Dr. Marie Mendras, Professor in The Paris School of International Affairs division of Sciences Po University and a Research Fellow, CNRS⎯the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, and Dr. Bruno Tertrais, Senior Research Fellow, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, shifted the Forum’s focus to Russia and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)-Russian relations. They reported on the current Russian political system, shed light on the Ukraine conflict, and explored the dissonance between Russia and the West. They appraised Russia’s economic relationship with the United States (US) and the world, and investigated potential effects on the American states’ economies.
“The annexation of Crimea was the beginning of the end of President Vladimir Putin’s regime,” Dr. Mendras observed. “This resort to force was a sign of weakness of the Russian leadership and the Russian economy.”
But, Dr. Mendras continued, the further intentions of the Russian military are hard to decipher and difficult to predict. Noting that the facts in the Crimean situation have been overshadowed by emotion, she reiterated the realities. Crimea was controlled by Russia even before annexation, Dr. Mendras pointed out, with Russian control of the police and state institutions. Russians do not perceive the annexation of Crimea as a conquest, neither is it viewed as the start of reconquering and reconstituting the old USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).
Annexing Crimea was easy⎯its currency was then weak, the economy was handicapped by the recession, and inflation was on the rise, and average Russians saw their finances shrinking. At the same time, Russia perceived the European Union (EU) and the US as weak. It was a perfect scenario to provoke the Crimean action.
Decision-making in the Kremlin is opaque; it is the outcome of closed discussions among a few men. Furthermore, it is no longer safe to criticize or offer alternate views. Dissident voices are eliminated. The Russian leadership is simply disinforming itself about the realities on the ground.
After the ease of annexing Crimea, Russia believed that quiet support to several hundred men in Ukraine would be sufficient to re-enact the Crimean strategy and secure all of Ukraine for Russia. The plan backfired, and Russia had to send troops. The fact that Mr. Putin denies sending troops is another sign of vulnerability.
But Ukraine is not Crimea. Ukraine is an established state with stable institutions, self-determination, and duly elected officials. Ukraine also has the solid support of Western powers, and is 1 of 6 “sandwich states,” countries sandwiched between Russia and NATO, including Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.
In the past, Europeans considered these countries part of the Russian sphere and assumed Moscow would take care of them, but the coup attempt in Ukraine changed this. Europeans now see these countries as neighbors who are living in a pit of insecurity, under more and more corrupt conditions, and not moving forward with the changing world. Significant new efforts are being made to bring the “sandwich states” into trade with the EU.
After Ukraine, Europeans accepted greater responsibility for these neighbors. But the EU is not NATO, Dr. Mendras said. The EU could not use military force, but rather used economic instruments to constrain Russia, voting personal sanctions against the Russian ruling elite and economic sanctions against the Russian economy. “The EU is the first economic and trading partner with Russia,” Dr. Mendras reminded the Forum, so these sanctions had dramatic effects.
Mr. Putin and Russian leaders did not expect the storm of protest from the world community, including a United Nations (UN) vote of censure and sanctions imposed by many countries such as the US, EU, Japan, and others. This censure damaged Russia’s image and credibility, making the country an outcast in the international community.
Russia faces rising political and military costs of its Ukraine campaign due to diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions imposed by the EU, US, and NATO. International pressure on Mr. Putin is relentless, including a daily phone call from global leaders directly to Mr. Putin. Russia is slowing down operations in Ukraine in response to international pressure, Dr. Mendras concluded.
Dr. Tertrais shifted the Forum’s focus to relations between France and Russia and the EU and Russia. The West believed we had solved the European security problem, Dr. Tertrais noted, but this sense of security could be shattered by Russian aggression and annexation.
Mr. Putin has increased Russia’s military power since the 2008 action in Georgia, but it is still less equipped than NATO forces. The Western belief that Mr. Putin has a plan is false, Dr. Tertrais said. “He has a vision and tactics, but these can change. Putin is not a strategist.” Still, Russia cannot afford a military confrontation with the West, but could resort to cyber-warfare, he admonished.
