26 November 2019

Anne Applebaum on Poland, Putin and progress in eastern Europe

By Anne Applebaum

With the support of the Atlas Network, CapX is publishing a series of essays, podcasts and interviews on the theme of Illiberalism in Europe, looking at the different threats to liberal economies and societies across the continent, from populism to protectionism and corruption.

Earlier this year we spoke to the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Anne Applebaum about the rapidly evolving politics of eastern Europe, an area on which she is one of the world’s leading experts. You can listen to the interview with Anne here.

Poland is a country going through great turmoil – how would you say Poles are dealing with both their internal political strife and the potential for Russian aggression?

It depends which Poles, but Poland is very, very profoundly divided into really warring camps, people who not only disagree with one another, they don’t even agree on the facts of the day. They they see the world in very different ways. So that’s not that different from the United States where you have Fox News watchers and CNN watchers, you have a little bit of a similar thing.

At least half the country is extremely worried by the government’s attacks on the Polish constitution, by the government’s attack on its judiciary, and by the potential for future attacks on free media – there’s already talk of so called re-Polanisation of the media, and nationalisation of private business more generally. So, yes, there is a lot of concern. And then there’s the part of the country that is happy because it feels that it’s benefiting from the government’s social programmes.

I don’t know the degree to which it’s known, but the Polish government is nationalist in its language, but quite profoundly socialist in its economic policies and has done this enormous redistribution. Poland used to have one of the lowest rates of social welfare in the EU; it’s now, I think, the second highest. There’s been an enormous multiplication of benefits being distributed. Really, it’s a way for the ruling party to stay in power. This is not unfamiliar from Venezuela or Argentina. So, you know, part of the country for the moment is pleased with it, at least until until the money runs out.

How worried should we be about some kind of Russian incursion into eastern Europe, beyond what we’ve already seen in Ukraine?

I have to be careful how to say this because everything can change very rapidly in Russia. I mean, I am not afraid right now of an imminent Russian military invasion of a European Nato country because I think right now the Russians think they can win – meaning they can achieve their goals, their goals being to break up the EU and to break up Nato – they think they can achieve their goals without invading anybody.

And they are seeking to do this by promoting anti-European and anti-Nato political parties in Europe, by using social media disinformation campaigns, by using corruption to bend and shape the behaviour of certain countries. So, at this exact second, I’m not afraid of it.

Another one of the reasons I’m not afraid of it is that there has been in the last several years a build up of US and UK troops in the region, which I think has been really important and useful in demonstrating to the Russians that Nato expansion is real. In other words, we really do have troops there and we do care about it. So one of the reasons I’m not worried about the military is that I think the deterrent effect of British troops in Lithuania and American troops in Poland is real and is working. But I think the Russians also have a have a different strategy right now.

Do you think the Russian threat can be overplayed by people who think of Russia and the USSR as synonymous?

It’s funny. I mean, remember that we were so happy that the Soviet Union collapsed that we basically almost dismantled Nato. I mean, there were no US tanks in Europe in the early 2000s. We took out all kinds of troops and we really dialled down all of our militaries actually. And the current build-up and return to a different posture is, I think, based on real threats. I mean, we have Russian planes that seek to buzz the Swedish coast and enter British airspace and obviously we have the invasions of Ukraine and Georgia, which is proof that the Russians are willing to use their military. Then there are cyber threats, there are information war threats, and I think it is not illegitimate for us to respond to these things in a muscular way.

It is a really odd moment, because right now we don’t think we’re at war with Russia, even particularly in conflict with Russia. Russia barely figures in our daily lives  but the Russians do think they’re in conflict with us and so we don’t really have a choice. They are in conflict with us. They are seeking to undermine  our democracies. It might sound like science fiction to you, but it is real. This is actually their foreign policy. And so we have an obligation to take it seriously.

To what degree is Russian foreign adventurism a tactic to shore up Putin’s domestic standing?

Oh, I think all of this is about Putin and his place in Russia. I don’t think that the Russian people have any great quarrel with the British people. This is all about the Putin regimes interest in staying in power. And one of the things that he needs to do in order to stay in power is to prove constantly to the Russians that there’s no alternative, that the West offers no alternative, that Western democracies are corrupt, that Western society is degenerate. This is what you see on Russian television all the time now.

What they also would like to show is that Western institutions are meaningless, you know, this Nato thing is all rubbish and doesn’t really work. And so almost everything they do, once you understand that that’s their goal, almost everything they do then makes sense. I think the provocations to Scandinavia and the Baltic states are also partly designed to scare people here into thinking if Nato doesn’t react then ‘Well, look, Nato is not real. Maybe we need to do a deal with Russia, if Nato is not really going to protect us’. I mean, they’re trying to invoke fear, particularly in the East European countries as a way of forcing them out of the Western Alliance.

Looking at Putin and his clique, what do you think motivates them? Sometimes you see him portrayed as a kind of ideological post-Cold Warrior, but when you look closer it really looks a lot more like an old-fashioned racket.

I think racket is a much better way to understand it. It’s really a mafia state. And I think it’s mostly about power. Putin has used different ideologies at different times and of different kinds. Sometimes it’s Russian nationalism, sometimes it’s anti-Westernism. Sometimes he uses almost leftwing language about Western imperialism. So, you know, they’ll use whatever language they think is worthwhile. That’s how their political programme in Europe works. They’ll support really anybody who agrees with them, whether it’s the far left or the far right; anybody who’s disruptive, anybody who undermines the system, they’ll they’ll get behind them. So they’re not picky in terms of which side they’re on.

What do you make of the rise of Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky?

I watched several episodes of Zelensky’s TV programme [Servant of the People] and here’s the interesting thing about it; Zelensky plays this character, he’s a history teacher who gets angry at the system and is recorded kind of swearing, ranting about corruption, and then he’s accidentally elected president. Well, actually the values that he expressed in that programme, if they’re his real values – which of course, we have no idea – are quite attractive and quite Western.

In other words, it’s a cry for the little man to be heard in an oligarchic system and more power to be given to ordinary people. He’s been pretty clear, actually, since his election that he wants Ukraine to be aligned somehow with the West – I don’t know what specific arrangements are possible – that he sees himself as the leader of a Western country.

That, I think, is because that’s the majority view in Ukraine, very much the majority view, I think there’s some reason to hope that it will stick. I think he does not use angry rhetoric about Russia, which his predecessor [Petro Poroshenko] did, and he’s talked about finding some solution for the conflict. It has to be said I don’t know what exactly that will be, but I don’t think we’re dealing with someone who’s going to either sell out Ukraine or deliberately seek to start another war. I think he’ll look for some kind of middle line.

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Anne Applebaum is a journalist, author and visiting professor at the London School of Economics. Her 2004 book 'Gulag - A History' won the Pulitzer Prize.