Interview with Journalist David Satter about Russian foreign Policy.
This interview is also published here
- You are working on a new book – “The less you know, the better you sleep” – what is it that you are trying to explain with this famous Russian saying?
In a book “The less you know, the better you sleep – Russia’s road to terror and dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin” I try to explain how it happened that Russia, which overthrew Communism in a peaceful revolution, ended up as a dictatorship and an aggressor state. It’s not obvious to us today, but in 1991-1992 there was tremendous optimism about Russia. Many people thought that Russia was going to become a democracy; that it would become an ally of the West, people were talking about a strategic partnership between Russian and the United States.
- Yeltsin is not often regarded as a dictator, you are starting sort of a new discussion, why are you calling him a dictator?
- He abolished parliament by force, he authorized the carpet-bombing of Grozny, five weeks in which thousands of civilians were killed, most of them ethnic Russians. He was in power when the apartment bombings took place in 1999, those apartment bombings were used to justify another war; there was no true separation of powers under Yeltsin and those who exercised both political and economic power were criminals.
You can argue whether the term dictator applies to Yeltsin because after all there was a degree of plurality, but there is no question that he was not a democratic leader, and this is something that the West needs to recognize. Whatever word you chose whether dictator or authoritarian leader or undemocratic leader, it’s clear that Yeltsin was not a liberal, progressive, democratic leader that the West saw him as. People recognize that Putin is dangerous, but they don’t recognize where it comes from.
- Why so? Is it because Putin overshadowed him and has gone beyond everything?
- The use of provocation for political purposes was very well developed under Yeltsin. What’s distinctive about Putin is that he reinforced the state apparatus and took a chaotic, criminalized and disorganized regime and made it organized, efficient and authoritarian. But he did not destroy democracy, democracy was destroyed before he came to power.
- But you were able to stay and work in Russia… Why has it become necessary to expel you from the country?
- The massacred is over. The Russian authorities were not anxious to have a democratic system, but they were anxious to create appearance of a democratic system, and one aspect of that system was freedom for western correspondents to report on what was going on in Russia.
The Russian authorities often pointed out that no American correspondent had been expelled from Russia since the Cold War. And I was even sometimes pointed out by persons close to the authorities as an example of just how far the Russians were ready to go and tolerate criticism.
- What has changed?
- After the anti-criminal revolution in Ukraine, the anti-Yanukovitch revolution, the Euro-Maiden began, the members of the regime in Russia became very frightened. When they saw what was happening in Maiden they immediately began to fear for the stability of their own rule. They were ready to tolerate certain amount of criticism in order to make façade credible. After Maidan, they were not willing to take that risk, they were ready to sacrifice the facade.
- Many draw comparisons between current Russian propaganda and Cold War era soft power usage. How do you see the West responding to it?
- The Russian authorities are trying to undermine the confidence of the Western countries and to undermine the confidence of those countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union. They understand that they cannot do what the Soviets did, the Soviets controlled the access to information and they tried to project a very positive although completely false image of the Soviet Union to the outside world.
The Russian authorities by large have given up on that, but what they do is they attempt to aggravate internal conflicts in societies. This policy is coupled with support for extreme groups in the west including the European right wing and it has the intention of making the West less capable of standing up to Russian aggression and imposing moral, legal and political standards on Russia.
- Russia Today is an essential instrument of Kremlin propaganda, do you think it is accomplishing the mission of creating an “alternative reality” by showing how “bad the West is”?
- The Russian media was instrumental in mobilizing people within Russia itself. It was false atrocity story and completely distorted coverage of what was happening in Ukraine that made it possible to raise an army of thousands of people in Eastern Ukraine, who were ready to fight with and for the separatists. That kind of propaganda maybe less effective outside the battle zone, but nonetheless it’s having some effect in confusing people about what is really going on in Ukraine.
- While many international broadcasters shut down their regional offices and decrease international coverage, RT is increasing its boundaries. You can watch RT anywhere in the world, what do you think the ultimate goal of RT is?
- What is their main goal? I think their main goal is to support the objectives of the Russian leaders, and their main objective is to stay in power. It’s a small group of people who as a result of random process ended up controlling the livers of power in a huge country, and who have used that opportunity to enrich themselves beyond the dreams of Everest and they have no intention of losing power. This group remains in power not to advance interests of the Russian state or the Russian people, because the Russian people are not well served by this group, and neither are the long term interests of Russia itself.
- How do you see Russia maintaining its narrative in a technology era Russia when sources of information are diversified?
- I think that overall perspectives for Russian information propaganda are not great, because they do not have a convincing message. This is not the Soviet Union in 1930-ies, when people really believed that communism offered hope for the better future.
Today Russia has very little to offer and that’s one of the reasons it concentrates on pointing out the weaknesses and contradictions in western societies, it’s one of the reasons it is so fixated on gay issues or on similar issues, because they’ve run out of things they can suggest to the world.