Global Review had again the honour to have an interview with Prof. Alexander Rahr, expert in Russian affairs, political scientist, member of the Valdai Club, adviser of Gazprom for the EU and author of the book „Putin decoded-Russia 2054“. Alexander Rahr is a honorary professor of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and Higher school of Economics. He studied at the Munich State University, worked 1980-1994 for the Research Institute of Radio Free Europe, the Federal Institute for East European and International Studies. He was a consultant of RAND Corporation, USA. From 1994-2012 he headed the Russian/Eurasian Center at the German Council on Foreign Relations. He then consulted Wintershall Holding and later Gazprom Brussels on European affairs. Since 2012 he is program director at the German-Russian Forum. He is member of the Petersburg Dialogue, Valdai Club, Yalta European Strategy network, author of several books about Russia.
Global Review: Putin´s hopes for a deal with Trump didn´t materialize. While Trump wanted to get Russia back to the G7 and get it in a G 11 anti-China front with India .,Southkorea and Australia, Putin refused to do so. The relations under Trump have become worse and tense. While Trump called NATO obsolete, he continued its normal drill operations and wanted to deploy troops in Poland. The hoped-for new Yalta and world order remained a chimare. What do you think Putin hoped for when supporting Trump and what do you think Trump had in mind with Russia? Didn´t the interests fit to each other and how do you evalute this 4 years?
Prof.Rahr: Had Trump been re-elected, the first thing he would have done was to invite Putin to the White House to make a deal with him against China. Trump respected Russia and preferred an interest-based policy to a value-based one. That naturally displeased the Europeans and the US Congress. Trump could never realize his Russia policy. Congress and the American Deep State did not allow a positive Russia policy. In the Trump era, Russia mutated into America’s enemy, even though there was no reason to. The American allegations against Russia, such as the hacker attacks in the US presidential election in 2016, were – from the point of view of many neutral observers – artificially brought forward to justify a policy of containment against Russia. It was not just since the Ukraine crisis in 2014 and Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 that the USA recognized that Russia wanted to restore its great power status in the world by means of its military strength. Since the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia after the annexation of Crimea were of little use and the low international oil price did not damage Russia’s economy, the USA resorted to the next weapon to geopolitically put Russia in its place: a ban on the Nord Stream II, destruction of the German-Russian natural gas alliance, forcing Russian natural gas trade out of Europe. The irony of the story was that Trump went unnoticed to tone down America’s attempts at containment against Russia by announcing them, but his administration not actually carrying them out. But Trump was only able to meet Russian President Putin once longer during his four-year term – in Helsinki in 2018. However, his own government and Congress torpedoed any efforts to normalize the relationship. The Deep State turned out to be stronger than the US President in terms of foreign policy.
Global Review: Prof. Rahr, Moscow and Beijing at the beginning didn´t congratulate Biden and after XI did, Putin was the last statesman who congratulated Biden for his victory. Did he still hope Trump could come to power again? However,he seems to accept that he has to face 4 years with a Democrat US-President and administration. In his annual press conference Putin renewed his proposal to talk about arms control and his hope that the USA under Biden might not be so bad. What do you think is Putin´s attitude to the new US government?
Prof.Rahr: Unlike the Europeans, Putin did not immediately congratulate Biden, but rather sent a signal of solidarity to Trump with the delayed recognition of the election victory. If Trump runs again in 2024, Putin hopes for a better relationship with him. Putin’s foreign policy agenda has not changed with Biden’s victory. Russia wants to regain its great power status in the world and demands respect from the international community. Russia wants the world community to recognize Russian interests. The fact that Biden wants to resume the disarmament dialogue with Russia corresponds to Putin’s wish to be respected as a nuclear power. Putin will make the same proposal to Biden as Trump: the leaders of the permanent member states of the UN Security Council should meet and define a new post-Yalta world order. In this way, Russia will secure its great power status and zone of influence on post-Soviet territory for the next few decades. Putin expects that – despite current signs in this direction – the next president’s policy will not rely on ultra-liberal dogmas, but will again become more pragmatic.
