Interviewer: Marc Friedli
Marc Friedli is currently a Project Assistant at the European Leadership Network, where he is mainly working on the upcoming 2021 NPT Review Conference. He is a Dual M.A. candidate in European Affairs at Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics and serves as Alumni Officer for the University Consortium’s European Alumni chapter. Previously, he interned at the Embassy of Switzerland to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the Center for Security Studies at ETH in Zurich and as a Schuman Trainee at the European Parliament in Brussels.
Interviewee: Andrey Kortunov
Dr. Andrey Kortunov is Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and a member of the expert and supervisory committees and boards of trustees of several Russian and international organizations. After receiving his Ph.D. in history at MGIMO, he completed internships at Soviet Embassies in London and Washington and the Soviet Union’s Permanent Delegation at the UN. He held various positions at the Academy of Sciences Institute for U.S. and Canada before joining RIAC, where he has been Director General since 2011. He also taught at universities around the world, including the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include contemporary international relations and Russian foreign policy.
Past experience: On a Trip to the US, On Russia´s Relations with Its Neighbours
Marc Friedli: Dr. Kortunov, it’s a great pleasure speaking to you today, I’m looking very much forward hearing your thoughts. First, let’s go back in history. If I remember correctly, you were able to travel to the United States as part of your postgraduate studies at the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences, an opportunity not many students in the USSR would have had at the time. What were your impressions of this US on this trip? What surprised you the most? What perceptions you had of the US and US-Soviet relations were confirmed and which were proven wrong during this time?
Andrey Kortunov: Well, I was a lucky in the sense that the US was not the first country I visited. In 1978, as an undergraduate student at MGIMO, I spent a couple of months at the Soviet Embassy in London. After that, when I got to Washington, I knew that the West was larger than the United States. I could compare the UK with the US, and the latter was not always the winner in this comparison.
I got to the US in 1984, just when American sanctions against the Soviet Union were launched and so no direct flights were operating between the two countries. Of course, the US impressed me, at least to the extent that Washington reflects the US given that it is in many ways a country of its own. Though I was exposed to American diplomats and some think-tankers, it was still three years before perestroika and political relations were tense, hence my contacts were still quite limited. Nevertheless, the degree of openness I experienced in the US was a shocking contrast to what I was used to in Moscow. Keep in mind that this was long before 9/11 and the adoption of the Patriot Act. For example, I could just enter Capitol Hill without submitting any documents. I made much use of this freedom, as one of my responsibilities in Washington was to provide the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies’ library at the Russian Academy of Science with congressional hearings and other documents. The Freedom of Information Act allowed me to be a scrupulous supplier of information. (laughs)
I also spent many hours in the Library of Congress and the library of Georgetown University, where I got to interact with American students and developed new ideas. Overall, my time in the US was a very important educational experience. It helped me to advance my professional career, but it made me also more receptive to ideas that later on emerged with perestroika and the “new thinking” once Gorbachev came to power. So, in essence, I came to the US as more or less neutral and returned from the US a liberal.
Marc Friedli: From 1982 to 1995 you held various other positions in the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies. Could you reflect on some of the recurring issues you debated within the Institute, but also within the larger transatlantic expert community? Which of these debates are still relevant today?
Andrey Kortunov: Well, in the beginning of my time at the Institute - so before Gorbachev came to power - our freedom of intellectual manoeuvre was quite limited. Yet, to the credit of the former Director of the Institute, we enjoyed a liberal environment for Soviet standards: it was an intellectual sanctuary. The Institute was known for its free thinking and unorthodox ideas, which distinguished it among other think-tanks of the USSR. We had access to Western literature, held active debates on various issues and even received foreign delegations. It was a fertile soil for new ideas and free thinking. Once Gorbachev came to power, we could afford even more flexibility and intellectual freedom. Every year meant new levels of freedom and engagement in public politics.
