RD Interview: Sergey Karaganov explains the nature of the crisis in U.S.-Russia relations and points out the factors that have contributed to the current level of tensions.

U.S. President George Bush walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at his summer residence in Sochi, Russia Saturday, April 5, 2008. Bush began a farewell call in Russia on Saturday as the White House abandoned hope of a major agreement on missile defense during weekend talks with Putin. Photo: AP

This year the world celebrates two major anniversaries - the 70th anniversary of victory in the Second World War as well as the 70th anniversary of the creation of the United Nations. Yet, even after ending the most disastrous war in history, the world is still experiencing its share of regional crises. One of the most dangerous of these crises is the current one between Russia and the U.S. over Ukraine.

This escalation of tensions has brought back to life a whole chain of unresolved problems that have existed since the 1990s. In its scale and scope, the Ukraine crisis is reminiscent of ones that existed during the Cold War era.

Russia Direct reached out to the dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs of the Higher School of Economics, Sergey Karaganov, and talked to him about the current state of relations between the West and Russia. In addition, Karaganov discusses the reasons that have contributed to today’s deteriorating relations.

Russia Direct: In the current situation of tensions between Russia and the West (in particular with the U.S.), what are possible scenarios of Russian foreign policy?

Sergey Karaganov: At this juncture Russia performs quite sensibly: It is very firm but it does not whip up confrontation. But as far as I understand, Russia is ready for an even higher level of confrontation while simultaneously trying to defuse it to the extent possible. Unfortunately, the roots of confrontation are very deep on both sides and I don’t see an easy exit out of this situation at this juncture.

RD: What are the possible policies that the Russian leadership can pursue in the current situation?

S.K.: First of all, on this issue the leaderships on both sides have limited capacities. The current level of the Cold War rhetoric from both sides reminds me not of the late 1980s or even the 1970s, but of the 1950s and 1960s, in terms of limiting the possibilities for the leaderships to move into a less adversarial direction.

If there is a challenge under circumstances in which the anxieties and even hatred and distrust has been whipped up so high, then the leaderships are pushed into the direction of harsh rhetoric and harsh actions. I hope, however, that we would not lose control of ourselves. But, as I have said, everything could be possible.

RD: What can Russia feasibly do to utilize to its maximum benefit the current divorce with the U.S.?

S.K.: There are two basic aims behind Russian policy. One is to teach our Western partners to respect Russian vital interests. We have been trying over the last two decades to persuade them and to beg them to do that, but in the end, all our arguments did not work it ended up in a kind of an appeasement. So now Russia tries to teach our partners to respect its interests the hard way, which is unfortunate but also necessary.

The second reason I think is an internal one. The Russian elite have been unable to provide for a viable program for reforms for quite some time. We have been relaxing over last 12 years using the super profits from oil and gas. Even now, when these profits are dwindling, the Russian elite does not want to act. In order to cover up for its inaction and also, hopefully, to prop itself up and compel the nation into action, the Russian elite also needs confrontation. Whether it is going to work or not – I am not sure.

RD: Talking about the first goal of Russia’s policy – you said it is to teach the West to respect Russian interests. However, no one wants to be taught. How is it that this approach can be wise or fruitful?

S.K.: Well, we have to live through that. Indeed the West does not like to be taught, and Russia, by the way, does not like to be taught either. That’s natural. Russia is more disliked than even before, but I think it is more respected and the West is getting more and more cautious.We have to live through this unpleasant period. We already tried to be nice, we tried to appease, we tried to be liked – neither of that helped.

RD: Why there is an absence of trust between the U.S. and Russian political elites? Why on the one hand we talk and negotiate Iran nuclear program or fight against terrorism but on the other there is no meaningful dialogue on NATO expansion, the missile defense system in Europe or Ukraine?

S.K.: First of all, the whole dialogue over the last 25 years was empty: We did not talk seriously at all or else, we avoided the serious questions. And that was a mistake on both sides, especially since we did not have any serious dialogue between Russians and Europeans. We talked about our common future, about all kinds of partnerships for modernization and all kinds of empty slogans.

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We did not talk about real issues that divide us. We did not pay attention to the fact that our value systems have been diverging: Russia was moving towards old European values like Christianity and state nationalism, while Europe has been drifting away from that and we did not even acknowledge that and now all of a sudden we come to a situation where our value systems are different.

If we would have discussed that and thought about that, we would not be amazed so much at this juncture.

