Interview with Sergei Karaganov for Expert magazine
“In this world Russia must be an impregnable citadel.”
It looks like “Sleepy Joe” has lulled U.S. geopolitics into deep slumber. The United States’ 46th president, Joe Biden, is busy inventorying Donald Trump’s legacy. Europe hopes that the Transatlantic Partnership will regain its original warmth, China is impatient to see at least some of the trade sanctions lifted, and Russia anticipates a turn to pragmatic and predictable rivalry. But will the world in the coming four years be really calm? This and other questions we addressed to Sergei A. Karaganov, Dean of the World Economy and International Affairs Faculty at Higher School of Economics, Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
— Many pundits argue that now, with Joe Biden in the White House, everyone will feel somewhat calmer than it was with impulsive Donald Trump at the helm. Is this really so?
— In the coming years global politics will be highly chaotic and unpredictable. There are no positive signs in sight, at least for me. What I do see, though, is the growing trend towards avalanching changes. Possibly, in the final count the changes will be for the better. But many people are so scared of this new world that they eagerly take any attractive phantom or a fake for good news.The Biden administration is a little bit more predictable than the Trump team of course, but, on the one hand, it has inherited a split country with a huge bundle of problems, and on the other hand, its moral and intellectual potential arouses strong fears. These are the very same people who discredited America in the 2000s and the 2010s. They had a good starting hand, but they were careless enough to meddle into several unsuccessful conflicts, which ruined the image of U.S. military might. They overlooked China to let it make a rapid headway. Blinded by their ideological blinkers, they thought that when China became well-off and capitalist, it would also turn pro-Western. Lastly, they are the very same people who overlooked the Russian chance. At a certain point chances were very high that Russia, given the generally pro-Western mood in society in the 1990s, will become if not part of the West, then at least its partner. Today Russia is a “non-West”; and this, in fact, has changed fundamentally the balance of power in the world, possibly to a no smaller extent than China’s rise. We have irrevocably stripped the West of its military superiority, which for five hundred years had been the foundation of its domination in the economy, politics, and culture. I am also not sure that the manyfold increase in the minorities’ representation in the U.S. administration can improve the quality of governance.Of course, I would like to gladden the hearts of your readers—and myself—by saying that the world will be a far calmer and more predictable place to live in, but it would be much more reasonable to brace for a far less predictable world. Besides, we have no idea yet of the real implications the coronavirus pandemic will have, and we even don’t know the thrust of this problem.
— Epidemiologically or economically?
— Politically. We live in a cloud of nearly total disinformation. Some people do not understand what is really happening and generate disinformation unconsciously, while part of the elites does this purposely. Also, the ruling quarters of many countries are fanning hysteria over the pandemic. They use the virus-fueled fears to cover up their own mistakes.For this reason, we really do not know what will come of it. Whereas before the pandemic I said the situation was more or less predictable and medium-term trends were more or less visible, now I can only tell you that I can tell you nothing.
— And still, what general trends in global politics would you single out today?
— We can see several processes going on at the same time. The COVID-19 pandemic is just more evident than the others because it lies on the surface. Another important process, as I have already mentioned, is the loss of the 500-year-long superiority by the West. The third one is the collapse of the liberal economic order that emerged after World War II. Number four is the fundamental change in the balance of power in the world. And on top of that all we have the grave economic crisis and intellectual vacuum. The elites are completely confused about what is really happening.Just recently there was a prewar situation, that is, all these crises and disbalances might have well sparked a large war. The crisis we are witnessing today is in a sense a substitute for real war. But still, a war, a military conflict is possible, simply because the military-strategic situation is worsening on many tracks. Also, the U.S.-fueled animosity is clear to the naked eye.
— Do you think that the people Biden has gathered around himself, the people who made many mistakes in the past, may exacerbate the situation? Importantly, these people are not afraid of making more mistakes in the unpredictable world.
— Ours is an era of strategic parasitism. This is a hard fact. The elites and large parts of societies are less afraid of war than their predecessors. Besides, these people are very ideologized, very biased and narrow-minded. But I do not think they will go to war now, simply because the likely gains look ephemerous. What they can do, though, is to try to trigger some conflicts, around China for instance. Or in Ukraine. And such conflicts today can easily go out of control.That is why I have mistrust for such people. Not just because they represent a foreign state that is pushing ahead with an openly hostile policy towards my country, but because I am well familiar with their historical memory and their historical experience. They are an utter failure now, yet they are trying hard to make everybody think that they were right all along. But, in fact, they are just covering up their own mistakes.The United States’ entire traditional elite applauded the war in Iraq. Exceptions were very rare. It was one of the worst-ever political failures in U.S. history. And yet these very people have now risen to power. The war in Iraq was supported by the Republicans’ right-wingers and the Democrats as well, for they hoped that in this way they would be able to expand the space for democracy and freedom. And practically all of them hailed the aggression in Libya.
— Europe’s and the European elite’s lack of independent action and political will — is it largely a problem of poor human resources? After all, there is not a single politician of world scale behind Merkel’s back.
— One of Europe’s problems is that it has had no big war for more than 70 years. True, this is a tremendous achievement, which was a result of Europe’s own efforts and partially—to a far greater extent—of the situation where the United States and the Soviet Union protected Europe from different sides. As a result, the European elites and a considerable part of society have lost traditional, commonly recognized values—serving the family, society, the country and the world, which throughout human history had been the meaning of life. Also, do not forget the negative impact of the cyber revolution.Next, there is the political crisis. We somehow tend to forget that democracy is an antagonism of meritocracy. History knows a handful of cases when crisis-stricken societies elected strong leaders, such as Roosevelt and Churchill. And there were politicians who survived WWII. That was during the first two decades of European postwar history, and those were great years. But then there followed a period of slow degradation of the political elites. I often advise to look at photographs of European leaders starting from the 1950s-the1960s and to the present day and just take a look at them. They are people of a different quality, even visually.And, of course, these people are not very active. They have developed a taste for comfortable life under the U.S. umbrella and they have broken Europeans of the habit of thinking strategically. Perhaps this is for the better, since European strategic thinking for many hundreds of years was a misfortune for humanity, and for Russia as well. Now it is gone. As a result, we have what we have: the European elites are scared of the reality. This explains why they are so eager to lean on the United States, although it is obvious that there is no chance for them to lean on the U.S. again. Some other options will have to be looked for. Or the degradation will continue.We should take it all calmly, without malice, but with regret. After all, Europe’s crisis, including its civilizational aspect, is our crisis to a certain extent, because for three hundred years we looked at Europeans as a model to follow and even tried to be their replica. Fortunately, this period of history is over.
— Once and for all? Some U.S. intellectuals still call on Russia and Europe to make peace so as to prevent the emergence of a Russia-China alliance.
— Thirty years ago, when Russia stopped to be the Soviet Union, we tried to strike a strategic deal with the West, above all with Europe. That project failed because we were weak. We were unaware of what really was happening, while the Western leaders had lost the sense of history and strategic thinking. They were certain that Russia was heading for its imminent demise, so they pushed it away. Meanwhile, history might have proceeded along a different track. Can you imagine that there might have emerged something like a Greater Union of Europe, an economic and political partnership of Russia and the European Union? Incidentally, China’s position would have been much worse than now. And today we are China’s strategic, military, and political backer. And China is our backer, too.The Europeans missed an incredibly fortunate historical opportunity. Mistakes like that in history are few: Napoleon, who ventured into Russia for some unknown reason; Hitler, who decided he could afford to fight a war on two fronts. Such big mistakes change the course of history.Now the time for this idea is gone. Regrettably, Europe is not an independent actor to strike deals with. Moreover, Russia is deeply disillusioned with the Europeans’ capacities. This project is of no interest to us anymore.However, after some time, say, in ten years, the possibility of such a configuration may remerge, I think. Part of Europe will ultimately become the periphery of the West or, on the contrary, an extreme westernmost part of Greater Eurasia, where different players will set the rules. But it is no longer possible to imagine a Russian-European partnership as a third major world center of power. That historic chance was hopelessly wasted in the late 1990s.
The Turn to the East
— So far, we have not been very successful in our immediate environment. Last year saw several very deplorable crises in the post-Soviet countries and, the way I see it, we have somewhat eased our involvement in the affairs of our neighbors to underscore pragmatism in relations. Is this correct?
— Russia must be a strong, impregnable citadel. This is crucial in the present-day perilous and hectic world. The deeper we become involved in this world, which is beginning to crumble away, the more vulnerable we will get. The more so since all gains in this turbulent environment will not last long, while any loss will spell sheer waste of time, money, and resources.Now, a few words about our near neighbors. Russia’s policy towards them still rests on nostalgia for the lost territories. I maintain that time is ripe for us to take a rational (if not pragmatic) attitude to these territories.Russian tsars and the commissars were not always right. Was Central Asia of any great use to us? Not at all! For one hundred and fifty years it was a vast region that devoured the resources of the Russian Empire and then of the Soviet Union. Over the past three decades all these countries have seen a catastrophic degradation. Exceptions are rare. The elites have left or deteriorated, the level of education have plummeted, and the best human resources have fled for good. Now, do we want to have these territories back?The way I see it, we should support the minimum level of stability there—which we do—in order to ward off the terrorist threat. May these countries survive to the best of their abilities. I am somewhat worried about one very unfavorable, even terrible scenario that the Americans might resort to withy regard to Russia. What if they suddenly decide to let us have Ukraine back? That would be real disaster. Fortunately, this will never happen because they lack the brains and will for it. Should they do this, though, we would surely get into hot water. We would have to take care of semi-hostile impoverished population and ruined economic infrastructure.Russia became great not because it controlled Ukraine right of the Dnieper River, let along Transcaucasia. It became a great power when it took over Siberia. It was the Siberian resources that made it a great European power and then a great world power. That is where our main development resources are. The more so, since Siberia these days lies in the fastest-growing region of the world and has a tremendous number of competitive advantages.For this reason, we should go ahead with our turn to the East, while supporting a certain level of stability in some of the former Soviet republics, but also writing off what apparently has to be written off.
— But isn’t the turn to the East fraught with the risk of Russia’s losing part of its sovereignty? After all, we can no longer count on equitable relations with China, either in terms of the economy or demography.
— Firstly, this is not quite correct. We possess certain resources that China needs badly. Beijing would face great problems without having them at hand. I am referring to our military-strategic potential. In a situation of confrontation with the United States it would largely compensate for our weaknesses.Of course, we should act with great caution and advance relations with other Asian countries, be more active in our contacts with India and the ASEAN, and by no means get too much dependent on China. For the time being the balance in our relations has not been achieved, I think. It will be achieved in five to seven years if we move on steadily and if we create a mixed digital technological platform that will be closer to China’s but still have some basics of our own. If 50 percent of our trade is with Asia and 30 percent with Europe, that will be a good and proper balance.I hope that in five-six-seven-eight years’ time, when we have achieved a new balance, there will emerge an opportunity for a new rapprochement with part of Europe on the basis of our own and Beijing-backed concept of partnership of Greater Eurasia. That will be an ideal situation, and we seek to bring it about. But are such great ideas destined to materialize? Strategists often fail to achieve their goals not because they were wrong, but because the politicians turned a deaf ear to them, or some contingencies occurred.
A Window of Opportunities for Russia
— What should Russia expect from the West’s new-old policies? Will it be easier for us to carry out domestic political course?
— Your question contains our common intellectual mistake: we look at our own policy through the Western lens. The West remains important, with its vast economic resources and strong cultural positions. It has amassed a huge potential, but it is dwindling now; and it has lost a lot in terms of the quality of its policy. In the meantime, we continue keeping up with Europe and the United States. This is one of the greatest weaknesses of Russia’s policy and the Russian political class.It would be more reasonable to focus on long-term trends and invest resources—intellectual, political, emotional, and financial ones—into the most promising development tracks. The U.S. and European ones are not lucrative anymore. Both belong with a bygone age, which pulls us backwards and devours tremendous amounts of managerial resources.I have the warmest relations with our diplomats, but from time to time they can hear my friendly criticism: there are still three Asian departments and six European ones in the Foreign Ministry, while it should be the other way round.Over the past ten years we have accomplished a great deal in terms of phasing out this pro-Western mentality. The turn to the East, which began twelve years ago and was spurred up by the 2014 events and the ensuing sanctions, has already produced a situation where we begin to identify ourselves not as an eastern periphery of Europe, and not even Western Asia. We begin to position ourselves as an entity in our own right. Possibly, some day we will come to understand al last that we are Northern Eurasia. I like it very much that Putin has brought up this subject.
— But for this to happen a whole generation of the Russian elite that has roots in the West will have to give way, right?
— There must be not a generational change, a change in the elite’s minds, of course. And I already see it happening. Such changes are afoot, and they are very fast. True, the intellectual pro-Western legacy is very profound. And we also have a very powerful comprador element in our propertied class. In the 1990s, money could be secured by making a deal with gangsters or state officials, or most often by funneling it abroad. Now this habit is gradually fading away. So are the childish ideas of what the West is about. Those ideas existed in the enchanted minds of people from a semi-starving country, who suddenly got a chance to visit places they had dreamed about all their life.
— But still, given the organizational, human-resources and systemic problems in the West, is some window of opportunities opening up before Russia, say, for transit or upgrade projects?
— Such a window of opportunities has certainly opened up. Firstly, this is a result of the breakthrough in military technologies, which has not only secured our invulnerability for at least ten years to come but made it absolutely impossible for anyone to exert any pressure on us or drag us into an arms race on somebody else’s terms. This is a tremendous achievement.Secondly, it is true that our rivals are growingly weak. But they do exist and, moreover, they are pushing ahead with hostile policies. This circumstance can and must be used for constructive purposes. Regrettably, Russia is unable to function without an enemy. We tried once—in the 1990s we had no enemies—and we fell apart virtually in no time. Not so now: an enemy for us is more than guaranteed.The question is whether we will be successful in two respects. First, where we will be able to launch at least some mechanism of economic growth; and, second, whether we will come up with an effective national ideology. Generally speaking, all great powers in history were driven by big ideas. As soon as they lost their idea, they either ceased to exist or stopped to be great powers. You can see the graves or shadows of this sort of countries around the world.
— What components of a national idea for Russia would you propose?
— Let us start with something simple. We have been saying all along that a national idea is to emerge at the grass-roots level. Your magazine often published things like that. This is sheer nonsense. No national ideas can ever come from below.Just recently there was a national idea of entering Europe. A rather weird idea it was, but at least it did exist. Then it disappeared without a trace. Of course, it was a great setback of our intellectual and ruling class.I feel that Russian national idea lies virtually under our feet. Firstly, we are the world’s main provider of peace. This is an established fact. Secondly, we are the main provider of freedom of nations. As soon as we took away from the West the military superiority its 500-year-long domination rested upon, we gave freedom to many countries. Now they are much freer than they were ten, fifteen, twenty, let along seventy years ago.What other components of our national idea can there be? We are normal. We adhere to old humanism, or, to be more precise, to new humanism. We want to see children born. We know that the meaning of human life—and this is recognized by all religions and civilizations—is serving not oneself, but one’s family, one’s country, and God. Such very simple things. We stand for political, cultural and economic sovereignty. We are for a world of many colors and against any hegemony. We are a nation of victors, strong and beautiful women who have saved their country many a time throughout its dramatic history, and a nation of brave men.We want humans to stay humans, and not turn into genderless, nationless mankurts who have forgotten their history and their roots.
[Mankurts are characters from a novel by the great Kirgiz and Soviet writer Chengiz Aitmatov. Their brains were damaged to make them lose their memory and personality and become obedient slaves].
// The interview was originally published in Russian language on the “Expert” magazine’s website on March 1, 2021.