The diplomat Gustavo de Arístegui was interviewed on Onda Madrid’s ‘De cara al mundo’ programme and analysed the difficult situation that the war in Ukraine is causing. The international affairs expert criticised the aggressive stance taken by the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and assessed the significance it could have.
Ukraine could be the end of Putin, or is that a pipe dream?
Let’s see, in the long term it could be a possibility, but let’s be a little more pessimistic. Right now, in Russia, the overwhelming majority of public opinion supports this action. I have been listening practically all night, all day, to the most relevant international channels and their most reputable experts on Russian affairs who are all Russians and Ukrainians by birth and education, and there is a certain wishful thinking in the West that thinks that the majority of the Russian population is against the war. It is true that there is a minority, not a small one, who are and who do not demonstrate because they are repressed, and also because the overwhelming majority of the media in Russia is dominated by people very close to the Kremlin. That said, to think that this demonstration of people against the war in Ukraine, against the invasion of a sovereign country, is a majority in Russian society is frankly a chimera, and I think it is very irresponsible to insist on this. You have to understand the mentality of Russians, Russians are deeply nationalistic, and they are severely humiliated when the Soviet Union implodes, and as is well known, and it is a public issue. The greatest tragedy for Russia was the implosion of the Soviet Union, and that is engraved in blood and fire in the head of someone who knows the East-West confrontation like no one else.
Let’s remember that for many years Vladimir Putin was the head of the KGB station in Berlin, and he was the strong man who gave instructions to the Stasi, he was the one who knew perfectly well the confrontation in the hottest point of the planet, the East-West confrontation, which was precisely Berlin, and this is in Putin’s head, and this is guiding all his actions and strategies. At the moment, Putin has been scheming these issues since 99, it was very clear in his mind that no kind of regime that was not purely pro-Russian could be tolerated on Russia’s borders, and that is why he stabilised Georgia in 2008.
He started saying that Georgia was going to join the European Union and NATO, and he started putting up NATO and EU flags everywhere, in Tbilisi and everywhere. In Georgia there was a blitzkrieg, Russia took Abkhazia and South Ossetia, declared them independent. Today they are Russian republics. It did the same with Crimea, absolutely nothing happened. Russia has militiamen in the Donbas who are not Russian militiamen or ethnic Russian Ukrainians who took up arms, they are Russian soldiers without uniforms. That is the reality of things. Putin has amassed 190,000 men, not 10,000. 190,000 men in the vicinity of Ukraine in order to make the coordinated attack that he has just made in the north, east and south. He is deploying Chechen commandos in Kiev who are looking for President Zelensky and you have to understand something else, for the Russians and above all for Putin, the Maidan revolution, the Maidan Square revolution was an anti-Russian coup d’état. President Yanukovich, who had just been elected, was overthrown by the masses in Maidan Square, and in the minds of all Russians, but above all in Putin’s mind, this was a machination of the West and of the United States in particular, of NATO as a whole, to have in Ukraine an element to control and permanently destabilise Russia. Therefore, in the distorted mentality, because I believe that to a large extent what some analysts who know Russia well say is true, Putin has lost touch with reality. He believes that what he is doing is really an act of self-defence to ensure Russia’s survival and stability in the future. Now we have to consider what the consequences of all this will be. It would not be unthinkable, something that was unimaginable just a year or two ago, that two neutral countries. One that has made neutrality its national essence, that its axis should end up being integrated in one way or another into the NATO structure, it should be remembered, by the way, that Sweden, being a neutral country, is the country that has been most effectively integrated into the actions in Afghanistan, in coordination with NATO, with its excellent special forces and its very experienced air force. On the other hand, the only country in the world that has defeated the Soviet Union in a conventional war is Finland, and that is why it was neutralised because Finland wanted to be part of the West and it was a demand of the Soviet Union in the post-World War II period that Finland was not a member of the Atlantic Alliance and was consequently neutralised. At the moment, Finland has been accustomed to being on the neutral side from 1945 to the present day. It might well begin to think about the benefits of being covered by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Then there are, of course, the economic consequences.
