Hromadske Sunday Show is back this week from a different location! We traveled to Latvia to bring you interviews with the world’s leading Russia experts attending this year’s Riga Conference.
Nataliya Gumenyuk is catching up with Mikhail Fishman, Russian political analyst and anchor at TV Rain and Kadri Liik, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. They will discuss European security after it Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by Russians who claimed to be tourists, but were recently outed as top GRU officers - one even a highly decorated “Hero of Russia.”
Nataliya Gumenyuk (NG): Misha, you're based in Moscow, Kadri, you're based in London. I had the chance to be in London this week and the day when the papers came out with the news that Boshirov, one the suspects in the Skripal case, that he works for the GRU. It was all over the place. But how is this story being discussed now in Moscow and in London? We also found out, according to Bellingcat and The Insider, that he was fighting in the war in eastern Ukraine.
Mikhail Fishman (MF): And his real name is Chepiga. And he is a Hero of Russia, according to all the papers they got, and it looks very, very impressive of course. And if he is a Hero of Russia, that means that he was awarded this award and it's a presidential award, and it means that, in the Kremlin, they know him because it's their job to award this Hero of Russia status. So, for them, it's kind of a tricky situation now because they have to respond somehow. And Mr. Peskov, Putin's press secretary, he has found himself in a very difficult position answering a number of questions: "Did you look in your archives in the Kremlin for who is this guy and where is he now?
NG: Yeah, he has this kind of thing like: "Oh, you know, a lot of people look alike, you can find Lenins and Stalins, lots of people look like Lenin and Stalin..."
MF: Which is a very weird argument, actually, because yes, there are various Lenins on Red Square in Moscow, but they are real people. These guys are disguised as Lenin. So the question here is: who is disguised as who? Chepiga as Boshirov or Boshirov as Chepiga. Who knows that? So that's a weird argument, I would say.
NG: Kadri, what is the discussion in London? What could follow this situation? And what does this real name mean?
Kadri Liik (KL): I think that London feels quite vindicated because their version of what happened in Salisbury has been beautifully backed up by [Britain's] own investigation, as well as Bellingcat's. First, there was the British investigation, and they showed us how two people turned up in London and Salisbury, and flown from Moscow and flown back to Moscow. That was very convincing, and that was exactly what I had expected the British police to provide us following what happened in the spring. And then Bellingcat took over and exposed the supposedly real identity of one of the suspects, and that made it even better. So I think London is quite happy where we stand in terms of the investigation. [Concerning] the next steps, what should follow, it's less clear. Some people in London say that there should be additional sanctions towards Russia because of that, but that is, I think, hard to do because European sanctions against Russia are all linked to Ukraine and the Minsk agreements. I think they are solid, but it would be very hard to find unanimity to upgrade or to downgrade. So I don't think adding additional sanctions is doable. Plus, there is a feeling that expulsions of diplomats that followed the Salisbury incident in spring that was already something quite big – and it was a big thing. I mean, by standards of expulsions, that was huge. So I don't think there is unanimity in Europe, or in the West, to do something much in addition. But the question, of course, how to deal with Russia, who does such things in other people's countries and doesn't want to be a responsibility. How do we behave [towards] that? That question is there, and that is not only even London's question. I mean, the Dutch are having their own investigation into MH17, and that is going into court, so things are happening in multiple places.
NG: Misha, how does it feel in Moscow? I remember, we talked with you, it was just before the presidential elections, and it was when the story was ongoing, and there was a feeling that there was something scary, that there would be strong, tough actions from the West, now there is more evidence, but are people really confused? Are people expecting something new? I know people are laughing, a lot of people are laughing at that, but, in the end, it's not really funny.
MF: It's not funny...
NG: It's awkward...
