A View of Russia from the Heart of the EU: An Interview with Gilbert Doctorow

The following is a written interview conducted with Gilbert Doctorow by email over the past two weeks. Doctorow is an American based in Brussels, Belgium who is an analyst of international affairs with a focus on Russia. He is a fluent Russian speaker and has experience in international business, including in Russia and Eastern Europe. Many of the questions are based on his recently published book of essays, A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs. He blogs at https://gilbertdoctorow.com/.

Natylie Baldwin: In one of your essays, “Russia-China Strategic Partnership,” you discuss how you see common characterizations of Russia as the “junior partner” as erroneous.  Can you explain why you think so?

Gilbert Doctorow: The designation of Russia as a ‘junior partner’ in the relationship of near-ally that it holds with China is a designation applied by Russia’s detractors in the West who insist that the great inequality of the two parties in terms of population, GDP, and other material metrics means instability in the relationship. In a word, they are telling us that the Russians will find the “junior’ status demeaning and will want out. The implication for policy made in the West is that the Russians can be drawn away from China if we propose the right “carrots.” This is precisely the message that Henry Kissinger was giving to candidate Donald Trump in 2016 and then to the newly inaugurated President in early 2017. That was the whole logic of Trump’s offer to find an accommodation with Vladimir Putin, a policy which the Democrats seized upon to wreck his presidency.

But returning to the question you posed, what would be those carrots that the U.S. was prepared to offer to the Russians:  surely they were no more than withdrawal of the sanctions imposed on Russia by the USA and by the EU in 2014. That would, in the view of Kissinger, in the view of most analysts, constitute a return to “normal.” 

However, this Western thinking is blinkered.  A return to pre-2014, pre-Crimean annexation relations does not amount to “normal” from the Russian perspective. In effect, relations between Russia and the West have not been normal ever since President George W. Bush cancelled the missile-defense [ABM] treaty in 2002 and then launched his war on Iraq the following year. The Russians emerged as leading objectors to that war, together with France, Germany and Belgium, depriving the U.S. of cover for its aggression in the United Nations. For that, the Russians would have to pay a price and they did in terms of all their commercial, diplomatic and military interests. Thus, “normal” relations ended already in 2003, but I have not heard anyone suggest that the clock might be turned back that far.  After that came the U.S.-led Information War and defamation of Putin from 2007 following his speech at the Munich Security Conference denouncing U.S. policy towards his country.  And then in 2012 came the passage of the Magnitsky Act in the USA which had as its objective to position Russia as a pariah state.  There is absolutely nothing normal about relations from that point on. If we put aside the policy implications driving Western characterization of Russia as the ‘junior partner’ in its relationship with China, we find that Russia is far less a dependent and pliant partner with China than the European Union, or more precisely, the NATO member states, are in their relationship with the U.S.  All of the elements of military, trade, diplomatic cooperation between Russia and China show clear mutual interest and benefit, with neither side dominating.

NB: You also said that you see this Russian-Chinese partnership as comparable to the French-German partnership that has helped to “steer” the EU.  Can you elaborate more on that comparison?

Doctorow: From its very inception the peace mission known as the European Economic Community, then later the European Union has been led by the countries whose rivalry spawned two world wars, France and Germany.  However comparable these two economies may have been in the beginning, over time it has been obvious to all neutral observers that Germany pulled far ahead of France in its development. This dis-balance was further enlarged when the Federal Republic merged with the GDR, that is, East Germany in October 1990, adding substantially to its population mass and territory. And yet no one speaks of a senior partner or junior partner in this duo.  The French balance the equation in other areas, primarily by providing the political weight and respectability which Germany, given its disastrous past under Hitler, cannot do without. However much the Alternativ fuer Deutschland may shout that it is time for Germany to be free from the sins of its past, reality and the consciousness of the rest of the world says otherwise. 

