Experts review Russia’s strategic objectives and foreign policy with Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the United States.
NAGORSKI: Welcome, everybody. Welcome to those of you, especially, who have come back after the other sessions. This is the third session of today’s Council on Foreign Relations Symposium on Russia and the West. The session is titled “Russian Foreign Policy.”
I’m Andrew Nagorski, and I’ll be presiding. Like some of you in the audience and many of you who have talked today, I had various adventures in the old Soviet Union, the new Russia, and we’ll be talking about that today. And, in fact, I even remember in the mid-’90s there was this fleeting moment where some of us who were Moscow correspondents were worried that interest in Russia was really declining and we—no one will want to hear about it anymore. I think today’s sessions contradict that pretty authoritatively, whether for better or worse.
So today’s panel, you have their bios. But, very briefly, on my far left Alina Polyakova from the Atlantic Council, James Nixey from Chatham House, and Jennifer Harris from the Council on Foreign Relations.
Maybe I’ll start with a pretty broad question, but again, sort of harkening back to maybe my initial experience in the Soviet Union in the early ’80s when there was—you know, the Soviet Union was very expansive. Obviously, the Soviet empire was large. It was—it had just—it was just—there had been the Soviet war in Afghanistan, there was the pressure on the Polish regime to crack down on Solidarity, and many other actions in other parts of the world. And at that time, there was a saying, sort of the punchline of one of the many old Soviet jokes was: “What is the most aggressive country in the world?” “The United States, of course.” “But why?” “Because the United States intervenes in Soviet internal affairs all over the world.” (Laughter.) So today we have Russia, once again its, quote/unquote, “internal affairs” seem to have a—have a broader definition, certainly when it comes to Crimea, eastern Ukraine, Syria, massive disinformation campaigns in various part of the world, with various new instruments.
So what I’d like to ask each of you to at least briefly give a first shot at: If you’re in Putin’s shoes, what—is there a grand strategy here? What’s driving your actions? Or is it—is it simply tactics from crisis to crisis?
Maybe, Alina, would you like to start?
POLYAKOVA: Sure. Thanks so much, Andrew.
And thanks to CFR for organizing this symposium. I think as you were saying, Andrew, even a couple of years ago at a panel like this we wouldn’t have seen such a wide-ranging and engaged audience as we do today, and I think that is testament to the increasing interest in this region again.
I think, you know, our task here on this panel is to look at how the world looks like from the point of view of Moscow, from the Kremlin. So, to go directly to your question, there’s been a lot of debate about whether Putin is a strategist, has a long-term view, or whether he’s a tactician and a sophisticated and savvy opportunist. And I think this distinction is actually a bit moot and it doesn’t get us to the questions we all seek.
Yes, I think Putin has been very good at identifying power vacuums in various regions of the world, obviously including in what Russia considers its near abroad, the post-Soviet space broadly defined, in the Middle East as well. When U.S. leadership is absent and Western leadership is absent, Russia has found a way to come in and make itself the key mediator, the key arbiter of power relations in that region, to insert itself back onto the world stage.
But I do think there’s a strategic view here, a more long-term view. Again, if you’re looking out onto the world from the point of view of Moscow, you see many democratic leaders leaving office after four, five, six years. You look at Europe in 2017, many major elections coming up, most notably in France next week, Germany, and elsewhere. And, you know, you know, as the president of Russia, that you’re going to be there for quite some time. Putin has been in power for 17 years, and I do think he will remain in power after the next elections in 2018. So, of course, you have the opportunity to have a more long-term strategic view.
So I think there is an element of grand strategy here that does not necessarily exclude opportunism and tactical sort of actions. And I think inherent in that grand strategy is a view of the world in which Russia deserves influence and control over its near abroad, including Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, to some extent perhaps even the Caucasus and Central Asia. And looking more broadly out, if you’re thinking of concentric circles forming outside of—around Moscow, looking at Central/Eastern European countries who have joined NATO, who have joined the EU, this is obviously seen as a security threat to Russian interests in the region. And then even looking beyond that to the West, broadly defined—Western Europe, the United States—I think the ultimate goal, from the Russian point of view, in any of these countries is to have a pro-Russian government installed with which the Kremlin can deal with on a bilateral basis in terms of trade and negotiations around foreign policy issues. That’s, of course, what Russia had in Ukraine with Viktor Yanukovych before the Maidan in 2013-2014.
So, when that fails, the first-order goal fails, I think you go down to your second-tier goals. And I think that second-tier goal vis-à-vis Europe specifically, including Western Europe, is to have a Europe that is still economically stable—because it is a major trade partner for the Russian Federation—but is in a sort of political paralysis and incapable of having a strategic policy vis-à-vis Russia, incapable of having a unified policy vis-à-vis Russia, and is mired in its own inward-looking politics and policies.
NAGORSKI: James, do you want to have a shot at that?
NIXEY: Sure. But first, thank you very much indeed, Andrew, Council on Foreign Relations, Hauser Foundation for a fascinating set of discussions.
Yeah, sure Russia has a grand strategy. It has explicitly said it wants to change the post-Cold War order. That’s not a criticism, it’s just a matter of established record. It’s in the Russian foreign policy doctrine. It’s what they say: Russia was weak in the early 1990s and a series of rules were enforced upon it, and now it is stronger and it wishes to change those established rules. So it wants to change the Helsinki Final Act, which determines or states the sovereignty of all states. It does not view the post-Soviet states as fully sovereign, and it wishes to change that. And it is quite clear and, if you like, honest about what it wants. The West is less honest about what it wants to do in response, but that’s perhaps a matter for the next session. But I mean, so, yes, it had a grand strategy.
