Read on for the RM staff’s selection of highlights from the Russia list’s publication coverage as of Jan. 30 afternoon.
In the Thick of ItA blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Read on for the RM staff’s selection of highlights from the Russia list’s publication coverage as of Jan. 30 afternoon.
What are a country’s red lines? And which of them are really red, while others are, to quote one German newspaper editor, merely pink? My takeaway from the beginning of the Ukraine conflict was that Vladimir Putin has come to view any post-Soviet republics’ “escape” to NATO and EU (with the exception of the Baltics) as truly crossing a Russian red line. Now Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has become perhaps the first top Russian official to explicitly say as much, in an interview to the Kommersant daily. Not only would aggression against Russia amount to the crossing of a red line, but so would an attack on one of Russia’s post-Soviet clients—even if it’s an unrecognized separatist republic—and so would the replacement of a friendly post-Soviet government through revolution, according to the interview, published on Jan. 22. Here is an excerpt:
Lavrov: Now [in contrast to the years of the Cold War] there really are no rules in terms of NATO's advance to the east. There is no line anywhere that is a red line.
Interviewer: What about the border of the Russian Federation?
Lavrov: If we proceed from the assumption that we [Russia] cannot have any interests in the region, in the Euro-Atlantic, then, yes, the border of the Russian Federation is a red line. But the fact is that we do have legitimate interests; there are [ethnic] Russians who suddenly found themselves abroad when the USSR collapsed; we have cultural and historical, close personal and family ties with our neighbors. Russia has the right to defend the interests of its compatriots, especially when they are persecuted in many countries, when their rights are suppressed, as it happened in Ukraine. … Parliament’s first action after the coup was a law stating that the Russian language should ‘know its place.’ … Two days later we heard that Russians will never pay homage to [Ukrainian military leaders who fought against the Soviets] Bandera and Shukhevich, so Russians have to be exiled from Crimea. …
Lavrov: This is Ukrainian history, the history of the coup, the history of the West's betrayal of international law, when an agreement signed by the foreign ministers of the leading EU countries [and Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych and leaders of the Ukrainian opposition on Feb. 21, 2014] was simply trampled. After that the EU tried to convince us that that’s the way things should be and that nothing could be done now. This, by and large, was a European disgrace. While stating this historical reality, we … [nonetheless] want to implement the Minsk agreements. Coming back to red lines: That was a red line, just as a red line was crossed [in 2008] on the orders of Mikhail Saakashvili as soon as the attack began on South Ossetia, where our [Russian], Ossetian and Georgian peacekeepers were stationed. … Russia has its interests, and people should bear this in mind. Russia has red lines. I believe that serious politicians in the West understand that these red lines need to be respected just as they were respected during the Cold War.
One should note that, while Russia has been prepared to use force when an acute challenge arises to one of its vital interests (such as its interest in being surrounded by friendly states), Russia did not always see its neighbors’ aspirations to be closer to the U.S. as a threat. In fact, in the early 2000s Russia itself was trying to harmonize various laws and regulations with the EU’s, with a view to one day, perhaps, join the union, and Putin asked then-secretary general of NATO Lord Robertson when the alliance was going to invite Russia into the pact.
Then, however, color revolutions began to erupt in post-Soviet states and Putin, misinterpreting the West’s general support for democratization as the fomenting of revolution, became convinced that Russia would be its next victim. It was the revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, I would argue, that played the lead role in changing Putin’s views of the West’s intentions toward Russia and, therefore, his perceptions of where Russia’s red lines should lie. After these revolutions and the subsequent (futile) effort by the Bush-43 administration to offer Georgia and Ukraine membership action plans for joining NATO, in 2008, the Russian leadership began to view Russian-Western interaction in the post-Soviet neighborhood as a zero-sum game. In addition, Russia’s national power vis-à-vis the West has arguably increased in that period, making the country’s leadership more confident that it can enforce its own red lines in the immediate post-Soviet periphery. Lavrov’s interview is a testament to that.
Simon Saradzhyan is the director of the Russia Matters project.
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The conference proved timely, coming just one day after North Korea launched its new Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which some analysts say could threaten the U.S. mainland. All the panelists emphasized the importance of negotiations with the North Korean regime, as the alternative could very well be nuclear war, which would be devastating for all involved. While Pyongyang and Washington may not want an active conflict on the Korean peninsula, the countries face a “binary choice” between war and negotiations, according to Georgy Toloraya, a professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
While Russia has its own interests surrounding North Korea, including stability, denuclearization and limited Western influence on the peninsula—the first two coincide with U.S. interests, while the last does not. Still, Moscow has enough common interests with all the relevant parties to authoritatively communicate with them, according to the panelists.
