This interview was conducted by Samuel Ramani, an MPhil student at the University of Oxford.
You began your journalism career in Moscow in 1976 and for decades, you expressed opinions at odds with the Kremlin. But you were only expelled from Russia in 2013. What explains the timing of your expulsion? Does this indicate capacity for free political discourse for foreign journalists is even more restricted now than it was under the Soviet regime?
David Satter: First of all, there was an attempt to expel me during the Soviet era. It was only when the Soviet Union was threatened with the expulsion of two of its journalists: a British journalist and an American journalist that they decided to allow me to stay. I think the real comparison is with the situation that existed earlier in the post-Soviet era. In that time, there were no expulsions of major journalists and in fact, the Russian authorities liked to point out that not a single American had been expelled after the fall of the USSR. There were some people close to the regime who pointed to me as an example of how tolerant the regime was, and how ready it was to tolerate free expression.
After the events began in Ukraine, I think there was a change in the attitude of the Russian authorities. The Russians authorities began to feel their efforts to depict Russia as a country that was part of the civilized world were not going to be sustainable, and they had to act in a way that was more in keeping with their true nature. The future of the regime to a certain extent was now under threat, and they saw that threat emanating from Maidan. Even though it was in another country, they fully recognized that the example of the population overthrowing a corrupt regime could be duplicated in Russia. So this led to a sea change in thinking inside the regime, and one of the earliest examples of that change was my expulsion.
You have conducted extensive research on the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings. Do you believe that the FSB was exclusively responsible for the bombings or do you feel that the bombings were carried out in conjunction with other Yeltsin regime and Duma officials?
David Satter: I think that the bombings were carried out at the behest of the Yeltsin entourage and that the FSB was the agency that carried it out. We do not know all of the details of who knew what or who was involved and to what degree. We know whose interests were served, and we know that as a result of the apartment bombings a war was conducted in Chechnya. The bombings elevated Putin from an unrecognized bureaucrat who had no chance of winning the presidency into Russia’s defender and a national hero who successfully prosecuted the war in Chechnya, avenged the apartment bombings and was overwhelmingly elected as president. The bombings transformed the political situation in Russia completely and in that respect they were very, very convenient.
In your opinion, what is the extent of public knowledge of possible FSB involvement in the Moscow apartment bombings? And have opposition movements in Russia discussed the bombings in their anti-Putin campaigns?
David Satter: This is a very delicate question because the apartment bombings implicate the Yeltsin regime, and many of the people in opposition to Putin had positions in the Yeltsin regime or they were in some ways sympathizers with it. Therefore, it is an issue that many people in Russia do not want to touch. It is an issue that people talk about but are reluctant to raise publicly. But it exists below the surface and could become a major issue under the right circumstances.
Do you agree with Luke Harding’s and Bill Browder’s depiction of the Putin regime as a “Mafia State” or kleptocracy? If so, do you feel that the kleptocracy has gotten worse from the Yeltsin era to the Putin era?
David Satter: The title of my second book, which came out in 2003, was called the Rise of the Russian Criminal State. It was based on evidence up until 2002, so even at that early stage, the perception of Russia as a Mafia State was not particularly alien to me. It is a kind of Mafia structure; it is a gang but it also possesses certain very sinister post-Communist features, such as a lack of respect for human life and willingness to sacrifice their own people. And not just sacrifice them, but murder them. Surely, it is an organized criminal group that is in control.
I am not sure that kleptocracy has gotten worse but the locus of corruption has shifted from gangsters and oligarchs to the government apparatus. Government institutions have become stronger but they are not honest. Putin has been able to retain loyalty of local officials because in each locality, there remain bands of thieves who uphold the regime. Electoral fraud is being used to maintain loyalty as each local leader is responsible for a specific electoral result that they will produce no matter what the actual votes indicate. Many Russians, like Ukrainians under Yanukovych, increasingly feel like there is no access to justice. The money, that used to be paid as protection for criminal gangs, is now paid to government bureaucrats. I would not say that corruption is worse under Putin than under Yeltsin, but it is just corrupt in a slightly different way.
What is your outlook on the long-term survival prospects of the Putin regime? Has Russia’s declining economic growth since the 2008 financial crisis encouraged a more belligerent foreign policy; and what explains Putin’s high popularity despite his calls for economic self-sacrifice?
David Satter: It is true that Putin remains popular, but that popularity is likely overestimated by official opinion surveys, and the upsurge in support for the regime can largely be attributed to the chauvinism that followed the annexation of Crimea. Public opinion poll numbers are fluid in Russia however- look at the case of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov who initially had a 90% approval rating compared to just 4% for the nearest opposition candidate but ultimately fell out of favor. Economic growth has undoubtedly declined in Russia since the 2008 financial crisis compared to Putin’s first two terms as president, but I do not think the economic situation was a crisis large enough for him to turn to foreign policy as an alternative source of legitimacy. Russia ultimately cannot create a diversified economy without liberalizing its society; it’s a country dependent on oil prices and has all the classic hallmarks of a Third World country.
