Michael Romancov: “Of course Russian citizens are responsible”

Michael Romancov

Has Russia’s President Putin lost touch with reality? And how are things most likely to play out now, following the launch of his bestial war against Ukraine? I discussed those questions with a leading Czech expert on Russia, political geographer Michael Romancov. Our conversation also took in Czech issues, such as President Zeman’s abandoning of his previous support for Putin.

Russia has evidently been seeking to undermine the Czech Republic for several years in different ways, through disinformation, hacking and so on. Prior to the current situation how much did people in the Czech defence community or foreign affairs community regard Russia as an enemy of the country?

“In my opinion today’s picture is absolutely clear. Even President Miloš Zeman and ex-president Václav Klaus are unable to excuse what Russia is doing.

“And I’m pretty sure that our security community have been quite sure for a pretty long period of time that Russia is definitely not a friendly country.

“There were maybe some individual, let’s say, experts or perhaps officers within our military who may have had doubts.

“Even President Miloš Zeman and ex-president Václav Klaus are unable to excuse what Russia is doing.”

“But I think as a minimum since 2014 everyone with a brain in his head was pretty sure that Russia is a great power which seeks some form of revenge and that Russia’s intentions are also aimed against us.”

President Zeman was an ally of President Putin for many years. Now his officials are saying things like he feels let down or deceived by him. What should we make of his new position?

“Speaking frankly, I don’t understand his position.

“Even though I disliked basically everything he was doing and declaring about Russia, or the international arena in general, in the last couple of years, it was nevertheless to a certain degree coherent.

“Now he has turned 180 degrees over a very short period of time and is waving the flag of Ukraine, he’s waving the flag of democracy, so to speak.

“So today it is a Miloš Zeman whom I cannot trust.”

If we accept that for a long time he was, shall we say, echoing a lot of Russian positions, why do you think he was doing that? I often wondered myself what his motivation was.

“Frankly speaking, there can be many.

“I have one which is speculative, but nevertheless I will share it with you and the audience.

Vladimir Putin | Photo: Andrei Gorshkov,  ČTK/AP/Sputnik,  Kremlin Pool Photo

“In my opinion both our presidents, I mean Zeman and Klaus, were unable to deal with Václav Havel.

“Václav Havel was treated in an extremely friendly way – and not only in a friendly way: he was treated like a great personality – in the West, the United States and also basically all important European countries.

“And once both of them realised that they are unable to be treated like great personalities by, let’s say, US presidents…

“Let me remind you that Miloš Zeman was really eager to go to the White House.

“You may remember that he sent a letter to Donald Trump immediately when Trump was elected, where Miloš Zeman labelled himself ‘the Czech Trump’ and announced, or [spokesman] Mr. Ovčáček announced, that he was invited to the White House even though he was not.

“So he was really desperate to go to the White House, to be treated like a big personality. And he failed, completely.

“Václav Klaus, if I’m not mistaken, was once in the White House for, like, 20 minutes, and he was in one in long row of other personalities who were invited that particular day.

“You cannot compare this to the status of Václav Havel.

“That’s one big difference between the old Soviet Union and modern-day Russia: unhappy people are not locked in.”

“And because both of them, Klaus and Zeman, were born and raised during the Cold War era, my speculative answer is that they realised, If we cannot a breakthrough in Washington, let’s try to do it in Moscow instead.

“Basically they reacted in a very similar way like many politicians from the so-called Third World in the 1970s or 1980s.

“And it worked. They were received in the Kremlin, they were basically given this status of global celebrities.”

About the Czech public, I’ve seen a lot of comments that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has reminded many people here of the Soviet invasion of 1968. But is the reality more complex? It seems to me that there is an element in Czech society that has a positive view of Russia.

“Yes. Definitely there is such a segment.

“But they were shocked, basically like everybody, by the way the Russian president decided to use force absolutely openly.

“Nevertheless, they have been shocked by different aspects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine than the majority of the Czech population.

“I have to state publicly that it was a shock for me as well, and I have no sympathy for Putin whatever.

Miloš Zeman | Photo: Roman Vondrouš,  ČTK

“But I truly hoped that Putin was basically concentrating his troops not because he wants a war but rather because he wants to create stronger pressure against both Ukraine and the West.

“But all those Russia-, or rather Putin-, lovers – because I think that we have to still try to make a difference between Russia as a desperate country which is under control of Putin and his regime for 22 years and the Putin regime – were shocked.