Russia is now acting like the Europeans a century ago or 50 years ago and Europeans are acting like they never acted or just pretending to act. Also there are huge problems within Europe and huge problems within Russia that we never seriously discussed.

And we also did not have the guts in Russia and they did not have willingness in the West to discuss the real problem. And the real problem was, of course, what the fate was of what was left after the Soviet Union. We talked about the “reset” and about the new forms of nuclear arms control, which was absolutely useless.

But we refused to talk about Ukraine, about the Caucasus, about all the issues that were eschewed. In the meantime, the West by ill will or by default was expanding its sphere of influence and control over the territories that Russia deemed to be vital to its security.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin addresses delegates during the Security Conference in Munich, 2007. He criticized the United States for the "almost uncontained" use of force in the world, and for encouraging other countries to acquire nuclear weapons. Photo: AP

I mean those of us who have been telling our Western and Russian colleagues: “Stop that! Stop trying!” – We were not listened to. People were writing and saying 15 years ago that if things continue like they are, there would be a war in Ukraine.

RD: What is the role of Europe in this game between Russia and the U.S.?

S.K.: I would say that at this juncture Europe is the prize for which both sides fight. Europe tries to play both sides in a way. But also .

Plus, Europe has enlarged to the states and nations that are closer politically and morally to the U.S. than to the core European nations.

So, I mean the situation is very different and some of the new European nations are more interested in confrontation with Russia than building a common European space. For example, the Baltic States and the Poles, along with others, played a very crucial role in provoking the crisis in Ukraine.

RD: Do you believe that Europe still can play the crucial role in bridging the gap between Russia and the West?

S.K.: It used to play this role in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. But I am not sure now. Europe has weakened itself by a few mistakes, and as a result, is objectively unable to play a significant role. That is why I believe that if we want to deal with the European problem constructively, we should get out of the old framework and this means starting to build something on the Eurasian basis involving China and other Eurasian nations. Europeans have proved themselves to be unable to cater to their own security responsibly.

RD: You said that the foreign policy establishment crisis in the U.S. political elite is one of the main reasons for the decline of U.S. foreign policy and its failures during the past 20 years. Why do you think it is happening? Why are traditional foreign policy experts being consistently excluded from the American political elite?

S.K.: This is happening due to the internal development of the American political system. Well, it is becoming more “democratic” in a way. I mean new forces are influencing the decision making process. The agenda is more influenced because of the information revolution and by the whims of different groups of the population.

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So, this core group, which was formed mostly during and after the Second World War, is gradually being eroded and pushed away. We once knew the establishment, which was quite influential over decades. Now this establishment has almost lost its influence.

That is due to the internal dynamics of American society and the American political system, which has certain problems as we know. We can see all kind of strange things happening there, which would have been unheard or unpredictable 10 years ago.

RD: Within the U.S. political and economic establishment, who do you see as having the most impact on the U.S. foreign policy decision-making process? Is it the conservative/neoconservative American political elite or is it the American economic elite and corporations?

S.K.: Well, I believe that ideological interests are much more important. You could not explain American foreign policy if you judged it by the sound economic interests of their corporations even if you say that America is run by corporations.

During the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, thousands of observers were telling everybody that America went after oil and that oil companies were driving the American foreign policy agenda. But in reality the U.S. went there because there was a series of mistakes which undermined the positions of the U.S. gravely.

It was ideology, it was personal hatred of the leader of Iraq, and it was a belief that America was winning in the world.

RD: Do you see any glimmer of hope for U.S. foreign policy to evolve at least over the short-term or mid-term?

S.K.: It should have become much wiser after all the mistakes that were made in the previous decade. Basically, U.S. President Barack Obama came with a very rational agenda. He said basically, let us correct and repair our previous mistakes, but he was not allowed. So, I am less optimistic.

However, I am optimistic overall for only one simple reason: thanks to the bright minds of Oppenheimer, Kurchatov, Sakharov, Korolev and others… humanity now has the weapon of Armageddon, which is keeping us sane.

RD: The current policy of the U.S. made Russia look with closer attention at Asia, in particular at China. There are a lot of talks about benefits and advantages of such a move for Russia. But do you see any risks in this Russia-China alignment?

S.K.: First of all, I want to say that this turn to the East has been happening for quite some time, even before this exacerbation of Russia’s relationship with the West.

