Experts explore policy options for the United States and Europe, including the possibility of a Western reset with Russia and the efficacy of sanctions.
MARTEN: Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to the fourth and final session of today’s Council on Foreign Relations Symposium on Russia and the West. This session is titled “Responding to Russia,” and President Trump just helped us out this morning by putting forth a very appropriate tweet that I would like to read to you. @RealDonaldTrump’s account put this out at 9:16 this morning, and our president said: “Things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia. At the right time everyone will come to their senses & there will be lasting peace!” (Laughter.) And so I think that that’s a very nice way to start today’s session.
So our session today is going to focus on policy options for the United States and Europe, including the possibility of a Western reset with Russia and the efficacy of sanctions.
And for those of you who don’t already know me, my name’s Kimberly Marten. I’m a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and I also direct Columbia University’s program on U.S.-Russia relations at the Harriman Institute. And I have a new report out from the Council—I think there are some copies that may be available in the back—on reducing tensions between NATO and Russia in Europe.
And it is my absolute delight to be able to introduce the other three experts that we have with us today. Their full biographies are in your programs, so I’m just going to list their titles.
To my immediate left is Samuel Charap, who is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
Sitting to his left is Thomas Gomart, who is the director of the French Institute of International Relations. I’m doing it in English because you’d never understand my French, IFRI in French.
And to the far left is Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; professor, I believe, at Georgetown; and also former special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council.
So three terrific combination of scholar-practitioners who are here to address these really important questions about what’s going to happen going forward.
And I’d like to start today with a question to Dr. Gomart. Last week, we just had a G-7 meeting that seemed to come to agreement about the idea of isolating Russia because of its support for Bashar Assad. But there did not seem to be agreement among the G-7 members about the advisability, for example, of further sanctions against Russia. And then upcoming in the next several weeks we have a series of elections happening in Europe that could really change the direction that things are going, including an election in France that everybody is paying a great deal of attention to. So my starting question to you is: Can we really talk about the West and its relations with Russia? Do European views, much less European and U.S. views, of Russia coincide or diverge?
GOMART: Well, that’s a good question. First of all, thank you very much for the Council for its invitation. I will try to respond quickly to this very broad, broad question.
But before that, an initial remark. What strikes me with the G-7 is the fact that, you know, President Trump said that it was possible that Bashar will be part of the political solution, and two days after bombed Syria. And I think it’s reflecting, you know, how the situation is still volatile, (sitting ?) in Europe, and all the uncertainty is coming from the U.S. right now—to some extent much more from the U.S. than from Russia. I will start with that.
So now if we try to see the convergence between Europe and the—and the U.S. regarding Russia, for sure there are very strong, but it’s, I would say, the traditional way of thinking in the transatlantic circle. It’s very clear that we have to deal with a much more assertive Russia. It’s very clear that Russia would like to test the cohesion of NATO, either in the Baltic states or elsewhere. I think the evolution of Turkey is very important for the situation in Syria, but not only for the cohesion of NATO.
It’s very clear that Russia is challenging, you know, the I would say rule-based order. What is very in the mood in Moscow at the time being, it is this notion of driving chaos, this idea that for Russia it’s much more beneficial to have chaos than to work on the stability of the existing system.
And it’s also—as you said in your initial remarks, it’s also we are facing, you know, the meddling of Russia in presidential elections in the U.S. or in Europe. So, from this perspective, for sure there are many things which should be done between Europe and the U.S. to try to deal with this very assertive Russia.
If we take another point of view, I think if we do believe that, in fact, the main driving force right now in international affairs is what some call, you know, the Easternization, the shift of power and wealth from the West to Asia, that’s a different business, in fact. And that’s certainly on this point that we can see some divergence between Russia—sorry, between Europe and the U.S. Given the fact that in this process for sure Russia and Europe will be more observer than actors; the main player will be China and the U.S.
Second, I think that President Trump, in a sense, will continue trends already made by the previous administrations, to put things bluntly, less U.S. presence in Middle East, less U.S. presence in Europe. That creates maybe a vacuum that to some extent I think is accelerating trends already there.
And third thing is, for sure, Europeans underinvested during the last two decades for their security. So, in that regards, yes, we are a wild, wild divergence, which are very, very serious in my perspective.
So, to conclude and to go to do initial question, I think that to some extent the key issue is for the U.S. Will the U.S. favor the so-called P3—you know, this very particular relation with London and Paris within the United Nations Security Council on which, in fact, all the European security is based since many decades? Nuclear fields I have no time to elaborate. Or the U.S. will favor, I would say, the big three: its relation with China and Russia, at the expense of Europe. And I have no response to that question. It’s much more a question for my U.S. colleagues than for me.
MARTEN: OK, great. Thank you.
Well, turning to Dr. Kupchan, if indeed, as Dr. Gomart has suggested, Russia has an interest in creating chaos, can we actually find areas where there are common interests between Russia and the United States or Russia and the West more generally? I mean, you had a great deal of experience working on those kind of questions in the Obama administration, and we just saw with Rex Tilllerson’s recent visit to Moscow that perhaps there is someplace were there to be common interests to emerge. What are your thoughts about that? What should we be thinking about in terms of common interests and places where interests do come together?
