Alexander Baunov: „Visa restrictions for Russians are a highly irrational and populist discussion“

Instead of punishing all the Russians, the West should now support those who are now against the war in one way or another.

More and more countries are single-handedly restricting the issuance of Schengen visas to Russians.
More and more countries are single-handedly restricting the issuance of Schengen visas to Russians.picture alliance / dpa

Alexander Baunov is a s a Russian international policy expert, journalist, publicist, philologist, and former diplomat. He was editor-in-chief of the Carnegie Moscow Center until Russian government's decision to close Moscow center. The interview was hosted by Alexander Dubowy.

Berliner Zeitung: How long will the current phase of the war last? Which outcome could be considered a victory for Russia and which for Ukraine? And do you see any conditions under which the parties would be willing to negotiate?

Alexander Baunov: It is not appropriate to answer a question with a counter-question, but are the two parties to the conflict at all willing to negotiate? This does not seem to be the case, at least not yet. As far as the duration of the war is concerned, it is, of course, not known whether Russia originally had a clear idea of what steps to take should the fighting drag on for a longer period. Apparently, this is not the case. Nevertheless, this crossroads was consciously taken by the Russian leadership, and, after some hesitation, Moscow ultimately decided relatively smoothly to move from a temporary „special military operation“ to a protracted war. The problem with the current phase of the conflict is that, as it grows longer, it will be more difficult to achieve an end other than victory of some kind.

But what could such a victory look like?

With each passing day, the enemy becomes increasingly unbearable for both sides. Given the brutality of this war—a brutality that was inherent in the invasion from the beginning—this is not surprising. By now, after six months of war, both sides have come to the conclusion that it is neither possible to negotiate with such an opponent, nor to coexist side by side in security; such an opponent should better be destroyed. For Kyiv, which is defending itself against aggression, the destruction of Russia applies less in the literal sense than in the figurative sense: Russia is to be weakened to such an extent that it can no longer wage war or launch attacks and begins to retreat. The maximum goal is probably the fall of the Putin regime under the pressure of military setbacks. In contrast, for many in Moscow, for the activists of the Party of War and their silent supporters, the goal is literally to destroy the Ukrainian state as such, or at least to banish it to the far-western regions of Ukraine. After all that the Russian army has done to Ukraine, many in Russia believe that being so close to such a damaged and embittered country is too dangerous and that the plans for conquest must therefore be extended.

In Germany, as well as in some other EU countries, there are increasing calls to support the peace talks and to help Ukraine and Russia reach a negotiated settlement. Can the West contribute to overcoming the current stalemate?

The West can help Ukraine to lose the war quickly. It would be so easy; all it would have to do is to reduce military and financial support for Ukraine. Then Kyiv would not even have enough resources to fight a defensive war and would also be enormously demoralized. In other words, if the West's goal is simply to end the war as soon as possible, the solution is obvious. But such an option is, fortunately, not even being considered. On the contrary, the West seems determined at the moment not to let Ukraine lose this war. It is trying to convince the current Russian leadership that any attempts to liquidate the Ukrainian state are futile and that any Russian actions aimed at destroying Ukraine will cost Moscow dearly. That the cost to Russia of continuing the war—from a military, economic, and diplomatic point of view—will be immeasurably higher than the decision to end the war. However, it is unlikely that the Kremlin can be convinced quickly.

The Russian leadership has repeatedly stated that it sees this war not so much as a war against Ukraine but rather as a war for the future of the world order in the struggle against the collective West. Does Russia have any allies in this war? Or, as you correctly stated in your interview with Yury Dud, Russia has no allies but fans. But the essential difference between allies and fans is precisely that allies share the risks, while fans take no risks at all.

This is precisely the difference between allies and fans. In this conflict, Russia has quite a few fans. From their point of view, Russia is busy putting the West in its place and, in a way, punishing it for its arrogance, for its desire to control events all over the world, for its wealth, influence, and success, all of which, according to less wealthy and successful societies, have been acquired at their expense. This is why Russia has supporters from all over the world, including certain non-Western governments and groups of people in the West who are skeptical of their own governments, both right and left. What these different groups have in common is a certain anti-globalist, anti-American, and, by their very nature, anti-elitist conviction. Each of these groups does not share all the positions held by Moscow, but only certain ones.

