Russia Direct sat down with political science professors Andrey Sushentsov and Andrey Bezrukov from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University) to discuss current and future conflicts facing Russia, as well as how Russia and the world can tackle global challenges together.
Activists perform as world leaders during the Climate Change Conference COP20 in Lima Peru, Dec. 12, 2014. Photo: AP
Alarming Contours of the Future: Russia and the World in 2020 is a new book that presents future scenarios for the development of international relations and Russia’s role in the world through 2020, while simultaneously describing major global challenges.
Video by Vladimir Stakheev
The authors of the book—Andrey Sushentsov, a Russian expert who specializes in American studies, from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), and his colleague Andrey Bezrukov, who also works for Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company—spoke with Russia Direct to discuss their book and current and future conflicts facing Russia and the world.
In addition, Shushentsov and Bezrukov propose strategies for how Russia and the world can navigate through these contingencies to find peace.
Russia Direct: Who is the target audience of Russia and the World in 2020?
Andrey Sushentsov: Primarily we are aiming at the Russian-language audience. People who are either connected with the policy circles here in Russia, or in the Russian language space, basically, which covers a lot of area here in Eurasia and Europe and elsewhere.
We think of this book as something that represents the mainstream Russian understanding of current international threats and conflicts. For Russia, these threats are primarily along the Russian borders but are also in regions of the Middle East and elsewhere.
We think that this kind of mainstream thinking, delivered in an easily comprehensible way, should be interesting for people who seek to understand what kind of thinking Russia is developing about these kinds of conflicts and threats.
RD: These threats in the book that you mention, what kind of threats are they?
A.S.: Since this book is Russia-centric in a way, we tried to find out what kind of threats are important to our country. Our primary [assertion] is that Russia has everything it needs to maintain itself and develop itself inside its own borders. Thus, it needs to avoid getting into any kind of prolonged confrontation or conflict with any major central power elsewhere.
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For example, we urge [that] instances like the Ukrainian crisis or the confrontation with Georgia should be limited conflicts. We also state that the only theater of Russia’s vital interest is located in its border region.
And so it should not be connected with a conflict elsewhere, like in the Middle East or Western Europe, or wherever a conflict might emerge [other than] in Russia’s neighboring belt.
RD: Russia and the World in 2020 focuses on 16 “driving forces.” How many of these forces concern the United States?
Andrey Bezrukov: Several. We see, of course, the very significant issue of the American-Chinese relationship. We don’t yet know how it will evolve. China is a growing power. Certainly it [will] change its neighborhood, and the way Americans react to that change can be positive, accommodating, measured, or rather sharp. This is a big unknown.
In general, we are trying to understand the American way of thinking and behavior for years to come. Because right now the U.S. model is to try to cement as much as possible the Atlantic arrangement, which is frankly weakening and falling apart.
They can forcefully, let’s say, support, or fight for this arrangement by containing possible challengers like China and Russia, or they may take, I would say, a more thoughtful way of being a part, a driver, in the rearrangement, which will take into account the current situation.
RD: How can you account for this trend in the world becoming less Atlantic?
A.B.: Well if you look at the economic power of countries which are definitely not a part of the Atlantic system, let’s say China, India, Iran, Brazil, Indonesia, among others, they’re growing at 5-6 percent.
They will definitely within 20 years cement their economic power, and with economic power comes political power. Certainly Brazil is a sovereign country regarding any political issue on the table. So is China, and so is India. And managing that with American-led, Western institutions created after the Second World War is not feasible.
RD: On the subject of U.S.-Russian relations, it seems like with every change in administration, Russian or American, there’s talk of a ‘reset’between the West and Russia. At the beginning of U.S. President Barack Obama’s first term in 2008, however, relations between the U.S. and Russia deteriorated relatively quickly. Do you think that the reset could have been successful, or was it doomed from the start?
A.S.: Well, I think that between Russia and the West there are structural differences that prevent them from being allies, basically. They are infrequent partners on problems of mutual interest, like battling terrorism, negotiating Syrian chemical weapons, or negotiating on Iran. But on the issue of European security, we have long-standing differences in understanding what security in Europe means.
And as long as there is a bloc-mentality, an exclusive military alliance in Europe which doesn’t include Russia, we will have problems in this respect. We are in an unequal partnership.
A.B.: If I can sum up, there are three fundamental issues: One is the recognition by the United States of the national interests of Russia in the neighborhood, including Ukraine and other countries that border Russia.
The second one is nuclear security. The Americans, of course, are trying to minimize or negate the Russian nuclear capacity, and that’s a long term issue.
But the fundamental issue is written clearly in the American national interest, which is not allowing any major competitors in the world to appear. And a major competitor for the Americans would be an alliance between Russia and either China or Germany. That alliance can, in the American view, threaten fundamental interests of how Americans manage the global system.
RD: Are the “structural differences” you mentioned a product of different ideological values between Russia and the U.S., or do you view the tension between these nations as the product of an American attempt at global hegemony?
A.B.: I would say the tension is the result of a clash of national interests first of all, which is geopolitical. There is a little bit of economic competition. I think there are many differences in political tradition, but the U.S. would have a different political tradition than China, and that’s taken for granted.
