Has Russia Discovered a New Foreign Policy Template? An Interview with Angela Stent | Wilson Center

Has Russia Discovered a New Foreign Policy Template? An Interview with Angela Stent

Photo Caption: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayip Erdogan meet in October 2019. Following latest talks, Russia has agreed to help Turkey create a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria that is free of Kurdish fighters Ankara views as a terrorist threat, as the U.S. withdraws troops from the region. Source: Kremlin.ru

Photo Caption: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayip Erdogan meet in October 2019 (Source: Kremlin.ru).

Following latest talks, Russia has agreed to help Turkey create a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria that is free of Kurdish fighters Ankara views as a terrorist threat, as the U.S. withdraws troops from the region. 

INTERVIEW BY MAXIM TRUDOLYUBOV

Angela Stent’s new book, Putin's World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest, is one of the more eloquent statements on Russia’s return as a global player. The book is an interesting read for a Russian because it captures a new political moment that we, looking at things from a domestic perspective, simply do not see, or else see as the by-product of distant events unrelated to the here and now of life in Russia (our piece from last week might serve as a complement to this conversation). With Professor Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, we discuss what a seasoned and well-informed Russia watcher can see from abroad.

Russia File: In your book, you go through various “Russia theories” that different American politicians have subscribed to, from George Kennan’s view, which led to the policy of containment, to the Nixon-Kissinger view, which resulted in the U.S.-Soviet deals of the 1970s, to the recent dismissal of Russia as a power in decline. Do you think we can speak of a change in the sense that a working Russia theory is evolving in Washington, and if yes, in which direction is the change?

Angela Stent: I don’t think there is a new working theory of Russia. What you have is a more hybrid view. Some people are going back to the arguments that Kennan made about containment. Those are the kind of people who believe that on some level, the United States and Russia are in a Cold War 2.0, which is not the same as the old Cold War but has elements of it. And there are those people who believe that the United States should be reaching out more to Russia, that there are certain important issues we must work together with Russia on, arms control and counterterrorism being two of them. There are elements of competition there too. And if you go to the other extreme, there are people who think that everything that emanates from Russia is negative and you have to push back against it. Those are the kind of people who say let’s slap some more sanctions on Russia—piling on sanctions not necessarily in the hope that that’s going to change anything but for punitive reasons. None of these views ever completely disappeared after the end of the Cold War. But there were periods during which there was much more of a belief that there were areas where Russia and the United States could really work together and could push forward an agenda of engagement. I would argue that the Clinton years, the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, and the first term of the Obama administration were such periods.

RF: I remember when there was a seemingly bipartisan belief in the United States that Russia was nothing to talk about, a declining power, or just a regional power at best. This has changed, hasn’t it?

AS: That has definitely changed. The dismissive view of Russia has changed. Obama dismissed Russia as a regional power and said that no one wanted to emigrate to Russia against the background of large immigrant communities in Russia. That was part of the accepted discourse. Today it is no longer so. Now you have two things. There are people who focus on what happened in 2016 and who built up Russia to be this giant that can manipulate and attack U.S. democracy (although those same people say that if you look at the fundamentals—the demography, the economy—Russia is not really that gigantic). But what my book is really about is understanding that despite its limited resources, Russia has very effectively returned as a global player, going back to the areas from which the Soviet Union withdrew as it collapsed. There is an acknowledgment now that President Putin and Russia have very cleverly taken advantage of opportunities presented to them by a divided and distracted West and returned to the Middle East and to Africa. One should not underestimate Russia’s ability to influence global affairs, even if the fundamentals would not suggest such a role.

The other part of it is a debate about the Russia-China relationship. Is it something that is becoming more of a partnership, an alliance? And this is where people would still say dismissive things about Russia: Russia is a junior partner, the Chinese would be dictating the terms of such an alliance, and so on

RF: Is there such a thing as a White House Russia policy today?

AS: There is not. On the one hand, you have the policy of the executive branch—the National Security Council, the Defense Department, the State Department—and the legislature, Congress, which are on the same page, although there are nuances. This is a fairly tough policy. And then you have a president who clearly wants and continues to want a better relationship with Russia, and thinks there could be a deal. But he is unable to do it because of all the congressional restraints and sanctions. You have seen in the Ukraine case—that is not unrelated to Russia, is it—an entire off-the-books policy run by, in this case, Rudy Giuliani and Gordon Sondland, a completely separate policy that bypassed all the normal channels within government. No one is suggesting that this is quite true in Russia, but there is also a sense that there might be other things going on, at least in terms of Trump’s personal relationship with Putin. Maybe there is another policy line going on there, out of the public eye.