Virtually all public opinion polls, whether by state sociological polling institutes such as WCIOM or independent sociological polling institutes such as the Levada Centre, show high support for the so-called „special military operation“. The Levada Centre's surveys also show significant support for all central state institutions, including the State Duma, although the latter's approval ratings have always been extremely low since the 1990s. How can this level of support be explained? And can it be argued that Yevgeny Yevtushenko was wrong when he wrote his famous lines, „Do the Russians Want War?“?

The Russians of the 1950s and early 1960s, as well as of the Brezhnev era, certainly did not want war. The Soviet Union saw itself as the victor over fascism, and a victorious country does not need to go to war to prove anything to anyone. Not to mention the still vivid experience of a great war as a great bringer of suffering. But since the 1990s, the disintegration of the USSR and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Germany, the economic misery, the feeling of the unjust division of the Soviet legacy, and the collapse of the former welfare state—all this against the backdrop of Western praise for the policies of the Russian leadership—have gradually given rise to a loser complex among the population. Under Vladimir Putin, this complex was gradually instrumentalized for political purposes and subsequently deliberately cultivated. And the losers seek revenge for self-assertion, to regain their lost honor, to be able to respect themselves again. Therefore, there is definitely support for the so-called „special military operation“ in today's Russian society. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that most Russians longed for the war before it actually began.

But where exactly does the problem lie? And who bears the lion's share of the responsibility for this war?

Not only does the Russian state media tell people from morning to night that Russia is fighting Nazism in Ukraine, that Moscow is in fact at war with the collective West, that the overwhelming majority of the population supports the so-called „special military operation“, that everyone is prepared to sacrifice at least part of their wealth on the altar of Russian victory for the recovery of lost honor, but also that any public doubts about these claims can result in fines, dismissal and even imprisonment. And if you ask someone against this background of information and repression whether they support the „special military operation“, it is difficult, both for reasons of personal safety and for purely psychological reasons, to answer this question with a „no“. This is because a negative answer is likely to give the feeling that one is opposing one's own country and society, isolating oneself from the majority, and this is a difficult step to take. Even if someone does not agree with what is going on, it is very difficult for him to admit this publicly, because that would be like saying that he is not on the side of his people in times of war.
In this context, there is another point worth mentioning. The level of support for state institutions shown by the Levada Centre polls is first and foremost evidence of a consolidation of the population around the state leadership. However, since the Russian state is strongly personalized, the current high degree of consolidation grants the state leadership, represented by President Vladimir Putin, a very far-reaching mandate and ultimately legitimizes almost every measure. This gives Putin the right to decide what the Russian people need and what they do not. If Vladimir Putin were to decide that Russia does not need a war but should, for example, return the Donbas to Ukraine as soon as possible, I am sure that the majority would support this decision. In any case, the approval ratings would be comparable to the current approval ratings in favor of war. The current consolidation, therefore, has nothing to do with the war itself, but rather reflects the degree of consolidation around the state leadership. This is important to keep in mind when we talk about who is most to blame for starting and keeping the war going.

What will the outcome of this war mean for Russia and how will it change Russian politics?

With the outbreak of the war, three social groups took shape. First, there are the declared opponents of the war. Publicly, of course, this attitude can be expressed above all by those who can afford to leave Russia, but not everyone has this option. But the aversion to the war is no less among many who have stayed. On the other hand, there are those who simply adapt to life under the new conditions, who try to block out the war, so to speak, in order to preserve as much as possible, the normality of the past. Finally, there are those who think that the war must transform the entire Russian society. They believe that the Russians should become a mobilized nation, a mobilized country, and that the war should completely transform not only the country's economic order and its elite, but also the structure of everyday life. The best illustration of the social mood is provided by the well-known meme based on the painting of the late Stalin era „Moving to a New Apartment“ [by Alexander Laktionov from 1952; editor’s note]. The meme text reads: „Moving to a new flat“—„How nice that the old owners were shot“. Figuratively speaking, in today's Russia, there are those who want the old owners to keep their flats and those who would advocate shooting the old owners.

Have the philosophers' steamboats already departed, or is this event just about to happen?

In a certain sense, the philosophers' steamboats have already left the shores of modern Russia. But it is to be feared that, as in the case of its historical predecessor [from autumn 1922; editor's note], the actual events are just about to begin. For example, the press spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, has announced that the state neither wants to forget nor forgive the „black squares, memorial candles, and Ukrainian flags“ on the war opponents' avatars in social media. Many would like to transform the murder of Darya Dugina into a turning point for the life of the country, launching mass purges of the state apparatus, culture, the economy, etc. So far, the Russian leadership hopes to benefit from the preservation of the appearance of normality, but the party of war will not rest and is striving to oust not only the party of peace from the leadership of the country—which does not exist in this form—but also the supporters of the most modest compromise and even the supporters of the principle of „living as if there were no war,“ which can also only be described as such to a very limited extent. In this respect, it is by no means certain that the level of repression has already reached its peak.

