Interview with Igor Gretskiy, professor of international relations at St Petersburg State University. Interviewer: Iwona Reichardt.
IWONA REICHARDT: This week Donald Trump comes to Poland, which will be his first visit to our region as US president. He will be visiting at the same time when the new Three Seas Initiative is holding a summit in Warsaw, a project championed by Poland and Croatia among others, which clearly has a strong anti-Russian component. What is Russia’s position towards this concept of Three Seas?
IGOR GREKTSKIY: Since 2009 all such initiatives have been regarded by Russia in a very negative way, as the official Russian rhetoric is based on the thesis of its near abroad. In addition, Poland is perceived here as the leading actor in formulating the EU, and the West’s more broadly, foreign policy towards the former Soviet states. This is the prism through which all initiatives of this kind have been perceived. To counteract them Russia has been trying to build separate bilateral relations with individual countries. Not with organisations, which can be difficult, but with specific states. Russia uses this technique to forge cleavages between countries. So, to sum up the more organizations, or fora or initiatives, that are established, the more opportunities for the countries that participate in them to find security solutions in the East. But at the same time, it also means more opportunities for Russia to create divisions between them.
And which countries do you think Russia will specifically focus on to make these so-called friends?
Slovakia, for instance. Bulgaria and partly Hungary, if we are talking about the Central European region. These are the most important ones. However, let me also add that in the last few years the Russian government has realised that this strategy does not work as it should. Let’s take, for example, Viktor Orbán and his visits to Moscow where he shakes hands with Vladimir Putin and issues strong anti-EU statements. Yet when he returns to Hungary he often proceeds with the line of the European Union… To me it seems that the Russian elite has started to understand that they have nothing to offer those countries, even when dealing with them on a bilateral basis. Naturally, when you want to get something, you have to offer something in return. The truth is that the EU, when compared to Russia, has much more to offer Hungary, Poland, or any other country, even those that are not its member states. The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, which is huge, or a visa free regime, are clear examples.
What does it all mean? Is Russia changing the vector of its foreign policy now? Will the Three Seas Initiative push it towards more pragmatic relations with just selected European countries?
I think that the Kremlin will keep building its so-called pragmatic relations. But I am not sure about this term. I am not sure if Russian foreign policy is pragmatic at all. As a matter of fact, Russian foreign policy was pragmatic at the beginning of Putin’s rule. Today, however, it would make more sense not to instigate problems in relations with the West. It would be more pragmatic because Russia needs investments and technologies. It has a very outdated industry and we are still heavily dependent on oil and natural gas exports. The only way out is to have good relations with the West. But today’s foreign policy of the Russian Federation is not pragmatic. It is oriented on medium-term political goals that are very strongly related to the nearest presidential election. The only aim is to stay in power as long as possible. That is the pragmatism.
So how do you interpret the call for Russia-NATO Council?
It is a very good sign. Dialogue is always needed, no matter what circumstances, no matter what kind of relationship between Russia and the West are. There is a need to discuss things. There is a need to negotiate issues. Thus, this call is a very good step forward, towards more understanding, more co-operation even in the field of security. Having said that, let me also point that nowadays the margin for co-operation is very limited. It is really very, very limited. And the activation of common work, the resumption of this NATO-Russia council will not add space. It will not enlarge this margin.
Because Russia and the West speak different languages. The Russian political elite still speaks the Cold War language which stipulates that there are six, or maybe, seven large powers that possess the whole scope of sovereignty and can push their interests abroad. According to this point of view it is those great powers that can only decide about the fate of other countries and the shape and future of international relations. This is the thinking that dominated in the Cold War era. Conversely, in the West, there is a different rhetoric; every country is perceived differently, independently, and as capable of having its own foreign policy. So to finish answering your question, I think that the Russia-NATO Council is a good instrument for rapprochement between Russia and the West. But as long as Russia and the West talk different languages, the outcomes of this council will be very limited.
The West is also changing. Think about the Brexit, the America First policy promoted by the Trump Administration. Speaking of which; what is Russia’s perception of the US president today? How much has it changed since the November 2016 election in the US?
I am not sure if the West has changed that much. Democracy is always about change, problems and discussions. Including tense discussions. But I agree that the degree of uncertainty is a bit larger since Trump’s election victory last year. But at the same time the US has a completely different institutional system from Russia. In Russia – every decision and vector of foreign policy is determined by the president personally. In the US things are different. They have a very complicated system of checks and balances and both the president and the Congress have powers. The president needs the overwhelming majority of Congress to support his policy when he wants to apply his power. So every time the president has to build a majority for his initiatives. Secondly, the US president cannot have a legislative initiative. The Russian president, in turn, does. That is why, in the US presidents need to search for deals, reach compromises with the Congress. Otherwise, the president will not be successful in policies, including foreign policies. Getting back to the perception of Trump in Russia. Of course everybody within the Russian establishment was very happy about Trump’s success, which we could see in the parties with champagne organised by the members of the Duma. Yet, it is also true that for most of them it was a little bit surprising that Trump had won. No one actually expected that. If Hillary Clinton had been the US President, it would have been much easier for Russia to build a clear-cut political line towards the US. After Trump’s victory nobody knew what to expect. Thus, the Russian government was not so much happy about Trump’s victory, as about Clinton’s defeat. And that is the difference. As you know, since the election Trump has already made some foreign policy decisions regarding Syria, Iran but also Ukraine. The steps that followed show that he won’t change the general line of the US foreign policy. Even worse, under Trump’s rule, the US want to introduce even harsher sanctions towards Russia, compared to what Obama did. That is why, there is a very big discussion around the position of Russia’s ambassador to the US. That Sergey Kislyak is going to step down and a new person, the former deputy minister of defence, Anatoly Antonov, is going to be appointed. The new ambassador is for sure going to introduce a harder line towards the US. This, in my view, shows that the Kremlin is disappointed with Trump. However, Trump will not be a target of Russian criticism. Partly because he, along with Rex Tillerson, never mentioned Putin personally when talking about Russia’s conduct in the world, and that is very important. Even during the hearings in the Senate, Tillerson was critical about Russia’s aggressive policy towards Ukraine and Syria, but he did not blame Putin for that. So, I expect that Russian elite will be more vigorously demonstrating its antipathy and criticism regarding the US in general, but not Trump personally.