What’s driving it, you asked? And we discussed this, of course. And you attributed it, Andrew, to the importance of domestic drivers, and I don’t disagree. I mean, yeah, sure, Russia needs an enemy. West-bashing plays well with the masses. Foreign policy adventures are—can distract from problems at home, and can be blamed on the West as well, and the indispensability helps to justify the continuation of a regime. So I think that’s certainly true. But, as somebody said in the last session, I think, it’s a—it’s a mistake to attribute it to one set of factors. I mean, there are others as well.
There’s a great deal—I’m sorry to have to say it, but there’s a great deal of anti-Americanism in Russia. Maybe some of you may have seen the film “Brat Dva,” “Brother 2.” It ends with a couple of young Russians leaving America, leaving customs, and sticking two fingers up at them. And it was a—it was a very, very popular movie, and it tapped into a certain—into a certain culture.
But there’s a genuine belief—a genuine belief in Russia’s destiny as a great power, or the genuine belief that the world should be run, as Dmitri Trenin said here last night, as an oligarchy—by a council of great powers, in other words. And there’s a genuine belief that the West has messed it all up, and that Russia can do a better job.
So there’s a number of driving factors, which are a mixture of the myth and an element of truth, because that always helps. But my main point would be that the Russians have been absolutely clear about what it is that they want.
NAGORSKI: But isn’t, at the same time—and I’ll toss it to you, Jennifer—this idea, whether it’s driven by domestic policy or, you know, a genuine belief in this, that we are surrounded by enemies, everybody’s the enemy—NATO’s the enemy; the EU, that aggressive organization, is the enemy—doesn’t that become a self-fulfilling prophecy? I mean, you take—all of us can remember a time, for instance, when in Western Europe Russia was actually quite popular, during the late Gorbachev period, the early Yeltsin period, and it was viewed quite differently than it is today. But after Crimea and after numerous other events, you know, you look at Russia’s ratings in the world and, yes, look, we are surrounded by people who view us as—with hostile intent.
HARRIS: Yeah, it’s easy to forget that up until 2012 Russia’s stated official policy was to view itself as part of a globalist Europe, which included North America, Europe proper, and Russia. And I think you’ve seen a very quick undoing of that in the last five years, and in many ways I think a reversion to the sort of historical trend.
But for me, the starting place to really understand the through line of Russia lately is through the ’90s and the unfathomable misery that was visited upon Russia in the ’90s. You know, we in the U.S. look to the Great Depression as the moment that really was a turning point in our social and political fabric in this country, and over the span of the Great Depression U.S. GDP contracted about 25 percent. And during the 1990s in Russia, they saw a contraction of almost twice that that lasted almost three times as long. So I think it’s just—it’s helpful to kind of keep that in front of mind when trying to divine, you know, Putin’s moves, what he really wants.
My view, a short answer to your initial question, he wants two things. He’s looking to reconstitute some sort of soft empire that includes dominance over most of the former Soviet republics and, I think, a greater degree of deference from the West than Putin and Russia has seen in the—in the last 15 years. But he’s also looking to make the world safe for autocracy. And those two goals are sort of inherently reactive. And I think that explains a lot of—because he’s up against what he correctly views as a far-mightier West.
And so this gives rise to a whole bunch of small, smoldering wars that never quite seem to end, lot of the cloak-and-dagger operations; poisoning of, you know, ex-spies and—you know, in the heart of London; to sort of the, you know, botched coups in Montenegro. You know, this stuff almost writes itself—too, you know, obviously more recent events in playing in political elections in the U.S.
So that is—that is very much of a—of a larger piece of a Hobbesian worldview. And I don’t think it goes much further than that in terms of strategy.
NAGORSKI: Yeah, and it plays into what Alina points out. You know, 17 years in power, next year, assuming he stays in power, he will be in as long as Brezhnev. And everybody—yeah—who—in the Brezhnev era felt interminable and you felt that those demonstrations at the—at the cusp of the 2012 elections were in large part by people who said, wait a minute, this isn’t quite what we signed up for. And I think there’s some fear there again.
But in practical terms, what does that mean? Let’s start, say, with Ukraine. Is there any movement possible? And it plays into, of course, the new U.S. equation where, you know, that—anybody can figure that out, good luck to them. But—and as I think Kathryn said in the previous panel, you know, where as of yesterday China is our friend and Russia is not, but you know, do you see—do any of you see some practical moves that could come from any party to this to move things away from that sort of, you know, just festering conflict, instability, which seems to be the tactical goal right now?
POLYAKOVA: If I can just start—
POLYAKOVA: —on Ukraine—and I think as we saw in the meeting between Secretary Tillerson and President Putin and also Foreign Minister Lavrov just this week, it seems that that specific issue is very much a nonstarter in terms of beginning a dialogue and negotiations. And that’s because, you know, I think, as Ambassador Vershbow said yesterday on the panel, for you to have the beginnings of a dialogue, to be able to set the terms, the Russians first have to agree that they have done something wrong by annexing part of a sovereign country.
And they have not agreed to that. They have not acknowledged that they annexed Crimea illegally in violating an agreement in 1994, the Budapest Memorandum, that they themselves were a signatory on. They have denied any involvement in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine, even though we know that there are regular Russian military troops there. If they’re not there now, they certainly were there previously. And there’s plenty of Russian military equipment. You know, that—you know, tanks don’t just appear out of nowhere. They’re clearly coming from across the border.
