The Kremlin in Moscow via <a href="">Shutterstock</a>
The Kremlin in Moscow via Shutterstock

Ukraine and the New Divide between the United States and Russia

Aug 28, 2014

David Speedie interviews Dr. Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on how the Ukraine crisis has opened a new fissure in the relationship between the United States and Russia.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and welcome to another of our Ethics in Security Bulletins.

I am delighted to have with us today an old and good friend, Dmitri Trenin. Dmitri is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. He also chairs the research council and the Foreign and Security Policy Program of the Moscow Center.

Dr. Trenin served in the Soviet and Russian armed forces for two decades from 1972 to 1993. He then taught at the War Studies Department of the Military Institute from 1986 to 1993. He retired from the Russian Army in 1993 and then held a post as a senior research fellow at the Institute of Europe in Moscow. In 1993, he was also senior research fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome, and then, of course, joined the endowment. So he has a really singular and rich perspective from both a military policy and intellectual analytical point of view.

Dmitri, welcome to the Carnegie Council.

DMITRI TRENIN: Well David, it's a pleasure and a privilege to be invited by you.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Obviously, Ukraine is a moving target in so many ways, and we'll get to Ukraine specifically in a moment, but we're interested in both the situation in Ukraine and also, of course, the implications both short-, mid-, and long-term for U.S.-Russia relations.

A little while ago, you wrote something I thought was both insightful and has turned out to be highly prophetic. You spoke that we will now look back on the period of 1992 to 2014 as an inter-Cold War period. Just recently, you've published a very interesting paper called "Ukraine and the New Divide" and I assume from reading that paper and from all the other things that are going on, you see no reason to change that opinion that we've seen the end of a sort of inter-Cold War period.

Can you elaborate on that thought? Particularly, how you think this new divide is playing out?

DMITRI TRENIN: I think that indeed we are at a major historical juncture as far as Russian-Western relations are concerned. For a long period of time after the end of the Cold War—you can point to any dates, '92 or '89, the fall of the Berlin Wall, '91, the fall of communism in Russia—ever since that time, and right up until early this year, the predominant trend was for Russia and the West to find some kind of an accommodation that would link Russia closely with Europe and the United States. People talked about partnerships. Some people talked about even a security community spanning the Atlantic and reaching all the way into Russia. President Putin, himself, talked about a greater Europe stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

That was the dominant trend. For a number of reasons that we can talk about now or we can leave to one side, this has not led to any permanent accommodation.

Instead, Russia and the West—primarily Russia and the United States—have been having an increasingly contentious relationship in the past three or four years. That ended abruptly, you would say, but not fortuitously at the time of the Ukraine Crisis. Now we are in a different era where cooperation survives, but more as a an exception in a few areas that are deemed too important for both sides to [stop] collaborating on—some elements regarding Afghanistan, for example, or some elements regarding a nuclear non-proliferation.

But the dominant trend is competition and if we look at Ukraine, this is confrontation. My analysis tells me that it's likely to stay. It's serious. It's not transient. The boys will not be home for Christmas. It's going to take some time.

I don't know how things will play out, but when they do play out we will have reached another historical juncture, but not just yet.

DAVID SPEEDIE: We'll get to Ukraine in a moment, but you mentioned in your paper "Ukraine and the New Divide" that both the United States and Russia have sort of used Ukraine in a kind of zero-sum game for economic strategic, political [objectives], to serve their own mutual interests. But let me also mention another recent piece. You may have seen it in Foreign Affairs: "Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West's Fault" by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, a very distinguished realist scholar.

John articulates a sort of minority view—certainly in the West, but certainly one that I'm sure is held in Moscow—that what you have referred to as a sort of generally cooperative period of the 1990s was really something that the West may have thrown away by, to use an image I have used in the past, sort of poking the Russian bear in its cave and then when it lashes out, saying, "See, we told you it was a violent animal." Of course, that to some degree was provocation over the Serbian War in 1999, NATO expansion. We all know the litany of these, but even Ukraine—a U.S. official once described Ukraine as the "big prize" in the post-Cold War.

Hasn't this meant that the West to some extent has created this atmosphere in which we are now at sort of the zero-sum impasse at which we find ourselves?

DMITRI TRENIN: Russia and the West ended in very different conditions from the Cold War. The West thought that it had won the Cold War; it had never been as powerful, as successful as in 1989, 1991, 1992.

