20 years under Putin: a timeline

In recent weeks, the Biden administration has drawn a tough line with Moscow. In an interview with IMR, political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky dissects the state of U.S-Russian relations, the Western sanctions, and the growing crisis in Ukraine.


According to Andrei Piontkovsky, the current crisis in U.S.-Russian relations is similar to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.  


Olga Khvostunova: In a recent ABC interview, President Biden called Vladimir Putin a “killer,” causing a great stir in Moscow. What does this mean for U.S.-Russian relations?

Andrei Piontkovsky: With the advent of the new administration, the U.S. approach to Russia has changed dramatically, and Moscow has not yet understood this. It seems to the Kremlin that it can mock the Americans with the same impunity as it does the Europeans. But the Kremlin has not yet realized that there is no longer a person in the White House who will indulge them. Biden decided that, on behalf of the United States and, if you like, the West as a whole, it was time to finally give an unambiguous answer to the famous question posed back in 2000 at the Davos Forum: “Who is Mr. Putin?” 

OK: Over the past two months, since Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia and his imprisonment, relations between Russia and the West have been steadily deteriorating. The European Union and the United States have recently announced new sanctions against Russia. How do you assess these measures?

AP: Let’s go through them in order.

OK: Yes, well, the EU was the first to impose a new round under its version of the Magnitsky Act. This happened on February 22, and it became clear that the list of designated persons differed greatly from what was proposed by Navalny’s team. Why is that?

AP: The list of sanctioned individuals, such as [FSB head] Alexander Bastrykin, [Prosecutor General] Igor Krasnov, [National Guard head] Viktor Zolotov, and a few other people, is really not impressive, and I agree with most of the skeptical assessments. The EU came up with a kind of formal reply; it intended to show a reaction, while, in fact, doing nothing. Navalny’s list, if you remember, recommended sanctioning specific businessmen, or rather “businessmen-officials”—Alisher Usmanov, Roman Abramovich, the Rotenberg brothers, Oleg Deripaska, who are not “businessmen” in the classical definition of the word. These are officials entrusted with servicing financial flows, but their positions depend on the will of the president. These are mafia structures that have developed in Russia, where there is no classical institution of private property. The EU fails to understand this fact, which prevents it from taking the necessary measures. They ask: why should businessman Rotenberg be responsible for the crimes of the Putin regime? Formally, the question is correct, but in essence it is a mockery. However, some manage to grasp the situation. During the Skripal poisoning crisis, British Prime Minister Theresa May said that Britain was not the place for Putin’s oligarchs to launder criminal capital. I’m sure she meant it, but words are one thing, and deeds are another. These alleged “Putin oligarchs” can hire the world’s best lawyers, and Europe is clearly not ready for such proceedings.

OK: So you weren’t surprised by the EU sanctions list?

AP: It was hard to expect anything else. The EU makes its decisions based on the consensus of its 27 member states, that is, on the lowest common denominator. And there are, for example, such exotic factors as [Hungarian President] Viktor Orban or Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Moreover, after the last Munich Security Conference, a new outspoken Putin lobbyist has emerged in Europe—[French President] Emmanuel Macron, who claimed the role of the EU’s ideological leader. At this conference, two speeches turned out to be crucial, albeit directly opposite—those of Macron and Biden. In his support for Putin, Macron went much further than Trump, saying that Europe’s policy of contempt for Russia had failed, and therefore a closer dialogue with Moscow was needed. After the conference, he also added that he would go to meet with Putin to discuss security issues with him. This is, of course, music to the Kremlin’s ears. 

OK: Why did Macron take this approach?

AP: After Brexit, France considers itself the leading European power in Europe, which does not tend to confront Putin in general. Consider, too, the French elite’s eternal insecurities that make Macron, like his predecessors, try and insert himself into any conflict negotiations. The most striking manifestation of these insecurities over the past 75 years is France’s proclivity to confront the United States on any issue. Macron’s speech thus opposed Biden’s. 

