Senior Fellow, Future of Diplomacy Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School; Former Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs
Experts provide insight on the internal politics of Russia, as well as the current state of U.S.-Russia relations.
HAUSER: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Rita Hauser. And I know almost all of you, and I welcome you very much to this annual Hauser symposium. Each year we pick a subject, and we pick it many months in advance, that we think will be of relevance and of interest to our members. So I must say I think we hit the jackpot today in terms of the subject. (Laughter.)
And we have a stellar cast of people. One of the aims that we had in funding this symposium was that our members be exposed to others than our own distinguished fellows, that they be exposed to the views of other international relations organizations abroad as well as in the United States so that we get a wide perspective beyond the confines of the four walls here.
And we really have done so tonight. Just to cite some of the people and their affiliations, we have the gentleman who headed the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow Center. We have also our sister organizations in the United States—the Atlantic Council, the East-West Institute—but most particularly from abroad: Chatham House from London, Sciences-Po from Paris, the IISS from London. And we have a stellar cast of universities represented: Stanford, the Kennedy School, Johns Hopkins. So if you don’t get an across-the-board, multifaceted point of view about Russia, Russia-American relations, then I will be surprised.
So I welcome you to tonight and of course all day tomorrow through lunch. And I hope you will be edified. And thank you very much for coming. (Applause.)
DOBRIANSKY: Good evening, everyone. First, I’d like to thank Rita Hauser very, very much. Let’s give her a rousing round of applause. (Applause.) You did hit the jackpot tonight on the topic. But not only that, we really thank you for your generosity and your support. Really, thank you.
Welcome, everyone, to the Council on Foreign Relations. Tonight we are going to have a very, very vibrant symposium and forum. As you know, this keynote session is entitled “Perspectives on Russia.” We have Dmitri Trenin and we have Sandy Vershbow as our key panelists. And let me just remind that this session, by the way, is on the record. So, from beginning to end, we are on the record.
I’m Paula Dobriansky. I’m a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, its Future of Diplomacy Project, which is as the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Let me say a few words about our two panelists. I think most of them—well, both of them are known to most of you here, but still, a few words.
Dmitri Trenin is the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. And by the way, I was noticing that he’s been that director and he’s been there since its inception in 1994. And before that you served in both the Soviet as well as the Russian military.
Sandy Vershbow is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft International Center on Security. And he’s been a former ambassador to Russia, to Korea, to NATO and also serving as director (sic; deputy) secretary-general at NATO.
Let me dive right in. It really is, you know—(laughs)—actually, just as we’re meeting here, of course, the meetings in Moscow have been concluded. And as we know, Secretary Tillerson met with Foreign Minister Lavrov, and he also had a meeting with President Putin.
So my question first to you, Dmitri, is, what position do you expect Russia to, in fact, take on Syria given the recent airstrikes and these recent meetings? And I do want to just add he wrote a piece in The Financial Times where he speculated that now there would be closer cooperation between Trump and Putin, that it actually would be more likely as a result of these recent events, meaning not the meetings but the strikes. So over to you, Dmitri. What do you think?
TRENIN: Well, Paula, first of all, I want to thank Rita, I want to thank the Council for having me here. It’s an honor and a privilege, and thank you very much.
Well, thank you for quoting that piece. In fact, I may have been on a flight of imagination. I was sort of looking for things that—counterintuitively, maybe—the things that would contribute to an agreement where both countries have some common interest or overlapping interest at stake.
And following the meetings today in Moscow, I don’t think that Russia will fundamentally change its position. But that position from very beginning actually presupposed that at the end of the day there needs to be a political settlement to the Syrian issue. Otherwise, all Russian military and diplomatic efforts would be wasted.
For Russia, the only exit strategy from Syria—and Syria, let me tell you, was not about Syria. Russian intervention in Syria was not so much about Syria or even about the Middle East. It was about rolling out Russia the great power to be seen as such, to be respected as such again. And in order to get that respect, there’s only one way to do—to move forward, and that is to move forward toward some kind of a deal jointly done, jointly sealed by the United States and Russia.
So, with the strikes of the 7th of April, I think President Trump has reinserted the United States onto the Syrian battlefield, onto the Syrian diplomatic parquet. And since I don’t think he or the people in the United States want a full-fledged invasion-intervention in Syria, the only way forward for the United States would be to use that new position to bargain with Russia and with the countries in the region for a settlement that would meet U.S. interests, would meet Russian interests, meet interests of others. I think it’s very, very difficult. I don’t think this is guaranteed by far. But this is the only way forward in my view.
DOBRIANSKY: Let me ask you before I go to Sandy and—Sandy to respond to the same thing. What, if anything, will come out of—as a next step out of these meetings that have taken place in Moscow?