There are serious consequences. Russia is one of the world’s leading producers of aluminium. Russia is one of the world’s leading producers of phosphate. Russia is one of the world’s leading producers of titanium. All these elements are essential for food security, especially for modern industry, and this means that other countries that have these resources will gain enormously on the international stage. For example, Norway, which has extraordinary reserves of titanium, vanadium, and even phosphates that have just been discovered, or Morocco itself, which is the world’s leading producer of phosphates, is also going to play an important role in replacing Russian phosphates. In other words, we are beginning to enter an extraordinarily complex war in which three elements, or three fundamental pillars, come together. The geo-economic one, which I have just discovered, the geo-strategic one, which is in full swing at the moment, and the geopolitical one, which is the broadest one, which is going to define how we are going to shape the world in the coming decades. What seems clear, and I don’t want to sound too solemn, is that the order of security, strategy and balance that emerged from the Second World War has been completely destroyed. What is going to happen, whatever happens in the Ukrainian war, whether or not Russia wins in the long or short term, I think it is clear that it is going to win because it is minutes away from being able to overthrow the Ukrainian government and put in its place a puppet government, which is what it wanted. The balance of geopolitical forces in the world has changed forever, and we have to understand that very clearly. Now, it is very important that we also understand the rivalries that exist between China and Russia. They have some common issues, for example, they have common rivals and common adversaries. Right now for Russia, the enemy is the West. China in that sense is going to become the economic lifeline of sanctioned Russia, but at the same time, they are rivals on many other things. China and Russia have been sworn enemies in many places in the world, and I would like to name one, as an example, from Southeast Asia in the Vietnam War, in Laos, in Burma, in all of Southeast Asia. China was always on opposite sides of the battle for conquest and domination of countries. It is not so clear, just because China is a rival of the West, does not mean that China is automatically Russia’s best ally and friend. There will be nuances. This brings us to a fourth reflection, the fourth reflection is the change in the political models we know, that is, there is a certain decline in the model of liberal representative democracies. There is an emergence of a new type of regime to which communist China is no stranger, which is what we might call strongman populism. In the past, dictatorships were overwhelmingly ideologically inspired. The Stalinist communist dictatorship, the Nazi monstrous communist dictatorship and the fascist monstrous dictatorship and so on. Ideology plus personalism, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, made them particularly dangerous characters. Today we are in a completely different phase. Strongman populism makes the strongman, the dictator generate his own ideology, and this is very important for us to understand. He uses ideology in different degrees, they are always the same case, it is obvious that, in China, the strength of the Communist Party is extraordinary, but that Xi Jinping is a communist, nobody doubts that, however, he is a communist leader or if one wants to call him a dictator or whatever one wants to call him. It is obvious that he is of a different type than Mao Zedong or his successors. This strongman populism is beginning to spread in different parts of the world. We are seeing it in Turkey, which is a NATO country, we are seeing it emerge in some European countries such as Hungary, and this system is going to spread to more and more countries because the population, with these economic uncertainties, pandemics, wars, in short, the deep crises in all areas that are beginning to take root and reunify, will look to the populist strongman for the certainty and security that they do not get from democracies.
You have answered all the questions I had planned, please continue.
The Turkish question is very interesting. For many, many years during the Cold War, we Spaniards didn’t realise one thing because we were a bit far away, but when you travel by boat through the Bosphorus Strait, you realise the extraordinary importance of Turkey in world security. Let’s bear in mind that while Russia dominated the Baltic States, it had a direct exit to the Baltic Sea through these Baltic States, knowing obviously that the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, and consequently the exit through Scotland to the north or the exit through the English Channel, were deeply, intensely controlled by NATO forces, in the same way that the port of Murmansk was frozen most months of the year, the only natural, easier, but always controlled, exit was through the Baltic Sea, but always controlled, was through the Bosphorus Strait, that is, through Turkey, which was a NATO member, and therefore every Russian ship crossing the Bosphorus Strait was controlled by the West, but when climate change makes the port of Murmansk and all Siberian ports practicable all year round, Russian naval hegemony may become a reality, or at least rivalry with the United States may become a reality. Many people are saying that Putin is a post-communist. No, he is not. Putin is a Russian nationalist. In fact, one of the things he is reproaching the former regime of the Soviet Union for is precisely, that it was the Bolsheviks who in his view created Ukraine as an artificial creation, since, as he is saying, they are the same people even though they speak a different language, which they consider a dialect of Russian, and that the Russian soul is born in Ukraine, that it is born in Kiev, that the Russian Orthodox Church is right in Kiev, and that for Russian historians what is an ethnic Russian is a mixture of Scandinavians and Ukrainian Slavs, and this is engraved in their blood and fire, and it will be very difficult for us to understand to what extent it is ingrained in the majority of the Russian people, that what has been happening in Ukraine since 2014 with the overthrow of Yanukovych was nothing but a slow-motion aggression by the West against Russia.
What role can the United States and the European Union play, or should we play, in this scenario that you have explained so well?
We are entering a period of Cold War, with unforeseeable consequences. Russia is not going to stop turning Ukraine into a battlefield against the West, that has already been achieved. They will continue to try to destabilise those countries that were part of the Soviet Union. They are not going to invade them because that would bring the world to the apocalypse, that would be a confrontation with NATO, the Baltic countries and Poland are part of NATO, Romania is part of NATO, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic are part of NATO. You cannot turn back the clock of history, but it does not mean that hybrid warfare will not be practised in these countries. I found it extraordinarily naïve when many analysts said that Ukraine was going to be a hybrid war. No, it has been a conventional war, a war of reoccupation of territory to which they have added hybrid warfare strategies, it is obvious. But it doesn’t stop there, the Russians are well aware of the West’s weaknesses. Let us not forget that they had the dreadful Department 13 of the KGB of the first directorate, which was dedicated to recruiting anti-Western elements in the West, and that many were for money, others out of conviction, and they used them with extraordinary conviction and they will continue to do so now. Let us not forget, moreover, that today there is a different ideological element in today’s Europe, and that is the extreme right in some countries, not all, in those that border today’s Russia, that extreme right is anti-Russian, but that extreme right is from other parts of Europe, above all, from Western Europe, and that is lax or pro-Russian. Let us be very clear. I have often heard people from the hard right and the European far right say that Putin is the only bastion of Christian and European values in Europe. This is nothing short of nonsense. This is also where the extreme left-wing forces that are also pro-Russian coincide, either out of nostalgia or because the successor of Department 13 is doing his job very well and now has not only the allies of the extreme left of the Cold War, but also the allies of the extreme right in the West.