Global Review had again the honor of interviewing Prof. Alexander Rahr, expert on Russian affairs, political scientist, member of the Valdai Club, Putin advisor for Gazprom to the EU about the potential agenda of a possible Biden-Putin meeting.
Alexander Rahr is an honorary professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations and School of Economics. He studied at the State University of Munich, worked 1980-1994 for the Research Institute for Radio Free Europe, the Federal Institute for Eastern European and International Studies. He was a consultant to the RAND Corporation, USA. From 1994 to 2012 he headed the Russian / Eurasian Center at the German Council for Foreign Relations. He then consulted Wintershall Holding and later Gazprom Brussels on European affairs. Furthermore, he was also a frequent guest of Putin as a conversation partner. Since 2012 he has been program director at the German-Russian Forum. He is a member of the Petersburg Dialogue, the Valdai Club, the Yalta European Strategy Network, author of several books on Russia.
Global Review: Dr. Rahr, Trump wanted to get Russia as a senior partner against China by proposing a Trump-Putin meeting, a anti-China G 11 which incorporates Russia, India, Southkorea and Autsralia, questioned his NATO obligations and Putin in your point of view really thought that there could be a summit between the USA, Russia, France and China for a new world order. Was this not a illusionary approach and was one of Putin´s motives that he feared that the US democrats, Hllary Clinton or Joe Biden would start a new cold war against Russia, be not that handsome and strengthen the liberal Western alliance against Russia and China, but in the first place against Russia?
Dr. Rahr: After the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War, Russia saw itself as an ally of the West. President Yeltsin and the Russian post-communist ruling elite wanted to create a common Euro-Asian security alliance and a common economic area. From the Russian point of view, China was not a candidate for participation in such an alliance. When Yeltsin left the stage and Putin became president, he initially continued the course for such an alliance. Experts should only study his speeches 15-20 years ago. The chance to accept Russia into NATO or at least to build the OSCE together with Russia into the leading common security organization was within reach. Russia set a condition that the West did not want to meet. Russia wanted to be recognized as a great power while protecting its national interests and it wanted to keep its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. Contrary to what is presented today, Moscow was quite ready to support NATO’s war in Yugoslavia. Russia did send peacekeeping troops to Kosovo who were involved in the German NATO sector. The West rejected the idea of a security alliance with Russia for reasons of political values, because Russia decided under Putin not to become a Western democracy. If interests and not values had made the difference back then, the security alliance would have come about and Russia would now stand on the side of the West in the containment of China. Today’s Russian-Chinese alliance does not seem to me to be so firm that Russia, which sees itself more as a European and not an Asian great power, cannot change its mind. The Trump team saw this opportunity to return to strategic talks with Russia better than Europe. What Biden plans to do with Russia is difficult to say. In Moscow, however, his policy is being carefully analyzed. I think that sooner or later the strategically smart Americans will actually be faced with a choice: either accept a Russian-Chinese bloc against the West or come to an understanding with Russia in order to isolate China. Russia does not threaten American security and economic interests in the way that China does.
Global Review: When Biden was elected, he said that there would be a revanche against Russia for its meddling in US elections, its support for Trump, its new assertiveness in the Greater Middle East and Europe and even called Putin a “killer”. Navalny returned to Russia and there were Western hopes that he could ignite a mass protest wave and then came the Ukraine crisis when Western media and experts foresee a invasion of Russia. In our interview you said that there were no plans by Russia to occupy and annex Ukraine and it turned out to be true. After Navalny didn´t produce a mass movement and regime change seems to be far away, as Russia deescalated in the Ukraine conflict, Joe Biden proposed a meeting between him and Putin. US Secretary of State Blinken and Russian Foreign minister Lawrow will meet now I a separated meeting besides the Artic Council meeting. Do you think this is a preparation for a Biden- Putin meeting?
Dr. Rahr: Biden absolutely wants the summit meeting with Putin, it even seems to be more important to him than having talks with his US allies in Europe. I think he himself, like many sensible Americans, does not believe the story of Russia’s manipulation of the 2016 presidential election. It has been exaggerated by the Democrats in their internal struggle with Trump. For Biden, however, Russian domestic politics, the violation of human rights, is unacceptable. So he sticks to the harsh criticism of the internal conditions in Russia, because that’s what the American liberal leadership elite demands of him. Putin will agree to a meeting with Biden as soon as he sees that the US does not want to talk to him about human rights violations, but actually about a balance of interests. In fact, the meeting could generate a minimal consensus: on disarmament issues, on climate and environmental protection (a new topic that Putin and Biden suddenly care about), on the satisfaction of Afghanistan and the Middle East. Those Central Eastern Europeans who were already happy that Biden, unlike Trump, would treat Putin hard – and upgrade Ukraine in Western NATO policy, feel they are being bypassed. The Americans, you have to know in Europe, think primarily of their own strategic and national interests. And when circumstances change, when you see advantages elsewhere, Washington always acts pragmatically.