Something similar may be said of the Russian contribution to their political and diplomatic partnership with China.  Russia has what may be the world’s most sophisticated and experienced diplomatic service in the world.  It was the co-determiner of the world’s fate with the USA for the forty odd years of the Cold War and established close ties with a large part of what was then called the Developing Countries, now called the Emerging Markets.  To be sure, the Chinese have made great strides in establishing their world presence via the One Belt, One Road initiative. But the Russians have one other dimension, one equalizer that few point to: it shares with the United States the position as lead nuclear weapons power in the world, with approximately 43% of all nuclear warheads in its armory, the same as Washington. China, by past decisions, remains a minor nuclear power even today.

NB: You have said that Henry Kissinger is one of the more capable geo-strategic thinkers but that he has – by choice – not had a good understanding of Russia.  Can you explain what you mean by that?  Do you still believe him to be influential on Trump’s foreign policy thinking and actions? 

Doctorow: Allow me to reverse the order of my response and start with your second part, which is the easier part.  Henry Kissinger enjoyed a certain rapport with Trump into the spring of 2017 when he fell out of favor. Why? Because Kissinger’s recommendation of an outreach to Russia for the sake of a grand geopolitical realignment, prying the Kremlin away from Beijing, failed very quickly on two counts, discrediting his personal utility to Trump.

Firstly, there was the flat ‘nyet’ which came back from Putin, for whom loyalty to longstanding friends, in this case, President Xi of China, excluded entirely the possibility of the kind of cynical betrayal Kissinger had in mind. This was not merely personal chemistry but a considerable number of joint commercial projects binding the economic interests of the two countries for decades to come. Secondly, because the very hint of an outreach to the Kremlin threw oil on the fires of anti-Russian hysteria that the Democrats were developing in their ‘we was robbed’ explanation of their electoral defeat in November 2016 and threatened the further functioning of the federal government.  That being said, in the more general sense, Kissinger as the greatest living exponent of the Realist School in International Relations, has remained to this day an influence on policy under Trump, who rejects flatly the Wilsonian Idealism, the whole ideology of universal values that underpin the Democrats and Liberalism in their political creed. 

As regards Kissinger’s poor understanding of Russia, this is something that I wrote about extensively in my 2010 book entitled “Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations.” In that book I examined in particular Kissinger’s master work “Diplomacy” published in 1994 wherein he set out his expectations on how the road ahead would be towards a multipolar world in which interests and not ideology decided the ever-shifting alignments of nations under ‘balance of power’ principles.  From Kissinger’s writings about Russia in that major opus as well as in his later books I concluded that he had no feel for the country and that he probably had read little or nothing about Russia since his undergraduate days at Harvard, other than the writings of fellow Realist George Kennan – another great name whose understanding of Russia was often based on smoke and mirrors, on his reading of Russian literature rather than Russian history or on detailed knowledge of present circumstances in Russia.  That is a point which I developed at length in an essay entitled “George Kennan and the Russian Soul” published by the Harriman Institute of Columbia University in 2011.

My exposé of Kissinger no doubt will confound many observers, because the general view of the man is that he is a voracious reader.  Moreover, Kissinger has always received an especially warm welcome in the Kremlin and is believed by Council of Foreign Relations members to be a polymath. I will not dare question the intellectual powers of the summa cum laude graduate of Harvard that Kissinger was. The brilliance of his writing style is undeniable. However, style and content are different metrics.

To my understanding, Kissinger was entirely satisfied with the insights into the Russian psyche that he got as an undergraduate at Harvard from the leading professor of Russian history of that period, Michael Karpovich, who incidentally also strongly influenced the views of Kissinger’s fellow students – Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard Pipes.

