RD Interview: Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center explains how current misguided perceptions in both the United States and Russia could lead to a dangerous new geopolitical reality.

"The West should fear a Russia that is weakening and disintegrating. And this is not an impossible scenario at all, as indicated by the Soviet experience." Photo: Reuters

Today, the West is seriously concerned with the Kremlin’s alleged interference in the domestic affairs of Europe and the United States. Amidst the speculation about Russia’s supposed contribution to Brexit and the victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S, a new book written by Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin is particularly relevant. Its title is indicative of the current sentiment in the West: “Should We Fear Russia?”

It is especially intriguing after the Jan. 7 publication of the U.S. intelligence report on Russia’s alleged hacking of the U.S. electoral system.

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Trenin presented the book in mid-December 2016 in Moscow and expressed his surprise about the level of fear among Western political elites and pundits about the threats emanating from the Kremlin. Never have Western decision-makers and experts found themselves in such a pessimistic state, when such a lack of confidence becomes commonplace, said Trenin during the presentation.   

Amidst such an environment, Russia Direct sat down with Trenin to discuss his new book and the future of Russia-West relations. At the same time, he shed light on key challenges in their relations, which hypothetically could lead to direct confrontation of Russia and the West, and explained how to deal with Russia to avoid such confrontation. 

Russia Direct: You recently released a new book with a very provocative title “Should We Fear Russia?” How can you account for the title of the book?

Dmitri Trenin: This title came not from me, but from my publisher, in fact. I was a bit confused with such a title, because I cannot identify myself with the West. I offered to correct the name and change it to “Should the West Fear Russia?” but the publisher insisted. So, I had to comply with these requirements. So, the pronoun “We” means the West — it is the key audience of my book.

RD: What conclusions did you come up with — should the West be afraid of Russia, especially given a great deal of buzz about Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. presidential elections?

D.T.: I come up with a very simple conclusion. The threats, which allegedly emanate from Russia and have come to the fore in the West, are very exaggerated. Or they don’t exist at all. For example, there is no such threat like Russia’s imagined invasion in one of the NATO countries, in my view. Yet, there is obviously Russia’s influence in some countries.

Indeed, the Kremlin has an impact on foreign and, maybe, domestic policy of certain states. Yet, I don’t see this influence as key in those countries’ decision-making process. On the other hand, to deal effectively with Russia one has to be very smart. The West should handle Russia with a great deal of care, because it is an important global stakeholder. Careless, reckless or outright provocative policies toward Russia are fraught with serious implications. This is how I see the situation.

At the same time, in the book I disagree with those who describe the current state of U.S.-Russia relations as a new Cold War. I believe that Moscow and Washington are in a state of confrontation, yet this confrontation might be sometimes even more dangerous than the significant part of the Cold War period.

Nevertheless, this oversimplified comparison with the Cold War frequently misleads people who begin fearing threats that were only real in the past and are unlikely to come true again. At the same time, I focus on new problems that might lead to tragic consequences.

For example, if we are talking about the possibility of the direct confrontation of Russia and America, it might indeed take place not because of some miscalculation in planning, but due to the increasing escalation in turbulent regions. If the U.S. established a no-fly zone over Syria without coordinating this question with Russia, what implications would it have?

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One could imagine that if this decision were taken, the U.S. commander-in-chief would be faced with a very serious question — should he shoot down Russian jets in this no-fly zone or not? If he refused to shoot down the jet after imposing the no-fly zone, it would undermine his credibility and prove his worthlessness and uselessness. Yet, if he confirmed his words and shot down the jet, this would draw Russia and the West closer to an escalation that could spin out of control and lead to the worst-case scenario.

RD: Today Moscow and Washington seem to compete with each other in Syria. Despite the common threat emanating from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) they don’t seem to be ready to cooperate at the current moment, given their divergent approaches toward Syrian President Bashar Assad. What are the odds of Russia and the U.S being able to find common ground in Syria to fight ISIS under U.S. President-elect Donald Trump?

D.T.: Yes, there is an impression that Russia and the U.S. are competing in Syria and the media play the key role in it. However, the reality is different and more complicated. Russia’s key task in the last few months was not to defeat ISIS per se, but rather, to help the Syrian army seize Eastern Aleppo and strengthen its positions. In fact, Russia’s top military leaders don’t see a big difference between ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, which poses a greater threat to the Assad army than ISIS itself.

RD: In the wake of the U.S. presidential campaign, you said that while Russian media ridicules Western leaders, Western journalists demonize their Russia counterparts. And you found this trend very dangerous. Why?

D.T.: It is very dangerous, at least because today Russia and the West perceive each other as political opponents, in fact. And one should treat one’s opponent very seriously. After all, if you don’t take your adversary very seriously, it might lead to underestimating your opposing side’s potential and overestimating your own capabilities. It could provoke you to do something reckless and dangerous. It could provoke your opponent to do some moves, which you are not interested in.

