"It is right to isolate Russia"


Masha Gessen, Russian-American author and Putin critic, about the lies of the Russian president, his newly found mission and his war against the West. 

Masha Gessen’s book about Vladimir Putin „The man without a face“ is one of the best studies of the man leading Russia today. Gessen is one of the sharpest critics of the Russian president in conferences, talk shows and media like „The New York Times“.

The Russian-American author and journalist has first hand experience of Putin’s Russia. Gessen who called herself once „Russia’s only publicly out Lesbian“ lived in Moscow till 2013 when she decided to relocate her family to New York. The Russian parliament had agreed a law banning adoption for same sex couples. The law could be used retrospectively. Gessen has an adopted son.

Her latest book „Words will break cement“ describes the Russian art Punk group „Pussy Riot“. Her next book about the two Chechen-American brothers who placed bombs at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon in 2013 will be published 2015.

Gessen spoke to profil at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Scotland.

Profil: You left Moscow for New York more than a year ago and watched the crisis in the Ukraine from there. Could the West have done more to prevent the situation from escalating?

Gessen: There is no blame to share in this particular conflict. It is the first forceful annexation of land since World War II in Europe. It is the most blatant violation of international law imaginable. It is also the most absurd series of lies told in the most ridiculous ways that we have seen since the Soviet Union collapsed. Or even before that. There is less pretense today than there was in the Seventies or Eighties.

Profil: Which lies do you mean? That a fascist government took over in Kiev?

Gessen: Yes. Or that there were no Russian troops involved in Crimea. Or that the humanitarian envoy coming from Moscow to the Ukraine was a humanitarian envoy – it was clear from the beginning that it was planned as pure provocation. Given all of that it is counterproductive to even discuss the “psychological roots for Russia’s need of greatness and the need to stand up to the West”. What is happening is an act of blatant aggression. Against the Ukraine and against the West. Putin is very good in lying. It is a very effective tool for him to take the initative and to frame the picture how he likes it. It takes the other side a lot of time to actually proof that he is not telling the truth. What happens with journalists and politicians in the West is that they have to look for ways to proof that his claims are wrong. On our side of the equation we have to proof it. While he does not have to prove anything. At the point when he was claiming that there was a native insurgency in the Eastern Ukraine, it was hard to proof that it wasn’t.

profil: It was not?

Gessen: This is not a separatist movement by locals, it is an invasion by a foreign army. The fighters are Russian security service officers or belong to the Russian army. But all Western media was calling them pro-Russian rebels. By now things have become much clearer to the general public. Russia does not only sponsor terror by rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Russia is itself participant in this war.

Profil: When Russia annexed Crimea, it was not clear that he would send troops to the Eastern Ukraine too. Most experts thought he would try to simply destabilize the entire country. Is he being drawn into the conflict?

Gessen: At the beginning there was the thought that it is a good thing to destabilize Ukraine. Also because they tend to overestimate their own power they thought they could keep this going for a while and keep Kiev from getting on with their business with the EU. They probably were sure that they would be able to pull this off without being exposed as the aggressors they really were. Crimea, he figured, he could get away with. The so called rebels would keep this going. But then the Russian rebels in Ukraine were defeated by the Ukrainian army. So Russia had to intervene openly.

Profil: So Putin gets drawn deeper and deeper into this conflict?

Gessen: It is really helpful to look at the development in Chechnya during the Nineties. I am now writing a book about the Boston Bombers. So I am going over the dates: Moscow started bombing Chechnya in the summer of 1994. They claimed it was not Russian military planes, but Azerbaijani planes. No explanation was given, why Azeri planes were bombing Chechnya. The bombing started seriously in August. In November they tried to create a sense of urgency. So they sent a bunch of intelligence officers with fake IDs into Grosny to enact an insurgency. They were totally shocked when the insurgency was defeated. The men were arrested and exposed on Russian television. It was almost funny. Some of them had not only their fake identity cards on them but their real ID as well. After they were exposed Moscow started accumulating troops on the borders to Chechnya, Ossetia and Ingushetia in early December. The bombing began on December 31 and the invasion started on January 1st.

Profil: Let’s hope this is not really the blueprint for the Ukrainian war.

