RD Interview: Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin talks to Russia Direct about his latest book and outlines the key flaws of the Kremlin’s foreign policy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attend the ASEAN-Russia summit in Sochi, Russia, May 19, 2016. Photo: AP

Russia Direct sat down with Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, to discuss his recent book, “Russia and the World in the 21st Century,” which attempts to make Russian foreign policy more accessible to the general public. As Trenin explains, Russian society should pay more attention to the Kremlin’s foreign policy agenda and have a better understanding of the nation’s actions abroad.

According to Trenin, Russia should identify itself as a Euro-Pacific country rather than a Eurasian country as it seeks out new opportunities to become better integrated in the globalized world. Trenin also sheds light on the reasons why Russia and the West have historically failed to see eye-to-eye despite numerous attempts at partnership. While presenting the key flaws of Russia’s foreign policy, he also outlines the drawbacks of the Western approaches toward Russia. 

Russia Direct: Your recent book looks like an invitation for Russian society to have a dialogue about the nation’s foreign policy. Some sociologists, including Alexei Levinson from Levada Center, argue that the level of understanding of international relations in Russia is very low, which is the reason why the Kremlin is successful in imposing its foreign policy agenda on people. Do you agree?

Dmitri Trenin: Yes, I do agree with this opinion. To a certain extent this trend is common for the majority of modern societies. Until recently, most people have had neither enough information nor the capability to assess it properly. Today the situation is different - there is a great deal of information today, but few can understand it.

In addition, because both democratic and authoritarian societies are currently based on public opinion to a large extent, it means that one should persuade people that any regime, be it authoritative or democratic, acts in favor of these people. It is easier to win support from people in foreign policy than in domestic policy because people are less aware about international relations. At least, until they feel the implications of a country’s foreign policy on their day-to-day life. Second, foreign policy deals with very sensitive national feelings that involve emotions and easily bring people together around a national leader.

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That’s why foreign policy is a field that few comprehend and interpret well. There is the lack of understanding and this increases opportunities for public opinion manipulation not only in authoritarian countries, but also in democratic ones. Regarding Russia, the capabilities of the authorities to manipulate public opinion on the problems of foreign policy is phenomenal in this regard. The events in Ukraine and Syria, which happened over the last two years, show that the Russian government has the most successful and effective tools of foreign policy propaganda within the country.

RD: To what extent do Russian politicians understand the country’s foreign policy?

D.T.: As a very sophisticated field, foreign policy should be thoroughly elaborated and understood by the Russian political elite — those who have the chance to play a leading role in different fields of the country, be it science, business or politics. These people should know foreign policy better than society in general.

However, it is not the case in Russia. There are a lot of problems here. Unfortunately, the [patriotic] frenzy, which has been spreading throughout Russian society for the last few years, turns many members of the Russian elite into the hostages of their own propaganda campaign.

In my view, it is very dangerous because, with the lack of critical thinking in dealing with very sophisticated problems, it is easy to commit serious mistakes that will lead to almost irreversible consequences. Most importantly, the current elites are not able to respond to unpredictable events and even weigh the most dangerous risks for the country.   

RD: So, who is the audience of your book — the Kremlin?

D.T.: No, I don’t address it to the Russian top decision-makers, because they know what they do and seem to be reluctant to listen to advice. In fact, they don’t need advisors. First and foremost, I am addressing my book to the citizens of Russia, to people with a well-developed understanding of their social and civic responsibilities.

I mean those who think about the future of Russia. My audience includes those who are seen as the intelligentsia in a broader perspective, who are doing primarily intellectual work. They are not necessarily experts in foreign policy, but they have to think hard due to their professional commitments.

Secondly, I wrote this book for young professionals and students who think globally and seek to get knowledge that is based not on propagandistic clichés, but also facts and well-balanced analysis. In addition, I target those involved in politics, including deputies and their assistants.

Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Photo: Russia Direct

Importantly, this book is not for my colleagues and foreign policy experts. My task is to popularize the topic of foreign policy among Russian citizens with an active position in civic society – those who might determine the direction of where the society should go and how it should develop.

RD: In your book, you write, “From the point of view of potential foreign policy factors, the Pacific Ocean for Russia is something like the Baltic in the 18th century.” Could you clarify this idea?

D.T.: Well, the Baltic of the 18th century was the road to the country’s modernization. Peter the Great was cutting a window to Europe through the Baltic to get access to Europe’s technology and innovations without involving any other transit states. At that time, Russia was cut off from progressive Europe by Sweden on the Northwest, by Poland on the West, and Turkey on the Southwest, so there were many obstacle and problems. In fact, Russia didn’t have access to seas and had to go either to the southern town of Azov or to the northern Gulf of Finland and further to the Baltic.

Today, in order to become a modern 21st century country, Russia needs to get access to the most recent state-of-the-art technologies and practices, which are available today mostly in the area of the Pacific Ocean. That’s why I see Russia as a Euro-Pacific country, not as a Euro-Asian one.

I am focusing more on the area of the Pacific Ocean that includes both Asian and Western cities — Singapore and Shanghai, Japan with its high-tech production and San Francisco with its Silicon Valley as well as Australia and Canada, two countries that have an economic structure that is similar to Russia.

In addition, turning to the Pacific Ocean area will strengthen the eastern part of Russia and make it robust and active, which is very important given that our western part has always been well developed. It is a matter of rebalancing our power and resources [from the West to the East], in my view. However, being a Euro-Pacific country also means that Russia should not turn its back on the West.

RD: As mentioned in your book, geopolitical victories weaken countries and make them less focused, while losses usually force them to be more prudent, persistent and persevere. If one applies this logic to Russia, it will be easy to see that its policy in Ukraine is a failure, while its Syrian military campaign seems to have been relatively successful. So, in this situation will Russia be able to maintain its successes and, at the same time, learn lessons from its previous mistakes?

