Russia Direct continues to publish interviews with prominent Western experts who participated in the 2015 convention of the Association of Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES). This time, RD sat down with University of Toronto’s Aurel Braun to discuss Russian foreign policy in 2015-2016 and its complicated relations with the West.

U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, left, and Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, speak to each other after their joint press conference at the Kremlin on Dec. 15. Photo: AP

Aurel Braun, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto and an associate of the Davis Center at Harvard University, discussed with Russia Direct a number of important geopolitical situations with far-reaching implications for Russian foreign policy.

Braun starts off by analyzing the impact that Russian-Turkish tensions may have on the Kremlin’s foreign policy in 2016. In addition, Braun proposes a way of resolving the Ukrainian crisis and explains what Russia should do in the future to be integrated into the Western community of democratic nations. Finally, Dr. Braun discusses the major milestones of Russia’s foreign policy in 2015. 

Russia Direct: Given that Russia relied on Turkey previously when its relationship with the West was not in the best shape, what are the implications of Russian-Turkish tensions on Russia and its foreign policy in 2016?

Aurel Braun: Indeed, Russia and Turkey had an important relationship that was growing significantly before the shooting down of the Russian fighter jet by a Turkish F-16.

The prospects of further development, which would have seen a tripling of trade and the possible construction of a huge pipeline to carry energy from Russia to Turkey and Europe, are very much in doubt now given that the dictatorial leader of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has indicated that he has no intention to apologize for the incident.

As the Kremlin has threatened additional economic and possible political measures, relations are likely to worsen. The problem is further complicated by the fact that Mr. Erdogan has used foreign confrontations in the past to enhance his domestic standing, playing on ultra-nationalism in order to push forth domestically with his Islamist agenda.

Also, NATO support for him, even if unenthusiastic, has merely emboldened him.

More about Turkey's downing of Russian jet read here

Given that the shooting down of the Russian aircraft has been such an affront to Russian pride and military credibility and that Mr. Erdogan is not likely to make the concessions demanded by Moscow, Russian-Turkish tensions are likely to persist into 2016 and this in turn will probably damage the interests of both countries.

RD: What are the risks for Russia from its schism with Turkey?

A.B.: Consequently, Russia, which may have very good reasons to exact a price from Turkey for shooting down a Russian jet and because Ankara is refusing to properly apologize, may well see its relations with the West damaged in part as a consequence of the Russian-Turkish confrontation.

RD: Well, Russia has fallen out with Turkey. So, with which countries will the Kremlin choose to cooperate?

A.B.: Russia was clearly enhancing its cooperation with the Assad regime in Syria and with Iran. This again is problematic in the longer term because the Assad regime is really not viable and Iran’s long-term interests, both in pursuing Islamism and ultimately in its desire to become a nuclear power, are incompatible with Russia’s best national interests.

Whereas one can understand Moscow’s weariness of seeing Libyan style chaos in Syria, it may be productive for the Kremlin to encourage a transition away from Mr. Assad to another leadership, even if the structure of the current government is maintained, and it would be wise for Moscow to treat its relations with Tehran with considerable skepticism and caution.

Aurel Braun is a professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto. He was recently a visiting professor in the Department of Government at Harvard University for three years (2012-2015). Photo: Russia Direct 

Moscow seems to be under impression that it is in control of that relationship. But I think it s wrong: The leaders of Iran are not friends of Russia, they use Moscow as a tool [to get closer to implementing their nuclear program].

RD: So, how will Moscow deal with the U.S. and the EU in this context?

A.B.: It is a crucial question and it should be a focus of the Kremlin’s foreign policy attention. Ultimately, Russia’s true national interests lie with Europe and the West rather than with rogue leaderships like that of Iran, Syria, and earlier with the increasingly repressive Erdogan.

Repairing relations with the EU and U.S., however, does require a reorientation of Russian policy, where Moscow views relations, particularly with the United States (but also with the West in general), in less of a binary fashion. The West might also be wise to be more forthcoming if Russia indicates its willingness to compromise on a number of issues ranging from Ukraine to the Middle East.

RD: Could you give a positive and negative scenario regarding Russia’s schism with Turkey?