TRENIN: Well, I think that we may—I’m being very cautious here—we may have touched the floor in the relationship. I think the relationship now stands at a lower level, or let me say at a more dangerous level, than it has been since the 1970s, if not the 1960s. And again, I’ll be very frank: I think the next step toward—in the direction of further degradation of the U.S.-Russian relationship would be a kinetic collision, whether in Syria, whether in the skies of the Baltics, whether in the skies over the Black Sea. But we were in that trajectory, and we can return to that trajectory. And that’s scary.
So I hope that they touch the floor. I don’t think they will bounce back to some beautiful relationship. But at least they started talking. At least they established I think some framework for a conversation—not more than that, but it’s—under the circumstances, it’s not—it’s not a bad outcome.
DOBRIANSKY: Sandy, same question.
VERSHBOW: Yeah. Well, first of all, thanks very much for the opportunity to speak. Thank you, Rita, for this forum. And it’s good to be back here because this was the place where I had my first paying job—(laughter)—when I was—$100 a week—as an intern at Foreign Affairs.
But on Syria, I agree with Dmitri that I don’t see any significant change likely to ensue in terms of Russian policy. That policy I think is not just to reassert Russian power, although it’s certainly been the vehicle for doing that. But it was also a way of demonstrating that Russia stands by its clients. It was a way of standing up to the West, which Putin perceives as engaged in a systematic regime change strategy, whether it was Gadhafi or Yanukovych.
And so I don’t—even though Russia does accept in principle that the end of the process is a political settlement, I think they’re playing for keeps in terms of Assad being not only there at the beginning of the settlement but there for the longer term because he’s the guarantor of their interests, the bases that they’ve gained. So I’m more pessimistic that unless the U.S. comes up with more leverage than the previous administration was able to do, we’re not going to see any dramatic change on the ground.
The meetings ended on what seems to be a relatively amicable note when Tillerson got his meeting with Putin and they agreed to re-establish the deconfliction line, which is a good thing—because you’re right, if there were a collision either in the skies of Syria or in the Baltic or the Black Sea, it could be quite dangerous.
But I think the Trump administration’s aims on April the 7th were just to lay down a marker about the use of chemical weapons. I don’t think it was a shift towards taking on the regime. And unless the Trump administration finds a way to put more pressure on the regime, we’re likely to go back to the status quo ante. And that means Assad is still sitting in the catbird seat, and I don’t see a political settlement coming anytime soon.
And for me, I think the Russians don’t care. They may want a political settlement eventually, but they’re not in any hurry. They don’t seem to have any genuine concern about the destruction of the Syrian people or the continued outflow of refugees. If they can kind of let things grind on to the point that people have only a binary choice between Assad or ISIS, that may be fine with them. So if the Trump administration wants to bring this to a close sooner, they have to generate more leverage. And I don’t yet see them having a coherent policy that will provide that leverage.
DOBRIANSKY: Well, Sandy, let me take what you just said and put you in the Oval Office. So you’re sitting there, and President Trump is there, and he asks you, what’s your advice? What’s your advice on this situation? And not just on this situation but looking at it broadly in the context of the relationship with Russia. What would specifically be your recommendations as to how to go forward at this time?
VERSHBOW: Well, I would start by saying—and here, too, I agree with Dmitri—that the relationship is not only bad, but it is dangerous, it is very precarious. We can differ as to what’s the previous worst case. I would go back to the early ’60s, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the time that they built the Berlin Wall rather than the good old days when they—when the wall came down.
But in some ways it’s even more dangerous. On the one hand, we don’t have the ideological dimension of the Cold War. But on the other hand, we no longer have mutually agreed rules of the game. When Putin launched his aggression against Ukraine, he basically tore up the rulebook, as we say. And the only new rules that he seems to want are the rules of the Yalta Conference of spheres of influence, of diktat of the big powers to the small. So we have a clash of visions of how the whole world and how the European security system should operate.
So if I were—first of all, I would urge President Trump to be a little bit more realistic and less hopeful about having a beautiful relationship with President Putin. But at the same time, we can’t just be passive. We have to at a minimum have a much more proactive strategy to try to minimize risks, go back to some of the Cold War mechanisms of arms control, transparency, confidence-building measures to at least reduce the danger that there could be an incident that would spin out of control, bring some predictability back into the relationship.
But then I would say also you should be ambitious to tackle the problem that has caused the real breakdown in the relationship, and that is the aggression against Ukraine, not just try to kind of park it somewhere but try to actually take the initiative diplomatically in the first encounters with President Putin and try to implement the famous Minsk agreements that call for Russian departure from Eastern Ukraine and restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over these eastern provinces. It’s only asking Russia to implement what it signed up for. It would bring with it the easing of sanctions, the ending of Putin’s pariah status. It would ultimately be better for the people of not only the eastern Ukraine but of Russia, who are seeing a declining standard of living under the sanctions and under the general stagnation of the Russian economy.
