With the beginning of the Munich Security Conference, Russia Direct talked to a member of the Russian delegation, Andrey Kortunov, general director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), to discuss this year’s conference agenda and the most serious security challenges for Russia and the West.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, right, talks to Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger on the podium at the Security Conference in Munich, Feb. 13. Photo: AP

Amidst growing speculation about the prospects for World War III, the increasing instability in the Middle East and ongoing Russia-West confrontation over Ukraine, the 2016 Munich Security Conference, which started today and will end on Feb. 14, perhaps has never been more relevant. 

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In order to make sense of all the security challenges for Russia, the West and the world in general, Russia Direct sat down with one of the members of the Russian delegation to Munich, Andrey Kortunov, general director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

Russia Direct: What are the expectations about the 2016 Munich conference among foreign policy experts?

Andrey Kortunov: First, the Munich conference is traditionally seen as the major forum where experts discuss current geopolitical challenges and international security problems. Every conference sums up the results of the previous year’s international agenda. In fact, it is a sort of barometer of how the geopolitical situation is currently evolving.

That’s why every year is very specific, but there are always common trends. So, this year experts are likely to focus on the Syrian problem, the Minsk Agreement on Ukraine, the conflicts in the South China Sea, the problem of global terrorism and, specifically, on the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015. There is hardly likely to be interest toward only one peculiar topic: All these problems left their mark on 2015 and are very important.

A lot depends on the list of participants [of the 2016 Munich conference]: What prominent politicians and diplomats will represent their countries?

Andrey Kortunov, General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). Photo: Russia Direct

RD: So, what do you think about the Russian delegation to the Munich conference?

A.K.: Initially, there was a kind of intrigue about who would represent Russia in Munich. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was expected to head the delegation, but afterwards, it was decided that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev would head the delegation, with Lavrov included in it.

RD: Given that Medvedev is less experienced in foreign affairs than Lavrov, how can you account for the fact that it was the Prime Minister who was chosen to lead the delegation?

A.K.: The explanation is logical: it is a matter of the image of the Russian Prime Minister abroad. Because he is seen by the West as a confident person, who is not inclined to be tough and blunt in his rhetoric, who repeatedly advocated the improvement of Russia-West relations in different fields. At least, most observers argue that this year’s composition of delegation indicates that Moscow will send the signal that it is ready to be serious about constructive dialogue with the West.    

RD: Who also will come from the Russian side to Munich?

A.K.: It will comprise a range of our leading experts, political analysts and former diplomats, including Russia’s former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. It will also include representatives of Russia’s academic community and, probably, Russian oligarchs. For example, I received a call from the administration of [Oleg] Deripaska, the president of Russian aluminum giant United Co. Rusal. I mean there is a certain circle of persons who attend the Munich conference on a  regular basis. Our group will consist of about 12-15 people.     

RD: Some see the Munich conference (as well as other international forums) as a diplomatic photo-op, with no real results achieved. To what extent do you find the Munich format relevant and efficient?

A.K.: Here is my view: If it were not efficient enough, the delegates would hardly attend such conferences. Yet if high-profile officials and experts go to Munich, it means that it does achieve some results. I believe that the major events and bilateral meetings take place not at the plenary sessions [of the Munich conference], but behind the scenes. The conference is effective because for two-three days one can meet dozens of high-profile partners and discuss the current challenges tête-à-têtes: Ministers talk to ministers, prime ministers communicate with prime ministers, experts talks to experts and so on.

Of course, it is very hard to expect any breakthroughs in such a format: it is not official negotiations. However, at the same time, such a format suggests more relaxed and familiar communication, rather than official.   

RD: Let’s switch to security challenges themselves. What geopolitical security problem do you find the most serious for Russia: Can you rank the three most important challenges?  

A.K.: For Russia, everything that is related to the Ukrainian crisis remains the most challenging geographically and politically. Even though there is not enough media exposure about Ukraine, it is number one, from my point of view, because our relations with West depends on it as well.

The second position goes to Syria and, broadly speaking, to the Middle East. Primarily, it is because Russia joined the military campaign in Syria and the risks of worsening relations with the key players in this region, for example, with Turkey, are increasing.

And the third most serious security challenge is global terrorism. It is related not only to the Middle East and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), but also the high possibilities of terror attacks in Russia itself and the reinvigoration of the terror underground in the North Caucasus or elsewhere in Russia.

RD: What about the ranking of security challenges for the West in general?