This triad under Karpovich’s sway in turn set the tone for American foreign policy towards Russia during the Cold War. At the very least, one can say that they justified policy decisions which were made for other reasons, namely power politics.  And what we are talking about here is the tradition of Russian historiography that began with the 19th century historian Vasily Kliuchevsky and passed through A.A. Kizevetter and the great Liberal politician, historian Pavel Miliukov. Karpovich was the continuator.  This was the Liberal school of historiography which was Anglophile and anti-tsarist. It is from this school that Kissinger arrived at the absurd conclusion that the Russian Empire was fragile and had to expand geographically by wars of conquest lest it collapse.  This notion of Russian expansionism as part of the national DNA and as something unrelated to the colonialism and imperialism that all of the European powers had practiced has remained with Kissinger ever since and to all appearances was never reconsidered. The same might be said of his never ending repetition that Russia had always been apart from Europe, since it never participated in the Reformation, in the Age of Discovery, in the Enlightenment, etc. These are smug platitudes that are easily contested if you do your homework.

NB: Do you still see the world as shaping up to be a bi-polar order with the US and Europe on one side and China-Russia on the other?  How do you see other countries aligning?

Doctorow: Ever since America’s unipolar moment began to unravel during the presidency of George W. Bush, it has been fashionable to speak of a multipolar world. We were told that power in the world has been redistributed among many players so that it is diffuse and that with the advent of Al Qaeda non-state actors have also taken on an important share. However, I believe this is an illusion and it is not unrelated to the illusion that nearly all of our policy establishment share about economic might spelling Hard Power might.  Yes, economic power is far more broadly distributed today among nations than it was just twenty years ago, not to mention in the times of the Cold War.  But Hard Power and precisely the ability to project military force outside a given nation’s neighborhood is not distributed in the same way.  On the contrary, there are only two – three countries in the world that have sufficiently advanced military capabilities on a global scale.

The United States is far and away the most powerful in this regard.  But Russia is not so far behind if we speak of cutting edge strategic weapon systems, not military bases. And China, by its own policy choices, remains a distant third today, focusing as it does on its immediate neighborhood. 

There is not a single European country, nor all of the European countries taken together which can do what Russia did alone in Syria. To match that, they depend on the missing parts of equipment, satellite guided intelligence, etc. that they receive from the USA. There is not a single European country which has the specialized military anti-biological warfare equipment and procedures which the Russians demonstrated in their recent ‘mercy mission’ to Lombardy to combat the coronavirus. For all of these reasons, I insist we live in a bipolar world, with the United States and Europe on one side and Russia and China on the other.  As for the other countries, they are only rarely compelled to take sides, and then they try their best to appease both blocs, as we see, for example in the cases where the S-400 defensive missile systems and other Russian arms are purchased over and against U.S. objections and threats.

NB: You suggested that Russia may have a moderating influence on China as the latter’s power increases.  Why?  Do you think this is likely to be the case after Putin leaves office?

Doctorow: Thus far, China has been reasonably restrained in the face of U.S. challenges to its influence in its home region – as, for example, the South China Sea – without any need for Russian advice. The reason was, until Trump unleashed his tariff wars, that the United States market was immense and profitable for China, so that it could not bark – let alone bite – the Americans.

Going forward I would say that the military and diplomatic partnership with Russia surely gives Beijing greater confidence in its own security and in this very qualified way helps to keep it on a steady course in the face of U.S. encirclement and other provocations.

NB: In another essay you discuss the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS), which was put out in December of 2017.  The focus of that NSS was on great power competition with Russia and China rather than a struggle between good and evil.  You said that the language of this NSS reflected a return to realism/pragmatism and the concept of a “balance of power” in international relations.  Can you go into this more?

Doctorow: As I explained in the article – and as I developed further in a follow-up article in which I addressed objections to my argumentation on the NSS which appeared in the Comments section of several portals that re-posted my original article – the 2017 National Security Strategy was a major step in the right direction for the thinking guiding U.S. foreign policy, stripping away 25 years of universal values claptrap and getting at the substance of challenges to U.S. global hegemony. Words count, ideas count even if the actions of this President during his first year in office contradicted the words and ideas of the NSS, partly because of the constraints imposed on Trump by Congress, partly by the actions, such as the Tomahawk attack on a Syrian air base, that were intended to chase away the circling buzzards of impeachment – and effectively did just that.