Global Review: If Biden and Putin should meet, what do you think could be their agenda? On which topics could they reach some success, on which topics do you think can´t find a immediate compromise. Biden and Blinken spoke of a “selected cooperation with Russia”. What do you think this mienas in practical reality? Do you think that Russia and the USA should use a method like Chinese diplomats: Focus on the common topics, talfk about the differences, but postpone their solution to a later date as to reach a first step forward? And do you think that Biden and Putin take this meeting serious or is it just windowdressing to show good will?
Dr. Rahr: The comparison with China policy is good. The conversation between Putin and Biden will develop in a similar way. You will determine three or four very big issues, including disarmament, in order to then talk about different interests and finally reach a minimum consensus on at least one big issue. Biden cannot seriously want to lead a new Cold War and NATO into a direct confrontation with Russia. What reason should the West have to wage war against Russia? The „wrong“ Russian values, human rights violations, Navalny, the annexation of Crimea, cyberattacks – no, for these reasons America will not go into a long and grueling war with Russia, which will ultimately make Russia an ally of China. Unlike Trump, the US administration is looking a little more closely at Europe. And there you can see in Washington that there is no consensus among the European allies about tougher action against Russia. One example is the battle for Nord Stream 2. Biden has certainly been presented with the new poll in Germany, according to which the majority of Germans see America and not Russia as the greatest threat to democracy in Europe. There is also no unconditional support for Ukraine in the West. There are EU states that would accuse Ukraine of provocative behavior against Russia if they could speak more freely without disturbing the pan-European consensus. You will be surprised now, but I am going to give you an issue that will unite the US and Russia for years to come. Remember 9/11 when Putin called then US President Bush to propose a joint alliance against international terrorism. Perhaps Biden looked at the minutes of this conversation again and is less dismissive than Bush today. After all, the US thought at the time that it could quickly deal with the Islamists in Afghanistan. However, the American military operation in Afghanistan lasted twenty years and it has brought nothing. The US is withdrawing. The Europeans are also running away – the Russian is supposed to fix the Islamist problem there. Who else from the regional powers, such as Iran?
Global Review: Biden agreed to Putin´s proposal to prolong the START treaty for 5 years and gets critizised by the US Republicans that he did it unconditional and that China might raise its numbers of ICBM which could change the global nuclear strategic deterrence and balance. IF Biden and Putin are talking about arms reduction initiatives, should this also include cyber and space weapons and other countries, especially China or should they independently try to make a compromise which doesn´t ignore their own military deterrence, but stabilize the global strategic balance?
Dr.Rahr: It is perfectly legitimate for you to see China as the elephant in the room when Biden and Putin meet. Of course, neither Biden nor Putin want an arms race with China; they both want China not to increase its nuclear weapons potential. If Biden acts wisely, he will win Putin on his side. Because even if Russia criticizes the Chinese nuclear armament, the idea of a Russian-Chinese alliance, of which the West is afraid, is dead. But to get Putin on his side, Biden must not abuse the meeting to publicly address Putin for human rights violations and to put him on the the pillory. The Kremlin fears that. Above all, the USA and Russia must overcome the mutual spiral of sanctions for diplomatic expulsions and visa bans. The western media expect Biden to have a showdown with Putin, which the American wins. But somehow Biden seems to understand that complete speechlessness and the absence of any dialogue with Russia makes the US not stronger, but weaker.
Global Review: In the US administration, the military and what you else call the “deeper sate” there are at least two factions: One who thinks that the USA should oppose Russia and China at the same time. The other thinks that the USA should see China as main threat and even come to a cooperation or neutralization of Russia against China. At the valdai Club meeting Putin threatened to make a military alliance with China, but China till now has not agreed on that. Do you think that within the US establishment the voices wgho propagate a US-Russian selected cooperation are now in the majority? Is this because of astrategic consensus within the US elite or a tactical move after the Navalny mass protest didn´t happen and Russia withdraw from the border of Ukraine?
