Russia Direct sat down with Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin to discuss the new wave of the sanctions war between Russia and the West, the recent NATO summit in Wales, common external threats for Russia and the West such as Islamic State, and the odds of success for the Russia-Ukraine ceasefire agreement.


Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (left) and US President Barack Obama watch a flypast during the NATO 2014 Summit in Newport, South Wales. Photo: AFP

Although Russia and Ukraine seem to have begun taking steps to resolve the Ukraine crisis on a diplomatic level, a new wave of sanctions imposed on Russia’s energy companies and major banks may become another serious challenge for relations between Moscow and the West.

Although a faint light at the end of the tunnel of the Ukrainian crisis may have appeared during the last two weeks, when Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko agreed on a ceasefire deal and peace plan in Minsk, the ongoing sanctions war may minimize or even seriously hamper the odds of resolving the conflict.

With this in mind, Russia Direct discussed with Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin the new wave of sanctions, the recent NATO summit and Russia’s response to the West’s stance. 

Russia Direct: What effect will the new wave of sanctions achieve: Will it persuade the Kremlin to change its course or will it hamper the recent attempts to resolve the Ukrainian standoff peacefully?

Dmitri Trenin: Imposing sanctions amidst the ceasefire agreement and the exchange of prisoners of war will bring about a dissonance. At the same time, this step is not unpredictable: Few in Russia, at least in the expert community, expected the sanctions to be attenuated with the implementation of the peace plan.

There are two major points for the West. First, they [Western politicians] are demonstrating to their voters that Russia’s policy [in Ukraine] has not gone unpunished, that the West neither condones nor tolerates Russia’s actions and, on the contrary, it will further try to modify the Kremlin’s policy.

Second, increasing political pressure on Russia aims at driving Moscow into taking into consideration the likelihood that sanctions will be beefed up regardless of their burden on those who are imposing these sanctions. They are trying to say that in the end it will be Russia who incurs heavier losses. In other words, the West is seeking to increase the cost of Russia’s foreign policy for Moscow.        

And these two goals can indeed be achieved through imposing sanctions. Where sanctions fail is that they can’t change Russian foreign policy, from my point of view.

RD: What do you think about the odds of successfully implementing Putin and Poroshenko’s peace plan to end the Ukrainian impasse, given the initial reports that two sides were accusing each other of violating the ceasefire agreement from the onset of the peace plan?

D.T.: I wouldn’t like to guess. I hope that the plan will be implemented, that we avoid a new escalation of the war, that the crisis will be settled and that we find other fields for rivalry, that the field of military competition will finally be frozen at any rate or, at best, liquidated.

Is it possible? I think it’s possible. What is the probability of this? In fact, there are a lot of factors: A lot will depend on the development of the political, social and economic situation in Ukraine. I really don’t know. If I had to support my conclusions with money and financial stakes, I would be very cautious.

If the conflict is frozen, the scenario will be unsatisfactory for many reasons: At worst it might remain in permanent limbo. Yet the point is that although [the frozen status of the conflict] implies that the conflict is not resolved, at the same time it has not escalated into a war as it did in the case of [the breakaway Moldovan republic of] Transnistria. Unfortunately, this middle-road scenario is highly possible.

RD: Some Russian media and experts claim that the recent NATO summit might exacerbate a new cold war and provoke an arms race. Given NATO’s plan to conduct military exercises, which are expected to take place in Ukraine this week, to what extent can such a stance fuel more tensions and hamper the capability for collaboration? 

D.T.: I think that both sides are countering each other and responding to the stances [each side is taking]. Russia and the West are currently in a state of opposition; it’s not even a full-fledged confrontation, but rather an opposition which will be long-lasting. And it’s not evident how and when this will come to an end.

Unfortunately, collaboration will be reduced even further. And, in reality, the word “collaboration” will rarely be used because there will be almost no field for collaboration between Russia and NATO in the future. This partnership might be between the United States and Russia, between Russia and separate European countries, but not between Russia and NATO.

That’s why Russia and NATO should currently focus more on measures for preventing war and providing security in the European continent.

RD: Yet there might be common threats such as Islamic terrorism and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East. To what extent can such threats bring Russia and NATO together?

D.T.: We have the experience: Thirteen years and four days ago, we saw a terror attack on the United States [the terrorist attack of 9/11] that brought about the creation of a global anti-terror coalition; some experts expected this event to bring together all leading countries, including Russia and the U.S., like it was in the 1940s [when the nations united against Nazi Germany].

Yet this didn’t happen, even in more favorable conditions when there were no differences over the Ukrainian crisis, when the Kosovo crisis was overcome, when president Putin was eager to establish close collaboration with both America and Europe, when Russia announced its European choice and saw the United States as a military ally and partner. And even in such conditions, common threats didn’t unite these countries [to the due extent].        

I don’t think that this threat will force Russia and the Unites States to make security collaboration a higher priority than geopolitical rivalry over Ukraine. And this rivalry is not only a matter of geopolitics, it is much deeper in reality: Russia’s authorities are likely to see the United Sates as a very serious threat, while the U.S. perceives Russia as a less challenging threat to American interests, but, nevertheless, Russia is perceived to be spoiling the United States’ geopolitical games in some regions, including in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

RD: As some Russian and Western media report, President Putin said during the 2008 NATO-Russia summit in Bucharest, shortly before the Russo-Georgian conflict, that if NATO were to further expand, Russia would annex Crimea, Ukraine would no longer exist as a unitary state, and Russia would create buffer zones in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Taking into account the 2014 NATO summit, at which the alliance made no bones about its ambitions to further increase its influence in Europe, what long-term implications do Putin’s warnings in 2008 have for security, the escalation or minimization of the Ukraine crisis, and relations between Russia and the West?

D.T.: I think Putin was genuinely sincere in his warnings: If Ukraine moves toward NATO, Moscow will cease to support its territorial integrity  and this really happened when Putin came to the conclusion that, as he saw it, Ukraine was on a headlong course to NATO.

So, the events in Crimea weren’t improvisation, yet it wasn’t an initiative of Russia either; it was a response to what the Kremlin and Putin personally saw as a serious threat to Russia: a mix of Western Ukraine nationalism within the country and Kiev’s aspiration to join the West and the EU in particular.

It is frequently said that getting EU membership is possible only after accession to NATO or at the same time as acquiring NATO membership. There is no single Eastern European country that would have joined the EU without accession to NATO.

RD: So, there seems no reason to be optimistic about the future of resolving the Ukrainian crisis.

D.T.: It is always necessary to be realistic. I think that we should understand that since the spring of 2014 we have been living in a new historic epoch if we talk about relations between Russia and the West. We lived in different epochs before 1989 and until 1991, and between 1991 and 2014.

So, history is always changing and developing, sometimes in an unpredictable way. But we have to respond reasonably to the situation that we are facing now. Being optimistic when there is no ground for optimism is the road to the worst and most desperate pessimism.