And I think the Minsk agreements, the ceasefire agreements—two of them were signed, 2014, 2015—still remain the only possible process that we have for any sort of dialogue and communication on Ukraine. But these have been stalled. And again, there’s a profound disagreement between what Russia sees as the next steps on Minsk and what the Ukrainians see as the next steps on Minsk; and then, of course, what the Western European powers, Germany and France, who’ve been involved in the process, see as the next steps on Minsk.
So I think this is a situation that from the point of view of the Russians will probably be ideally settled, quote/unquote, as a “frozen conflict,” we have in Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh to some extent, and of course in Georgia. But I think from the Ukrainian point of view—(audio break).
HARRIS: (In progress following audio break)—I think we missed our window in Ukraine, to be honest. And I say this, you know, reluctantly as, you know, a long-serving member of the Obama administration.
NAGORSKI: When was that window?
HARRIS: It was, I think, in the—in the first 18 months of the crisis in that we focused far too heavily on what we could do to Russia rather than what we could do for Ukraine. And we did have some talented Western-minded—basically not corrupt—leaders in Ukraine in the early days. And the entire political energies of Washington was focused solely on sanctions. That is the only economic form of statecraft we tend to exercise. And I think it—you know, it began to build on itself and took on a—(audio break)—they would turn to—sort of revert to old habits. And so I don’t think that there is the political ability for Washington to come in with the sort of aid now that could have made the difference.
NAGORSKI: Well, I’m not only saying Russia but any—Europe as well, obviously. But yeah. James.
NIXEY: Just very briefly, because I certainly agree my co-speakers. But Ukraine is the crux of a problem, but it’s also just a manifestation of a wider problem. There is a kind of a map, I think, in Vladimir Putin’s mind, and Ukraine sits very firmly east of an East/West dividing line that we no longer acknowledge and, as I said, the Helsinki Final Act certainly does not acknowledge.
And the majority of 45 million Ukrainians also do not acknowledge—86 percent of Ukrainians want to have Western models of governance. It’s a lot less in terms of EU membership and then NATO membership on a sliding scale, but the vast majority of Russians do not wish to be members of the Eurasian Economic Union and do not wish to have their foreign policy orientation decided by the former imperial power.
I also agree that we did slightly miss the boat or we got it wrong on Ukraine, not as is often said by forcing some kind of agreement on them, because that’s not true. There were actually five years of negotiations, careful negotiations, to sign the association agreement with Ukraine between the Ukraine—between the Ukraine and the EU. But actually it’s often poor trade, as we made Ukraine choose. But actually we offered Ukraine preferential trade terms, but Russia objects to that because it believes it has first dibs. And that is where we’re just rubbing up against each other.
And I’m afraid these differences—and I’m sorry to have to say it—are irreconcilable. And it’s hard to see how you can—how you can, through a process of negotiation and diplomacy, come to some form of compromise which would satisfy both the Kremlin in its desire to ensure that Ukraine does not join Western clubs and Ukraine’s desire to be as independent as Portugal or Ireland.
NAGORSKI: Yes, Alina. Do you want to—
POLYAKOVA: Just very briefly just to emphasize the point that James just made about these—this irreconcilable difference. I completely agree with you. I think the big ideological difference is that the Kremlin does not believe that countries like Ukraine, other countries it considers in its sphere of influence, that the people in those countries have the right to determine their own future and the direction they want to head in democratically, because there’s—I think there’s a cynicism that is inherent to the mindset of the—of the current regime in Russia. And of course countries like the United States and other Western countries think that the people of Ukraine, of Georgia, Moldova, et cetera, should have the right to determine their own path, wherever that may lead.
And this is the big difference on what we could call sovereignty, right. The idea of national sovereignty from a Russian point of view is completely different than what the idea of national sovereignty is from a Western point of view.
NAGORSKI: Yeah. Assuming that’s true—which all the evidence would suggest it is—where’s the limit to the scale of the ambition? If Ukraine is mired right now in a situation where no one seems to know what the next move is, does Putin and his team—do Putin and his team just sit on that and say, OK, we’ve got as far as we wanted? Or the other scenario—you know, if you’re sitting in the Baltic states, should you be nervous of some sort of hybrid kind of attempt to go further that actually nudges into NATO without actually provoking a(n) Article 5 response?
NIXEY: I don’t think Russia wants more soil. It doesn’t need to use tanks. It can’t afford to use tanks. It’s over-extended as it is. It simply requires a degree, maybe quite a substantial degree, of control over some domestic and most foreign—major foreign policy decisions, because it believes that its historical sway gives it rights in the modern day.
And again, I keep coming back to this idea, but this is not me saying it; this is Russia’s stated policy of a historically privileged sphere of mutually privileged interests. And it’s—again, this is—this is—it’s fine—if you believe that’s true and if you take them—somebody mentioned the Mearsheimer argument before—if you think that it’s better that way, if you think it’ll work, if you think it’ll improve relations, that’s fine. I think that is unproven at best and almost certainly wouldn’t work, never mind the moral acuity of the argument.
But there are 150-million-odd Russians. There’s, roughly speaking, another 150 million of other ex-/post-Soviet states as well. It roughly matches up. So, I mean, it’s a—it’s a question of almost where your values lie.
NAGORSKI: Yeah. Jennifer.
HARRIS: So if 2016 taught us anything, I think the lesson is that chaos is cheap in relative terms.
NAGORSKI: Yeah. Yeah.
