UC Pre-Module, Oxford, 2020


In June 2020, due to the COVID-related restrictions, we had to postpone our planned Traning Module in Oxford, and replace it with a series of online lectures. We were thrilled when Dr Dmitri Trenin and Prof. Robert Legvold had agreed to speak to our student Fellows and alumni at this virtual event, and we are honoured to bring you the recordings and summaries of their talks.



Listen to the Talk Here



by Elizabeth Teague

Dr Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, gave the first Pre-Module talk entitled, “Russia and the West: Why We Got Where We Are Today and Is There a Way Out?”

Dr Trenin explained he was going to look not at how we got where we are, but rather at why we got here, since that is what we need to understand if we are get out of the mess we are in and to build better relations between Russia and West.

The seeds of our current relations were planted when the previous conflict – the Cold War – was settled. How relations have developed since then dates back to that period, to how the post-Cold War world was organised, what kind of system took shape, and how Western and Russian societies have since evolved.

The Cold War was a world conflict that ended with the defeat of Russia. How the defeated player is treated always plays a crucial role in how things subsequently develop. If a conflict ends with the defeated party unhappy with the new world order, and if that party is strong enough to recover, then it will attempt to upset the new world order. Compare how Germany was treated at the end of the First World War with how West Germany and Japan were treated at the end of the Second World War. After its defeat in 1918, Germany was forced to sign a punitive peace treaty and ordered to pay massive financial reparations. It is argued that the treaty’s harsh terms contributed to the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Second World War twenty years later. In the cases of West Germany and Japan after the Second World War, by contrast, the defeated powers were peacefully and successfully integrated into the Western system.

But this is not what happened with Russia following the end of the Cold War. The idea that Russia would join (as East Germany then did) the US-led Western system was flawed. Both sides were governed by mistaken expectations. Russia’s hope that it would take the post of second in command and deputy leader of NATO was dashed. The West’s expectation that Russia would evolve into a liberal democracy was also flawed. Rather, communism was replaced by a band of oligarchic capitalists, and by 1994 (or 1996 at the latest) it was clear that Russia was not going to evolve in the way in which the West – and even some in Russia – had hoped. With the global financial crisis of 1998, many in the West wrote Russia off. This was a mistaken assumption. Rather, Russia returned to its traditional independent sovereignty.

The Yugoslav wars, the Chechen wars, NATO enlargement, 9/11 and its consequences, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq -- each successive crisis was a milestone that increased elements of divergence and deterioration between Russia and the triumphalist West. NATO enlargement was seen by Russia as an effort by the West to ensure that Russia would never again be a world hegemon. The “colour“ revolutions in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and 2014, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005, were seen by the West as moves toward democracy, but

by Russia as the West’s geopolitical advance. Indeed, Putin and his associates saw them as attempts to undermine Russia itself.

Meanwhile, the West saw Putin‘s cutting the oligarchs down to size, nationalising Russia‘s oil industry, asserting control over the media and the Russian parliament, and bringing Western-supported NGOs to heel as signs that Russia was moving in the wrong direction. Putin, by contrast, saw these as necessary moves to reestablish central control and stability, and to prevent Russia’s disintegration.

During his presidency in 2008-2012, Dmitry Medvedev was briefly embraced by the West. This was one of the reasons why Putin decided to return to power – and that too was why the attempted re-set between Russia and the US failed. Since 2011, Russia has been in a state of confrontation with the US and of mutual alienation with the European Union.

Dr Trenin said he saw this confrontation as likely to continue for quite a long time. Even though there is some interest on both sides to improve relations, the confrontation will certainly continue as long as the current generation is concerned. Russia is seen by the West as essentially malign, but also as increasingly unimportant. China is now seen by the United States as its No 1 adversary.

How can we look for a way out? First, we need to manage our broken relationship to prevent it from exploding and damaging us all. We need to aim for stability and dialogue. Cooperation is not a possibility in the near term. In the near term, we need rather to ensure that our confrontation does not lead to collision. Collision is a real threat and could be provoked by misperceptions and misunderstandings. So, engagement is essential.

We need to focus on deconfliction, not cooperation; it is too soon for cooperation. But we have common interests, climate change being a leading shared concern and somewhere where we can cooperate. The NATO-Russia Council could play a valuable role as a potential deconfliction mechanism and platform for engagement. Russia needs economic and technological modernisation, and Europe is a lead source of that.

Dr Trenin was not optimistic about improving Russia’s relations with the US any time soon since, he said, all US leaders are very anti-Russian. The Russian political mind and the American political mind do not work in the same way. We Russians do see the need to join forces. International relations means dealing with what you have, not what you want. You have to leave ideology behind. This is what diplomacy is all about. For the US, America is born to lead. America doesn’t join others – the others join America.



Listen to the Talk Here



by Elizabeth Teague


Dr Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, gave the second Pre-Module talk entitled, “Russia as a Foreign Policy Actor: Where It Is Coming From and Where Is It Headed?”

