Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war has added a new dimension to fraught NATO-Russia relations, which are at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War. For Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, simmering conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East have the potential to escalate unless Western powers recalibrate their strategy vis-à-vis Russia. "Many people underestimate how serious the threat is, but also underestimate to what extent it may be in our power to address the situation without sacrificing any real U.S. interests in the process," he says.
Are the United States and Russia entering into a new Cold War?
Well, history never entirely repeats itself. And obviously you can see significant differences between what’s happening now and the Cold War of the past: Russia is not a full-scale superpower, there is no Warsaw Pact alliance, and the country does not have any real allies in Europe, certainly not in the Eastern European or Central European area (even Belarus is not quite a reliable Russian ally).
Another difference is that during the Cold War of the past it was widely assumed that the Soviet bloc enjoyed superior conventional forces, including in Central Europe, and it was NATO that was relying on nuclear deterrence. Today the situation is reversed: NATO is widely assumed to have a significant conventional superiority, and Russia’s particular claim to superpower status rests on the nuclear deterrent.
"You have a situation involving great powers, tremendous nuclear arsenals, and groups with agendas of their own that would not mind exploiting this confrontation. That’s a very dangerous mix."
Having said all that, it’s also clear that a level of mutual mistrust [between the West and Russia] is as high or higher than during the worst days of the Cold War It is also clear that there is a level of personal animosity between Russian and U.S. leaders, and indeed between Russian and some European leaders that we did not have during the Cold War. In the 1980s, there were all kind of war games in Washington—I took part in some of them. At the time, there were strong suspicions of Soviet intentions, but most participants in these games had a strong interest in managing the situation, in localizing it, in not allowing it to go out of control.
This time around, there are much higher stakes involved for Russia, because NATO is literally at its gates. They’re not just dealing with European NATO members like in the past, who wanted to defend themselves, but otherwise did not have particular claims on Russia. Now you see new NATO members, some bordering Russia, that feel very strongly about Russia, and they behave very differently than Russian neighbors did previously, like Finland in the past. You see new members actively mobilizing NATO against Russia. And all this creates a very explosive chemistry, particularly on the Russian side.
The Baltics remain on high alert after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Are their fears about a Russian incursion warranted in light of the current cease-fire in eastern Ukraine?
First of all, there is a cease-fire in Ukraine, but the political part of the Minsk agreement is being widely ignored by both sides. The Ukrainians have not shown much willingness to uphold their end of the bargain, and [U.S. President Barack] Obama’s administration is not prepared to pressure the Ukrainians. The Russians are making it very clear that they’re not going to make fundamental concessions without seeing major changes in Ukrainian governance.
Ukraine is blockading the separatist areas, while these areas become more integrated into Russia, both economically and politically. So this is not a conflict which seems to be on the path to any kind of political resolution. I think that you would see things getting worse before they would become fundamentally better.
The Baltic states are absolutely right to feel worried about the Russian threat. But one reason they have to feel worried is because they are the most vocal in leading NATO opposition to Russia. And this is a remarkable role for the smallest of Russia’s neighbors.
By being so up front about their hostility to Russia, they’re inevitably exposing themselves to Russian retaliation. And because they think they are protected by Article 5 [of the NATO charter], they often act vis-à-vis Russia if they had a sense of real impunity. That creates a temptation on the part of some in the Russian government to challenge Article 5 and to demonstrate that this whole NATO security system is hollow by selecting one or two Baltic states for punishment.
Now, this is clearly not an official Russian policy today. The Russian government is denying that they have any interest in any aggression in Baltic states. But if you talk to Russian officials, some of them do believe that Russia is being encircled and threatened with domestic destabilization. And they say that the only way they can protect themselves is to demonstrate their strength and determination in the most dramatic way possible. Furthermore, while many in the Russian political establishment think that President Obama has been quite aggressive and insensitive to their legitimate concerns, they don’t believe he would dare use nuclear force against Russia to protect Riga or Tallinn.
Is the Russian involvement in the Syria conflict meant to shore up Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support on the domestic front? Or does Putin have real strategic objectives in mind?
I don’t know what Putin’s strategic objectives are, or whether the Putin government has a well-thought-through strategy. My concern is that you have two great powers, the United States and Russia, which are being reactive, tactical, and responding to domestic influences.
Having said that, there is an interesting element in Putin’s gamble: namely, his diplomatic approaches to the United States to coordinate targets and to talk about a possible transition government in Syria. And they kind of are disappointed, indeed taken aback, that after they demonstrated their strength and determination, they’re still not invited to sit at the same table with the United States and its allies.
Their hope was that after this kind of daring, bold move, they would be invited to a diplomatic dialogue. And now that it’s not happening, they’re somewhat at a loss. I hear an element of frustration and confusion in Moscow on how to deal with this situation.