HARRIS: And the U.S. systematically under-appreciates the use of nonmilitary tools to achieve geopolitical objectives. And you know, maybe we will learn that after the 2016 election in the U.S. I hope so. But this story has been burning for a long time. Those who knew where to look would have seen that as far back as July of 2012, so a year and a half before Ukraine fomented into the crisis that we knew it to be, Russia was, you know, sort of slapping sanctions on Ukrainian chocolates that happened to be owned by who but Petro Poroshenko just to get their message across that Moscow would much sooner have Ukraine join its Eurasian Customs Union than the path of EU accession.
But because we in the U.S. don’t sort of focus any collective mind or energies in Washington until there’s a military theater or close thereto, you know, I think that we miss a lot of signals. And these signals, by the way, are blinking red and yellow in the Balkans and in the Baltics. You’ve seen Russia double its ownership share of at least five countries in Central and Eastern Europe in the past seven or eight years despite the kind of economic straits that I think you heard last session.
NAGORSKI: We’ll get—I’ll just toss out one more question, then we’ll go to questions from members. But you know, given the topic of the talks in Moscow yesterday, I want to at least throw out again the basic policy strategy versus tactics from the Russian foreign policy viewpoint on Syria and the broader Middle East, a quick few thoughts on that.
Jennifer, do you want to—yeah.
HARRIS: Sure. You know, again, I stand by my Hobbesian sense that this is really chaos theory and that’s—and that’s pretty cheap. But the piece that I hope we don’t forget in Syria and that could sort of snowball into something more meaningful is Russia’s military relationship with Iran. This is the first time since 1979 that you have seen Iran partner militarily with another country to the extent that they are with Russia. And you know, I think that there’s a lot to commend this relationship on both sides, both in Tehran and in Moscow.
NAGORSKI: Although they haven’t given full access to their military bases, but—I think but—
HARRIS: Working access—
NAGORSKI: Working access, yeah.
HARRIS: —with the opportunity to re-raise whenever Moscow pleases.
NAGORSKI: Right. Right.
HARRIS: So, you know, to me it’s a distinction without difference.
NAGORSKI: Yeah. OK.
Yeah, a quick comment or—James.
NIXEY: I’ve seen—I think there’s various very clear stages of Russia’s involvement in the Middle East. And prior to 2012, it was a fairly passive player there. Putin’s reelection saw a reestablishment of relations with Iran and with Egypt. And then I think success in Ukraine in 2014 spurred it on to even more—even more activity in Syria and beyond and a reallocation of resources there. And now we see Russia’s actions in Aleppo having changed the course of the war in Syria.
So Russia’s more confident. And its actions in Libya, for example, just in the last couple of months are a manifestation of this, it’s support for General Haftar, who it believes will have some influence in Libya in the future, is a classic Russian action. But I do think that Russia’s primary motivation in the Middle East is not really about the Middle East; it’s to show it is a serious player. It supports a two-state solution, for example. But at the same time it’s not particularly interested in the outcome. It’s—it wants to be a leading player in the process.
But it has established a lot of connections with the regional players. I was in Dubai in the UAE two weeks ago, and the Russians are—you know, nature abhors a vacuum, and so does Russia. And it moves in where—in the areas where we move out.
NAGORSKI: Right. Thank you.
POLYAKOVA: Just quickly to follow up, I think, on two points that James and Jennifer made, one, this idea that chaos is cheap; and the other that Russia is overextended already. I actually think that what Russia has been able to do militarily and in terms of unconventional measures as well like cyberattacks, information, all of these kinds of asymmetric measures—hybrid war, some people call it, but that’s not my favorite term—has been very cheap. Cyberattacks are very cheap and very effective.
You know, even Russia’s military engagement in Ukraine—estimates show that Russia spends about 4 (billion dollars) to 5 billion (dollars) a year to maintain Crimea, which is effectively incorporated economically into the Russian Federation; and somewhere around, you know, 6 billion (dollars)—although these are obviously, you know, best guesses—to maintain the Donbass to the extent that it can.
And I think the estimates I’ve seen for how much Russia is spending on its war in Syria are also relatively low, a few billion (dollars) a year, because they’re—they don’t have troops on the ground, they’re waging an air campaign there with relatively cheap bombs and weapons.
So I think Russia has a lot of capacity to still do more, both in terms of conventional and nonconventional efforts in the region, though I don’t think it will necessarily in terms of the Baltic states specifically. They are NATO member states. I don’t think the Russian Federation is ready to mess there. But I wouldn’t rule out the idea of a “little green men” scenario that wouldn’t trigger Article 5.
And I think—I agree completely with Jennifer that the Balkans are a serious hotbed for how Russia seeks to exert its influence in what it may and may not do there. And I think it would not cost a lot of political effort—and I hope the next panel will discuss this—to show that the U.S. is ready to reengage in that region in a way to try to pull it back from sinking into more chaos, this cheap chaos that Russia has tried to effect across the world.
NAGORSKI: Thank you. OK. I’d like to turn to the members now. Just a reminder that this is on the record. Wait for the mic when I call on you, and please keep your—state your questions fairly concise. Thank you. You’ve been—right there—first. Yes. Right in—
Q: When we talk about—
NAGORSKI: Please state your name and affiliation.
Q: My name is Richard Dreyfuss, and I am head of the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative.
When you talk about Russia’s stated goal, it seems to me that we have also our stated goal, and ours is far older. And it begins with the Monroe Doctrine. And it basically says—
NAGORSKI: OK, let’s—sorry. Let’s get to a question quickly, OK, please?