Dr.Rahr: Good that you mention Putin’s speech at the Valdai Club. The Valdai Club meets from 19.-22. May in Kazan. Putin is the patron and source of ideas. He instrumentalizes the club to send his messages to the world. That will also be the case in Kazan. I will of course be there. For my part, I can only repeat: Americans have the best think tanks in the world. They have expertise because they want to rule the world. So they must have understood that Ukraine cannot simply be pulled out of the Russian sphere of influence and anchored in the West. Half of the Ukrainian population want peace with Russia. In Western Ukraine they hate Stalin more than Hitler, that is correct. But in Eastern Ukraine there are people whose ancestors deal with the ideals of the Soviet Union in a positive way. By the way, I think Navalny will lose his position in the labor camp as the undisputed leader of the anti-Putin movement. The London-based oligarch Khodorkovsky, whom Hans-Dietrich Genscher and I brought to Germany from the Russian labor camp in December 2013, is the new undisputed organizer of the uprising against Putin. In any case, he has these ambitions. I don’t think he will succeed. Navalny has 5 percent support among the Russian population. Putin has more. To answer your interesting question correctly: Yes, the Americans, unlike the Europeans, seem to make better use of their realpolitical mind. They are realists.
Global Review: As the US is withdrawing from the Greater Middle East and focusing on the Asian pivotand China, pushing for a new Iran deal, do you think that the USA would accept Russia as a power in this area which could be a contribution to stability?
Dr. Rahr The Americans will have no choice but to accept Russia’s regulatory role in the Middle East. Chinese leadership would be much more anti-western. As a knowledgeable expert, I ask you again: who should take the lead in the fight against Islamism there after the withdrawal of the West from Afghanistan? The Central Asian states are too weak for that. Iran? Washington cannot allow that to happen. China? Washington will not allow that either.:
Global Review: Do you think that Putin perceives Biden as a strong president or more like Trump as a sleepy Joe who is only a interims president for Kamal Harris or a reelected Trump or new elected Pompeo? Does Putin think that treaties he would be signing with Biden, would be prolonged by future goverments? Does Putin think the US could be a reliable and sustainable partner despite of its wavering political system while China with its one man dictatorship on life time was the more reliable partner?
Dr. Rahr: I will now speak to you frankly. The Russian ruling elite see the West, above all the USA, as a failure. That may be wrong. But that’s how you think in Moscow. But Russia is not anti-Western per se. Europe is the cradle of Russian culture. Nobody in Russia wants a civilizational break with Europe. The Russians accept the USA as a force for order in Europe, but only as long as they treat Russia on an equal footing. Russia wants a multipolar, polycentric world order, where the five members of the UN Security Council should determine the new security architecture. The West should prepare for itself to become weaker and Russia and China stronger. I know this kind of thinking hurts, nonetheless it has to be said. Of course, the Russians know that Biden is physically weak and look to Kamala Harris. In reality, they expect Trump to make a comeback in 2024. Putin will then be re-elected to the fifth term. The whole world will be weakened by the pandemic. The cards are remixed. China has benefited most from the pandemic so far. Russia wants it too. In 2024 it is believed that there will be a better agreement with the USA on global political issues. However, if rapprochement with the US fails to materialize, Russia will ally itself with Beijing, against the West.
Global Review: How do you think Putin-Russia would react on a green German chancellor Baerbock who focuses on human rights and values and seems to hope for a regime change in Russia and doesn´t as Biden see Putin as a statesman you have to negotiate and try to come to compromises? What are your scenarios of he coming German election and which option would mean which foreign and Russia policy?
Dr. Rahr: I read in the BILD newspaper that the Russians were afraid of Ms. Baerbock. So now they would start a campaign against them. That’s absurd. The Russians are more like realists. You are preparing for any possible successor to Ms. Merkel. Yes, in Russia they don’t like the Greens because they sound so ideological. The Greens want to intensify the confrontation with Russia because of the question of human rights. When, as a German commentator in the Russian media, I am asked to comment on the chances of the Greens, I openly and honestly say that the Greens are naturally not friends of Russia or a consequence of Brandt’s Ostpolitik. Nevertheless, they will not be able to stop Nord Stream 2 at the time of their chancellorship. In addition, the Greens will not be able to rule alone. Should Ms. Baerbock become chancellor, she will probably want to form a government with the SPD and the FDP. An SPD foreign minister will prevent a break in relations with Russia. The Greens need to analyze Russia and Russian interests more professionally. In the opposition today, you are not responsible for European security policy. It is a fact that this is in an imbalance due to NATO’s eastward expansion and the war in eastern Ukraine. The next Federal Chancellor will also be the strongest man or woman in the EU; he / she will be responsible for the realignment of European foreign and security policy. Those in charge in Moscow know that. But Germany remains the most important country for Russia. Germany remains the leading power in Europe, and if Russia wants to come to an understanding with Europe, it can only be done through Germany, regardless of who is Chancellor.