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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

We are facing a generational change among the leaders of the world’s great powers.

Russia can return to closer relations with the West only if the Kremlin’s future leaders sets itself the goal of serious social and economic modernisation, according to Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), who would have been a speaker at the Lennart Meri Conference. Interviewed by Jaanus Piirsalu.


We are facing a generational change among the leaders of the world’s great powers. Russia can return to closer relations with the West only if the Kremlin’s future leaders sets itself the goal of serious social and economic modernisation, according to Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), who would have been a speaker at the Lennart Meri Conference. The RIAC was established in 2010 by Russian presidential decree. Interviewed by Jaanus Piirsalu.

At the Lennart Meri Conference you were due to speak about Russia’s role in the world. What message did you want to send?

First and foremost, I would have wanted to draw attention to the existing, though limited, opportunities for cooperation between Russia and Europe. I would not have wanted to talk so much about problems, but rather about positive shifts that took place within the last year. In my view there were several of these. Russia returned to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which was indeed a difficult decision for all. Russia ratified the Paris climate change agreement. The Minsk process moved forward slightly, and in December there was a top-level summit in Paris of the Normandy Four. Agreement was reached on gas transit. Consultations between Russia and the European Union began on 5G communications. It is true, of course, that one cannot really speak of a serious shift in relations [between Russia and the EU], but there are certain positive moments. I would have wanted to speak about how to make use of these limited opportunities. But that was the topic before the epidemic and now, of course, much will change.

What effect do you think the coronavirus pandemic will have on the global political situation?

The economic impact is huge, of course, but is this also true of the political impact? Clearly, the cost of the epidemic will be high. In some ways, Russia’s situation is specific because, in addition to the economic crisis accompanying the pandemic, it was hit by the sudden reduction in oil prices, which will result in a decrease in gas prices. If we look at the broader picture, then without a doubt the epidemic will see an increased role for states throughout the world. Indeed, national governments bear the primary role in fighting the epidemic. In some ways, we are returning to the Westphalia system [the concept dating from the 17th century that each state is sovereign and others may not interfere in their internal affairs — JP]. It turns out that, during a major crisis, societies place more hope in their governments. The current crisis has revealed the weakness of international institutions like the G7, the G20, the EU, the Eurasian Economic Union and even the UN Security Council. It is noteworthy that the Security Council was even unable to pass resolutions on the coronavirus pandemic, which it managed to do during previous pandemics such as Ebola and HIV/AIDS. The revelation of the weakness of international institutions is a very dangerous tendency, because it will begin to impact the international system of the future.

Third, I would draw attention to China’s growing strength, which may be somewhat paradoxical given that the virus originated there. Indeed, China is becoming stronger at the expense of others: the US, the EU and Russia. I believe that China will come out of this epidemic with the smallest losses. Economic growth will be restored faster there than in other regions of the world. China is currently consciously implementing a politics of soft power, to show the advantages of its state model in fighting the virus. Fourth, I would emphasise the instability that will grow in many regions of the world due to the epidemic. We are seeing a rise in religious fundamentalism in places where states are weak. We are seeing a decrease in international aid. We must be prepared for a situation in which regional conflicts will increase rather than decrease during and in the aftermath of the epidemic. This will create additional problems for all of us, for we will not succeed in any way in isolating such conflicts.

But some things will certainly remain the same. For example, relations between Russia and the West in the form they were established in 2014 are proving to be very strong and firm. The epidemic will not change anything about that. I do not think either side is prepared to make any concessions. The West’s sanctions against Russia will remain. I see no possibility on the horizon for a breakthrough in respect of Ukraine; rather, the [influence of the] epidemic there carries a minus sign. The next Normandy Four summit was due to take place in April, but now no one knows when it will happen. I also have no faith in positive developments on the subject of arms-control agreements. Of course, I hope that the START III treaty will be extended, but unfortunately so far there are no grounds for such a hope. [Kortunov is referring to the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the US and Russia, which will expire at the end of 2020. — JP]

You claim that the role of international institutions is starting to decline. Does this benefit the Kremlin?