So I would say on the one hand manage the risks in a dangerous relationship, but go big and try to solve the main problem that has caused the relationship to break down using all the leverage you can bring to bear, working with allies who have leverage as well in terms of much more economic interaction with Russia, and see whether we can get the big boulder in the road that stands in the way of a better relationship with Russia.
DOBRIANSKY: Dmitri, do you agree with that? What advice would you give to Washington and to Moscow?
TRENIN: Well, I agree, Paula, that we live in dangerous times. I do not accept the analogy of the Cold War. If we accept it, we’ll be looking for things that will not happen, and we’ll be missing things that will or are happening. I think that his new confrontation—and I think this confrontation is not over; it will take a long time.
And I think this confrontation is very different from the Cold War in some key aspects. A, it’s vastly asymmetrical. It’s not roughly equal co-political/military constructs, blocs that were led by rival superpowers. Russia is a midget compared to the West. It’s—but it doesn’t want to lose and it doesn’t want to give up, which means that the tactics and strategies that Russia is applying today are different from the strategies and tactics of the Soviet Union. And any one placed in that position, if he or she were not going to give up—giving up is easy. But if you want to continue, then you have to adopt a different toolkit, and that calls for actions that the Soviet Union—the pattern of action that the Soviet Union did not resort to.
It’s also a situation in which we live in an environment in which is not—in a fluid environment. There are no clear borders—no clear borders between the way they used to be in the Cold War. There’s no Iron Curtain. There is no distinction between—we live—we all live in a common information space, which means that we operate in that information space, whether it’s cyber or whether it’s journalism. And domestic politics, foreign policy, all these things, the distinctions between them are blurred.
We also live in an environment in which there is precious little respect for the other party. And frankly, I don’t know which is better—or which is worse, rather—to be demonized by the mainstream Western media, as Mr. Putin is, or to be lampooned by the Russian state-run media the way Western leaders are lampooned in Russia.
We live in a very dangerous situation also because 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there’s precious little fear of a nuclear war. And I get the feeling that Russia is being handled as if it were not a nuclear power, or a nuclear superpower, and that I think is just dangerous.
Sandy talked about Ukraine. I think that that is a very big issue in the relationship, not only between the United States and Russia, but also in Europe, and clearly between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine, I think, will be for the foreseeable future—and that may include generations—the most hostile country toward Russia. That’s a big change from anything we’ve known before.
But I’m very skeptical that the United States can make Russia give up its stance on Ukraine. There’s just no way. There’s no way that Crimea will be returned to Ukraine.
Donbass, on the other hand, could become part of Ukraine, de facto, if the Minsk Agreement were to be implemented. But the Minsk Agreement, the way it’s written, works 80 percent for Russia, and that has condemned it, because to implement the Minsk Agreement would have meant political suicide for the people in charge of the government in Ukraine. And that’s why it will not be implemented.
I don’t think that the sanctions will be eased or released or relieved in the foreseeable future, and I think that the Russian leadership has more or less acquiesced in the fact that this is—this is here to stay. Russia’s a pariah in the West, of course. I don’t think that there’s a more toxic country seen from this city in the world than Russia. But this is the new reality that Russians have adjusted to.
But beyond the Western world, there’s a different picture. So I think that all of these changes, fundamental as they are, dramatic as they are, dangerous as they are, have already been taken aboard. And this is the new reality. This is this new confrontation that we have entered.
And the last thing I would say in this segment is that for all the disparity and for all the imbalance, for all the vast asymmetry, when I look ahead, I don’t see how it will end. I’m really at a loss. And this is—this makes the whole thing even more unpredictable and at times dangerous.
DOBRIANSKY: I have two questions, one for each, and then we’ll go to the floor to get questions. So be thinking of your questions.
Dmitri, you indicated that you do not think that the current environment can be cast as a new Cold War. But, Lavrov, in a recent interview, he characterized the U.S.-Russian relationship as quote “an absolutely artificial, hysterical situation.” What’s your view on that characterization?
TRENIN: Well, to be very frank, there’s a lot of hysteria in both countries directed against the other, and this is something that I find extremely unhelpful.
I will say one thing. I’m puzzled. And let me again be very frank with you, as a former soldier would. I’m puzzled that anyone in this country can think that a foreign power can steal your democracy or your democratic choice. I never imagined that. To me, this shows the loss of confidence in the American political class in themselves that I never imagined I would see. I’m really stunned by that. Any amount of—again, I’m not—I’m totally open. Russia may have meddled. Russia may have used—it is using Russia Today the way the United States in the Cold War used the Voice of America. I don’t think the results will be as impressive as they were in the Soviet Union. The Sputnik Agency, who’s heard about that, in this country? Who watches RT? And yet, I think that this loss of confidence, to me, is a very serious signal that maybe there’s something about the United States that we and Russia don’t know. Maybe this country is not as solid as it seems. Maybe you’re not as confident in your democracy, in your institutions, in your foreign relations as I—and I would say vast majority of Russians have thought all their lives. I’m really stunned, and I’m still not out of this, you know—have I answered your question? (Laughter.)