Russia went through the breakup of its empire, the breakup of its domestic system—economic, social, political, and ideological. The people who lived in Russia; they were present at the funeral of their own country—not just the Soviet Union, but the historical Russian Empire. Russia had rarely been as weak as it was in 1992, or, I should say, throughout the entire decade of the 1990s.

The West had an opportunity in front of it to befriend that Russia that was longing to be befriended almost universally, especially in the early 1990s, and turned into a trusted friend, an ally, one of us, part of the enlarged West, part of NATO, part of Europe, an ally of the United States. Anything was possible especially in the early part of the 1990s.

The Russian leaders—certainly President Yeltsin and his Foreign Minister Kozyrev and his Prime Minister Chernomyrdin were very much supportive of that course of action or that trend in Russia's foreign relations. But the West decided to move on and basically it did pay—especially immediately after the downfall of the Soviet Union—a fair amount of attention to Russia. It thought about turning Russia into a democracy and free market economy and sent a bevy of advisors to help along with those goals.

But it rather soon lost interest and like the countries that formed the bulk of U.S. allies and NATO in the 1940s, Russia was not strategically that important, was not seen to be strategically that important. There was no rising adversary who by menacing Russia was menacing the West. Russia was weak, disorganized. So essentially the West, particularly after the Russian financial default in 1998, basically was content leaving Russia alone more or less, but keeping it in a condition that would safely prevent it from once again becoming an empire, a rival, and things like that. I am not blaming the West for that. I am just trying to explain.

Russia, again initially, it was open to be integrated into the West, but as time went on, as the West was making pretty fateful geopolitical, geostrategic steps, like NATO enlargement that you mentioned, or the air war against Serbia, some other things. Russians were becoming progressively alienated from Western policies.

That led to the consequences that eventually have closed the option, the window of opportunity that existed for Russia's integration into the West. Now, this is an opportunity that is unlikely to reappear.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes. Again, you know, one of the things we promote in a sort of ethical view of realpolitik, as it were, is understanding, at least, the other side's point of view; not necessarily capitulating or agreeing, but seeing what's being viewed from the other side of the table so to speak.

You mentioned earlier Putin's notion of a European economic union from Lisbon to Vladivostok. I would only have to think from, again, certain points of view in Moscow, that when Russia tries to get Ukraine and others into a Eurasian Economic Union, it is criticized for trying to recreate the Soviet Union by the West. Yet, EU expands, NATO expands. From Russia's point of view, isn't there a certain hypocrisy here?

DMITRI TRENIN: Yes and no. I think the dominant feature of the post-Cold War period is that the West does not treat anyone as an equal in moral terms included. So you could have said during the Cold War, "We, the West, are doing these things. The Soviets are doing similar things." So it kind of mirror images in a way. "Of course, we stand for democracy. We stand for freedom and they are communists." But there were some kind of a reciprocity built into that system.

In the post-Cold War period, the West just denied any moral ground to the Russians if the Russians happened to disagree with the West. Even if the Russians were doing the same things as the United States was doing, Russia was not qualified to do those things. Say, humanitarian intervention—it's one thing to do it by NATO, but if Russia tried to do anything like that, that would be a breach of international peace and undermining the international system. So you can criticize it, but as an outsider I'd prefer simply to take note of that, factor that into my analysis, and that's where we are.

Russia is essentially—and everyone else essentially—is denied the rights that in the post-Cold War world can only be safely exercised by the West, led by the United States.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Whether that's a sustainable proposition, of course. . . . You mentioned this and in an another article, Dimitri Simes, in Washington, wrote that what is happening is this is playing into a new global system viewpoint where great power intentions are increasing, specifically where Russia is being drawn increasingly towards China. There was of course the big $400 billion gas deal a few weeks ago. This question of the West calling all the shots may or may not be sustainable.

DMITRI TRENIN: In this ever-changing world that's changing ever-more fast, the thing that looks sustainable can only be sustainable for a fairly short period of time. Frankly, I think that the dominance of the West, which is unprecedented—the political dominance of the United States primarily—that's unprecedented in the post-Cold War period. This is unlikely to last too long. There are forces at work in Asia and elsewhere that will chip away at that dominance and are already doing so.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Let's turn to Ukraine now because your paper, as I say, talks about Ukraine and the new divide and it seems to me that after the annexation of Crimea there's been a very interesting series of maneuvers or at least ploys here by Russia, by President Putin.

Just this morning it was reported that the Russian aid convoy had crossed into Ukraine. How do you see these most recent developments?