In the same article, I noted that the NSS has intellectual inconsistencies due to mixed authorship – partly written by the holdover federal government experts with their ‘idealist’ biases who by their job description had to be put to work on it and then its being extensively edited by people around Trump who gave it the predominantly ‘realist’ cast that sets it apart from anything we have seen in decades.  I do hope that readers will enjoy my textual analysis used to elucidate these conflicting strands in the NSS document. The method I employed comes from traditional historical research and I believe I have used it to great advantage to make sense of other key documents in the public space, as for example, to uncover obvious forgeries promoted by the New York Times or by The German Marshall Fund.

NB: You also said in your essay on this NSS that “a foreign policy based on universal values can only lead to war.”  You seem to be saying that the insistence on adherence to universal values leaves no room for compromise and diplomacy.   What are the implications for the concept of pluralism versus universalism in the U.S.’s outlook on international relations as reflected in Trump’s NSS?

Doctorow: You have to look closely at the language used in the NSS to appreciate how and why it takes us away from potential conflict and even war that the idealist school encouraged. The entire moralistic rhetoric of an ‘axis of evil’ is totally absent from the NSS.  The personalization of politics and demonization of the leaders of Russia, China and other key ‘competitors’ to U.S. global leadership is gone entirely. Indeed, these countries are precisely competitors and not ‘adversaries’ let alone flat-out enemies. We are in competition with the whole world, meaning with our nominal allies as well as with the likes of Russia and China. Those two just happen to pose an existential threat if we are careless in how we deal with them. At the same time, the NSS dispenses entirely with the legalistic argumentation about ‘violations of international law’ that dominated American rhetoric during the Cold War.  Since the thrust of the NSS, as a basically realist school document, is defense of national interests rather than values, diplomacy and the art of compromise are foremost.  You can and should make compromises that serve your interests. By [the idealist] definition, you are loath to compromise on values and have nothing to negotiate there.

NB: How do you think the Trump administration has lived up to this NSS?

Doctorow: As I have mentioned earlier, the Trump administration has not done a very good job of implementing the NSS principles for reasons outside its control – namely the vicious war being waged on it by the Democrats ever since the inauguration.  This destructive partisanship is unlikely to end if, as now seems improbable, Trump wins a second term.

NB: In the January/February 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, Joe Biden published a 14-page article called “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin:  Defending Democracy Against its Enemies.”  In this article, Biden repeats every caricature and negative myth about contemporary Russia, vilifying Putin, etc.  Give us an overview of your critique of Biden’s article and its assumptions. What do you think it portends in terms of foreign policy under a Biden administration?

Doctorow: I stand by my remarks on Joe Biden’s piece in “Foreign Affairs” as having been a propaganda exercise in denigration of Russia that falls into line with the Democratic Party’s allegations of a Trump-Putin collusion to thwart the will of the American people. The interesting question is not so much why Biden wrote his article as why “Foreign Affairs” magazine welcomed it when otherwise the magazine’s editorial position was already moving away from complacency that, post-Trump, the United States would snap back quickly to its traditional leading position in the Free World. 

Though Biden’s article was backward rather than forward looking with respect to Russia policy, it would be an error to assume that his attacks on the ‘Putin regime’ will guide what comes in a Biden administration. If Trump is dumped in November, the Democrats can step back from Russia-bashing which has reached hysterical proportions, become a sort of mass hypnosis defying any common sense understanding of the way the world works. Thus, paradoxically, a Biden victory could be the prelude to a new ‘re-set’ in relations with Russia, though always within the narrow constraints we saw under the Obama administration. That is to say, without ever addressing Russian concerns over the security architecture in Europe that underlie the Kremlin’s over-all behavior.

NB: In your essay, “Rex Tillerson in the New York Times: Pride and Prejudice,” you offer an intriguing insight about Trump and his ex-Secretary of State Tillerson, that is derived from your early years of working with executives in the world of big business.  You point out that, though they may be reasonably intelligent in terms of an IQ test, their experience as executives in the western business world has led them to learn the wrong lessons since major businesses at the top of their industry are typically cushioned from the consequences of bad or risky decisions.  Can you talk more about that and what the ramifications are of trying to apply that mindset to governance and foreign affairs?

