The New U.S.-Russian Détente?

Dmitri Trenin is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. From 1993-1997, he was a senior research fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Europe in Moscow. He retired from the Russian Army in 1993.

Paul Hockenos: How has Russia been affected by the global economic crisis?

Dmitri Trenin: Russia is so severely affected by the crisis because its recent “fat years” were fueled by energy exports and people clearly saw a change when prices plummeted from $150 a barrel to just $40 or $50 a barrel. Also, there had been a lot of easy borrowing and cheap money; many Russian companies — private and state-owned — borrowed excessively from foreign countries. They had been warned about the dangers of this, but ignored the warnings, and the result was a severe debt and credit crunch. Perhaps the most critical upshot of the economic crisis is that it sent a strong message to Russia that it is a part of the global economy. Putin and Medvedev are right in claiming that its origin is outside of Russia. Yet the crisis hit a country with grave economic flaws and vulnerabilities, and it has exacerbated these problems.

Hockenos: You say the crisis “came from abroad.” Has this triggered anti-Americanism?

Trenin: Actually, the crisis stopped a very dangerous deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, which were at a 25-year low. A military collision between Russia and the United States was certainly possible last year in the wider Black Sea region. The financial crisis prevented a confrontation. Also, the Russian leadership realized how dependent it is on the United States. Although the United States brought Moscow and the rest of the world into the crisis, it is the United States that will pull everyone out of it. The Russian economy may be sitting in car number 8, 9, or 10, but the locomotive is festooned with American flags.

Hockenos: Has the crisis halted Russia’s ascent as one of the world’s rising powers?

Trenin: Depending on how the Russian leadership handles it, how the economy handles it, and how the people take it, I think the crisis could lead to a deterioration across the board from domestic politics to foreign policy to the economy to social relations. But Russia now has the chance to rebuild the economy, to correct the imbalances, to have a social structure that is a bit healthier, and to take a look at the distribution of wealth. There were a lot of very expensive, and often quite senseless, projects during the period of oil wealth. In the days of surging oil prices, you didn’t have to think very much because there was no incentive to do so. But the crisis could bring people to their senses.

Hockenos: Has the government’s response to the crisis been adequate?

Trenin: The government spent $200 billion in defense of the ruble. An overnight devaluation of the ruble would have sent very serious shocks through the country. Russia is ruled by the people who own it, and the government’s spending clearly favored its friends. A lot of this was non-transparent, arbitrary, and tied to vested interests. Russians tend to take all this for granted. As a Russian, I’m more concerned as to whether the government’s actions lead to or avert a political collapse or breakdown, and it didn’t. We swallow the injustice.

Hockenos: While the Russian government cut its 2009 budget in response to the economic crisis, military spending increased by 26%.

Trenin: This has changed some since early 2009, but yes the government has continued to modernize the military, a program that was formally agreed to just after the war against Georgia in August 2008, though it was something in planning for some time.

The military that Russia has today is a downsized and badly frayed replica of the Soviet army. It is a military that is very weak, in many ways dysfunctional, and in some ways dangerous to itself. The Russian leadership waited almost two decades before taking some interest in the way the military was functioning. It has begun a government project to build modern planes and tanks, and to modernize communication equipment. During the Georgian War, Russian officers communicated with each other using normal cell phones because the military lacked a serious, modern communication system. They decided to spend money on the military as a national project. It’s not a sign of Russia’s aggressiveness or preparation for war. It had to be done at some point and they decided to do it when oil prices were around $100/barrel. They did the right thing by deciding to raise military salaries. The commanding officer of the Kursk submarine that sank in the beginning of the Putin presidency in 2000 had a salary equivalent to $200 a month. You cannot seriously run a military like this.

Hockenos: What do Obama’s first 200 days look like from a Russian perspective?

Trenin: The Russians were slow to embrace Obama. For one, there is a natural preference among the Russian leadership for conservative politicians. They fashion themselves as conservatives, even arch-conservatives. They disdain socialists and leftists in their own country and beyond because they are seen as anti-state. The leadership also fears that Obama will bring back the Clinton people, who evoke memories of the 1990s: the promotion of democracy, telling Russia what to do and what not to do, and criticizing Russia’s leadership.

President Medvedev did not seize the opportunity to congratulate Obama during an address just hours after his election victory in November 2008. Instead, he subjected American policies to harsher criticism than even Putin had. But within a few weeks he changed course dramatically. They decided that they could do business with Obama; that he was in fact not an ideologue but a pragmatist; the people he brought in from the Clinton administration were also pragmatists. Moscow noted that Obama had a very different foreign policy agenda. That agenda did not include pushing for NATO enlargement in the Ukraine and Georgia or treating Georgia as some kind of torch-bearer of democracy and a privileged friend of the United States in the former Soviet Union. They also noted Obama’s interest in arms control. But they don’t know whether the United States has a strategy toward Russia, and they certainly don’t have much of a strategy themselves toward the United States.