On the one hand, the Russian leadership — at least its current leadership — has always been cautious about international institutions. For example, up to this point Russia has not had serious experience of cooperation with the EU; it has always preferred to deal with individual states rather than the EU as a whole. [Russian president Vladimir] Putin once said how fortunate it was that Russia did not belong to any alliances. For Putin and his team, national sovereignty is very important. In that sense, everything we can see now, what is happening now, confirms Putin’s views of the contemporary world. In a tactical sense there are clearly certain opportunities for Russia in what is happening. However, if we look at Russia’s strategic interests, then in my opinion Russia needs international, multinational, institutions because it is getting harder and harder for a country to cope alone, not only with epidemics, but with securing economic growth and dealing with problems related to security.

How might global power relations change as a result of the pandemic? You already mentioned the rise of China, but what about other major powers in the world, such as the US, the EU and Russia?

It is difficult to say, because at best we are only near the middle of the epidemic. It seems to me that this crisis will not create new tendencies, but rather reinforce existing ones. The strengthening of China will continue, even faster and more and more strikingly. We are seeing a very interesting development in the US. Usually when problems such as war, an extensive crisis or an economic downturn occur there, we see a phenomenon the Americans call “rallying round the flag”: everyone gathers around the nation’s leader, the president, whose popularity rises sharply; internal problems recede into the background and the nation mobilises to fight the external danger. It is very interesting that this has not happened at present. [Kortunov is one of Russia’s most distinguished experts on the US. — JP] Quite the contrary: political and social polarisation has increased. Therefore, it seems to me that, unfortunately, the US will emerge from this crisis weakened. I cannot see how Russia could strengthen its position [in the world] in the aftermath of the pandemic because, in addition to the coronavirus and economic problems, we have the sharp decrease in oil prices with its associated problems. As a rule, such crises are much more dangerous and painful for emerging economies like India, Brazil and Russia than they are for the developed Western countries.

Speaking of Europe, the coronavirus has coincided with a generational change among national leaders and crises in political parties in several EU countries. I predict that the next few years will be difficult for the EU, and a great deal depends on whether its leaders can maintain unity and solidarity, not allowing the populists to take the initiative, as well as retaining enough power to enter into agreements. Indeed, we can see even now how difficult it is for them to agree on the budget and common strategies to combat the virus. However, I still hope that all of this will help the EU to find new ideas and mechanisms, perhaps even to accelerate the generational shift in political leadership, which is also a very important issue.

Two years ago you wrote a long article in Kommersant on the growth of Russia’s international influence. You emphasised that this was expressed primarily in only one dimension — politico-military — and that Russia’s influence on global economic, social, financial and technological processes was small. At the end of the article you said that if the centre of world politics shifted to non-military areas, Russia’s influence would unavoidably begin to devalue. Are you already seeing this? Is Russia’s influence beginning to decline?

It depends on the timescale you are looking at. If one thinks of today or tomorrow, then many Russian politicians have grounds for saying to their Western colleagues: “Look, you kept telling us that welfare is primary, economic growth is primary, technological innovation is primary, but look where that has led you. None of those things were able to stop or even soften the crisis; international institutions are demonstrating their ineffectiveness.” Today’s situation is very convenient from the perspective of the traditional narrative maintained by Russia’s current leadership. But if we look towards the near future, I am sure that what is happening today will mean the world will transition faster to a new technological platform, in terms of people moving to distance working, the decline of raw-materials-based economies and the prioritising of climate issues. Yes, Russia’s influence may temporarily increase, but in the longer term it is quite possible it will decline. The question is: how will Russia be able to adapt to the new socio-economic realities? I think this will happen very painfully, and of course it cannot occur without losses. Russia will have to face very serious problems.

In an article published in April, Igor Ivanov, a former Russian foreign minister [1998–2004] wrote: “Nuclear weapons and other contemporary weapons systems cannot fight the coronavirus, or changes in climate, uncontrollable migration, and other challenges facing humankind. The old instruments guaranteeing security, which we have inherited from a previous era, are today pointlessly wasting huge resources that could be allocated to science, education and medicine.” This is a brave thing to say in the context of Russia. What new instruments do you think Ivanov had in mind?