From the Russian point of view, the mentality of the US leadership elite is changing tremendously. The “white American” has less to say there with his traditionalist US values. Ethnic minority representatives, who will soon no longer be minorities in the United States, could begin in the Biden era to reshape America from the top. Trump’s America-First will then undergo radical change. But if the leaders of the ethnic minority groups should start turning the black-life-matters ideology inside out on foreign policy, Russia will again face accusations of persecuting sexual minorities at home. With Biden apparently planning a joint global human rights agenda with the European allies, the common stance of the West against Russia is likely to shift towards greater confrontation.
At the Valdai Club in October, Putin threatened that further containment policies by the West against Russia would result in a military alliance between Moscow and Beijing. Putin meets the West with strength and at the same time urges German politicians not to meet Russia with the same harshness. After a split in the West that Russia had hoped for in the Trump era, it did not materialize. However, that does not mean that Western unity has actually been restored.
Global Review: Do you think Biden´s future foreign policy will be very different from the National Security Strategy 2017 which focused on China and Russia as revisionist powers and Iran and North Korea as rogue states while Islamism didn´t play a central role anymore? Biden had 3 articles about foreign policy 2 in general, one about Russia. Do you think he will focus more on Russia than on China, be the Beijing-Biden and renew the Iran deal? What do you expect?
Prof.Rahr: Biden’s foreign policy will continue to view China and Russia as opponents. The US is unwilling to make concessions to these two great powers in the reshaping of the multipolar world. The USA will try with all its might to weaken Moscow and Beijing, even under Biden. The European allies will even get less freedom of choice than they had under Trump. On the other hand, Biden will – at least in the first few months – consult intensively with the European allies, above all Germany. It is estimated that there will be a new Iran nuclear deal in order to give Iran the very last chance to finally renounce nuclear weapons. Will the transatlantic alliance grow together again? Certainly yes, but it will lose its former strength. The fact that the world is changing from a unipolar to a multipolar order after 30 years can no longer be prevented.
The West will also be weakened by the Covod-19 pandemic for years. It will take the West all of Biden’s tenure to make up for the economic losses of the pandemic. Domestic policy will initially take precedence over foreign policy in western countries. At the end of his presidency, the world will be divided into three parts. In addition to the transatlantic bloc, there will be an alliance of Eurasian states with China – which, according to George Orwell’s novel 1984, will counterbalance the West. The third block is Islamism, it is by no means viewed and will spread over Africa and the Middle East. The west doesn’t give you any means of preventing that.
Global Review: While Russia and Turkey brokered an agreement in Lybia and together with Iran in Syria, defining spheres, Erdogan initiated and supported a new war in the Caucusus which resulted now in a ceasefire. But he established Turkey a new regional power in the Caucasus and Central Asia and also tries to get closer contacts with nuclear-armed Pakistan. However, at the military victory parade in Azerbaijan he declared, that the agreement would not be the end of the fight and also quoted a poem that questioned Aserbeidjan´s border with Iran. After the USA and the EU wanted to implement sanctions against Turkey, Erdogan now declared that he wanted to make a cut with the past and reset the EU-Turkey relations. How do you think the relations between Turkey, Russia, China, Iran, the USA and the EU will develop? And ist Erdogan a reliable partner or won´t he be ever saturated?
Prof.Rahr: I am not an expert on Turkey. I think, however, that Erdogan will not abandon his geostrategic plans to restore the Ottomans‘ old sphere of influence around his Turkey. An increased influence of Turkey in the Near and Middle East and in North Africa is neither a catastrophe for the West nor for Russia. Both sides hope that Turkey will stop and undermine Islamism there. For Russia, Turkey’s advance into the Caucasus and Central Asia is also tolerable. In Central Asia Erdogan will reduce China’s influence, in the Caucasus he will prevent the establishment of NATO bases. Better Erdogan than the USA – says the Kremlin. Erdogan will have problems with the EU as long as the EU has a value-oriented foreign policy towards Turkey. Erdogan knows that he can blackmail the EU with his refugee policy in order to get concessions for himself. This situation is unlikely to change. I think that there will be an open rift between the EU and Turkey. It is possible that Turkey will leave NATO and participate in the strategic alliances in Eurasia. If Erdogan encourages his allies Azerbaijan to make territorial demands on Iran (a large part of the Azerbaijan ethnic group lives in Persia), there will be a conflict between Ankara and Tehran. Given Erdogan’s geopolitical ambitions, such a conflict is only a matter of time.