A.B.: As matters stand right now, the prognosis at least for the immediate term, does not look particularly positive. Russia’s anger at Turkey, even if justified, is having deleterious effects not just on its economic relationship with Ankara but over the long term, on its relationship with the U.S. and EU, both of which are in a sense being forced into Turkey’s arms.

Also read: "Four scenarios for what happens next in Russian-Turkish relations"

Such a negative outcome, however, is not preordained, for both Moscow and Western capitals do have it within their power to implement new policies and dramatically reorient that relationship in a way that would better reflect and help Russia’s true national interests.

RD: In you view, what have been the major drivers of Russia’s foreign policy in 2015?

A.B.: What seems to be driving Russia’s foreign policy more than anything else is the domestic situation. Mr. Putin seems to believe that he needs to demonstrate that the government is strong internationally, that he protects Russia from external threats, that Russia is in fact under external threats and that Russia is being victimized by other countries.

Mr. Putin seems to believe that the legitimacy of his government depends on the international security it provides to the Russian people. While assuring security is important I think this is not the most productive way to achieve his other goals of internal political legitimacy and economic progress.

Yes, Russia is rightly worried about radical Islam — it is a threat both externally and internally. But the most important goal for Russia should be to try to become a successful politically modern and economically competitive state. But the Russian government emphasizes security over economic progress. And this, it seems, is the main driving factor of Russia’s foreign policy.

RD: Should we expect that it is going to be the case in 2016?     

A.B.: It is difficult to predict. It depends on the patience of the Russian people. It depends what happens internationally.  At the moment, the government has a high level of public support, because people are thinking about security much more after the plane crash in Egypt [that resulted from a terror attack].

People just turn to the government and say: “We want you to keep us safe, we want you to make certain that we are not attacked, we want to be respected internationally.”

Read Russia Direct's new report: "Russia and the World: Foreign Policy Outlook 2016"

But eventually people may begin to ask: “Why is it that when we travel to France and Germany, we are so much poorer? Why is that when we go a shop in Moscow we see laptops from everywhere around the world but we don’t see Russian laptops? Why is that when we want to buy high quality medicine, we need to purchase foreign products despite all the scientific talent that we have at home?”

RD: What are the major failures and achievements of Russian foreign policy in 2015?

A.B.:  Clearly, Russia has ensured that it is not ignored. The Western countries made a mistake of moving from the Soviet era where the Soviet Union was their number one preoccupation to actually almost forgetting about Russia and not realizing that Russia is an important player and Russia needs to be respected and consulted.

And to that extent Russia’s foreign policy has been successful and understand the change, we have the example of the French President Francois Hollande going to Moscow to consult with Mr. Putin [after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks]. Clearly, Russia cannot be ignored.

But the problem is that given the methods used by the Kremlin this kind of Russian success has been achieved at a very heavy cost [sanctions, ruined reputation, harsh criticism and attempts at isolation from the West]. What is so very important for the Russian people is to understand that those in the West who may criticize the Russian government are not necessarily anti-Russian, that many of us do care deeply about Russia, like the Russian people and would like to see the Russian people have a better future.

RD: What are the missed opportunities to cooperate for the West and Russia in 2015?

A.B.: There have been many missed opportunities and one of the problems is that the Russian government tends to view international events as a zero-sum game: Whatever Russia gains, America loses, and vice versa. Such an approach creates missed opportunities.

For instance, there is the belief, at least in the case of some Russian policy makers,  that if Russia succeeds in making the United States weaker in the Middle East, Moscow gets stronger there. But such approach is counterproductive in international affairs: It is possible in some instances that both parties get weaker and it is conceivable in other that they both could get stronger.

There are possibilities for real collaboration. And the Kremlin should answer the question: What is most important to Russia — Is it to have naval bases or air bases in Syria’s Latakia and Tartus? Or is it to defeat the Islamic radicals [ISIS]?

And here is the missed opportunity. Russia has been so intent on saving the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, it has not realized that the Assad regime partly caused the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and defeating ISIS is much more important than bases in Latakia and elsewhere.