KUPCHAN: I think the short answer to your question is no.
MARTEN: OK. (Laughter.)
KUPCHAN: Right now I do not see a lot of places where there are common interests that will emerge if we just scrape away the sand. And I worry that the sources of the divergence, which have their roots in how Putin goes about legitimizing himself, have staying power in the sense that if you—if you ask, you know, is Russia in the process of rebuilding an industrial base? No. Is Russia in the process of investing in a knowledge economy? No. Are there good prospects for the rebirth of the Russian economy short of an increase in commodity prices? No. And so, other than kind of standing up to the United States and projecting power and causing disruption, it’s not clear to me how Putin, or other Russian leaders for that matter, legitimate themselves. And so I think that this is—this is a Russia—a brand of Russian nationalism that we’re going to have to deal with for quite a long time.
The part of it that’s, I think, most new is that, in addition to projecting power into Ukraine and Georgia and Syria, we now have the Russians leaning in to exploit the cracks that have emerged in our own societies stemming from electoral discontent, immigration, identity politics, the stagnant wages of working classes in Western societies, and they’re doing a pretty good job of helping us mess up ourselves in many respects. And that’s a kind of new piece of the story that I think is particularly worrisome.
The other attribute of Russian foreign policy that I would—I would note is that they’re very good at playing to their strengths. They are engaging in ways that play to asymmetries that favor them. So, for example, they’re mucking around in Ukraine, they’re mucking around in Syria. They know that those countries matter more to them than they do to us, and as a consequence we have to be very careful about getting sucked into a game of geopolitical competition with them.
Thus far, I think Obama and Trump have done a pretty good job of not taking the bait. We’ve played to our strength in responding, which is the economic field, where we can impose sanctions in ways that hurt them rather than trying to match them militarily, where we will not win because we will not escalate beyond where they will escalate.
Let me end with—by contradicting myself and saying that if you were to say, well, give me some hope, give me some place where we could have a conversation, take baby steps to push the relationship in the right direction, I would say in the near abroad, first of all. It has always befuddled me why we feel that we need to go crawl up into Russia’s sensitive private parts when it comes to—(laughter)—Georgia and Ukraine. If they were in our private parts, we wouldn’t like it. When they put missiles in Cuba, we almost went to nuclear war. So that’s one place where I think we can find some trade space.
Syria. I think at some point we’re going to have to hold our noses and make a deal with the Russians that ultimately leaves—puts Assad in the position of leaving, but that in the interim may keep him in power. I don’t see an alternative, given the way that the battlefield has shaped up.
And finally, on Ukraine, I think there is a deal to be had on Donbas. It’s not an easy deal. I think you have to get Kyiv in the right place before you get Moscow in the right place. But I do think that the Russians do not want to stay in Donbas forever, and we should take advantage of that reality to ease them out.
Final comment. In my mind, the best way to deal with the Russian “threat,” quote/unquote, since that’s what this panel is about, is to ask the $6 million question of what are average Americans going to do to earn a living wage in 2025. Because if our societies continue to stumble because we have a large segment of disaffected voters, I think the Russians are going to—may well succeed in undermining the order that we’ve built. If we get our act together internally, then I think we will be able to handle Russia, whether it’s in Ukraine or Syria or anywhere else. So, in many respects, the best way to deal with Russia is getting our own house in order.
MARTEN: Thank you.
So, turning to Dr. Charap, we’ve now heard that Russia has stronger interests in Ukraine than the United States does, and that it might be a mistake to be going around in Russia’s private parts and its near abroad. You have a new book out on Ukraine saying—it’s called, I think, “Everybody Loses.” What is your sense—(laughter)—on this? Based on your deep knowledge of Ukraine, should the West concede Russia’s dominance in the near abroad?
CHARAP: Well, first of all, thank you to the Council for the invitation today and for Rita for the initiative in organizing this event.
Well, the short answer to your question, Kim, is no. But, of course, I can elaborate on that, because I’m never quite sure what this term means, sphere of influence, in the 21st century.
For example, it might be true that Russia wants a new Yalta agreement where the great powers meet and decide what the order will be in a particular reason, and then impose it on those countries. But even if we, the United States, or the West as a whole, were to want to engage in that—and I don’t think we should want to and I don’t think we will want to—we can’t actually do it in the same way that it was done when, for example, at the time of the Yalta agreement, the Red Army was occupying basically the entirety of what we now call East-Central Europe. So we can’t give Ukraine to Russia even if we want to, because the people of Ukraine have a say in all of that.
But what I’m most concerned about, since we’re talking on this panel about policy responses to Russia, is this idea of denying a sphere of influence seems to me a substitute for real policy. We say Russia cannot have a sphere of influence in its near abroad. But de facto we’ve also said that we won’t grant Ukraine and Georgia membership in NATO and the EU. And in large part that’s because Russia has invaded them.
So, you know, the bottom line is that Russia will always have influence in its neighborhood. But it won’t ever have hegemony, even if we wanted to grant it to Russia. As we can see even with Russia’s closest allies in its neighborhood, be it Belarus or Armenia, they always seek autonomy and wiggle room and do not act like, you know, satraps.
