Consensus voting doesn’t help the EU to stand strong against an ever more assertive Russia, Ilya Ponomaryev, Russian opposition figure and a former member of the State Duma, told EURACTIV Poland in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview.
Ilya Ponomaryev is a former member of Russian Parliament (2007-2016) and chairman of the Innovations and Venture Capital subcommittee. Ponomaryev played a key role in the protests of 2012. During 2013 and 2014, he opposed anti-democratic legislation introduced in Russia and was the only MP to vote against the annexation of Crimea. He previously served as a Vice-President of Yukos Oil Company. Ponomaryev lives in self-imposed exile in California.
He spoke to euractiv.pl’s Editor-in-Chief, Karolina Zbytniewska.
You are against Putin. You were the only one to vote against annexation of Crimea in the State Duma. You are still alive, maybe this helps the Kremlin to legitimize the system, showing to Russians and the West – look, we are not so bad, we allow pluralism and freedom of views?
Still, it would be more legitimising if I was still in the parliament. Putin’s mafia psychology punishes traitors who were with him once, but then switched sides, like Boris Nemtsov who directly supported Putin when he was coming to power. When there’s an honest opponent, coherent from the beginning, this is what Putin respects.
What I heard from the Kremlin is that Putin ordered to neutralize me, but not to punish me. So I am neutralised, as I cannot come back to Russia, but not punished, as I am not in jail or killed.
Being Russian, how do you perceive Russian aggression on Ukraine – as aggression?
Yes, unfortunately so.
Are you in minority in Russia with this view?
Are Crimea and Donbas perceived as parts of Russia by Russians?
Crimea yes, Donbas no.
So what do Russians think about taking over Donbas by Russia-backed rebels?
There’s an official version, meaning what is shown on the Russian TV – so also matching how people see it in Russia. According to this version, there is a civil war in Ukraine which started because of oppression of the Russian-speaking – not Russian – minority in the east. There was no oppression, but this narrative is explainable by a really bad law – bad to my mind – that was introduced by Verkhovna Rada right after the Maidan revolution. This law never came to power – it was vetoed by the then-President, Olexander Turchynov. Nevertheless, it was passed by Verkhovna Rada and was aimed at restricting usage of Russian-language. And so Kremlin has an alibi for saying that Russian-speaking people of the East retaliated against such an initiative of Kyiv.
This law never came to power – it was vetoed by the then-President, Olexander Turchynov. Nevertheless, it was passed by Verkhovna Rada and was aimed at restricting usage of Russian-language. And so the Kremlin has an alibi for saying that Russian-speaking people of the east retaliated against such an initiative by Kyiv.
How do you see Western reaction to what happened in Ukraine? Was it a hint to Moscow it can do whatever it wants on the Eastern front?
More or less. The West didn’t provide Ukraine with weapons.
But providing weapons would have been perceived as offensive.
So what? Russian aggression was also offensive.
Yes, but Ukraine was attacked, not the West. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, nor even the EU yet, so there exists no collective defence commitment.
It’s the question of whether the West accepts the choice of Ukrainians wishing to be a part of Europe, and whether the West perceives that Ukraine is a part of Europe – and its wider “civilization of enlightenment”. If it does, then it would be a good idea to defend its choice. This choice should be not only respected but also rewarded. If the reaction is not protective but passive, showing that a problem is just of Ukrainians’, then the message is that Ukraine made the wrong choice.
Then how should the West should have reacted in 2014?
For Crimea, it shouldn’t have sent the message to ‘be quiet and do nothing”. Having been said so by those whom they perceive as the guarantors of national integrity – by the US and UK – Ukrainians trusted and sat quiet, stayed tight.
Crimea seems to have ben given up.
There are talks about Crimea, but they are routine ones of a kind: “Yes, of course, Crimea is Ukraine’s, but what can we do about it?” The same as with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But really I think that the key for returning Crimea is in Kyiv, not in EU capitals. When Ukraine will be prosperous and the living standards in Ukraine will supersede those in Russia – and the way it goes they will – at the end of the day, Crimeans will rethink they choice. Right now there’s no reason why they might prefer Ukraine.
There are no solid patriotic feelings among any constituency but Crimean Tatars who are in minority. And Crimeans feel that during the recent two decades they were not treated well in Ukraine – there was no proper financing, no modernization, no infrastructure, no development of tourism. So they have made a rational choice because they think Russia is richer and will invest money in Crimea – and it really does, and living standards are better today. To overcome this, Ukraine has to be richer.
What about Donbas? What can we do to help Ukrainians defend from and deter Russia?
A recipe for bloodshed and violence is to have a strong military. So when Donbas was invaded every action aimed at making Ukraine strong would have been taken as an act of peace not of war. Every action to achieve a strategic balance with the invader should have been taken. Today, the Ukrainian military is stronger than originally. But it is an achievement of Kyiv solely, as no one else really helped. Still, I think that support would be a good idea also today.