That turnabout gives a good sense not just of the domestic economic policies we can expect from President Vladimir Putin, who did not exactly shock the world this month when he announced his candidacy for another six-year term, but also a hint of the legacy we might expect him to leave behind when his time as Russia’s de jure and de facto leader—now at 17 years and counting—comes to an end. Operating on the assumption of a Putin victory in 2018, I suspect that (a) his early economic successes—like robust growth of 7 percent annually in 2000-2008—will be eclipsed by much weaker economic performance to come and (b) we will not see significant change for the better in Russia’s relations with the West.
Both these features resemble Russia under a different long-serving leader, Leonid Brezhnev, whose tenure from 1964 until his death in 1982 was marked by political stability and, toward the end, by a stagnant economy, with the Soviet Union falling behind global competitors, and by tensions with the West, especially with the United States. Both in today’s Russia and in Brezhnev’s, the troubled relations with Washington dropped to new lows after brief thaws (which have been the exception, not the rule, over the past hundred years): détente in the early and mid-1970s and the Obama-Medvedev “reset” of 2009-2011. And as Putin has focused on reinvigorating Russia’s military might and global stature—at the expense, some would argue, of improvements at home—so did Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, reaching full nuclear and military parity with its superpower rival while its citizens famously queued for food and toilet paper.
That said, the USSR under Brezhnev—even in his much-joked-about dotage—was a far more authoritarian police state than today (and likely just about as corrupt); in foreign policy, it was much more seriously contesting the interests of the United States and its allies all over the world. And yet in the 1980s few, if any, of us, inside or outside Russia, had any idea that within a decade the mighty Soviet Union would collapse.
One big question about Putin’s legacy has to do with just that: Are there real seeds of revolution in the country and what will make them sprout and grow? The Western press has made much of the youth demonstrations organized and inspired by opposition figure Alexei Navalny, but this is more of a mirage than the embryo of a major social movement. Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center and perhaps Russia’s most respected pollster, told us in Moscow that it is exactly the young generation (age 18-29) that is the most pro-Putin of all, with nearly 90 percent supporting the president. How badly disappointed will they be in the regime in the years to come and what will they do about it?
President Vladimir Putin showered criticism on the “so-called West,” particularly on Washington, in a speech and question-answer session in Sochi on Oct. 19, leaving foreign-relations analysts in the audience with a rather grim view of the foreseeable future of U.S.-Russia ties. The Russian leader did make a point, however, of blaming the troubled relationship on Congress and President Donald Trump’s predecessors rather than the current administration.
Putin spoke calmly for most of his three or so hours at the Valdai Discussion Club—an annual international gathering of Russia experts, policymakers and journalists—but grew visibly emotional when discussing the Ukraine crisis, showing no readiness for any concessions and blaming the West and pro-Western political forces in Ukraine for both the conflict and the stalemate in implementing the long-stalled Minsk-2 peace accords. In contrast, he was cool and collected when claiming he was not worried about the deployment and training of NATO forces on Russia’s western flank.
In an unusual twist, Putin also repeatedly emphasized his discontent with U.S.-Russian interactions in the area of nuclear security, blaming the U.S. for what he saw as a failure to reciprocate for Russia’s unilateral granting of access to its nuclear weapons facilities in the 1990s. Not only did he reiterate earlier grievances that Washington had taken advantage of Russia’s weakness at the time, but he invoked the perceived one-sidedness of that early cooperation when answering seemingly unrelated questions. One of those concerned Russia’s response if the U.S. declares the American bureaus of state-funded Russian media RT and Sputnik to be “foreign agents” (Putin said the response would be “symmetrical”). This indicates that Americans’ purported betrayal of Russia’s good will on nuclear security is now another official talking point on Russia's list of grievances vis-à-vis the U.S.
The Russian president didn’t face any direct questions on his plans to run for re-election in March and dodged indirect ones, but he did not sound like a man preparing to step down.
His comments concerning the most salient aspects of U.S.-Russian relations are below, paraphrased except for remarks in quotation marks, which are direct speech. The original Russian can be found via this link . The compilation was prepared by RM Staff in Sochi and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Update: The Kremlin's English translation is now available .
Among the topics broached in Tefft’s interview were Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and the retaliatory expulsions of diplomats that has left the Moscow embassy short-staffed—severely so, in Tefft’s view. Still, the outgoing ambassador suggested that he saw promise for U.S.-Russian cooperation on several fronts, including Syria and North Korea, and he was receptive to a Russian plan to deploy U.N. peacekeepers in Ukraine—with some big caveats. At the same time, Tefft bluntly insisted that Russia needed to acknowledge meddling in the election and to restore Ukraine’s “territorial integrity.”
One topic that was notably absent from Tefft’s interview was arms control, even as differences between Moscow and Washington threaten to kill the INF Treaty and hobble the Treaty on Open Skies. What follows are highlights of the interview, back-translated from Kommersant. (We presume the interview was in English, but no transcript was publicly available at the time of publication.)