Despite these issues, Mr. Putin’s Russia still has support in France, fueled by several factors and factions. Anti-US sentiment and pro-Gaullism see France as a balance between Russia and the US. Some romanticists want to revive memories of the old French-Russian alliance. Conservatives perceive Russia as in tune with their values, such as a rejection of same-sex marriage. A final driver of French pro-Russian sentiment is consumerism: “We’re broke. If we can sell to Russia, we’ll sell.”
European states have individual and different interests that make Russia more or less important for them. For Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece, major threats come from the South with floods of immigrants as well as from the Middle East. For the Scandinavian states, Russia is the major threat because of its proximity. The EU, therefore, is in the center of many challenges, and it is difficult for Brussels, Belgium, to make a single response. As a result, the EU was slow to impose sanctions even after Ukraine.
However, now the case is clear. “Russia is clearly no longer an ally of NATO,” Dr. Tertrais pointed out. “It is not an enemy, but it is an adversary.” NATO currently has no war plans to protect the Balkans from Russian encroachment, but such plans are made for deterrence and reassurance, he said.
“We must make it clear to Russia that the 1997 treaty seeking to integrate Russia into Europe is no longer valid. Russia has violated all the agreements. Mr. Putin must know that he will not find a political or military space where he can establish a basis for slowly encroaching on the sovereignty of former USSR countries such as the Baltic States by weakening their independence and strength,” Dr. Tertrais continued, noting that Russia has already opened an inquiry into the legitimacy of the Baltic States’ independence.
“Mr. Putin only respects power. He recognizes weakness and seizes it to his advantage. Only firmness and clarity of stance will be respected by him,” Dr. Tertrais said. The French and German governments are working together to create this firm stance. The French want to maintain communications with Mr. Putin, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel certainly understands Mr. Putin, despite his attempts to humiliate her, and she speaks with him on a regular basis.
Sen. Brian Bingman (OK): What is the current assessment of Mr. Putin and his regime?
Dr. Mendras: As Mrs. Merkel puts it, “Mr. Putin has lost touch with reality, he is living in a world of his own.” Mr. Putin is not rational. It is hard even for his advisors to work with him.
Mr. Putin has ordered the history of the Kremlin to be rewritten. In 1989, Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev advocated for laws that re-established historical truth in the USSR history books, even to the extent of revealing secret protocols between the Nazis and former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. But Mr. Putin has reversed this trend, demanding fictions that question the legitimacy and autonomy of the Baltic States and include anti-Polish sentiments.
There are 3 levels of attacks by Russia to which the West must be prepared to respond: propaganda, Russia’s denial of the history and sovereignty of the small former-USSR states, and the real security threat posed by Russia. The West must respond to each level appropriately and at the right time, recognizing that Russians currently live in a “Big Lie.” They have been convinced that Russia is powerful and that the West is threatened by and threatening to Russia.
In Russia, all the media are controlled, and dissident journalists have been silenced. The Internet is controlled, and television is totally monstrous, being used to broadcast false images such as fabricated Ukraine brutalities. If these 3 levels merge into a single Russian strategy, they could become a major threat.
Sen. Phil Berger (NC): To what extent does Russia influence Europe’s energy policies?
Dr. Mendras: Energy is no longer a major instrument of domination for Russia. In the last 5 years, Europe has harnessed diverse energy sources as well as conservation strategies and is not dependent on Russian oil. In the past, every country negotiated oil and gas prices for itself. The Ukraine crisis encouraged the EU to create a common energy strategy to lower oil and gas prices for all.
Dr. Tertrais: Russia is re-negotiating its energy contracts with China. Last year, sanctions put Russia in a weakened position, and China took advantage of this opportunity to get a better deal.
Mr. Tom Finneran (Moderator): Ambassador Levitte said Mr. Putin’s popularity is improving in Russia after the actions in Crimea and Ukraine. What are your views?
Dr. Mendras: Popularity requires competition and, in Russia, there is no competition. When pollsters ask the people, “Do you prefer Mr. Putin?” The only choices are “Mr. Putin or Mr. Putin.” Russia is governed by an authoritarian repressive regime that is more clannish than it was 15 years ago when Mr. Putin came to power. Russia has a fake pluralistic system with a few parties that rubber stamp the regime’s policies. It is a system without alternatives. Non-loyalists are blocked from the media⎯no one knows them, they do not exist.