D.T.: First and foremost, it is too early to talk about successes in Syria, because Russia’s campaign there is not over. In my view, Russia’s participation in the Syrian war is just the first episode in a very long saga about Islamic extremism.

It seems to me that Russia is training and improving its military and political skills in Syria; it also learns how to deal with religious and ethnic challenges, which might be useful for Russia in the near future or even beyond — somewhere in Central Asia, including Kazakhstan and Afghanistan. There is a great deal of potential problems there. And Russia will have to deal with these problems.

It seems obvious that the 15-year participation of the West in the war in Afghanistan failed to bring stability in this country. It still remains the source of tensions. Also, keep in mind that Afghanistan borders former Soviet republics, which are going through a very difficult period of time: We don’t actually know what is happening there beneath the surface somewhere in the Fergana Valley [a region located in Central Asia that spreads across eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan – Editor’s note].

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The recent shooting in the town of the city of Aktobe in Kazakhstan in June is a warning sign, given it is very close to the Russian border. What will happen there in the future we don’t really know, because we are living in another reality, we are thinking in the categories of the Soviet past in our perception of what is going on in Central Asia. In fact, we don’t know well this region.

But security problems might emerge very soon, given the fact that we don’t have a well-protected border with Central Asian countries. It’s a matter of unpredictability. If we don’t know how to stabilize Central Asia, we will lose.   

RD: Well, will Russia’s experience in Ukraine and Syria drive those in the Kremlin to reassess their entire foreign policy and look at it soberly?

D.T.: Unfortunately, Russia lost its capability to think critically. If we switch on television or radio today and listen to current discussions, it won’t be a big surprise to find among the speakers both those who can provide ostensibly well-balanced analysis and those who resemble vocal campaigners [for a certain cause] with a mental disorder. Sometimes such people take top positions in government.

And this is a very alarming sign, to tell the truth. It seems to me that they stop understanding that they live in a different reality and it is not a game at all. It is not alarming as long as only one person in the country takes foreign policy decisions and what these pundits try to convey doesn’t necessarily reflect what the president really thinks. But in the long term it could be dangerous. I am very concerned with the competence of our political elites. To put it mildly, I am not sure that our elite in its current state is able to respond effective to the current foreign policy challenges.      

RD: In your book you describe three rounds of Russian presidents: Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. Their presidential tenures have followed the same trend: All of them started their presidency with improvement of Moscow’s relations with the West, but ended up with slight deterioration at best or harsh confrontation (and a new Cold War) at worst. Can you account for this cyclical trend objectively?

D.T.: Objectively, it is very difficult to explain. Let’s go back to Mikhail Gorbachev’s presidency. In the case of his tenure, it was vice versa. He started with a tough political course toward America, which he saw as a key adversary. But in four years he ended up establishing a partnership with Washington: Russia became a junior partner of the U.S. under Gorbachev.

His motto, which he tried to stick to firmly during the war in the Persian Gulf, added up to the following statement: We should not fall out with America. If you compare it with his early rhetoric when he became General Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee in 1985, there will be a big difference. At that time, the major task for Gorbachev was to stop being involved in the arms race, which had deleterious effects on the Soviet economy. So, it was a totally different direction.   

Coming back to Yeltsin, he — like Putin and Medvedev — tried to establish close ties with the West, based on trust and sincerity, when they came to power. Putin was the most active president, who sought to foster credibility with the West in the beginning of his first presidential tenure. Likewise, Medvedev — under supervision of Putin — tried to reset Moscow’s relations with the West. However, all these attempts were futile and the other side didn’t respond to Russia’s initiatives with the same reciprocity, which the Kremlin expected. And disappointment came shortly after.

The problem stems from the Russian mentality. Russians have one national trait, which is not compatible with the pragmatic logic of international relations. As a nation, we perceive a person (or a state) either as a friend or as an enemy: There is not anything in between. We find it difficult to take a middle-of-the-road position. This is in contrast to the Chinese, for example. It is really difficult for Russians to establish a pragmatic, coldly rational and working relationship with others. I mean relations that are neither hostile nor friendly.

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Russia-Turkey relations are a good example. Before November 24, 2015, Moscow trusted Turkey and couldn’t even imagine that it could stab it in the back: there was personal chemistry between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, their relations reached a historic low when Russia broke economic and political ties with Turkey in the blink of an eye after the downing of the Russian jet by Ankara.

Here is another example: We seek cooperation with NATO to fight together against joint challenges, but if the Alliance is reluctant and not ready to establish such cooperation with us for objective reasons, we change our mind and start seeing NATO as a threat. We are less sophisticated in our attitude toward the world than the pragmatic West, which is neither cold nor hot. We tend either to unite with somebody or fall out abruptly.

RD: However there might another explanation why Russia and the West cannot establish longstanding friendly relations: The West’s expectations about Russia are too high; when these expectations don’t come true, the West becomes disappointed. With the disappointment comes a new decline in their relations. The U.S. pinned a lot of hopes on Russia’s emerging democracy or the reset, but when both failed Washington changed its attitude toward Moscow.

D.T.: Yes, the West has own problems in its perception of Russia. It was naïve about Russia, but in its own way. In fact, the West expected Russia to become like all other countries [of the post-Soviet space], which would follow the rules advocated by the West. It wants Moscow to act in accordance with the principles of Western policy and behave itself on the international arena. This requires observing certain norms.

Other than that, the West does not express a great interest toward Russia, partly because economically it is not in good shape. This is one of the reasons why the West doesn’t see Russia as an equal. What also does matter for the West is the quality of institutions, which Russia lacks. That’s also one of the reasons why it cannot find common ground with Moscow.