Global Review: After Trump rejected Putin´s proposal to prolong the START treaty for 1 year, Putin threatened at the Valdai Club to make a military alliance with China and said that he had nothing against a China which would raise its numbers of ICBM to 1500 Russia and the USA had. The Global Times also demanded that China should expand its ICBM arsenals. Former NATO general Domroese thinks that a military alliance was not such a danger as neither Xi nor Putin would follow the other power and militarily it wouldn´t change the strategic balance in a significant way. How do you think the relations between Russia, China and the USA will develop? Are we at the dawn of a new arms race and how could it be prevented?
Prof. Rahr: China will not allow itself to be drawn into US and Russian disarmament initiatives; it will continue to upgrade, soon organize a manned moon landing and then station weapons in space. According to experts, China will repeat the US economically as early as 2028. In the 2030s, China will be the world’s strongest military power. In Moscow they know this and take precautions – less confrontational than cooperative. Moscow’s aim is, together with China, to weaken the West, with Moscow not pursuing any hostile goals towards the West. Russia wants to regain its traditional great power status in the European Concert of Powers, which it won in the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the victory over Napoleon and in Potsdam in 1945 after the smashing of Hitler’s Germany.
Global Review: The Sino-Indian relations have become worse. India has not joined the RCEP, engages more in the Quad and makes sanctions against Chinese imports and IT companies. If Russia threatens with a military alliance with China, this might bring India closer to the USA and against Russia and China. How do you think the Russia-Indian relations will develop and which role wants Russia to play in the Asian pivot and the Indo-Pacific?
Prof. Rahr: Russia traditionally has good relations with India and India will by no means allow the USA to engage in a containment policy against Russia (and China). India, unlike the Europeans, will never accept a secondary alliance role under Washington’s leadership, the country too proud and too powerful for that. One should not underestimate India’s cooperation in the China-Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization. A future Asia-Eurasian security architecture is currently forming around this organization. For China, India and Russia, the vacuum in the Middle East that will arise after the US has withdrawn will not be filled by Islamists. However, the US has also pulled out of Asia under Trump, and Asia has become the world’s largest economic zone under Chinese leadership. These are the real challenges facing Europe and the West. Unfortunately, they have no proper concept. In Asia, the new multipolar world order is taking shape, while Europeans will cling to Biden’s skirt to save the old world.
Global Review: While the former US President Trump declared NATO „obsolete“ and Macron declared it „brain dead“. a working group under the leadership of former German defense minister Thomas de Maizierre and the US American Wess Mitchell, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs from October 2017 until February 2019 wrote a NATO report 2030 and want to lead the often said to be dead NATO to new shores.France already supported the findings in the report and next year az the NATO meeting a new NATO strategy might be decided. Do you think Putin will be impressed by a New NATO?
Prof. Rahr: I think the new NATO strategy will mean nothing more than that new wine will be poured into old bottles. NATO can be reactivated – but then it needs a clear enemy image, more courage to fight in its own ranks, clear leadership and long-term goals. During the Cold War, NATO was a purely defensive alliance. But the new strategy could be seen from outside the West as an attempt to usurp world domination. China, Russia and other states will arm themselves for their part, and world peace will be in serious danger. Macron is not so wrong in claiming that NATO is “brain dead”. The alliance’s greatest achievement is to have consolidated Western and Central Eastern Europe. But NATO did not get any further. NATO does not manage to deprive the Russians of their sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, because the military alliance of the Pact of Collective Security Organization (some former Soviet republics) now functions there. In the war in eastern Ukraine, NATO cannot play a role, it is staying out of it. She also stayed out of the war for Nagorno-Karabakh (2020). In the Middle East – Iraq, Afghanistan – it plays no role as an alliance. NATO is not equipped for a war against China. NATO prevents the Europeans from being put in a position to build up their own powerful army and armaments, as Macron would like as the only European. The role of NATO will continue to be to maintain US influence over Europe. This works until there is no major dispute between the Americans and Europeans.