Despite this, Putin still emphasizes that the standard of living for Russians has risen immensely since 2000, so I do not think Putin has to look to foreign adventures to compensate, as that would be dubious in most cases.
Do you think that the escalating financial costs associated with international sanctions and rising Russian casualties in the Ukraine conflict will eventually provoke unrest against the Putin regime?
David Satter: Putin’s emphasis on economic self-sacrifice will wear off eventually, when daily hardships continue to mount and the wisdom of invading Ukraine gets challenged. Attacking Ukraine was initially popular because it appeared to have been achieved without cost, and few casualties. But now there are immense casualties that are being hidden by the population, because Russia is concealing the extent of its military presence in Ukraine. Casualties are likely to continue to mount and the Russian standard of living could decline sharply. Therefore, there are fault lines in the Putin regime, it is only a matter of time before they are exposed, but Putin’s ultimate fate lies in the relationship between the population and the officials.
You mentioned that Russia is concealing true casualty levels in Ukraine. In light of a German report which predicted 50,000 casualties and other less extreme estimates that show higher casualty levels than official statistics, do you believe that the death toll in the Ukraine conflict is significantly higher than the 6,000 or so being reported?
David Satter: It is possible. I do not have enough information to say definitely one way or the other though.
So you have discussed the possible triggers for a bottom-up rebellion against the Putin regime. But do you think that the regime could alternatively collapse as a result of elite defections? Has Putin pre-empted this possible outcome with a succession plan after 2024?
David Satter: It is possible that Russian political elites could overthrow Putin, but they would lead a revolution that will likely not be democratic. Elite defections could rise if the political leadership feels its economic interests are being threatened by Putin’s policies. The likely leaders of an elite-level revolution would likely come from the security services or the army or from regime apparatus itself, rather than from oligarchs. I do not think that Putin necessarily intends to step down in 2024, and the succession process is not something that greatly affects his decision-making.
Turning to the Ukraine conflict, do you feel that the Russian decision to annex Crimea was based primarily on geopolitical and strategic concerns (such as preventing NATO expansion) or was it primarily triggered by regime security fears?
David Satter: While Ukrainian membership in NATO would be uncomfortable for Kremlin decision-makers due to the persistence of old attitudes, I believe NATO expansion is a rationalization to mask the actual, much more fundamental reasons for Russian involvement. The historical handover of Crimea and Sevastopol have played into popular support for the war but not in actual strategic decision-making; Russia retained a seventeen-year treaty for the lease in Sevastopol that was working effectively, so I do not think that was a major motivator.
I think the Russian invasion of Crimea was primarily motivated by regime security concerns, because in 2008, Putin declared in an interview with German television that there was no ethnic conflict in Crimea and that he respected the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Putin was a backer of the Yanukovych regime and Yanukovych’s Party of Regions was firmly committed to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. I think developments in Ukraine would not have been an issue, had popular protests failed to remove Yanukovych from power and Putin’s military intervention aimed to prevent the fall of Yanukovych from becoming a model for demonstrations against the Russian regime.
Do you believe Western powers should emphasize the economic reconstruction of Ukraine as a means of containing Russia? Or do you believe that the EU and US should provide lethal arms to Ukraine instead of focusing on economic development and humanitarian aid?
David Satter: I agree a strong Ukrainian economy would definitely be an important factor in restraining Russia and also making the Ukrainian example attractive to Russians. In order for economic reconstruction to succeed, Ukrainians must seriously work to confront corruption. I also think that we should provide lethal arms to Ukraine, as Ukraine is a target of foreign aggression. The Russian government continues to insist that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine and we need to provide Ukraine with the means to defend itself. Lethal arms can make a big difference in dissuading Russia from attacking and therefore the argument that the provision of arms would provoke aggression cuts both ways. I believe it is the absence of arms that is provoking Russian aggression.
What is your outlook on the possibility for a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine conflict, and how can peace in Ukraine be achieved?
David Satter: I think a successful peace settlement for Ukraine is possible but we need to uphold our principles. Our principles implore us to defend the sovereignty of a nation under attack and preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Russia wants the sanctions to be removed, but we have to not come to Putin as a supplicant like John Kerry did. For peace to be achieved, we have to offer Russia resistance. We cannot create an agreement on the basis of trust but we need to raise the costs of the Putin regime’s aggression.
In addition to diplomacy, can cultural exchanges be effective in improving relations with Russia?
David Satter: I think there is nothing wrong with cultural exchanges, some people might find that they have opened their eyes, but we should be careful not to overestimate their effectiveness in changing people’s attitudes. In the past, veterans of student exchanges came back to Russia to become propagandists. Once students return to Russia, they are subjected to a whole different set of pressures.
Final question. You mentioned earlier the importance of raising the costs to deter Russian aggression. Do you believe Russian military aggression will stop at Ukraine or will it extend to the Baltic States, as Lithuania especially has been feeling threatened?
David Satter: I do not think that Russia has any important strategic interests to justify an invasion of the Baltic States right now. Having created the Pandora’s box of nationalist chauvinism, they have created pressures that could push them in that direction though, especially if the regime perceives itself to be threatened internally.