That’s why such baiting might bring about unfavorable implications. If you tease a beast, it will bite you. So, there is no need to demonize or ridicule. Both tactics are dangerous. We need to be more reticent towards our opponents, but the current media environment, with the abundance of information, requires dramatization and exaggeration.

And this histrionic behavior creates an impression that people don’t take it seriously: They look at it as if they were watching a movie or a TV show; they see it as a virtual reality that cannot happen in a real peaceful and prosperous life.  They cannot imagine that the world could be on the brink of an apocalyptic disaster. However, the world is more fragile than it seems to be at first glance.

When I see senior retired generals, who demand to establish mandatory no-fly zones and who are ready to shoot down Russian jets, when I see Russian experts who call for engaging in an all-out war in Syria to assure a full victory for Bashar al-Assad, I am concerned. Such narrow-mindedness linked to recklessness creates a very unhealthy and dangerous environment.

RD: Amidst this background, to what extent is the direct confrontation between Russia and the U.S. possible?

D.T.: The danger is relevant if both sides go too far. And it is not a matter of them really needing such dangerous tactics. It is a matter of their inherent nature. While some players try to showcase their bravery and bravado, others seek to stick to their principles without backing down. However, both types of behavior could lead to the same results.

Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin. Photo: Russia Direct

RD: For the U.S., was it matter of principles to contain Russia?

D.T.: For the Obama administration it was a matter of principle. They were loathe to compromise with Russia, because by doing so they would compromise their own democratic values. Many Republicans in U.S. Congress would not compromise because they see Russia as less than equal. Maybe Donald Trump will be different. 

RD: What about Russia? Is it trying to demonstrate its willingness to take reckless steps?

D.T.: Russia is using its own willingness to take higher risk as a countervailing factor in a situation when the United States is obviously much stronger. It is a tactic.

RD: Why does Russia prefer these tactics to more careful and reserved approaches?

D.T.: In terms of power, Russia is not America’s equal. Yet, it cannot accept inequality in relations. Thus, it has to punch above its weight to stay in the competition. Also mentally, Russians are in-your-face people, unlike the Chinese, for example.

RD: Russia hopes to improve relations with the U.S. under Trump. It hoped to normalize relations with Washington in the beginning of Obama’s presidency, yet all efforts failed in the end. Is it possible to improve U.S.-Russia relations at all, or is it naive?

D.T.: Well, politics cannot add up to just noble intentions to improve relations between two countries. Tactics or even a strategy could include attempts to normalize relations, but in this case, the improvement should be a means to achieve a certain political goal.

RD: Do you mean that in politics it makes no sense to improve relations for the sake of these relations?

D.T.: Yes, nobody is ready to improve relations just to feel better. Again, everybody seeks to get certain benefits from it. While some want to get a junior ally, others prefer to find protection and patronage from a senior ally.

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Meanwhile, others look for security from this abstract improvement in relations. There could be different goals. For example, during the Cold War, Soviet and American leaders had just one goal, which they sought to reach through normalization. This goal added up to the alleviation of the possible threat of nuclear war. And since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, this was the key goal for Moscow and Washington, when they talked about the improvement in their relations.

However, if one of the sides found itself in a vulnerable position as a result of this improvement because the other side promoted too vigorously its own interests, then relations saw another decline and confrontation. So, it was just an attempt to promote one’s national interests under the disguise of improvement.

RD: Do you think that the U.S.-Russia reset also served, primarily, as a tool of promoting one’s national interest?

D.T.: Yes, this policy idea came about as a necessary strategy to give an opportunity to the new administration of then U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to use the possible improvement in U.S.-Russia relations to resolve America’s key challenges, related to the Iranian nuclear program, Iraq and Afghanistan and, to a certain extent, nuclear nonproliferation. 

RD: How do you assess Obama’s presidential legacy and, specifically, his policy toward Russia?

D.T.: His policy toward Russia turned out to have been his biggest failure. However, he didn’t seek to provoke Russia to challenge the U.S. leadership. It wasn’t his goal. But, unfortunately, he did precisely that. Obama’s handling of the Ukraine issue led to the confrontation between our countries. Not that Vladimir Putin did not make mistakes in his Ukraine policy, particularly before the Kiev Maidan. Confrontation over Ukraine in 2014 might have been avoided, but the U.S.-Russia relationship had been deteriorating, essentially leading to a collision some time, somewhere.

The key problem of the U.S.-Russia reset is that there was neither a clear goal for improving their relations nor the strategy of how to reach this goal. I mean, as soon as the U.S. got what it wanted from Russia during the period of the early reset, Russia was again relegated to the secondary agenda. That might be the reason why the reset failed.