I remember publishing a piece, together with Vitaly Zhurkin and Sergey Karaganov, asking whether the West was preparing a war against the USSR. And our conclusion was that there were no such plans in the West which should have impacted Soviet defence planning. We started entertaining ideas such as “reasonable sufficiency” and “minimum deterrence”, implying that the Soviet defence capacity was excessive and that we should cut down our defence budget and use the freed resources for investment into the social and economic modernization of the country. We advocated that we should pursue a more proactive approach with the US on issues of disarmament. We found a receptive audience for these ideas in the US too, mostly in universities and think-tanks. At that point, we thought complete nuclear disarmament was a possibility and the resulting peace dividends could be used by both countries.
With these ideas, we also picked up fights with the conservative Soviet establishment, including the military. I recall writing a paper on the development of the first Soviet aircraft carrier, making the point that the Soviet Union didn’t need such a carrier, because it was and would remain a land power, rather than a sea power. The article created an uproar in the Soviet ministry of defence. In typical Soviet fashion, they presented the counter argument, stating that the USSR should become a maritime power. This was few years before its collapse. Some of these discussions and ideas look naïve these days and out of touch with reality, but some of them are still very valid, and may come back to the agenda sooner or later.
Marc Friedli: A last question on the past, but one which very much relates to the present. A main and profound factor as to why relations between the EU and Russia are difficult lies in the different interpretations of history, especially between Russia and the EU’s Eastern member states. Does historical reconciliation form a necessary part of improving relations between the two sides? And since we currently witness an opposite trend, how and where can such a reconciling process be started?
Andrey Kortunov: Russia, like any other country, needs good relations with its neighbours. Not necessarily an alliance, but constructive relations based on mutual respect and common interest. And this is one of Russia’s missions. I do not want to say that our neighbours have always been perfect in their approach to Russia. This, clearly, was not the case. But the art of diplomacy implies one must also work with difficult partners and, in many cases, this art was simply missing in Moscow following the end of the Cold War. We should have invested many more resources in building stronger relations with our neighbours. I do not recall a single visit of any Russian President to any of the Baltic states, while American and many Western European leaders paid visits to Tallinn regularly. But Estonia should be more important to Russia than it is to the US, given that we are neighbours, share a common history and the country’s large Russian-speaking minority. Surely the interactions were difficult and frustrating, but we should have paid more attention to these countries.
But I understand why it happened. From the Russian point of view - present even among liberal Russian politicians - the logic was: we, the Russian elite, deconstructed the Soviet empire and this was our decision. We set those countries free and allowed them to go their own way, and they should be grateful for it. We didn’t try to prevent their independence, we didn’t suppress their request for independence, but on the contrary, we helped them to build their own states, and yet we see no gratitude from their side. But from Tallinn, Vilnius or Riga, the story is different. They see Russia as the oppressor, which deprived them of their nationhood and finally when Russia could not keep them in its empire any longer it expects gratitude from them? They want Russia to pay for the years of occupation or at least an apology for what they suffered under the Russian yoke.
Now, these two interpretations of history are very difficult to reconcile. As a result, instead of becoming Russian lobbyists in the EU, as countries that understand Russia and its interests, they became a group of countries that are among the strongest critiques of the Russian Federation, sometimes fair critiques, sometimes not so fair. But they usually push for the lowest common denominator in Russia-related matters within the EU. And herein lies another mistake in Russian calculations: to think that these countries do not really matter in Europe. The belief that if we can cut a deal with Berlin, Paris or Rome, we do not have to bother about the positions of the smaller Eastern European states, is wrong. These countries do matter, and they can punch above their weight. Clearly, they cannot be ignored.
The perception that we can deal with select European capitals instead of Brussels, is still prevalent. If Minister of Foreign Affairs Lavrov says that we want to freeze our relationship with the EU, he does not mean that we want to do so with European capitals, but with Brussels. The conviction is: we can maintain good relations with Western Europe without Brussels. But on many important issues, may it be on trade and tariffs, sanctions or investment policies, it is Brussels that decides.
