The outgoing US administration painted itself into a corner with the Ukraine issue, says Dmitri Trenin.
Above all, Russia’s cynical President Vladimir Putin expects to conclude agreements with the new US President Donald Trump regarding the Ukrainian question: to pressure Kyiv into implementing the Minsk agreements in Donbass and to promise not to accept Ukraine into NATO, explained the Director of the Moscow centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—one of the most influential think tanks in the world—Dmitri Trenin, in his interview with Diplomaatia. Trenin gave the interview in Moscow two days after Trump’s unexpected victory.
Who in Moscow regarded Trump’s victory as good news and who felt the opposite?
To me it seemed to be good news for the US. Trump’s victory may change the course of both domestic and foreign policy, which can only benefit the US. The US elite have alienated themselves from the majority of Americans. This is a very serious issue. In this respect, Trump’s victory sends the elite a very serious message—do not forget the citizens who live in a world that is materially and mentally very different from that of those who call themselves the leaders of the American nation. The US has always fascinated me with its ability to transform itself without a revolution and, for the last 150 years, without any civil wars. The forthcoming period in US history will be undeniably bitter but beneficial.
Will Trump’s victory improve the alarmingly poor relationship between the West and Russia or make it even worse?
Western-Russian relations are not the most crucial issue from the perspective of US foreign policy. The US has wandered off too far in the world. By that I mean that in my opinion, US foreign policy is gradually moving away from representing America’s national interests. For instance, in her campaign, Hillary Clinton advocated a no-fly zone over Aleppo almost until the very last weeks. If this included Russians, everything would be clear. Yet the question was not put in that way. If the no-fly zone was imposed without Russian involvement…
That would mean war?
…then the US would have to admit that it is pure bluff, because Russian aircraft will be flying in and out of that zone as they please, causing the entire (US) foreign policy to collapse, or the planes would have to be shot down. In the latter case, one must naturally bear in mind that Russian anti-aircraft systems will respond by targeting American planes. This may not yet be considered a war but it is a kinetic conflict. Will it serve the US interests? I do not believe so. This also shows how far the (US) elite have drifted from the national interests. The elite live in a different world where globalisation has provided them with an illusion of power, yet at the same time, it stops the US flourishing as a country and curbs its economic development. The US has buried itself in different global matters and this does not always serve its interests. And then along comes someone offering completely new approaches. For instance, when it comes to NATO. If NATO members are so terrified of a Russian attack—if they are indeed afraid and not just saying they are—then why are they not arming themselves? Are they too poor? No. Do they lack technological, demographic, economic means? No, they have all that in abundance. Then why won’t they (spend money themselves)? Why should the US invest more money in the defence of NATO members than the latter find it possible to spend on defending themselves? All this challenges the stereotypes that have taken root in the US. This is good because if it were not for that, the US would suffer the fate of the Soviet Union. If elite circles and those who work for them reach an impassable consensus in a wide variety of questions, while all who fight against it stand out like a sore thumb and are thus excluded from the circle—then this constitutes the Soviet Union. Trump embodies hope and an opportunity for Americans to abandon old stereotypes in their domestic and foreign policy.
It is interesting how invested Moscow was in the US presidential election, especially on television. When it comes to Russian elections, there is no one to root for (which was also demonstrated by the State Duma elections in autumn), yet the US was a scene for a proper passionate struggle. It seemed to me that Russia longed for their own Trump, even though nobody said it out loud. As many experts in Moscow (such as one of the key authorities on Russian foreign policy Sergey Karaganov), you also pointed out that Trump won because the current US elite has alienated itself from the people to an almost dangerous degree. This was also the underlying reason for the outcome of the Brexit referendum. What do you think, will the Kremlin see it as a vital lesson on the importance of considering popular opinion, like some years ago when the Kremlin drew serious conclusions from the reasons and methods behind the Arab Spring? What kind of conclusions should the Kremlin draw?
The Kremlin monitors social moods very closely as it is. It is most interested in the opinion of the popular majority—public employees, workers, the service sector. Putin refers to these groups very often (in his addresses). The Kremlin has its finger constantly on the pulse when it comes to popular opinion. The Kremlin cares little about the views of liberal circles because they are oppositional, as expected.
It seems that Russia as a whole is happy with Trump’s election. General opinion is that Russia benefits from this outcome more than it would have if Hillary Clinton had won. There are already jokes about Putin issuing Trump a Russian passport for defending Russia’s interests etc. To what extent do you share this optimism and joy?
