Russia: The Art of Power Politics – An Interview with Robert Kagan

Ronald Reagan Centennial, Feb 10-11, 2011, Washington DCRobert Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an author of several acclaimed books on American foreign policy. He writes a monthly column for The Washington Post, and he is a contributing editor at both The New Republic and The Weekly Standard. He served in the State Department from 1984 to 1988 as a member of the Policy Planning Staff, as principal speechwriter for Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and as deputy for policy in the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs. Listed as one of the world’s “Top 100 Public Intellectuals” by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines, Kagan received his bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1980.

The Politic: In a recent meeting between President Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, the two sides pledged to press the “reset button” in U.S.-Russia relations, erasing the legacy of their predecessors’ relationship turned afoul. Given Obama’s early efforts, do you foresee Medvedev moving closer to the United States on critical issues such as Afghanistan and Iran?

For the Russians, Afghanistan is purely a question of leverage over the United States. I do not think they really care whether or not we succeed in Afghanistan. I believe, though, that they like the idea of our being dependent on them, insofar as we need Russian access to Afghanistan to send in troops and materials. So in a sense they have some motivation to cooperate. But on Iran I’m very skeptical of a great degree of Russian cooperation. Russia has its own interests in Iran, mostly in regard to making money, by both selling nuclear reactors and giving support for building their own nuclear reactors.

In general Russia has always had a strategic interest in a good relationship with Iran, and I think that they are far less concerned with an Iranian nuclear weapon than the United States and Europe are. The Russians do have some concern, but it is not as great as ours.

The Politic: Some commentators have speculated that an internal power struggle between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin may be brewing. Do you believe this? Who, in your opinion, really has the power in Russia?

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev

There is no question that Putin has the power. Medvedev has the opportunity to use his role as President externally in a way that Putin has difficulty, because Medvedev is the one that meets with major players in the diplomatic arena. Russia cannot send the Prime Minister to meet with the President of the United States. This gives Medvedev a place on the world stage that Putin lacks. It will be interesting to see how long Putin is willing to put up with that, because I suspect that he is not happy that Medvedev gets to be the diplomatic face of Russia. Medvedev may try to use his role to carve out some influence for himself, but at the end of the day I think there is no question that Putin holds the reins of power, and that ultimately he will determine Russian policy.

The Politic: In the summer of 2008, when Russia invaded Georgian territory, the Russian economy was strong on the back of high oil prices. Now that oil prices have dropped significantly, and that the Russian economy is struggling, how will Russia’s international posture be affected? What is the relationship between the price of oil and Russian foreign policy?

That is a great question, and no one has the answer to it. The funny thing is that the people who argue for doing whatever is necessary to improve relations with Russia always have had it both ways. When Russia was rich, they said: “Russia is rich, so we have to tolerate their throwing their weight around and accommodate that reality.” When Russia is poor, they say: “This is an opportunity to improve relations with Russia because they need us, so we have to accommodate what they want right now.” So the people who call for accommodation get it coming and going.

My opinion is that you will not see a dramatic change in Russian foreign policy. I think that Russia—and especially Putin in his role as leader of the nation in fact as opposed to Medvedev in his more symbolic role—seeks and benefits from a certain degree of confrontation with the United States chiefly, but the West more generally. It benefits Putin internally, as it functions to deflect attention from Russia’s economic problems. Moreover, Putin’s mission of re-establishing Russian power and Russia’s dominant role in its region transcends economics. If you look at the decisions Russia is making, this becomes clear. Even during the economic crisis, military spending continues to rise pretty substantially. So I do not see any signs that economic difficulties are moderating Russian foreign policy.

People want to make a big deal over Russia’s desire to engage in arms talks with us—but of course they want to engage in arms talks with us. They would like to have a reduction in the American force to deal with the fact that they themselves are having trouble affording their own nuclear force. Arms limitations is one issue on which they are delighted to engage. But I have seen no sign of flexibility on Russia’s part when it comes to the missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. More significantly there has been no backing away from the continuing violation of Georgia’s sovereignty, in spite of the ceasefire agreement that Sarkozy negotiated. The Russians remain in violation of that agreement and show no signs of compliance. I have seen no real moderation in Russia policy, and I honestly do not expect to.

The Politic: In a column you wrote for the Washington Post last February, you said that “Europe’s nightmares are the 1930s; Russia’s nightmares are the 1990s.” Given the Soviet government’s harsh and suppressive treatment of its people, why do Russians lament its collapse? What distinguishes the post-Soviet Russian attitude from, say, the post-Nazi German attitude?

The better analogy is the post-World War I German attitude. What you have in Russia today is a “stab in the back” theory, which was very common in Germany after 1918. At the time, Germans complained that democratic politicians sold them out to the British and the French, humiliated the nation, and forced them to accept terrible peace terms. In reality it was Germany’s military leaders that had to accept the terms of surrender because they had lost the war, but there was a lot of deflection of the blame. As the German economy and political situation grew increasingly unstable, the people used these struggles as an argument against Weimar policy.