Global Review: The media hype about Belarussia and Navalny seems to be over, while the demonstrations against Lukachenkov continue. There were no new sanctions against Russia and only some soft sanctions against Belarussia. However, the USA reports that there has been a giant cyber attack on US ministries, institutions, companies by Russian hacker groups affiliated with the Russian military intelligence and Biden said that he will make the aggressor accountable. What will be the consequence in US-Russian relations?
Prof.Rahr: The Navalny case will weigh on German-Russian relations for a long time to come. I don’t think the US will immediately begin its new foreign policy with aggressive action on Russia. Biden will take a serious look at the world situation, consult with the allies and then decide. Russia has offered the Americans de-escalation in cyber war. The offer is not off the table.
Global Review: At this moment parliamentary majorities in Sweden increasingly condense to a NATO membership option. At least this option is no longer a taboo. Putin has apparently done a good job. now not even the neutrality-obsessed Swedes trust Russia anymore. What a change since the time of Olaf Palme. Apparently not even the Soviets managed to do that. A tendency for Sweden to join NATO would tend to strengthen its eastward orientation against Russia compared to Macron’s more southward orientation. How do you think Putin would react if Sweden and Finland became NATO members?
Prof. Rahr: Finland will not join NATO, there is no consensus on this in this country. In Sweden, on the other hand, it does. For Russia, Swedish membership in NATO is not a hostile act, because Russia has already „swallowed“ the entry of the Baltic countries into NATO. It will be different if Ukraine and Georgia receive new membership offers from the new Biden administration. Russia’s reaction to these moves is difficult to gauge, but the reaction will be a crashing one. The Biden administration may hope that Putin’s days in the Kremlin are numbered and that the Russian people want another leader. Western attempts to artificially accelerate Putin’s departure are not excluded. This only achieves the opposite. In the West today there is a lack of a correct analysis of Russia. The think tanks have lost their Russia expertise and are falling into wishful thinking. Putin’s successor will not be a pro-Western liberal, but rather a nationalist hawk. Navalny may return to Russia, maybe he can actually get into politics and take part in the 2024 presidential election. But he will not find majorities in the Russian population, which as a whole still mourns the loss of the USSR and only expects hostility from the West.
Global Review: What will be Putin´s perspective for the coming years? Try to consolidate and expand his power and wait for the next presidential elections in the USA and France in the hope that Trump might reappear or a Trump-like Republican and Marine Le Pen might topple Macron, retreat from the Euro and NATO and bring NATO and the EU in its biggest after-Brexit crisis?
Prof.Rahr: A very good question: what is Putin’s long-term strategy. The answer to this is not easy. I tried to find it in my book „2054: Putin Decoded“. The answer depends on the circumstances and the global world situation. Putin tries to guess what the world will look like in 25 years and to lay the foundations for Russia’s success in this time. But he will have to admit that Russia no longer has the strength that the Soviet Union once possessed as a creative power on this planet. He will have to operate differently. But he is determined to fight for Russia’s global claims, for which he is receiving opposition in the West. Nobody in the West wants to see a strong, non-democratic Russia in Eastern Europe. Putin will – and to do this he changed the constitution – try to create a new traditionalist-conservative value system in Russia that other states, including Central Eastern Europe, could use as a guide. He does not avoid declaring war on the liberal system of values in Western Europe. The decisive question will be which civilizational system will ultimately prevail. Putin hopes he will find support in Asia. The EU is becoming increasingly aware that a new system of competition is becoming a reality. Freedom, enlightenment thought, Roman law – the West will never subject it to a caesura, even if the pressure from ever-increasing authoritarian states and rulers increases. This is exactly the area of tension of the 2020s that we are dealing with.