Dmitri Trenin, the Director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre shares insights into the prospects for the future of U.S.-Russia relations

Dmitri Trenin, the Director of the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, spoke at an event organised jointly by AmCham and CERBA, and held at AmCham on October 5th. The text below is a summary of some of the main highlights of this candid and very interesting speech.

Before introducing the speaker, Alexis Rodzianko, the President and CEO of AmCham put the many guests (the hall was packed out) into the right frame of mind by joking that he had some bad news to communicate: “Russia has slipped according to Vice President Pence from first place to second place as an enemy of the United States”.

Nathan Hunt, the Chairman of the Board of CERBA in Moscow thanked Alex for a series of successful joint AmCham-CERBA events and also thanked America for managing to leave Canada with a new US-Canada trade agreement.

Dmitri Trenin started off his speech by offering the pessimistic but probably realistic prognosis that “the future of US-Russia relations is likely to get worse before it gets worse”. Trenin does not feel, however we are in a new Cold War, and does not feel that using terminology that was in vogue 40 years to be particularly useful. He sees the present situation as being closer to a rather a ‘Hybrid War’ than anything else and sees the situation lasting for “quite a bit of time, it’s not by chance that the United States and Russia collided, it seems that this was pre-programmed if you like. Anyone who has any experience in international relations, knows that if, after an age of conflict; and the Cold War was a conflict, no settlement followed that is acceptable to the power that had lost, then if the country is strong enough and resilient enough, and has enough will to challenge the former victor, then this challenge will come.”

Dmitri said that he was of the opinion that it was a mistake for the United States not to embrace Russia after the Cold War ended, and include Russia in NATO, but then said that he consequently thought again and realised that it was probably the right decision from the point of view of protecting U.S. dominance within the Atlantic Alliance because: “If there is one thing that distinguishes Russia from other nations, it is the refusal to accept anyone else’s leadership… but this came with a price, and the price is this confrontation that we have now, and I think that the confrontation started some time before 2014.”

Dmitri does not feel that it is going to be easy for Russia and the United States to repair relations, even if they wanted to, “almost irrespective of what Russia does or does not do.”

As regards the recent spying dramas in the UK and other countries, Dmitri mentioned that “…people do spy on one another. Catching a few people with laptops trying to get into somebody’s system, is normal, but to frame this as being an attack on local values is strange.”

Dmitri framed the U.S.-Russia sanctions within what he calls the ‘American Cold Civil War’; and the need for political footballs, with Russia most definitely being used to criticise the Trump administration. This can be seen to be rather odd, Dmitri said, because “Russia, unlike the Soviet Union, is not about challenging the world system. I don’t think Russia cares about the world order as such. …I don’t think Russia cares about the Middle East. It cares about its interest in the Middle East, but that is a totally different thing. Russia is not a superpower, but doesn’t want to be in decline again. It no longer sees itself as unifying force for the former Soviet Republics… The days when Russia could be a central force of integration between Belarus and Kazakhstan, that’s all gone. It calls itself a great power, but unlike in the 19thcentury, it is not a country that imposes itself on others, but does not allow anyone to impose upon itself. As far as the United States is concerned, I think that it is moving from being the leader of the global system to the position of the strongest power in the world. That is the transition, which I think started way before Donald Trump became president… As America becomes more of a normal great power, and Russia exits from its post-imperial tendencies, I think that the United States and Russia could find a new equilibrium in their relationship, because Russia is not challenging the American great power position in the world. …It did not intervene in Ukraine with the intention to undermine the post-Cold War status quo, although it actually did so. Its motive was to protect itself, and its buffer. If I was to draw up an agenda for U.S.- Russia political relations today, I would only have one item on it. To prevent war. Yes, we do now have 24/7 communications between the military chiefs, but there is almost no dialogue. …Sanctions are not the only weapon being used in this new warfare. …If I am trying to change somebody’s mind, and I see that person is beginning to crack under pressure, then my next move would be to increase the pressure, not to compromise with the guy. The motto for a lot of guys in Washington who are dealing with Mr Putin is: ‘compromising with Putin means compromising with oneself.’ People don’t want to do that.”