What does the Party of War want to achieve in Russia?

Strange as it may sound, the Party of War basically wants the same thing as the radical critics of „normal life in the Western image“ in Russia—the end of the era of Russian consumerism; the elimination of Russian consumer society, which supposedly degrades Russians and indeed is not worthy of the ‚God bearing‘ Russian people. For the latter, it shows its best qualities exclusively in times of extreme trials. Finally, the end of free global travel for Russians applies especially to travel to the West. In this way, Russia should resemble the Stalin era in its external and internal shape, which is popular with a part of Russian society: strict, uniform, monotonous service; orientation of society towards a single purpose; orientation towards the noble ideal; deviations should be punished. At the very least, however, the Brezhnev era should serve as a model, which is also popular, but preferably without its chronic shortage of goods. The latter is the real reason why the Russian state, despite its desire to implement a new social experiment, does not roll back the consumption-oriented market economy or even close its state borders to all.

How do you assess the chances of success of the Party of War?

The Party of Peace has now been completely crushed. So, while the average citizen can only speak out against the war at the risk of persecution, those who are in any way connected to the state system cannot speak out at all—because for this group, reprisals are inevitable. Currently, a silent conflict is unfolding between the party of war and those who want to ignore the war and return to normality. The party of war has the advantage here, because it is obvious that after the invasion of Ukraine, a return to normality—neither in international relations nor in the economy—will be possible. However, the outcome of the confrontation between these groups cannot be foreseen, mainly because the Party of War does not have the necessary number of competent people. Its adherents are unlikely to be able to run the Central Bank. In short, the Party of War has a great shortage of qualified, modern leadership personnel. This is because the Party of War's economists offer very Soviet solutions, and this increases the likelihood of dire consequences for the Russian economy. Even Vladimir Putin is unlikely to advocate a return to a Soviet-style economy. After all, as a Soviet man, he remembers very well the pervasive shortage of goods. The Soviet Union as a great military, political, cultural, and diplomatic power fell victim to consumption difficulties. I think this has always been an important factor for Putin, which continues to keep him within the confines of the market economy, regardless of any trade-offs. But as we know from world history, the market economy can also exist in extremely authoritarian political systems.

As it turns out, the Russian people's notorious in the West, proverbial capacity for suffering has clear limits.

Exactly. This is especially true today, as people are used to living without much deprivation. To borrow a popular proverb in Russia, so let war be war, but supper is to be served on time. This is especially true given that this is not a Patriotic War. After all, no one invaded Russia. The Russian rulers understand very well that, on the whole, the people must remain content. Otherwise, the question arises as to whether the war and the privations it entailed were really necessary. The West also knows this, which is why its main goal is to use sanctions to make life more expensive for Russians and force the Russian government to end the war. The aim is not to throw society into turmoil and provoke a violent uprising—as some claim—but to make the Russian leadership assess the risks of losing popularity and control and end the war on its own. But if the risk assessment turns out to be wrong, the resulting consequences will ultimately be the problem of Russian rulers. For its part, Moscow hopes that Western governments will severely curtail their support for Ukraine as soon as Western societies experience such a high level of economic trauma that it is simply incompatible with support for Ukraine. This is the Kremlin's strategic goal for the coming months.

How do you assess the plans of some EU member states to suspend the issuance of tourist visas for Russians? Would such a decision be able to make a big difference in how the Russian government acts?

