As the movie about the slain Russian opposition leader plays in the theater next to us, let me start off by asking you whether you believe Boris Nemtsov had the potential to effect change in Russia?
I think he clearly had views and a vision for the country that corresponded to the initial expectations of the Russian people, i.e. a move toward embracing democracy, the rule of law and a free market. As the documentary, "The Man Who Was Too Free," suggests, Nemtsov was initially picked as the most likely successor to President Boris Yeltsin. However, later, under a different set of circumstances, the decision-making process was redefined and Vladimir Putin was promoted as Yeltsin's successor.
Before the movie you said that the West made a mistake in the early 1990s, after the Soviet empire's collapse, by treating Russia as it had treated Japan and war-ravaged Germany after World War II, i.e. by assisting them. Do you believe that the West had any other option then?
I think we can't speak about a mistake (in the treatment), but there was definitely a noble approach to Russia, trying to support it and promote profound democratic changes in the country. It was carried out with the intention to transform Russia later into a state like post-war Germany or Japan, a country that embraced democracy and the free market. At some point, however, Western leaders misinterpreted the real changes taking place in Russia, when the new president, Putin, embarked on a different path Western leaders hadn't promoted and hoped for.
I think this is where the question arises: Why did it happen, who made a mistake and at what stage? From my perspective, different kinds of developments were unlikely to have been expected because hypocrisy and complacency had overtaken relations between Russia and the West for a considerable time. Let's admit that there was too much wishful thinking and too little honest accounting between the two sides after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The West did not find it convenient to acknowledge that President Putin's Russia has been departing from the initial path of democratization and gradually tightening the screws over fundamental freedoms at home, while aggressively asserting its interests abroad. It all looked like a temporary fluke, but not a fundamental shift.
Russians are hugely disappointed in their authorities, yet Putin enjoys high support ratings across the country. How do you explain this?
Well, I believe there's one important factor that the West and Russia's immediate neighbors don't appreciate enough, i.e. the natural desire of the Russian people to recover the respect and pride of the nation. The transition from a Soviet planning system to a free market economy, from a one-party dictatorship to the multiparty system, is well-understood and highly appreciated from the perspective of a Lithuanian or anyone familiar with the Soviet system and anyone who had to go through this kind of transformation.
Unlike Lithuania, which managed to make the transition to the new system smoothly and fulfilled its aspirations of European Union and NATO membership, the reforms in Russia didn't yield satisfactory results for most people. In their view, they experienced too much suffering and too little positive change. As we in the Baltics enjoyed the fruits of reforms, the Russians continued to feel neglected and harmed by perceived American hegemony and the trans-Atlantic dictatorship. Once in power, Putin injected a sense of greater pride and self-confidence into the nation, albeit one that was accomplished through illegal means, such as the annexation of Crimea or the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Yet Putin demonstrated a stamina and political will as well as a capacity to use the Russian military to achieve the ultimate goal of putting Russia back on the world stage. This was shown not only through the illegal actions in Ukraine but also through military and political engagement in Syria. The latter helped Putin get out of isolation (following the Ukraine crisis) and reinstate himself as an indispensable negotiating partner for the Americans over Syria and the greater Middle East.
Russia hinges on its military might. Do you believe this will change anytime soon? With Putin still in power or with him out the Kremlin?
I think Russia will face a dilemma at some point. As a country, it has resources but very low productivity; its financial reserves have started to deplete, and the economy is underperforming due to a decline in the price of oil and because of economic sanctions. I believe the Russian economy will reach a point where Russia will have to make the choice whether to continue wasting much needed money in places like Syria or Ukraine or attempt to balance the books by embarking on internal structural reforms and restoring relations with the West, which can only come with a return to respecting the international rule-based system.
Do you believe relations between the United States and Russia have hit their lowest point?
I do think that West-Russia relations are indeed at the lowest point. On the other hand, any conflict, however unpleasant it might be, has its own timespan. We see that new urgent issues and priorities are appearing and Russia has a say as a U.N. Security Council member or a major regional actor.
There's a growing understanding that we have to live with Russia in a complex way. On some issues, like Syria and North Korea, we may find more commonalities. On the other ones, like regional and internal political freedoms, we will remain in an adversarial relationship for a considerable time. Western societies and leaders have to acknowledge that Russia has taken a different path of development, one marked by self-isolation from the West and an emphasis on military might. This will not change soon. We face a clash of worldviews that concerns core European values, such as freedom of speech or political pluralism. We also differ with respect to honoring World Trade Organization provisions. At the heart of this clash is Russia's continued rejection of the outcome of the Cold War and its insistence on a new security order based on its spheres of influence rather than on the free choice of nations such as Ukraine and Georgia to forge alliances and associations with the West.