OK: In early February, EU diplomacy chief Josep Borrell visited Russia, where the Kremlin deliberately and demonstratively humiliated him. Ten days later, Borrell issued a statement in which he said that, having thought about his visit, he had concluded that Russia was becoming an increasingly authoritarian state. Some observers ridiculed him for being so late in stating the obvious. What is your take on this? Do you think Borrel’s approach reflects the thinking of European elites? Do they really misunderstand the Putin regime or is it just rhetoric?

AP: It’s not that they don’t understand ... they are deceiving themselves. The Putin regime is over 20 years old and the European elites just don’t want to face the truth. Not everyone, even in Russia, realized what kind of regime Putin was creating. The majority of the liberal camp enthusiastically supported Putin in the first elections, seeing in him a “Russian Pinochet” who would lead the country to the market economy with an iron hand. Now many understand that those were just illusions, but Europe prefers deceptions ... As [Russian poet] Alexander Pushkin said, “Ah, it is easy to deceive me!... I long to be deceived myself!” And it is easy for Putin to deceive Europe.

OK: Why did the Kremlin have to humiliate Europe’s top diplomat?

AP: For me it was a classic picture: an intellectual in a hat came to a meeting with a gang of criminals. Willingness to humiliate the opponent is the regime’s signature component and reflects its psychology and Putin’s governing style in general. Do you wonder why, for example, after the attempted murder of the Skripals, these two GRU officers, Mishkin and Chepiga, gave a televised interview? It was to send a message from the Kremlin: “Yes, we killed. But you won’t prove anything. We killed and are not hiding it. And we will continue to kill.” The regime says essentially the same things about Navalny’s poisoning. The perpetrator revels in his impunity, mocks the victims, humiliates them. And, as Macron's speech showed, the European Union accepts this style. 

OK: After Borrell’s visit, the pro-Kremlin TV anchor Vladimir Solovyov interviewed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said that Russia was ready to break off relations with the European Union. He also added: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Even in the current political climate, the statement sounded radical. Do you think these are empty threats, or is Russia really ready to escalate with the West?

AP: First, let me remind you that immediately after the interview Lavrov was corrected “from above.” As [Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry] Peskov said, the minister was misunderstood, and his words were taken out of context. But in essence, in Moscow, at the very top, there is a serious discussion or even a struggle between the so-called “rabid” and “moderate” groups on a very specific issue—a possible escalation in Ukraine. Floating such harsh statements and then rolling back on them with semi-denials show that the outcome of this struggle is unclear. My sources tell me that the only restraining force in this struggle is the military in the General Staff, who are well aware of the dangers of a direct clash with the West, especially with the United States, and are trying to dissuade Russia’s top political leadership from taking extreme steps.

“To ensure that Russian changes its foreign policy, the battle for the minds of Russian citizens has to be won.”

OK: On March 2, the United States followed the EU almost immediately with their round of sanctions against Russia—for the persecution of Alexei Navalny and the cyberattack on U.S. government agencies. In many ways, these measures resemble EU sanctions. Why do you think that is?

AP: Outwardly, the U.S. sanctions do appear really similar to the EU measures, and the Kremlin TV studios are already gloating with malice on this occasion. Still, it is important to emphasize why they are similar. By announcing their sanctions immediately after the EU, the U.S. rushed to demonstrate transatlantic unity—a crucial element in Western policy, despite such different speeches from Biden and Macron. Also, on a deeper policy level, the U.S. sanctions signify a different approach. For the Europeans, the new sanctions represent their maximum effort in countering Russia, the peak of their protest against human rights violations. While for the Americans, this is only the beginning of a larger series of sanctions.

OK: So you expect the U.S. to tighten the sanctions regime?