Current Issues: On Russian Relations with Europe, Future of Relations with China and Russia and the CIS
Marc Friedli: This brings to us the visit HR/VP Borrell recently paid to Moscow and which, in his own words, was “very complicated”. Borrell described it as a turning point for relations with Russia. Have EU-Russian relations reached another low point?
Andrey Kortunov: The explanation I have for these events is that in Moscow, the perception was that Borrell visited to Russia to teach Russian authorities about human rights against the background of the Navalny case. The assumption was that this was the message he had to deliver, and Russia wanted to be prepared to respond accordingly. From the Russian side, it should be made very clear what we are ready to discuss with the EU and what we are not. Russia prepared a set of counterarguments and Lavrov articulated the official Russian position in a rather undiplomatic way. It was an awkward and embarrassing situation. But in the Navalny case, the Russian authorities reacted very nervously, as they did not expect his return from Germany to Russia in the first place. It triggered a chain of improvisations. So, Borrell’s trip could have been perceived as adding insult to injury. Afterwards, there was an attempt on the Russian side to somehow diffuse the crisis. After all, the EU also seems interested to avoid escalation, as it could have not reacted in a more de-escalated fashion than with the limited sanctions it adopted. So, neither side is willing to really escalate. It’s unfortunate that Borrell received a cold shoulder in Moscow, but I think we will continue working together where our interests coincide, as we have done before.
Marc Friedli: Where do you see the cooperation between Russia and the EU going in the coming years? In 2017, Macron made a rapprochement between the EU and Russia one of his foreign policy priorities. Facing re-election next year, it seems unlikely he will do so again, given the meagre results this and similar undertakings, such as Obama’s reset, have yielded in the past.
Andrey Kortunov: There will be no reset or breakthrough in this relationship any time soon. Not even because of the unresolved crises that constrain our relationship, such as in Ukraine, Syria, or Belarus, even if Ukraine remains the most important stumbling block on the road to better relations. I fear that the problem is more fundamental: it is more about a gap in some basic perceptions between EU and Russian leadership. Each of them holds very different perceptions of what the desirable world order is and what its values are. When observing international developments today, both sides can find arguments in support of their views. The Kremlin’s view is more pessimistic: it implies that the world is a rough place and things are likely to get worse before they get better, with conflicts, arms races and nationalism becoming more frequent. And, based on this view, Putin’s policies aim to get his country ready for these unavoidable challenges it will have to face. The EU’s view is different and, as it believes in multilateralism and a rules-based order, it advances its environmental and human rights agenda. This is what makes it so difficult for Moscow and Brussels to find a common ground. I am afraid this situation is not going to change, as both actors think that time will play in their favour.
The deep crisis between the EU and Russia has lasted now for seven years. That is a long time. Had you told me back in 2014 that the bilateral agenda would have not changed by 2021, I would have said: “No, no, that is not possible”. Instead, it became the new normal. This new normality may not be perfect, but it is acceptable to both sides. On both sides, there are stakeholders that benefit from this situation, and both sides expect the other one to make fundamental concessions first. I call it a balance of mutual weakness: on the Russian side, it is an economic weakness, reflected in stagnating growth rates. On the European side, the weakness is more political, embodied mainly in a lack of steady leadership. The weakness of both actors becomes especially visible in comparison to China, and other fast-growing Asian countries.
Marc Friedli: Interesting that you mention Asia in this context. Over the course of the last year, the coronavirus pandemic has given rise to “battle of narratives” between China, Russia, the EU and the US. As we enter a late stage in this battle – vaccination – how has this battle played out? Do you think it has led to any significant geopolitical changes? Has it revealed a geopolitical shift?
