Russian activist: If Putin regains Ukraine, the Baltics are next

Ilya Yashin [Georgi Gotev]

Vladimir Putin’s strategy is to install pro-Moscow politicians in Ukraine. If Europe consents, his next stop will be the Baltic countries, with NATO incapable of defending them, which will put an end to the organisation, Ilya Yashin told euractiv.com in an exclusive interview.

Ilya Yashin is a Russian activist and liberal politician in Russia. He is the deputy chairman of the People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS), which was led by Boris Nemtsov until his death last year. In 2005, Yashin co-founded the Oborona youth movement, and until 2008, he was the leader of the Yabloko Party’s youth wing. After Nemtsov’s murder, Yashin continued to work on Nemtsov’s report, Putin. War, about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. 

He was speaking to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

You are in Brussels on the occasion of the launch of your report The Kremlin’s Hybrid Aggression, published by the Free Russia Foundation. My first question is related to the “dirty dossier” on US President-elect Donald Trump, which suggests that Vladimir Putin has “kompromats” on the new president of the United States. Does this sound realistic to you?

Russian secret services gather kompromats against the Kremlin’s opponents and even against the Kremlin’s supporters, including sex tapes – this is not a secret, but a key method, which has been used for a long time. The Russian opposition knows how this works. I have myself been the object of such provocation. Last year, the election campaign started with the airing of a sex tape on national television, recorded in the private bedroom of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who now leads the opposition party PARNAS.  That’s why I’m not at all surprised if a similar “kompromat” exists on Trump. He has been to Russia, he has been in different business activities with Russian counterparts, and I don’t exclude that the Russian secret services possess compromising material on him.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be sex tapes. It could also be about things he said and he might regret.

Trump said during his election campaign many things he normally should regret. But I don’t think kompromats on Trump would weigh too much on him. The Americans knew who they were electing. He led a provocative campaign and was elected despite his provocative attitude and speech. Even if there was a sex tape, even if there was proof that Trump personnel engaged in some sort of corruption activity linked to his business in Russia, I don’t think this would strongly weigh on public opinion in the US. I imagine that such “kompromat” exist, but I don’t think it puts Trump in jeopardy.

So he is immune?

To a certain extent, yes. After what Bill Clinton did inside the White House, who would care what Donald Trump did in a Moscow hotel prior to his election?

Many say that 2017 is the year of all dangers. Which is the biggest danger?

I think the key danger is the following. While Americans and Europeans will concentrate on their internal problems, they will lift their attention from Ukraine, which will allow Putin to restore control over this country. I think this is a key danger for European security. My colleagues and I know how.

Can you elaborate?

The Ukrainian oligarchy, which became a key ally of Putin, will play a key role. And in particular Oleksandr Onyshchenko, a former gas baron from the entourage of [former president] Viktor Yanukovich. He has become the leading key speaker on Ukraine issues in Russian media, which allows him to convey the message that he has kompromats on [current president] Petro Poroshenko. The strategy is to trigger unrest, a third Maidan in Ukraine. We see the scenario unfolding. This year, Putin has to change the status quo in Ukraine and return to power politicians loyal to him.

What methods is he using?

The methods are not new. They were used against the EU, against the USA. Fake news is being created, aggressive propaganda is being disseminated, hate language is being used, political provocations are engineered, local politicians are being corrupted etc. But the key is the Onyshchenko project. I’m convinced this is the case and we see how it is already unfolding. But let me explain why I see it as the biggest danger. If nobody stops Putin in Ukraine, he will go further. His next step will be the Baltic countries.

But Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are NATO members…

Precisely. This is why the Baltic countries are in Putin’s sights because he has two objectives. Objective number one is to weaken the EU, which he largely is succeeding at doing. His second objective is to discredit NATO as an organisation capable of protecting its members. If NATO doesn’t move in defence of the Baltics, this will be the end of this organisation.

Which by the way Donald Trump called “obsolete”.

Indeed. These are the Kremlin’s strategic aims. If the Kremlin is given a free hand in Ukraine, they will target the Baltics, using the pro-Kremlin part of the Russian-speaking population, using hybrid methods of aggression and showing the world that NATO is incapable of doing anything. He will also prove that NATO cannot react to hybrid methods of warfare. This is a very serious threat, which I think is underestimated, in Europe and in the USA. If Putin succeeds with his plans, this would be a terrible blow to global security.

What are Putin’s abilities to influence the election results in countries like the Netherlands, in France, in Germany?

