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Actually, the Ukraine should have been defeated long ago, but instead the fighting continues. Why? Because Vladimir Putin no longer has things under control, the historian Stéphane Courtois judges.
Almost a year has passed since Russian troops invaded Ukraine, and since then Vladimir Putin has been feared more than ever. But is the fear justified? According to historian Stéphane Courtois, Putin’s successes are more than manageable. In the t-online interview, the expert explains how the former KGB man subjugated Russia, why the West ignored all warnings and what language Putin would be the only one to understand.
t-online: Professor Courtois, Vladimir Putin is considered to be quite cunning, but his plans have so far failed due to the resistance of Ukraine. How could the Kremlin boss miscalculate so much?
Stephane Courtois: Actually, Vladimir Putin is quite incompetent, and also incredibly arrogant.
But Putin has ruled Russia for more than two decades. This suggests that he knows how to achieve his goals in the long term.
Putin just isn’t the same anymore. Yes, he submitted to Russia without scruples. But what is Putin’s conclusion of the last twelve months? At the beginning of the war he wanted to take Kyiv by surprise. None! Then Putin thought the European Union would stand still while he rolled over Ukraine. None! NATO is “brain dead”, the Americans are pushing themselves out of Europe and letting the Ukrainian government under Volodymyr Zelenskyj be portrayed as a bunch of “Nazis”. No report, no report and no report again! Putin’s balance sheet is a total catastrophe, he is steering Russia towards the abyss at breakneck speed.
But first, let’s talk about the beginning of Putin’s career. In your soon-to-be-published “Putin Black Book,” you write that his rise was “meteotic.” How was it possible for a low-ranking ex-KGB officer to make it to the Kremlin?
Putin never left the KGB. “Once a Chekist, always a Chekist,” as the saying goes in Russia.
Stephane Courtois, born in 1947, is a historian and research director at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique at the University of Paris Nanterre. Courtois is an expert on the history of communism, in 1998 he gave the much-discussed “Black Book of Communism” out in Germany. On January 26, 2023, the “Black Book Putin“, which he publishes with Galia Ackerman.
Founded in 1917 and soon greatly feared, the Cheka was a forerunner of the Soviet domestic and foreign intelligence service, the KGB.
I agree. Retired Secret Service Agent? Something like that does not exist. This is especially true for Vladimir Putin. The KGB was his school, his university, and this organization shaped Putin like no other. Let’s look back: on August 20, 1991, Putin claims to have left the KGB with the rank of lieutenant colonel. How could this happen? Putin was nothing, a nobody – at least that’s what it seemed on the surface. In fact, people must have pulled the strings far beyond Putin.
You have to explain that.
“Putin is a lieutenant colonel, but there are generals above him,” dissident Vladimir Bukovsky once put it. My guess is that towards the end of the Soviet Union a kind of “active reserve” of KGB men was formed – whose aim was to infiltrate the new state apparatus. “I would like to point out that the group of FSB officers sent to infiltrate the government is initially doing its job,” Putin himself remarked in December 1999, on the so-called Chekist Day of all days.
It was supposed to be some kind of joke.
I have my doubts about that. Putin is a genuine homo sovieticus, also socialized by the KGB. When he became director of the FSB in 1998, he compared it to returning to his parents’ home. Certainly, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin had previously made some arrangements with the powerful power pullers of the KGB – or rather the FSB – regarding Putin’s appointment.
So Putin’s “ties” to the secret service was one pillar of his rise, but what about connections to the Russian underworld?
Putin maintained excellent relations with the mafia early on. From 1991 to 1996 he headed a committee in St. Petersburg for his old mentor Anatoly Sobchak, who had since become mayor of the city, and which was entrusted with trade relations with foreign countries.
A position that can prove very lucrative.
Especially in St. Petersburg, the city back then was like Chicago during Prohibition: there was stealing and murder. Controlling the port was particularly important, because important flows of goods passed through St. Petersburg. And Putin was well connected with the very gang that controlled the port. It is very important that we understand this period in his biography – because it explains a lot of what happened later: It was then that Putin made money, created a clan of loyalists and found a taste for power.
However, he lost it when Sobchak had to vacate the town hall in St. Petersburg in 1996 after an election defeat.
Sobchak had taken corruption too far. But Putin drew a crucial lesson from the debacle: never trust a democracy! This is also compatible with the mentality of the KGB people, like Putin is one – they only believe in the power of the state. This belief in state power is a constant in the history of Russia in general and that of communism in particular.
Does this also explain Russia’s largely lacking development towards a civil society?
Absolutely. As early as 1917, the revolutionary leader Lenin showed what communism should look like in practice. To bring power to a group of professional revolutionaries by any means – and to keep it for all time. This was the purpose of the already mentioned Cheka, this purpose was served by the KGB and today also by the FSB. Communism is passé, but Putin continues to practice its form of governance. With one innovation: the government was supplemented by mafia-like groups, which also ensure that the system is stabilized.
Let’s stay with Putin’s career for a moment: After leaving St. Petersburg in 1996, his rise really began.