DOBRIANSKY: I’m going to go to Sandy, yes, and then, as I said, to the members.
Sandy, two points: If you want to—care to comment on that, but I did want to come back to Ukraine, because both of you talked about Ukraine, and you began. What do you see as Russia’s end game in Ukraine? And actually, in going forward, several points: Should the United States be playing a role? You mentioned the Minsk Agreements. Do you actually see that prior to the German elections, actually that there will be any kind of breakthrough relevant to Ukraine? And what about sanctions? Can sanctions be sustained?
VERSHBOW: Yeah, well, first of all, on what Dmitri was saying, there’s certainly things you can criticize in American policy over the last 25 years, but I think what we’re dealing with over the last three years with Russia is qualitatively different, I mean. And what makes it even more difficult is Russia accepts no responsibility for what it did: using force against a sovereign state, dismembering that country, annexing part of its territory in complete violation of all post-war agreements and post-Cold War agreements, the Budapest Memorandum—claiming basically a right to wreak havoc in its neighboring countries until they, you know, toe the Moscow line, trying to discredit, or even to destroy any Western-oriented government that could possibly take root in one of the neighboring countries, particularly Ukraine, which is historically important—I know that. But still, so I don’t see how this ends if Russia continues to demand the right to do this sort of thing to its sovereign neighbors: to use force and to claim impunity. And then you can’t even talk to them about it because then they say, you know, there’s no Russians in Eastern Ukraine. Those little green men? Nothing to do with us. So it’s very hard to kind of even get to first base and start talking about solutions to these problems.
But I think as a—as an eternal optimist, I would say, you know, you never—you never should give up. And so I do think we should try—“we” meaning the Trump administration—to try to take a much more proactive role in the Ukraine diplomacy, rather than outsourcing it to Germany and France. They’ve done a pretty good job in keeping things from getting worse, but I don’t think they’ve had the clout or the standing in Putin’s eyes to be the ones with whom he would make a deal. So I think there’s at least a possibility that add Trump to the mix—not to usurp the role of the Germans and the French but to become a coequal or primus inter pares in the team to try to succeed where previous efforts have failed, because otherwise I think we’re going to be in a vicious circle—“hazem klute krug” (ph)—unable to even begin to restore some common understanding of how the world should work, how European security should work. And we’re going to be in this sort of no war/no peace. It may not be the Cold War, but it may be more dangerous, more unmanageable. And accidents do happen.
You know, when this might be opportune? I don’t know. The German elections could make Germany less able to, you know, make big decisions for the next few months. Of course, Putin’s reelection, that may be the key event we have to wait for before Putin might prepare to negotiate seriously.
But I worry if we wait another year the situation in Ukraine could get even worse. I mean, there’s shelling continuing almost every day. Hundreds of Ukrainians die every week. The Russians are moving to integrate the economy of the Donbass more and more into the Russian economy, accepting documents, the passports of these separatist regimes as legitimate documents. It looks like they may be trying to turn it into another frozen conflict, but it isn’t going to stay frozen. I think it’s likely to be a flashpoint for years to come and get in the way of any normalization of East-West relations.
So, yes, Crimea is going to be harder to solve. I’m not suggesting that that has to be solved in any initial deal. I’m talking mainly about the Donbass, where you have an active Russian-backed insurgency in which life is a living hell. You have a kind of military standoff between the Ukrainian military and the Russian-backed forces, who have now more tanks than the entire German Bundeswehr in their hands.
I think what may be needed—because Minsk, indeed, isn’t a very good agreement. It’s the only one we have. I think if Russia were interested in making this work, looking to the U.N. to establish an interim administration with a peacekeeping force for two, three, four years to kind of facilitate the transition, allow demilitarization of the militias, restoration of normal economic activity, law and order, and then you could hold genuine elections that could elect legitimate leaders instead of just putting the mantle of legitimacy on the Russian chosen proxies. It’s a tall order, but, you know, diplomats should think ambitiously. I know Staffan de Mistura was just here. He never gives up, so I would say we should never give up, and try to actually solve the Donbass. And then you—then Crimea will be like the Baltic states. We will never recognize its incorporation, and it will take maybe a few decades, but eventually it will return to Ukraine.
DOBRIANSKY: And a 30-second—the sanctions can be sustained?
VERSHBOW: I think they can. Of course, if Marine Le Pen is elected, all bets are off. I’m less worried about the possible change in the—in who’s in the position of chancellor in Germany. I think from what I know Martin Schulz is pretty solid on Ukraine and the principles of the European rules-based order, and so I think he would do a similar job as Chancellor Merkel in trying to keep the sanctions in force. They’ll be a few wayward members of the EU, but I think if the major powers stay together, they can hold the line.
