Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member
1) US officials have said that they will start tough and frank dialogue with Russia. They have also said that as relations are at their lowest point since the cold war that from there they can only get better. Where could this dialogue lead and does Russia have any appetite for concessions before the upcoming presidential elections next spring?
I do not think that the Kremlin has an appetite for concessions to the new US Administration, but there is an apparent interest in trying to improve the badly damaged relationship. At least, Moscow hopes to restore communication lines to Washington that are either cut or blocked today. One of the main accomplishments of Secretary Tillerson’s recent trip to Russia was the decision to put together a bilateral task force to do a thorough review of common, overlapping and diverging US and Russian interests. I hope that the forthcoming meeting of the two Presidents will allow us to turn the page and to start a new chapter in US-Russian relations, the negative inertia on both sides notwithstanding. In terms of substance, I would single out three urgent tasks that we have to address together. First, to preserve the strategic arms control regime, namely – to extend the New START Agreement and to secure the continuous implementation INF Treaty. Second, to work together on dangerous regional problems – such as Afghanistan, North Korea or Libya and, hopefully, Syria as well. Third, to explore ways for collaborating on fighting against international terrorism on the global scale. Each of the tasks requires significant political investments from both sides, neither of them we can take for granted.
2) Russian upcoming military exercise Zapad-2017 is causing concern in the Baltic States and NATO. Do you think Russia is interested in making the exercise transparent and defensive or is it rather going to be a demonstration of force meant to frighten NATO´s eastern members?
You should keep in mind that Russia – even the Russian leadership – is not monolithic. There are various competing institutional interests, personal ambitions and political aspirations at play in Moscow. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs cannot have the same priorities as the Ministry of Defense has. I tend to believe that the top leadership is willing to deescalate the tensions between Russia and the West, but they are skeptical about the intentions of the other side. A lot will depend on our common ability – or inability - to reenergize the NATO-Russian Council, where Moscow has to share information with NATO about Zapad-2017 and other exercises. The current situation presents a challenge not only to Moscow, but to Brussels as well. On the one hand, NATO needs more interaction with Russia to reduce the risks of an accidental clash, an inadvertent escalation, and so on. On the other hand, NATO does not want to get back to ‘business as usual’. The proper balance between defense, deterrence and dialogue is hard to find.
3) Do you expect president Vladimir Putin to bring the confrontation with the West this year to a new level to get elected next spring or will he rather adopt a "wait and see" approach hoping that France, Germany and Britain will elect leaders more to Kremlin´s liking and he will choose to prepare calmly for his own re-election in march? Which approach is more useful for him to mobilize the electorate before the Russian presidential elections?
So far, the approval ratings of Vladimir Putin stay high. I do not know the moods in the Kremlin, but I suspect that at this stage Putin feels confident that he will be reelected in the first round in March of next year. Besides, the Russian public is getting tired of the confrontation with the West. Surveys show that more than 70% of Russians would like to see better relations with Western neighbors. Another round of confrontation with the West is the last thing that Russians would like to see now, when they are getting more and more concerned about the state of the national economy. Having said that, I have to argue once again that the Kremlin is not in the mood for serious concessions. The overall political situation in the West is too unclear and too volatile for any new initiatives of proposals from Moscow. If I were to bet, I would bet on a “wait and see” approach – at least until March of 2018. In my view, in the nearest future the Russian policy is more likely to be reactive and not proactive, opportunistic and not strategic, risk-evasive and not risk-taking.
4) Will the Kremlin allow Alexei Navalny to run in next year´s presidential elections? If so, then is the Russian opposition capable of uniting behind him?
I am not an expert on the Russian domestic politics and I do not have an answer to this question. The only thing that I can say as a Russian citizen is that the corruption problem raised by Navalny is critical for the future of my country. We simply cannot move ahead if we fail to cope with this problem. This is something that can unite a broad spectrum of political powers in Russia – democrats and nationalists, communists and liberals, and so on. Let me remind you that the rise of Boris Yeltsin started thirty years ago when we raised the issue of ‘privileges’ of the Soviet nomenklatura. The Russian public has always been very sensitive to what it perceives as unfair. Even if Navalny is banned from participating in the presidential elections, his agenda cannot be ignored or dismissed easily. I would even venture to say that it might will become the game changer in the Russian politics.
5) In Syria, together with Iran and the Assad regime Russia seems to be pursuing a military victory against the rebels. What could be the Kremlin´s ultimate goal? To eliminate the moderate rebels, focus on ISIS thereafter and try to reach accommodation with Turkey and the kurds?
There are two dominant views in Russia on the Syrian conflict. The first view we can label as the ‘hardline approach’. It is based on the assumption that what we see in Syria is a rightful fight of the legitimately elected president (Assad) against radical Islamists (i.e. terrorists) sponsored from abroad. In this picture, there is no place for any ‘moderate opposition’ or any political settlement. You cannot negotiate with terrorists; you have to destroy and to eliminate them. The second view I would call the ‘moderate approach’. It assumes that there is a civil war going on in Syria, and that the opposition to Assad is much broader than fringe groups of radical Islamists. Moreover, the opposition has deep domestic roots, not only support from the outside. In this case, a political compromise is the only way to resolve the problem. As I can see the official Russian position, it vacillates between these two approaches, with the Syrian leadership pushing Moscow in the direction of the hard one. As you may guess, I belong to the camp of ‘moderates’ and I hope the solution to the Syrian problem will be found in Geneva, not on the battlefield. Of course, Russia is not the only player in Syria – a lot will depend on Turkey, Iran, major Gulf states and, of course, on US and the European Union.
6) There is no end in sight to the stalemate in Ukraine. Russia´s hopes of forcing a federal arrangement upon Ukraine seem to have been dashed as the new US administration has continued the stance of the previous government. What do you expect to see happening in Ukraine this year?
Well, I do not think that we know for sure what exactly the Trump policy towards Ukraine is going to be. So far, the most important decision that the new Administration took was to cut quite dramatically the US assistance to Kyiv. My reading of the Trump thinking is that he apparently believes that Ukraine is mostly a European problem and that Europeans – EU and Russia – have to find a way to resolve it. This perception can change of course, but until now, US expressed no intention to be engaged in the Minsk process or in any alternative multilateral frameworks. I am not too optimistic about possible progress in Ukraine this year. My feeling is that both Putin and Poroshenko are convinced that time is playing on their side. In Moscow, they assume that with mounting economic, social and political problems the Ukrainian leadership will be forced to exercise more flexibility or will be replaced by new leaders more willing to meet Russian demands. In Kyiv, they count on maintaining the Western pressure on Putin, so that in the end of the day he will have to reconsider his current policies towards Ukraine. I think that both approaches are self-delusive. Time is playing against both Russia and Ukraine. The longer the conflict lasts, the more damage it inflicts on everybody. In my opinion, the time has come to review and to revise the Minsk agreements, focusing on what is doable right away and putting on a back burner the most controversial and politically sensitive matters. However, my view is clearly a minority view in Moscow today.
Source: Lennart Meri Conference