Every day, the Russian people are told by the state propaganda machine that the entire world is against Russia and that the US is planning to wage war against them. They are told that people in the Ukraine eat their children and that without Mr. Putin, Russia will disappear. The polls do not ask people what they think, but rather what they feel. These feelings are of people in a besieged fortress. When Russia annexed Crimea, the Russian people were encouraged that something was happening. They felt this showed that Russia is strong and capable. This supposed “victory” was used to stir up nationalist sentiment. But the majority of Russians are not happy with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
Mr. Tom Finneran (Moderator): A recent Pew Poll found that NATO members are hesitant to prepare for war.
Dr. Tertrais: The Pew Poll reflects the caution of NATO and the fear of a return to a Cold War. The situation has re-emphasized the role and importance of NATO. Three years ago, Germans favored more positive political and economic relations with Russia. Today, Mr. Putin has lost the public opinion battle in Germany.
Dr. Mendras: Mrs. Merkel kept the German business community with her in solidly backing the German response to the Crimean incursion, despite the impact to German business. Among the French, the issue is more divided. The French people criticize the Russian government but not the Russian people. The French business community and political class are more divided in their opinions about Russia.
Sen. Eduardo Bhatia (PR): What are the relations like between Russia and China in sectors other than energy?
Dr. Tertrais: China and Russia are not likely to become real allies in any sphere, though they may have some joint tactical actions. There is too much distrust, imbalance of power, and divergence of interests. These factors will interfere with a true China-Russia alliance.
Dr. Mendras: It is difficult for Russia to make love to China. Russians are moving out of Far East Chinese areas and Chinese are moving in. This area is still sparsely populated. Three-quarters of the Russian territory is inhabited by only 12 million people. As Russia goes through its demographic decline, it is a weak competitor compared with China or India. Russia is compensating for this weakness with old style geo-politics such as the land grab in Crimea.
Sen. Martin Looney (CT): Ambassador Levitte expressed concerns about the military preparedness of NATO. Only France and the United Kingdom (UK) of the 28 EU countries have invested in their military.
Dr. Tertrais: Only the UK and France, who commit 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to defense, can support any long-distance military action. Poland and Germany have large, well-equipped military forces, but they are land-based. A bigger problem is that smaller countries hide behind NATO and do not invest in their own defense. We have the military power, but the question is “Do we want to fight and stand up to threats such as Mr. Putin and ISIS?”
Mr. Finneran (Moderator): There seems to be an increasing frequency of Russian jets and submarines crossing territorial borders. Is this a problem for NATO?
Dr. Tertrais: We are not afraid of Russia invading Poland or the Baltic countries, but we must make it clear through well-developed war plans that we will not tolerate any action.
Dr. Mendras: Yes, these intrusions and provocations are happening, and they are dangerous. To date, NATO’s response has been calm. But this is risk-prone behavior. The Kremlin is playing with fire. They are trying to provoke a military response, and then they can retaliate claiming that they are only defending themselves. This kind of brinksmanship requires fine tuning of policy and fine timing of reactions. Today, Russia has no military allies in contrast to the powerful western alliance. Russia has been ramping up its military investments, but with the economy slowed by sanctions and the low price of oil, budgetary limitations will constrain military investment.
Dr. Marie Mendras is a political scientist in the field of Russian and post-Soviet studies. She is a research fellow with the CNRS and CERI, and a professor at Sciences Po University’s Paris School of International Affairs.
She is on the editorial board of journal Esprit (Paris) and is a member of the Institute for Law and Public Policy (Moscow).
At CERI, Dr. Mendras conducts research on the Russian political system, elite behaviour and society, and Russian policies toward Europe. She is the head of the Observatoire de la Russie.
In 2016, Dr. Mendras will be a permanent Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, writing a collective report on Transatlantic relations and Russia’s Future. In addition, she will be a visiting scholar at Georgetown University German and European Studies Center.