DOBRIANSKY: All right. Let’s go to the floor. I’m sure there are going to be lots of questions. Remember, we’re on the record and would appreciate greatly if you could state your name and affiliation. Let’s come right here. We’ll go to you and—fine, let’s—ladies first, and then we’ll go to you.
Q: Thank you. Trudy Rubin from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
If we start from the premise that Russia didn’t steal the election, do you think active measures are a danger to the West, this kind of information or cyber campaign, and how should they be dealt with? And also, do you think there’s any kind of framework that Putin would accept for a new rules-based order short of another Yalta accord?
DOBRIANSKY: OK, thank you for that.
And we’ll give the mic to the gentleman next, if that’s OK—but not to ask your question yet.
Please, Dmitri. Do you want to take that?
TRENIN: Well, I think that if you have—if you have secrets, you have to keep them. Don’t leave anything exposed. I think hacking is not the issue. Everyone who has the capability to hack can hack, and I think hacking has been going on. That’s—it’s a form of espionage, so there’s nothing new. The really interesting thing is attempting to use the information, however obtained, to influence political process in a country. I’m very skeptical on the uses of that. I don’t think it’s—I don’t think it pays, frankly. So I don’t think that active measures, if we—if you presume that they are being taken, should be a big issue for a healthy democracy. If, however, you have problems—and we all have problems—then you better look at the problems rather than at the people who are trying to use those problems against you. For example, I would—I would take the issue of doping. To me, the issue is not whether it was a CIA plot or somebody else’s plot, you know, trying to smear the Russian sports, whatever. I would say just stop it and that’s the—that’s the way out of this situation. So I would—I would share that advice with you, if you think you need it.
New rules? I think Russia’s problem with the United States is that it wants—what it wants from the U.S., it cannot get. The problem is that they kind of know that they cannot get, but somehow they’re still walking in that direction. They want the United States to recognize Russia as a great power. OK, but this is something that Russia should be doing itself, not asking for recognition. And there are many problems that prevent Russia from being a full-fledged great power today, starting with economics, starting with science and technology, starting with education, health, and many other things. That’s—why should we ask the United States as if it were the emperor in Rome for some kind of a privilege? I don’t think this is—this is necessary.
Second, Russia wants the United States to recognize its zone of influence, its sphere of influence. For the Russians, this is more of a zone of comfort so that they’re not surrounded by American allies, or as Mr. Putin would put it, American satellites. OK, I think there’s a little bit of, again, obsolete geopolitical thinking attached to that. Does it matter whether NATO is 100 miles or 200 miles away from St. Petersburg or whether—as it is now, or is it 1,500 miles or 1,500 kilometers away from Russia’s border? Does it matter today? It’s not NATO that can destroy Russia. It’s the United States military. And the United States military can you get you from Florida. So that’s not the issue. But you must be careful that they don’t use their clear military superiority to make you do things that you don’t want to do.
Thirdly, they want the United States to treat Russia as a coequal. This is impossible. Russia is not America’s coequal. But the relationship, the issue is not whether you are a coequal or not a coequal. The issue is when you a strike a relationship, we’re all very unequal among ourselves, very highly unequal. And yet, when we deal with each other as human beings, we want to have equal relationships. And this is what Russia should strive for—not being seen as America’s coequal.
And finally, I think that the Russians want to have respect from the United States. I don’t think they will get it. I think that the United States operates from a position of moral superiority toward I would say all nations, but certainly toward Russia. And people can accept that other people are richer, more successful, happier, younger, but it’s difficult to accept that other people are more moral than you are. So I think that this is the problem, and I think that the Russians need to rethink their attitude toward the United States and think a bit less about the United States and think a little bit more about themselves.
DOBRIANSKY: Sandy, with your permission, unless you really wanted to add something, I was going to go to the next. You have a brief—
VERSHBOW: Well, I’ll just give just two cents on these questions, which are good ones.
DOBRIANSKY: OK, right.
VERSHBOW: I agree that stealing information is nothing new. It was, I think, the ability to use the stolen information to influence the course of an election campaign, it was done much more artfully than we had ever seen. But, you know, shame on us, we should fix the vulnerabilities.
I think this was a unique election where there was so much cynicism about our political institutions, our political processes, we were more vulnerable to being manipulated. But, you know, we shouldn’t let that happen again, we should fix the vulnerabilities, both in terms of cybersecurity, but, more importantly, the political vulnerabilities that allow these sorts of machinations and fake news and other things to actually have effect.