But I think what the Ukraine crisis has demonstrated is that we need a modus vivendi in this region that all parties can accept—the countries themselves, Russia, the U.S. and the EU—and that the alternative to finding a new or finding some agreement on the regional order that is inclusive is to continue down this highly destructive path that we’ve been on since 2014, which, as the title of the book that I co-wrote with Tim Colton suggests, that everyone is losing.
Well, Thomas, if I could follow up with you on that, if everybody’s losing in Ukraine and we don’t really have a good solution in sight, should we maintain the sanctions? Are the sanctions accomplishing anything? Or, in your sense, are the sanctions on their way out? What is your sense from the European or French perspective on that?
GOMART: Well, two things. The first one is related to the sanctions after the annexation of Crimea and the stabilization of Donbas. And the second thing will be to think about the sanction with other sanction against other countries, such as, you know, Iran. I think it’s very important to think at these two levels.
The very first one, it’s also important to see the combination between economic sanctions and security reassurance made by NATO. You know, I think there was something which was quite well balanced, to some extent. And for sure, you know, these sanction have an effect, you know, in Russia, even if it is very often said that they are producing nothing serious.
The question is, should we continue or should we expect a single decision coming from, for instance, D.C. to leave the sanctions, which would be the best way to divide Europeans? So I think that the sanction is also a question about the ability of Europeans, and to some extent the U.S. and Europe, to maintain a joint position.
Now the sanction—you know, the debate on the sanction in Europe is very or so focused on what was done by the U.S. regarding Iran. And the fact that some European companies were, to some extent, (a racket ?), it is seen like that, you know. You had a very interesting report made by the French Parliament on that, produced by Karine Berger and Pierre Lellouche during last fall, which explained all the consequences of that for European companies and the fact that sanctions—(the law ?)—are used by the U.S. not to create a mutual tool, but clearly to influence and to make politics.
So that’s why there is all this reluctance, you know; extraterritoriality, always the U.S. are using law against their European allies is a big problem for us, as you—as you can imagine.
MARTEN: Sam, if I could turn it back to you, what do you think about sanctions or about other non-economic mechanisms for dealing with the Ukrainian issue from the perspective of the West?
CHARAP: So measuring the effectiveness of sanctions is always a challenge, because everyone has different metrics. So if we think about it in terms of changing Russian policy and Russian strategic objectives vis-à-vis Ukraine, they’ve been very ineffective. If we think about it as a signaling mechanism to signal Western displeasure with Russian activities, I think that has been somewhat effective. But as we’ve heard in a previous session, the impact on the Russian economy has been, you know, palpable, but nothing compared to the drop in oil prices.
I would also add that there have been lots of negative side effects, particularly its impact on Russian politics and Russia’s economy, where you’ve seen basically it creating an even more intensifying—the rallying-around-the-flag effect, increasing the state control of the economy, weakening those private-sector firms that were more closely linked and tied to the West.
But, you know, I think the most important thing, as Thomas suggests, is—in their effectiveness is that they have been an effective source of transatlantic unity on Russia policy. The Ukraine crisis could have easily turned into yet another episode—and this time the stakes would have been much higher—of U.S. and EU divergence on Russia policy, as we have seen several times over the course of the post-Cold War period.
And in this case, there was a strong effort to get the U.S. and the EU on the same page on this very sensitive issue. And so far that consensus has remained. So regardless of what you, you know, think about the decision or how they were made in the past, we have them now. We can’t just get rid of them. I think the political symbolism of that would be very negative.
But I think, you know, Thomas hinted at something, that these cracks and fissures within the EU on this issue, and perhaps even between the U.S. and the EU under the new administration, suggests that these sanctions will not last forever, that the consensus, either within the EU or between the U.S. and the EU, will not—to maintain the sanctions at the level that they are, and particularly the third-level sanctions, the ones that really affect the energy sector and the financial sector, that really have the biggest effect—they were never meant, from the European perspective, I think, to last forever. And that suggests that it’s a question of when and not whether they will be rolled back, at least the most severe ones.
And so they’ve been linked to implementation of the Minsk II peace agreement on Ukraine. So, you know, if we want to maintain this very important degree of transatlantic consensus on policy about this crisis, about Russia in Ukraine, I think we need to find a way to make Minsk work. And what I’m concerned about a little bit is the degree of complacency that’s set in to the sort of non—well, to the fact that we’re getting bogged down in that process and really haven’t moved very much at all since the document was originally signed in February of 2015.
MARTEN: Charlie, I know you’ve got some background in international-security issues. If we could turn it a little bit towards a harder method of dealing with Russia, I’m wondering if you could comment on what NATO has done since the Warsaw summit in 2016, where we have a small number of troops, about maybe 4,000 altogether, now being newly deployed to Poland and the Baltic states.
Do you think NATO is doing the right thing through concentrating on that tripwire? Would you prefer to see a stronger NATO reaction to what’s happening in Russia? What’s your advice for NATO going forward on dealing with the Russia problem?