But the most important thing to do now is not so much a military response, but an economic response. Ukraine is in a pretty unique situation, as its society accepts foreign control over its government, wants external help, external advice and management so that economy, law enforcement, and other areas can be reformed. And the West does not assume this responsibility. In the end, everything is on the shoulders of IMF and World Bank who offer some extremely poor advice, taken directly from textbooks without really understanding what is going on in Ukraine – so in the end, this guidance is counterproductive.
What about the measures taken by the West – the sanctions.
Economic sanctions have also brought about the opposite effect than aimed. Actually, they helped Putin to mobilize people around him. They helped to create the atmosphere that mother Russia is under attack. They also helped him to write off his own mismanagement and mismanagement of his own government – he received an easy excuse: it’s all due to the actions of the West. Why do wages go down? Why do prices go up? Why ruble devalues? – because of the West. That’s the common perception in the country.
My position from the very beginning was that those sanctions shouldn’t have been imposed. Instead, there should have been a larger pressure on people who are the architects and supporters of attacking and annexing Crimea, of invading Donbas. And – speaking wider – of this regime. Those are members of the parliament, governmental bureaucrats, employees of state enterprises. It’s way easier to administer such sanctions because you don’t need to cherry-pick particular names, you apply the mechanism blindly on the people if they are members of governing bodies. If you want to go away from the sanctions, list you resign. That solution would provide the split among the elites and not consolidation as we see now.
We can still impose them, exchanging for the current ones that seem counterproductive.
Yes, as I am against sanctions imposed on my people. They make them even poorer than they are anyway, and moreover, they more or less reasonably blame the West for their poverty. And I think that the objective is opposite – to show the people that what is positive comes from the West, while what is negative comes from Putin.
Still, the four countries most hit by sanctions are ones most persistent about keeping them – as Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former Estonian president, said.
Let’s say that Polish farmers trade apples as it was before sanctions. Who is happier? You. The production is being created here [in Poland], jobs are created here, taxes are paid here. Who is also happy are Russian consumers – regular, ordinary people. There would be also some traders who would get their share but it’s a fixed margin, nothing significant. Those people are not Putin’s close affiliates. While today Poland does not supply apples to Russia, Germany does not supply trains or cars. And it is just you who hurt yourself.
Of course, the message in Russia is clear – the West is disturbed and doesn’t want business as usual. But at the end of the day, who is suffering financially is not who you want to suffer, but totally different people. Plus you – Europe – suffer yourself which diminishes European unity and allows Putin to escalate this split.
The story would be different if you were chasing particular individuals – those guys have their money in the EU, so by arresting and confiscating their assets, it’s you who benefit. So nobody should be against this. And it’s way more efficient for us – the Russian opposition – to help us punish our ‘corruptioneers’.
We were talking about small players, let’s move to grand ones like Nord Stream 2. On the one hand, the West imposes sanctions and opposes Russia declaratively. On the other, it continues cooperation.
The biggest beneficiary of Nord Stream 2 is Germany. Germany geopolitically wants to replace Ukraine as a transit monopoly for Russian gas. Berlin is just fishing in troubled waters.
I think that the whole thing about Nord Stream 2 being a Russian initiative is a diversion of your attention away of its real initiator. Russia would be more than happy with the existing Nord Stream 1, as more is not fitted into its capacity.
So you are saying that Nord Stream 2 is a sign of German hypocrisy? Berlin is one of the major opponents of Putin’s actions.
It’s trade. Germany opposes Putin in general, but it has something to trade it for.
So for Europe to be consistent, it should not sign such contracts?
As a Russian, I think that Nord Stream 2 is not needed for my country because there’s enough transportation capacity already. Building it means spending money of my taxpayers, not yours. The reason for constructing it doesn’t lay in Russia. So I think that it is you guys who should make up your mind.
Generally, Russia is shown as the main enemy to the West and international safety. NATO, Europe, the ‘Eastern flank’, and Poland itself are reinforcing their military capacities. But Russia keeps on flexing its muscles. How to deter Moscow effectively?
You just need to be strong. Putin is a mafia street guy who respects power, authority, and strength – and that needs to be demonstrated.
Why doesn’t he seem to respect the US then? They have more military capacity than the rest of the world.
It’s just that the US would not want to exercise this power against Russia. When the only result of this ‘great NATO summit in Warsaw’ is one extra battalion per country in Poland and the Baltics, then sorry guys but it’s pitiful and makes the Russian military laugh.
Those battalions will be multinational. Attacking one will not be an attack on just one NATO country. According to article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, attacking one NATO member would be enough to trigger collective defence.
How many people will be in a battalion?
Around 1000. But it’s not about deploying a massive army on the Eastern border. It’s about the symbolic collective defence trigger and the modern rapid response capability available today.
So we are not safe until we do not do something really big.
Or until Russia doesn’t do something really big. Look, Putin has already introduced various methods of attack. He attacked US with cyber warfare. And not only the US but also Baltic states, like Estonia. Was there a response? No. Was it an act of war? Yes. But to no response.