Q: Yeah. I will. I will. Why is it that what we accuse them of are things that we have done or will do? We’ve spent more money on regime change than they have and—
NAGORSKI: All right. I think we got the drift of that. OK. Someone want a shot at that? Jennifer.
HARRIS: Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of truth in the question, especially in the U.S.’s efforts in the Middle East. And you know, when—and I think it’s on display this week. Unless there is a plan that comes after military intervention, what—however well-intentioned—I think Libya also falls into this category—we should not be surprised when it doesn’t end well. And yet I think to Moscow our genuine befuddlement every time we decapitate a regime only to have that spill over into broader chaos rings a bit hypocritical.
NAGORSKI: Yeah. James.
NIXEY: Absolutely. We’re no angels. In fact, at times we act like—actually I can’t say it because we’re on camera, but I think that is true and it has to be conceded and admitted. But it doesn’t make what Russia’s doing right either. It is an explanation, but it’s not a justification of what Russia is doing.
And I think that sometimes it’s a—slightly a strange argument to say, well, what about this, what about that, what about—I mean, we’re having a discussion today about Russian foreign policy. We could—I mean, I couldn’t do it because I’m not an expert, but if you’re having a discussion about American foreign policy, British foreign policy, I’m sure there’s an awful lot to criticize. But we’re talking about Russian foreign policy here today.
NAGORSKI: Alina, you want to jump in briefly here?
POLYAKOVA: Yeah. Just—look, there’s plenty of things to criticize about U.S. foreign policy over the last, you know, quarter-century. There’s no question about that. But this moral-equivalence argument, I think, is very dangerous because at the end of the day this is exactly how the Russian media uses things that the U.S. has done to try to justify the things that it’s doing now in places like Ukraine and Syria that are absolutely horrendous and they’re against international law.
And so I think we have to be careful when we put this moral equivalence out there—you know, we did bad things, so why is it so bad that Russia is doing these things now, and who really cares? You know, one thing to keep in mind is at the end of the day, the U.S. as a government does not kill and poison its voices of opposition inside the United States and abroad. Russia does this. The Putin regime does this on a regular basis.
We are different types of great powers, and I think we have to remember that.
NIXEY: May I briefly—really, really quickly, because, I mean, I realize I may have gone too far. And I think Alina is quite right to point out the moral equivalence argument. But I made a list earlier. Listen to this—very, very quickly—the bludgeoning of—(inaudible)—Chechnya in 1999, the callous attitude to the fate of the Kursk in 2000, dismemberment of Yukos in 2003, declaring Yanukovych a victor prematurely in 2004, Russia’s regulation of state-controlled media, trolling, harassment of NGOs, NGO cutoffs; the multiple assassinations of critics at home and abroad; the numerous examples of wealth-creation for Putin’s friends—
NAGORSKI: I think—yeah.
NIXEY: I mean, you can go on and on. And I think—I think—as I say, if you tot it up, then yeah—then I think actually it’s not—the ledger isn’t even.
POLYAKOVA: The list—
NAGORSKI: Yes. All right. Can we have a question right here please? If we can get the mic—no, sorry, right behind you, sir, and then you’ll be next.
Q: Joel Mentor, Barclays. Thank you.
So my question was basically another—I’m not saying if it’s a weakness necessarily but in terms of our ideological battle with Russia, which is just the structural problems and issues or challenges that come along with the democracy in the creation and maintenance of a foreign policy.
So one argument, you can say there is an element of truth—there’s always a mixing of myth and truth—that Putin made against the West is that we start these wars or we naively start these situations that we can’t fix. Polls are already showing that the Syria attack was—is relatively popular here. But then again, if we get caught up in it, the minute we start getting casualties or so forth, there’s an issue.
So making that argument for, let’s say, third parties and they want to know who can be a good friend or who actually has a real understanding of the way the world works, how do we win that battle with Putin?
NAGORSKI: So this is a more U.S. foreign policy question than, I think, Russian foreign policy question, which we—a tough one. But a quick shot at that, Jennifer?
HARRIS: I have—I’m sort of a single-issue—I have a stalking horse, so I’m glad for your question. I think we should bring back the draft honestly. I think the draft was such a demand on our social and political fabric in this country that it required genuine support for war. And I think you saw what happens when that support isn’t fully there in the case of Vietnam, not to mention a lot of the other good kind of socioeconomic mixing functions that the draft held.
NAGORSKI: OK, thanks. That’s an interesting idea. I think we can’t discuss that one in too much detail here. (Laughter.)
How about if I go back there, yes, in—back—all the way back there on the left and then Trudy, yeah.
Q: Hi. My name is Vital Smolski (ph).
I wanted to ask a specific question about what Alina referred to. You mentioned that Russia’s stalled the Minsk agreements. So my question is, what possible gains for Russia as a possible consequence? Because from where I stand, it increases the expenditures for the Russian Federation—
NAGORSKI: I’m sorry, what’s your affiliation? You didn’t mention—
NAGORSKI: What’s your affiliation? Where are you from?
Q: I was invited by a Council committee—
NAGORSKI: No, no, I’m not asking that. Yeah, but you work for somebody?
Q: Independent—no, for myself.
NAGORSKI: Yeah. OK. Yeah.
Q: So I wanted to ask, what are the possible gains for Russia to do that? Because, like I said, from where I stand, it seems like there are more refugees flowing into the country, more expenditures, and possible further sanctions. So—
NAGORSKI: Yeah. Basically, I think what the question, to paraphrase it, is that you’re arguing that there’s more of a downside for Russia, the instability in the Ukraine, than an upside?