DMITRI TRENIN: Well, this is, if I may use the expression, a humanitarian intervention by peaceful means. I have no doubt whatsoever that the humanitarian convoy is technically what it says it is. There are other ways of delivering weapons or other supplies to the rebels if you want to do that. Part of the border is not controlled by the Ukrainian government and thinking that you can only do that in a humanitarian convoy is strange.

Nor do I think that this is some kind of a spearhead of a Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Again, you can invade if you want to invade, if you have decided to invade and are implementing that decision, there are other ways of doing that from a military standpoint.

This is clearly a humanitarian intervention Russian-style, peaceful, but it's still intervention. The Ukrainians have been dithering for a week—actually more than that. The convoy has been at the border for several days. They were not given final permission to cross the border into Ukraine and then the Russians have grown tired of waiting.

They have decided to follow through with their plans even though the final agreement by the Ukrainian government was lacking. This is certainly intervention. So far, it has been a peaceful move. I understand that they have not been shot at, but the Russians have also warned the Ukrainians of unspecified serious consequences should the Russian unarmed convoy, I think accompanied by the rebels, be shot by the Ukrainian government forces.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Again, it's not as if a humanitarian convoy is irrelevant or unnecessary, is it? President Poroshenko after his election, one of his first commitments was to engage the people of Eastern Ukraine who, of course, were largely opposed to the new regime in Kiev. But it seems from at least some points of view that the engagement has been with armed personnel carriers, tanks, artillery, and a National Guard that may be made up of some fairly unsavory elements; then of course cutting off water supplies. I read somewhere that large cities like Donetsk have to large extent—there has been attempted evacuations. I mean it is a pretty dire situation in Eastern Ukraine, is it not?

DMITRI TRENIN: No question about that, absolutely. It's a humanitarian crisis out there. The death toll on civilians is rising, so is the number of people who are fleeing Ukraine or fleeing that part of Ukraine. Many of them go to Russia actually. Some go to other parts of Ukraine. It's a crisis that's really hurting a lot of people and it's not getting enough attention frankly, particularly in Europe.

I am, frankly, surprised—well surprised may not be the right word, because you kind of think you know the reasons for that. But I would still register my amazement that it's not being dealt with by much of the European media as a humanitarian emergency that calls for action.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Of course, what is also under-reported both in Europe and I think in the United States is that what still fundamentally this remains to some extent a post-World War II, somewhat artificial and certainly profoundly divided country. That's been the case since the events in Maidan back in February and that this is not a case of Russia fomenting revolution in Eastern Ukraine. It's essentially a civil uprising and Russia has been drawn in. Would you regard that as a fair comment?

DMITRI TRENIN: With all due respect, I think that what Ukraine is witnessing in a way—it's interesting. It rhymes with the events in Ukraine of almost 100 years ago. If you remember how the Russian Civil War was played in Ukraine, you will see some striking similarities to what we're seeing today.

For example, in those years there was a thing called Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Republic. That was a "red republic" siding with the Soviets. So, precisely in the area that is now at the center of this struggle between Kiev and the insurgents, that's what used to be a stronghold of pro-communists or you may say pro-Moscow forces with Ukraine. Kharkov, of course, was the alternative capital of Ukraine when Kiev was taken over by bourgeois forces.

You would recall that at the time of the Maidan victory in Kiev, there was an attempt to stage anti-Maidan in Kharkov. There was some kind of a congress of oblasts of southeastern Ukraine.

There are many things. I'm not suggesting that Russia is not involved. I think that the Russians see what is happening in Ukraine as extremely important in terms of their national security interests and the Russians are involved. There's no question about that. But there's no question either that what you're seeing is also part of the internal Ukrainian dynamic.

You have a country that was essentially put together by the Soviets. You may count the history of Ukraine from the days of Kievan Rus', but the reality is that Ukraine that exists in its Soviet era borders, which are still the official borders of Ukraine recognized by the international community, are exactly the borders that were formed by people like Lenin and Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. That is the Ukraine that we are dealing with and the many complexities of that large and very diverse country have not been dealt with by the successive leaderships of independent Ukraine in the post-Soviet era and people are paying the price for that I am afraid.

DAVID SPEEDIE: History is interesting and complex. Just as a complete parenthetical aside, my own native country of Scotland is looking at itself now in a momentous vote coming up in just under a month, where there's a question of the history of Scotland going back 1,200-1,400 years, but also back to 1707. So it depends where you date history from in terms of what the future will hold. I think that's what you are getting at here, Dmitri.