Talking about the future, it’s important not to lose sight of the past, Dr Trenin began by saying. Looking at Russia’s history will help tell you where Russia is coming from, and how it is more or less likely to behave in the future. The same goes for geography. While history gives us depth, geography gives us breadth. We have to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes in order to understand where they are coming from and where they may be going.

My most important conclusion from studying Russia’s history, Dr Trenin said, is that, while foreign invasions were disastrous for Russia (the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 being the most obvious but certainly not the only example), these external invasions were less disastrous for Russia than domestic crises. Three examples of such catastrophes, resulting from the failure of the leaders to deal with society, are the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), the twin revolutions of 1917, and what Putin has called “the major geopolitical catastrophe” of the Soviet collapse in 1991.

History has seen a continuum of Russian states, each built on the ruins of its predecessor – Kievan Rus’, Velikii Novgorod, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, and the Russian Empire founded by Peter the Great. The “old” Russia was abolished by the Bolsheviks – they even removed the name and renamed it the Soviet Union – but now the Russian Federation has returned. Each of these states was built on the ruins of its predecessor which had to be repudiated and destroyed.

For a country as big as Russia, domestic and external stability are crucial. This is a variant of Asian political culture, top-down domestic control inherited from the Mongol Yoke. This is not a system like that in Europe, that was based on competition between the king and his barons. Russian political culture works top-down. You can’t reform it by means of elections. It has to be toppled by means of a major crisis. The roots of Russian autocracy run very deep, so replacing autocracy with democracy will not happen quickly. Moreover, Russian democracy will not turn out to be just the same as that of, say, Europe. The modernisation of Russian society will take a long time. Meanwhile, autocracy is a remedy against popular anarchy.

There are no natural borders to protect Russia against either East or West, leading to a profound sense of insecurity. The Russian population today relate to their leaders along the principle of “если бы не было войны,” that is, “Do whatever you like, as long as you defend us against war.”

Russia is essentially alone. It is not part of any international family, not even of the Slavic world. Russia’s identify is essentially unique. At one time (until it sold Alaska to the US in 1857), it sat across three continents, from the Åland Islands to Alaska. Even now, it stretches from Norway to North Korea. This leads to unique relations between the many ethnic groups in Russia. Russia went from a European great power in the 18th century to conquering the Caucasus and engaging with the British Empire in the Great Game over

Afghanistan and Central Asia in the 19th century. During the 20th century, the Soviet Union saw itself as a global ideological power, then as one of the two nuclear superpowers that ruled the world after the Second World War. It was treated by the US as an equal, but only because of its nuclear arsenal. Economically and financially, Russia has never been a great power.

Where is Russia headed? Russia today is geographically smaller than the Soviet Union, yet it remains the world’s largest country in terms of landmass, and it is again thinking globally.

Russia’s aim is to remain a great power, that is, a country that walks on its own. A great power, but not a superpower.

What is a great power today? It is a country with a high degree of national security, resilient in the face of outside pressure, able to defend itself, not dependent on another power to do that for it. That is to say, it is a sovereign state.

A state is not born with such status. It has to fight for it. Peter the Great fought the Swedes for twenty-one years in order to establish Russia’s independent status. Russia’s foreign policy today is closer to that of the Russian Empire than to that of the Soviet Union, which sought to promote world communism, and which was an aberration. Russia today is guided by realpolitik and by its national interests. It seeks the status comparable to that of the Congresses of great powers in Vienna in 1815 and Yalta in 1945. That means that Russia cannot impose its will on others but, even more importantly, that others cannot impose their will on Russia.

Putin’s achievements include: domestic consolidation, financial stability, military capability, partnership with China and other non-Western nations, playing an effective role in Syria, and practising mostly successful foreign policy opportunism. His failures include the failure to prevent confrontation with the US, broken relations with the EU, conflict with Ukraine, and failure to relaunch the Russian economy.

Russia should not allow itself to be dragged into the US-China confrontation. Sanctions imposed on Russia since 2014 have increased Russia’s dependence on China. Now Russia needs to diversify its economy so that it will not become too dependent on China. China is reliant on Russia both for military hardware and technology, and for strategic experience, since Russia is much more advanced strategically than China is, and also has far more experience of international relations than does China. This gives Russia an opportunity to balance the relationship. Russia also needs to upgrade its relations with India in order better to balance its relations with China. Russia sees China as a friend, but it also remembers past tensions in Soviet/Chinese relations and sees that China is now a superpower and more powerful than Russia, so Russia is cautious. “Never against each other, but not necessarily together” sums up Russia’s China policy. Climate change is already rising up as a topic on the Russian agenda. This could be one of the areas of Russia-

EU cooperation. And, Dr Trenin commented, involvement in climate change would mean Russia’s going beyond its borders and its purely national interests.



Listen to the Talk Here



by Elizabeth Teague

Professor Robert Legvold spoke on the topic, “How and where do the United States and Russia fit into a new world order?”

Professor Legvold began by asking, Is there a new world order and, if so, what is it?  He argued that there is not at present a new world order.  Citing Henry Kissinger, he defined a “world order” as a single institution resting on a set of commonly accepted rules that determine how states behave.  Many people thought that that was where we were heading at the end of the Cold War but that, Professor Legvold argued, was a misapprehension.  For the better part of the last ten years, the major powers have been moving in the opposite direction.  That is what drives the current uncertainty about what the contemporary international order is and where it is heading.