After all, Russia’s security is not dependent on having military bases in the Middle East; it depends on Russia becoming a more successful state. The Middle East is a very expensive adventure and having relations with Assad is damaging to Russia’s relations with the United States and others.

RD: Obama’s presidential tenure is coming to an end; however, Putin seems poised to remain at the helm for a long period of time. What would you recommend to future American and Russian leaders of how to deal with each other?

A.B.:  It is very important to find the common interests, where both sides can emerge as winners. It is necessary to look in terms of a non zero-sum game - of a multi-sum game, if you will.

And that is possible, because there are joint interests: radical Islam is a threat to everybody in the world; environmental issues are a threat to the entire world; exploration for energy resources in the Arctic is a common interest, I mean keeping the Arctic area environmentally safe, and a nuclear-armed Iran would also be a threat to Russia.

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In terms of China, there are mutual interests: The interests of Russia and the United States in many key areas are closer than the interests of Russia and China. Russia, moreover, is making a mistake if it believes that it could use China as a tool, because a powerful China is not a natural ally of Russia.      

RD: Do you believe that Russia and the U.S. will be able to find common ground over Ukraine in the foreseeable future or will it be long-standing crisis in which both sides remain intransigent?  

A.B.: It’s not likely that they will find common ground on the problem of the annexation of Crimea. That will always be a sticking point. But there may be possibilities for some kind of improvement of relations if Russia pulls back its support for rebel forces in Eastern Ukraine and disengages from that region.

Russia's foreign policy in 2015, as seen by experts. Video by Pavel Koshkin and Ilaria Kantorova

In this case, it might be possible that there could be a kind of modus vivendi, with the West, which is still protesting against the annexation of Crimea.  In order to improve relations with the West in 2016, there should be a change not only in the Kremlin’s tone, but also in its attitude towards its geopolitical ambitions.

If Russia gives up its dream of becoming a superpower, it will give the right signal to the West that it wants to be much more integrated into the community of democratic states, especially if Russia were to begin major needed reforms domestically. After all, countries such as Japan and Germany gave up the dreams of being superpower and they became very successful major modern economic powers.

For its part, what the West would need to do is to open its markets to Russia, and thus would have to be generous and allow access for Russian goods and services. The West also should strongly emphasize that it would very much welcome a truly democratic and realistic Russia into the community of democratic states.

But there is currently too much misunderstanding on the part of the West and on the part of Russia. Hopefully, there will be no major incidents [in Eastern Ukraine and other post-Soviet republics]. Otherwise relations could deteriorate very, very sharply.

RD: Yet, if the U.S. sends weapons to Ukraine and increase military assistance there, it may worsen the relations a great deal. What are the odds of such a scenario?

A.B.: They are not sending weapons yet.

RD: Yet some American politicians and officials like the current Defense Minister Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford seem to be very outspoken about increasing military assistance to Ukraine, a move that Obama has been opposing.

A.B.: He [Carter] talks about it, but under President Obama this is highly unlikely. What will make it highly likely would be if separatists move to Mariupol [in Eastern Ukraine]. In this case, I think, the U.S. would start sending weapons. That would be a different situation.

RD: And what’s next in that case?

A.B.: We just don’t know, because when you take a military step, you can’t predict what outcome there will be. It would very unwise consequently for Russia to take new military steps in Ukraine. Russia would have to ask itself some fundamental questions as well: What is most important in terms of Russia’s national security (and national interest) — is it Crimea or Eastern Ukraine, or is Russia itself?

By this, I mean that Moscow might do best by focusing foremost on domestic matters. Russia covers the largest landmass in the world, it doesn’t need more territory, and Russia has enormous scientific talents and natural resources. It should exploit all that potential. So, it should concentrate on what it already has; it does not need to keep looking at the former Soviet Union — it’s gone.

Read the Q&A with Stanford's Kathryn Stoner: "US-Russia relations should be seen beyond the immediate agenda"

Again, Japan abandoned its World War II aspiration to be a superpower and has become more economically successful than ever. It was defeated and it yet won. It has emerged better than ever before, it has achieved a level of development it could never gain through an empire. It concentrated foremost on what it has at home. And Russia would be wise to do the same.