In december Dmitri Trenin, director of Carnegie Moscow Center, published the book 'Should we fear Russia?' He warns the West not to let the situation spin out of control. Pavel Koshkin, editor-in-chief of Russia Direct, interviewed him on US-Russia relationship, Russia's fear of encirclement and its aspirations to the status of superpower.
by Pavel Koshkin
You recently released a new book with a very provocative title 'Should We Fear Russia?' Should the West be afraid of Russia, especially given the buzz about Russia’s alleged interference in the US presidential elections?
'I come up with a very simple conclusion. The threats, which allegedly emanate from Russia and have come to the fore in the West, are very exaggerated. Or they don’t exist at all. For example, there is no such threat like Russia’s imagined invasion in one of the NATO countries, in my view. Yet, there is obviously Russia’s influence in some countries.
'Indeed, the Kremlin has an impact on foreign and, maybe, domestic policy of certain states. Yet, I don’t see this influence as key in those countries’ decision-making process. On the other hand, to deal effectively with Russia one has to be very smart. The West should handle Russia with a great deal of care, because it is an important global stakeholder. Careless, reckless or outright provocative policies toward Russia are fraught with serious implications. This is how I see the situation.
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'But I disagree with those who describe the current state of US-Russia relations as a new Cold War. I believe that Moscow and Washington are in a state of confrontation, yet this confrontation might be more dangerous than during the Cold War period. Nevertheless, this oversimplified comparison with the Cold War frequently misleads people, who start to fear threats from the past that are unlikely to materialise again.
'At the same time, I focus on new problems that might have tragic consequences. For example, if we are talking about the possibility of a direct confrontation of Russia and America, that might happen not because of some miscalculation in planning, but due to the increasing escalation in turbulent regions. If the US established a no-fly zone over Syria without coordination with Russia, what implications would it have?
'A US commander-in-chief could be faced with a very serious question — to shoot down Russian jets in this no-fly zone or not? If he refuses to do so, it would undermine his credibility and prove his uselessness. Yet, if he shoots down the jet, this would draw Russia and the West closer to an escalation that could spin out of control and lead to a worst-case scenario.
Moscow and Washington compete with each other in Syria. Despite the common threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) they don’t seem to be ready to cooperate at the current moment, given their divergent approaches toward Syrian president Bashar Assad. How can Russia and the U.S. find common ground in Syria to fight ISIS under U.S. president Donald Trump?
'Yes, the impression exists that Russia and the U.S. are competing in Syria and here the media play a key role. The reality is more complicated. Russia’s key task in the last few months was not to defeat ISIS per se, but rather, to help the Syrian army seize Eastern Aleppo and strengthen its positions. In fact, Russia’s top military leaders don’t see a big difference between ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which poses a greater threat to the Assad army than ISIS itself.
In the wake of the US presidential campaign, you said that while Russian media ridicule western leaders, western journalists demonize their Russia counterparts. And you consider this trend very dangerous. Why?
'It is very dangerous, because Russia and the West see each other as political opponents, in fact. And one should treat one’s opponent very seriously. After all, if you don’t take your adversary very seriously, you might underestimate the potential of your opponent and overestimate your own capabilities. It could provoke you to do something reckless and dangerous. It could also provoke your opponent to actions that are not in your interests. If you tease a beast, it will bite you. So, there is no need to demonize or ridicule. Both tactics are dangerous. We need to be more reticent towards our opponents, but the current media environment, with the abundance of information, requires dramatization and exaggeration.
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'And this histrionic behavior creates the impression that people don’t take the situation seriously. It is if they are watching a movie or a TV show; they see it as a virtual reality that cannot happen in a real peaceful and prosperous life. They cannot imagine that the world could be on the brink of an apocalyptic disaster. However, the world is more fragile than it seems at first glance. When I see senior retired generals, who demand to establish mandatory no-fly zones and who are ready to shoot down Russian jets, when I see Russian experts who call for engaging in an all-out war in Syria to assure a full victory for Bashar al-Assad, I am concerned. Such narrow-mindedness linked to recklessness creates a very unhealthy and dangerous environment.
Bravado is dangerous
Against this background, is a direct confrontation between Russia and the US possible?
'The danger is there if both sides go too far. It is not the question if they need these dangerous tactics, but a question of their nature. While some players try to showcase their bravery and bravado, others seek to stick to their principles without backing down. However, both types of behavior could lead to the same results.
Is it a matter of principles for the US to contain Russia?
'For the Obama administration it was a matter of principle. They were loathe to find a compromise with Russia, because by doing so they would compromise their own democratic values. Many Republicans in US Congress don't want to look for compromise because they see Russia as less than equal. Maybe Donald Trump will be different.
What about Russia? Does it show any readiness to take reckless steps?
'Russia is using its own readiness to take higher risks as a countervailing factor in a situation when the United States is obviously much stronger. It is a tactic.
Why does Russia prefer these tactics to more careful and reserved approaches?
'In terms of power, Russia is not America’s equal. But it cannot accept inequality in relations. Thus, it has to punch above its weight to stay in the competition. Mentally speaking, Russians are in-your-face people, unlike the Chinese, for example.
Russia hopes to improve relations with the US under Trump. The same hope existed at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, yet all efforts failed. Is it naive to think that it is possible to improve US-Russia relations?
'Well, politics cannot add up to just noble intentions to improve relations between two countries. Tactics or even a strategy could include attempts to normalize relations, but in this case, the improvement should be a means to achieve a certain political goal.
Do you mean that in politics it makes sense to improve relations for the sake of relations?