Doctorow: The ‘cushion’ that CEO’s of market leaders enjoy, the cushion that protects them against the consequences of bad business decisions is monopoly profit margins, so that in the end the consumer – not the shareholder – pays for their mistakes. Such companies can enter new markets and make all the wrong choices of local partners due to sloppy research or reliance on the gut instincts of the chief executive rather than the recommendations researched by middle management with their MBAs or by outside consultants – a role I also practiced between corporate executive positions. These mistakes are eventually corrected after much unnecessary red ink, but the corporation and the public only sees the end result when the numbers are positive and that reinforces confidence in the system. I am speaking now on the basis of my personal experience within several major international corporations as regards their start-up of operations in Russia and Eastern Europe. My position was never higher than middle management, but given the high expectations from the Russian market in particular, I accompanied and worked closely with our respective Vice President, International and the Board, to plan and implement strategy in Russia so I saw the figures and heard the thinking at the top level directly.  Transferring this to government, and to foreign policy formulation what we find is hubris in the US ‘power ministries’ leads us into one quagmire after another for which no one pays the bill.

NB: In another essay, you write about your conversations with several influential people with whom you attended an Orthodox Christmas dinner in the French-speaking area of Belgium in 2017.  What were their views of Russia?  How did they see the European and Belgian relationship with the U.S.? 

Doctorow: My observations drawn from participation in Russian Christmas themed gala dinners at French-speaking Belgium’s most prestigious, ‘royal’ gentlemen’s club in 2019 and 2020 [also] bear on the contradictions between the country’s political and social elites over policy towards Russia, the value of NATO and American global leadership. By social elites I mean members of Belgian aristocracy, people serving the monarch and his extended family, and also high level entrepreneurs in finance, insurance and the like, not corporate executives who tend to be more cautious in expressing their views. At the champagne cocktails before dinner, at the dinner table, and in the bar taking coffee afterwards, these people and their wives spoke to me admiringly of Russia and its culture. They gustily joined in the cries of ‘bottoms up’ (пей до дна! in Russian) when waiters carried shot glasses of vodka to the VIPs seated in our midst. In his opening remarks to the dinner, the club’s president recalled the three hundred years of good relations with Russia dating back to the visit by Tsar Peter the Great to the Belgian curative springs of Spa. Russian culture, its classical literature, its museums, its opera houses and concert halls were the first associations mentioned by my interlocutors from among the 175 dinner participants. They deplored the present confrontations with Putin’s Russia led by the USA and NATO, with the unfailing support of the Belgian Government. To be specific, they deplore what they see as Belgian subservience to America that works directly against the national interest. Regrettably these views by the social elite, which correspond precisely to the views I encounter in the street among workaday Belgians, are not reflected in the print and broadcast media which remain obsequious to NATO and the USA even if they are Trump-skeptic.

NB: In January of this year, Putin announced a set of proposed constitutional amendments, which have now been approved by the Russian parliament and are set to be voted on in the future by the Russian public.  Many knowledgeable Russia analysts, including you and I, thought that this signified that Putin did in fact intend to step down in 2024 and was beginning the process of shepherding a transition.  However, in March, another amendment was proposed in parliament and deemed constitutional by the court, which would set the clock to zero in terms of the presidency.  This would allow Putin to run for two more terms in 2024.  Putin has accepted the validity of this amendment.  You wrote an article criticizing this amendment.  Can you explain the reasons for your concerns?  How does the Covid-19 crisis affect your critique, if at all?

Doctorow: Your mention of Covid-19 in this connection is highly relevant, because many commentators make this association and see the changes in the proposed constitutional amendments from their first announcement in mid-January to their final formulation for purposes of a referendum in March as falling within the influence of Covid-19 on Russian politics.  I disagree. I believe the response of the Russian government to Covid-19 is to be found in another set of questions, namely the delegation of responsibility for initiating and implementing the fight against the virus to Moscow city mayor Sobyanin and other regional authorities, with the President and his administration taking more of an observer posture. This is being presented to us by ‘all the usual suspects’ in the Russophobic American foreign policy community as a demonstration of the President’s avoiding taking direct responsibility for highly unpopular lock-down measures. No, it is just good common sense to allow devolution of power in health matters that differ very much from one geographic location to another in the vast country that is Russia. Meanwhile, the constitutional reform has undergone change from launch to final proposition on a separate trajectory, I believe. It’s being loaded with overwhelmingly popular provisions enshrining the values of the Putin governance, namely the mixed social economy, protection of the living standards of the broad population and indexation of pensions, defense of every inch of national territory, defense of the central role of motherhood and the family – all of this was introduced to sugar coat the bitter pill of lifelong rule by Putin that comes about from the last-minute introduction of what we may call the Tereshkova amendment, after the female astronaut turned parliamentarian who placed before the Duma a resolution on setting the clock back to zero on Putin’s service in the presidency.  I see this as a crude attempt by the ruling United Russia [party] to seize control of the national political agenda and squeeze out entirely the Duma opposition parties, which is to say, to overturn the plans of Putin set out on January 15. This sets the stage for a very bitter parliamentary election next year and, if election rigging once again appears as it did in 2011, for mass demonstrations against the regime that will have unforeseeable consequences. I very much regret that Putin’s hint at greater power sharing with all parliamentary parties was nipped in the bud.

NB: So you think that Putin staying in power past 2024 is not necessarily what Putin wants – that his original announcement on January 15th reflected more of what he really wanted to see going forward?

Doctorow: I am certain that Putin does not want to stay in power beyond 2024.  To anyone listening attentively, he said precisely that a couple of months ago in a televised exchange with someone from the crowd during one of his meetings with the general public on the road. When asked about remaining in office he made reference to the bad old days of [Soviet leader] Leonid Brezhnev, saying he did not want to become another ‘mumbling’ dotard running the Kremlin. In his initial proposal of constitutional reform set out in his speech to the Duma and Federation Council, Putin spoke not abstractly like a law professor but in personal terms about his impressions from meeting regularly with all the Duma parties, namely that they are all patriotic. That I assume to mean that Just Russia, the LDPR and Communists are all deserving of a share of power as the balance between executive, legislature and judiciary is re-juggled to confer more power and responsibility on the legislature. Yes, Putin’s proposal was imprecise, approximate. This is another indication that it came from his own pen, not from someone in the presidential administration – and it pointed in the direction of greater parliamentarism not stasis as we may expect from the Tereshkova amendment.

NB: You seem to also have some concerns about the degree to which Putin is still serving as the ultimate arbiter of interests in Russia. What kinds of jockeying for power and influence might already be occurring?  Do you have any thoughts on how it may ultimately play out?

Doctorow: As for unruly jockeying for power within the Kremlin these past few months, there is no reason for surprise. The key issues before Russia, namely the oil price and supply war with Saudi Arabia and the USA, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the question of how best to tackle the coronavirus epidemic, striking a balance between securing public health and securing the economy – such issues are highly divisive among elites everywhere, so why should Russia be any different?  They are compounded in Russia by the absence of an established order of succession and the prospect of heading into unknown territory following Putin’s possible departure from office at the end of his present mandate in 2024. Has the “Liberal,” pro-Western faction of Dmitry Medvedev and Alexei Kudrin really been knocked out? It is too early to say. And what exactly does the present ascendancy of the technocrats, the quintessential “хозяйственники” (effective managers as opposed to politicians) Sobyanin and the new prime minister Mishustin mean for Russia’s political future? Moreover, who stands behind the now heavily promoted chairman of the State Duma, United Russia champion, Viacheslav Volodin?  These questions merit much more attention than I see in the writings of our peers, who focus almost exclusively on Putin and ignore the context of power fights around him.

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