According to Russian journalist Alexander Sotnik, Putin is a professional liar who himself does not really believe that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” Sotnik shared these and other views on Putin and Russia with Gazeta.ua during a recent interview.
You spend a lot of time speaking with ordinary Russian citizens. How do you explain what appear to be Putin’s sky-high ratings by European standards?
In authoritarian countries opinion polls are the first to disappear. Then the opposition media goes away. The opinion polls are conducted according to orders, to support those in power. This does not mean that Putin does not have support. But it is different. Putin is supported by those who are fortunate. These are very different kinds of people — starting with officials and oligarchs and ending with law enforcement and FSB people. They represent about 34%. Those who simply don’t care are at 45%. These people are silent. And then there are up to 20% of those who under certain circumstances would be ready to protest in order to bring about changes in the country. These numbers are fluid. They change according to the situation and the background information.
Is a high rating somewhat on the order of a “self-fulfilling forecast”? Does this mean that Putin is inevitable?
The authorities, naturally, need high ratings. The task of the pollsters is not to study public opinion but to create it. If you had a high rating you would probably hold honest elections. Why would you need to put a spoke in the wheel of the opposition? Why control the media? If 89% of Russia’s citizens support Putin then he has nothing to fear. But at the Kremlin they understand perfectly that these 89% do not exist. Putin is incapable of dialogue. He has never been a public politician. He has been a creature of intrigues and secret services. They helped him get into the presidential office. And he has decided to stay there.
What about his TV performances?
It’s a production. These are peculiar meetings of specially selected people with the president. Putin answers the questions that he poses to himself.
Propaganda in large doses and for a very long time is dangerous for a human being. How does one live in such conditions?
The Kremlin constantly needs to increase the dose. Because at some point everything can come to an end. Here they showed the crucified boy. In a month they will need something more fraudulent. It needs to be more and more fake and there simply isn’t enough creative talent. Right now we are close to a state where propaganda will cease to work at all. Moreover, stability on the TV does not coincide with the lack of stability in the supermarkets.
Elections in the Russian Federation are a profanity. When the opposition says that it is necessary to participate in elections it looks like an attempt to enter a non-existent building. What elections in Russia?
But the task of the opposition is to participate in the elections. If not, what do they do?
The Russian opposition needs to go out among the people, meet with the people, explain. But it is harmful to participate in the current “elections” because this legitimizes Putin’s regime. This is precisely what Putin wants — the continuation of his rule. The idea that the state will not collapse yet or he will not die.
How can one combine the irreconcilable in the same propaganda: the Ukrainian language is fictional, but the Ukrainization of Crimea took place. Ukraine is a non-existent country, but there is Ukrainian military in the Donbas?
Our propagandists are not very creative people, since a talented person will not work as a propagandist. There is absolutely nothing they will not do. I was reading a magazine for gardeners in the Moscow subway when I saw a headline “let’s attack the ukrops” (literally “dill,” a derogatory term for Ukrainians — Ed.). Words lose their original meaning and sense. There is no use looking for logic here.
When Putin says that the Ukrainians and Russians are one people, does he really believe it?
No, I’m sure he does not believe it. But he needs to remain in power to survive. Putin’s words do not matter. He is a professional liar. In 1999 he won as the successor to Yeltsin. He never debated with the other presidential candidates. He always appeared alone. Since then everything he says or does is subordinated to one goal: to remain in power.
How important is the fear factor among the elite and larger society when it comes to the preservation of Putin’s presidency?
The more that Putin is afraid, the more aggressively he behaves. The Kremlin is afraid because if they lose power, they will lose money, freedom, and, for a number of them, their lives. This is why they are ready to blackmail the world with a third world war. And they have been blackmailing the Russians for a long time. Putin and his circle are terrorists who have seized a country with 140 million people and vast natural resources.
The killing of journalists and politicians occurs in many countries, but they are very frequent in Russia. Will the spiral of repressions and killings increase?
As long as Putin and his circle are in power they will kill. Everything depends on the level of the person to be killed. If it is the level of a Boris Nemtsov, the go-ahead must come from Vladimir Putin. A person belonging to the so-called Yeltsin “family” could only be killed with Yeltsin’s go-ahead. No Kadyrov, Ivanov or Patrushev could have given such as order (to kill Nemtsov — Ed.) even in a nightmare. Putin was the first one to break the non-aggression pact that had been signed at the beginning of his presidency. It is no wonder that later the frightened (Anatoly) Chubais called on everybody to stop. He understood perfectly who he had in mind when he said “everyone.” The elite is in shock now because it doesn’t know what else to expect from Vladimir Putin.
Is this a signal for the “family”?
It’s a signal for everyone. It goes like this: whatever you do I will remain president. If someone needs to be killed, I will kill.
Does Putin have an exit strategy for leaving government?
After he admitted that Crimea was seized on his orders, after the downed Boeing and the murder of Boris Nemtsov, there is no way for him to leave power.
Most Russian experts say Putin will be around for a long time.
There is one thing that is above Putin — the system of government. If he needs to remove it for self-preservation he will remove it. I have the impression that this day is approaching. There are a few preconditions in place. First, Putin is a world outcast. Second, the sanctions. Third, the Litvinenko case in London. The fourth precondition is the Boeing investigation. Fifth, the price of oil. All this is sticking together as in a snowball. Putin is not Atlas — it is becoming more difficult for him to hold up this state of affairs. This is a threat to the system and to Russia as well.
Is the war in Ukraine beneficial for Putin in prolonging his reign?
No, but he does not know how to get rid of it. Vladimir Putin is still the strategist. Right now he doesn’t know what to do, so he does nothing. I have the impression that he no longer has much control
What leads you to think that there is a search for a successor in the Kremlin?
The problems looming over the country need to be addressed somehow. And the system needs to protect itself. I understand that this is like a cancerous tumor in the body that eventually will destroy it and die itself. But at this stage it needs to save itself. I am confident they are calculating all this in the Kremlin.
Putin must have at least some kind of exit strategy for the war with Ukraine?
If he withdraws from the Donbas, many of those fooled by the propaganda will consider him a traitor. Some of them will have to be physically captured or destroyed. The second factor is that the Russian TV viewer has already been manipulated to accept only the order “forward to Kyiv, to Berlin or Paris.” The third factor is that a segment of his circle will consider him weak.
What are the most realistic options for Russia’s future?
There is a bad option. Russia will come out of the Putin era very weak and will have to spend a long time rebuilding the state institutions that have been destroyed. And a very bad option. The Russian Federation will not remain within its current borders.