I would just say on what Dmitri said, I think I agree with his overall analysis. Basically, Russia needs to kind of grow up and earn great-power status. I mean, Germany, without nuclear weapons, has much more great-power status and influence and leadership role in the world than Russia because Russia seems to be more interested in military power and dominating its neighbors than producing those great scientists and mathematicians of yore that gave the Soviet Union world leadership in many of these fields. All these people are emigrating to Silicon Valley and Russia to not even care. These are the malcontents who could become part of a Russian Maidan someday, so better to let them emigrate and Russia just focuses on, you know, being a giant energy supplier and military power and having unrealistic expectations that the world’s going to kind of codify some new division of Europe or division of the world a la Yalta. It’s not going to happen.
Q: Hi. My name is Kabir Sehgal. I work at First Data Corporation.
So a follow up on that is, to what extent is Russia, Russia’s economy influenced or prompts Putin’s actions? Does a depressed oil price make him more likely to shore up nationalism and be more aggressive abroad, or is there not really a linkage between the economy and his foreign policy? Thank you.
DOBRIANSKY: OK, thanks.
Sandy, do you want to pick up?
VERSHBOW: Dmitri may have more insights in this. I don’t think there’s much of a correlation. I mean, I think economic pressures may begin to impinge on some of the assertive behavior we’ve seen in the last couple of years. I mean, sooner or later, the Russian public isn’t going to be sort of thrilled by the heroic achievements of Russian pilots in Syria and, you know, Crimea having been restored to the Russian motherland if the economy is continuing to stagnate and quality of life and standard of living begins to go downhill. But so far, that tipping point has not been reached. And I don’t think because of the tight political controls that Putin maintains and the control over the state media, the famous “it’s the economy, stupid” principle isn’t going to catch up with him for several more years.
DOBRIANSKY: Dmitri, you want to add?
TRENIN: First, I would—if you permit, Sandy, I think there’s a slight confusion between being a great country, what Germany is, and a great power, what Germany is not, but Russia is, although it’s not a great country. (Laughter.) Well, it’s a great country to those who feel it’s a great country. (Laughter.) But it’s a country that certainly, well, you can love the country and you want it to be great. But you know all too well the flaws and the deficiencies and the problems, the myriads of them, that exist there.
When I use the term “great power” it denotes a country that can act independently and its own master and has sufficient resources to withstand pressure from the outside not to change course. That does not include—it requires a certain level of the GDP. It requires a certain—it requires all these things, but there’s something else. There’s a will to act independently. And there are not very many countries around the world that can afford to do that or think they can afford it. So that’s the distinction.
I think that Putin is—I don’t know whether I heard it from him or may have fantasized, I don’t know, but I think that he is led by the notion that Russia is nothing if not a great power. In other words, no one will step forward and protect Russia the way the United States protected Germany and another great country, Japan, and so many other great countries that depend on the United States for existential issues. Russia depends on itself for existential issues.
And since it’s a country that cannot, and I think we saw that in the last 20, 25 years, cannot integrate into a bigger community and accept anyone’s leadership, then I think that was the fundamental reason why, after the end of the Cold War, Russia did not integrate into the West or into the Euro-Atlantic community. It rejected U.S. leadership, which is the admission fee for even the first baby step toward being part of that great community of nations.
With regard to the economic situation, while I’m not an expert in economics, I think the big problem for Russia—and the problem is not that Russia is spending so much money on Syria and so much money on Crimea. Crimea is seen as part of Russia and a part with so many other regions, so it’s not an issue. The problem is that Russia has not come up with, and not Russia, Vladimir Putin, has not come up with a working model of economic development of Russia.
Russia’s problems are not linked to sanctions. Sanctions are an icing on the cake, but the cake itself is the inability of the Russian elite to come up with a working model of economic development. Unfortunately, we have perhaps the worst-quality elite in our entire country’s history today.
DOBRIANSKY: All right. Other questions? We have in the back, way in the back there, and then we’ll come over here.
Q: Hi, Joshua Schoen, Doug Schoen, LLC.
My question is about the Trump administration’s statement today, looking to further expand NATO into Montenegro. If we’re to take this at face value, what are going to be the consequences of that?
DOBRIANSKY: OK, thank you.
Why don’t we go to you first, Sandy, as former ambassador, and then we’ll hear from Dmitri.
VERSHBOW: Well, Montenegro is a very small country, only been around for about a decade as an independent state. But it applied, like any other European democracy in accordance with NATO’s open-door policy, did the hard work in terms of military reform, of political and economic reform, contributing to NATO operations, and so about a year-and-a-half ago, NATO foreign ministers made the decision that it had reached the point that it could be invited to accede to the alliance. And that process has now reached its culmination with U.S. Senate ratification, and the president is ready to sign. I think that the Netherlands still has to, and maybe one other country need to ratify as well.
This is being viewed in Russia as a sort of major crime against humanity. (Laughter.) This is a country that is very far from Russia, although it used to be part of Serbia, they had close relations with Russia. A lot of Russians have invested in Montenegro and have real estate there, so it has a big Russian expat colony.