KUPCHAN: You know, as I said at the outset, it’s hard to know how to respond to Russia when Russia exploits asymmetries. And so when you ask what our main sources of leverage are in Ukraine, on getting Minsk back going, the answer is not a lot. You know, we’ve got the sanctions, which is why I personally would advocate that they stay in place. We have the ability to modulate Putin’s access to the club, invite him or disinvite him from meetings—G-7, G-8, G-20, whatever it might be—or just to kind of leave him—box him out. And then we have the kind of hard security response that you’re referring to.
And, you know, my sense is that NATO got it about right in the sense that we are talking about the deployment of thousands of troops, not tens of thousands of troops. We are talking about a mix of a NATO effort; that is to say, EFP, enhanced forward presence, is contributions of member states to a NATO mission, alongside a unilateral U.S. effort in deploying, on a rotational basis, a new armored battalion, principally in Poland, but it will also rotate to other places.
And so it is a sign that we are putting combat-ready troops back in that battle space. Until the Warsaw summit, we were putting troops through, but they were not combat-ready. They were essentially a show of the flag. The troops that are being deployed as we speak are actually integral fighting forces, and they’re bringing with them tanks and artillery and stuff.
Does that mean you could blunt a Russian attack? That’s another question. But I think that by putting something there that’s credible but not putting an armored division in there, you’ve said to the Russians we’re serious about this. You are threatening us. We’re putting some troops back on the Eastern frontier. But we are very self-consciously not jeopardizing what’s called the NATO-Russia Founding Act, nor are we doing things that would constitute the remilitarization of that border area. So I would say we kind of hit the sweet spot.
Thomas, can I ask you—I know that you’ve written about French national interests. As you are looking ahead with what is happening in Europe, and in France in particular, what do you think is going to be the future pan-European role either in NATO, as sticking together as a whole in the face of what’s happening in Russia, or also thinking beyond NATO as an institution and maybe thinking about the U.N. Security Council? Is that a place where the West can take action either to cooperate with Russia or maybe to stand up to Russia?
GOMART: Well, first of all, I think that a foreign policy like the French one is based on interests, values, and alliances. It’s to say that maybe it was too much based on values during the last decade, but that doesn’t mean that we should be all the time obsessed by interests. There’s a proper balance between these three components, which are highly important.
If you see the French foreign policy, in fact, you have two lines. The very first one started—it was said in the previous session—started, to some extent, in 1917, at the end of the First World War. And it is precisely the P3 I have previously mentioned, these relations between the three main democracies and its, I would say, security implication—different period between 1917 to today, obviously, but it is something which is very deep, and at the same time—at the same time which is not really known by the opinion.
It’s very easy by our politicians to have, you know, an anti-U.S. attitude or to criticize the Brits the time. But at the same time, it’s very deeply rooted. The problem is that, after election of Donald Trump, after Brexit, what future for that, you know. For sure we have to question that, you know, in France right now.
And the second line is, in fact, the European project, which started in 1950 with the Treaty of Rome in 1957, based on the relation between France and Germany. And the problem that this relation is in balance, to say the least, at the time being, because, to some extent, France refused to make its structural reforms, and the asymmetry between Germany and France is part of the problem within Europe right now.
So, to put things bluntly, I think that the election in France is highly important from this regard, because if, for instance, Marine Le Pen would be elected, that’s the end of the EU, because it’s not possible for the Germans. The same can be said for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in my view. So it’s very, very important. And if we have the addition of Trump, Brexit, plus someone like that, you know, in France, it’s a different world.
MARTEN: OK, great.
Sam, if we could just turn a little bit beyond Europe, do you have a sense of whether there is any possibility of actually achieving some kind of common interests in places like Syria or elsewhere outside of the Ukrainian situation when you look forward at relations between Russia and the West?
CHARAP: So I think there are a number of places where, whether we like it or not, we’re going to have to deal with Russia. Syria is certainly the most prominent. You know, there is not going to be a political solution in Syria that Russia actively opposes. So getting Russia on board for that has got to be part of diplomacy to end the Syrian civil war. Russia is by far the most powerful military actor on the ground. It’s, of course, the key supporter of the most significant ground force; that is, the regime.
So in that case, you know, diplomacy with Russia is necessary. I’m not saying it’s necessarily going to be successful, but it’s a sort of sine qua non if we want to get there.
On any number of other regional crises in the Middle East and even in, you know, Central Asia in the context of Afghanistan, Russia is a player. And so where Russia is a player, there’s going to have to be a degree of cooperation with Russia; if not cooperation, then at least ensuring Russian acquiescence to ways of addressing those challenges. So, you know, it’s more of a case of whether we like it or not, we have to deal with them on a number of important issues.
MARTEN: Great. And I think we also have to remember that we do have common interests in pursuing some kind of communication between our militaries to avoid dangerous incidents and potentially moving on to get back to the arms control regimes that have been frittered away in recent years. That’s sort of a common negative interest, but I think we all have an interest in international security and getting back to those previous places.
Before I turn it over to the members, I was remiss in not thanking Rita Hauser and the Hauser Foundation at the beginning. You have really made this all possible, and we’re very grateful to you.
So now what I’d like to do is turn it over to the members. And I would just remind everybody that we are on the record. I would ask each person to give their name and their affiliation and also to keep your questions brief and to keep them questions rather than a comment so that we can get to a lot of people among the members to give their perspectives.
And I see a hand up in the middle there. Yes.