Cyber warfare was added officially as an operational domain of NATO only this year. Estonia was in 2006.
OK, but the attack on the US was already after the NATO summit. Was there any response? At the beginning, it was treated as a joke, maybe yes, maybe no. Then it was said there should be an adequate answer, but there wasn’t. No adequate answer, not even a statement that it was an act of war.
And I am not even talking about the information warfare that has been exercised for a long time, and the same US that cannot even stop broadcasting Russia Today on its own territory, despite (the fact that there are) legal mechanisms to do that. And the UK, which was really hurt by Russia Today’s programming, as it was heavily messing with the UK territorial integrity during the Scottish referendum. RT, with its pro-separation campaign was a real player in the referendum. The punishment, in the end, was the recent closure by the Royal Bank of Scotland. It was not a coincidence that RT accounts were at this bank. And Putin used it to his benefit as always. There was a big scandal in Russia, with claims that the West prosecutes freedom of speech.
Now Russian propaganda is a real player in all of Europe.
Of course, it’s a Russian quality product.
And how is the disinformation strategy developed?
There is a so-called Security Council – a close circle of Putin’s friends of different positions – discussing security-related issues. The key driver here is Nikolai Patrushev, the former chairman of FSB [the state security and intelligence service, former KGB] and one of the closest Putin’s allies. But with this kind of policy, games are being made up mostly by Putin, personally, because it’s something he likes.
What do you mean by making the West strong? More coherent? United?
What you mention are the tools. I am talking about results. Results are actions. The results are visible in the readiness to do things. So the unity needs to do something. When there’s no action it doesn’t matter. And how Europe is constituted doesn’t help making any kind of decisions. Consensus voting of 28 member states doesn’t help.
It cannot be easy with 28 national players. But this challenge is also the European strength. It is difficult but in the end, it’s the united power of 28 countries.
Right now, key decisions could have been made, not on the level of the European Union but on the level of involved stakeholders. You quoted a president about the four countries most hurt by sanctions who are simultaneously most supportive of them – the Baltics and Poland. These countries are ready for economic sacrifices because they understand Russia poses a threat to their national security. So if we form a kind of a Slavic unity, or neighbourhood unity or a Baltic-Black Sea axis, this will be more operational. And any such alliance should include Ukraine that needs involvement in such initiatives, as it needs to feel like a member of the European family, which it doesn’t feel like right now.
But why is the Kremlin flexing its muscles and provoking in the first place?
There’s a popular myth in Russia that it has never been involved in any kind of aggressive war. Russia is always defending itself. We are such a big country, because we are always defending ourselves and expanding as a result. So the most likely scenario of confrontation is some covert operation after which we have to defend ourselves and reinforce popular support among our commander in chief.
If I was in Putin’s shoes, I would start from a transportation line between mainland Russia and Kaliningrad. It is the most vulnerable. But maybe since it is so obvious it wouldn’t be it.
Let’s hope it doesn’t happen, and that the proxy war in Syria suffices for Putin’s willingness to hurt the West.
Another serious topic – Russia has been present in Syria just for one reason. Because the West has been interested in this area, and Russia wants to interfere with the West. The only reason why Russia is there – as it has no strategic interest in Syria whatsoever and there’s nothing that we can achieve there – is that it wants to be disruptive. So as soon you will abandon your attention there it will stop being interesting for Putin as well. Personally, I think that Syria and the whole region should be left for people there to decide for themselves. There are strong powers in the region with arms and plenty of money – it’s their job to decide. Still, of course, it was the US who created this mess in the region.
The civil war in Syria was caused by the Arab Spring.
While the Arab Spring was inspired by the US – Hillary Clinton helped Egyptians take down President Hosni Mubarak, which was an extremely stupid idea. Without it, there wouldn’t be any Arab Spring. So it was the American fault from the very beginning – they started it.
In Syria, it started with children sending leaflets, and then Assad came in with his disproportionate reaction – and war followed. So it wasn’t about the Americans.
OK. Still, the Syrian war is the business of Syrians. It’s their country. And their struggle. And this whole escalation was caused by the international involvement from different sides – American, British, Qatar, Saudi, etc. And Syria was not the first brick in that wall, but the last one. It happened after Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya. They just followed the plot. We can even trace it to the invasion in Iraq. So right now, we just see that whatever involvement is happening in that region, it is counterproductive. Let’s allow Turks, Saudis, Qataris handle their region. It’s bad but other options are worse. Europe has to deal with its own problems, for instance with the inflow of refugees that could have been avoided again in the first place. Right now there’s no fundamental energy demand in the area for America as it produces enough by itself using the shale, so the past degree of dependence for supply
It’s bad, but other options are worse. Europe has to deal with its own problems, for instance with the inflow of refugees that could have been avoided again in the first place. Right now there’s no fundamental energy demand in the area for America as it produces enough by itself using the shale, so the past degree of dependence for supply in that region is no longer there. This region should be now more of a bother for China getting its energy supply from Iran and other Persian Gulf nations. Let them handle it if they wish to.