Q: Is it possible that Ukraine—yeah—has a double game going on, you know, at the back? And then Russia is—
NAGORSKI: OK. I think we got that. Yeah. Thank you.
Alina, do you want to respond to that?
POLYAKOVA: I think I get the question, but I’m not 100 percent sure. So I’ll try answer the best I can. If Russia has more to lose from instability in Ukraine than Ukraine itself? Is that the gist of it?
Look, I don’t think the—it’s in the Russian interest to have this gray zone on its own border in the Donbass. The Donbass now has devolved into this region that is being run by, you know, Russian-based, Russian-appointed, you know, criminal gangs, more or less, has become an area for weapons smuggling, drug trafficking, sex trafficking. It’s becoming this no man’s land. That is not in the Russian interest to have that, and it’s not in the Ukrainian interest to have that.
But I do think that from the Russian point of view, they may think they can control that situation and to profit from in the sense that it keeps Ukraine destabilized, right, because, you know, if Ukraine does something that the regime doesn’t like, if it tries to negotiate a new gas deal, for example—and the Ukrainians have done a very good job of no longer importing any gas from Russia, but that might change—that they can just turn up the heat in the Donbass with, you know, more casualties for the Ukrainians. Russian soldiers are no longer dying in the Donbass. They have cleaned that up. It’s a truly hybrid force there now.
So I think, from the Russian point of view, it’s not in their interest to have this destabilized, but I think they think they can control it more than they actually can.
NAGORSKI: A brief aside here just to say that, I mean, there’s always been this overarching question, wouldn’t Russia be better with stable, prosperous neighbors? But I think that question has been answered somewhat differently in Moscow.
But, Trudy, you were next, and I see a couple people over here. Yes. Yes, and then—
Q: Trudy Rubin, the Philadelphia Inquirer.
When dealing with the hybrid warfare threat from Russia, how is it possible to have a dialogue when, as you’ve been discussing up there, Russia—even in private, not just in public—denies the reality of what is going on, which applies to the hacking, which applies to the green men and the Donbass, which applies to chemical weapons? And Putin has even indicated that future use of chemical weapons would be the fault of the rebels, which indicates that if the regime did it again, the same argument would be made by the Russians.
So how can you deal even in private or in dialogue with an opposition that simply refuses to deal with reality?
NAGORSKI: Yeah. Who wants to take a shot at that? Alina, do you want to go back on that first?
POLYAKOVA: I guess just very briefly, and then I can hand it over to you, James or Jennifer.
NIXEY: Up to you.
POLYAKOVA: I mean, I think that’s the—that’s exactly what we saw. So we have—we’re at an impasse because we cannot agree on the basic facts on the ground. And this is exactly, I think, what Secretary Tillerson said in his press conference after his meetings in Moscow yesterday. And I think something has to give. I think on the other hand, there are things that we can do—confidence-building measure or kind of baby steps—to try to rebuild some sort of trust in that relationship. But I think the idea that we as the West, as the United States, will be able to change the Russian narrative, the official narrative on these events is a fool’s errand just like I think the United States and other Western countries will not change their narrative on what’s happening on the ground in these places.
NAGORSKI: Yeah. James.
NIXEY: I’ll be very brief here because I think you sort of—you hit on it—you hit the nail on the head and—that Russia—I think if I summarize what you’re trying to—what you said, that it’s—Russia is trying to undermine us, it actually—it actually means us harm. And this is more of a challenge to the next session, because I don’t want to go into what we should do. It’s Sam’s and Thomas’ job in the second.
But what I do feel is we have not drawn the appropriate operational conclusions from the evidence. I’ll leave it at that because it’s not really my job to—I mean, I can say what I think we should do, and I have—do have ideas, but that’s dangerous territory in the next session. But we haven’t drawn the appropriate operation conclusions from Russia’s actions.
NAGORSKI: OK, we’ll leave it there for a second.
Yes, there was—you’ve been waiting patiently here.
Q: Peter Pettibone, Hogan Lovells.
I’d like to shift to a different area. With global warming, the Arctic becomes the new frontier. How do you view Russian foreign policy with regard to the development of the Arctic?
NAGORSKI: OK. Jennifer, you want to take a shot—(laughter)—or are you—
NIXEY: We call that a “hope it’ll pass.”
HARRIS: Well, yeah, I think the U.S.’s position on the Arctic has been that—in favor of a process, not unlike the South China Sea or the East China Sea. And that process needs to be multilateral. And so right now, given what we understand of the Trump administration’s line on climate change—and perhaps we’re best off with a multilateral process that can bring Europe and other actors to the table. But I think it—right now, it remains primarily in the military domain. And we will see the extent to which a lot of the Obama administration’s efforts to pump climate change as a national security risk and threat into the muscle memory of the Pentagon carries through.
NAGORSKI: All right. Yes, over there, please. And—yeah.
Q: Thanks, sir. Hi. Jeremy Young. I’m a journalist with Al Jazeera’s investigative unit.
I’m very interested in the Russian strategy to bolster far-right, alt-right, neo-Nazi white nationalist groups throughout Europe as a mechanism to undermine the European Union. I wonder, could you talk a little bit about what Russia is doing on this front and whether you think it’s been effective?
NAGORSKI: OK. Alina, yes.