But Montenegro brings very little militarily to the alliance, but it does kind of promote what we still see as a strategic objective of promoting the reform and integration of the Western Balkans into the rest of Europe. We saw, you know, the wars in the ‘90s when the former Yugoslavia broke up. And we’re still convinced that putting all these countries that want to move on the path of Euro-Atlantic integration with both EU membership and NATO membership, ultimately, is the recipe for long-term stability in the region. So it’s not about expanding NATO’s military potential, but it’s more about political stabilization of a still-volatile part of Europe.
DOBRIANSKY: OK. And Dmitri?
TRENIN: Well, I think that, as Sandy has mentioned, it’s a sign that NATO enlargement is still on the agenda, even though Ukraine is not a candidate and will not be a candidate, in my view, for a fairly long time; neither is Georgia in that category. But the principle of NATO’s open-door policy has to be preserved, so Montenegro serves the purpose.
My second point is that it’s not that I am worried about the Balkans. From the Russian viewpoint, the Balkans belong to the Western sphere of influence.
VERSHBOW: You think so? Even Serbia?
TRENIN: Yeah, even Serbia. Serbia, even to some—I mean, Serbia is the country that tries to use its Russia connection as bargaining chips in its relations with Brussels, so does Hungary, so does Greece, and there’s a number of NATO allies who are using this. Whatever it is, it’s what they’re using.
But the Balkans is an area which may see some trouble later on and not because of Russia. There is something brewing, as I understand, under the surface in Kosovo, in Albania, Macedonia. So I wish you well with your new ally in the Balkans. (Laughter.) You will need it.
DOBRIANSKY: OK. Let’s go right down here and then we’ll come up. Behind, the gentleman right there. Thank you.
Q: Albert Knapp, NYU School of Medicine.
My question is for Mr. Trenin. You made a point before, an insightful one, about the rules no longer apply. My question refers to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. How do the United States diplomats in NATO explain that now that it’s part of NATO that we would have to defend them?
TRENIN: Excuse me, that?
Q: That now that Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are part of NATO that trying to subjugate those three countries again, if it happened, would have dire consequences.
TRENIN: Well, I don’t think that you have to preach in Moscow in favor of Latvia’s or Estonia’s or Lithuania’s independence. I think that they have been seen, ever since they were allowed by Gorbachev to become independent states, as foreign territories. There’s a big distinction in the Russian mind between Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine on the one hand and the Baltic states or, I would say, all other former Soviet republics.
I don’t think that the security of the Baltic states has been threatened by the Russians since their independence. But I also know that a fear of Russia will stay in the genes of the populations and in particular of the elites of those countries for many generations to come.
So you have, as a Russian, you simply have to accept that you’ll be feared out there. And, well, fine, I mean, you accept it. But I don’t think you need—and they need reassurance because they are jittery. And they need reassurance in the form of U.S. and other NATO countries’ battalions and physical presence of U.S. and other NATO countries’ boots on the ground.
But from a Russian perspective, there’s no need, there’s no reason why Russia should have those countries under its control. Russia finds it very hard. I mean, Sandy referred to that. Russia finds it very hard to integrate Crimea after 20-something years of Ukrainian governance. Russia is not welcoming the prospect of having de facto to integrate Donbass as it’s doing in some ways, but it’s doing it out of necessity, not because it’s such a big prize, something that Russia intended to grab.
Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia will be where they are. And I hope that this level of reassurance will stay, because if reassurance goes to higher levels, then we’ll have a highly-militarized front here between Russia and NATO, which, again, will not serve the cause of European—I hesitate to say European security, but it will make the situation in Europe even more dangerous than it is today. And who would profit from that? But I think that they are safe.
DOBRIANSKY: Sandy, you had a brief comment before we take one last question? Then we’ll wrap.
VERSHBOW: Yeah. Well, the basic point is, when NATO decided to bring those countries in, the decision was taken in 2002 and they were official made members of NATO in 2004, it was with a full understanding we were taking on a very solemn commitment to defend them. They are covered by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. It didn’t require any real military buildup of any kind. There were no forces put in those countries in the decade after the joined.
And in fact, it’s interesting to note, for those who, including in Russia, who talk about NATO enlargement as posing a military threat to Russia, Russia actually reduced its forces in the western half of Russia from 2004 to 2014 because it didn’t see NATO as a military threat. As Dmitri said, you can fire missiles from Mar-a-Lago or anywhere else. (Laughter.) You don’t have to be up close.
And I do agree that they were always seen as different because they were incorporated as part of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and I think their legitimacy as part of the Soviet Union was not quite on the same par as the rest of the union republics. And so when Gorbachev let them go, there was a little violence, I think it was recognizing that that was sort of an original sin going back to 1939.
