whether the Russian empire crumbling is dangerous or not, and how dangerous. We had those debates at the end of the Soviet Union. By default, Western leaders prefer stability. In the longer run, however, instability may be better than stability, and just overcoming that troublesome period of time. Ultimately, the future of Russia is for the Russians to decide, though.
What’s the consensus among the Western consilium? What’s the preferred course of action right now?
Not enough people in government think about these long term issues. Those who think about them, unfortunately, too often believe that things can go back to normal with Russia. They start by saying, ‘Russia will always be our big European neighbor, and we have to live with it, so can we find some kind of way to reconcile Russia’s security interests with ours?’ That’s a default way of thinking for many in France or Germany. I think it’s misguided. It comes from a background which is deeply ingrained in Western European capitals. We have a long history with Russia; Russia has sometimes been a foe, sometimes a friend, but we have to live with them, because they are our neighbor. My own take on this is, well, it’s more complex than that. First of all, we are truly living a historic moment. Second, the split between Ukraine and Russia means that it will be a different Russia from the one we used to live with as Western Europeans in the past. Hoping to go back to normal ways with the Putinist system is a dream, we need to abandon. There is a lot of wishful thinking. Not because many Western European leaders love Putin, no. But you know, I think that it often takes wars to open eyes, and certainly the war in Ukraine, even more than the war in Georgia, has opened many eyes. But they’re not yet clear-eyed about the future.
You did mention that, ultimately, the fate of Russia will lie in Russian hands. But in all these medical approaches, be it therapy or amputation, who is the doctor? Who is the surgeon if amputation is needed?
Too often in the past, Western countries have thought that they hold the key to the future of such and such a country. I think we should refrain from, or at least be very cautious about, thinking that way. There is a lot of paranoia in Russia, not only in the regime, but whatever we do, if we are to proactively affect Russia’s future political life, we cannot do it without the consent of leading opposition figures, who will not always be liberal. It’s about choosing between several different bad outcomes. We want a lesser evil. And politics is often about choosing the lesser evil. Maybe there won’t be many Liberal Democrats in Russia, or at least, they won’t be in a position to construct a credible future for Russia in the in the next 10-20 years. Maybe we’ll have to deal with other people. I think anything less evil than Putin would already be some kind of progress. Any leadership that agrees to live peacefully with his neighbors, even if it’s an autocrat, will already be progress.
You mentioned France’s stance towards Russia. What is Macron’s current modus operandi when it comes to the Ukraine war?
Macron came to power with illusions about France and Russia, illusions about Putin. What happened is that he realized how treacherous Putin has been, that he cannot trust Putin anymore. And he has realized that the fate of Ukraine is connected with the future of Europe. And because he has an ambitious European agenda, Ukraine has to be part of it. So it has been a long journey. I’m not sure it’s entirely complete. And I’m not sure it ever will be, because he still mentions this idea of a new European security architecture which Russia will be part of. And I think that deep down, he still believes that Russia was treated badly at the end of the Cold War. At least he came to power with this idea, as misguided as I think it is, and I would not be surprised if he still thought a little bit that way.
Why does every world leader, considering Putin has been in power for 20 something years, come to power believing in the prospects of reaching some sort of agreement with Putin? Why don’t people learn from their predecessors?
Every leader thinks they can do better than the previous one, and hopes that they can succeed where the previous one failed. The evolution of Putin between ‘99 and 2022 was slow, and many Western leaders didn’t have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis, and so didn’t realize how things were changing. Granted, you can say Putinism was already there in ‘99. But from Western European eyes, it was not always that obvious. Putin was very good at reflective control, at making you believe that you should place your bets with him.
Europe is leaving Russia, and we have to separate for a while for our national health
Looking back on French presidents, how would you rate the Sarkozyan diplomacy of 2008?
Well, I think the reality of what he was able to achieve is much less important than the perception he has in his mind. I think he genuinely believes that he stopped the war. And I think that, in a way, Putin probably made him believe that. And a lot of people still think that Macron could have done, and that Macron did try to do, what Sarkozy reportedly did. So coming back to 2008: Was it a good thing for the President of the European Union, who happens to be Sarkozy, to come to Georgia and try to do something? Yes, absolutely. And by the way, it placed Georgia and the Georgian-Russian relations on the mental map of many Europeans, at least in France. But I think that any person having covered the events from France will also tell you that whatever Sarkozy thinks he may have, at least partly achieved, he did not follow through on, and that’s a typical politician. “Oh, I’ve done this, next problem?”
Let’s look at Sarkozy’s latest interview. How much does what he said resonate today with the average French citizen or, more broadly, in Western Europe?
The Sarkozy interview was interesting in two ways. One is that his views are so marginal in the French public debate. It’s actually quite astonishing that he still holds them- the views he expressed about Russia, about what Ukraine’s future is, etc. These were mainstream views two years ago, before the war, that Ukraine should be a bridge, should be neutral, and the fact the former French President still holds those today is really quite troubling. So people are asking, is it about money? Is it about naiveté? Is it about preserving his own legacy? We don’t know. But it was interesting to see a former president still holding such views today, publicly. Two, the good news is that even though there are still some people in the French elite who hold the same view, it didn’t have an effect. Some of us thought the Sarkozy interview might open a can of worms, but it didn’t, and it means that, overall, I think we’ve been immunized against Putinism to a large extent. However, if something happens, like the election of Trump, or Zelensky dies in a helicopter accident, something that changes the perspective, then, just like in the US, by the way, those calling for a deal, for a compromise, will be heard again. I insist this is not specifically a French thing. This is everywhere, except in the former Soviet Union countries.
Some thought the Sarkozy interview might open a can of worms, but it didn’t. We’ve been immunized against Putinism to a large extent
We have bitter, historic reasons not to be ecstatic about finding compromises with Russia. How likely is a deal with Putin over Ukraine, though? What leverage is there to be sure he follows through?
I had an op-ed published in the French press this morning and I call it the impossibility of a deal. It’s to counter the voices that are increasingly being heard that “a counteroffensive is costly in human lives, isn’t it time to think about compromise?”, and so on; to remind the French public that neither Kyiv or Moscow are interested in a substantive negotiation, period; that any kind of grand bargain is impossible between Zelensky and Putin, because Putin has sought to destroy the Ukrainian nation. And, you know, there’s a saying in France: You don’t discuss cooking recipes with a cannibal!