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Thane Gustafson is one of the most informed Western observers of Russia. He is a professor at Georgetown University—where I had the privilege of being his doctoral student—but his professional and academic experience spans a career studying the Soviet leadership and military at the RAND Corporation to decades of research and consulting work on politics in Moscow and the Russian energy sector after the Cold War. His two most recent books are The Bridge: Natural Gas in a Redivided Europe and Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change.
I asked him recently about how his work on energy and his years of Kremlin-watching can help explain what’s happening in Europe.
Tom Nichols: Thane, before we get to the war, your last two books were among the few that tried to think through the relationship between Russia—a fossil-fuel-energy giant mired in the wreckage of its own past—and the globalized world to whom which Moscow is bound in an awkward dance of mutual dependence.
How have you been rethinking the books and their ideas in light of recent events?
Thane Gustafson: When I wrote The Bridge and Klimat, they made a pair. The Bridge included a lot on Putin’s fixation on Ukraine, the origins of Germany’s long commitment to Russia—and now German ambivalence—and the place of gas at the center of this whole swirl, while Klimat analyzed how climate change, and the decline of reliance on hydrocarbons, is going to reorder the world, and especially Russia’s place in it.
But with the war in Ukraine, suddenly their subject has changed. The Bridge now reads almost like a requiem for a vanished world, while Klimat is a prophecy of a foreclosed future. In both cases, I wanted to emphasize the vital importance of focusing on the “long game” in relations with Russia, especially for the Europeans.
Nichols: Energy still seems like “the bridge” to Europe, but how would you evaluate the European response to the war? I was surprised that it’s been so firmly set on punishing Moscow.
Gustafson: Well, they are reaffirming a commitment to dealing with climate change, but this time it’s no longer just “Save the planet!” but also “Save us from the Russians!”
Nichols: Given their dependence on Russian energy, that seems … problematic.
Gustafson: It is, yes. The Russian relationship with Europe is deeply affected by climate change and Europe’s emerging decarbonization policy. In both books, I thought we could divide the future into two phases: first, the 2020s, during which Europe would not be able to do without gas. After that, in the 2030s to 2050, renewables and decarbonization would become the chief drivers in Europe. At the time I wrote the book—and even as recently as two months ago—it looked as though the Russian “gas bridge” to Europe would still survive for another decade, but would then gradually decline, and that applies to oil and coal as well as gas. But now the future of Russian gas in Europe suddenly looks doomed.
Nichols: Which means less European dependence on Russia, which then ripples into politics.
Gustafson: All the cards are up in the air, and who knows how they will come down. My own guess is that Europe’s decarbonization drive will now be accelerated, and the climate mantra of “Save the planet!” will now dovetail with that security mantra of “Save us from the Russians!”
Even now, it will take a good decade for Europe to free itself from dependence on gas, but that flow will consist less and less of Russian gas and more of liquefied natural gas, or LNG. So the “two phase” picture remains intact, but the first phase is shorter. History will now move faster. Not just in Europe, but in Russia as well, where Russia’s “pivot to Asia” will also be accelerated.
Nichols: To China’s advantage.
Gustafson: To China’s advantage, yes. The net result will be, as I say at the conclusion of Klimat, that “Russia’s new generation will hope for a fresh start. But by 2050 it will face a great reckoning.”
Nichols: Meanwhile, a very strange war rages on in Europe, where both of the combatants are trying not to hinder the movement of precious resources through the theater of conflict. How is that possible?
Gustafson: Yes, that’s one of the zanier aspects of this crazy situation. Despite the decline in East-West relations, I always assumed that the gas trade would continue, and indeed, the clearest proof of that proposition is that, even now, Russian gas continues to flow to Europe, even through Ukraine—in fact, more than on the eve of the war.
Nichols: Then why would Putin suddenly derail all this?
Gustafson: The Russian war seems a “sudden derailing” of Russian relations with the world. This is one of those moments when history suddenly goes into overdrive and outcomes become unpredictable, mainly because at such times they are driven by the actions of individuals. I rather like the metaphor once used by former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González, who said that history seems to be “galloping riderless across the landscape.”
I did not envision an invasion of Ukraine in The Bridge or Klimat, but—
Nichols: Sorry to interrupt—did anyone? We all worried about it; we all thought it was possible. But I think we all, for various reasons, assumed that Putin would not try to march into Kyiv.