MF: Yet it is because the way the Kremlin dealt with the whole story is nothing we have seen before. Just nothing. It's actually very different. I remember when the whole Litvinenko incident happened, Lugovoy, who was the main suspect in this murder, he is a real human being with his own passport, with his own [presence], and the message that... Well, of course, they were not cooperating with the British, but they were sending the message, back then, in 2007, that he didn't do it. That was the message. We didn't do it. Well, it could be convincing, or not so convincing, but the message was that the Kremlin, or this Lugovoy guy, or us, whoever, we do not have everything to do with it. We didn't murder Litvinenko. That was the message. Now it's totally different. Now the message behind this interview, and all that followed, now the Kremlin has to deal with this new identity of the main suspect in the whole story. And the way they deal with it is that they deliver a totally different message. Those who were not convinced that Russia [is] behind it are now convinced. That's the outcome, that's what they achieved, and the message: yes, we did it, but still, you can't 100% prove it, and there is nothing you can do about it. That's the message, the main message from the very start, when... And actually, Putin started it because he took the responsibility, he personally invited Boshirov and Petrov to take the floor.
NG: Why do you think he personally invited them? Why would they use that kind of frame that it was Putin who invited them?
MF: He probably sees it as his own challenge, as his own job, that he has to do it because it's about him, somehow.
KL: He said so in an interview that these people could come out. To me, there are still things I don't understand about that story. I mean, first, why was it necessary? Because, unlike many others, Skripal was an exchanged spy and they have been safe, immune, so far. So why go after him? I still find it quite extraordinary, and I don't know the reason. And why send such a high-level person as that Chepiga seems to be, a colonel, decorated Hero of Russia? That's a big deal, so why? And yes, why handle it the way they are handling it? If the point is to send a message, then that makes sense, because a message sort of adds up – we did it. But the question of why is still not answered, to me.
NG: For Ukrainians, it's obviously important to mention that these are the same people. It's not some separate war against the West, but, you see the guy was fighting in Donbas and doing other things overseas. What can this connection influence, at least in the discussion? The connection that UK-Russia – I would say – conflict area is somehow done by the very same people? I know that Ukraine is no longer popular in the Russian media discussions.
KL: Actually, I think that if these people work for the GRU, they go wherever they are sent to. And the GRU works in different regions. So, in that sense, you're like soldier, you go where you are sent. So, in that sense, I wouldn’t really see a special meaning there, although, all that you said seems to be true.
MF: And it's still not an established fact. It's very likely, yes, that they somehow took part in some military operation in or close to Donbas somehow. But it's what the Bellingcat and The Insider figured out. There is no source who actually brought it through. Yet.
NG: We definitely still see some denial, but speaking about the more official side, are they more in denial but confident, in denial but now in panic mode? What is the feeling about the conflict with the West, with the UK, concerns that there will be more sanctions, or, is it just taken for granted that that's the new reality?
MF: You mean the Kremlin?
NG: Yes. I mean the Kremlin, or at least the people we can speak to, at least a bit of from the insiders.
MF: Dmitriy Peskov, who is the only person really taking thing whole thing on himself during the last few days, he remains calm as a fish, basically, and he just denies everything the way he can. I had the impression that they were quite nervous about it back then, in March. I could be mistaken, and they probably were ready. But I had this impression. Now, it looks like they basically just don't care. That's the impression that we get in Moscow that they don't really care how probable, plausible, the whole thing that they show as their argument. They just don't care. Whatever. Whatever you think about it, it's your own choice.
KL: Yeah, the way they have handled it is amazing in some ways. I followed very closely what the Russian MFA did in the spring, and they gave that briefing on chemical weapons, which was a complete disaster. This arrogant language, the way they compared Salisbury to MH17, I mean, what does that communicate to the West? You compare it to MH17 – come on, guys. But, I assume that the MFA also did not have proper instructions at the time. They didn't really what happened, who went there and why, so they just tried to fight it off as best as they could without really having any knowledge as to what they are dealing with.
MF: Before the whole follow-up happened, the latest one, two latest ones, they apparently could have dealt with yesterday's special commission on chemical weapons if they would want to avoid this second wave of sanctions coming from the Americans in November, or at least somehow try to play it softer. They had these resources, they could have avoided the major storm, but they did nothing.