Since 1989, Marie Mendras has been studying elections in Russia. She was part of the French Parlamentarians’ delegation or OSCE ODIHR missions in 1993, 1995, 1999, 2000 and 2003. She observed other elections as an independent scholar, including the presidential election in Ukraine in May 2014, and published extensively on the subject of elections and political legitimacy.
From 2008 to 2010, she was a professor in the Government Department of the London School of Economics and Political Science. In earlier years, she taught at Université Paris 1-Sorbonne, Université Paris 10 – Nanterre, Université de Louvain/Leuven, Ecole des Mines in Paris, and MGIMO in Moscow.
In 2010, Marie Mendras was Director of the Policy Planning Staff, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From 1983 to 1991, she worked as a part-time consultant for the Policy Planning Staff. From 1992 to 1998, she consulted for the Directorate for Strategic Affairs, Ministry of Defence.
Marie Mendras was educated at Essex University, Sciences-Po University and Institut des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris, SAIS-Johns Hopkins University, and Harvard University. She holds a doctorate in political science from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po).
Dr. Tertrais is a Senior Research Fellow at the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique.
His areas of expertise are International Relations and Geopolitics, Conflicts, US Strategy, Transatlantic Relations, Security in the Middle East, Security in Asia, Nuclear Proliferation, Nuclear Deterrence, Military Strategy.
Prior to his work at the Fondation, he was the Special Assistant to the Director of Strategic Affairs, Ministry of Defense (1993-2001); Visiting Fellow, RAND Corporation (1995-1996); Director of the Civilian Affairs Committee, NATO Assembly (1990-1992); and a Research Assistant, NATO Assembly (1989).
He is a member of the editorial board, The Washington Quarterly; a member of the editorial board, Strategic and Military Affairs; a contributing editor, Survival; and member, International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Dr. Tertrais is a graduate of the Institut d'études politiques de Paris (1984); Master's degree in Public law, University of Paris-X (1984); DEA in Comparative Politics, University of Paris-X (1985); Doctorate of the Institut d'études politiques de Paris (1994).
Other Foreign Relations articles:
Dr. Marie Mendras
Sciences Po University, Paris School of International Affairs
Research Fellow at the Center of International Studies (CERI)
Member of the Institute for Law and
Public Policy (Moscow)
The annexation of Crimea was the beginning of the end of the Putin regime. This resort to force was a sign of weakness of the Russian leadership and the Russian economy.
Decision-making in the Kremlin is an opaque discussion among a few men, and it is no longer safe to criticize or offer alternate views. Dissident voices are eliminated.
Europeans now see these former Soviet countries as neighbors who are living in a pit of insecurity, under more and more corrupt conditions, and not moving forward with the changing world.
Global sanctions and censure after the Ukraine action damaged Russia’s image and credibility, making the country an outcast in the international community.
Bruno Tertrais, PhD
Senior Research Fellow
Fondation Pour La Recherche Stratégique
Russia is clearly no longer an ally of NATO. It is not an enemy, but it is an adversary.
Mr. Putin only respects power. He recognizes weakness and seizes it to his advantage. Only firmness and clarity of stance will be respected by him.
Sen. Brian Bingman
Mr. Putin has lost touch with reality, he is living in a world of his own. Mr. Putin is not rational.
Russians currently live in a “Big Lie” of propaganda and controlled media.
Sen. Phil Berger
Energy is no longer a major instrument of domination for Russia. In the last 5 years, Europe has harnessed diverse energy sources as well as conservation strategies and is not dependent on Russian oil.
Popularity requires competition and, in Russia, there is no competition. When pollsters ask the people whether they prefer Mr. Putin, their only choices are “Mr. Putin or Mr. Putin.”
Three years ago, Germans favored more positive political and economic relations with Russia. Today, Mr. Putin has lost the public opinion battle in Germany.
Sen. Eduardo Bhatia
Sen. Martin Looney
The EU and NATO have sufficient military power, but the question is “Do we want to fight and stand up to threats such as Mr. Putin and ISIS?”
Dr. Marie Mendras
Dr. Bruno Tertrais
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