Robert Pzsczel, a former senior NATO official in Moscow, has give the following exclusive interview to Kyiv Post.
How have you seen Russia change?
We can’t say that a “managed democracy” has “evolved,” but we can say that it’s gone from being an autocratic system with different degrees of freedom, to a totalitarian system, which is something that is obvious.
Russia was traumatized when I served there; it was not a democracy, but there were pockets of freedom, including in the media, but today that has all ended.
What do we see today in Russia?
It’s really like it is almost going back to the nineteenth century - where they just conscript you, give you little training, and then ship you off to become cannon fodder. It is draconian and medieval.
Look at the girl who drew a picture against the war – and her dad got arrested. Look at the guy who was reading a Russian-made book on the history of fascism – and he was arrested.
The fact is that Russia is accelerating in terms of its moving backward.
How much freer was Russia then?
There used to be serious protests in Russia. Football fans for instance. They used to have thousands blocking streets in Moscow. In 2012, thousands of democratic protesters demonstrated outside of the Kremlin walls against falsifications of elections and authorities struggled to deal with all of them.
But that has changed. Now, no protests whatsoever are allowed anymore. Now the regime expects active support for its official views, no matter how crazy or detrimental to the people.
In the media, there were some opposition voices heard. Sure, they had to be paired with pro-Kremlin voices, but they were not all radicals.
Today, there is no opposition of any sort allowed publicly in Russia, there is no public debate. At the same time, propaganda forcefully peddles a view painting a ludicrous picture of the outside world ganging up on Russians.
The big change started in 2012.
Why did it all change in 2012?
The Kremlin realized that there was more dissatisfaction in society and that there was a growing opposition to accompany the growing unrest. Then there were mass mobilizations, Navalny, and all the opposition movements. There was a desire for new things.
If they had allowed it to continue growing, Moscow realized that eventually, they could topple the regime. It was just a matter of when – as that regime progressively has less, and less to offer. This is what the Kremlin feared – they could have really lost control of the situation.
Look today, people in public offices can’t even resign, let alone speak out against the regime, but they must voice support for the regime like during the public rallies at the Luzhniki stadium. There is no autonomous space.
Would you say that Russia is moving backward?
It’s a degradation at this point – socially, politically, and economically. There are no moral authorities left. They do not produce anything that is of high quality.
Russians themselves say that Russian products these days – such as cars – are perhaps even worse than the Chinese-made equivalents, which have a poor reputation in Russia.
Look at what’s happening with the universities: The Soviets had good education elements in, for example, theoretical sciences – but now, when was the last time that a Russian university made the top 100 universities in the world? That’s long gone.
Have you seen the textbooks? I’ve traveled around the country, and it’s shocking what one could find then in history and international relations textbooks. It’s just a total anti-Western fervor, full of crazy conspiracy theories. It is not history or science.
I shudder to think about what is there today. Years of such brainwashing have taken their toll.
Do you stay in touch with people in Russia?
Very few really. Most of the ones who understood what was happening have left. The country is going downhill, it has no moral bearings, and the entire society is traumatized.
Just look at religion in Russia. Yes, more people are going to the Orthodox Church - but the reality is that even though more people are going to church, the church is managed by former KGB guys. It just serves the state’s interests, it has become one of the warmongers – in total contradiction of religious axioms. It’s a moral abyss.
So, how does Russia get out of the ditch once it loses the war? How does it return from having been an international pariah?
It’s fully the responsibility of the Russian people. They need to do it. But it’s not easy: There’s an entire generation of people who have never known anyone except for Putin. They only know what life is like under him.
However, I think that ultimately, they will want change. They will want a better life. I think that once they see that the regime is really finished, they will push in the direction that other countries have taken and profit from it.
Will Russia become a democracy?
I hate when people say that “Russians are incapable of democracy,” as that is essentially racism. However, it is a process and will not be easy. Especially as Russian history has not provided any pointers.
Ultimately, it’s the Russians’ responsibility to change their country. We can do little from outside. However, of course, those outside of Russia - especially those who are unfortunately bordering Russia – have the right to demand a change in the country's policy towards the world as it changes around them.
Because we cannot allow Russia to hold the rest of the world hostage. Russia must be contained, and prevented from exporting war crimes, destruction, and malign influence.
That’s why more sanctions, stronger defense posture and assistance of course to Ukraine are so important.
Should Russia be allowed at international sports contests?
Absolutely not. Can anyone imagine in 1943, somewhere in Europe, saying: “We should allow the Nazi Germans to join the Games”? No one would say that. It’s ridiculous.
Russia cannot be allowed to participate with the rest of the world while it is a totalitarian regime conducting a genocidal war.
At this stage what should be done?
Send more arms and defense systems – including fighter planes and long-range missiles, to Ukraine. I think that anyone who says that they want to help promote peace should, paradoxically, send more weapons to Ukraine because they will save lives and bring the chance for the end of the war nearer.
The war will end when we put enough pressure on Russia to make the consequences crushing.
We need to make the Russians feel that it’s time to say "do svidaniya" to the invasion, and to the Russian regime.
Robert Pzsczel was the Director of NATO Information Office in Moscow between 2010-2015. Earlier he had served as a Polish diplomat and as a NATO official. Currently, Senior Fellow with the Polish Casimir Pulaski Foundation.
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