Gustafson: Perhaps, but it’s not too hard to reconstruct at this point what was likely going through Putin’s mind as he gave the order to attack. First, he thought he could make a lightning strike at Kyiv and install a puppet. Second, he thought he could seize what he calls “Novorossiya” as far as Odesa and absorb Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Mariupol.
Third, he thought that in those places, which are largely Russian-speaking, he would be welcomed. Fourth, he knew that he could not conquer western Ukraine, and he never intended to try.
Nichols: Not the first guy to make the “we’ll be greeted as liberators” mistake, but wait—you think he figured he could just install a puppet and then he could forget about the western remnant? Wouldn’t that leave behind a hypernationalist, pro-NATO Ukraine, or what would be left of it?
Gustafson: Well, the western rump might join NATO, but from Putin’s point of view, why care about that? It would be so intimidated, and so weakened, that it would represent no threat. In sum, he counted on a quick, easy operation: strategic objectives achieved, equilibrium restored, done and dusted.
Nichols: So, from that internal logic, a fairly rational decision.
Gustafson: Sure. So on this reasoning, Putin was not nuts, not deranged, not isolated, etcetera. It was all a reasonable bet—by his strange lights—except that every one of the premises turned out to be wrong.
Nichols: I might challenge you on “not isolated,” because this does raise questions about the bubble he lives in, and why his advisers couldn’t tell him that this was a lot riskier than it looked.
Gustafson: And yet it can hardly be said that Putin was uninformed about Ukrainian affairs. On the contrary, Ukraine was on his desk practically from day one. He invested much time courting Ukrainian leaders he thought were sympathetic to Russia—Leonid Kuchma especially (for a decade), Viktor Yanukovych, Petro Poroshenko, the Donbas oligarchs, and the eastern, pro-Russian Party of Regions. Time and again, he thought he had Ukraine in his pocket, including control of the gas-pipeline system, yet each time his efforts were undone by popular opposition—first the Orange Revolution, then Maidan 1 and Maidan 2. With every humiliating defeat, his frustration and rage mounted.
Each time, he misread the Ukrainian situation and the popular mood. I think one reason is that his relationships were primarily with these more “Russian oriented” players in Ukrainian politics. All that exposure (and multiple trips over 20 years) may have contributed to overestimating the Russianness of Ukraine.
To be sure, Putin is guilty of a massive geostrategic misperception. This is ironic considering that the fall of the Soviet Union was, in fact, a historic opportunity for Russia.
Nichols: Can you clarify that?
Gustafson: The Russian and Soviet empires were increasingly difficult to govern as multiethnic states, especially as one moved south and west to Central Asia, Ukraine, and the Baltic republics. But after 1991, for the first time in its history, Russia overnight had gained the basis for a coherent nation-state, in that more than 80 percent of its population was now ethnic Russian. Suddenly, for the first time in its history, Russia was free of the burden of empire.
As a result, Russia’s logical future pointed east, not west. Before the 21st century, the czars and the Soviet commissars had never been able to govern Russia east of the Urals as anything but a prison camp and a resource appendage. But the advent of the internet, and the improvements it brought in communications and global trade, changed everything. Russia can now potentially be governed efficiently as a single national entity from Murmansk to Vladivostok. And it needs to be governed that way, because just over the horizon is the challenge of China.
Nichols: You’d think Putin would have understood that.
Gustafson: Putin continued to do what his imperial and Soviet predecessors had always done. Instead of looking to the East and absorbing the implications of this new reality, he focused on the West and neglected the East. Marx might have said that Putin suffers from “false consciousness.” From the long-term perspective, both the prizes and the threats lie in the East. Yet Putin—together with the hydrocarbon-based oligarchy that surrounds him—continued to focus on Europe. In rhetoric, he talked about a “pivot to the East,” but in practice Europe remained his chief market.
An irony here is that the Russians had already begun diversifying away from gas transit through Ukraine before the war. Nord Stream 2 is actually the last of five new bypass pipelines to Europe; another decade and the gas divorce would have been final.
But Europe is declining and China is rising. Putin is focused in the wrong direction.
Nichols: I admit to an “Atlanticist” bias myself, so I think I understand Putin’s focus on Europe, but if there was any thought in the Kremlin of a Russian “pivot to Asia,” this looks to have screwed it up, no?