RF: This is really hard to understand, but I am trying. So, there is a Trump ambition of some kind, and there is a more traditional view shared by the American political class. But if we try and disentangle Trump’s view of Russia from all the constraints, if we imagine that Trump has his way, what would that be like?

AS: If he believes, as he seems to have indicated on many occasions, that the United States and Russia do not have to have such a conflictual relationship, one of the major areas where we should be talking is arms control. And yet the United States has pulled out of the INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] treaty; so has Russia. And it is not clear that the Trump administration wants to begin serious discussions about even extending New START [New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty]. I just raise that because that is something that if President Trump really wanted to happen, he probably could make happen. And that is not happening at all. If you listen to what he said on the campaign trail, you could say that he believed that part of a deal [with Russia] would be essentially not insisting on Crimea being returned to Ukraine and agreeing on some status for Ukraine where a NATO membership would never be an issue. I do not know this, I am inferring from what I have heard or seen that part of that deal would be an agreement on Ukraine that is not the kind of agreement that either the Normandy format or President Zelenskyy would want. But then you have to ask, from a U.S. point of view: what would the United States get from that? And that is something I do not have an easy time answering.

RF: Putin does not have a disgruntled parliament or an angry political class, but he does have constraints. If Putin were free of those constraints and had his way, what would that be like?

AS: He would like to see sanctions removed, the ones that concern his inner circle and the financial ones. There is a threat of sanctions against Nord Stream, though that would not affect Russian companies. So, even though Russia has gotten used to living with sanctions, lifting them would be his first goal. Next, he would really like a formal acknowledgment that Crimea is part of Russia, and that’s it. And I am sure he would then like some kind of agreement that NATO would not enlarge further. The same [wish for nonenlargement] applies to the EU, but that is not something the United States can deliver. And then—recognizing Russia’s global role. But if you look at what is happening in this border town in Syria—the U.S. forces handing over to the Russian forces and saying, you patrol this area between Syrians and Turks—you might say this is already happening. Also, I think Putin and the people around him would like at least the extension of the New START agreement for five years after 2021, and maybe something else succeeding it. I do not think that they want the total destruction of the arms control regime.

RF: In the Middle East, Russia has been consistently supporting the incumbents and building stable relationships with almost everyone in the region. Is it just me, or is it really true that Russia’s policy in the Middle East has been more consistent than that of the United States?

AS: This is a unique role for Russia, and it is different from the Soviet role in the Cold War because the Soviet Union chose sides. The United States chose sides in the Middle East, and Russia supported Assad. But beyond that, Russia is the only great power that talks to all the different groups in all those different regional conflicts. And many in the region do see Russia as an honest broker. Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two newest partners, both hope that Russia can temper Iranian ambitions. I do not know whether Russia can deliver, but the fact that Russia does have that relationship with Iran has influenced that hope. With the Saudis it is also about restraining oil production. Yes, I do think that this is a unique role. Even though Russia does not have the military or economic heft in the Middle East that the United States does, it is clearly poised to be the key power there now. It has been consistent, and yes, it supports all elected governments.

RF: Do you think that Russia has found something that might work in other parts of the world? Is this a new foreign policy template that is emerging?

AS: That is a very good question. What I was trying to explain in my book is why, even though relations with the West are so bad, most of the rest of the world regards Russia as a large authoritarian country with which they can do business. You are beginning to see Russia going back to Africa. Note the forthcoming Russia-Africa summit in Sochi. It remains to be seen what they do there, but they are certainly trying. In the African view, Russia certainly presents a counterweight to China, which is very active in Africa. Russians are trying to present themselves as having no ideological preference, as pragmatic, able to work with any government, doing economic deals. What Russia is doing in the Middle East is probably a template. Now, it does not work everywhere. Still, Putin clearly wants to present Russia as a country that is against regime change, against chaos; a country that supports the status quo. That is a very welcome message to many leaders around the globe.

RF: While reading your book I was grateful for a reminder of what Edward Keenan said in “Muscovite Political Folkways.” In general, things like that are fascinating for a Russian because we never get to study Russia the way foreign Russianists do. You are very careful in presenting different “theories of Russia,” different views, but do you have a favorite theory?

AS: In any piece of writing like that you are trying to focus on continuities and similarities. The idea that informal rules are more important than formal rules, the idea that the people who surround the ruler owe much of what they have to the leader allowing them to have it, that they are interested in presenting him as an all-powerful leader—a lot of that is present today. It is tempting to use elements of the theory today, but we are in the twenty-first century. When I read all those accounts of how decisions are made in today’s Kremlin, I go back to Gleb Pavlovsky’s phrase: those who talk do not know and those who know do not talk. For an outsider, it is very difficult to understand how decisions are made in Russia. The Kremlin remains in many ways a black box for foreigners trying to understand how Russia is ruled.

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Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.
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