We Live in a World of Ailing Powers

15. 3. 2017

An Interview with Emmanuel Todd by Maciej Nowicki

The supernova shines with an extremely bright light, but a moment later it falls apart. Today’s EU is a supernova — says Emmanuel Todd in an interview with Maciej Nowicki

How do you assess the actions of the EU in Ukraine?

The EU position on Ukraine is awfully vague and chaotic. And little wonder: we do not know whether the Union still exists at all. Europe today is not a community. It has become a tool to pursue national interests by individual states. This is particularly true in the case of the economy— Berlin imposed an economic policy on the EU, which benefits only the Germans. And this is what we also see in this case. Let us start from the beginning—when Yanukovych’s rule was collapsing, we saw Steinmeier, Sikorski and Fabius in Kiev…

But Fabius left after one day…

France is a completely confused country. It has no goals in domestic and external policy.It can do only one thing: adapt to the Germany line. Let us be clear—it was Steinmeier who took Fabius to Kiev—as part of his hand luggage. Why should Fabius go to Kiev? For the French, Ukraine means absolutely nothing. Just as for the whole of Western Europe. There are only three countries interested in Ukraine, countries for which it is something specific. I mean Germany and Poland, for historical and obvious reasons, and Sweden—for rather puzzling reasons. Germany, Poland and Sweden have used the EU to pursue a policy which suits them. Initially, it was not a matter between Russia and the EU. It became such as a result of the pressure of these three countries. And with a disastrous effect. After the annexation of the Crimea the EU sought to drive Putin into a corner, force him to react. And it lost this battle. It was only after the fact that the EU noticed that only Putin had an army. Europeans were trying to do something historically new and certainly absurd—to pursue a policy of expansion without military resources. I think they took their illusions seriously and came to the conclusion that in today’s world the only thing that exists is the economy.

This policy of expansion without military resources had been working very well for Europe. For example in 2004.

In the case of Ukraine it somehow failed. Ukraine does not have its own dynamics. It is an amorphous zone, unable to modernize on its own—modernization has always come from the outside. Ukraine could slip out of the Russian orbit only by leaping onto the orbit of another power. But where? America is too far away. And Europe is not a military power and has no money. And even if it had, it does not intend to make Ukraine its satellite, pumping billions of euro there. As a result, the EU has achieved only one thing through its recent actions: it has speeded up the disintegration of Ukraine. Europe had come with the same intentions as always: with the dream of drawing another state into the liberal, capitalist, harmonious space. And in fact it destroyed the strained state, which had not even have the time to hatch.

You accuse the EU. And Russia? After all, it is the actions of Moscow in the east of the country which are aimed at dismantling Ukraine…

Let us get beyond anecdotal evidence. It is time to understand that something more is at stake. Let us go back to 1989. After the fall of communism, Russia was incredibly weakened. And the balance of power moved towards the EU—Europe united and became a political actor. But today we live in different times. Take France: 80 % of voters believe that Hollande is ridiculous. Industry is in decline and unemployment is at historical highs. European elections interest no one. Europe is not associated in France with any positive values. And it looks like this in most EU countries. Citizens of Southern Europe have become subhuman, and the whole Union is a disgusting hierarchical machinery, in which the stronger—today Germany—is always right.

The Union is collapsing. And the games with Ukraine and bringing Yanukovych down remind me of the supernova phenomenon. The star shines with an extremely bright light, but a moment later falls apart. Today’s EU is such a supernova.

And Russia?

Russia is growing in strength. An extraordinary amount of time and energy was wasted to convince everyone that Russia was in dire straits, that nothing good was happening there, and only a further decline is possible. Millions of articles have been written about how disgusting Putin is. Of course, Russia is not a democracy—it has always been a rather brutal country, where the collective was more important than individuals were. At the same time never in its history has Russia been such a free country as it is today. Under the tsarist regime and especially under Communism it was much worse… That is not all: in 1976, I wrote a book in which I predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, based on demographic data. Mortality was increasing, the number of births was falling etc. Today, the opposite is true—mortality decreases, the average life expectancy lengthens…

It is still lower than in Mongolia. Not to mention alcoholism or mental diseases—the statistics are staggering…

That is true. But the situation is improving. The number of acts of violence, killings and alcoholics decreases. Fertility rate is at 1.65— it is still not enough. But in Poland it is only 1.3. The unemployment rate is 4 %. Added to all this is a sense of pride in overcoming the terrible 20-years long crisis—because in the 1990s Russia slid down incredibly low. This is a country where today, there is hope. In short, on the eastern border a power is reborn, which again becomes attractive to its periphery…

And which says—Putin has repeatedly emphasized this—that Ukraine is just a pipe dream, that Ukrainian people have never existed…

