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Paris university Russian expert: ‘Putin’s regime is in survival mode’

Professor Marie Mendras, at Paris’ Sciences Po University, gives an insight into Vladimir Putin’s mindset and the consequences of the war in Ukraine

French President Emmanuel Macron (Left) has strongly condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine Pic: ApostolisBril / Shutterstock

“The Putin regime is in survival mode,” Professor Marie Mendras, a political scientist and Russia expert at Paris’ Sciences Po University said on the day Russia invaded Ukraine last week (February 24). 

“[The regime] is guided mostly by survival, hatred, vengeance. 

“They absolutely have no ambition whatsoever to conquer Ukraine or Belarus or all the Baltic states. Because if you conquer, you need to govern. 

“And Putin is not even able to govern Russia or the Republics of the North Caucasus.”

She was speaking as part of an online, on-the-record discussion organised by the Anglo-American Press Association in Paris (AAPA). 

Here, we set out parts of that discussion, based on a transcription produced by the AAPA and slightly edited to make it more succinct or accurate. 

Professor Mendras answers questions on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motivations, his domestic support, where she sees the war going and what Europe’s response will be. 

Read more: President Macron to make TV address to nation on Ukraine war at 20:00

Thoughts on Putin’s state of mind…

“What we’ve been struggling with now for a few years and in particular in the last year is  a man who lives in his own mental construction and pretends that his country’s besieged, that he is besieged, enemies are everywhere, Ukrainians are the enemy, and so he’s fabricating narratives. 

“He is also the champion of fake news, subversion, and disinformation. Now the problem is that most of us and most of our governments have not had the courage or the judgement to take the psychology and erratic behaviour of the man very seriously. 

“And so for too long we, I mean our governments, have been trying to find excuses for his misbehaviour, both inside his own country and outside his own country. 

“For many months…[Putin has been] lying every day, saying ‘of course I don’t want to go to war’, but at the same time continuing with the arms build-up. 

“So we’ve all been at a loss to understand whether it was a real strategy, a big plan, or if he was just hoping to get a few concessions from Kiev, from us, which explains our long, arduous, diplomatic dance with him in recent weeks.”

What does this mean for Putin in Russia?

“It means nothing at home [in Russia] because Russia has no public opinion. I’m a political scientist, you cannot have a public opinion in a dictatorship. 

“You may have some sort of scattered support but not the concept of public opinion.

“This only exists when there is a public and when there is a public space, when there are public institutions and independent media and people can form their own opinion…

“And when people know that when they express their opinion, either in prose or in the streets or via their Parliament, associations etc… that it will have an impact on governing bodies and on their President.

“This has not been the case in Russia for about 15 years. 

“Only yesterday I spoke to several Russian colleagues and this morning to Ukrainian MPs and journalists and…Clearly the vast majority of people who live in the federation of Russia do not want this war. 

“They didn’t want the war in Georgia (in 2008), they didn’t want the war in Donbas. 

“They absolutely don’t want it, they are terrified. 

“What I find comforting in a way is that in Russia you can see more and more posters with: ‘No more war’, and you see them in small towns, in big cities, in the metro. 

“So there is certainly no support for full-scale war in Ukraine. Ukraine is still seen by most Russians as a friendly country, as a neighbourly country.”

Can Russia afford this war? Will it last long?

“I have no idea, I mean until last week I was hoping that there would be no full-scale war because I knew, I think better than maybe other observers, about Putin’s serious mental condition. 

“But even knowing that I just could not conceive of this move, which of course Putin has absolutely nothing to gain, nobody has anything to gain, which confirms my thesis and I’ve been writing about this for years and that’s that the Putin regime is in survival mode. 

“[The regime] is guided mostly by survival, hatred, vengeance. 

“They absolutely have no ambition whatsoever to conquer Ukraine or Belarus or all the Baltic states. Because if you conquer, you need to govern. 