Q: Hi. Trudy Rubin from The Philadelphia Inquirer.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on where you think there might be a direct military conflict with Russia, between the United States and Russia, as opposed to asymmetrical warfare, and if you could give some concrete examples and what you think could be done to avoid that.
MARTEN: Charlie, do you want to take that one to start?
KUPCHAN: Not really, but—
MARTEN: OK. (Laughter.)
KUPCHAN: I’ll give it a whack.
MARTEN: OK. And then Sam wants to.
KUPCHAN: You know, I’d say, Trudy, that—and this is a part of the world close to your heart—that the battle space that runs along northern Syria down to Idlib and across into northern Iraq is a very tight area. Nobody really knows what’s going on there. There are all kinds of ground troops and air assets and drones, manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft, everybody zipping around. And also, the—you know, the kind of who’s on whose team is not at all clear.
So for example, in the—in the battle over al-Bab, which is a little town down at the southern region of—before you get to where ISIS starts getting thick, you know, the Turks and the Turkish-supported troops were supposedly on one side fighting the Syrians and the Russians, and then nobody knew who was on what side, and everybody was shooting at everybody. So I would say that’s the place where some kind of unintended or intended conflict is highest.
I don’t know the status—maybe one of my colleagues can answer this—you know, we heard after the missile strike that the Russians were turning off the deconfliction line. Then I heard no, they’re not turning off the deconfliction. That would be a very bad idea because as I said, there’s a lot of junk flying in a very small space. So I would say that’s the place that most worries me.
And we have one data point. Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft. A NATO member shot down a Russian fighter jet. That’s a dangerous situation.
MARTEN: And I think both Sam and Thomas want to briefly get in on this too.
CHARAP: Charlie said what I was going to say, so I’ll leave it—
Thomas, do you want to—
GOMART: Yeah, very quickly: I think there is already a sort of war between Russia and the U.S. in the cyberspace, precisely. It’s not visible, it’s not—but it’s something very, very I think—how to say—tough, to some extent. The thing is that now the pressure will be more and more on Putin from my point of view, given the coming, you know, elections. His decision, for instance, to forbid LinkedIn in Russia can be interpreted, you know, as a first prevention to avoid also external influence. There will be, obviously, some intrusion during also his electoral process. So that’s the first thing.
The second one is maybe to try to have the map of the integrated strategy elaborated by the Kremlin from my point of view. I think it started with the Arctic continuing with the Baltic Sea. On that things are sometime very difficult for neutral states such as Sweden and Finland. It continues with Kaliningrad, the fact that there is also this influence between Kaliningrad now and Crimea. In the Black Sea, it’s very, very clear. The Black Sea give access to the Middle East and Mediterranean. So it’s not so bad, you know. For a poor power, it’s not so bad. In addition to that, I see also some attempts to be much more active in Libya regarding, you know, the deep relations with Egypt and with Algeria. So if you have this map in mind for a power, you know, having a military spending similar to the French one, higher than the French one, it’s not too bad.
KUPCHAN: Kim, do you know if the deconfliction line was turned off not?
MARTEN: I believe the official announcement was that it was turned off temporarily and then that the decision was made by the Russian general staff to turn it back on again. But what I also heard from several—I think it was reported in the press as well—is that the U.S. has other mechanisms besides the deconfliction line to protect itself, so it’s maybe less of an issue than it sometimes appears in the press.
Yes, Rita Hauser.
Q: Yes. I guess it’s for Charlie, but it’s could be for any of you.
So far Trump has shown no inclination to raise any human rights issues with leaders that he’s met—not with China; he said nice things about the Philippines; he’s ignored it in Egypt. But let’s presuppose that going into the elections there are more demonstrations in Russia, there is more violence, more people arrested, more all of that. What is the U.S. position going to be? We were after all the most outspoken of anybody about human rights violations in Russia.
KUPCHAN: You know, I don’t know what the U.S. position will be. I can tell you what I think it should be.
You know, as someone who is more of a realist than anything else, I’m someone who believes that when push comes to shove, we should work with Egypt or work with China or work with Russia when we have to but that we have to speak up when we do so. And so what most troubles me about the Trump administration’s stance is not that they’re willing to join hands with somebody like Sisi to fight, you know, al-Qaida in the Sinai, but that they don’t voice that they’re uncomfortable with the way that the Egyptian government is dealing with domestic dissent, civil liberties, you name it.
And then I would say the same with the Russians and the Chinese and everybody else because, you know, in the end of the day, we are still the country that holds that banner. And, you know, when here at home the press is called the enemy of the people and then abroad we don’t speak up when countries are shutting down newspapers or intimidating journalists as is happening in Turkey, then I fear that nobody is going to carry that water. So again, I’m someone who says, in the end of the day, when your security interests are at stake, you work with countries that you need to and you hold your nose, but you speak up when you do so.
MARTEN: Let me just add that Nikki Haley spoke here in an open forum a few weeks ago, and she publicly declared that she was going to make her presidency of the U.N. Security Council for the month of April focused on human rights issues. And she made a very strong statement that the absence of human rights is a major cause of international conflict. And so I think when we’re looking at the statements that have come out of the Trump administration, they’re not necessarily all on the same line on that.