In a way, that is where Russia is today. Putin has done a very good job of deflecting blame, pointing the finger at Yeltsin and the Russian democrats in the 1990s as being the cause of Russia’s humiliation at the hands of the Western powers. Russians seem to forget that it was the Soviet Union under Soviet government that collapsed, and it was left to the successors to pick up the pieces. But from the Russian perspective democracy has brought economic instability on the one hand, and on the other hand an influx of corrupt politicians and corrupt businessmen. The people lament Russia’s losing not only its superpower status, but even to some extent its traditional great power status. People forget, you know. People forget how bad things were if they are angry about their present situation. Even today there are a lot of Russians who say Stalin was great.

The Politic: Did these popular sentiments develop naturally, or are they of political origin?

Perhaps some of it was unavoidable, but we should not underestimate the degree to which Putin has deliberately stoked the view, played upon it, and used it as justification for his new Czarist style of autocracy. His argument is that Russia needs to be strong, which means not democratic at home, so it can stand up to the United States and the Western powers abroad. Russia cannot have all these weak and betraying democrats running free around Russia, Putin claims, because they are allies of the Western powers. He has made this point many times. So for Putin internal policies are directly linked to external policies, and that is why I do not expect much accommodation on Russia’s part.

The Politic: Given the successes the U.S. had with rebuilding Europe after World War II and helping countries such as Germany transform into thriving market economies, what could we have done better when the Soviet Union fell?

That is a difficult question, and I do not have a good answer. But it brings up an important issue: Putin and the Russian nationalists today neglect to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars that the West poured into Russia after the Soviet collapse. There really was a tremendous effort to aid Russia’s economy and put it on some kind of even keel. I do not doubt that mistakes were made, but I think Russia always faced a difficult problem. Obviously Yeltsin did not benefit from the high oil prices that Putin enjoyed for many years—that could have just been bad fortune. But I do not have the answer, and I don’t know of anybody who does.

The Politic: When they recently met in London, Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao vowed to strengthen mutual support and strategic cooperation in international affairs. Are we entering a time in which the U.S. has to fear a united Sino-Russian front as it did in the early days of the Cold War? How do you perceive the Sino-Russian relationship going forward?

On the one hand, Russia and China have a clear common interest in putting an end, as they like to say, to the “unipolar world” and creating a new one in which the United States is weaker compared to the other powers. And the Russians have enjoyed a very lucrative arrangement of selling advanced weaponry to the Chinese, which is clearly for use in a potential war against the United States. On the other hand—and I think this is critical—Russia and China are never going to trust each other. A lot of Russians are fearful of China. They are very worried that China, almost by a process of osmosis, will eventually swallow up Siberia and much of eastern Russia. The Chinese see Russia as having utility in some areas, especially those of more general concern—they have a long history of border warfare and other problems along their borders—so they have a tactical alliance of convenience. But I do not think we should expect a true strategic alliance in which Russia and China really look out for each other’s interests.

The Politic: You have said that the Russian invasion of Georgian territory last summer marked the “official return of history.” In what way has history “returned”?

History has returned in two senses. The first is that we have returned to a pretty traditional kind of great power rivalry in the world. When you look at Russian foreign policy, for example, you cannot explain it in terms of economics or globalization. You have to understand Russian foreign policy today the way you would have understood it in the nineteenth century: seeking greatness, seeking honor, seeking influence, seeking spheres of influence, viewing its power in a zero-sum game with that of its neighbors and the other world powers. You can look at other nations’ foreign policies today and find the same thing. Clearly India is trying to expand its sphere of influence in a very traditional way, China is doing the same, and the United States does too in its own way. What we have is not what we expected at the end of the Cold War. After the Cold War people thought that the nation state was withering away, globalization was going to dominate the world, and that nations would stop competing with each other because of their common interest in commerce and communications. We are now seeing that things look a lot more like the past than the new era that we envisioned.

The second sense in which history has returned is ideological. What Francis Fukuyama really meant by the “end of history” was that there would be no more competition in the realm of ideals and ideas on how societies should be organized. I am sympathetic to that view, but we cannot ignore reality. Two of the great powers in the world today are autocracies—China and Russia. I have trouble believing that this does not represent and produce at least some degree of competition with the democratic model. We all were entranced by the idea that things had changed, but unfortunately things never change as much as we hope they do.

The Politic: What, in your opinion, is the United States’ best general policy toward Russia going forward? Will Obama’s much heralded “soft power” be sufficient, or should the United States prepare to play hardball?

I hope and believe that the Obama administration understands that just trying to be nice, and hoping that the Russians are nice in return, is not going to work. I think they understand the necessity of engaging in some hard bargaining and keeping American interests very clear. I am quite pleased with a lot of the markers that the Obama administration—both Secretary of State Clinton and the President himself—has laid down about Georgia and Ukraine being free to choose their own alliances, the need for missile defense so long as there is a threat from Iran, and in rejecting any notion of spheres of influence in Europe. Those are the right parameters. It is very important to try to hold in check some of the European tendencies, especially in Western Europe, to pretty much let the Russians have their sphere of influence. I think that unfortunately there is a sense in Western Europe that Russia should get some sort of sphere of influence. Their response to what Russia did in Georgia basically has been appeasement. It is my hope that the Obama administration will not move down that route.

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