And I think it was belated, though. We should have turned economically to the East at the height of Eastern growth, say in the late 1990s and early 2000s; as a result we lost a lot of opportunities at that time. Now we are trying to do that and that is was strengthened by this cooling of relations with the West.

There are always, of course, dangers of going too fast towards the East. At this juncture, China is turning to the West; we are turning to the East, so there is a very useful and mutually advantageous concurrence of interests.

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However, of course, Russia should think about having a multi-layered and multi-leveled foreign policy and I hope that over the years we will be able to stop the deterioration of our relations with Europe at least, so we would have a better balance in our policies. Having only an Eastern policy is unnatural for Russia.

RD: In that regard we also should not forget that Russia is hugely dependent on the European economy and financial system.

S.K.: Yes, we are, but we have to understand that this argument is only half-true. Yes, we have been and we are very much dependent, but 10 years ago, 56-58 percent of our trade went to Europe and through Europe. Now it is much less and in five years anyway it will drop down to 40 percent or even less. So, we should not rely either on Europe or the East.

I think that our economic relations with Europe were also unhealthy because we were too reliant on one important market. I think that the turn to the East will also change a very unhealthy state of our foreign economic relations. After all, we stopped buying apples from Poland but why did we buy at all a single apple from Poland?

RD: You mentioned that there is a high degree of anti-Americanism in Russia and this is quite clear. Do you see that there is more anti-Russian sentiment in the U.S. or in Europe?

Infographic by Natalia Mikhaylenko. Source: Levada Center

S.K.: I would say that I do not see anything like anti-Russian sentiment in the U.S. The elite has decided to pursue towards Russia a policy of containment. So, on the top there is a lot of anti-Russian rhetoric but it is not the case within society.

The elite is pursuing the policy of neo-containment and there is no question about that. It hopes to break Russia or the Russian government, even Henry Kissinger talks about that.

Infographic by Natalia Mikhaylenko. Source: Gallup

In Europe, the situation is quite more comprehensive. In the U.S. they want to pressure Russia, to punish it in order to restore American positions in the world that have been suffering quite heavily during the last decade due to their own mistakes.

In Europe, the situation is different because the European elite and Europe are going through a profound multi-layered existential crisis and it looks like it also needs an enemy, unfortunately. Speaking about EU history, the European project was built on two pillars. One was peace: the European project in the 1950s was built with a hope that Europe would never go to war.

And the second pillar was the containment of Communism and of the Soviet Union. Now there is no Cold War in Europe and there is no need to contain. And due to all kinds of reasons, the European project went into a deep existential crisis, so it looks like some of the elites want to have an enemy again in order to organize themselves for internal reasons. It is clear that behind their anti-Russian rhetoric there is a perceived necessity to organize themselves.

But basically the whole European project is built on the notion of peaceful settlement, multilateral diplomacy and compromise. They, of course, expanded themselves over certain limits and Russia did not like that. But when Russia started to react harshly, we not only stopped their expansion, we hit at the core of European philosophy.

Europe could not compete in hard power and Russia said we do not want to compete with you on your terms, we shall be competing on our terms or let us devise new terms of competition. So, basically we are now in the process of trying to devise these new terms. It is a hard process and it will take some time.

RD: Do you have a formula for what has to be done to achieve reconciliation between Russia and the West, Russia and the U.S.? Or there is none?

S.K.: You have to build up small elements of cooperation, understand that you cannot win both ways and stop the demonization of both sides because it keeps your hands tied. 99 percent of what is written nowadays about international affairs on both sides is not truth. You cannot live with that because it is poisoning your mind.

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You also have to start a serious conversation and start to reassess your own interests that are served by continuous confrontation.

RD: This year the world celebrates the 70th anniversary of the UN. In addition, the meeting of the UN this year coincides with Vladimir Putin’s visit to New York and his address to the UN General Assembly. A lot of important issues are going to be raised there. Do you see the role of the UN in all current regional conflicts decreasing?

S.K.: It should change because in the past two decades, the UN was sidelined even more than in previous decades. Attacks against Iraq or Yugoslavia and, of course, the breaking of the agreement on the limits of the aggression against Libya were heavy blows to the UN.

So, speaking about the UN, it should be strengthened, maybe by expanding its Security Council by including India, for example, and maybe one more country. But then of course we have to speak seriously about the new rules of game in Eurasia, taking into consideration the fact that Eurasia is becoming the new center of the world. This is also important as we are now moving towards less stability and less governance.