Gustafson: Definitely. Any serious pivot to Asia will require capital and partners. But in the wake of the war—however it is eventually settled—Russia will be seriously lacking in both. The Chinese, in particular, will never trust him, despite Xi’s protestations of friendship. As a result of Putin’s multi-bungled operation, it will be even harder to make good on any turn to the East.
Siberians, by the way, understand the damage Putin is doing to Russia, because they perceive—in some ways better than those in the capital, because of their distance from Moscow and their proximity to China—the nature of the Russian future in the Far East.
Nichols: So how does Putin get out of this?
Gustafson: Maybe what you’re asking is: Now that Putin has turned his country into a pariah, where does Russia go from here?
Nichols: Yes, as a long-term question. But I’m going to come back to the war.
Gustafson: Long term, this is the beginning of a massive unwinding in Russian relations with the world. And it’s not just about energy, but about the Western presence across the board. Think about the fact, for example, that McDonald’s alone has 63,000 employees in Russia. That’s just one company whose operations affect so many Russians and their families.
The Germans are in an especially bad way here, because I think that Putin, among his other miscalculations, believed that Germany would remain committed to the “gas bridge” and buckle under the threat of a cutoff. There’s a whole paradigm of a half century’s standing, including the “change through trade” policy and the Ostpolitik of the 1970s, that originated with Chancellor Willy Brandt that is now in question. There are many German businesspeople whose entire working lives have been spent in close partnership and friendship with Russia, and vice versa.
Nichols: And the war?
Gustafson: War is like an infection: A bacterial attack causes inflammation (damaging in itself), and the mounting immune responses can escalate out of control if the infection is not defeated. The flow of volunteers and weapons into Ukraine, the mounting frustration and fury in the Kremlin, the calls for no-fly zones ...
I don’t know how this ends.
Nichols: I was afraid you’d say that. I’m not sure it’s a more cheerful subject, but let me move here to Russian political culture and public opinion, which seems remarkably tolerant of these military adventures. One of the reasons I got Putin so wrong—and I recall that you tried to warn me about this—when he appeared over 20 years ago is that I genuinely believed that Russians were tired of living like outcasts and wanted quieter lives in a normal country. Is that impossible? I mean, we have these “what’s the matter with Kansas?” debates in America; what the hell is wrong with, say, Krasnodar?
Gustafson: Remember, as Tolstoy said: Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I think that what is happening in Russia is very specific to Russia. We should avoid comparisons with the United States, especially the “reaction to globalization” theme that can often be overdrawn in the Russian case. The fact is that Russia, throughout the last 30 years, remained relatively isolated from the world economy—especially compared to China—and so it was consequently isolated as well from elaborate supply chains, from massive outsourcing, from jobs migrating overseas, and so on. Moscow and St. Petersburg were special cases, but even there it’s an inexact comparison.
Nichols: What about comparisons to European history? Those rallies and the Z symbol now look a lot like Russian fascism, but I sort of hate using that word, because people now use it to mean any hypernationalist authoritarian system.
Gustafson: I think that makes more sense. Fascism, after all, is the response of people whose value systems and livelihoods have been destroyed, as Germany’s were in the 1920s, leaving a vacuum to be exploited. Russia in the 1990s fits that model very closely. The fall of the Soviet Union left a political, economic, ideological, and moral desert. The West, flush with triumphalism (we won! we won!) and its Chicago-school illusions about global liberalism and markets, poured like a tidal wave into this void. Putin was able to play on Russians’ very mixed feelings about this event.
But I agree with you that we should perhaps resist using the word fascism since, as you point out, the term now is so plastic that it is almost useless. The fact is that because of the regime’s control of information, we have very little idea of how Russians actually feel about the war, and how they will react to Putin’s apparent defeat. One early indicator may be the feelings and behavior of Russia’s conscripts in Ukraine. As they bring their stories back to Russia and share them with their families, I think we may see Russian opinion begin to shift. At that point, whom will they blame for Russia’s humiliation?
Nichols: To close, I know that many readers have a sense of dread about this whole situation. Are there reasons for optimism?
Gustafson: These are still very early days, but it is clear that the beliefs and policies of the last 30 years have been thrown to the ground, especially for the Europeans but above all for the Russians themselves. But in the tumult of events, we must play the long game. If there was ever a time when we needed to “peer around the corners of history,” this is it.