Has Putin taken sides in the Sunni-Shia proxy wars in the Middle East? And does his involvement in Syria make him vulnerable to blowback from Russia’s Muslim population?
"If this perception that Moscow has allied with Tehran takes hold, there would be serious costs."
I don’t know whether he risks a blowback from his own Muslim population, which seems to be mostly content. And Putin, of course, is making a major effort to cultivate it. But he also does not have the luxury of alienating any more countries, which are otherwise prepared to cooperate with Russia. And if this perception that Moscow has allied with Tehran takes hold, there would be serious costs not only in relations with the United States, but with Syria’s immediate neighbors like Turkey and Jordan, as well as a country that otherwise wants to be quite friendly to Russia—namely Egypt. Egypt is a major consumer of Russian arms. Losing Turkey’s lucrative gas deals and Egypt’s military purchases would be very costly to Russia. So Putin would have to make some hard choices.
Do you think his intervention in Syria is in any way motivated by the fact that in the short term it’s driving more migration to Europe, which is destabilizing the European Union?
I don’t see any evidence of that, particularly if you look at the timing. Most of the migration was happening anyway. So at this point, I can’t answer in the affirmative. But the question is quite legitimate, and this is something we have to watch very carefully.
Now let me say this [with regards to Europe’s migration crisis]: we should also be watching Ukraine, because if we are talking about an escalation of NATO-Russia tensions, we have to think about a variety of scenarios. Let’s imagine that this Syria operation doesn’t work out particularly well for Putin. If there is no relief from sanctions, he might feel the need to do something on the Ukraine front. There are people in the Russian government who are saying that if the United States supplies weapons to the Ukrainian government and if the Ukrainian government attempts to resolve the conflict over Donbass [in eastern Ukraine] by force, then Russia then would have to make a historic decision—that is, that it has no choice but to go all the way and take over the whole Ukraine, which would send three to five million refugees to Europe. There is no plan to enact something like this in Moscow—at least not that I’m aware of. But there is a conversation, and a temptation.
What’s the thinking behind Putin’s push to increase defense spending during a recession?
“Showing Russian determination to do whatever it takes to protect Russian interests is not just a part of [a prevailing] philosophy, but, if you wish, an emotional predisposition.”
If you talk to Russians—and not just on the leadership level—there is a strong desire to be taken seriously. Right now, there is a sense in Moscow that they’re not being taken seriously. It’s not just a question of their [wounded] pride but also the practical implications, because they feel like they aren’t being fairly dealt with. And they think that if they do not stand tall, if they do not stand strong, there may be very serious and dangerous consequences.
So there is a temptation on their part to give priority to military spending, to building a very powerful force, and to demonstrate that Russia cannot be pushed around. And it’s very clear that Russia does not have any real claims to superpower status apart from its nuclear force. For people around Putin—and I think, Putin himself—showing Russian determination to do whatever it takes to protect Russian interests is not just a part of [a prevailing] philosophy, but, if you wish, an emotional predisposition.
Would a new arms control treaty help to deescalate tensions?
It’s not about arms control treaties at this point because it’s not a question of having too many arms or not knowing who has what. Rather, we have to ask what kind of strategy we want to have vis-à-vis Russia. Do we need to have policy where our first priority would be not to allow Russia to prevail in places like Ukraine or Syria? Or should we have a broader strategic view where we ask ourselves what kind of relationship with Russia we need in light of our many other priorities, namely China, and probably a less apocalyptic challenge in the long run but a far more immediate problem, namely terrorism.
Do we want to explore a possibility of a relationship with Russia, which would not be based on any kind of an alliance, but which would create conditions that would allow us not to focus on Russian assertiveness excessively at the expense of other priorities? This is one of the most fundamental questions for U.S. foreign policy.
So how do we ratchet down tensions? Is it additional pressure in the form of sanctions?
Sanctions clearly do work in terms of damaging the Russian economy. It’s difficult to say how much because there are a lot of other factors involved, starting with Russia’s own economic mismanagement, pervasive corruption, and, of course, low oil prices. But there is no question that sanctions have some negative impact on the Russian economy.
So we are doing damage to the Russian economy and some damage to the Russian geopolitical standing. If it is our ambition to punish Russia, we are succeeding to some extent. If our objective, on the other hand, is to shift the Russian behavior in a desirable direction, to make Russia more moderate, more cooperative, then what we are witnessing so far is quite counterproductive.
We see that Putin is making very assertive—some say aggressive—moves in Syria, and that he’s making it clear that he’s prepared to act as a global spoiler. And my concern is when you have a situation involving great powers, tremendous nuclear arsenals, and groups with agendas of their own that would not mind exploiting this confrontation, you have a very dangerous mix. Many people underestimate how serious the threat is, but also underestimate to what extent it may be in our power to address the situation by a combination of firmness when necessary and meaningful diplomacy when possible, without sacrificing any real U.S. interests in the process.