Interview with Andrey Kortunov (Part 1): Russia & Ukraine

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The Russian-Ukrainian conflict, with potential involvement of regional states, has been overshadowed by the European refugee crisis in 2016, but remains a challenge to peace and stability in Eastern Europe. On the sidelines of the Dahrendorf Symposium, Alexander Graef, PhD candidate and Research Associate at the University of St. Gallen, sat down with the Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, Andrey Kortunov, to discuss a realistic politcal roadmap for solving the Ukraine crisis and the Russo-European Relations beyond Europe (read Part 2 here).

ALEXANDER GRAEF: How does Russia perceive NATO’s new double strategy of political dialogue and deterrence? Is it efficient or does it reinforce images of the Cold War, thereby undermining cooperation?

ANDREY KORTUNOV: The political and military establishment in Moscow is very skeptical about any substantive cooperation with NATO at this particular stage. We had some good collaboration over Afghanistan and in fighting terrorism in the past but right now the agenda for cooperation is very limited. For instance, the recent meeting of the NATO-Russian Council discussed several issues ranging from Ukraine to Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) in Europe, but there is not much new that can be revealed. The current skepticism will become even more explicit after the NATO Summit in Warsaw. We know that NATO is trying hard to stick, at least formally, to the provisions of the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security (1997). However, even if the additional deployments are not permanent and will be rotated, Moscow will still interpret them as a deviation from the spirit of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Contacts of course remain useful to avoid accidental crashes and to enhance the predictability of actions, but it is unlikely that NATO will be a major partner of Russia. We would almost need a miracle for this.

You mentioned Ballistic Missile Defence in Europe. How are NATO’s deployment plans perceived in Russia? Is the current system a threat to the second strike capabilities of the country?

In its current form the Ballistic Missile Defence system does not present any credible threat to Russia’s second strike capability. However, those who are very suspicious of NATO see it as a seed from which a big tree might eventually grow. Their concern is that if the system is developed further it will one day inflate the Russian potential for retaliation. The second dimension is more political. When the West started the whole thing it was argued that it is not targeted against Russia, but Iran. Now we have the nuclear deal with Iran[1]. There is no longer a danger that Iran will develop nuclear weapons any time soon. Nevertheless, the West continues to work on the system. For Moscow this means that the West has been lying. It appears that the system was directed against Russia from the very outset and not against Iran or any other hypothetical threat in the Middle East. This Iranian factor creates additional anti-Western momentum in Russia, which is widely used by state propaganda.

Western commentators argue that upholding sanctions is the only possible way to ensure Russian cooperation on the Minsk agreement[2] Would Moscow interpret the withdrawal of sanctions as a sign of weakness or of goodwill?

Some in Moscow would definitely perceive the lifting of sanctions as a confirmation of their own righteousness. On the other hand, if they are lifted, this might also strengthen pro-European forces which currently suffer more from sanctions than anti-European forces.

Back in 2014 the EU introduced sanctions because it was the only feasible option to respond to Russia. The alternative – military action – was impossible. The problem today is that European discussions are centered only on sanctions, but do not envision a more comprehensive policy with sticks and carrot.

Of course sanctions hurt the Russian economy and, with time, they are likely to hurt even more. But they cannot change Russian policies. I would, therefore, encourage the West to be more specific about what it expects from Russia. It is simply not very logical to connect the lifting of sanctions to the full implementation of the Minsk agreement, if one believes that the agreement will not be implemented anyway.

Do you think the Minsk agreement is still a realistic political roadmap for solving the Ukrainian crisis?

Whatever we do should be based on the Minsk agreement. However, any agreement can be reviewed and revised if all sides agree. In my view it is therefore important to keep the spirit, but also to face reality. First, the document itself is very ambiguous and simply too short. Secondly, in today’s world, a year and a half is a long time. The crisis in Ukraine is a moving target. We have to catch up with recent developments. We need another Minsk Summit which will review the implementation of the Minsk agreement. We also probably need some changes in the format. The EU or the US should be at the table. At the same time the summit should introduce some changes to the modalities of the implementation process. It is clear that President Poroshenko cannot enforce a constitutional reform; he simply would not get a majority in the parliament even if he wanted to. Finally, we should also go beyond the initial mandate of the Normandy group (France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine) which negotiated the Minsk Agreement. It is not just about regulating the conflict in Eastern Ukraine but about re-building the country and facilitating future trilateral interaction between Russia, Ukraine and Europe. We need a solution like that on gas transit through Ukraine. This compromise showed that we can find common ground.

Do you see a greater role for the OSCE in this process?

Absolutely. I think the OSCE is arguably the only institution which is considered impartial and legitimate. Neither NATO, nor even the EU, would be perceived as an honest broker by Russia. Of course the OSCE is not perfect. It might not have the needed institutional capacity. But we already see movement in this direction. President Putin has stated that he would like to see a stronger role of the OSCE by enhancing its monitoring functions. President Poroshenko wants to have police missions. These positions are not identical, but I am sure we can find a common denominator.

[1] Iran, the Permanent Five of the UN Security Council plus Germany concluded the Iran nuclear deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July 2015

[2] Minsk Agreement for a ceasefire and peace process in Eastern Ukraine, negotiated by France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine in Minsk (Belarus) in February 2014.

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Alexander Graef, PhD candidate and Research Associate at the University of St. Gallen. He received his BA in Cultural Studies from the European University Viadrina and holds MA degrees in International Relations from the Free University Berlin and the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). In the past, he worked on projects for the German Council on Foreign Relations, the German Embassy Moscow, the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. In 2011 he was the head of the German Delegation at the Y20 Summit in Paris. In 2014/2015 he participated in the Egon Bahr Fellowship Program. His doctoral thesis deals with Russian expert networks in foreign and security policy. His main research areas include Russian foreign policy, the Politics of Expertise and International Relations theory.

Andrey Kortunov is Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council. He graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and accomplished his postgraduate studies at the Institute for US and Canadian Studies, USSR Academy of Sciences. He holds a Ph.D. in History. He was Deputy Director of the Institute for US and Canadian Studies and founder as well as first president of the Moscow Public Science Foundation. He taught Russian foreign policy at the University of Miami (USA) and at the Lewis & Clark College in Portland (University of California). In 2011, he was elected Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council non-profit partnership established by order of the President of the Russian Federation.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.

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