But I think there’s a risk, not so much of Russian aggression, it’s that Russia seems, with its new mastery of what we call hybrid warfare, ready to at least stir up instability and internal strife in these countries, just as we’ve had the liberation movements for Odessa region and Bessarabia. There are websites in Moscow trying to promote separatist movements in eastern Latvia and in Estonia. And these may just be to create a nuisance and they may not have any action or orientation, but still it raises questions about whether Russia is ready to have normal, stable relations with its neighbors, or likes them to be in a constant state of uncertainty and instability and that Russia’s kind of poking from time to time to stir up trouble.
So having a battalion from NATO is not a big military issue, but it kind of reminds the Russians that if they fool around they will be running into Americans, Germans, Brits and not just Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians.
DOBRIANSKY: I thought we’ll go for one last question. We’ll go on this side, and right there in the middle, right here up front, in the middle. Yep, he’s got his finger up.
Q: Hi. Carlos Pascual, a former colleague of Dmitri’s and Sandy’s. Good to see you again.
Dmitri, if I can take you back to where you started and your point that Russia went into Syria to demonstrate its great-power status. And I agree with you that it has. And when you look at what country can actually talk with Baghdad and Damascus and Riyadh and Tel Aviv, there’s only one right now and it’s Russia. And yet, on the other hand, what it has on the ground is chaos. And so, where does it take that? And what else does it get out of that Middle East play? What else does it want?
And, Sandy, if you can reflect on the other side of that from a U.S. policy perspective. What do you do with that reality of the strength of the presence, and yet the chaos around it? How do you play that into some form of a diplomatic agenda?
DOBRIANSKY: OK, thank you for the question.
And if we could get pithy answers, we’re at our closing time.
TRENIN: Carlos, great to see you. I think Russia—again, Russia’s problem with the United States is fundamental. It’s about the world order. The United States is basically out there to keep the liberal democratic order around the world as the dominant order, and it wants to stay the leader—it wants to keep its leadership. Seen from the Russian side, this could look like hegemony. So the Russians’ view is that the world should be organized differently, as an oligarchy. So it’s hegemony versus oligarchy. But Russia needs to be one of the oligarchs.
So that’s, in a nutshell, the problem, which I think is fundamental, and I think it will stay there for a long time for a number of reasons. I wish it were different. But I think that in the Russian mentality, they have to care for something bigger than Russia. They cannot stop at Russia’s borders. They are exceptional in their own right. Not like the United States, but also exceptional. The Chinese can stay there and, you know, they can receive calmly the news about missile strikes over a chocolate tart, but the Russians wouldn’t tolerate a Taiwan-like situation close to their borders. They would go to war, frankly. So that’s the big difference.
So, to prevent regime changes, I think that was one of the things that—to stem—to reverse the tide of Islamist radicalism that might reach Russia, prevent U.S.-orchestrated regime change. But it’s also want to kill. It’s not so much you want to win against Islamic radicals, but you want to kill them, to let them stay there. And a few thousand extremists, whatever, jihadis who had come from Russia, were killed there.
And, finally, Russia is—like the Soviet Union, Russia, when it goes abroad, does not go out and spend money. The Soviet Union used to do that for no useful purpose. Russia is going out to the world to earn money. And what Russia has been doing is—also has a certain material value to that. Whether it’s arms sales, whether it’s oil-price deals, whether it’s something else, standing up to one’s client is a fairly good recommendation to quite a few strongmen around the world. And some of these guys have money.
So it’s these things. Maybe some others. (Laughter.)
DOBRIANSKY: Sandy—(laughs)—Sandy, a pithy answer to this question?
VERSHBOW: Yeah, I mean, what we need in Syria, it’s what the Obama administration was trying to get, which was some kind of political solution that would lead to some restructuring of the Syrian state, restore some modicum of stability to the region. But I think we face the same conundrum: how to persuade Russia that the only way you can actually get there is by letting the Syrian people choose leaders other than Assad, as opposed to preserving him as the price of any deal. I mean, I think there are ways to give Russia sort of full credit and glory and great publicity for being the co-authors of a peace agreement. I agree that, you know, it may look almost like oligarchy in Russian eyes, and they can sell it that way to their people.
But I do think Putin is still overly obsessed with this regime-change issue. He really thinks that that is the Western agenda, not only in the Middle East, in Ukraine, but in Russia itself. And because of that, the suspicion is always going to be perhaps insurmountable. But maybe Trump, you know, who has said he’s not putting as much emphasis on democratization and human rights, might be able to succeed where others have failed, but I’m still not very optimistic about that.
DOBRIANSKY: All right. My apologies to those who had questions and didn’t get to ask them, but come on up and ask them directly to the two distinguished panelists. Please join me in thanking them. (Applause.)
TRENIN: Thank you, Paula. Thank you very, very, much.