Russia Direct discussed the implications of MH17 and Putin’s address to the Russian Security Council with Fyodor Lukyanov, the Head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Journalists try to get access to the site of the crash of a Malaysia Airlines plane. Photo: AFP

Several days after the downing of the Malaysian Boeing in Eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the issue of Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity at the July 22 session of the Russian Security Council.

While saying that he doesn’t see any direct external threats to Russia, he confirmed that Russia would respond adequately to NATO beefing up its presence in Eastern Europe and increase its own defense capability, including in Crimea.

At the same time, he promised to contribute to an objective and thorough investigation into the MH17 tragedy and called for a cease-fire not only for the separatists, but also for Kiev’s government forces, to enable a full investigation into the MH17 crash.

Below, Russia Direct discusses the most salient points of Putin’s address to the Security Council with Fyodor Lukyanov, Head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Russia Direct: Whom did Putin address today primarily – Russia or the West?

Fyodor Lukyanov: Putin’s address is directed to both, yet currently, the more important addressee is the West. The Russian President is trying to highlight key points to show that Russia is not interested in increasing tensions, or any political and psychological escalation of the conflict [with the West and Ukraine]. Provided goodwill and flexibility from the West, Russia is ready to be flexible and express the same goodwill. Yet, it was said implicitly, as indicated from the tone of his speech.

RD: The session of the Security Council was announced to deal with Russia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, which was met by people both in Russia and the West as a warning sign. Is this the case?  

F.L.: Everyone looked to the session with a certain amount of apprehension. When the session on Russia’s sovereignty was unexpectedly announced, there were, of course, some concerns about what would be said there. Putin dispelled these misgivings and, particularly, said that Russia doesn’t have direct external threats – mostly because now there are domestic debates within Russia as to whether we would be prepared to withstand such external threats [amidst the Ukrainian crisis]. 

RD: However, Putin also said that Russia will increase its defense capability and will respond “adequately” and “symmetrically” to NATO’s build-up in Eastern Europe. Does it contradict his reassurance that Russia sees no direct external threats?

F.L.: In such a situation, a leader doesn’t make any unambiguous statements. Putin says that there are no direct threats. Yet it doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no indirect and potential threats. So, there will be a build-up of the country’s defense and adequate response to withstand hypothetical threats. It’s one thing to prepare for these threats for preventive measures; it’s another thing to face a direct threat in order to react immediately. And Putin does not think the latter is possible.             

Fyodor Lukyanov, Head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. Photo: RIA Novosti

RD: Do you agree with the opinion that Putin has been frightened as never before?

F.L.: No. I don’t believe claims that he is frightened. I would say that Putin faces the most difficult challenges of his entire presidential tenure. Having been actively engaged in the Ukrainian crisis since February and March, Russia took a very big risk of a very big strategic game that began from Crimea’s accession to Russia and turned on following events. And now we see how this game is proceeding: We have very serious opponents who are likewise conducting this game skillfully enough. As a man who is responsible for this game and who is conducting it, Putin is trapped in a very unfavorable position, facing the most powerful external pressure – psychological, economic and political – and the absence of obvious allies.

There are countries that take neutral positions that don’t participate in the campaign against Russian policy. Yet, at the same time, they don’t support Russia’s position either. For example, there are BRICS countries that are generally favorable to Russia, but it [the Ukraine crisis] is not their problem. They will not participate in anti-Russian campaigns, yet given that Putin puts forward the priority of the Russian world, this issue cannot attract allies from the BRICS. It’s a Russian issue and, in this context, [Moscow] can only rely on itself.          

It’s not a matter of him being frightened or not, he is just faced with a very difficult situation. And he should act very prudently – on the one hand – to get through external pressure in order not to provoke a more serious isolation from the West and – on the other hand – to meet those expectations that appeared in Russia [after Crimea’s accession], not to deceive those who want to support compatriots [in Eastern Ukraine], because they represent a powerful force in the country. So, Putin tries to maneuver.

RD: Will he be able to influence rebels in Eastern Ukraine to minimize the consequences of the crisis?

F.L.: I think he can influence the rebels. Yet, there is no reason to think that his influence is absolutely powerful. Everything that is now happening there [in Eastern Ukraine] – is a pretty chaotic development with an unstable dynamic. “Political influence” is a so-called euphemism. What the West requires from Russia is a very concrete step: It is the blocking of the channels of support and aid that comes from Russian territory.

Who will provide this support is not clear: We don’t exactly know. Yet this support does exist and there are numerous volunteers ready to help, and all this comes from a certain source. And the West demands – not only allowing international observers to monitor the place of the catastrophe [of MH17], but also shutting down the border for this support.

And in this case, the Ukrainian army will defeat the rebels quickly. This is what the West is seeking. For Putin, this scenario is very difficult and dangerous, because in this case, he faces the risk of disappointing those who fight in Eastern Ukraine as well their Russian supporters who might see the blocking of support as betrayal. So, again, it is a very vulnerable position.

RD: During his address, Putin said that Russia had to insulate its economy from foreign and political risks. What economic moves does he mean, from your point of view?

F.L.: I understand this as a set of measures to come up with a more sustainable economic model:  It can be replacing imports, looking for other economic partners as well as optimizing domestic resources. Actually, it’s everything that should be done in any case with the economy – with sanctions or without them. And there are no other ways to improve one’s economic record because Russia doesn’t have such resources to force somebody not to follow in the line of the U.S.

RD: Given that few in the West trust Putin because of his recent policy in Ukraine, Europe and the U.S. are likely to take his call for an objective investigation into MH17 with a grain of salt. Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbot said after his telephone talk with Putin on the MH17 downing that Putin now “has to be as good as his word’’ and that he will “do my best to hold him to his word.” So, how to deal with this credibility gap?

F.L.: There is no way to deal with it. This credibility gap didn’t appear immediately. It is a result of the long history of the relations between Russia and the West. However, matching the words to the deeds is very important. President Putin usually matched his words to actions and frequently said things that were inconvenient for the West. So, in this regard, it is difficult to rebuke him for being hypocritical and insincere.

Yet, according to reports, Putin allegedly promised to German Chancellor Angela Merkel not to go ahead with the accession of Crimea initially, and afterwards, went ahead with the move, breaking his promise. And it surprised Merkel. No matter if these reports about Putin-Merkel talks are true, the events that developed spontaneously and chaotically in Ukraine could undermine credibility in any case.       

RD: Some experts believe that Putin should admit his mistakes and apologize for his role in the Ukranian conflict. Can we expect such moves from him?

F.L.: No. Admitting his guilt is out of the question. Putin is not a private person. He is the face of Russia. Generally, governments admit their guilt reluctantly and rarely. Either they are forced to do so by using military force (which was the case with Germany and Japan, though Japan didn’t fully admit its guilt after World War II), or it is done with a great deal of reluctance, so that when it finally comes, it is long overdue.     

Fyodor Lukyanov is the Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs. He graduated from Moscow State University’s philology faculty. He has been writing on international affairs since 1990. He has worked with Moscow Radio International, the newspapers Segodnya, Vremya MN and Vremya Novosti. He is Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.