“And Putin is not even able to govern Russia or the Republics of the North Caucasus.”

Is Putin pro-war?

“Nobody is pro-war. Only Putin.

“The members of the Russian Security Council…None of these men have any interest in going to war with Europe and Western countries, because all of them are already under sanctions and now they are going to have more sanctions. 

“So they are completely stuck there with Putin because they have stayed with him too long.

So, now they can’t go against him and they can’t stop him.

Is there anyone there, in his inner circle or outer circle, who could talk some sense into him? You’re saying he’s crazy basically?

“No, it’s impossible. Well I don’t know about crazy but he has lost his judgement. 

“He can fool people who don’t know him for a few minutes because he’s cunning, and that’s how he has gotten by all these years. But it’s also down to the nature of this authoritarian, corrupt system. 

“It works almost as a gang, or like a mafia. So it’s a mix of money, power, military, arms, and subversion.”

Is Putin trying to take back the Eastern Bloc?

“Not at all. I mean, Putin has lost his sphere of influence a long time ago. All these people don’t want Moscow. People of Transnistria (in Moldova), they don’t want to be run by Moscow and military administrations.

“Putin’s Russia now is completely out of it. They have lost the Ukrainians, the Belarusians etc… So it’s sort of the last battle for survival. 

“And it is due to the belief that if you spoil and ruin the neighbouring countries of the former Soviet Republic, that if you ruin them by making them so weak in their state sovereignty, that nobody will want them. 

“That’s what they did before the war in 2008 in Georgia. 

“They recognised breakaways with the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with two goals. 

“One was to stop the NATO mapping in the process of NATO integration for Georgia. 

“And the second goal, Putin did not achieve, was to get rid of Mikheil Saakashvili, the [former] President of Georgia, who stayed on as president in the country for another two years [after Russia’s invasion]. 

“This shows that for Putin it doesn’t always work out. And he doesn’t want to conquer. 

“He’s very afraid of the Ukrainians. What he wants is to keep them weak, vulnerable and put so much pressure on them that they won’t be able to continue building all of those states, rebuilding their economy.”

Do you think the Baltic States are at risk now? 

“We all are at risk. The security of Europe is jeopardised as of this day.

“What I hope that the European Union will do very soon is to propose to the Ukrainians a road map to become a member of the EU in a relatively short time. 

“Because that will give the Ukrainians spirit to keep resisting. 

“What my friends told me is that it’s going to be very tough. People now are very determined but who knows if in two-three weeks they will still be up to the struggle. 

“And we absolutely need the Ukrainians to continue the struggle. And for that, they need to see the end of the tunnel, which can only be Europe since it cannot be NATO.”

What is the worst case scenario for this war?

“Well the worst case scenario is already there. If the Ukrainians can’t resist… I mean Putin cannot occupy the territory for long but he can really ruin it in many ways as he did in other places as you know: Chechnya, parts of Georgia, parts of Syria as well. 

“He’s a big destroyer. I don’t think he cares now about borders. Does he care about the border between Moldova and Romania? I doubt it. 

“Does he care about the border between Belarus and Lithuania? I doubt it too. 

“But again, this is all happening in his phantasmagoria. And it is because he’s left alone without any institution. 

“So it’s so unpredictable, but what I know, if there is one factor that is very significant and that we can control, it is what we do. 

“And we can do much more than what we’ve been doing in recent months without necessarily engaging in military or logistic operations on the ground in Ukraine. 

“But you know when it starts also touching on other countries on the border, even NATO may at some point have to reconsider its doctrine and its charter. 

“You see, we are on the edge. Putin put himself on the brink, but we’re also on the brink. 

“And I just hope that our governments and our military and our public opinions fully understand the stakes.”

The Anglo-American Press Association in Paris, founded in 1907, is the oldest journalists' organisation in France. It brings together journalists from anglophone media to encourage mutual support and promote common interests.

For independent news in English about the Ukraine situation, see the Kyiv Independent

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