Putin was discreet, loyal and ready for anything. One could use someone like him in Moscow. He can disguise himself well, you have to give him that.
The West was also extremely satisfied with Putin’s assumption of power in Russia, and he was celebrated in the Bundestag after his speech in 2001. Was it all acting?
Putin is a creature of the KGB – and the KGB had a long-term view. Like communism as a whole, characterized by a strategic vision. Let’s look at the facts: When Putin became president in 2000, the entire future program was already there: an almost paranoid idea that Russia was threatened from all sides, the idea that only authoritarian measures could improve the situation and so-called opponents be eliminated would have to. However, since Russia was weak at the time, Putin initially played the nice guy.
Which has also been bought from him for a long time. Despite the brutal war against Chechnya at the time.
The West didn’t want to look too closely, but Putin’s acting was perfect. Do you know what the KGB’s specialty was? Manipulation. In 2008, Putin appeared to respect the Russian constitution by not running for the third consecutive term as president. Instead, Dmitry Medvedev moved to the Kremlin, he was nothing but Putin’s lapdog. Who told the West what it wanted to hear. Fairy tales of democracy, human rights and so on.
Today the same Medvedev is threatening the West with nuclear annihilation.
The West gave Putin almost a free hand for more than twenty years. What is happening today is the consequence. Putin only understands toughness, toughness, toughness – it’s that simple. Putin waged war against Chechnya from 1999, against Georgia in 2008, and the regime intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015. Quite apart from the annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea in 2014 and the war in eastern Ukraine. What did the West do in response to the attacks on Ukraine? A few penalties. Something like that didn’t hurt Putin at all, on the contrary: it could be exploited very well for propaganda purposes.
The weak response from the West then emboldened Putin accordingly.
Ukraine is Putin’s obsession. He would like to incorporate them back into Russia. He sees it as part of the “Russian world”, on the other hand, Ukraine is actually a rich country – it has industry and mineral resources, but above all its agriculture is of great importance. Actually, Putin is a gangster who wants to get his loot. While emulating historical models like Peter the Great and expanding Russia’s borders.
“Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire,” Polish-American political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski once said.
That’s how Putin sees it, that’s how Josef Stalin saw it too. However, Stalin was much smarter than Putin, because the former learned from his mistakes. And reconnected with reality at the right moments. Putin, on the other hand, has meanwhile completely lost his way. He thought his army was close to the strongest in the world. The Ukrainian armed forces have sufficiently demonstrated what to make of this. Putin also assumed that Russian-speaking Ukrainians would welcome his troops. It didn’t happen that way.
Putin justifies his alleged claims to Ukraine with a pseudo-historical argument. Does he actually believe in it?
I am afraid so. In fact, Putin is a lousy historian, unable to draw the right conclusions from history. Former French President Charles de Gaulle was a nationalist through and through, but he came to the conclusion that i he war against the insurgents in Algeria, which was then ruled by France, had to be ended. Since 1962 there has been peace. Poland, the Czech Republic or the Baltic states, for example, have all done with communism and its form of rule. Russia, on the other hand, never found out.
Since Putin took office, critics of the regime have been murdered, exiled or sent to prison camps, as was the case recently with Alexei Navalny. Could Putin’s own followers now become dangerous in view of the defeats in Ukraine?
They all live in fear that Putin will kill them. That’s why they outdo each other in radical statements intended to demonstrate their loyalty.
The shrill tones from Moscow accompany the ongoing war in Ukraine. Shouldn’t the West sooner rather than later deliver massive amounts of heavy weapons such as battle tanks to the Ukrainian army to put an end to the fighting?
A quick end to the war would be more than desirable. We must also not forget that all autocrats are watching closely how the West reacts. Take North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, for example, but we don’t have to look that far. Like other dictators in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is waiting for the day when the West’s liberal and democratic system will come to an end. Has this drama reached government centers like Paris and Berlin? I doubt it. Peace has reigned in Europe for a long time, and there is not a strong awareness that, when in doubt, one must defend one’s freedom with a gun in one’s hand.
Will Germany learn this lesson fast enough? In particular, some of the ruling Social Democrats under Chancellor Olaf Scholz have reservations about the delivery of battle tanks.
We will see. Right now we should be very, very grateful to the Americans. Without them, Putin’s troops would be on the Polish border. And, of course, the Ukrainian armed forces deserve the highest credit. Last but not least, we should also thank the ubiquitous corruption surrounding the Russian army: this is one of the reasons why Putin is suffering defeat after defeat.
If the war goes so badly for Russia, would it mean the end of Putin?
We simply don’t know. But one thing is certain: anything is possible in Russia. In the civil war after the October Revolution of 1917, the Red Army, i.e. the Bolsheviks, fought against the White Army, which in turn were anti-communists, then there was the so-called Green Army, and there were also armed forces from various ethnic groups. To put it succinctly. It was a big mess.
How long can the current Russian army continue the war anyway?
At a certain point, the mood in the Russian armed forces could change. Then the army would rehearse the uprising. Anything is possible. Because many Russian generals consider this war downright stupid.
Professor Courtois, thank you for the interview.
- Personal interview with Stéphane Courtois via video conference