Sam, did you want to add something here? No?
Do we have maybe a question from over here somewhere? Yes, Marie.
Q: Thank you very much.
My question on this issue—and the panel is response and what to do next. So my question is, do you really, all of you, believe that Ukraine is not a sovereign state, that it belongs to Russia’s sphere of influence, that we should bear with this and that that will bring more security to the Ukrainians, to the Russians, to us in other regions of Europe? I mean, is this really what you meant? And what prompts you to support the idea that Ukraine cannot be treated by us as a fully sovereign, independent state because of the threat of antagonizing Russia? And the footnote is that it seems to me that the position you’ve been presenting here contradicts decision that have been made recently by the EU, the IMF, the U.S. administration as well supporting Ukraine.
MARTEN: Great. So let’s start with Sam on this because he’s just had this book on Ukraine come out with Tim Colton.
CHARAP: Right. And to be fair, it’s on the Ukrainian crisis, not necessarily just Ukraine specifically, which we put in a more broader regional context.
But in any case, I said none of those things. I do think Ukraine is a sovereign state. I don’t think that there should be a Russian sphere in its near abroad.
However, you know, in characterizing current western policy, I think we should be realistic. I mean, Ukraine has stated, its current leadership, quite explicitly that it wants to be on a membership path with both the EU and NATO. And what I was merely noting was that actually, there is no appetite in either organization to give Ukraine a membership perspective in either organization. That is just a fact of life. So if there is a problem with that, then it’s, you know, your—I’m just the messenger.
I would say that, you know, this idea of sovereignty meaning that a country has the right not only to make its own decisions but to make our decisions is a little bit extreme. In other words, just as Ukraine has the right to say it wants to join NATO, so, too, do NATO member states have the right to make a decision about whether they want that too. That is explicitly how the membership process works. At the end of the day it’s a political decision among allies about whether to offer membership. So their choice is to be made in many capitals as far as Ukraine’s future goes. I would say—in that respect.
I would say that I think we get a little bit hung up on this issue because, you know, there are principles which are all very important, and we should be emphasizing those, but then there is also the reality that there is not a willingness within the West to go to war with Russia, to undo what Russia has done in Ukraine.
MARTEN: Thomas or Charlie, do you want to—
GOMART: Yeah. First of all, I’m a bit surprised by the question from Marie because I never said that Ukraine is not a sovereign country, so that’s not—that’s not the point.
I would follow what was said by Sam. I think that’s it’s very important, you know, to try to implement seriously the Minsk agreements. Precisely, the Minsk agreements is made, you know, between two sovereign countries, supported by—and in the framework of things designed by Germany and France.
The problem is, in fact, the implementation of that on the Russian side because there is this attitude which is to support, to continue to support the so-called separatists—very ambiguous on that—and also the fact that on the Ukrainian side, there is also some difficulties to implement fully the agreement.
Question is, should we stop everything, you know, to Crimea and the fact that Crimea was annexed, and should we consider that everything is frozen to that? On that, you know, it’s a very difficult issue. I have no clear answer. For sure, the rules were broken, you know, by Russia. Annexation is something very grave with deep consequences. Does it mean that we should expect, you know, a comeback to Ukraine of Crimea? I think it would be unrealistic in the current term to think in these terms.
KUPCHAN: Yeah, I would just add, I think all three of us are in agreement, maybe all four of us, that, you know, we would support Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, support Georgian sovereignty and independence. But the question I think that needs to be debated is the means, not the end. And in my mind, if you try to drive NATO and the EU further eastward and bring the Ukraine in, you will do more harm than good to the fortunes of that country.
I think what’s happened in Georgia is a good example where you had Saakashvili who was constantly pulling the tail of the tiger and doing things that were provocative, and in the end of the day, the Russians went in, and now his country has been vivisected. Now you have in Georgia a government that is quiet, it’s keeping its head down, and it’s busy trying to do the right thing, reform the economy and put in a democratic government that’s westward-oriented. But because it’s just doing it quietly day by day rather than raising up the NATO flag, even though they would love to be a NATO member, it’s actually going better. So I think we all want the same end; it’s just how to get there.
MARTEN: Good point.
Yes, I think that’s—is that James Nixey?
Q: I’ll be very brief as well, according to your instructions.
So, Charles, let me try to understand this, just following directly on this. You support Ukraine’s independence, but the West should not be mucking around in Russia’s private parts? Is it just me, or do I see a contradiction there?
KUPCHAN: I don’t think there’s a contradiction. I think that the best way to get a near abroad that is less under the thumb of Russia is to do our best not to play into Russian fears that we are driving our tanks and the Western way into what they consider their backyard, which to me is the best way to provoke a Russian reaction.
MARTEN: Yes, the gentleman.
Q: Thanks. Jeremy Young with al-Jazeera’s investigative unit.
I’d like to know what you guys think we should do about fake news.
MARTEN: Really good question.
Q: The Russians have shown how much damage they can do in the disinformation space, and I’d like to know what you think the United States and/or the West should do, if anything, about it.
MARTEN: And we actually saw one reaction to this, which was the calling out by the Trump administration of the false Russian statements about what had happened in Syria. Do you find that being an effective way to approach things? What else should we be doing, whoever else wants to take the question.