AP: Yes, the most recent round was merely a warmup. What allows me to draw such a conclusion? First, the announcement of sanctions is accompanied by a very tough preamble, as well as by the statement by [U.S. Secretary of State Anthony] Blinken, who bluntly accused Russia of trying to poison a political opponent with chemical weapons. This demonstrates the new U.S. administration’s uncompromising approach towards the Putin regime. Second, in addition to designating Russian security officials and [first deputy head of the presidential administration] Sergei Kiriyenko—the first U.S. move against Russian top political figures, which once again underlines the seriousness of its approach, the new U.S. measures included banning U.S. exports of defense technologies to Russia and U.S. government financing of Russian companies. You need to understand that defense technologies include all the electronics, everything related to the element base, as well as dual-use goods. Moscow imports billions of dollars worth of such goods—mostly U.S. components. This strikes a huge blow to the Kremlin. Finally, in his speech, Blinken also warned that the U.S. is considering tougher measures, which will become known later. 

OK: In addition to sanctions by the Biden administration, the U.S. could also take action under the bipartisan Holding Russia Accountable for Malign Activities Act of 2020. What are the chances of this bill to be passed and what does it mean for the Kremlin?

AP: You have already said the key words—“bipartisan support.” The bill was sponsored by two prominent Republican senators, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, and by Democratic senator Ben Cardin. That is, despite the current level of political polarization in the U.S., American military and political establishment has come to a full consensus regarding the Putin regime and the issue of supporting Ukraine. 

OK: How is this bill different from the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA)?

AP: The current bill is tougher; the list of measures is impressive. There is a section on responsibility for the murder of Boris Nemtsov, a section on responsibility for the attempted poisoning and illegal imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, a demand for his and all other political prisoners’ immediate release. There is a section on responsibility for violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. There is also a special section on measures against Nord Stream 2. Under another very telling section, the Congress requires that the U.S. president provide a report on Putin’s personal wealth. This information has long been known to U.S. intelligence, but this section will make it public. It is a crucial step against the Putin regime. How does this all threaten the Kremlin? The proposed measures include arresting of bank accounts, freezing of assets, exerting pressure on Russian public opinion. The latter is a major factor.

OK: Why?

AP: You see, to ensure that Russian changes its foreign policy, the battle for the minds of Russian citizens has to be won. CAATSA laid the groundwork, ensuring that the information about the wealth of people “close to Putin” would be disclosed, and that Russian citizens would be fully informed about the behavior of the so-called Russian elite and the country’s leadership. 2017’s CAATSA should have been accompanied by a political declaration, along the lines of Theresa May’s statement, that America is not a place for laundering the Russian elite’s criminal capital. Such a declaration could have included that the U.S., following its own anti-money laundering laws, would freeze and seize money stolen from the Russian people in order to later return it to Russia, to its first post-criminal government. Besides, a precedent was set with the former president of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The money he stole was confiscated in the United States and then turned over to its true owner—the Kyrgyz people. The difference, of course, is that Bakiyev had stolen $5 million, while Putin’s elite has stolen, according to some estimates, a trillion dollars.

OK: A significant difference.

AP: Yes, but this is essentially the same crime, therefore the same measures should follow. Still, in the U.S., as in Europe, other factors influence politics—for example, the fact that this money works well in the American economy and is useful to many. In the United States, Putin’s oligarchs are buying up a huge amount of real estate. Removing these investments will entail a serious legal struggle—and these oligarchs will hire the best and most expensive American lawyers. Also, a new argument has been recently circulating: if Putin’s oligarchs keep their trillion in the U.S., are they really the Russian elite or are they American? The logic goes that, wouldn’t it be easier to deal with these persons privately, threatening them with sanctions, but not imposing these measures? Now the majority of the Russian people is under the impression that the United States is an accomplice in this “robbery of the century.” But if America politically recognizes that this trillion was stolen from the Russian people and promises to return it, Russian people’s approval of America will inevitably skyrocket. This is exactly what happened when CAATSA came into force and Deripaska’s assets were seized. Imagine the Russian public disappointment when America backed down a year later!

“Let us see which will prevail—the Kremlin’s insane imperial ambitions, fueled by its own propaganda, or reason.”

OK: Can the U.S. really go for such tough measures? History shows that so far Russia has managed to stop this “sanctions train” at the last moment, as it was with CAATSA’s designated persons list or in the case of Deripaska. What is different now?