'Yes, you don't improve relations just to feel better. Again, everybody seeks to get certain benefits from it. While some want to get a junior ally, others prefer to find protection and patronage from a senior ally. Others look for security from this abstract improvement in relations. There could be different goals. For example, during the Cold War, Soviet and American leaders had just one goal, the reduction of the threat of nuclear war. They strived for this through normalization. Since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis this was the key goal for Moscow and Washington, when they talked about the improvement in their relations.
'However, when one of the sides found itself in a vulnerable position because the other side promoted its own interests too vigorously, relations deteriorated. So it was merely an attempt to promote one’s national interests under the disguise of improvement.
Do you think that the US-Russia reset also served, primarily, as a tool of promoting one’s national interest?
Yes, this policy was considered a necessary strategy for the new administration of Obama. He wanted to use the improvement in US-Russia relations to resolve America’s key challenges, related to the Iranian nuclear program, Iraq and Afghanistan and, to a certain extent, nuclear nonproliferation.
How do you assess Obama’s presidential legacy and, specifically, his policy toward Russia?
'His policy toward Russia was his biggest failure. He didn’t seek to provoke Russia to challenge the US leadership, but it was precisely what he did. Obama’s handling of the Ukraine issue led to the confrontation between our countries. Ofcourse Vladimir Putin also made mistakes in his Ukraine policy, particularly before the Kiev Maidan. Confrontation over Ukraine in 2014 might have been avoided. But the relationship had been deteriorating before and was on a collision course.
'The key problem of the US-Russia reset is that there was neither a clear goal for improving relations nor a strategy how to reach this goal. As soon as the US got what it wanted during the period of the early reset, Russia was again scaled down to a secondary agenda. That might be the reason why the reset failed.
But Russia also contributed to the failure of this reset. It refused to play to the rules of the United States. Trapped by its inferiority complex, the Kremlin claimed that Washington didn’t view Moscow as equal. Russia keeps looking for equality. To what extent do such arguments really resonate with the West if Russia and the US economically and politically are not equal? America has a greater clout in the world than Russia.
'Well, the United States doesn’t accept the concept of equality because it sees itself as the dominant power. It sticks to this position for about 70 years. Although the Soviet Union was militarily speaking equal to the US, in other fields it was not equal to Washington. That’s why the United States perceived itself as the world's only superpower after the end of World War II. This idea became stronger after the end of the Cold War.
'Meanwhile, Russia prefers a very different approach. By its nature, it doesn’t accept foreign dominance in the political and military agenda. Moscow can accept the fact that the dollar is the global currency; it does agree that the US economically speaking is much more powerful than Russia.
'But Russia cannot accept the fact that this dominance extends to its sovereignty and security. It cannot put up with the military dominance of the US. And in this Russia differs from other countries. This contradiction is almost impossible to resolve. It illustrates the clash of American and Russian interests. It is a matter of the scythe hitting the stone. It is a standoff.
Why cannot Russia accept US military and political dominance?
'Historically, Russia has been a country, which has almost never had senior and domineering allies. Throughout its history, it has been self-reliant politically and militarily. Unlike great powers of Europe such as Germany, France or Great Britain, Russia has almost never experienced sweeping defeats, which could force its political elites to radically change their outlook, to be more specific. German, French and British political elites retreated from their great power ambitions and changed their outlook. Russia never did.
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'Although Russia lost the Cold War, it didn’t change its basic self-image, because the defeat didnot result from war (like Germany’s) or the collapse of its colonial empire (like Great Britain’s and France’s), but from domestic changes within the Soviet Union. Russia’s political elites continue to perceive their country as a great power. Not because of its vast territories or the capability to impose its will (in fact, the Kremlin can’t do it today), but because it cannot accept political and military dominance of others over its interests and agenda.
A matter of national pride
Do you mean it is a matter of national pride?
'Exactly, it is pride. Yet, again, this doesn’t mean that Russia seeks political dominance. It just means that Russia cannot tolerate political and military dominance of others. It is a matter of sovereignty and security.
But don’t you see the contradictions and even inconsistency in such behavior, taking into account the fact that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced an inferiority complex and wanted to keep up with the West by accepting its dominance in other fields and sometimes even in the realm of politics?
'Yes, it is a curious paradox, because — unlike the Soviet Union that could not inherently put up with capitalism and relied on the imagined superiority of the Soviet ideology — modern Russia is more pragmatic and selective. It sets certain priorities and draws certain red lines, yet sometimes it gives up its strongly held views in fields that are not considered existentially important for Russia.
Sovereignty and security seem to be the key red lines and top priorities for the Kremlin and, in fact, Russia fuels fears in the West by defending its national interests. In your book, you ask if the West should fear Russia. If it should, what kind of Russia should the West be afraid of?
'The West should fear a Russia that is weakening and disintegrating. And this is not an impossible scenario at all, as indicated by the Soviet experience. Theoretically, it might happen in the future if Russia’s elites and the people are not able to resolve key historical challenges.
'On the other hand, the West is afraid of a Russia, that finds itself in a vulnerable and insecure position. If you surround and contain Russia and try to keep it at bay, you will see a backlash, because Russia sees such containment as an offensive, not a defensive move. For the Kremlin this is encirclement by Russia’s enemies. And this means that Russia will be in a state of high military alert, with its nuclear arsenal in the Kremlin’s hands. And such a situation is very dangerous by its very nature.
What kind of the West should Russia fear?
'Russia should not be afraid of the West. A country like Russia can only be defeated by itself. Thus, it should be focused on dealing with its own weaknesses. In my view, NATO’s enlargement doesn’t create an existential threat for Russia and should be dealt with seriously, but calmly. Fear of the West is a very bad thing for Russia: it distorts our perception of reality.'
This interview was earlier published by Russia Direct.