In the early days of the war, the European Union decided to suspend air links with Russia, apparently for reasons of justice, among others. If air links with Ukraine are not possible because Russian missiles and aircraft are flying over the country and Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses are in operation, then it is only fair that civilian air links with the aggressor country should also be cut. Although this decision was problematic for Russians who wanted to leave the country, it made some sense, regardless of how emotional it was. It seemed to follow the motto: „Russians should not be allowed to do what Ukrainians can't do.“ There is no such balance in the suspension of tourist visas. It is a highly irrational, even to some extent populist, debate, launched at a time when prudence should have set in and reactions to Russia's actions should be increasingly precise and rational. I always had the impression that the famous words „Never again!“ were directed not only against the return of war in Europe but also against locking people out in an aggressive, unpredictable dictatorship that could abruptly change the rules of the game at any moment and start looking for new victims. This is exactly the kind of regime that Russia has degenerated into after February 24th, and in some respects, even earlier, and it is this kind of regime that some EU politicians are proposing not only to lock people up in, but even to deport people to. This goes against all the experience Europe gained from the two world wars of the 20th century; the Spanish Civil War; the Cold War; the wars in Yugoslavia and the Middle East, which in many ways formed the basis of modern European values. When homosexuals were brutally persecuted in Chechnya, no one said „ they should not complain and rather go and overthrow Kadyrov and Putin“. The same maxim should apply when issuing visas as in court. It is better to acquit ten guilty people than to convict one innocent person. Even if nine out of ten people travel to Europe for purely tourist purposes, but in return, one threatened person is saved from danger, it was already worth it. This is all the more true as Russia today is a country without rules and threats can occur unexpectedly and unpredictably. The Russian State Duma is already working on a new anti-LGBTIQ law that would not only criminalize „propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors“, but essentially criminalize this way of life itself. Furthermore, amendments to the law on mobilization are being drafted. As the influx of volunteers threatens to dry up, governors have been instructed to set up regional battalions, but they are struggling to find enough volunteers for them. Any event, such as the murder of Darya Dugina, could mark the beginning of reprisals against those who could have felt relatively safe yesterday. After all, a tourist visa was never meant only for tourism. It is a visa issued on the basis of a ticket and a hotel reservation, and quite often allows multiple entries into the Schengen area. In this way, people always have an exit option ready without having to take the long route of consular bureaucracy. Because every official, even an official of the most people-friendly country, will act according to the instructions. For example, before the war, the European consulates in Russia, including the German consulate, refused to consider same-sex couples as couples in the process of issuing visas, regardless of the officially declared values by their states. After all, these couples did not have an official document, which in principle could not exist in Russia. So each partner was checked individually, and it could happen that the wealthier of the two got a visa, while the less wealthy one was left without a visa, even though they travelled together. Therefore, one can well imagine what would happen if consular sections started issuing visas only to those who are threatened. How would the proof required for this be provided? Would the people threatened have to present the consulate with a criminal complaint from the public prosecutor's office? It seems strange when democracies sometimes question the freedom to travel more than dictatorships—to the delight of the latter. That is why the EU as a whole is not very enthusiastic about this proposal.

And what should the West do so that it neither repeats the old mistakes nor makes new ones?

Whenever the Russians are blamed for their inaction, according to which they failed to topple Putin and are therefore to blame for the war, a relatively short period of time is usually used as a reference. Sometimes one year, sometimes two years, more often the years after 2014. This is admittedly too short-sighted. But even in this period, numerous protest rallies took place all over Russia. It does not take much effort to find photo and video recordings of the demonstrations, their violent dispersals, and random arrests. But let us think back to 2011-2013. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow and other Russian cities over many months to protest against the rigged State Duma elections and against the so-called „castling move“ and the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency—throughout the winter, in freezing temperatures. Then came a very violent dispersal of the protest rally on the day of Putin's inauguration, the Bolotnaya trials, and Vladimir Putin's symbolic procession through an empty Moscow. And what did we see in response? Western leaders recognized the election and congratulated Putin on his re-election—the US president, the German chancellor, and all the others. The people who took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands saw that Putin's return was broadly fine for the world out there. Very soon, a series of extremely strange amendments to the law followed, for example on insulting the feelings of believers, on banning so-called homosexual propaganda, restrictions on the activities of NGOs and the media, and the Pussy Riot case. Although we heard individual statements by Western politicians and saw the reactions of journalists, there were no sanctions, no concrete measures. The West did not take the events in Russia for granted, but nevertheless accepted them—after all, Russia is a strange place, they said. This was very disappointing for all those who saw Putin's return and the way it was conducted as dangerous for Russia and the whole world. Not even two years after these events, Crimea and the Donbas followed. And today, those who took to the streets that winter are told: it's your fault that Putin wasn't overthrown then. Judging by the reactions at the time, Vladimir Putin's return in 2011 seemed more threatening to Russians than to very many Western politicians. This makes blaming the Russians for the consequences of Putin's return to the presidency all the stranger, because it was the Russians who actively protested against Putin. During the protests of 2011–2013, no red lines were drawn by the West against the Russian leadership; rather, the scope of what was permissible was gradually expanded even further until we finally arrived where we are today—in the midst of war. Instead of punishing all Russians across the board—including those who protested—the West should support those who are speaking out against the war today in one way or another.