‘Russia’s goal is to destabilize the EU and NATO’

The ‘Magazine’ sits down with Anne Applebaum, acclaimed journalist, historian of Eastern Europe, who warns: "The invasion of Ukraine was an operation planned a long time ago."

People walk near St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square in central Moscow last week. (photo credit: REUTERS)
People walk near St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square in central Moscow last week.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A stringer for The Economist in Poland from 1988 to 1991, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, a former member of the editorial board at The Washington Post and one of the most prolific commentators on Eastern and Central European affairs today, Anne Applebaum leaves no one indifferent.
Her work and personal life unleash emotions in the press on a scale that is rarely experienced by bookish intellectuals in the free world.
She has been called a Cold War warrior, an agent of American influence in Europe, and a rabid Russophobe – that’s by people who don’t like her. Yet her influence is acknowledged as considerable even by those on the other side of the spectrum. Indeed, in 2012, the most popular Polish weekly, Wprost, printed her picture on the cover, labeling her an “iron lady” and dedicating a lead article to the question of whether she will promote a certain candidate for the Polish presidency.
Why does this American Jewish journalist inspire such a range of emotional responses, and why do Poles care about her involvement in national politics? The answer is twofold. Applebaum’s two most important books cover seminal research of the Soviet labor camp system and of the Soviet political takeover of Central Europe after World War II. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag: A History and critically acclaimed Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, highlight the dissonance between how Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the rest of the Western world see the legacy of the 20th century.
Her next book will be about Holodomor, a man-made famine organized by the Soviets in Ukraine in 1932-1933.
Since Russia attacked Ukraine earlier this year and the war is still raging there, Applebaum’s work will remain highly relevant – and highly inconvenient – for many years to come.
Applebaum is married to Radoslaw Sikorski, an outspoken Polish politician who is a rising star in European politics.
Most recently Poland’s foreign minister, he resigned from the Foreign Affairs Ministry on September 19 and was elected marshal of the Sejm (parliament speaker) five days later.
Barely a couple of hours before the news of Sikorski’s resignation appeared online, Applebaum talked to us from Warsaw about Russia, Ukraine, balancing her career and family, and what is it like to be living as a Jew in today’s Poland.
One of the people who commented on your Facebook profile picture wrote in Polish, “Anne Applebaum is one of the bravest Polish women today.” How do you feel about this title?
It is very sweet. I am sure there are a lot of people who would say the opposite, so I am taking it with a grain of salt.
I do actually have a Polish passport now, so I guess you could call me Polish.
I am delighted that Poles like me when they like me. I have written a lot about their history and their culture.
You grew up in an upper-middle-class environment in Washington and could have taken any path in life. Why did you choose to write about, and live in, Eastern Europe?
I was initially drawn to Russian literature.
Also, I was in college when Ronald Reagan was US president. It was an important phase of the Cold War, and I was attracted to the idea of trying to understand the other side.
What happened in Eastern Europe in both in the ’40s and ’50s, and the ’80s and ’90s, is certainly absolutely central to our understanding of the 20th century.
Without understanding it, you cannot understand the rest of Europe and the rest of the world.
You have been traveling to Russia since 1984, and have been based in Poland since 1988. You saw pro-Soviet regimes fall, and the Soviet Union fall apart. What do you think about Russia today – has it gone back into Cold War mode?
I used to travel to Russia all the time, often several times a year, to work on my book and to lecture. I recently stopped to some extent, partly because I find it such an unhappy place right now.
I find what’s happening in Russia distressing and disappointing and disillusioning all at once. I really did think Russia was going to be a different kind of country. Now I feel sort of duped, taken for a ride. I did not think it would go back to being a security police state with imperial designs on its non-Russian neighbors. If nothing else, the collapse of the Soviet Union was proof that Russian imperialism was a disaster.
Generally, people who pointed out what was going on in Russia in a clear way for the past decade have all been considered scaremongers, cold warriors, neocons.
There was a kind of blindness. The Western world just did not particularly understand what was going on in Russia, did not want to see that it was a threat. They did not pay attention to the fact that Russia was rearming, and did not take it seriously.
Now, it has happened – and whatever we have to do, it is too late.
Putin has an 84-percent approval rating in Russia, according to recent polls. Do most Russians really like what is happening in their country?
In Russia, it is often just a matter of education. People who know and deeply feel and understand their own history have a different attitude from people who just want to ignore it.