It's interesting. Barry Ickes, whom I'm sure you know, a Pennsylvania State University Russian scholar, asked recently the sort of rhetorical questions, "For whom is Ukraine more important and who is willing to suffer the most for it?" Clearly this comes into play in so many ways, both the strategic game and also importantly the economic side which I'd like to get to before we close.

Ukraine's economy is in tatters. The need seems to go up to $50 billion one day, $60 billion the next day, quite apart from the fact that there's I think somewhere in the region of a $3 billion bond payment due to Russia in December 2015. Russia is not liable to be willing to renegotiate that.

So, clearly this zero-sum game between Russia and the West is probably not doing Ukraine any good in the long run.

DMITRI TRENIN: No, it's not, but the tragedy is that this has taken a back seat to other considerations, including in Ukraine itself. Ukraine is going to suffer the most. There's no question about that. There's only so much that Europe can ship in or the United States toward helping Ukraine avoid the worst, but essentially it's going to be very, very hard for the Ukrainian people. I think the Russians are taking a long view with regard to what happens to Ukraine and in Ukraine.

They are banking that political divisions within Ukraine and economic consequences of many things from the war in Donbas to the consequences of the Association Agreement with the European Union will change quite a few minds in Ukraine and will create a different situation in the country that would help the Russians further their own interest in Ukraine.

Again, let me be very clear: for Russia, Ukraine is the most important country in terms of its strategic position and the Russians are willing to pay a much higher price than either of the Europeans or the Americans to see to it that their interests in Ukraine are taken care of.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Again, I think that summary is misunderstood in the West. For example, there is no country in the world and there never has been for the United States—we talk of a special relationships with the UK and so on and so forth, but there is no relationship that is as fundamentally historically, culturally as important for the United States as Ukraine is for Russia. Again, we simply have to take that on board in assessing all of this.

Final question if I may, Dmitri, just on, again, the implications for Russia. President Putin is in a somewhat tough spot it seems to me. On the one hand, his approval rating are at levels that Western leaders could only dream of, despite the sanctions, which we haven't got into, but obviously they're a factor here.

At the same time, there's a sort of ultra-nationalist thing here that really holds, I would think, the government's feet to the fire and makes it somewhat difficult for maneuvers. So it's a rather difficult diplomatic game which it seems to me that he's playing rather well.

DMITRI TRENIN: So far, yes. Let me refer to the convoy. The convoy, the humanitarian convoy that's now making its way to Luhansk and Donetsk is Putin's answer to the calls from the nationalist constituency inside Russia to do something. There was a very interesting exchange between Putin and the Russian nationalist leader, who is of course a very close Kremlin ally, Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Oh, yes. DMITRI TRENIN: Zhirinovsky said something like this, in the presence of Vladimir Putin in Yalta at the meeting of the entire Russian Parliament, he said "Well, this convoy, it's a weak gesture. The czar didn't bother sending convoys; he sent military aid to the Serbs." And then, in the same, breath, Zhirinovsky added, "But, of course, that was a mistake."

This captures the Kremlin scenario very neatly. You have to do something. You have to be seen doing something. You have to be seen by your own people doing something. You are also switching the attention from the military offensive by Kiev to the human suffering in Donetsk and Luhansk.

You position yourself not as a military attacker for the losing side in Eastern Ukraine, but rather as a humanitarian agent, as a country that actually whose heart goes out to the thousands and thousands and thousands of wretched residents of Eastern Ukraine and you want to help them.

You're not for killing more people. You are for saving more lives. All of a sudden that changes the entire debate within Russia and on the international theme, Putin has been trying to put Russia in a position of a country that's doing the humanitarian work even at the time as the Ukrainian government is ramping up its military operation complete with the shelling of the residential areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, etc.

To what extent this strategy has succeeded in the West is a question mark to me, but it has certainly succeeded very well inside Russia.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, Dmitri, of course unfortunately in our fractious world, the events of Donbass are sometimes shunted aside by other humanitarian and security crisises such as Iraq and so on and so forth, but you've done a masterful job of re-grounding us, my friend. Thank you so much.

I should have mentioned by the way that Dr. Trenin has been the author of five major books including a magisterial recent work Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story.

As a scholar and close observer of things on both sides of the divide, Dmitri, thank you so much for your time and we hope maybe to have you back.

DMITRI TRENIN: David, the pleasure is mine. Thank you very much.

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