In Russia, we see an effective nation building, and in Ukraine we see defeat. Of course, there is such a thing as the Ukrainian culture. Anthropological patterns are different here than in Russia—much more individualistic, anarchic, closer to those in Poland. But Ukraine has one fundamental problem. Russia had existed before the rise of the Soviet Union, while Ukraine practically never did. It was not about recovering after a big change, after the earthquake, which the collapse of communism was. Here it was necessary to build the state from scratch. And this project was completely unsuccessful. Ukraine is now a failed state. We were constantly hearing about the demographic problems of Russia. So let me quote a number here— since the fall of the Soviet Union, the population of Ukraine has shrunk by 12.5%. And it is not just an ordinary demographic crisis, as until recently in Russia. A large-scale migration is superimposed on that. Europe, Canada and the USA steal the best part of the population from Ukraine: the young and the educated. A society from which young people with degrees are fleeing does not have too much of a chance of success. And one more thing: in 1991, Russian-speaking residents of the east of Ukraine did not mind finding themselves outside Russia. In the 1990s, everyone wanted to dismantle Russia, even the Russians themselves. Because then, Russia was collapsing. Today, Ukraine is falling apart. Why do people want to go back to Russia? Not because Putin has manipulated them but because Russia becomes attractive again.

And how far will this go? You have always insisted that the attempt to draw Ukraine into the West would never work, because part of Ukraine is too deeply rooted in Russianness. But Putin has exactly the same problem. Dimitri Trenin emphasizes that the absorption of Ukraine would be very difficult for Russia, stabilizing the east of the country would cost more money than Moscow has, and they would also have to separate the West, which is very anti-Russian.

I do not think that the Russians want to divide Ukraine. They know that Ukraine is not uniform, that the western part desperately does not want to be Russian. I think that Moscow would prefer a federation and controlling Ukraine through Russian-speaking provinces. It seems to me that the Russian project assumes maintaining the integrity of Ukraine…

But how do we know that Russia really has such a plan? And even if it has, how do we know that everything will go according to the plan? Apparently Putin’s plan was to control Ukraine through Yanukovych, but as we know, Yanukovich was brought down…

It is true—we do not have any guarantee that this will happen. The train of history may be unable to stop. Perhaps Moscow will have to take the Donbass Region, for Russian-speaking population wants to go back to their mother country at any price. Because for these people it is the only way of regaining self-esteem. And then a further breakdown of Ukraine will occur. Because the inhabitants of Kiev and the inhabitants of Lvov are completely different species. And they will be unable to live together in peace. A further disintegration will happen.

And that is why I understand the concerns of the Poles. Because what is happening today is exactly what Poland wanted to avoid… I do not forget Katyń or the fact that the Red Army stood with its guns down during the Warsaw Uprising, allowing the massacre of Poles. But Stalin also did something good for Poland—he moved it, he gave Poland boundaries which were geographically and ethnically flawless. The most important problem for Poland after 1989 was whether the Germans would question the border on the Oder and Neisse rivers. It did not happen. But today the boundaries are moving again: Ukraine exploded. And this is just the beginning of a change— because Russia is going up, and the EU is losing its importance. And on top of it, chances that Poland will behave sensibly here are less than 1 in 10. Because Poland is too accustomed to an aggressive attitude towards Russia. It is unable to get rid of this posture.

I have no doubt about the fact that Poland has found itself in a bad situation. But I do not quite understand your position. Poland recognized the borders of Ukraine and abandoned any revisionist leanings. We have not claimed the right to, for example, Lvov, which had been a Polish city. While Russia is practicing full-blown revisionism today, questions the existing borders. Who is aggressive here?

Let me put it another way—today’s Europe has nothing to do with Europe from the 1990s, which was dynamic, full of optimism. If push comes to shove, it will just leave the Poles to their own devices. Because it is weak and full of hypocrisy. In contrast, recovering the lost power by Russia is a long-term phenomenon, with which you will have to learn to live. I do not think that the policy of confrontation with a resurgent power, that is Russia, where the main ally of Poland is supposed to be a power losing importance, that is the EU, is a good policy. It is rather a recipe for disaster and disappointment.

Well, what are we supposed to do? You assume that the West and the Poles are full of resentment and negative emotions, and the Russians are an embodiment of moderation and common sense. But the Russians are driven today mainly by one thing—an attempt to recover their lost pride. How do we know what will satisfy them?

Russians are nationalists. Nationalism is idiotic but as they have been maltreated for the last 20 years, it does not surprise me at all that they want to go on a rampage now. Besides all powers are by nature unbearable. There is no such thing as a very nice power. You need to find a balance and learn to live in peace. Poland has no other choice. You could at a pinch suspect Moscow that it wants to regain the “new Russia,” of which is Putin speaking so much. But I think that the Russians have once and for all come to terms with the fact that Poland is part of the West.

And one more thing: I would like to clarify what I said earlier. It is true—Russia regains strength. But this is not a return to the old empire, it is not some incredible dynamics. The current geopolitical balance was disturbed only because Russia is coming back to relative health. We live in a world of ailing powers.

What led to the disasters of the twentieth century was the demographic dynamics. The French, the Germans, the Russians were developing at a crazy pace and seeking territories for expansion. Today, everybody is experiencing a more or less serious demographic collapse. From the Russian point of view, some great territorial progression makes no sense, because even as it is now, Russia is too big for its population. Therefore, we are moving towards a great disaster. The demographic crisis also has its positive side. In such a universe, it is easier to get along.

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

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