As international relations go through a period of turbulence, Russia and Europe have to determine the direction of their global involvement in the future. 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 (read Part 1). In the second part of the interview, they talked about the Russo-European Relations beyond Europe.
ALEXANDER GRAEF: What is the Russian position on Syria?
ANDREY KORTUNOV: There are three misconceptions about the Russian position towards Syria and the Middle East. Firstly that Russia wants to support and save Assad at any costs. This is wrong. Assad is not a close friend of President Putin. Russia’s main goal in Syria is to preserve the state. Based on what happened in Iraq and Libya, the Russian political elites are concerned about chaos. Those people made their careers in the 1990s when the situation in Russia was very chaotic. They therefore have a deeply-rooted fear of instability.
The second misconception is that Russia wants to push the West and especially the US out of the region. This is incorrect. Russia cannot replace the US as the security provider in the region. And if Russia cannot do it, who is going to replace the US if they decide to withdraw? The only alternative is Islamic fundamentalism. What do you think is better for Russia? Russia would like to work with the US, as it has done on the Iranian nuclear program and chemical weapons in Syria. However, the Russian leadership has many reservations about current US policies.
Finally, there is the misconception that Russia always supports Shia Muslims. However with 25 million Sunni Muslims inside Russia it would be suicidal to work against them. Moreover, Egypt – the largest Sunni country in the region – is one of Russia’s strongest partners. Unlike Iran, which cares deeply about the religious side of the conflict, Russia works primarily with Shia Muslims because for the time being they represent a very strong fighting force.
In Syria generally we have made some, albeit limited, progress. The limitations are twofold. First, the lack of trust between Russia and the West makes military coordination difficult. Secondly, even if Russia and the US agree, we still need to sell the deal to local actors like the Saudis, the Iranians, the Turks and, of course, the Syrians. This is much more difficult than agreement among external players.
Will recent progress in Syria lead to progress on the conflict in Ukraine?
My take is that the two issues should be kept separate, because both are very complicated in themselves. If you link them directly it will be impossible to resolve either one. However, I agree that there is a link between them. If we reach some kind of success on any of these issues it will facilitate our cooperation on others as well. What we need right now is a success story, a demonstration that we can work together.
Since the beginning of Western sanctions, the Russian government has increasingly sought ties with Asian countries. But can Asia realistically replace the role of the EU?
In my view this development is not realistic for three reasons: First, even now under the sanctions regime, we have a very high level of interaction with Europe. Look at the Russian community here in Berlin. Look at the number of joint ventures. Look at the number of students from Russia in Germany. Look at the European small and medium-sized business engaged in Russia. Look at our cultural and historical linkages. The quality of the relationship which we have built with Europe despite all its limitations can hardly be replicated with any other part of the world any time soon. Our current relationship with China is limited to just a couple of very large projects. They do not create the social fabric and the complexity of the relationships we have with the EU. I do not say that we cannot have such relations with China per se, but it is not possible to develop them in just ten or even twenty years.
Second, Europe is more interested in Russia’s modernization than Asia. Asia mostly needs Russian raw materials. But Europe might consider Russia’s modernization as an opportunity to increase its own potential in the world. That includes Russian sciences, technologies, civil society and human capital. In my view, Europe is a strategic partner, but Asia, so far at least, is not.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, geography does not matter as much in the modern world as it did in the 20th century. If you go to Beijing, you will find the same European companies that operate here. The rules of the game remain the same everywhere. That is why it is not possible simply to turn our backs to Europe and move to Asia, because in Asia you see the same globalized, very deeply integrated world. For example, Russia’s attempt to circumvent European financial sanctions with Chinese money turned out to be almost impossible. Chinese banks – apart from a few state-owned banks – were very concerned about potential sanctions that could be imposed on them by the US and the EU if they deviated from the overall sanctions policy towards Russia.
Do you think there will be a rapprochement between Russia and the West or is the alienation permanent?
There is no way to return to business-as-usual. The milk has already been spilled. If we want to restore the relationship, we need some kind of accommodation, which means discussing more general issues. Any concrete developments will depend on a couple of variables. Much is contingent upon the future of the EU. At present we do not know what might happen to the Union in five or ten years. We do not even know whether there will be a Brexit in June. I personally hope that the Union will overcome its crisis and become stronger. Of course, Europeans will have to become more realistic about what they can accomplish in world politics. The future will also depend on the quality of transatlantic relations. Finally, the overall balance of forces between the West and the rest is equally important, because the current Russian leadership counts on non-western powers becoming stronger. However, non-western powers have their own liabilities, particularly India, China and Brazil.
Read Interview Part 1 on the Russia-Ukraine conflict here.
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.