The critical step for the US and Europe in responding to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism and aggression is to reinforce institutions such as the European Union and NATO, historian and journalist Anne Applebaum told policy specialists and journalists at the Atlantic Council.

Applebaum discussed the crisis surrounding Putin’s seizure for Russia of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, and the resonance of recent events to those she chronicled last year in her book, Iron Curtain, about the Soviet seizure of power in Europe following World War II. Russia’s annexation of Crimea paralleled in many ways its 1940s takeover of the Baltic states and its establishment of satellite governments eastward to Germany, she said.

“What is Putin’s main foreign policy goal?” Applebaum asked. “It’s to keep himself and the people around him safe, and essentially to make the world safe for corrupt Russian money. … And what is the biggest obstacle to that foreign policy goal? The biggest obstacle is, well really, it’s the European Union, but also NATO,” she said. They are the broadest institutions of a more transparent approach to governance, resistant to corruption, that helped inspire the protests against Putin’s corrupt, oligarchic government in Moscow two years ago – and the parallel protests that toppled Putin’s allied government in Ukraine this year.

Putin has tried to weaken European institutions by building strong bilateral relations “to pick off European countries one by one,”  Applebaum said, citing Austria, Italy and Germany as his prime targets. But “what he’s not able to do is to fight the whole EU,” she said. As a result, “I think there’s a real danger to the coherence of the European Union that I don’t know that European leaders themselves are yet aware of. Russia funds far-right parties in Europe, some of which are going to do very well in the next European elections.” Many of these party leaders “are open admirers of Putin and have been publicly supporting him.”

The US and European governments should “think strategically” about opposing Russian influence in their own economies, she said, notably by being more cautious about the role of Russian state-linked companies such as the energy giant Gazprom, “which operates as an arm of Russian foreign policy.”  

Applebaum’s observations included these:

On how Putin learned to suppress dissent as a young KGB officer.

 “Putin became a KGB officer in the ‘80s, when the head of the KGB was Yuri Andropov. And he has since, he’s built a statue to Andropov in [St.] Petersburg … he’s made clear his allegiance to Andropov,” who served briefly as the leader of the Soviet Union. “Andropov was the ambassador to Budapest in 1956,” when Hungarians rose in revolt against Communist rule, a rebellion that Moscow had to suppress violently with Soviet troops. “And Andropov had a very clear theory about how you prevent 1956 from ever happening again. And it’s … not about total control, but it’s about elimination of small groups, environmental organizations. It’s again this focus on civil society that the Red Army had in Eastern Europe” in establishing communist rule in the 1940s – “eliminating potential democrats wherever you can.”

Putin’s absorption of Andropov’s lesson was reinforced when Putin “himself was in Dresden [then in communist East Germany] in 1989” as Germans held protests that grew to ultimately topple the communist government. So Putin fears that, “when you let these groups rise up and demonstrate, what happens? Well, as in 1956, they turn into a mob and before you know it they’re stringing up secret policemen.”

On Putin’s evolution to a more ideological, nationalist leadership.

“Putinism is actually … evolving. Until now … Putin hasn’t ever tried to impose full totalitarianism, in other words, making people march in stupid parades, or mouth slogans, or pay lip service to an ideology. … He’s been very non-ideological, up until the last two or three years. So the first phase of Putinism was much more original and interesting.” Putin posited that “ ‘I’m legitimate because … I’m going to make Russia great again after the disaster of the 1990s.” As in 1945, Moscow allowed small sources of non-threatening dissidence to exist, but Putin slowly eliminated independent television, which posed a serious threat to his ability to control a national narrative. “It was almost as if the rule in Russia was you can say anything you want, you can do anything you want, as long as not too many people are listening.”

This first phase of Putinism was “about controlling the main levers of the economy” but allowing Russians latitude in many other ways, and “just keeping control over the things that really matter.”

“What we see in the past few weeks is a much more intense, much more ideological version of Putinism than we’ve seen before. The new narrative about Russian nationalism, the need to protect Russian natives, Russian speakers around the former USSR, this rebuilding of Russian empire, this is a new … He wasn’t doing that ten years ago.

On the reasons for Putin’s change: fear of public protests in Moscow and Kyiv.

“I think he was very spooked by the mass demonstrations in Moscow two years ago. Not because they were going to lead to a national movement, but because, once again, they triggered this memory of 1956 [and] 1989. And then of course … Ukraine, what happened on the Maidan [Kyiv’s central square, where public protest eventually toppled the government] is exactly what he fears will happen in Russia. I think he was spooked by that. I think he’s aware that there’s a new middle class in Russia that is less … you know, the opposition also changed in Russia, and it became much more on corruption and anti-corruption. … And the opposition that’s about anti-corruption is much more dangerous for him.”

Those eruptions of protest in Moscow and Kyiv, plus a slowing of the Russian economy have given Putin a sense of his own endangerment, Applebaum said. Now, “the space for free and open media that did exist up until now is being shut down. You know, Russian newspapers and websites have been closing in Russia even in recent days.”

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