POLYAKOVA: So thank you for your question, because this is exactly what I work on, so I really appreciate that. (Laughter.) You know, one thing that we didn’t get into is—you know, we started the conversation with grand strategy ideas. You know, I think if we look at what Russia has been doing in Europe specifically, there’s an intra-disruptive strategy and an inter-disruptive strategy. The intra, meaning within states, focuses exactly o what you point out, that by building these political alliances with ideological friends, you could say, or at least groups that are willing to voice the Russian point of view and support Russian foreign policy objectives within their own nation-states.
For example, there was a vote recently to allow visa-free travel for Ukraine in the European Parliament. If you look at the MEPs who voted against, I think 80 percent of them were—belonged to the far-right nationalist faction of the European Parliament. So we see that this network building and this cultivation of political alliances across Europe, including in Western European countries like France, Marie had mentioned before, Germany, the U.K., and elsewhere, is effective from the Russian point of view. Marine Le Pen was in Moscow very recently, just at the end of March. There’s a lot of speculation about how much Russia actually spends financially to prop up these kinds of political parties and movements. Le Pen’s party is the only one that we have some actual evidence of financial transactions.
But I think at the end of the day, this cultivation of political networks across Europe is part and parcel of a broader strategy of influence that we can call, you know, asymmetrical warfare, if you will. And we focus on disinformation, but I think disinformation I just part of that facilitating effort. And this is the other piece.
NAGORSKI: Thank you. Yes, back there. Yes.
Q: (Off mic)—CitiGroup.
What are Russia’s incentives in North Korea, and how would they respond if there was a preemptive attack by the U.S.?
NAGORSKI: (Laughter.) Jennifer, I think you’ve just been nominated. (Laughter.) Yeah.
HARRIS: No poker face whatsoever. (Laughs.) Have fun.
Well, I guess we could start with what we know about Russia’s relationship with China. And my own is that for all of the mild hysteria around 2014, right around the time Russia and China signed a mega $400 billion gas deal of this new kind of strategic partnership condominium evolving between Moscow and Beijing, there’s no there there. That really has fizzled out quite dramatically in the three years since. So I would not be looking for Russia to come in and do China’s biding on the hope of sort of currying favor with their new friend in Beijing.
So, absent that, my guess is that they’d default on old habits. And as between major powers, Russia has been reasonably reliable vote in favor of sort of nonproliferation regimes. And I think you saw that in Russia’s vote in the Iran nuclear crisis. And so this is perhaps one area where we could be cautiously optimistic for if not partnership than constructive collaboration between Washington and Moscow.
NAGORSKI: Nice to have something cautiously optimistic, yes. Yes, right there.
Q: Stephen Blank.
Should we not conclude as a baseline for planning that the Russians will be more aggressive in the near future? The board seems to have tipped in their favor, they must be interpreting it that way, throughout the world the decline of democratic institutions around the world, to problems in Europe and so on. So isn’t the conclusion here that at least for a baseline for planning to anticipate more aggressive Russian actions?
NAGORSKI: Thanks. James.
NIXEY: I think if you’re a foreign policy planner it would be negligent not to plan for that scenario. It’s not an inevitability, but I think—I think there is evidence to back up your claim there, and that we need to take into account, you know, the—you know, you plan for the—hope for the best, plan for the worst kind of stuff. But, again, I think that Russia—we don’t have enough evidence still to say that Russia will be satisfied if we offer them this or that. But it’s a question of whether we think that Russia merits this position on the world stage, that it—you know, when people talk about respecting Russia’s interest, we always have to ask what that really means. But what I think it means, which is a veto on major foreign policy decisions and the sphere of influence we’ve been talking about, then I think we have to—we have to look at the fallout if we were to—if we were to offer them that.
But, look, in terms of aggression—yeah, look, I think that elections are times of nervousness. They can trigger revolutions. If it were to happen in, say, Belarus, which is not absolutely impossible looking at what’s been happening there recently, I wouldn’t bet my mortgage on the idea that Russian wouldn’t intervene and there would be further aggression, ditto Moldova. Some countries I think are particular precious to the Russian soul, if you like. Others, a little less so.
NAGORSKI: OK. Yes, Alina, you wanted to—
POLYAKOVA: Just to follow up on that, and the last panel focused on the Russian domestic situation. And I think your question is exactly what we see the relationship between foreign policy and domestic issues. In many ways, what Russia does abroad is driven by a domestic political agenda. If we look at, you know, President Putin’s approval ratings after Crimea, they shot up by I think about 10 percentage points. So Crimea was a huge boon. The idea of “Crim nash”—we talked about this earlier—that “Crimea is ours” is very popular in Russia, even among the Russian liberals, so to say. We saw similar the smaller effect in terms of Putin’s approval ratings with the intervention in Syria.
So I think what we’re seeing in Russia right now is the beginnings of a shift in the social contract, this informal agreement that was reached between the regime and the Russian people, where when Putin came to power in 2000 after this horrible period in the 1990s that Jennifer was talking about, the social contract was you give up some individual rights, in return you get economic stability, prosperity, increase in standard of living. So it was this economic contract. And I think with the stagnation in the Russian economy—and this might change if the Russian economy continues to grow—we’re seeing a shift in that social contract. I think the protests we saw in Russia a few weeks ago are a small symptom of that. And I think a way to rebalance that, from the regime’s point of view, is to reestablish Russia’s standing in the world stage.
So the social contract is no longer about economic prosperity, give up your political rights. It’s about Russia’s a great power. I will give you that if you give up some of your rights. So it is a way to reframe the social contract and to push blame away from Putin himself from mismanaging the Russian economy.