AP: I am afraid of something else: that Russia will not just stop this train, but instead push it towards the abyss. Another point is important here. The White House and the State Department have recently implied that their decision on sanctions against Russia would be made within the coming weeks.

OK: What does that mean?

AP: In my opinion, the U.S. is waiting for Russia to clarify its policy toward Ukraine in these weeks. I have already mentioned Biden’s speech at the Munich conference, where he strongly emphasized the importance of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity to the United States. The rhetoric was tougher than ever before. My understanding is that Ukraine saw the end of the  six-year period of the Minsk Accords, which Moscow used as a tool to destroy Ukrainian statehood by pushing for the so-called ORDLO [separate districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions—editor’s note]. All these years Moscow has been imposing its own interpretation of the Minsk Accords, namely: without changing anything inside ORDLO, keeping two Russian army corps and maintaining the Russian special services at full strength in this area, the Kremlin insisted on its recognition in Ukraine’s political and legal field. In other words, Moscow wanted to introject this cancerous tumor into Ukraine’s political body and thereby destroy the whole country. Incidentally, this is a well-known political instrument. In 1952, Stalin proposed to Konrad Adenauer to unite Germany—for West Germany to simply absorb East Germany, that is, without removing the Stasi or Soviet troops. To this, Adenauer rightly replied that he preferred to be the leader of half of Germany than to be nobody in a united country.

OK: But the Ukrainian leadership so far rejects ORDLO.

AP: Moscow has embarked on a plan to conquer Ukraine with particular vigor since the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, who was completely inexperienced in foreign policy and initially relied on his close aide Andrei Yermak in these matters. But in recent months, the situation has changed dramatically: Zelensky began to listen to other people, whom I call the “collective Mannerheim.” They are Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Secretary of the National Security Council Oleksiy Danilov, who lead Ukraine’s internal resistance. As a result, now Kiev has taken a clear position—supported by France and Germany—that not Ukraine, but Russia is the culprit for the breakdown of the Minsk Accords, because it does not comply with the agreement’s basic provisions on the withdrawal of military personnel and heavy weapons as well as on a ceasefire. In other words, Moscow’s accusations against Ukraine that it is allegedly not ready to discuss any political modalities are unfounded. Ukraine now proceeds from the assumption that the territories occupied by Russia will return to it in the same way as the Baltic countries gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the meantime, it intends to defend its territory from further Russian aggression.

OK: Do you think that Russia’s position on Ukraine will be a decisive factor for further U.S. sanctions?

AP: Yes, the situation in Ukraine explains why the U.S. halted its sanctions. Biden’s first round was a warning to the Russian leadership. If the Kremlin escalates military aggression in Ukraine—for example, by attempting to expand ORDLO to the borders of the Donbass and Luhansk regions—then the U.S. response will not be just economic sanctions, it will be an all-out economic war with Russia, including the shutdown of SWIFT, an oil embargo, and the arrest of that very “Russian trillion” in accordance with CAATSA. You know, all this reminds me of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Back then, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were raising the stakes, but at the very last moment Moscow retreated and lost face. Today, retreating will be easier.

OK: What is your overall view of the Biden administration’s policy towards Russia?

AP: It seems to me that the Biden administration has chosen the right tone. Moscow is being offered a way out of the Ukrainian crisis that will help it save face. Washington is not demanding that Russia immediately surrender ORDLO and Crimea. This is a reasonable position. However, the U.S. clearly understands that further unpunished aggression by Russia would lead to a complete collapse of the European security system, which the United States cannot afford. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the parties realized that everything could end in guaranteed mutual destruction, and it was after this crisis that the “hot” phase of the Cold War ended and the concept of containment emerged. Perhaps, the current crisis, which I would provisionally call, by analogy with the Cuban one, the “Mariupol crisis,” will end with a similarly positive outcome. Let us see which will prevail—the Kremlin’s insane imperial ambitions, fueled by its own propaganda, or reason.