But the most important thing is that we don't clash in a direct military conflict, which would have enormous multidimensional consequences. To me, it's obvious that Putin will stick to his worldviews until his last day in power. Yet I believe that we, as neighbors, have to be open to a certain kind of relationship with a view to better understand (Russia's) intentions and to seek to avoid worsening the security environment in Europe. At the same time, we have to stick to our principles, avoid the perception that the West is demanding, ensure unity within the EU and trans-Atlantic unity, and increase political and financial support for Ukraine.
Since annexing Crimea and making an incursion into eastern Ukraine, Russia hasn't proceeded with any new acts of aggression for the last three years. Does this mean that it doesn't want new conflicts and would rather mend fences with the West?
I think President Putin has shown his unique capacity to surprise by making robust strategic and tactical decisions. In no way should we in the West become complacent and give up our vigilance or underestimate our strategic calculations. What NATO is doing in deterring Russia and reinforcing the bloc's military position in the Baltics is of paramount importance. It's also very important that we address the loopholes of cybersecurity and confront hybrid meddling into the democratic processes of the West. Yet, as I said, it's important, being on the front line with Russia, that we maintain a certain kind of dialogue to avoid unintentional consequences as a result of a lack of basic information between the two sides.
We're speaking a day after U.S. President Donald Trump and Putin shook hands and spoke briefly in Vietnam. Do you think it's a sign that the two adversaries are willing to speak?
We still have yet to learn what they were talking about. Initially, the Russian media reported that the main topic of conversation was the Syria conflict, but I would be surprised if the presidents didn't touch on the topic of North Korea. The United States' resolute approach to the reclusive country may spur Russian and Chinese leaders to employ a set of political and economic levers to address the situation. I believe the two heads of state spoke in this manner: "Help me on this and I will help you on that." Who knows, but it's very possible that they also raised the issue of Ukraine against the backdrop of the unfulfilled Minsk agreement.
Russia insists that it defends a multipolar world in which Russia counterbalances American hegemony in the world. Do you buy this?
A unipolar approach to me is based on the principle that all nations, including Russia, abide by international law. In reality, however, we see that Russia vigorously attempts to challenge what it perceives to be a Western dictate on political and economic developments. Russia does outreach to China and also to the (other) BRICS countries — Brazil, India and South Africa. We see that Russia is promoting alternative institutions through it, such as the BRICS (New Development) Bank etc.
It remains to be seen where it takes us, but we may be witnessing a shift in global powers. Within 15 to 20 years the Pacific nations will be producing more than 50 percent of the world's gross domestic product. The shift of economic might is already moving toward China, but India and other growing economies in the region also have potential. I believe that what matters at the end of the day is not whether we live in a unipolar, bipolar or multipolar world, but that we all live under a unified international system of rules and that nations comply with these rules.
President Trump is staving off accusations stemming from alleged contact between some of the leading men in his presidential campaign and high-ranking Russian officials. Do you believe the congressional probe into Russia's meddling in the U.S. presidential campaign is politicized to some extent?
I don't think it's politicized. We have plenty of evidence, including revelations by the U.S. investigators and even by French President Emmanuel Macron, who, in a press conference with Putin, said bluntly that pro-Kremlin news channel Sputnik was biased and that Moscow was supporting the Brexit.
As independent Russia media reported, last year the Anti-Globalist Movement of Russia, which is funded by a presidential grant, hosted a congress of separatists from around the world. It brought together populist and separatist movements from Europe and America.
Russian disinformation and meddling in the internal affairs of democratic countries continues as illustrated by a recent statement from British Prime Minister Theresa May.
As Russia gets ready for a presidential election next year, do you believe the outcome of the election is already clear? Do you believe Putin has any vulnerabilities?
Everyone has vulnerabilities, including Putin. But the vulnerabilities he faces don't provide sufficient room for him to lose, simply because the others will not enjoy a level playing field: The other candidates won't have the Kremlin-controlled media's support, access to resources and so on. And, yes, Putin's popularity remains very high. Unfortunately, the Russian people do not have a fair choice.
You're one of few top-level EU politicians who's met Putin in person, and you even talked to him during an awkward situation when you were stuck with him and former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in an elevator in Brussels. You spoke about the encounter to the Nemtsov moviegoers earlier this evening and to the Lithuanian media, too. Can you recall the meeting for our international readers?
(Grins) I wouldn't call it an awkward situation, at least not for me. Everything happens. Especially after a tough meeting when two leaders cannot speak without a translator. While in the elevator and kind of ignoring President Barroso, President Putin started to complain to me about Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, asking why she always speaks so harshly to him on the world stage. My response was simple: "How can you expect her to talk friendly to you if you threaten Ukraine and introduce an embargo on Lithuanian agricultural products?" He commented tersely, "It's not me, it's the Russian business lobbyists who are trying to promote their particular interests and meddle in the work of the government."