KL: But also, I think the second wave of American sanctions was also largely inspired by Trump's meeting with Putin in Helsinki, and the way they addressed the election meddling. I mean, Trump accusing his own special services and siding with Putin, that infuriated the Congress, so I think the sanctions were sealed at that moment.
NG: How does London feel and the UK leadership in this situation? To what extent is there also a discussion there that you can't protect us on our own soil? How serious is that? Because maybe someone can afford not to care about what the public thinks, but does it matter to the British public? And also for internal politics in the UK?
KL: It does matter, but I think the public feels safe. I mean, it's unfortunate that one person has died, but I think that on the fieldwork level, the British police have informed the public pretty diligently, and I actually admire the job they are doing. My respect towards British politicians is somewhat shaky, but towards rank and file policemen, I have profound respect, and they do their job professionally, and that includes the due warnings, sealing off areas if needed, giving information. I think they have handled it well, so in that sense, the whole situation is under control, the general public understand what happened. It's rational. It's not something that when something is happening, you do not understand. There is talk, however, that maybe the UK has allowed in too many foreigners with unclear aims. And that's mostly about Russian money in the city of London; the property they have bought, the companies. So people are looking into that, what is it doing there, but the question as to whether it leads to a proper clean up, that London badly needs, I would say. I rent a flat in London, I know what the real estate prices are like, and they are like that also due to foreigners, Russians, wealthy Arabs, who just deposit their money in London. But many people benefit from it as well, so it still remains to be seen as to what extent they will really clean up the business environment.
NG: Misha, how do the oligarchs today, these billionaires who have a lot of real estate, maybe less in the US, but there are more and more sanctions coming. There were cases where Switzerland would not give citizenship to Abramovich...Because it would be bad for their public image. Do you know if the Russian oligarchs, who are close to the powers, feel that it's not business as usual, so it's not so easy for them to go to London, or other capitals, that it's better to stay home or move somewhere else?
MF: I don't know, but I assume that they feel pretty much unsafe. Those who made the top 10-20-30 on the Forbes list, for sure. They actually are between two evils, let's say, now because their assets and their business activity in the West is now risky and they have to evaluate these risks and, well, everyone saw what happened with the Deripaska already recently. That was very impressive. But what is the answer to these risks? Come back home? I imagine no one really wants that also. So that's a real problem and, in this fight, everyone is on their own, I would say. So that's how they will deal with that. I think that it's still slightly exaggerated that they are under real fire and pressure, and they will have to leave, all of them. I don't think this is the case. But still, the risks are growing, and they will have to deal with them.
NG: Do you see that there is any more movement on doing something, particularly with these politically exposed persons from Russia and the region?
KL: I don't know how far it goes. It's clearly a bigger topic, people talk, people show their houses in London, there is even a thing called Kleptocracy Tour, you can take a tour in London and visit all the houses that have been bought for stolen money – including, I believe Ukrainians. Yeah, I'd like to do that one day, that should be very interesting. But, as to what extent it will amount to tough action, that remains to be seen. And also, I don’t think it's... It's actually a British question. I don't think it is European because these things are under domestic legislation largely, so it's up to the local politicians and British politicians are not in the best of shape – to put it mildly. They are bogged down with Brexit, that is going nowhere, [they are at] loggerheads, so what is the political capacity to really act? We'll see.
NG: One person who is based in London and is also extremely rich, but is a dissident today, is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was here, in Riga, yesterday night. Kadri, you were moderating the session with him, what is your impression? How would describe all this... We've been coming to this conference for a couple of years already, and, of course, there are more connections in the Baltic states, you have speakers from Russia but rarely representing the government...
MF: Last year there was someone representing the government...
NG: Yeah, now less and less. And, for instance, experts mentioned that this year, when there was a big conference in Ukraine, the YES conference, there were no Russians at all, although five-seven years ago there were really a lot. But what was your impression? Because, for a lot of people, it was all the same discussion, there was chronology, it's more or less the same story about how powerful is Putin, but what do you think? What have you learned?
