“Putin is convinced of the intrinsic fragility of the Russian state” – L’Express

Putin is convinced of the intrinsic fragility of the Russian

Investigative journalist specializing in the secret services, co-founder of the independent news site Agentura.ruAndreï Soldatov had to flee Russia in September 2020. Living in exile in London, he published with Irina Borogan Exiles, émigrés and Russian agents (Gallimard), an essay in which they look back on a century of turbulent relations between the Kremlin and Russian émigrés. For L’Express, this courageous expert – he has been described as a “foreign agent” and is on the list of people wanted by the Kremlin – analyzes the way in which Vladimir Putin, just “triumphantly” re-elected for a fifth mandate, could react in the coming months to the attack against the Crocus City Hall in Moscow, which left more than 140 dead. He fears more repression in Russia and does not rule out an escalation in Ukraine. Interview.

L’Express: After the terrorist attack that hit Moscow, Vladimir Putin first pointed the finger at Ukraine, without even mentioning the Islamic State group, which had claimed responsibility for the attack [NDLR, il a ensuite indiqué, lundi 25 mars, que la tuerie avait été commise par des “islamistes radicaux” qui fuyaient vers l’Ukraine] “. Is he looking for a pretext to trigger a second mobilization and justify even harsher strikes against Ukraine?

Andrei Soldatov: There is not yet a clear “narrative” emerging in Russia about the role that the Ukrainians are supposed to have played in this attack. Putin lets his propaganda machine aggressively point to Ukraine as the culprit – in the middle of war, it is always wise to demonize the enemy, it is a good way to mobilize the population… But for his part, by not mentioning Daesh, and by not openly accusing kyiv, the Russian president leaves himself room to maneuver. The Kremlin and the FSB are content to indicate that the terrorists had planned to leave Russia through Ukraine and that they were able to benefit from aid in this country. But without directly accusing kyiv or providing evidence of possible Ukrainian involvement. In this regard, it will be interesting to observe which way Putin’s speech will soon lean.

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I don’t think Putin has any interest in launching a second mobilization – necessarily traumatic for the population – for the moment. For him, today, the most intelligent strategy undoubtedly consists of waiting for the American election next November, which could see Donald Trump win, hoping that Ukraine will no longer be supported by the United States and that Europe will be divided. Launching a new large-scale offensive would represent a great risk for the Russian army and therefore for the political stability of the country. The fact remains that this question is in reality not military, but political. Today there is only one person who decides everything in Russia, and that is Putin. If he thinks, for political reasons, that it is important to move to a new, more brutal phase in Ukraine, he will do so. And no one will come to stop him in his country. For the same reasons, in the next six years of his new mandate, he could also attack countries other than Ukraine. The former Soviet republics are certainly in danger: Moldova, but also the Baltic countries.

Will the attack justify an intensification of repression in the country?

As soon as he was “re-elected” on March 17, the Russian president could be expected to intensify the repression. Putin owes his popularity above all to the war in Ukraine. He must therefore make a strong speech on the fact that the country is threatened by serious dangers and that he alone controls the situation and preserves stability.

He knows that it is the fight against terrorism which has forged his image as a “strong man” of Russia, since his arrival in the Kremlin. Since 1999, he wanted to show the Russian population that their response to terrorist attacks would be different from those of Yeltsin and Gorbachev. Putin, for his part, does not give in to pressure from terrorists or the West. And it is capable of fighting terrorism in all its forms. It is for this reason that his regime has called the LGBT community, or the members of Alexei Navalny’s organization [NDLR : le principal opposant de Poutine, mort en colonie pénitentiaire le mois dernier] of terrorists – as absurd as it may seem. The list of terrorist organizations has become impressive.

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Putin is convinced of the intrinsic fragility of the Russian state, despite the strength of the army and the secret services. And this for two historical reasons: the revolution of 1917 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Russian Empire had a very powerful police force, and the USSR had the KGB, but that was not enough to save them. He deduced that the Russian state and society must become completely impenetrable, so that the enemy does not interfere in its flaws – hence, in particular, the Kremlin’s absolute control over the media and the secret services.

Today, Putin is particularly obsessed with 1917: the combination of a war and a political crisis can lead to the start of a revolutionary movement. I’m sure that’s why he decided to kill Alexei Navalny before the elections – which are still considered, even in Russia, a time of political risk. Since the repression was very effective before the elections, I expect him to increase it further.

Is Putin, who brushed aside American warnings, likely to emerge weakened from this sequence?

This will have no effect on his power. To weaken someone, the pressure of public opinion must increase, but the institutions supposed to represent them – the media, Parliament, etc. – are either destroyed or very weakened.

Can the Kremlin regime continue to insist that Russia’s real enemy is the West, when it is Daesh which brutally strikes in Moscow?

Of course yes: he will be able to assert (not officially, but using Russian propaganda tools), and without any link to reality, that Daesh is part of a sort of conspiracy with the West and Ukraine. .

By focusing on Ukraine and repression, have the Russian secret services not abandoned the terrorist threat?

The FSB, one of the pillars of Putin’s power, is a very competent agency to carry out repression, intimidate the population, murder people (in Russia and abroad) or investigate crimes that have already taken place. It is helped in this by a vast national surveillance system. The four terrorists from the March 22 killings were arrested the next day. And after the attack on the Crimean bridge last year, the investigation was successfully carried out within a few weeks. But to prevent an attack, you have to develop completely different qualities. This requires creating a real government agency, capable of exchanging information within the country, but also with external intelligence services.

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However, in Russia, distrust is everywhere: between the different intelligence agencies, between colonels and generals; between the FSB and the population; and between FSB generals and the Kremlin. If you have a trust problem, it is very difficult to prevent terrorist attacks. Because you hesitate to transmit information to your superiors at times when you should act very quickly.

To make matters worse, Putin, as a former KGB man, considers himself the most competent intelligence officer in his country and so, before you give him bad news, you need to think carefully about how you are going to present things to him. This can lead intelligence officials to issue overly cautious alerts.

This problem has plagued Russian intelligence agencies for decades. But it becomes even more acute at a time when the war in Ukraine prevents any international cooperation. If the Americans share sensitive information with Moscow, the FSB will think it is a ploy and will be cautious. However, sometimes, with terrorist attacks, you have to act very quickly.

What reasons did Daesh, and in particular its Afghan branch, have for attacking Russia?

For years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the foreign intelligence agency have been pushing for a sort of rapprochement with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The former Russian ambassador to Kabul, Zamir Kabulov, who strongly supported this idea, now has a very important position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as Russia’s special representative in Afghanistan. Russia wants to be at the heart of power in Afghanistan. But Daesh is in open conflict with the Taliban. Why attack now, two and a half years after the Americans withdrew? This is one of the many questions that remain unanswered for the moment.