What we have now, Professor Legvold argued, is a new international system, which is in the process of evolution.

An international system is not however a world order or a global system.  It can consist of two or more “international orders,” and is based on interactions between the major powers that determine international relations in a specific area.

Bipolar international systems are rare.  Multipolar systems are much more common – for example, we saw a multipolar system following the Napoleonic wars.  In the recent past, the dominant international system was seen as that led since 1945 by the United States, which was based on a specific set or norms, rules and institutions.  The Soviet Union/Russia and China were excluded that international system.  So, from 1945 to 1991, what was often described as a bipolar system was actually two separate international systems.

Since 1991, there has been no agreement in the United States over whether the US-led unipolar system is over.  Some argue that US predominance is under assault and that, while it is not yet over, the US needs to change it behaviour.  Others argue that the unipolar system is finished and that the US needs to adapt to the new reality.  As for Russia and China, they are sure that the unipolar system is over – if indeed, it ever really existed.  They see an emerging multipolar system in which the influence of the West will inevitably weaken.  Together with China and other authoritarian regimes.  Russia is seen as actively seeking to undermine the rules-based system long led by the US.  Russia denies this, and accuses the US of having gone rogue and of undermining its own purported norms.
However, Professor Legvold sees neither the unipolar nor the multipolar explanation as adequate.  Rather, he proposed an alternative image.  From the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 until the end of the Cold War, the international system rested on a single axis, which was Europe.  What happened in and around Europe determined the character and course of international relations.

Now, Professor Legvold suggested, we are entering a dual-axis  system – one axis located in Europe, the other in Asia.  The US will remain a principal actor in both.  Russia will remain suspended between both.  For each actor, however, the key dynamic is a large question mark.  On the Western axis, that question is “Is it the end of the West, both as an idea and as a relatively cohesive collaboration?”  On the Eastern axis, the fundamental question is “Does the future promise a US-China strategic dialogue, or a new US-China Cold War?”

The answer in both cases will depend heavily on US choices.  Russia’s response will depend on what choices the US decisions leave open to Russia.  If on the Western axis the current trend in US foreign policy continues towards self-absorption, abdication of leadership, unilateralism and confrontation with allies, that will produce one kind of answer, and Russia will have to respond to one set of choices and outcomes.  If, on the other hand, the US returns to a more traditional, albeit awkward, leadership role, and a fractured Europe preserves its integration project, the answer will be very different.

If on the Eastern axis the US mismanages its relationship with China, as it is doing now, abetted by unhelpful Chinese behaviour, the answer will not only create challenges and dangers for Russia, but will threaten the entire international system.  If on the other hand the US, with somewhat more cooperative Chinese behaviour, remains in an uneasy balance between interdependence and rivalry with China, then the answer will again be different.  And so too will be Russia’s choices.

Professor Legvold said that, while he sees the US-led liberal international order as under threat, he does not see it as fatally doomed, one reason being that neither Russia not China has a vision of a fundamentally different system that they seek to build in its place.  So, if an alternative is emerging, this is not order of any kind, but simply the complete degradation of the existing liberal international order.

Over the next ten years, Russia and the United States will face fundamental choices.  This leads back to the original question: where do Russia and the US fit in?  And how will they figure in an international system that is under stress?

For the US, there are three potential choices:  (1) abdication of leadership -- what Professor Legvold calls “the Trump Administration’s ‘Go It Alone’ policy”; (2) the policy called for in Joe Biden’s presidential campaign to restore US moral authority by renewing its alliances and promoting international cooperation to tackle the 21st century’s global challenges; (3) a policy of retrenchment whereby the US would reduce its alliances and its force deployment, shrink its security involvement, and narrow its priority security concerns to three overseas regions essential for the US -- Europe, East Asia and the Persian Gulf.

Russia faces four fundamental choices: (1) full-scale alignment with China in the event of a US-China bipolar Cold War; (2) cultivating a balanced partnership (not an alliance) with China and pursuing constructive relations with India, Japan and Europe while avoiding confrontation with the US; (3) tilting toward no other major power but maintaining productive relations with all; (4) seeking international leadership “with a mission” based on aims such as preserving international peace and protecting the environment.

Professor Legvold ended with a summary of four major stakes that the US and Russia share:  (1) the risk of the use of nuclear weapons is now as great if not greater than at any time during the Cold War; (2) it is necessary to reverse the remilitarisation of European security that has occurred in the last ten years; (3) the US and Russia need to respond to the rise of China cooperatively rather than competitively; (4) the US and Russia need together to address the security challenges posed by climate change.

“I offer these propositions,” Professor Legvold concluded, “as requirements if the future is to be stable rather than unstable, if the world is to be safer, rather than less so, but in particular as an analytical standard for judging which among the three potential US choices, and which among the four potential Russian choices, could move the international system in a safer, or a more dangerous direction.  Is there any chance that we will move toward a greater world order, or is the more likely prospect that we will move toward world disorder?”