Fear and Opportunity: Russia and the World Order

In this episode, Visiting Media Fellow Michael Moran speaks with the Wilson Center's Matthew Rojansky and Georgetown University's Angela Stent about Russia's foreign policy and the world order.


MORAN:  Hello, and welcome to Episode 2 of Diffusion: Russia in Focus.  I’m Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This week, we ask why, 25 years after the Soviet Union dissolved itself, the U.S. and Russia seem to be unable to come to a mutually acceptable accommodation. Far from accommodation, in fact, U.S.-Russia ties have sunk to something of a post-Cold War nadir Two differing views on this issue in this episode.

To tackle this question, we have two experts with very differing views. Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, is an advocate for a dialog of reconciliation.  But we begin with Angela Stent, Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies and Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University, as well as a senior Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution.


Professor Stent, you’ve been skeptical of what might be called the ‘hopeful view’ of what is possible in US Russian affairs. How do you think Russia’s perception of itself and the world order around it has evolved since the end of the Cold War?

STENT: When the Soviet Union collapsed I think it was very difficult for Soviet citizens or Russians to understand what had happened, why it had happened, here was the largest country on earth, the other nuclear super power, with an alliance system extending to the East German/West German border and then everything fell apart. Since then it's really been a struggle for Russians and for the Russian government and elites to define their place in the world.  Russians very much believe, and you see this very much today in what Putin and others say, that their security perimeter, their strategic comfort zone extends to the states of the former Soviet Union.  So even though they're reluctant to accept the loss of their East European empire, I think it's been practically impossible for them to accept the fact that they're supposed to operate in the international system within the border, the current borders of the Russian Federation that are smaller than they've been, you know, at any time since the 17th Century and to accept that

ROJANSKY: On the one hand the end of the Cold War for many Russians came before the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

MORAN: Matthew Rojansky

ROJANSKY: So there was a whole constituency in Russia which you might say, Gorbachev and the kind of the sort of Perestroika Soviet liberal elite was representative who thought that there was going to be a new world order in which the Soviet Union as a great power and the United States/The West would now cooperate and make the world a better place. 

And then when the Soviet Union collapsed that vision was shattered by it also left kind of no meaningful alternative in its wake.  In other words the end of the Cold War for those who actually saw an end to the Cold War and who were happy about the end to the Cold War and Russia, the collapse of the Soviet Union for many of them was also a huge challenge and a bit of a disappointment because now in the post- Cold War world rather than having a huge role in bringing about positive change, they had the very hard, maybe even impossible, work of reforming their own society in the case of Russia, you know, totally rebuilding the economy, totally resetting the political system.  And that was a very different challenge than what it looked like you know Gorbachev was going to set out to on the geopolitical stage.

MORAN: So viewing the outside world from a Russian perspective, what are Russia’s guiding interests? Is there a perception that those interests have been violated?

STENT: Russia believes that it is a great power – that it has a legitimate right to exercise influence as a great power, that, at a minimum, it has a right to exercise that influence in its neighborhood, in the former Soviet states. It also believes that it has a right to the seat at the table of all important international decisions, that it should be part of the ‘global board of directors’, if you like, as it certainly was during the Soviet period. And it definitely believes that it has a right to a sphere of influence or a sphere of legitimate interests in the post-Soviet space. It believes that the United States has such a right to a sphere of influence in Latin America. They believe they have a right to decide on all important international issues. That they have a sphere of influence. (4:25 – 4:40) And they believe that the United States has consistently, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, sought to deny them what they believe is their, if you like, God-given right as a great power, a historical great power.

ROJANSKY: Russia has some abiding grand interests and fundamental needs. The security scenario is one grand interest that’s often cited. That’s the idea that Russia is a massive land empire. It is surrounded. It always has been, for hundreds of years, surrounded by very powerful neighbors, if not empires, then powerful actors of different kinds on its southern frontier, on its western frontier, even now on its eastern frontier with the resurgence of China. ….. But then Russia has many other interests and many of those are consistent, very consistent, with the way that we in the West tend to look at the world. For instance Russia is very interested in being integrated into the global economy and profiting from free trade and from the comparative advantages that it enjoys in many areas. It’s got vast natural resources but it’s also got a very productive, energetic, creative population; it’s got a great location from the standpoint of global trade, spanning the key markets of producers and consumers in the world. So Russia really wants to be engaged and connected with those things, and we want it to be engaged and connected. There’s really a high level of interest there. And, broadly speaking, though with some very notable exceptions like Ukraine, Syria, and other things related to the post-Soviet space, I think Russia is a status quo power.

MORAN: Given this geopolitical psychology, is it actually possible to create a principled, acceptable, and inclusive world order possible that both the US and Russia can accept?

STENT: The Russian government has increasingly been using these ideas that the West is a threat to Russia, that Russia has a right to determine which orientation Ukraine should have as a way of whipping up domestic support in a situation where the domestic economy has been in decline for some time even before the Western sanctions and where some people questioned the authoritarian direction in which their country is going.

STENT (continued):  So this view of the world on the one hand exists in the realm of the international system, if you like, but the particular current Russian government view of the world is also a product of domestic exigencies. Therefore it’s very hard to believe that it will be possible to see any change. So Russia obviously looks elsewhere. It has a relationship with China which it rhetorically values greatly, as do the Chinese. When you look at the details of that relationship, however, it’s not really working so well. Certainly the economic parts of it aren’t. But still, Russia has other relations – it’s part of the BRICS, and there are other institutions of which it is a member, and in which it hasn’t had to accept the rules that were dictated by the United States and its allies. But that still is not a recipe for a peaceful world order in which Russia and the West can coexist and agree on the rights of particular post-Soviet states.

ROJANSKY:  I worry that it isn’t possible to create truly inclusive new Euro-Atlantic or Eurasian security order, or even just a European security order now, let a world order. Because I think the fundamental impetus for that has got to be a fear of the alternative. That is what it’s always been historically. It’s a sad statement about humankind. I don’t think it makes me less of an optimist to say that I think man is more motivated by fear than by opportunity. I think that, today, broadly speaking, the problem for the West is that it has been on a massive winning streak. We may be at a tipping point, but this is the case, broadly speaking. It’s not just that we’ve been a hyper power. We have simply won almost every issue that we have cared to contest for the last quarter century. I think for that reason we have very little incentive to come to the table in the way that would be necessary to strike anything resembling a grand bargain about European security.

The Russians have their own small winning streak, and you could argue their incentive may be a little bit less that it’s been in the past. In the broadest sense, however, they are still looking to deal, just not in the way that we in the West misunderstand that term. We understand dealing as we tell you what the deal is and you accept it. That has really been the shape of US in particular and broadly speaking Western diplomacy for the last 25 years.

MORAN: That’s it for Episode two of Diffusion: Russia in Focus. Join me next week when we tackle the delicate question of Russia’s relations with NATO, with the Wilson Center’s Michael Kofman, and Eldrige Colby of the Center for a New American Security. For more on this podcast, and other Carnegie programs, visit us at Carnegie.org.  For now though, this is Michael Moran. Thanks for joining.

Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.