As It Happens·Q&A

Putin will go to extremes to cement his legacy, warns Finland's ex-PM

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to make “Russia great again” in the eyes of his people — and he won’t hold back in pursuit of that goal, warns Alexander Stubb.

Alexander Stubb was involved in peace negotiations at the end of Russia’s war in Georgia

Russian President Vladimir Putin is focused on what he sees as 'making Russia great again,' says Finland's former prime minister. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

Story Transcript

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to make "Russia great again" in the eyes of his people — and he won't hold back in pursuit of that goal, warns Alexander Stubb.

Stubb has some experience in dealing with Putin. In 2008, as Finland's minister of foreign affairs, he was involved in peace negotiations that marked the end of Russia's war in Georgia.

He later served as Finland's prime minister between 2014 and 2015, and is now the director of the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Florence.

He spoke to As It Happens guest host Gillian Findlay on Friday, as Russia widened its offensive in Ukraine. Here is part of their conversation.

You've written recently about Vladimir Putin that quote, "We must now assume that his actions have no limits." What do you mean by that?

Right now he has a stated vision of a historic Russia from the 1800s, which means one language, one religion and one leader.

And he's also said that he wants to take over Ukraine, he wants to push back the frontiers of NATO in eastern and central Europe, and he wants to prevent Finnish and Swedish NATO membership.

And obviously, he doesn't hold back. 

You have dealt with him for many years in a number of different capacities. What conclusions have you come to about not only his motivations, but where his limits are?

I've been in the room, so to speak, with him four times, usually as a minister next to one of our presidents or our prime minister. I've dealt more, actually, with [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov. And of course, Sergei Lavrov sort of follows the mantra and the directions and the orders coming from Putin.

What we have to understand is that Putin is basically establishing his legacy at the moment. So he sees himself as, you know, [Joseph] Stalin, or Ivan the Terrible, or Peter the Great. He wants to go down in history — and sorry for the term — for making Russia great again. 

He saw the 1990s and the collapse of the Soviet Union as a big humiliation, so he'll do everything in his power to make his legacy look good from a Russian perspective, whatever that might mean.

Alexander Stubb, formerly Finland's foreign affairs minister and then prime minister, is now the director of the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Florence. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)

You have now said, as well, that Mr. Putin can no longer be appeased. And if that's true, how should Western leaders be dealing with him going forward?

Putin needs to understand that the West is not going to give up. But, of course, the means of doing it for us right now is, on one hand, providing arms to Ukraine and President [Volodymyr] Zelensky and, on the other hand, to go for this onslaught of sanctions. This is the only hard talk that he understands.

And is that hard enough?

We're not going to see a NATO intervention event there. We're not going to see an American intervention or a Canadian intervention, for that matter. So this is all that we can do at the moment. 

Basically in one week [Putin] achieved everything he didn't want to. He's seeing the Europeanization of Ukraine, the unification of Europe, the rejuvenation of NATO, the rejuvenation of the transatlantic partnership, and at the end of the day, perhaps … a reversal of NATO in Finland and Sweden. In other words, us, perhaps, eventually joining.

You have said that this is a man who knows no limits, but you've also just said that you think that he is starting to realize that perhaps he has miscalculated in Ukraine. Does that make him more dangerous?

The most peaceful [outcome], from his perspective, would have been that he would have just marched into Kyiv within 24 hours. But he didn't succeed with that. And he has to go back to the drawing board and wonder, "OK, what's going to happen next?"

I'm not a military expert, but from what I hear and I see, it's not exactly like the Russian military doing a good job at this particular moment, so he's probably trying to recalculate his strategy.

People have also said about him, quite famously, that he is most dangerous when he feels cornered, when he feels he has no options. Do you agree with that?

The sanctions are going to hit the economy, finance, politics, international institutions, transport, sport — which is big for Putin, by the way — culture, and sort of all walks of life. 

And then it becomes a question of resilience. How much discomfort can the Russian people tolerate? And never underestimate the capacity of Russians to do that. It's very much in their psyche. That's how they survived, for instance, the Soviet Union and poverty related to that. 

So he might feel cornered from the rest of the world, but I don't think he feels cornered from home.

It [may have] improved his popularity at home. There is a precedent for that, isn't there?

You have disinformation machinery in Russia, which is churning information and propaganda from morning to night. And we don't know what the real popularity ratings are. But quite often, when a leader goes into a war and there's a strong historic narrative behind it, there is this sentiment of rallying around the flag.

We just don't know how long that's going to last, and we also don't know what the generational impact of this is here.

Because, of course, you have a whole bunch of young Russians who, you know, they're internationally-minded and quite open, and they have more access to social media and the rest of it. Whereas then you have an older population. Of course, demography in Russia is quite tilted to the older folks. They only get state-driven TV and radio propaganda. So they truly believe that this is … a war of freedom or making Russia great again.

It's going to be difficult for all of those who think that, oh, the Russians are going to come out in the streets and overthrow Putin. I just wouldn't put my money there yet.

In the short term, what do you worry about most?

I worry about the people in Ukraine and the escalation of this war, and I also worry that the West will, if not turn a blind eye, but perhaps get bored with the war. I mean, this happens very easy. In international media and relations, we can only focus on one thing at a time. Syria is a good example. Who is looking at Syria anymore? Well, not too many people.

And you know, guerrilla warfare can be long. It can be brutal. So I don't think, you know, Putin is going to get out of this easy. 

What I, of course, then fear is the use of, say, chemical weapons because that's what he did in Syria.

There are a lot of worrying elements here — a lot of things that, you know, keep us up at night. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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