Of course, there is the opposite reaction, too. I have met people who didn’t want to help and were angry I was writing about the subject [Soviet labor camps].
They would say, why are you writing about this, write about our space program or all the wars we won. There is a kind of hurt patriotism involved.
But there is a wide range of Russians.
I suspect that Russian public opinion is much more complicated than the polls show right now. People have much more complex feelings about what’s going on than the polls say.
To what extent is mass media free in Russia, and to what extent does the media influence what people think?
After a really extraordinary explosion of media in Russia in the ’90s, full of really interesting, fabulous journalism and all kinds of wonderful people who wrote well and somehow knew how to manage newspapers, there has been this slow and very steady destruction of free media.
What the Russians have now is unique in history; it is very different from the Soviet period. They have a wide range of media, many different kinds of TV stations, many different kinds of newspapers, serious newspapers and tabloids and so on, and all of them are strictly controlled. At least on the issues that the government cares about, which is a narrow range of issues, they are not allowed to break out.
It is not censorship controlled through a single censor; it is controlled through ownership and influence. All the media, one way or another, is either owned by the state or somehow lined up by the state. There are a few tiny exceptions, and they are allowed to exist as long as they remain tiny. If they become too popular, they get shut down as well, or if a journalist becomes popular, he is silenced.
Putin has successfully cut off all alternative sources of information. That has been very effective.
Twenty years ago, people said the Internet was going to ensure totalitarianism would never rise again, that there were always alternative sources of information.
What is happening in Russia shows this is not the case. You can still create autarchic political culture which effectively excludes or marginalizes different ideas. You can create a government- controlled, state-controlled media that appears to be diverse. That’s what the Russians did.
The extraordinary thing is, it is quite different from the Soviet system – it is not one single lie. What they do is blast people with contradictory and unverifiable pieces of information. The most extraordinary example is when the Malaysia Airlines plane crashed in southeastern Ukraine. Immediately, the Russian public was presented with a dozen different explanations, some of them wild: the plane was full of dead people when it took off, or it was shot down by Ukrainians who were going to shoot at Putin.
These sorts of completely out-of-theblue, made-up conspiracy theories are blasted all at once to confuse people. It was fairly clear from the beginning, given the probabilities and what we knew about how the plane crashed, what had happened. But what the Russian media has done is it has eliminated the truth.
I have to assume they succeeded. They don’t even pretend they are telling the truth anymore, they simply offer a dozen conspiracy theories. Propagation of the conspiracy theories has been their great success.
I don’t know that Russians really understand what is happening. I imagine some of them suspect that not all they have been told is true.
Regarding what you said about Russia distorting the truth, what is really happening in Ukraine today?
There is not a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine – there is a Russian invasion.
These so-called separatists would not exist without Russian weapons, Russian money and recently, the active support of Russian regular troops. This invasion of Crimea and the occupation of eastern Ukraine was not a reaction to the new government taking over in Kiev, it is an operation that was carefully planned a long time ago.
So it is not like Scotland, where there was an independence movement that existed for many years, with a leader and a program, as a recognized part of the political debate. [In Ukraine] it was an artificially created movement and was run by Russian [former] KGB and Spetsnaz special forces.
Some in the West have been better at recognizing it, and some have been worse. As time has gone by, it has become harder not to notice. It is very important not to go on pretending this is some kind of problem that will be solved by Ukrainian federalism.
What do you think the role of Western democracies should be?
I don’t think the West has much influence inside Russia, while Russia’s goal is to distort the truth about what is taking place in Ukraine. We need to be absolutely clear – in public statements, in official government statements, in public discourse in general – about what is happening there.
Whenever the West has actually reacted, every single time, it has been six months too late. Heavy sanctions on Russia should have been immediate. And each reaction, sanctions included, has been too late to be a deterrent.
If the West does not follow this course, what will Russia do next?
Clearly, there is a pattern of threats – and Russians do what they threaten to do. One of the things they are saying is that the next part of the world they intend to threaten is the Baltic states.
Most recently, Russia was talking about human rights violations in Latvia and how Russia would always defend Russian speakers there. So, they are now making clear this is their next goal.
Of course, the goal to destabilize the Baltic states is not necessarily in order to occupy them long-term; their goal is to destabilize and undermine NATO.
Both NATO and the EU are a problem for Russia. It is in Russia’s interest to unpick the EU and NATO, to delegitimize them, push them and break them up to whichever extent they can.
