Modern Diplomacy
Can Russia Deliver on Its Threats?

The lack of attention to Russian proposals and objections was the result of a distorted perception in the West about the goals of Russian policy. The main assumption in such a speculative scheme was that Russia cannot behave rationally, that it is just an ever-expanding expansionist power without logic or pragmatism. Such an assessment is very comfortable, but it is inadequate even when analysing the simplest questions, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

Against the backdrop of tensions over Ukraine and Russian demands for security guarantees, an incident from the 1992 CSCE ministerial meeting comes to mind. During the Stockholm conference, the then Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev, unexpectedly for everyone, stated that NATO’s existence contradicts Russia’s interests, that Russia had resolutely determined a zone of its privileged interests in the post-Soviet space and had deemed the protection of the Russian-speaking population its key interest, and that Moscow would react harshly to the expansion of Western influence. Later, however, in his closing speech, the minister announced that the statement had merely been a playful provocation. However, he added, these points could become policy if Russian proposals to agree on the principles of European security were not heard out.

Two years later, at the Brussels summit, the issue of NATO expansion, according to Bill Clinton, became “only a matter of time”. And again, one by one, Russian objections were voiced: first, Andrey Kozyrev in Paris, spoke about the dangers posed by NATO policy, and later Boris Yeltsin in Budapest stressed the risks of a “cold peace” approach. Russia’s subsequent presidents also spoke about their disagreement with the unipolar configuration of the world: Vladimir Putin in Berlin and Munich, as well as Dmitry Medvedev, who spoke about five points of Russia’s vital interests following the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict.

Until recently, there was an opinion among the Russian elite that, through negotiations, Russia could not only convey to the United States the falsity of its bet on unilateral domination, but also offer constructive alternatives to the US-centric security structure. However, Boris Yeltsin’s proposals to shift responsibility for European security from NATO to the OSCE were called “unrealistic” by Bill Clinton. Vladimir Putin’s proposals to create a joint missile defence architecture with the United States were buried under endless discussions between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Medvedev’s draft European Security Treaty was ignored because of dozens of “open letters” from Eastern European countries to Washington about the unacceptability of negotiations with Moscow.

Fifteen years ago, one of my students remarkably and accurately described the reasons these Russian proposals were ignored: the key problem of Russian foreign policy, he wrote, is the “chronic failure to deliver on threats”. Russian ideas and proposals were talked about, and not taken seriously. Apparently, this led Russian diplomats to the conclusion that it was necessary to shift the centre of gravity of discussions with Western partners to other issues. What if Russia suddenly put the interests of Venezuela, Cuba, Serbia, Transnistria or Donbass at the centre of its strategic culture?

It seems that only such a symmetrical reversal and an ultimatum — until the interests of these players are satisfied, we will not move on to other items on the agenda — could arouse in the West the desire to finally talk like an adult. To ask, indeed, mature questions: what are our interests in interaction with Russia?

The lack of attention to Russian proposals and objections was the result of a distorted perception in the West about the goals of Russian policy.

Under the influence of the young countries of Eastern Europe, the perception of Russia as a constant source of threats was entrenched there. The main assumption in such a speculative scheme was that Russia cannot behave rationally, that it is just an ever-expanding expansionist power without logic or pragmatism. Such an assessment is very comfortable, but it is inadequate even when analysing the simplest questions. By what rules does Russia generally play? Why did it, for example, conduct an operation in Syria? Why didn’t it leave troops there to maintain order, and withdrew the main group instead? Or why did it agree to Kazakhstan’s request for the introduction of CSTO peacekeepers, and then withdraw them so quickly?

Russia’s strategic culture must be explained in terms of its internal politics. Why is Russia trying so hard to put realism back on the agenda of world politics? In Russia, the very nature of life around us — the turbulence on our borders and our internal fragility — pushes us to look at everything in a practical way. For example, at the CSTO summit in Tajikistan, when Vladimir Putin announced the beginning of the participation of the Russian Aerospace Forces in the Syrian conflict, he devoted his speech to listing the threats emanating from that country, and not to the fact that Russia was starting a “crusade”. Everything was pragmatic and clear: the task was to maintain regional stability.