GOMART: Well, I think that for think-tankers that’s a very, very big issue. You know, the notion of expertise is evolving. The relation with the media is also evolving. So it’s something on which we should think about very seriously.
Having said that, I don’t think, you know, that it’s possible—I mean, to put things bluntly, you know, I do—I do consider there is an interference made by Russia right now very seriously organized, and so on. Having said that, I don’t consider that we should explain everything in our political life by that. To put things in other words, the Trump phenomenon cannot be explained only by the Russian interference. The same can be said, you know, for Marine Le Pen in France, you know. So you can produce alternative facts, but you have also some deep problems which are not tackled, you know, internally either in Europe or in the U.S., which are much more the explanation to explain these phenomena than an external influence.
Second, Russia is doing so, but it’s not the only country to do so, to produce these sort of things, the only organization.
Third point, I would recommend you to read a book, you know, published in this Council by Adam Segal. It was “The Hacked World.” I learned some very interesting, you know, about that reading his book. It is the fact that in the 1996, apparently, there was a first secret negotiation between Russia and the U.S. on cyberspace or to deal with cyberspace. Probably that cyberspace is a notion for the U.S. It’s not the proper notion for the Russians, who would prefer informational security.
But the point is that since that, for the Russians, there—this—the cyberspace should be managed by the United Nations agencies, and it was, you know, a different step on that. One of them was a declaration made with China, Algeria, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia in 2011, for instance. On the U.S. side, I will see what not—it was not possible; it was to say, you know, the internet is something open. It’s a tool for freedom. It was to some extent at the core of the policy promoted by Secretary Clinton during her first term. And the problem with that, it’s—(inaudible)—with the Snowden affair. And still that’s a perception that’s completely changed, you know, especially in Europe. The Snowden affair is the fact that you have this collision between the U.S. authorities and big digital players has been a shock to some extent. So I think that thinking about alternative facts should also be put, you know, in this political framework.
MARTEN: And let me just add that we also know from what has been released from Soviet history that this isn’t new. The Soviets launched fake news campaigns against both Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and against Martin Luther King in an attempt to radicalize the civil rights movement in the United States.
I think, Sam, you want to comment on this, too.
CHARAP: Yeah, actually, following up on that, that is true about the Soviet period, or the Soviet Union. But what is also true is that there was this sort of 25-year interlude essentially from the late ’80s until 2014 when we didn’t see anywhere near that kind of level of this kind of activity from Russia. And so I’m not an expert on cyber policy or media freedoms or media policy in general, but in terms of the Russia piece of this, it is—it does seem to me that we need to take note of the fact that something happened in 2014 that changed the Russian behavior internationally. I mean, if we just take the election hacking bit, it is, it seems to me, beyond question that Russia hacked the campaigns in 2012 and probably 2008, given their cyber capabilities. What they didn’t do back then was leak the information to have a political impact. And, you know, that’s a very risky thing. And ultimately, arguably, regardless of the election results, in terms of Russia’s image in the United States, it’s backfired. It’s had some—at least had some significant costs associated with it. And I would just say that, you know, something happened in between the—you know, 2012 and 2016 to effect that change, and, you know, the answer is the Ukraine crisis, which really did send tensions between Russia and the West spiraling out of control and set off of a number of Russian behaviors that we hadn’t seen since the days of the KGB disinformation campaigns about folks like Scoop Jackson. But these went on into the ’80s as well.
MARTEN: Just following up on what Sam said, I actually have a proposal out that was both in the report and in an article in Fortune, suggesting that now would be a good time for a cyber accord between the U.S. and Russia to eliminate offensive use of cyber that would especially involve the release of information gained through hacking, with the full recognition that that kind of espionage is going to continue.
Charlie, you look like you want to get in on—
KUPCHAN: Just—yeah, I just wanted to add one quick point, that in some ways the issue is much larger than fake news and offensive cyber and hacking. One of the I would say most frustrating parts of being in the policy world the last few years was dealing with the question of how to counter the Russian narrative, because it’s—a lot of it is overt. It’s RT, it’s Sputnik, it’s the Russians going in and buying media conglomerates in countries, it’s the presence of websites and NGOS that you think are legit but are actually being operated by the Russians or paid for by the Russians, and quite frankly I don’t think we really have figured out how to deal with that. We put a little bit more money to give broadcasts in Russian language to folks in the Baltics and to in Russia. But when you compare what the West collectively, including the Europeans, are spending on that kind of “get the message out” versus what the Russians are spending, drop in the bucket.
MARTEN: Interesting thing what Keir Giles said in an earlier session: If the young people in Russia are truly looking at the web for their information, this may be a way where we can actually have some impact.
The woman in the front has been waiting for a while to ask her question.
Q: Thanks. Laetitia Garriott, technology entrepreneur.
What do you see as the major roadblocks for this common front between Europe and the U.S. vis-à-vis Russia, and how should that inform our objectives? For example, is further energetic independence vis-à-vis Russia for certain European countries an important objective to pursue, and how and when do we get there, and what are the other sort of roadblocks and objectives you think are important for us to keep in mind and work on?
