Everyone in Moscow tells you that if you want to understand Russia's foreign policy and its view of its place the world, the person you need to talk to is Fyodor Lukyanov.
Lukyanov is the chair of Russia's Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, as well as the editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, which are something like the Russian equivalents of America's Council on Foreign Relations and Foreign Affairs — though the Russian versions are considered much closer to the state and its worldview.
Widely considered both an influential leader and an unofficial interpreter of Russia's foreign policy establishment, Lukyanov is frequently sought out by Western policymakers and journalists who wish to understand Russia's approach to the world. During a recent trip to Moscow, Amanda Taub and I met Lukyanov around the corner from the looming Foreign Ministry compound (his office is nearby), at a small Bohemian cafe that serves French and Israeli food to a room packed with gray suits.
We discussed Russia's foreign policy, the country's role in the world, and how its leaders think about the problems and opportunities facing their nation. Lukyanov, hunched over his coffee, had clearly spent a great deal of time with policymakers in and outside of Moscow, and he peppered his answers with references to political science terminology and wonky policy jargon. But he also reflected the official views of Moscow, which makes his answers a revealing glimpse into how his country sees the world.
What follows is a transcript of the section of our conversation that touched on Russia's relationship with the United States. Sections on Russia's approach to the Middle East and on its increasingly dangerous tensions with Europe will be published separately. This has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Max Fisher: We talked earlier about the disagreements within the Russian foreign policy establishment over the Iran nuclear deal. Given that the United States wants to make the deal happen and that there is so much tension currently between the US and Russia, is this affecting the view within Moscow toward the Iran talks? Maybe some people oppose the Iran deal because it would be seen as beneficial to the US, or they support the Iran deal because it could be an opening to ease tensions with Washington?
Fyodor Lukyanov: It's not part of the discussion at all, to decrease tensions with the West. It's not an issue.
Public opinion is pretty mobilized because of Ukraine. A lot of policymakers, even those who used to lean more toward some kind of rapprochement with the West, are irritated by sanctions and so on, so it's not part of the discussion.
So if Russia does something, it's not necessarily to try to explain it as an effort to decrease tensions with the West. It might be a consequence, but it's not the goal.
Max Fisher: It certainly seems that there’s no political appetite in Moscow for a rapprochement with the West. Is that preference widely held within the foreign policy establishment, as well? Or is there a faction that is arguing for rapprochement?
Fyodor Lukyanov: There is a faction, but it’s smaller than it used to be. And even many of those belonging to this faction say that, realistically speaking, they don’t see any options for it in the future, because on the American side there’s a very high level of polarization in the political establishment. And with the election campaigns about to start, it’s the worst time to try to launch something.
No American politician will gain anything positive by being softer on Russia. It’s not a central issue, but maybe candidates could use it in swing states, where many Eastern Europeans [who are generally skeptical of Russia] live.
So I don’t hear any expectations of this, especially since there’s a good chance that Hillary Clinton will become the Democratic candidate. I think there’s a widespread view that with Hillary there would be no chance at all. For her and for her team, since the 1990s, Russia is a failure. One of the biggest failures of Bill Clinton was that he wanted to transform Russia. He was very sincere in his view of how he wanted to transform Russia and to help this transformation, but by the end of his tenure he was terribly disappointed.
Psychologically, for Hillary and for people like [Clinton-era Deputy Secretary of State] Strobe Talbott and many others, Russia is an unfinished job.
Max Fisher: What it is that they want to accomplish?
Fyodor Lukyanov: Many people here believe they will try to come back to the line of the 1990s to encourage Russia into an internal transformation.
Max Fisher: Does that mean regime change?
Fyodor Lukyanov: As a long-term goal, yes. Not by force, of course, but to encourage some kind of social development that will upend the current system and will promote a new one.
Max Fisher: So it’s expected here that Clinton would take a hostile approach to Russia?
Fyodor Lukyanov: Yes, a very hostile approach. Hillary is the worst option of any president [from the Russian view], maybe worse than any Republican.