No, I do not feel optimistic or joyful. Though I understand that some new opportunities are about to appear. The turn of a new page brings new hope in itself. For instance, we all make new plans at the beginning of a new year and leave the old ones behind. Wanting something new is normal and human. Our relationship with the US is poor and we are on the brink of a clash, which cannot be good for the rest of the world. If Trump’s promises lead to Russia reaching new agreements on various questions, then this is positive. But do I feel confident about this? No. Is there any hope? Yes. If Clinton had won, there would have been no hope whatsoever. It would have been best if the status quo had remained unchanged. A lot depends on who will form Trump’s administration where the policies are made. And most importantly—will Trump continue to fight the establishment once he is President? Or will he blend with the establishment and become its leader.
You interact very often with the shapers of Russian foreign policy. Based on your observations, what is the Kremlin’s actual attitude towards Trump?
The views of the (Russian) foreign ministry or Kremlin officials about Trump are irrelevant, what matters is Putin’s opinion. Our foreign policy as well as all other policies are decided by one person.
All right, what is Putin’s actual view of Trump?
Putin was actually very open about his opinion of Trump throughout the election campaign. I do not believe he expected Trump to win. I do not think that the foreign ministry expected Trump to win. This was a surprise (to Putin). However, Putin’s reaction was good. If you remember, he immediately reacted to 9/11. He was also very quick to react to Trump’s election. He was one of the first to send Trump a congratulatory telegram and then proceeded to comment on it in depth at a meeting with foreign ambassadors. (On 9 November, Putin accepted letters of credence from a large group of ambassadors at the Kremlin, which was followed by an announcement of his readiness to re-establish normal relations with the US in full, should Donald Trump implement the kind of policy he talked about during his campaign. –– JP)
Putin’s telegram to Trump reads “accept my sincere congratulations”. How sincere were Putin’s congratulations?
I do believe they were sincere. To Putin, Trump is a person who has not exactly had anything good to say about Russia, but has at least refrained from attacking or blaming Russia, which has become the norm in America today. These days you cannot say anything positive about Putin in the US because you will immediately be labelled “Putin’s agent”. When talking about Russia, you have to begin with “Russia as an aggressor”, just like in the Soviet Union where you could not say anything without complimenting the spectacular role of the Central Committee of the Communist Party or the General Secretary. Therefore, I do believe that Putin congratulated him in earnest. Especially when compared to the good wishes from some other presidents like (Petro) Poroshenko. I do not believe that (the Ukrainian President) Poroshenko’s congratulations to Donald Trump were sincere, as the latter had said certain things about the Crimea and Ukraine. I believe that most EU leaders were insincere in their congratulations to Trump because they had just recently said all sorts of things about him. Putin was sincere because he sees Trump as a person who has not been afraid to say what he thinks. What he thinks is irrelevant, what matters is that he dared to speak up. This is rare in today’s politics.
Putin and Trump have somewhat similar masculine personalities. Do you think this will contribute to their relationship?
I disagree because they are completely different people. They come from entirely different cultures and environments. However, I am not a psychologist … There might be something similar about their qualities as a leader. Trump has a certain quality of a primal leader. You may call him an alpha male, if you like. Clinton, for instance, was a leader produced by the system. Putin is also the type of leader who has not been created by the system. The system wanted to shape him into a completely different leader. In that sense they are indeed similar. But they do not have much else in common.
When Putin and Trump meet for the first time, what will it take for them to get along?
A lot depends on whether they manage to agree once they sit down—Putin would say, like “two real men” (dva muzhika)—and begin actual negotiations. Putin’s main problem with Western leaders is that the latter are hypocritical, two-faced as a rule. This is the style of today’s Western leaders—they have to be hypocrites simply because democracy involves many different groups who should not be offended; they have to smile and say something to all of them. They have to navigate around everyone.
Are you saying that Putin does not get along with Western leaders because dealing with such hypocrisy is oh so uncomfortable for him?
Yes, he is uncomfortable because this makes it difficult to begin serious discussions.
Putin himself is not hypocritical, I take it?
There is a difference—while the West is overwhelmingly hypocritical, Russia is predominantly cynical. Russia is a cynical country. And when this Russian cynicism meets Western hypocrisy, things just won’t work.
So Putin is a cynic rather than hypocrite?
Of course he is a cynic. He does not need to be a hypocrite because his system does not force him to be. Naturally, he is sometimes hypocritical as well, but he can allow himself to be straightforward and cynical because we are not a democratic country. He is a tsar who controls the whole situation in the country, and therefore, he can allow himself to be blunt. I am exaggerating of course, but only a little.