In Russia there are two positions on what the country’s basis for exerting influence in the world might be. Many believe that the most important is military power, and that Russia will continue to be a global superpower as long as it is able to maintain nuclear power parity with the US and is able to carry out operations in distant theatres of war, such as Syria. In other words, as long as Russia is capable of participating in the arms race. If you take all of this away, Russia becomes a regional superpower with not much influence, facing a great deal of problems with its neighbours who are economically much more powerful. The other position is that Russia’s influence is determined not so much by its government, but by its society. Russia continues to be a country with powerful scientific potential, sufficient energy for innovation, strong opportunities for educational development, and so on.

Depending on which of these positions you choose, you can imagine completely different profiles for Russia’s future role in the world. If we proceed from the assumption that what is happening now will continue for a long time — the crisis in international law, the crisis in international institutions, the inauguration of a protectionist era, reductions in free movement of people across borders, changes in migration flows, a new bipolarity between the US and China — in such a world the effect of these new means of influence are limited. However, if what we are seeing is a so-called glitch, which will swiftly pass — though not without consequences — then Russia will have to contend with a new world in which one must make use of completely different means of influence from those being used today in order to defend one’s claims to be a global superpower.

What new instruments for security issues did Ivanov have in mind?

Our instruments must match the hierarchy of our challenges. If we spend the majority of our resources based on a highly improbable scenario — today almost no one takes the possibility of a nuclear conflict seriously — believing that terrorism is the greatest threat to global security in the near future, then we need to reformulate our priorities and all focus on, for example, Afghanistan as the single source of terrorism. If we think that the primary threat to the world lies in climate change, then we must invest resources in the transition to a new kind of economy. This would not mean the level of rhetoric, but the level of real budgets, real actions and programmes. The other aspect that Ivanov had in mind was that it is imperative to restore a system for negotiations, for example between Russia and NATO. If this is not possible, temporary, ad hoc negotiating formats would have to be created. For example, those participating in negotiations on cybersecurity and arms control do not have to be governments but, rather, representatives of business and civil society. Today it is no longer possible to work with the instruments and methods that were used during the Cold War, but we persist in doing that.

How do you think the world will recognise that instead of military conflict there will be new common enemies, such as climate changes and pandemics? Are the superpowers finally prepared to take such problems more seriously, leaving their mutual disputes aside? Or is this over-idealistic, even wishful thinking?

To my mind the whole problem is that behind the current, traditional conception of dangers lie very far-reaching bureaucratic, economic and personal interests. In terms of national security, every country has a huge machine that operates on its own logic and inertia. This mechanism is served by a large number of bureaucrats, businesses, arms manufacturers, etc. These people will always defend their view on things, the old view. In the West it is apparently easier to say [we are changing our attitude] than in Russia, because the latter has an authoritarian regime that intervenes in attempts to turn things around. However, I still believe that if you go to the Pentagon or NATO headquarters in Brussels, you can find this inertia there as well. That is why it is so difficult to change priorities; this will be a long and agonising process which will meet with strong resistance. I keep hoping that the coronavirus will be a turning point, and that afterwards it will be impossible to maintain this obsolete conception of threats to security. I predict that, even without the virus, we are on the threshold of great changes, because of the generational shift among world leaders. Trump is over 70, Biden almost 80, [UN Secretary-General António] Guterres over 70, Xi and Putin are approaching 70, and Borrell and Merkel are far from young anymore either. In the next two to three years, perhaps by 2024, a serious generational shift will take place in many countries. I very much hope that new people will come to power who no longer remember the Cold War and have a completely different outlook on the world. Their views are already different. For me one of the current representatives of the new generation is [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelensky. One can see immediately that in negotiations with Putin or Merkel, for example, his style is totally different. Soon there will be many more leaders like that.

Do you think that in the next few years there will also be a generational shift in leadership in Russia?

The laws of biology still apply; one cannot do anything about that. But let us not simplify, either: this new generation in Russia is very different. I would not say that the whole younger generation is liberal, but the older generation is a conservative one. The thing is that the world of the younger generation is different; they just live differently — quite apart from their political views, in fact. These changes will come to Russia, just as elsewhere in the world. It is not within Putin’s power to stop them.

At last year’s Lennart Meri Conference, Kadri Liik also talked about a generational shift in Russia. Granted, she was speaking more from the viewpoint that among the future shapers of Russia’s foreign policy there are signs of alienation from the West, and this may entail a situation in which the West is no longer the point of comparison for Russia as it has been for centuries. On the basis of interviews Liik had conducted, she claimed that the older generation of those shaping Russian foreign policy is disappointed in the West, but the younger generation no longer thinks of the West as a partner. Do you agree with her?