Economic Statecraft
Ukraine: Three Scenarios After the Answer From Washington
Ivan Timofeev
The main task for Russia is to avoid excessive overexertion and, at the same time, not get bogged down in a costly confrontation, maintaining and using levers of pressure on the West where its own interests require it, Valdai Club Programme Director Ivan Timofeev writes.
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On the contrary, the behaviour of the Obama administration against the backdrop of a similar regional crisis — unrest in Egypt during the “Arab spring” — revealed completely different foreign policy logic. Hosni Mubarak was a reliable long-term military and political partner in the region, a recipient of billions in subsidies from the US budget. Against the backdrop of unrest in Cairo, Washington believed that this was a popular uprising against the dictator. The US was faced with a strategic choice: to support the crowd or a reliable ally, and President Obama decided to support the crowd. Subsequently, it became clear that the majority of the crowd was Islamist, and the Muslim Brotherhood won in free elections. Within a short time, the US administration was forced to support the proposal of the Egyptian military to restore order and carry out a coup.

When you are bordered by two comfortable neighbours and two oceans, you can afford not to understand the regional and cultural characteristics of Russia’s neighbours; you can afford to confuse Kazakhstan with Uzbekistan, or to be unable to place Ukraine on a map, or to not understand what is happening in the Middle East.

Russia has much more limited resources; Russia is more dependent on stability along the entire length of its borders, which render the country unable to afford gross strategic miscalculations. Russia is helped by post-Soviet ideology fatigue, which makes it less interested in who is on the right side of history. We are more interested in how stable a foreign country’s situation is, and how to support it more effectively: what the power hierarchy looks like, what relations between different groups of elites look like, and how to ensure that the interests of all significant players are taken into account.

This is what realism is in the Russian interpretation, which it has followed, with the exception of a few experiments in the 1990s, throughout the history of post-1991 world politics. The current situation is yet another attempt to restore realism to American assessments of what is happening and start a detailed conversation about European security. Even if the instrument for achieving this is a threat.

Against the backdrop of tensions over Ukraine and Russian demands for security guarantees, an incident from the 1992 CSCE ministerial meeting comes to mind. During the Stockholm conference, the then Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev, unexpectedly for everyone, stated that NATO’s existence contradicts Russia's interests, that Russia had resolutely determined a zone of its privileged interests in the post-Soviet space and had deemed the protection of the Russian-speaking population its key interest, and that Moscow would react harshly to the expansion of Western influence. Later, however, in his closing speech, the minister announced that the statement had merely been a playful provocation. However, he added, these points could become policy if Russian proposals to agree on the principles of European security were not heard out.

 

Two years later, at the Brussels summit, the issue of NATO expansion, according to Bill Clinton, became "only a matter of time". And again, one by one, Russian objections were voiced: first, Andrey Kozyrev in Paris, spoke about the dangers posed by NATO policy, and later Boris Yeltsin in Budapest stressed the risks of a “cold peace” approach. Russia’s subsequent presidents also spoke about their disagreement with the unipolar configuration of the world: Vladimir Putin in Berlin and Munich, as well as Dmitry Medvedev, who spoke about five points of Russia's vital interests following the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict.

Until recently, there was an opinion among the Russian elite that, through negotiations, Russia could not only convey to the United States the falsity of its bet on unilateral domination, but also offer constructive alternatives to the US-centric security structure. However, Boris Yeltsin's proposals to shift responsibility for European security from NATO to the OSCE were called "unrealistic" by Bill Clinton. Vladimir Putin's proposals to create a joint missile defence architecture with the United States were buried under endless discussions between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Medvedev's draft European Security Treaty was ignored because of dozens of "open letters" from Eastern European countries to Washington about the unacceptability of negotiations with Moscow.