Max Fisher: Even though she led the US-Russia reset as secretary of state?
Fyodor Lukyanov: She led the reset, but it was done by Obama. She was a disciplined official and did what the White House decided to do. Formally she was in charge, but in real terms she never dealt with this. It was a direct project of Obama and of [former US Ambassador to Russia] Michael McFaul. Hillary pushed the button, but that was just a symbolic move, and then she was never active in this.
By the end of her time as secretary of state, when she’d already announced she would leave, she made a couple of statements without being diplomatic anymore. Statements about Russia, about this re-Sovietization of post-Soviet space, about Putin, that demonstrated her real feelings.
I think there is a widespread view that she personally hates Putin and personally dislikes [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov. So in the case of her presidency it will be not very good chemistry between them.
Max Fisher: Some people we’ve spoken to have said something similar about Obama — that Obama dislikes Putin, that he’s motivated by personal animus, and that once he leaves office maybe the sanctions will weaken because they’re driven personally by Obama.
Fyodor Lukyanov: There is a widespread view that Obama dislikes Putin very much. It’s obvious they don’t like each other.
I think Obama actually is not at all an emotional person. He looked at first very human and appealing, but he’s not at all. He’s a very calculating and cold guy without a lot of emotions and feelings. I don’t think his personal perception of Putin plays such a big role. He made a big miscalculation because it seemed like he and McFaul really believed [current Russian Prime Minister and former President Dmitry] Medvedev might become president for a second term, which was a wrong expectation. He did not hide disappointment when Medvedev decided to step down.
Obama sees Russia as a big problem that consumes so much of his time that he would like to dedicate to other issues. He mostly would like to keep distance from Russia, to settle the most acute challenges, but after that he doesn't have interest.
The reset was not because he wanted to make Russia the centerpiece of his foreign policy agenda but because actually he failed with other issues. Russia was meant to be supportive and became the biggest achievement, with the reset and the New START [2010 nuclear arms reduction] agreement. But the reset was exhausted by New START and by the Russian accession to the World Trade Organization [in 2012]. They did not have any other agenda. They could have developed a new agenda if the situation had remained favorable as it was under Medvedev, but Putin settled that.
For Obama, Russia turned into a permanent headache. And a headache irritates. It’s not such a strong feeling that other [US] politicians have about Russia.
Max Fisher: Let me ask about the flip side of that. How do you think Putin sees the US now?
Fyodor Lukyanov: He’s utterly anti-American, deeply and sincerely. And it’s not about Obama or Bush or Clinton. It’s about his perception of America as a destructive power.
The most interesting foreign policy statement he made was published one week before his third term began in 2012. The article, "Russia and the changing world," was extremely interesting and substantial. He expressed everything that happened after. His core perception was that the United States is a country that misuses its might and creates even more chaos in the contemporary world, which is anyway very chaotic and unpredictable. Americans, by what they do, just worsen the situation.
The idea was not to challenge America, but to protect Russia. This is how he sees the world, with the United States as a really destructive and destabilizing power.
Max Fisher: Is there anything you believe the Russian leadership misunderstands about the United States, or that you wish they understood better?
Fyodor Lukyanov: The Russian leadership has no clue about how the American system works, how complicated it is.
For example, after Putin’s 2011 decision to exchange with Medvedev [in which the two switched positions of prime minister and president], he said, "Look at the United States. Obama and Hillary both ran for the presidency, but then they sat down and decided who would be president, and Obama won that." How the American system works, it’s not a big interest to our leadership.
I think right now there’s a better understanding of the differences between your president and your Congress. Before, it was the perception that the American president can do anything he wants, and all of these references to a hostile Congress are just bullshit. But now I think there’s a better understanding that Congress can be extremely disruptive to whatever the administration is trying to do. This has become another argument that it doesn’t make sense to try with them.
Max Fisher: Is there no effort to play Congress and the president off of one another?
Fyodor Lukyanov: No, because contrary to Europe, where there are all options to use splits, in the United States, Russia has absolutely no influence in Congress. We don’t have a lobby; we don’t have special leverage there.