RD: However, Russia also contributed to the failure of this reset. It just refused to play in accordance with the rules of the United States. Trapped by its inferiority complex, the Kremlin claimed that Washington didn’t view Moscow as an equal. And Russia is still looking for equality. To what extent do such arguments really resonate with the West if Russia and the U.S. cannot be equal economically and politically for objective reasons, given the fact that America has a greater clout in the world than Russia?

D.T.: Well, the United States doesn’t accept the concept of equality because it sees itself as the dominant power and it has been wedded to this position for about 70 years. Although the Soviet Union was militarily equal to the U.S., it was not equal to Washington in other fields. That’s why after the end of the World War II, the United States perceived itself as the world’s only real superpower. This attitude grew stronger after the end of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, Russia prefers a very different approach. By its nature, it doesn’t accept foreign dominance in the political and military agenda. Moscow can accept the fact that the dollar is the global currency; it does agree that the U.S. is much more powerful economically than Russia.

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But when this dominance extends to its sovereignty and security, Russia cannot accept it. It cannot put up with the military dominance of the U.S. And this is the key difference of Russia from other countries. This contradiction is almost impossible to resolve. It illustrates the clash of American and Russian interests. It is a matter of the scythe striking a stone. It is a standoff.

RD: How can you account for the reasons why Russia cannot accept U.S. military and political dominance?

D.T.: Historically, Russia has been a country, which has almost never had senior and domineering allies. Throughout the history, it has been self-reliant politically and militarily. Unlike great powers of Europe such as Germany, France or Great Britain, Russia has almost never experienced sweeping defeats, which could force its political elites to radically change their outlook, to be more specific. German, French and British political elites retreated from their great power ambitions and changed their outlook. Not Russia’s.

Although Russia lost the Cold War, it didn’t change its basic self-image, because the defeat resulted not from the war (like Germany’s) or the collapse of its colonial empire (like Great Britain’s and France’s), but from the domestic changes within the Soviet Union. Russia’s political elites continue to perceive their country as a great power. They see it as a great power not because of its vast territories or the capability to impose its will (in fact, the Kremlin can’t do it today), but because it cannot accept political and military dominance of others over its interests and agenda.  

RD: Do you mean it is a matter of national pride?

D.T.: Exactly, it is pride. Yet, again, it doesn’t mean that Russia seeks political dominance. This pride just means that Russia cannot tolerate political and military dominance of others. It is a matter of sovereignty and security.

RD: Don’t you see the contradictions and even inconsistency in such behavior, taking into account the fact that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced an inferiority complex and wanted to keep up with the West by accepting its dominance in other fields and sometimes even in the realm of politics?

D.T.: Yes, it is a curious paradox, because — unlike the Soviet Union that could not inherently put up with capitalism and relied on the imagined superiority of the Soviet ideology  — modern Russia is more pragmatic and selective. It sets certain priorities and draws certain redlines, yet sometimes it gives up its strongly held views in some fields that are not existentially important for Russia.

RD: Sovereignty and security seem to be the key red lines and top priorities for the Kremlin and, in fact, Russia fuels fears in the West by defending its national interests. In your book, you ask if the West should fear Russia. If it should, what kind of Russia should the West be afraid of?

D.T.: The West should fear a Russia that is weakening and disintegrating. And this is not an impossible scenario at all, as indicated by the Soviet experience. Theoretically, it might happen in the future if Russia’s elites and the people are not able to resolve key historical challenges.

On the other hand, the West is afraid of a Russia, which finds itself in a vulnerable and insecure position. If you surround and contain Russia and try to keep it at bay, you will see a backlash, because Russia sees such containment as an offensive move, not as defense from Russia itself. For the Kremlin, it is a matter of encirclement by Russia’s  enemies. And this means that Russia could find itself in a state of high military alert, with its nuclear arsenal in the Kremlin’s hands. And such a situation is very dangerous by its very nature.

RD: What kind of the West should Russia fear?

D.T.: Russia should not be afraid of the West. A country like Russia can only be defeated by itself. Thus, it should be focused on dealing with its own weaknesses. 

In my view, NATO’s enlargement doesn’t create an existential threat for Russia and should be dealt with seriously, but calmly. The fear [of the West] is a very bad thing for Russia: It distorts our perception of reality.

This interview was initially published in Russia Direct Report “The Year in Review: What Changed in 2016 and What to Expect in 2017.” This report brings together the analysis from Andrey Kortunov of Russian International Affairs Councils (RIAC), Dmitry Polikanov from PIR-Center, Vasily Kuznetsov from the Institute of Oriental Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences and other Russian experts. The report also features the analysis of Paul Goble, former special adviser to U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and a former CIA analyst, and Stephen Holmes from New York University. To get access to the report, subscribe to Russia Direct and download it.