Andrey Kortunov: Yes, the coronavirus crisis had an impact, especially with regard to developments in the international economy. Before the pandemic, many economists argued that China would surpass the US as the most powerful economic country in the mid-2030s. After the pandemic, analysts think that this will happen by 2027. That is a significant change, for everybody. But even economy aside, the way the US mismanaged the pandemic has demonstrated the liabilities of its social and political system. In Russia, the US was traditionally seen as an embodiment of modernity. Now the numbers of the COVID-19 crisis reveal a different and very sad story. Moreover, the racial riots, the election campaigns, the events on Capitol Hill – all these events are a heavy blow the US’ standing in the world. We cannot underestimate the effects of this, because in many regards, the US used to be the yardstick Russia compared itself to.
In this battle of narratives, China certainly has the upper hand, at least in Russia. People say that although China commits human rights violations in Hong Kong or Xinjiang, the Chinese were able to better protect their population than most Western democracies. Maybe we should reconsider our image of modernity and where it is to be found? But I don’t think Russia can imitate China, and it should not. Nevertheless, the pandemic has certainly shifted the perceptions in Russia in favour of China.
Marc Friedli: You raise two very interesting points here. One relates to the official relations between the PRC and Russia. The other is about perceptions held among the Russian public. Concerning the latter, I always expected the Russian people to pressure Russian government to maintain good relations with the West, given their preference to study, travel and work in Europe or the US. Will this change in popular perceptions impact Russia’s approach towards the West?
Andrey Kortunov: There is a difference between what you perceive as the best, and what you perceive as yours. China may have handled the pandemic better, but that does not mean that Russia is no longer a European power. Whether the West is a success story or a failure, whether we can consider developments in the West as positive or negative, we, in most cases, share these trends. We share, at least partially, its success stories and we share its weaknesses. It is not a matter of choice. Russians may look at China with admiration, but the conclusion is not for us to become like them and stop being Europeans. In this sense, I would not exaggerate this trend. Yes, the perceptions of China have changed in a positive way, and popular as well as political respect for China has increased, but there were other countries, notably many democracies, which performed very well too, such as Australia, Taiwan or New Zealand.
Marc Friedli: What about the political relationship between Russia and the PRC?
Andrey Kortunov: The political relationship already gained significant momentum before the pandemic, with many pockets of cooperation, reaching from military issues to energy and infrastructure. The deepening of this relationship is, above all, caused by the dual containment strategy pursued by the US. The US does more than any other external power to cement the Sino-Russian partnership, as it maintains adversarial relationship with both of them. Years ago, China hoped that Russia would become the major target for the US. But right now, relations between Washington and Beijing can be compared to those between Washington and Moscow: Beijing is a target of sanctions and we see a lot of negative rhetoric. This pushes Russia and China leaders closer together. This trend will continue under Biden. He might avoid the rhetoric used by Trump and achieve some tactical agreements with Beijing, but the competition will continue. The same can be said for the US’ relationship with Russia. As a result, Russia and China will also continue to contain what they perceive as US hegemony.
Marc Friedli: Let’s talk about Russia’s neighbourhood, where, over the past two decades, the Kremlin’s influence has vanished in several states formerly part of the USSR. This year, Russia’s reaction to the protests in Belarus, another revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the war in Nagorno Karabakh was rather hesitant. What is Russia’s vision of the international order in its neighbourhood and how is this vision evolving?
Andrey Kortunov: For many years, my Western friends and partners asked me why the disintegration of the Soviet Union took such a peaceful and painless form. My standard answer to why it happened was for a long time: the Soviet Union has not really disintegrated. For many years, we lived in an environment full of Soviet elements, in which the statehood of newly independent republics was not taken very seriously, even by their own political leaders. Only now do we see the real disintegration of the USSR. It is happening in front of our eyes. The Russian leadership seems not to be ready to pay a high price in order to maintain its influence in the post-Soviet space anymore.