They are looking forward to the first substantial visit by an American president in Moscow in many years, and are hoping for an arms control agreement by the end of the year. They hope that this will lead to the unfreezing of the so-called “123 Agreement,” a civilian nuclear agreement between Washington and Moscow, which was concluded last year in an effort to promote nuclear energy cooperation between the United States and Russia but was then frozen in the wake of the Georgia war.

Hockenos: Has the Obama administration ceased pushing for NATO enlargement?

Trenin: I’m not sure that there is a NATO policy at all in Washington. Washington probably doesn’t see NATO as a very useful instrument apart from the operation in Afghanistan: NATO means more European troops for the Afghan operation, and more action for the troops that are there. NATO is a useful ally for various extra-European situations.

The United States certainly doesn’t need NATO to ensure peace and stability in Europe. It no longer sees NATO as a force to protect Europe from Russia. The spring NATO summit declaration only has one sentence regarding Russia. The Russians know that they can’t expect a formal decision to freeze NATO enlargement, but they want the process to stop in its tracks. When and if the next decision on enlargement to the ex-Soviet states comes, relations between Russia and the West will be greatly exacerbated.

Today’s Russia is not in a position to think strategically. It is mired in an old mythology that sees NATO as a bogeyman and enlargement as a threat to its interests. As far as I’m concerned, Moscow clearly overplays the significance of NATO enlargement. It is a very reactive, parochial way of thinking, yet it will take some time before more serious 21st-century thinking emerges in Russia, if it ever emerges at all.

Hockenos: Is there really peace today in Chechnya?

Trenin: In Chechnya we have peace at a heavy price. The price is that Putin struck a personal union with one family, the Kadyrovs, which rules Chechnya in a feudal way. Moscow has subcontracted Chechnya to one local clan, which has been able to manage it in a brutal yet effective way.

People who travel to Chechnya are genuinely impressed with the scale of construction, the relative affluence, and the general stability in Grozny, if not everywhere else in Chechnya. It is clear that someone is in control, which is not something that can be said of some of the neighboring republics in the northern Caucasus, such as Dagestan. Chechnya today is de facto a self-governing territory, and most of the things that the early separatists were fighting for have been realized under the Kadyrov rule. Putin may overrule him, but no federal agency can overrule the Chechen authority. The Chechens may only have one master today, but he’s Chechen, and that matters.

Hockenos: Can Russia be of any aid to the Obama administration in dealing with Iran?

Trenin: Russia has a vested interest in not complicating its relations with Iran, a strong neighbor and emerging power in the Middle East. Iran is also an important trading partner, as well as a fellow major energy producer. It has also been a fairly reasonable geopolitical partner in regional situations such as in Tajikistan, where Moscow and Tehran jointly stopped a civil war in June 1997, or in the northern Caucasus, where the Iranians backed Russian policy on Chechnya. But on the other hand, the Russians clearly don’t want Iran to completely reverse its relationships and become an ally of the United States and a gas exporter to the European Union.

Russia certainly cannot deliver Iran to the West. Russia is no China and Iran is no North Korea. But Russia is a very important partner for any diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. The United States can make a breakthrough on its own, like Nixon did with China, but a comprehensive diplomatic solution needs to include Russia.

Hockenos: When Medvedev came to power last year, there was a lot of speculation about his relationship with Putin.

Trenin: Russia is a country that doesn’t have stable functioning political institutions, and Putin deserves much of the blame for this. Thus every time the Russian leadership changes, it’s faced with a crisis. The country does not operate according to its constitution. It appears to, but it doesn’t. The heart of the matter is in very special, non-transparent, highly personalized relationships.

Putin was wise enough to recognize that had he run for a third term, he would have undermined the regime’s legitimacy. Russia is an autocracy with the consent of the governed. Thus, he decided to install a president of his choosing who was duly elected by the people of Russia.

Medvedev will not become a full-fledged president immediately. He needs some time to understand the various relationships that form Russia’s unwritten constitution. He has to show the qualities that are necessary to lead Russia in a formal and an informal way. It may be that he has those qualities, but he needs to prove himself.

The assumption that Putin was only leaving for a short period of time is incorrect. He will probably give Medvedev a full four-year term and then assess whether he qualifies as president or whether it’s time for a new (i.e. old) president. Medvedev is part of the decision-making process. He cannot overrule Putin, but neither can Putin fully ignore Medvedev. Medvedev is essentially loyal to Putin, and I think that Putin sees Medvedev as his political son. There is no rivalry. I think that if Medvedev gets a second term, that it will be his own, assuming there are no upheavals or revolutions and the election goes forward as planned in 2012.

Remember, in Putin’s first four years, he was very much beholden to the Yeltsin family, even though Yeltsin was not interfering with the way the country was run. Putin observed the unspoken and unwritten arrangements with the family. He became his own man in his second term. Medvedev may follow that trajectory and become a full-fledged president and not owe Putin anything directly. But we still have three years, and anything can happen.

Paul Hockenos is the editor of the global edition of Internationale Politik and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. His most recent book is Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.