NAGORSKI: Yeah. I’d just add very quickly that I’d be hesitant about reading too much—taking too literally those 85 percent or 80 percent approval polls. If that were—if they were reliable, I don’t think Putin and his team would be as nervous about the protests we’ve had—we had in March or earlier.
Q: On James’ long list of bad things that the Russians have done, one thing—
NIXEY: I didn’t finish it, but OK.
Q: OK. (Laughter.) But one thing jumped out at me, because there’s a lot of stuff, again, without stronger document—strong documentation. The Yukos case. So Mikhail Khodorkovsky got Yukos for kopeks on the ruble in a very dirty loans for shares deal, in which the money went to Yeltsin for his political campaign. He paid some millions—
NAGORSKI: Let me—sorry, sorry.
Q: And then when he ran the company he used Isle of Man and other shell companies to do transfer pricing in which he cheated the Russian tax authorities and the citizens. What was wrong then of the Russians getting back this company that was gotten through fraud and operated through fraud?
NAGORSKI: All right. Well, let’s not relitigate Yukos, but if you want to briefly reply.
NIXEY: Well, agreed. I would simply say that I think the issue of Yukos, it was the arbitrary taking down of the company. I’m not suggesting that Yukos was an angel. It goes back to my previous comments, I suppose. But it was a fact that it was a—one particular person was picked, possibly because of his political leanings, but not necessarily. And it was the arbitrary application of state power towards one particular company, which was slightly better-run than the others. But again, I would take your—I don’t totally disagree. London is an entrepôt for dirty Russian money.
NAGORSKI: All right. We have time for just a few more questions. Yes, you’ve been waiting back there. Please. Yes. Right there. OK, then we’ll go to you. Yes.
Q: Thank you. John McMahon (sp), Bessemer Trust.
Just specific to kind of Putin’s stated goals of, you know, more roles in global affairs and power projection, how would you grade his performance specifically?
NAGORSKI: You want to give a grade in his overall role in foreign policy and in—
Q: How would you grade his performance so far?
NIXEY: According to what criteria? (Laughter.)
Q: If his criteria is addition, you know, power projection, more of a role in global affairs, playing a role in the Middle East, doing what he did in Crimea, maintaining high popularity ratings, how do you view his performance?
NAGORSKI: Anybody want to take a crack?
POLYAKOVA: I think, unfortunately, diplomacy and the foreign policy domain is a bit more complex than we would like to be able to put on a 10-point scale, and give Mr. Putin a 10 and, you know, Obama a five, or whoever, right? So I think that’s an impossible question to answer. But I will say, in terms of certainly Putin in his last term, the current term since 2012, has been far more willing to take risks, exactly with the purpose of placing Russia as a key global player in multiple parts of the world where it had been absent. The reinsertion to the Middle East I think is a prime example of that, where I do think Russia has positioned itself, or tried to position itself, as the key arbiter, the country that other countries in the regions look to, to secure agreements, to secure security, versus the United States. So if we look at the Middle East, I do think that has been, from the Russian point of view, a successful intervention. But, you know, I wouldn’t go as far as to put it on a one to 10 scale.
NAGORSKI: Jennifer, you had a quick insertion here?
HARRIS: Sure, just circling back to, you know, my characterization, at least, of what Putin’s after at the top of this session, if the goal is to make the world safe for autocracy, I think his strategy of doing that by taking aim at the very sort of cradle of liberal democracy in the U.S. and Europe has been reasonably successful—certainly successful enough that it should concern all of us in this room. And, you know, without jumping too far into the next panel, I would go quickly to campaign finance reform and to corruption laws, looking to, like, the Nordics as a model. It’s no accident that the Nordics, being as close to Russia as they are, many of them treat corruption as a national security issue and file it legislatively in that vein.
NAGORSKI: Thank you. Yes, right there. You’ve been waiting. Yes. Right up—yeah, no, right, a little further—yeah.
Q: Hi. Younghee Kim-Wait. I’m an educator with the Metropolitan Museum.
I have a question regarding the North Korea situation. And I think we forget that North Korea borders both China and Russia. And China is very much concerned, having U.S. fleet near its water and the U.S. presence in South Korea. If something happens, don’t you think Russia would react much more stronger, given that it borders North Korea?
NAGORSKI: OK. One more North Korea question here. Jennifer.
HARRIS: Sure. I agree with you. And I think that’s why I, you know, lean somewhat optimistic that Russia will be a constructive force in the kind of all-hands diplomacy that I fear we may be entering into to stave off a nuclear crisis in North Korea.
NAGORSKI: Yeah. And James, very quickly.
NIXEY: Yeah, very. I mean, look, I—again, I think that there are areas of the world—and the Arctic question I shouldn’t answer—I think there are areas where Russia’s being reasonably constructive, because it’s been in its interest to do so. It owns 51 percent of the Arctic coastline, thereabouts, so it makes sense for it to pursue the legal way. It regards North Korea as unreliable, as we regard Russia, so it—so it’s in its interest. So I think where it is in its interests, Russia will play by the rules. It’s just that that’s not often the case.
NAGORSKI: Well, that’s—yeah, I’m glad. Yeah, I can see our panelists trying to get a few optimistic elements in it. You know, there’s that Russian saying: A pessimist is a well-informed optimist. (Laughter.) I hope you’re better informed. Thank you very much. We have to cut it short here. Thanks to the panel. (Applause.) And just an announcement that, please, you’re welcome to the buffet lunch, and then the final panel starts at 1:00.