In my view, the younger generation does not think of a separate East and West. They might work or study in Milan one year and in Shanghai the next, and feel just as comfortable in both. The only difference between these places is their politics, but this is not as important to them as it is for the older generation. To answer your question directly, I think Russia can only return to the West if some Russian leadership sets itself a goal to undertake serious social and economic modernisation. At present we just do not have the social and economic demand for cooperation with the West. If all of your exports are crude oil and gas, then you do not care to whom you sell it. Russia would not be able to copy China’s model, because we just do not have that kind of demographic and cultural background. In this case, Russia’s only option would be the Western one, because culturally and psychologically we are simply closer to the West.

It is said that nothing unites better than a common enemy — at present the coronavirus pandemic. But if I understand correctly, you do not think that in the short term relations between Russia and the West can improve?

I cannot see any objective tendencies on either side, in fact. Both sides view this “new normal” as an acceptable format for relations.

Do you not have even a shred of optimism about the new agreements on arms control?

If we talk about the technical content of arms control, this is not particularly of interest now. It does not matter what a military official in Moscow or NATO says to you; is there a problem with that? Six years have already passed since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine; we have ended all those arms treaties, but has anything happened as a result? Has war broken out? Has there even been a single serious incident? Has a crazy arms race begun? Nothing like this has happened. Thus, it is possible to keep living this way without making any new agreements. At the political level, for Putin and his team, entering into such an agreement is important as a sign of the restoration of political dialogue and, to some extent, returning to “business as usual”. But this is just what the West does not want to allow for Putin, because “business as usual” would in fact mean acknowledging Russia had won. I cannot see how this [problem] can be overcome, nor do I see any stimuli for agreeing a new treaty on conventional armed forces. [Russia removed itself from the 1990 CFE Treaty in 2007, as a result of which it no longer served any purpose. — JP] I would be glad to be wrong.

You said that the UNSC has not been able to prove its effectiveness in fighting the pandemic. Estonia is currently a non-permanent member of the Council, and has just begun its month-long term as presidency. So everything related to the UNSC is of great interest to Estonia at the moment. Why have the permanent members been unable to agree over the epidemic? Why are they not interested? Estonia actually proposed a draft resolution, but it was not even seriously discussed.

The main reason lies in the differences between the US and China. In March, when China was president of the Council, a resolution was being discussed and the US tried to write into it China’s responsibility for the spread of the pandemic, while China sought to include a statement that Trump continued to engage in one-sided politics and trade wars, which interfered with joint efforts to fight the pandemic. They were simply unable to come to an agreement. I think that if there had been the will to do so, they might have come to agree in this question, but there is a deeper problem in the background that touches upon national sovereignty. If we want to cooperate, if you will, on the pandemic, for example, we all need to have accurate and reliable statistics; international health organisations must have guaranteed access to data; countries must not conceal information; there cannot be competition over the development of a vaccine. In order to engage in cooperation at that level, there has to be a certain breakthrough in mentality. In my view, the superpowers are not very prepared for this. How many deaths have to occur? How large an economic downturn does there have to be? How extensive does a crisis have to be for them to change their mind? I do not have an answer. Terrorism, the great financial crisis of 2008, and today’s three million infected and 200,000 deaths in the world: none of these have been sufficient. That makes one sad.

As a renowned expert on the US, what is your prediction for the US presidential elections?

Three months ago, I would have answered without a second thought that Trump would be re-elected. Today I think it is 50–50. His campaign was to be based on economic achievements — how everything had gone extremely well during his term and there had been a rise in average income. At present we know that the economy has collapsed and there is no way it will rebound to its previous level by November. Trump’s principles for fighting the epidemic do not strengthen his position, either, and he is being criticised for many things. It is very difficult to explain why the US, which spends three trillion dollars on its healthcare system, has the world’s highest number of cases and deaths. This clearly works against Trump. Technically, what also works against him is that he is a crowd person, who performs extremely well at large gatherings. In that respect, he would win over the uncharismatic Biden hands down. Of course, now that the election campaign will no longer be like that, this gives a helping hand to Biden. Of course, this does not mean that Biden has already won.

First published in the International Centre for Defence and Security.


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