15 years ago, one of my students remarkably and accurately described the reasons these Russian proposals were ignored: the key problem of Russian foreign policy, he wrote, is the "low practical execution of threats". Russian ideas and proposals were talked about, and not taken seriously. Apparently, this led Russian diplomats to the conclusion that it was necessary to shift the centre of gravity of discussions with Western partners to other issues. What if Russia suddenly put the interests of Venezuela, Cuba, Serbia, Transnistria or Donbas at the centre of its strategic culture?

It seems that only such a symmetrical reversal and an ultimatum - until the interests of these players are satisfied, we will not move on to other items on the agenda - could arouse in the West the desire to finally talk like an adult. To ask, indeed, mature questions: what are our interests in interaction with Russia?

The lack of attention to Russian proposals and objections was the result of a distorted perception in the West about the goals of Russian policy. Under the influence of the young countries of Eastern Europe, the perception of Russia as a constant source of threats was entrenched there. The main assumption in such a speculative scheme was that Russia cannot behave rationally, that it is just an ever-expanding expansionist power without logic or pragmatism. Such an assessment is very comfortable, but it is inadequate even when analysing the simplest questions. By what rules does Russia generally play? Why did it, for example, conduct an operation in Syria? Why didn’t it leave troops there to maintain order, and withdraw the main group? Or why did it agree to Kazakhstan's request for the introduction of CSTO peacekeepers, and then withdraw them so quickly?

Russia's strategic culture must be explained in terms of its internal politics. Why is Russia trying so hard to put realism back on the agenda of world politics? In Russia, the very nature of life around us - the turbulence on our borders and our internal fragility - pushes us to look at everything in a practical way. For example, at the CSTO summit in Tajikistan, when Vladimir Putin announced the beginning of the participation of the Russian Aerospace Forces in the Syrian conflict, he devoted his speech to listing the threats emanating from that country, and not to the fact that Russia was starting a “crusade”. Everything was pragmatic and clear: the task was to maintain regional stability.

On the contrary, the behaviour of the Obama administration against the backdrop of a similar regional crisis - unrest in Egypt during the "Arab spring" - revealed completely different foreign policy logic. Hosni Mubarak was a reliable long-term military and political partner in the region, a recipient of billions in subsidies from the US budget. Against the backdrop of unrest in Cairo, Washington believed that this was a popular uprising against the dictator. The US was faced with a strategic choice: to support the crowd or a reliable ally, and President Obama decided to support the crowd. Subsequently, it became clear that the majority of the crowd was Islamist, and the Muslim Brotherhood won in free elections. Within a short time, the US administration was forced to support the proposal of the Egyptian military to restore order and carry out a coup.

When you are bordered by two comfortable neighbours and two oceans, you can afford not to understand the regional and cultural characteristics of Russia's neighbours; you can afford to confuse Kazakhstan with Uzbekistan, or  to be unable to place Ukraine on a map, or to not understand what is happening in the Middle East. Russia has much more limited resources; Russia is more dependent on stability along the entire length of its borders, which render the country unable to afford gross strategic miscalculations. Russia is helped by post-Soviet ideology fatigue, which makes it less interested in who is on the right side of history. We are more interested in how stable a foreign country’s situation is, and how to support it more effectively: what the power hierarchy looks like, what relations between different groups of elites look like, and how to ensure that the interests of all significant players are taken into account.

This is what realism is in the Russian interpretation, which it has followed, with the exception of a few experiments in the 1990s, throughout the history of post-1991 world politics. The current situation is yet another attempt to restore realism to American assessments of what is happening and start a detailed conversation about European security. Even if the instrument for achieving this is a threat.

Asia and Eurasia
Great Power Politics and the Ukrainian Issue
Timofei Bordachev
The movement of troops is combined with the threat of economic sanctions, and the appeal to international law and institutions are combined with clear examples of disregard for weak states. Indeed, it was worthwhile for international politics to accumulate such experience and tools over several centuries in order for us to wait for a crisis where all these measures would become available to an interested observer, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.