“Because they really enjoyed what was going on over the, let’s say, last five days before the invasion, when the Americans were spreading the information that the invasion of Ukraine may happen any minute or any hour.

“And they asked every single morning, OK, so another 24 hours have passed and when is the invasion going to happen?

“Then, all of a sudden, it was real.”

You point out the Russians have had the Putin regime for 22 years already. One thing that’s been on my mind a lot is how much, if at all, we should hold Russia responsible for what’s happening, and how much Putin? Can we say that the Russians are complicit in some way, if we also say that Putin has virtual total control of the country?

“First of all, there was development. Putin’s regime 22 years ago was different from what it is now.

“It’s absolutely logical.

“Nevertheless of course Russian citizens are responsible, because basically they tried many times somehow to contest Putin – and they failed so far every single time.

“The vast majority, millions if not tens of millions of Russians, are still passive and ignorant.”

“Just to remind the audience, there were truly big protests in 2011, ’12 and ’13, when Putin changed his position with Medvedev and became Russian president again.

“There were tens of thousands of protestors in Moscow, in St. Petersburg and other big cities in Russia.

“So let’s say 10 years ago Russia was very different from what it is now.

“Nevertheless they failed. There was no support for the protestors, for let’s call it opposition, or perhaps even liberal opposition, especially in the country.

“So many of them decided to leave Russia.

“They settled in Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia and elsewhere.

“We have to take into account that according to some estimations Russia’s diaspora currently is perhaps as big as 35 million, which is quite a big number, especially on the European scale.

“A big segment simply decided to leave Russia because they were disappointed by the way Russia’s public space and political system has developed.

“They were simply allowed to leave Russia.

“That’s one big difference between the old Soviet Union and modern-day Russia: that the international or political border is open, so all those let’s say desperate, unhappy people are not locked in Russia – they have been allowed to go away.

“Ironically it helped stabilise Putin’s position in Russia.

“There are still thousands of extremely brave people who are protesting and they are risking not only their wellbeing.

Kharkiv,  Ukraine | Photo:  Ministerium für innere Angelegenheiten der Ukraine,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 4.0 DEED

“Again most probably our audience is informed that recently new very tough legal instruments were adopted by the regime and you can be sentenced for as long as 15 years, if I’m not mistaken, if you are publicly opposing what the government and the press, which is under the control of the government, is declaring about the war in Ukraine.

“So they are extremely brave. But again, it’s still a very small part of Russia’s society.

“The vast majority, millions if not tens of millions of Russians, are still passive and ignorant.

“There is a combination of total ignorance and passivity.”

Putin is 69 years old now. I keep reading that he’s become more isolated in recent years. Obviously it’s hard to answer this question but what do you think is his state of mind? What I’d like to know and I guess many people would like to know is, Do you think it’s possible that he has actually lost touch with reality and could take some action that isn’t only horrific but is irrational and could endanger millions of people?

“In my opinion, the worst possible outcome of Covid is precisely what has happened to Putin.

“Because he almost completely isolated himself from other important members of the Russian political elite for almost two years.

“He declared many, many times that he likes to read historical novels, etcetera, so most probably he spent some important part of his time in isolation obviously doing some physical exercise – because he’s still in very good shape I would say – but also probably reading historical novels.

“And unfortunately he is an individual who also has the potential to try to change the course of history.

“Most probably he has lost, to a certain degree, contact with reality.

“And most probably he is really the one who truly believes that there are Nazis in Ukraine and that they are threatening the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, and all that stuff that they are producing publicly.”

We’re only two weeks into this whole thing. But for you what, from today’s perspective, is the most likely way it will play out? How will it end?

“Yes, I wish I knew.

“But it’s really a very difficult question, so again I will speculate.

“In my opinion the Russian regime is, unfortunately, very strong.

“No later than 2016 the so-called Russian Guard was founded by Putin.

“This Russian National Guard is over 350,000 men strong.

“We will witness the use of the brutal force of Russia’s regime against its own population.”

“They are very well equipped, they are very well paid and they have been trained to deal with mass riots.

“My forecast is that even though passivity and ignorance are prevailing within Russian society, we are nevertheless about to see big, mass protests.

“And we will witness the use of the brutal force of Russia’s regime against its own population.

“If we take into account what Assad was able to deal with, and he’s still in power, I think Putin is definitely stronger than Assad.

“So unfortunately I can imagine that Russia, even though differently than Syria, will turn into something like that.

“Plus there is a nuclear arsenal, so Putin’s regime will be not only a problem for Russia’s own population but for us as well.”