Gessen: I think it really is. Russia will not carpet bomb Kiev as it did with Grosny. But everything else has followed the script. It is not the Putin blueprint, it is how the secret police plays these things. They think it is a legitimate political method in the power game to instigate unrest somewhere and then come to „help“. Putin can move much faster than Western powers because he is not held back by democratic institutions, there is no accountability and no free press to check on his decision.

profil: But what is his aim in all this?

Gessen: Russia is a nuclear power. The way it is playing out is that Putin has consistently the upper hand. By the time the West is ready for a military response he will be a step away from using nuclear arms. He has already made it very clear that he will, it is just that we do not like to talk about it. He has already violated the INF nuclear arms treaty 1987 by testing nuclear war heads. It’s the first time it happened in over twenty years. In his speech to the Russian Security Council in July which a lot of people in the West were too lazy to analyze he made very clear reference to his willingness to use nuclear arms. He made it twice. And just a few days ago in a speech in Yalta he said again: “We will surprise the West with our new offensive nuclear weapons about which we do not talk yet.”

Profil: Is he really so far gone that he would consider using nuclear weapons?

Gessen: I am not prepared to say there is zero probability that he would use nuclear arms. I don’t see him going down the road of mutual destruction. But I can imagine him using strategic weapons.

Profil: He is not crazy enough to use nuclear arms!

Gessen: Who will keep him from doing it? Six months ago we would have not dreamed of Russia annexing Crimea. Or to invade Ukraine. Maybe we should have listened more. I think people just did not listen to what he was saying. The Anti-American and Anti-Western campaign that has been under way has been absolutely unprecedented. The West has been willfully ignoring it.

Profil: Is this Putin’s personal vendetta to wage war against the West?

Gessen: He has found his mission. He transformed himself from a post-ideological politician to an ideological one. And his ideology is „The Russian civilization“. He is truly convinced that he is special and the leader of a special people. And that this people can save the world from the advance of what Alexander Dugin calls the „post gender human beings“.

profil: Is Dugin warning of a degenerated Homo Sapiens?

Gessen: More or less. If you listen to Dugin, which everyone should because it is quite educational, he says openly: „The West thinks that there is such a thing as universal human rights.“ Dugin or Putin build on a different understanding: Our civilization is based on traditional values. Putin thinks he has a civilizational case here. And he has some support for this at home. And also abroad. Russia has been quite successful in reaching out to others like china or Venezuela or Ecuador or a few post soviet countries. And the European Far right is in Putin’s pockets too. So he does not feel that he is alone against the rest oft he world. He feels he defends parts of this world against the western incursion.

Profil: Is this just nd ideological concept oder is this also about geographical expansion of Russia? Don’t they really want to get the historical „Rus" back?

Gessen: It is a propaganda tool. Yes, he wanted the old Rus back and yes, he ha the idea of Greater Russia. But he would have a difficult time to define the borders of this „Rus“. Russia just needs to be greater. That is the nature of an expansive ideology. Every empire wants to expand. That is the nature of things. Russia just refused to enter the Post-Imperialist age.

Profil: Why is the response in Russia not stronger? Does everyone have to rally around the leader in times of war?

Gessen: Absolutely. This is how it always goes. In times of crisis the leader enjoys a rise in popularity. Only when after years of conflict and no solution it dawns on the population that there is no gain, no profit and no end to it, then it becomes tough. But of course the less free the media is the more difficult it is to realize in which dire situation Putin has brought his country. This is the difference with the Ukraine. The country had two revolutions. 2004 and 2013. Both times the street succeeded because Ukraine was not an authoritarian state. It had some functional quasi-democratic institutions. Both times these institutions stepped in and resolved the conflict. In 2004 the Supreme Court stepped in and scheduled another election, a re-vote. This time the parliament stepped in. Russia does not have quasi democratic institutions that can facilitate a democratic development. If you have too many people demonstrating in the street of Moscow, the army will go out and stop them.

Profil: Are the sanctions a good idea, will they not lead to more escalation?

Gessen: We will see where we are in a year. I don’t have a good feeling about it. Any step the West takes – including doing nothing – will lead to escalation. Because that is the game as Putin defined it. There are not many other options against Russia than sanctions. It is a unique situation in politics where you have to do what is right: It is not right to do business with Russia. It is not right to treat Putin as a world leader. It is right to isolate Russia.

Profil: So the only option is an internal coup against Putin coming from his own power circle.

Gessen: I think any responsible person has to stop predicting at this point what could happen. We have to acknowledge that this is a black box. It is so by design and we will know when it is over when it is over.


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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz