Dmitri Trenin: The World is not Getting Better for Russia

There is no global equilibrium, and cannot be at this stage: The process of changing the global order that we are dealing with is a dynamic and conflict-generating period, says Dmitri Trenin in an interview with Zbigniew Rokita.

ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: A new world order often emerges from great crises. This was the case after WWI, WWII and the Cold War. And every crisis has its winners and losers. Vladimir Putin has long demanded a new global equilibrium in which Moscow’s interests would be more pronounced. Will the world that emerges after the pandemic be more favorable for the Kremlin?

DMITRI TRENIN: The world is developing in a way that the Russian authorities have long considered inevitable, and the direction of change is the transition from a unipolar Pax Americana to a multi-vector world. In the latter, there are several major players, differing between particular areas.

Which countries will count in these areas?

For the world economy, the main players will be America, the European Union and China, as well as Japan. India is also growing rapidly. In the financial sphere, the dollar and the euro will prevail, followed by the British pound, the Japanese yen and the Swiss franc. In technology, the USA, China and the European Union will take the lead; in the military, it will be the US, China and Russia; and in the energy sector, it will be Saudi Arabia and Russia. Westernization has reached its peak and is giving way to other cultural traditions.

Globalization has led to the emergence of a global world, but today, nation-states come first in this world, states are reborn as sovereign, national interests are becoming a priority. There is no global equilibrium, and can’t be at this stage. The process of changing the global order, which we are dealing with, is a dynamic and conflict-generating period.

Russia is considered to be a great state, but today this title does not mean control over smaller countries, but the ability to conduct an independent policy and resistance to external pressures.

The Russian authorities can congratulate themselves on having correctly anticipated the direction of evolution in the world system. But Russia itself is not the beneficiary of these changes. The world is not becoming ‘better’ for Russia.

So what is it becoming like for Russia?

More difficult. The only consolation— largely emotional—is the decreasing influence of the hegemon state. It is always very difficult for Russians to function in a situation of someone else’s hegemony, they have a genetic problem with its recognition.

Russia is considered to be a great state, but today this title does not mean control over smaller countries, but the ability to conduct an independent policy and resistance to external pressures. All the indications are that Russia, despite the small size of its economy, will maintain this position. Of course, it would need to once again become a technological superpower for this purpose.

 

Is it likely to turn into one?

In the twentieth century, Russia managed for the first time to become one of the few world leaders in science and technology. This status was lost after the collapse of the USSR, but the base has been preserved to some extent. Russia still possesses a leading military and to a smaller extent cosmic technologies, there is nuclear power, there is the Russian school of physics and mathematics.

Russia is a country owning counterparts of Western brands—Vkontakte instead of Facebook, Yandex and Mail.ru instead of Google. Today a kind of worship of fast and easy money prevails in our country, but I think that this will not last forever. External challenges will force Russia to become stronger—otherwise, it will have to come to terms with collapse and disintegration.

China first triggered the pandemic and then handled it well in its own backyard. There were many voices saying that in an era of pandemics, the climate crisis, etc., authoritarianism, in which the decision-making process can be streamlined and in moments of crisis the government can act more effectively than in a democracy, will become an attractive political model.

Maybe liberal democracy is a model for quieter times?

The conflict between democracy and authoritarianism you are talking about is a twentieth-century dispute. In this century, the essence of the dispute lies elsewhere: the quality of governance, the level of social inequality, finding a unifying idea for society is more important. Look at the United States and Europe. The main problems that people face there remain within the framework of democracy, authoritarianism is not attractive to them.

The pandemic has shown that the way the state responds to these kinds of challenges does not depend on the form of the political system. Some authoritarianisms have coped well with the virus, but others have done very poorly. The situation was similar with democracies, some of them having achieved a spectacular victory, while others failed miserably. The most important thing is not the system, but other factors.

What factors?

First, the skills and resources of the authorities. Secondly, the culture of a given society, its ability to show solidarity and maintain self-discipline. The third factor is the relationship between the former and the latter, i.e. society’s trust in the authorities.

And has Russia successfully coped with the epidemic? In mid-June, the number of infected people came close to half a million, globally coming after only the much more populous Brazil and the USA.

Let me put it this way: the system withstood the coronavirus challenge but failed to pass the exam with distinction. The regime’s actions were not impeccable. Moscow’s reaction to the pandemic, especially in the European part of the country, was clearly delayed, the strategy was belatedly developed, and the borders were closed too late (although the Chinese border was closed quickly and effectively). In addition, the assistance that small and medium-sized businesses received from the state was insufficient.

On the other hand, Russian society has not shown enough solidarity and discipline, or even elementary resourcefulness. The regulations imposed by the central government and local authorities were not always wise, and they were often also ignored. In any case, the authoritarianism of the Russian regime and the anarchy of the Russian people are two sides of the same coin.

The pandemic has shown that the way the state responds to these kinds of challenges does not depend on the form of the political system. Some authoritarianisms have coped well with the virus, but others have done very poorly.

Is the coronavirus epidemic the most serious crisis Vladimir Putin’s Russia has faced?

No, on the list of the biggest Russian crises of the early twenty-first century the pandemic stands alongside Chechnya, Ukraine, terrorism, the Yukos case or the Balotnaya Square protests.

The popularity of the authoritarian model aside, China is getting stronger (in the economic and technological sense for starters) and the USA is growing weaker. Can this lead to an inverted Kissinger maneuver? In the early 1970s, Kissinger engineered a change of alliances, warming up the American-Chinese relations at the expense of Sino-Soviet ones. Maybe today Washington, with Beijing getting stronger, will try to get closer to Moscow?

That’s impossible.

First of all, China is not a threat to Russia today—this was different in the 1970s when the USSR saw Communist China as a potential rival.

Secondly, the normalization of relations with China is one of the most important achievements of Russian foreign policy in the last 30 years. Good neighbourly relations between the two countries are of strategic importance to Moscow.

Thirdly, the Americans have nothing to offer the Russians as a trade-off for a change in their approach to China. In Russia, the Americans do not inspire confidence today—this is, of course, mutual. Given the American-Chinese confrontation, Russia will try to avoid involvement on either side, although objectively Moscow will be closer to Beijing than to Washington.

 

Where will Central Europe be placed on the list of Kremlin’s priorities in the face of Russia’s global ambitions? Will Moscow continue its efforts aimed at drawing the region into its sphere of influence?

For Russia today it is primarily a problematic territory. Relations with the countries here have been deteriorating since they joined NATO in the 1990s. Today, these countries have found themselves in a condition reminiscent of the 1920s, when they saw their opponent in Russia, while Russia saw its main Western rivals in them.

Moscow’s reaction to the pandemic, especially in the European part of the country, was clearly delayed, the strategy was belatedly developed, and the borders were closed too late.

I don’t think that the Kremlin has the tools or the determination to become a hegemon again in this region. But there is a fear that the USA will establish a military infrastructure in Central Europe that will be a threat to Russia’s security.

But you understand that this is a diverse region. Relations with some countries, Poland among them, are traditionally difficult, and the rapprochement that Warsaw and Moscow sought in 2009–2010 has failed. This is not the case with Hungary, despite the fact that in the past Russian relations with this country were not in the least blissful: with Hungary, we have managed to build a pragmatic relationship. As for our relations with the Czech Republic, the tensions are close to hostility, but we have normal relations with Slovakia. Another thing is that Russia seems to underestimate small countries and their impact on international politics.

Let’s look at the changing world a little more locally. What does the pandemic mean for the part of Donbass that is out of Kiev’s control for the sixth year running? There are voices in Russia that Western leaders, with many concerns on their minds, will not get as strongly involved in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, that they will lift the ‘anti-Russian’ sanctions, and consequently, Ukraine will lose the Donbass forever—just as it has probably happened with the Crimea.

The pandemic will not affect the Donbass conflict in any way, just as it will not affect other international conflicts. There are no prospects for lifting or reducing the sanctions in the foreseeable future. American sanctions could remain in force for many decades. And Europe cannot and will not choose a significantly different line in this respect. EU solidarity will not allow individual countries to abandon the sanctions regime. The Crimea will remain Russian, while the fate of Donbass is less obvious.

China is not a threat to Russia today and the normalization of relations with China is one of the most important achievements of Russian foreign policy in the last 30 years.

 

How will the pandemic crisis affect the Putin regime?

The rulers will actively and even pre-emptively defend themselves and their power, and try to avert attempts at foreign interference. They will also seek to maintain the passive support of the majority population. It seems to me that the Kremlin today has enough resources and possibilities to deal with the consequences of the pandemic.

So you don’t see any serious threats to the regime?

The problem I see for the Kremlin is that as the regime ‘ages’, various groups within the elite will increasingly prepare for the impending power struggle and instead of strengthening unity, they will rock the boat.

In his book All the Kremlin’s Men (Вся кремлевская рать), Mikhail Zygar claims that the last role Putin will play in Russia will be that of a saint. Can Putin move away into the shadows over time while retaining control of the system—as Nursultan Nazarbayev is doing in Kazakhstan? We are already seeing some premonitions of that during the pandemic: Putin is less present and more duties are being delegated to local authorities. After the referendum, Putin will be able to rule until 2036—what role does he foresee for himself?

I do not agree with the claim about Putin’s disappearance. He turns up on television every day, he contacts governors and ministers. What more can he do? Ride around the country, distracting a lot of people from their jobs? Walk the streets of Moscow and oversee the quarantine? Putin entered the red zone of a coronavirus hospital once and I think it was irresponsible.

Russia is not a country ruled by institutions. It is ruled by people, and without a commander-in-chief, the system will fall apart. If Putin fell ill and had to go to the hospital—as happened with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin—a crisis would break out, threatening chaos in the governance of the country and political destabilization.

I don’t think that the Kremlin has the tools or the determination to become a hegemon again in this region. But there is a fear that the USA will establish a military infrastructure in Central Europe.

 

The fact that it is governors and ministers that perform the day-to-day work is not a bad thing. If Putin gave all the governors in the country-specific orders, his critics would accuse him of undue interference. Russia is a large country, with the conditions differing from region to region.

Let the governors learn not only to follow the orders coming from the Kremlin, but also to make their own decisions and take responsibility for them. There is, of course, the problem of regional disparities in resources, and the federal authorities should take action in this respect.

Zygar also puts forward a claim that already ten years ago Putin wanted to retire politically, but could not do so because he did not find a suitable replacement for himself.

There are many indications that Putin sees himself as a historical figure who is responsible for Russia before God. He certainly has been seriously thinking about a successor for a long time, but only about such a successor who would guarantee the preservation of the achievements of the Putin era.

It is possible that he was not fully satisfied with Dmitry Medvedev’s rule after he saw indications of impending destabilization (protests on Bolotnaya Square) or a change of course in foreign policy (Medvedev’s overtures to America and Europe). Putin has to look for a new ‘Putin’. Whether he is already keeping an eye on someone, we don’t know. The fact that the government reshuffle in January 2020 was conducted like a special operation shows that he can keep his plans secret. This also applies to how he will behave in 2024.

Recently, there has been more and more speculation about Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin becoming Putin’s successor. He has been ruling a metropolis with several million people for 10 years, Putin trusts him, and during the pandemic, he has been handling the situation quite well.

Putin will choose his successor on the basis of factors that external observers do not see. Every time the new heads of government under Putin—except Medvedev— were a surprise to everyone, including the nominees themselves. This shows that Sobyanin’s advantages that you spoke about are important, but not conclusive.

According to the April survey of support for Vladimir Putin’s work, conducted by the Levada Center, the president’s ratings are the lowest since the beginning of his reign, standing at 59%. Why?

In Russia, the president is the main hero in case of success, and if things go wrong, he is blamed for failures. The sense of self-responsibility among the Russians is weak. Today Russia is going through a difficult crisis, emotions are rampant. The Russians are more anarchist and less disciplined than the Asians or Europeans.

 

Russia is not a country ruled by institutions. It is ruled by people, and without a commander-in-chief, the system will fall apart. If Putin fell ill and had to go to the hospital—a crisis would break out.

The Russians are tired: no successes can be seen, everything is going wrong. They are mostly poor, and the establishment people are rich—but they didn’t deserve this wealth and often earned it through unacceptable methods. Many people think that the government should help them. They point to the examples of America and Europe, where the money is given out to citizens.

The question is, however, whether these surveys reflect the real support the President enjoys: their methodology was invented for democratic countries. How much do we really know about the mood of the Russians?

The Russian political system is not only not democratic—it is also not European. It is built around a state-managed vertically, top-down, by one and indivisible regime. There are no alternatives to this regime, especially at the highest level, and there can’t be any. In this system, the opposition is an internal enemy, and relations with the nation are based on a bureaucratic apparatus, subordinated to the highest leader.

Therefore, the answers to the sociologists’ questions are not about support for the president’s work, but about support for the existence of the state itself as a political system. In the absence of alternatives, people face a dilemma: which do you prefer, the status quo or chaos, the struggle of various usurpers?

Usually, the regime wins hands down, although the sliding of support for the president towards the 50% mark is a warning signal. It would be useful to have support at the level of 2/3—it would be a guarantee of durability.

Putin has to look for a new ‘Putin’. Whether he is already keeping an eye on someone, we don’t know.

Is it possible for the Kremlin to increase the level of trust again?

Yes, it is. The pandemic, the quarantine, the sharp rise in unemployment and the sudden drop in the population’s income at the end of winter and the beginning of spring are difficult experiences and even a slight improvement will improve moods. People don’t expect much from the regime. However, don’t give in to the illusion that such a slight increase in the regime’s ratings will be of much importance. The stagnation that has been going on for decades continues. No historical policy that would legitimize the present can compensate for the deficit of future prospects. Nor would I expect any international antics that would help the Kremlin improve the mood among the Russians. People are not idiots.

Dmitri Trenin

is a Russian expert on international politics and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. A former colonel of Russian military intelligence, Trenin served for 21 years in the Soviet Army and Russian Ground Forces, before joining Carnegie in 1994. He received a PhD in History from the Institute of US and Canadian Studies of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, now the Russian Academy of Sciences. He has authored a number of books, including What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East?

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