Take Belarus: it seemed natural that Russia should use the moment of Lukashenko’s weakness to impose some form of deeper integration and drag him into the Russian orbit. However, if I look at current discussions between Lukashenko and Putin, I do not see any desire to absorb Belarus into Russia. You take Kyrgyzstan and, again, the perception is that no matter which leader the Kyrgyz people elect, as long as (s)he stays committed to our agreements, most notably the EAEU and CSTO, we do not mind. Even in the case of Moldova, I was very surprised to see how passive the Kremlin was in mobilizing the Moldovan diaspora living in Russia during the elections last October. It was a close election. If they had been more actively incentivized to support Igor Dodon – the former, pro-Russian President – we might have seen a different outcome of the elections. But there was no interest in doing so, and Russia basically ignored the election outcome and the change of president in Moldova.
As a last example, let´s have a look at Nagorno Karabakh. Just think how Russia would have reacted a couple of years ago if a NATO member state got directly militarily involved in the post-Soviet space. Erdogan demonstrated that he was ready to cross this red line. Now, instead, Putin was very accommodative to Erdogan and declared publicly that Azerbaijan is independent and free to align with any country it wants and that Russia cannot deprive them of this right. But one could ask what about Ukraine then? Should we not grant it the same freedom to align with whoever it wants?
I think that Russia is getting more tolerant to external presence in its neighbourhood, especially if this presence is not Western, but Turkish or Chinese or some other player. It is less eager to keep these countries on a short leash and micro-manage domestic political developments. There is no appetite to increase subsidies to these countries, instead Russia tries to shift the relations to a more commercial basis. It’s premature to conclude whether this is only a short-term trend or actually a long-term trend. I suspect that these are important changes in the Kremlin’s attitude in the sense that these countries are no longer perceived as an important asset which Russia can yield to no one. After all, you can get more money out of Libya than Moldova. So maybe there is a change and we will see in the next two to three years whether this change is reversable or if Russia will indeed continue to take a more hands-off approach. But one can also find many counterarguments to this. Maybe Russia believes that Lukashenko needs more time and once this grace period is over, Russia will increase its pressure. Others argue that Russia strengthened its position in the South Caucasus, as it has not only a military base in Armenia but also peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh. In Moldova, one may say that the president is not that important, parliamentary elections are still ahead of us and the Kremlin is working on them. So, let us see, but I think there are important changes happening.
Message to Students and Younger Generation
Marc Friedli: This has been a very interesting interview, thank you. For the concluding section, let’s take a look into the future. In the coming years, millennials – the children of the post-Cold War era – will assume important positions as analysts and decision makers. For my generation, the Cold War is a chapter of contemporary history. Is this generational change, going forward, an opportunity to improve relations between Russia and the West?
Andrey Kortunov: First of all, let me say that this is a matter of faith. We don’t know what the new generation will bring to the table when it gets to power. My generation, and the previous generation, we did a lousy job in cleaning up the mess left by the Cold War. We hoped that many of the Cold War problems would and should resolve themselves automatically and disappear from the political agenda. This was wrong, and we pass this torch to the next generation, which will still have to deal with these problems, including difficult relations between Russia and the West, nuclear proliferation and disarmament, arms race and territorial disputes. This is the old agenda, which is still with us. But on top of this old agenda, we have a new one: climate change, migration, new technologies and many others which are just entering the arena of international politics.
We will see a major generational shift in the leadership of many leading nations in the coming years, and I hope this new generation will come with a more modern vision of the world and its priorities. It is a matter of faith and hard to prove, especially because generations are difficult to generalize. I hope for a new wave of globalization, and that it will be a different globalization than we lived through in the beginning of the millennium. It will be led by civil society, rather than business only, and promote an agenda of justice and fairness, rather than liberty. In my lifetime, the pendulum swung from social justice to liberty, and now it swings in the other direction. It will be about sustainable development and there will be adjustments. But the challenge of the new generation will not be the adversity between China and the US, but North-South divide.
Each generation is unique and any has its victories and defeats. But indeed, it is the time to express more humility about our own accomplishments, but also to render our advice and share our experiences with those who will succeed us and who will hopefully do better than we did.