The U.S. is a fairly decentralized country, and Russia is a centralized country. But so is France. And the U.S. and France have a pretty good cordial relationship, at times thorny, but nevertheless, normal. I certainly don’t think that the basis of misunderstandings or conflicts is ideological.
A.S.: This emphasis on different ideological foundations arises when the media tries to comprehend the differences in political conduct. It is, basically, I think, part of a simplistic intellectual attempt to try to get through complicated issues or conflicting interests. And I hope that acknowledging that we do have conflicting interests, and that we need to sit down and discuss them, is an important tool that should once again arise in international relations.
We are not living in a fairytale world where everyone is in accord with everybody. We do have differences. So thus we do need to discuss our differences and not try to ignore them or try to dictate something on the premise that, “we know better because we’re the West.”
RD: Through these evolutions in crises—The Crimean crisis, the Ukrainian crisis—what is your own understanding of how Russia is perceived in the U.S.? How will Russia’s image change through the course of these conflicts and the future scenarios discussed in your book?
A.S.: It doesn’t seem that the Russian image has changed in the United States since at least 2006, when the famous report, “Russia’s Wrong Direction,” was published by the Council on Foreign Affairs. Primarily if we look at statistics such as public opinion polls, the negative attitude toward Russia has been a mainstream attitude in the United States.
All the news which comes through American media is primarily negative. This news is usually connected with wars, with problems, and with conflicts. Even during the Sochi Olympics, most of the news was negative. That was a very surprising thing. There was nothing connected with sport or with the Olympics themselves.
A.B.: This is actually not that difficult to explain. Because the general level of understanding of Russia in the United States is fairly dismal, and the level of contacts, people to people and business to business contacts, is quite low, what we see on the foundation of that general ignorance are vocal interest groups that do have something to say, usually against Russia. They are the only opinions that are heard.
So if you are talking about the coverage of Russia regarding Ukraine or anything like that, who do we see? We see two groups of people. We see representatives of Diasporas—both Ukrainian and Eastern European or Baltic— and we see people who spend probably all of their mature lives within think-tanks, or within government institutions on the hill, connected to the Cold War mentality.
It’s the only thing they’ve done over the last 40 years and this is their pay day. Suddenly they’re important again, people listen to them again. I hope that that generation will be gone soon and we will have better relationships.
RD: Today some Western thinkers describe the war in Ukraine as the so-called hybrid war, or non-linear war. Do you agree with this concept?
A.B.: There is a lot of talk about hybrid wars. My understanding is, I wouldn’t call it hybrid because that’s a word which represents pretty much nothing, conceptually. I would talk about multidimensional wars. Wars were always multidimensional because if two states are fighting, of course their economic relationship deteriorates; there is a propaganda war on either side, etc.
But right now we have a phenomenon in which all means are being used and the direct military means are being used less than they used to be because of major objective factors. The war between two nuclear powers would be so destructive that nobody wants to comprehend it. Lots of activities [are] done through proxies, being irregular, being other countries, etc, just to minimize the possibility of direct confrontation.
And when direct military means are pretty much not available, the war shifts into the war of all other means; meaning financial, economic, technological, informational of course. Informational especially, because in order to fight a war, a total war, with another state you have to convince your own population that the war is just, that we’re on the good side and they’re on the bad side. And of course with all the global means right now of propaganda and information [warfare] that takes the prime place of the direct stage.
RD: Mr. Sushentsov, in your recent article on the Ukrainian crisis, you described Russia’s approach to reconciliation with factions in Chechnya. Do you believe Ukraine, the EU, and the West in general are capable of following a similar reconciliatory approach with the pro-independence factions in Donbas?
A.S.: Here we’re speaking about different strategic cultures where the United States and European nations differ from Russia. These differences are connected with the history and experience of statehood.
Russia is a very large, and actually fragile and complex country, which consolidates many divergent interests including different ethnic groups located territorially either in the Urals, in Siberia, or in the Caucasus. To consolidate all of those interests, to somehow involve them in their own nation’s processes, you need to have a long history of fights and reconciliation, basically. And Russia is rich in this.
But in Europe, and I think in the United States, people look at Russia as the last remaining European empire which has not yet collapsed. And they believe it is due to collapse sooner or later because this complex body cannot sustain itself in the long term. And they say this or that is the sign that Russia is collapsing.
The European experience is, basically, that you cannot sustain a huge or multi-ethnic body like the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Ottoman Empire or the German Empire. Europeans think it needs to be split in several pieces because small pieces are manageable, they are easy to govern, and somehow people can be more prone to democracy because they live in smaller countries.
That was the premise for development in Yugoslavia. They did not sustain the whole country; they helped it to split in several pieces. Russia’s approach was that Yugoslavia should be whole, because if it did split, several civil wars would emerge, and that was the case.
Russia’s position on Libya in 2011 was absolutely the same, and what we see right now is that if you dismantle the central body, bloody civil war occurs there. The same case is happening in Syria and Iraq right now.
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And that’s why I think Russia’s position is that Donetsk and Luhansk should be part of Ukraine, and the foundation for this is the complete end of all hostilities and the fulfillment of the political dialogue, which is in the Minsk II accords.
I think these differences in strategic approaches to stability problems are found not only in Europe but basically in the world, and I believe it is connected to the different experiences in statehood here in Russia and there in the West.