A.K.: The challenges mentioned above are relevant for the West, but in a bit different configuration. The Middle East conflicts for the West and, particularly, Europe is much more important than for us. For the United States, the problem of avoiding the conflict with China and alleviating the tensions in the South China and East China Seas is top priority, which for Russia is not relevant.  

There are also local problems, but they are urgent and might have grave implications for the world. For example, this started with the testing of nuclear ballistic missile in North Korea. Well, it is a very serious destabilizing factor, which goes beyond the borders of Southeast Asia.  

RD: You also mentioned Russia-Turkey tensions. The two seem to be on the slippery slope of military confrontation, given Ankara’s recent accusations that Russia crossed Turkey’s naval borders. On top of that, Turkey calls Russia an occupying nation in Syria. So, what should we expect?

A.K.: If you mean the threat of the direct military confrontation between Russia and the West, the Turkish direction is the most dangerous, because, in fact, now the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad is advancing to the Syrian-Turkish border [thanks to Russia’s military support] and finishing off the Turkey-backed opposition. Of course, it results in a response from Turkey to defend what it calls the Turkish-speaking population.

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So, there is possibility of a clash between the Russia-backed Syrian army and Turkish military forces. And this situation will be much different from the situation, when they shoot down a Russian jet. So, there might even a sort of frontal clash just because the buffer between Turkey’s military machine and Assad’s army is decreasing. So, the risks are very high.

RD: With the U.S. presidential campaign in full swing, some American presidential candidates view Russia as a major security threat to the U.S. Amidst this background, what are the odds that the Kremlin and the White House will be ready to cooperate on security?  

A.K.: Well, in general, we have the precedent of U.S.-Russia cooperation in specific fields regardless of differences: for example, after the start of the Ukraine crisis the cooperation on destroying chemical weapon in Syria and the Iranian nuclear problem was going on.

What are the main geopolitical challenges facing Russia in 2016? Video by Russia Direct

Regarding other issues, collaboration is possible, but this cooperation will obviously be restricted, because there is no trust between official Moscow and official Washington. There is no common vison of the future. Without this ingredient, it is impossible to talk about a broader cooperation between Russia and the U.S.

RD: Ok, some U.S. military officials and politicians see Russia as a threat. What about Russia: Can we say that its leadership sees the U.S. as a major threat given the Kremlin believes that the U.S. is behind the Ukraine crisis?

A.K.: If one looks through a new version of Russia’s recent National Security Strategy, this document mentions the U.S. and NATO as challenges and the sources of hypothetical threats for Russia. So, Russia’s military build-up reflects our perception of threat and intentions. No wonder that a great deal of resources are allocated to modernizing the country’s nuclear potential. But against what threats do we develop nuclear potential? Against terrorists or Turkey? Hardly likely.

RD: So, there are no hopes for the revival of U.S.-Russia nuclear nonproliferation cooperation anymore?           

A.K.: Well, recently Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov made a statement that Russia’s Foreign Ministry does not see any prospects of the prolongation of the nonproliferation talks in bilateral format. The logic is following: despite the nature of U.S.-Russia relations, Moscow has decreased its nuclear potential, so there is no reason to keep doing it in the future. So, the next stage of nonproliferation is possible only with the participation of third-party countries that have nuclear potential.

RD: Now there is a great deal of talk about Word War III, fueled by Russia’s media and even among some Western think tanks, which is definitely a dangerous sign. To what extent is such buzz justified, from your point of view?

A.K.: Well, such atmosphere of nervousness and high alarm does not make our world more secure.

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Of course, reasonable people would not start another world war, but now there are less effective channel of communication – I mean active hot lines between leaders of opposing countries, frequent negotiations between their military personal or economists – than it was the case during the Cold War. In fact, today there are no such channels.

If it is the case, the likelihood of the war, even though hypothetical, is increasing. Such war might start because of a human mistake or a technical failure and malfunction, or because of the wrong interpretation of the signals from the opposing side. But I wouldn’t dare to say that the possibility of the war is high – we haven’t so far reached this point. However, at the same time, it seems obvious that today’s threat is bigger than it was, say, three years ago.

RD: So, what can we do right now to minimize this threat for the world and is it possible?

A.K.: Primarily, we need political will. We need to understand that no tactical victories are worthwhile if the number of security threats is increasing. So, there is urgent need of political will and readiness to come up with compromises from all sides. Politicians would better sacrifice their ambitions, political capital and abandon their ego.