op_michnik2_Mark Schiefelbein-PoolGetty Images_putin Mark Schiefelbein/Pool/Getty Images

What Moves Putin?

Whatever potential Vladimir Putin's leadership once held for Russia has been exhausted. And because there is no mechanism for peaceful change in the Kremlin, what remains is the grim momentum of continuing decay.

Irena Grudzińska Gross: It was unusual for US President Joe Biden to hold a press conference about the killing of the leader of ISIS, who had nowhere near the importance of his predecessor, much less of Osama bin Laden. Was this an implicit reply to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perception that the United States, humbled abroad and divided at home, is a weakened power?

Adam Michnik: Putin certainly is convinced that the West is today weaker than ever. But his behavior results also from his anti-American paranoia. Putin thinks that anything that Americans do is directed against Russia. I do not know if what is happening in Syria is related to what is happening in Donetsk, but in Putin’s mind such a relationship definitely exists. This is typical of a certain kind of political leader. We in Poland also have such a person. Whenever Jarosław Kaczyński [the leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party] is thwarted, he blames a conspiracy among hostile forces. And the hostile forces are whoever does not applaud him loudly.

I believe Biden is a politician without illusions about Putin’s Russia. He wants to be realistic and does not want war, but he rejects the politics of appeasement and retreat. This is how I understand the declarations of Americans ever since Russia began massing troops on Ukraine’s border, and they are reasonable. Of course, this assumes that the domestic forces hostile to the Democrats and Biden – indeed, to the fundamentals of American democracy itself – will not prevail in the US. In that case, this approach may prove toothless.

IGG: What do you think about the Ukrainians’ stance? A few days ago, I heard a conversation with Timothy Snyder, who criticized Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, though not the attitude of the Ukrainian government.

AM: Zelensky came to politics from outside. He was sponsored by Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch who nonetheless did contribute greatly to his country in the first conflict with Russia in 2014. Kolomoisky financed and armed volunteer military units that proved crucial to stopping the offensive by the Donbas separatists and Russian soldiers. I never met Zelensky, and he is an enigma to me. I cannot figure out his behavior or form a clear opinion about his politics. But in the face of a threat that must be met with unity, Zelensky too often pursues the interests of his political milieu or his own person. It also strikes me as unprofessional to declare that there is no military danger while asking the West for arms. This, too, is difficult for me to understand.

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