Dmitri stressed that Russia is not going to give up. “It is not going to be another suicide. We have had two suicides – one in 1917 and one in 1991. They did not kill Russia off completely. …Russia will continue. The future Russia will be very much shaped by the current crisis. Crisis is the wrong word – the current conflict. It’s the equivalent of a war. Russia will not break up as a result of external pressure. But it may break up as result of internal pressures. When you put the country under this kind of strain, the people will only support the government for the long term if they are convinced that a cause is right, and that every person, more or less, carries the same burden. If some people are sharing most of the burden and others are profiting from that, and there is a lot of inequality in this country, then this is a time bomb, and I think that this will happen. Foreign conflicts will exacerbate those changes. Like the First World War exacerbated the situation for the Russian Empire…”

Alexis Rodzianko made the very valid point that Russia has integrated much more into the world economy, and that integration has been its greatest defence against sanctions. “The sanctions cannot go too far because Russia has too many links in the global supply chain…”

Dmitri, however, rejected the idea that economic relationship inter-connectedness prevents international crises and wars, and cited the First World War and what the United States is now doing with China as being examples to prove this point. However, he did accept that that there is an underside to sanctions in the sense that there is a risk that dollar trading may be undermined. “You have to be careful because people may think – ‘this is what may happen to us if we cross paths with the United States…’ I think that the Chinese are studying Russia very closely, they are trying to understand what might happen should they have a conflict with the United States to the level of intensity that the US-Russia conflict has reached. But on the other hand, sanctions do make a difference in many ways. They do restrict one’s access to advanced technology and that is a big drag on any prospect of any technological growth. When there is a conflict of several factors, let’s say – economic sluggishness, social discontent, and political transition, and then there are more sanctions, then things can begin to crack… I don’t agree that the reaction in the world to more sanctions from Washington will lead to a restraint of US sanctions; they might do against China, but not against Russia. I think that people in Washington are so used to kicking Russia around, but Russia is the biggest economy that has been targeted by the U.S. and other countries, and that makes some difference to the global system, and the implications of that will be far reaching. We will see where it goes.”

To a question asked by Nathan Hunt as to how Dmitri would change U.S. foreign policy if he could, Trenin answered:

“A lot of the foreign policy of the United States since the last Cold War was formed by liberal internationalists. In terms of foreign policy, not in terms of domestic politics, I would say that liberalism is a very unfortunate ideology to adopt, for any democratic power. Liberalism is the second most aggressive and interventionist ideology after communism. It sets an impossible goal, of democratising and liberalising the world. The idea that the world be better served if everyone becomes like the United States not only defies common sense, but it makes the United States pursue a policy that is not serving any imaginable interest… Why should the U.S. take such an interest in the Russian political system? Tsarist Russia was a friend of the United States, including in the American Civil War. Stalin was an ally without who the U.S. and the British Empire would not have won WWII. I think people in Washington spend a long time talking among themselves, and when you sit in a bubble you are sitting in an echo chamber. …If you try to be objective about Russia and mention a few things that people should be credited for, you are immediately suspected of not being one of us…”

To a question from the hall as to what Russia could do to improve the situation, Dmitri answered:

“Stop trying to influence Europe’s domestic policy. …They think that the Europeans are all in the inner court of the United States, and nothing can be done because Washington will just ban them. But I don’t think that is really quite right.” Dmitri pointed out the negative effect that the Russian media and to some extent Russia’s foreign policy has when it supports anyone and everyone who seems to come out against the existing order. “…If you use all those anti-systemic forces against the elite, you will unify the elite against you, and this is not a good thing. There needs to be a much better understanding of Europe, and of the U.S…”

To the question will Russia’s realignment with the East be Russia’s salvation?, Dmitri answered: 2014 saw the collapse of the two main pillars of Russia’s post-Soviet foreign policy. One was integration into the West and the second was integration of the former Soviet Republics into a Greater Russia. Both are now off the table. …The implications are very serious. Russia is not Europe, it’s not Asia, it stands all by itself in the global world. …We need to also accept that not only the post-Soviet idea of integration into Europe, but also Peter the Great’s concept of Russia fitting itself into Europe and becoming European has to be revised. …The big lesson of 2014 is that the heraldic eagle has two wings. One of the wings is half paralyzed, and that is the western wing. So, Russia has to rely more on the eastern wing, but the east is not just China, this is why relations with Japan are so important. India is important, President Putin is just visiting today, relations with other countries in Asia are important. But this is not a good equilibrium. For true geopolitical equilibrium, Russia would need to have very strong relationships with Berlin in Europe and Beijing in Asia. In order to have good relations with Beijing you need to have decent relations with Tokyo, a respectful relationship with Seoul, close relationship with Delhi and so on, but the relationship with Berlin is crucial. That is something that people need to start thinking about in a serious way…”