One of the objectives of my analytical review was to show how the methods of hybrid aggression are used by the Kremlin for influencing public opinion in various countries. Ukraine is just an example, but the same methods work in other countries. We know how Russia Today (RT) fabricates fake news, the aim being to influence public opinion in a way favourable to the Kremlin. We know about the provocations, about corrupting local leaders and opinion makers. Full of enthusiasm for Brexit, for Trump’s election, the Kremlin will most actively interfere in this year’s elections in Europe. First and foremost in France and Germany, but also in the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

The ultimate goal is to destroy the EU, isn’t it?

Yes, the ultimate goal is that the EU would stop its existence, that Europe would be constituted of heterogeneous and divided countries, busy with their internal problems, who are unable to adopt common positions to counteract the rise of Kremlin’s influence on the international scene.

And some of which would join the Kremlin’s sphere of influence?

Without any doubt.  As a minimum, Putin wants to re-establish aggressive control over, at the least, the post-Soviet space. These are huge geopolitical goals. And Putin still has the resources for that. The Russian economy may be a giant on clay feet, but unlike Western leaders, Putin doesn’t care about the economy or social problems. He’s only interested in geopolitics. That’s why he will do his utmost to re-establish the zone of Kremlin influence in the post-Soviet space, including in EU countries.

But what can the EU do?

Firstly, Europe needs consolidation and unity. Europe should be capable of solidarity on all key issues. And in the first place, on Ukraine. Europe should issue a message to the Kremlin, making it clear that Ukraine cannot be part of a deal. And that this is a question of principle.

Secondly, Europe should develop means of countering hybrid aggression. A key mechanism could be the personal sanctions. Not sectorial sanctions against the EU economy, but personal sanctions which would hold individuals responsible for waging hybrid warfare. In particular, this concerns not only the civil servants, the law-enforcement people, and the oligarchs, but also those active on the propaganda side. Because it is abnormal if today an opinion maker says on Russian TV that the USA should be bombed into nuclear ashes [Russian news agency head Dmitry Kiselyov dramatically said Russia can turn the USA into “nuclear ash” in 2014, see Reuters article], and that the next week, the same person takes his family for a holiday in Miami and opens a bank account.

But what can the EU do if tomorrow Putin and Trump meet and agree on a new Yalta?

Frankly, I don’t believe in such a scenario. I trust the US institutions. I believe that Trump cannot make such a decision by himself. Even if Trump would like to be pro-Russian, he could not. He can only be pro-American, and therefore he cannot be pro-Russian because those are different values.

Do you think that Russian propaganda and covert action, including cyber-attacks, substantially influenced the US election?

I don’t think the Kremlin had the goal of bringing Trump to the White House. They were preparing for the victory of Hillary Clinton. They had been preparing hacker attacks, propaganda, mainly with two objectives. First, to show their influence. They wanted to show that the Kremlin has the capacity to impact on US elections. The second goal was to discredit the US institutionally, the US elections, US democracy as a whole. It is not a secret they were preparing to challenge the election results in the case of victory for Hillary Clinton. But it happened that Trump won. I don’t think the Kremlin was instrumental in that. It’s the mistakes in the Clinton camp and the choice of populist rhetoric by Trump which made the difference. But the very fact that the Kremlin had an impact on US elections is worrying. And there is no doubt that there is enthusiasm in the Kremlin about Trump’s election, and a strong motivation to use the same methods in other countries.

Aren’t you afraid for your life? You live in Russia…

Of course, I take risks. I often receive strange messages, even from the protagonists in my report. Returning to Onyshchenko, we were able to prove his subordination to the Kremlin. We obtained a video recording of one of his TV interviews, in which four minutes of preliminary discussion was recorded. He was basically receiving instructions on what to say, by a Kremlin instructor, Viktor Zubritsky. I mention this in my report. And the next day, after the report was unveiled in Russia, I received a message from [Zubritsky], saying “I read your report. We have issues to discuss. When can I find you?” Looks like there is no outright threat? [Laughs] But the message is clear. And I receive a lot of messages from people with Chechen names.

You were close to Boris Nemtsov, weren’t you?  

We were friends.

What about Nemtsov’s murder? Are we ever going to learn who ordered it?

I’m sure that sooner or later we will know. The lawyers for Boris Nemtsov’s family are doing a great job in this area. Court proceedings are underway on the perpetrators of the murder, officers of Ramzan Kadyrov’s “Sever” (North) battalion are in custody. It’s understandable that there is no political will to search for those who ordered the murder, but it’s more or less clear where the trail is leading. The role of Kadyrov (the Russian-allied Chechen warlord, who runs the country) is clear. Was he the one who gave the order, or was there anyone above him? You know what I mean. But the fact that an investigation is on-going, gives me hope that one day those responsible for Nemtsov’s murder will end up in jail. I doubt that this could happen while Putin holds the power. But sooner or later, he will not be in power, and the guilty will be behind bars.

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