All they need to do is to create the impression that the NATO guarantee does not hold. And they can do that in a number of ways.
How do Poles feel about that?
The Poles think the Baltic states are next, and then us. They have some good historical reasons for believing this.
They have good relations on the border with Russia, a very good trade relationship, yet they have been very clear about the fact they do not feel secure.
They have been saying this for many, many years, and now they have been proven right – and of course, it makes everybody very angry at them.
Nobody wants to be told, “We told you so.” But they were told.
In particular, they have been telling the US and Western European for many years to make sure they do not become dependent on Russia for gas, to be careful with Russian business because it is an arm of the Russian state.
And now they have been proven right, and people are trying to unpick their relationship with Russia, which is going to be a very complicated process.
Now people have finally realized that Gazprom is not a normal oil company, not another Exxon or Chevron [which puts commercial interests above all else]. It is an arm of the state, and when Gazprom invests in a company, it does so with the aim of attaining political influence.
A year from now, how do you think the world will look?
I do not like taking the role of pessimist. Yet I have not heard anything about the fight against Islamic State that impresses me with its tactics or thoroughness.
It might turn out that it is not as strong as it seems right now, so we might be lucky. But I have not heard anything from any European or American leaders about either Islamic State or Russia that sounds like they have grasped the scale of the problem and have taken seriously the idea of solving it.
I do not think Poland a year from now is going to be that different, barring nuclear war – which we cannot exclude at the moment. Polish democracy and the Polish commitment to free markets are very safe now. Even if there is a new government, I do not foresee any dramatic social or political changes in Poland.
I have no doubt about that; I am more doubtful about the rest of Europe.
Do you really believe a nuclear war is a possibility?
Look, the Russians are talking about it. Putin is talking about it. He uses the nuclear threat in his conversations with foreign leaders. The Russians were doing nuclear exercises during the last NATO summit. I recognize this as a scare tactic.
They are telling us, we have nuclear weapons and are willing to use them.
At some level, we need to take that seriously.
If they are willing to use them, then we have to be willing to deter them.
Can NATO do that?
I don’t know if NATO has the guts to do that; not yet. It takes the West a long time to do anything, and maybe there is a slow change in this direction.
What is living in today’s Poland like for you as a Jew?
At the moment, it is a lot better to be a Jewish person in Poland than anywhere else in Europe. We do not have demonstrations of 150,000 people marching against Israel like they do in London.
And we do not have people burning down synagogues like they do in France and Belgium.
Actually, Poland may well be the most pro-Israel country in Europe at this exact moment. There are all kinds of reasons for that; Poland’s policy is unequivocal support for Israel.
Being Jewish has no impact or effect on my life in Poland. It is not even something I think about every day. There is quite nasty online anti-Semitism in Poland, but you also have that in other countries. I have to say that the Internet in Poland in general is rather nasty. I figured out why that is, and it has to do with how it is controlled and how the news websites are monitored. In the English language, at least serious newspapers monitor the comments, and it is expensive.
My husband [Polish politician Sikorski] has actually sued several newspapers over this exact issue, including anti-Semitism, not in the articles but in the comments sections, because it breaks all kinds of Polish laws. So that’s unpleasant, but other than that I do not encounter it.
It is sort of a non-issue. It would be like me asking you how you feel about traffic in Jerusalem. Sometimes there is traffic, but it is not really a very central issue in your life.
It does not define your existence.
Do you have family roots in Poland?
Not in the sense that anybody remembers them; all of my grandparents were born in the US. And although I have great-grandparents who were born in what was then czarist Russia and is now Belarus – it is part of Polish historical territory – I do not believe they spoke Polish.
I think all they spoke was Yiddish.
Digging back very far on my mother’s side of the family, we supposedly have an ancestor who left Krakow in the 18th century and went to France and various other places in Europe before coming to New Orleans, but this is a recent discovery.
So there was no consciousness in my family of being Polish, or even being Eastern European. They were Americans.
You publish and lecture a lot, are married to a politician with a very busy public career, and have two teenage children. How do you logistically manage family life?
It is very important to be very organized.
You do a lot of planning; you have to plan where you are going to be on every day of every month. I have stuff in my diary for next spring. Vacations have to be put into the calendar now. I am not at a point of planning the next summer, although I will do it soon.
What is your connection to Israel?
I have been to Israel several times, and have reported from there on a number of occasions. I have a cousin who lives in Israel, near Haifa. I am in favor of the continued and strong existence of Israel.