Putin had a negative experience with President George W. Bush who, after meeting Putin for the first time, talked about how he gazed into his soul and saw a terrific person. However, the relationship had deteriorated severely after a few years. To what extent will this experience influence Putin’s relationship with Trump? Will it make him cautious?
He is indeed more cautious because he is almost 15 years older now and very experienced. Putin has dealt with a great number of world leaders and gained a lot of experience from interacting with them. Putin was perhaps a bit naive 15 years ago when he hoped to achieve a mutual understanding with the West from a purely human aspect. He no longer has such illusions.
Does the negative experience with Bush influence his attitude towards Trump?
The experience does have a meaning. Back then Putin wanted to appear likable, he wanted to be part of the Western world, and more specifically, the Western leadership. He has no need for this at the moment. He has no use for the G7 or G8.
What does he want from Trump then? To share spheres and organise Yalta Conference 2? Or is his main goal to abolish the sanctions?
A new Yalta, come on! Nor do I believe that his main goal is to lift the sanctions. Of all the sanctions, Russia does not care about the American ones, but those posed by the European Union. However, if Trump were to say that these sanctions are rubbish and they do not influence Russian politics at all and only increase the tensions, which in turn is not in US interests, then of course (it would be positive). The situation in Ukraine, how to solve the Donbass problem (is what matters). The message is clear: agreements have been made, please fulfil them.
Putin wants Trump to coax Ukraine into executing the Minsk agreements?
Yes, of course. He wants him to set the Ukrainians straight: you signed the agreements, act accordingly.
Do you believe Trump will promise to give Putin free rein in the territories of the former Soviet Union?
No, no! If you fear that Putin will now send forces into Estonia, Putin does not need this, never has. All your fears arise from the past, from Stalin, yet they are completely unjustified in today’s world.
Actually, this was not what I meant. I also do not believe that Putin needs the Baltic States simply to acquire more land. My question was whether the Kremlin hopes to extract Trump’s promise that the non-NATO former Soviet Union territories will remain strictly under Russia’s influence and the Americans will interfere in their affairs less than they do now?
As a matter of fact, Trump talked about this himself, asking why they should deal with all those countries they cannot even find on a map. “America first!”
Trump’s opinion on the Crimea was quite straightforward: he thinks that the Crimean people wanted to join Russia themselves.
He generally spoke the truth, did he not?
Is this a sign that Trump’s administration might change the official US stance on the Crimean problem?
It is difficult to say. They might say that the US advocates a legal solution to the Crimean problem. That we will start solving the Crimean problem – the issue of an unrecognised border with Ukraine. Naturally, I do not believe that this issue will be solved in any way. But if the US manages to push Kyiv towards solving the Donbass problem, if Kyiv feels that they do not have the full support (of Washington) anymore, the understanding of the situation might become more adequate.
In addition to Ukraine, Putin would probably also like to discuss Syria with Trump.
It is clear that the Syrian problem must be tackled in some way but this cannot be done from a position in which one party is seen as angels and the other as demons. This is the approach of the outgoing (US) administration. Davaite, no angels and demons. We are both great countries with our own interests, so let us see to it that these interests are taken into account on both sides. This does not mean another Yalta because there is more to the world than just the US and Russia. There are greater and more important countries than Russia. The relationship between the US and China is quite complicated, after all.
What else is on the table?
Definitely the question of whether Ukraine’s membership in NATO serves the US interests or not. Or Georgia in NATO? Would NATO accept countries that are in territorial conflict with Russia? This means that NATO forces would have to be ready to fight for Abkhazia. Does that serve US interests?
So you know that Russia is set on coming to an agreement with the new leader in the White House with regard to the expansion of NATO? Or non-expansion, to be more precise.
Certainly. Reaching an agreement regarding Ukraine is paramount. The US probably does not even want to allow Ukraine into NATO but the current administration has painted itself in a corner, which forbids them from stating this clearly. They have given so many advances that it would be seen as a defeat. I do not want to make it sound like there are no problems with Russia’s foreign policy. There are a million! But Putin was quick to discard the idea of Novorossiya, for instance. And rather easily, by the looks of it. He gave up on the idea of Ukraine joining the Eurasian Economic Union. Putin’s current task is to keep Ukraine as a buffer state between Russia and NATO. If Cuba wanted to form a military alliance with China, do you think the US would leniently announce that they support the Cuban people’s sovereign right to do so?
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.