KL: You always learn something, but it can be quite little because people like me spend their days watching Russia. I mean, it cannot be that you learn a lot, that would mean that you have done your job badly. But I think Khodorkovsky, of course, was interesting to our audience, and his vision for the future of Russia, how it seemed like he wanted to provoke the Russian regime into a sharper standoff with society and the political regime he imagines, sort of, non-party parliamentarians and something based on regionalism, I find it unrealistic, not even desirable. I don't think that strong clashes between power and society are necessary, I think the Putin regime needs to lead the state in a different way. But, I think for many people it was interesting and relevant to listen [to] because Khodorkovsky is still a person in Russian politics even if he is not in Russia, but trying to influence things from abroad. So, in that sense, I think people learned something. And also today's discussion. I liked that one even better in a way, about Russian history and what makes Russia – Russia.
NG: Can you tell us to what extent Khodorkovsky is influencing things in Russia and how he's seen in Moscow? Is he really a player or just someone who is now far away and doing these media activities?
MF: Yeah, well, let's not exaggerate, of course, his influence on real political movements and developments. Of course, he has his some kind of stake in Russian so-called "non-system opposition," but what is it, the whole "non-system opposition" and opposition in Russia? Let's not exaggerate his influence. Though, he has some, at least. The problem is that there is a specific, very unfair in fact, evaluation of Khodorkovsky in Russia based on his "oligarch" past. Yet, people, even from the liberal camp, do not trust him. I know many people like that, and among liberal independent journalistic circles as well. It comes back to the early 2000s, when he had this image of being a very harsh and strong oligarch, who does not really want to be liked so much, to that kind of image, it still stands. I think it's a very unfair evaluation of Khodorkovsky, even getting back to the early 2000s, but that's apparently the reality. It, of course, makes things more difficult for him to try and bring people together, to try to build coalitions or somehow, at least, exchange. He has this problematic image, and it doesn't help him, unfortunately.
NG: My final question is about Oleg Sentsov because it's not that popular anymore, particularly in western media because it's too long, he's almost 140 days into a hunger strike, he is critical condition. And it looks like nothing is working, neither talks with Merkel, Macron talking to Putin. I remember when the hunger strike was announced, there was some movement among the liberal Russians, they were talking, there was some activity, there were calls. What is it like now? Because Ukrainian society feels powerless. There is no way Ukrainian society can influence Russian politicians or Vladimir Putin. So there is a bit of hope that maybe this story would be bigger in Russia, but it's declining. What do you think? Who are the players to influence?
MF: It became quite big and, yes, Macron was personally involved, they discussed it a few times at least, they even exchanged some views on how to solve this problem apparently, according to recordings of their last phone conversations. And yet nothing happened. Well, Russian society is as powerless as Ukrainian [society], as you clearly understand, so not much can be done. I think that it could be that this poise that Russia has taken on the global scene: we don't care. Probably Sentsov's issue could be also influenced, sort of, by this poise, this position that Vladimir Putin, maybe, doesn't really care about what will happen with Sentsov. And this is the worst scenario that we could have.
NG: I feel that this case is extremely symbolic for that, that the West is using all its power. Of course you can always say it's too difficult to solve the Crimea and the Donbas [issue], but here it is the destiny of one person, and still, top European leaders can't do anything. What could the discussion be, as a policy analyst?
KL: I don't know. It is true that European leaders have tried to raise it with Putin, also Merkel has, as far as I know, and if that doesn't work then I don't what else can be done. But I think, still, it's something that the Kremlin doesn't understand well is that such things also have an accumulative effect. You get away with one thing – you get away with Litvinenko, you get away with MH17 – but, in the end, it gets you. It's not like you start from a clean page each time. I think over time it will translate into the totally transformed attitude towards Russia, totally different Russia strategies, and that I think we are yet to see.