MARTEN: That’s a great question. We don’t hear all that much about energy anymore as a Russian weapon, and certainly 10 years ago we did. Does anybody have any thoughts on that?
GOMART: Well, precisely on energy, it’s also an old debate which started, you know, at the beginning of the ’80s, and also in a very difficult strategy situation between the USSR, the—Europe and the U.S. at that time.
Frankly speaking, I do believe that on that there is a huge divergence between Europeans and the U.S. The problem is that it is not seen clearly that Europe markets will be at the same time addressed by Russia—it is already the case—and more and more by U.S. energy. The fact is that gas is very important for Europeans in the time being to try to make their energy transition properly, especially if they’re quitting, you know, from the nuclear energy production, which is already the case in Germany. It won’t be the case in the U.K., by the way, very, very important. And we have always debate in France as you may—as you may know.
And during the transition period, gas is highly important. The Russian gas, whatever we—it is like it is cheaper than, you know, the energy. So to some extent it’s perfectly understandable that in the U.S. It is said you should reduce your dependence on Russian gas. It is thing said by the Baltic states, by Poland.
By the way, it is already down because the evolution of the gas energy system, you know, in Europe now is better than it was in 2009. No doubt about that, reverse flows, and so on. Situation also very important, you know, for Ukraine. The problem with that, there is no real political clear vision about what will be done with Ukraine in—after 2019, when the agreement in terms of transits will finish. I have read absolutely nothing on that, you know, to say nothing about the political candidate in France. But even, you know, in the prediction in the think tank in Brussels, for instance. What do we do after 2019 with Ukraine? No word about that.
CHARAP: I would just add—
CHARAP: Go ahead—one thing on this. The reason why it isn’t mentioned as often in the last few years is that the sort of going hypothesis that particularly Germany’s energy relationship with Russia would somehow limit or, you know, prevent Germany from taking a stand on Russia policy, I think that hypothesis has been disproven by the last few years, that we’ve seen Germany as the leader within the EU in terms of producing a consensus on sanctions, and so it’s exposed what I think has been there all along, which is that in fact, particularly when it comes to gas, there’s a mutual dependency. Russia depends just as much on the—for the revenue as Europe does for the gas. And in terms of resilience, it’s mostly a matter of decisions made within the EU that have very little to do with what—where the gas comes up. If there’s, you know, a real market and if there are interconnectors, then those sort of political risks can be minimized.
MARTEN: Charlie, do you want—
KUPCHAN: Yeah, just taking the question in a slightly different direction, I think the most important ingredient to the continuation of solidarity is to hard diplomatic work, because it—you know, I would say that Obama-Merkel, their relationship and their consultations, they were the key to keeping this together. They would forge an agreement, and then that agreement would sort of be socialized across the EU. And there were plenty of players that would have been happy to break out, but they were unable to do so. And so I think if the Trump administration decides it doesn’t want sanctions and goes off in a different direction, and it doesn’t continue to invest a lot of energy in the relationship with Berlin, I think the solidarity is going to disappear. And I would put a very high premium on maintaining it, because our strongest suit in the Ukraine crisis, and I would say overall, has been that solidarity. I think it is—it has amazed Putin that he was not able to crack the EU or peel the U.S. and the EU away from each other.
MARTEN: Great. We have time for just one more question. Let’s see, is there—OK, sir.
MARTEN: Briefly, very briefly. We’re running out of time.
Q: OK. Is there any notion that—
MARTEN: And you are Richard Dreyfuss.
Q: Yes. Is there any notion that there is a value to pursuing business between Russia and the United States—business meaning peace?
MARTEN: Great question, great question. Are there business interests in common between the various countries that we’ve been talking about?
KUPCHAN: Business meaning?
MARTEN: Commerce, business.
CHARAP: Oh, OK. You said peace, though. I think he said—
KUPCHAN: No, I think business.
Q: I mean, when you do business between one another, each side gets something good, supposedly. Is there any interest in pursuing business interests and creating business—and creating a peace?
MARTEN: We have one minute left, anybody wants to take that.
GOMART: Maybe a comment. You know, Rex Tillerson made a lot of business in Russia. So maybe he can help. (Laughter.)
KUPCHAN: Yeah, I mean—the problem right now is obviously there are sanctions that limit that business, and the sort of conceptual question lying behind the issue is when you get commercial interests engaged, are they able to drive geopolitical results. And my answer to that question is a resounding no, that the causal chain works the other way, right? You can invest in Bosnia and say here is money to work with Serbs and Croats and—is that going to get you peace? No. You can invest Japanese money in China. Is that going to get them to resolve their differences of opinion over World War II? No. It’s the politics.
MARTEN: And there certainly is Western business continuing in Russia to do this day, including in the oil and gas sector, and also including in things like pharmaceuticals and food products, where the Russian state is putting in money and because of the difference in the ruble exchange rate, they can actually have an export market. So business has not been cut off in spite of the sanctions.
So please join me all in thanking our panelists for a terrific panel, and thanking against Rita Hauser and the Hauser Foundation for this entire event. (Applause.)
Experts review Russia’s strategic objectives and foreign policy with Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the United States.
Experts discuss the significant economic, political, demographic, and military trends in Russia today.