Does it indicate a special relationship?
The US Senate is currently conducting a special probe into this and there are some facts that indicate there was some kind of a special relationship, as in the case of Michael Flynn, for instance. However, it is not so interesting what kind of a special relationship did exist. The current probe is more important because both Trump and his administration they have their hands tied. They have very little space for political manoeuvring when it comes to policy towards Russia. That is why they cannot initiate anything significant, anything that could change the US foreign policy in a radical way.
Looking at the situation in the US, but also in other places, it seems that many things are to Putin’s advantage. But how long can this last? In other words, how long will Putin be able to keep his strong position within the country because of his policies abroad? The most striking example, of course, is Crimea….
I think that the issue of Crimea is not going to change until at least 2024. Because both Putin and the Russian government made steps that any backtracking would mean losing face and popularity. And losing popularity means losing power. I think that Russia and the West will get back to a comprehensive discussion about the status of Crimea only after Putin leaves office. I cannot say when that will happen – whether it will be in 2024 or 2030 – I do not know. What I do know though is that for sure Russia will face a great need to revert to the matter, because there is no country, even among the closest Russian allies, that supported this decision completely. Even Belarus or Armenia did not. China also considers the annexation of Crimea a problem. The Chinese made a clear statement back in April 2015 that the Crimean problem, problem I underline, had to be negotiated during a special international conference. Russia will have to get back to the issue, but not under Putin.
And yet the bridge that will connect the peninsula with mainland Russia is being built by Arkady Rotenberg – one of Putin’s closest friends…
Russia tried to initiate the construction of this bridge long time ago. It was in the 1990s but the Ukrainian government did not want to push it forward, mainly because of separatism. Ukrainians understood that a bridge could contribute to an increase in separatist sentiments in Crimea. Now, indeed, this bridge is under construction. And if the Crimean issue is one day resolved, let’s say after 2024, the bridge will play the same role – it will be a connector between Crimea and Russia. For the moment, it has not yet been completed, and it’s a question whether the construction will be finished or not. First, there are some technical problems with muddy soil which is not very suitable for drilling. Second, it is a very costly project with increasing expenditures. We already have many cases where the initial budget has augmented significantly. Take the Winer Olympics in Sochi or the football stadium here in St Petersburg – where the government spent 6,5 times more than it had planned to.
So Crimea is not a closed chapter yet?
It is not a closed chapter, definitely, as it is related to separatism, which is a very serious issue. And not only for Ukraine, it is even more serious for Russia. In the 1990s, during the dire economic situation, separatism was problem number one on the government’s agenda. That was the reason for Boris Yeltsin, I guess, not to support the separatists both in Ukraine and Georgia, because he had his own separatists in Chechnya, Tatarstan, and so on. The Kremlin was doing its best to stave off any possibility of separatism across the CIS, as it was afraid that any successful secession would be an ominous precedent capable of accelerating centrifugal trends inside Russia. Russia even introduced economic sanctions against Abkhazia to help Georgia to preserve its territorial integrity. Under Putin’s rule, this issue was marginalised and perceived as a minor problem for domestic security. But I think it will get very serious in the near future.
The Northern Caucasus, Tatarstan, and who knows where else, because Russia is the biggest country in the world and naturally it should care about its borders and territorial integrity more than any other country. Supporting separatism around the world, and especially on its borders, in neighbouring countries, contradicts Russia’s national interest. What is happening right now in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan (the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict), endangers Russia’s national security. And Russia should be the first one that is interested in searching for solutions to those problems and not supporting separatism as it does now. I would even say Russia’s security and territorial integrity strongly depend on security and territorial integrity of its neighbours.
You are saying it should, but do you think it will?
Not under Putin. I think some changes are possible only after Putin leaves office. Only then.
That is 2024…
Exactly. Territorial issues are very sensitive for politicians as claiming rights to land brings many advantages. Fomenting this agenda is one of the shortest ways to score political points and to increase one’s popularity ratings. At the beginning of 1990s, the Russian population was sliding into poverty, and wanted simple answers to difficult questions. From a politician’s perspective, in a situation like that it made no sense to explain to the people that it was the Soviet inefficient and inapt government that brought the country to economic bankruptcy. Rather, it was easier to blame Gorbachev and Yeltsin for that, and to claim that the restoration of the USSR, or even the Russian Empire, would solve the problems. That is whyradical nationalist and neo-imperialist narrative prevailed among the people, but it remained fringe and marginal among the ruling elites. Despite the fact that many top-ranking officials shared those views, they became part of the Kremlin’s mainstream public rhetoric only after the conflict with Ukraine began, in 2014. Both the popular majority and the bureaucracy predictably supported the illegal annexation of Crimea. It means that when Putin changes something in his policy regarding Crimea, he will most likely be described as a traitor. And this is something he cannot afford. In my view, no matter who Putin’s successor will be, he or she will have to tackle the Crimean issue, but, nonetheless, will have limited opportunities to offer something the majority of voters in Russia will accept.
Igor Gretskiy is associate professor at the School of International Relations, St. Petersburg State University.
Iwona Reichardt is deputy editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe.