The one day that Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin spent at Stanford, Monday February 27th, was quite busy. At 9 am, Trenin sat in a seminar on Central Asia taught by Professor Gail Lapidus and answered questions from MA students in Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies. At noon, he met with a broader audience of university professors and specialists to talk about Russian affairs. Immediately following that, Dmitri Trenin answered the questions of this interview, and then he left for his next meeting.
His manner of answering questions – in detail, easy, and patiently – spoke to his experience communicating with diverse and broad audiences.
"You know, there are different kinds of experts," he explained to me. "There are experts who explore a concrete sphere and by doing this they reach, say, the center of the Earth. They conduct field research and work a lot with concrete facts. I try to do things somewhat differently. I try to discern trends in the facts that are available to me, rank them according to their significance, and connect the trends on common levels. In other words, there are specialists and generalists. I am much more a generalist than a specialist. As for information, nowadays, no one has shortage of that. Practically everything is available online. The researchers at the Carnegie Center in Moscow don't have any special sources of information. I think that's not as important as communication with large numbers of people, which allows for better understanding of the comparative significance of different things. In other words, communication with many people delivers, or at least I hope that it delivers, one from one-sidedness, when each trend is balanced by another one and each argument has its counterargument.
Natalia Koulinka: From your perspective, what did the whirlwind surrounding new US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul say about the situation in Russia?
Dmitri Trenin: It's difficult to talk about Russia in general. As for the people who, for instance, watched Michael McFaul in Russia, those who have moved and still move in Russian power circles, I think it's a somewhat paranoid reaction. It is not that they overestimated him. They mistook him for another person entirely – for a herald of the Russian anti-Putin revolution, which McFaul is not and has never been. The pandemonium surrounding him was evidence of the paranoid fear. On the other hand, that moment was symbolic for those very people who are tormented by paranoid syndromes. During the first day or two of his stay in Moscow, McFaul invited the Russian opposition for a visit. That was, of course, very risky. McFaul knows that and talked about it. Formally, it was Deputy Secretary of State  Burns that hosted them, not him. McFaul accompanied him because his status as Ambassador and the official procedure required it. But for many in Moscow, Burns was an unknown figure – just some bureaucrat, though high-ranking – while McFaul is the author of a book about the "unfinished revolution," who came to finish it. That was, of course, just a confluence of circumstances. But the situation is complex and it complicates not only his life, but his work as well, because to be effective in Russia, an ambassador must have opportunities to communicate trustfully and effectively with the country's authorities. Sure, one can say he's an ambassador to the country, not to the government. In the diplomatic tradition, however, an ambassador is a personal representative of one sovereign to the court of another sovereign. And it's still that way despite the transformation of diplomacy, despite what Hillary Clinton is trying to introduce in the State Department. When an ambassador starts his duty in a foreign country – one going through a quite difficult and I would say dangerous political period – by registering accounts on Twitter and Facebook, many perceive those almost as revolutionary actions. Moreover, "revolutionary" in a sense that differs from Mrs. Clinton's understanding of transformative democracy.
Do you think this wave has already ebbed or can we expect a continuation?
I hope he will have the opportunity to work well, productively. I hope he will have useful, serious, and confidential contacts within the Russian government. He has had such contacts. He, after all, shared leadership in the presidential bilateral commission with none other than Mr. Surkov. It will be harmful for bilateral relations if McFaul turns out to be an ineffective ambassador. But Mike has every opportunity to be very good, maybe the best US ambassador to Russia ever. Of course, not everything depends on him. But much of it does.
In your interview for the RIA Novosti project "There is a choice," you said if the country is isolated by the West after the presidential elections, then it will push Russia "into the now-stronger hands of its eastern neighbor." You imply that the country is weak, but is it that weak?
Not at all. Its neighbor has become strong. However, Russia, is of course not strong enough in many ways, economically and politically. What's important is that in Russia, there is lack of will on the top of the pyramid of authority – the will to do something not for one's self, but for the country. There is a major shortage of that. In recent years, China has begun to think of different ways to attract Russia in the capacity of a… partner, if you will. It's clear that nowadays in Sino-Russian cooperation, if it is very tight, the leading role will be played by China, not Russia. If they are at a distance, it might be possible to stay more or less independent, separate from one another. But the closer they are, the greater China's influence will be. China has encountered resistance to its growth, and especially the growth of its influence in Asia, from the United States. It received the resistance a bit prematurely, from the point of view of the Chinese leadership. Therefore, Russia could have been useful for China, taking a share of America's attention on itself. In addition, Russia, somewhat isolated, with its "frozen" relationship with the West, would have had to share its natural resources more willingly and at a better price for China.
Again, in an interview for Radio Liberty in 2011, you said that Russia "curtsied," does not play the same role that the USSR used to play in international affairs. What is left for Russia in its current circumstances?
Actually, Russia could play a number of interesting roles. Today, Russia is a peripheral country. Of course, we all are connected in the world, so there is no periphery as such in the world. It is peripheral in relation to the major conflicts in the world, which is not a bad thing. It is not involved in the complex, difficult international situations like Afghanistan, the Middle East, or US-China this and that. The country has an opportunity to take care of its own affairs, while enjoying good relations with the rest of the world and fulfilling other important international roles. A country of that scale, of that level, with that history, geography, and so forth cannot live only for itself. Therefore, it needs to define a role that will be feasible, through which the country can contribute to the well-being of humankind.
At the same time, this role should not prevent the country from working on its main task: overcoming its backwardness. Primarily, of course, Russia needs to work on itself. It doesn't need to change the world in accordance with its ideas. It doesn't have the ideology, the need to change the world for itself or under itself. It has something different. It could take on the role of mediator for nearby countries, which would help their economic and social development, and would help Russia, because how Kazakhstan feels impacts Russia in many ways. And how Ukraine feels is not an idle question for Russia. If Ukrainians or Belarusians feel bad, it reflects on Russia. Russia should help, but in accordance with completely new situation, not like in the Soviet Union. Russia could mediate in cultural dialogues between different cultures. Russia has a certain plasticity that other countries don't have. It's East, but it's the East of the West. It has a unique experience of coexisting with Muslims within the country. It doesn't have the same arrogance that many in the West often, traditionally have toward people from the East. In Russians there is a certain share of racism and chauvinism and some other things, but Russian domination in Central Asia cannot be compared with British domination in India – they are very different cultural phenomena. It could be a sort of honest arbiter in certain international affairs like the situation in Iran or North Korea, where Russia doesn't have direct interests. But I don't want to charge the country with so many such things. It doesn't need it. It first needs to deal with the countries it borders directly. It needs to resolve the issue with Georgia. It eventually needs to resolve the issues with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to do something about Nagorno-Karabakh and Central Asia. On the one hand, this is all charity, but on the other, it helps its own interests, because if someone comes out shooting there, it will be bad for Russia as well.
It seems the only country that still has this ambition is the United States. But even this country, because of the crisis, is losing its position. But the feeling of exceptionalism is quite strong among a part of the population…
It is difficult for me to advise Americans. I won't do it. I can say only that a country and its people, their greatness, are measured not only in the moments of forward progress and being on top, the moment of attaining greatness and the thrill of it, but when it inevitably descends down from the summit. Look at Russia. It did not descend – it plummeted into a huge pit and partially broke. Some of its former members, as it thought, though in reality everything was in some ways different, started living their own lives. And the Russia that fell into the abyss somehow managed to collect itself. And in my view, it will have certain chances in the future. In no case will it, nor should it, climb back up again. It will live not for greatness, not for the rest of the world, but for itself. I hope. But it's important in that moment – when a nation begins to realize that its greatness has reached its zenith and its influence will gradually decrease each year – it is important to cope with that verdict the history, regroup, and find the opportunity to be happy, say, on another level of greatness. In reality, happiness and greatness are not closely connected with one another. In those countries that have achieved the peak of international influence, there was not always maximum happiness. And some countries which from the beginning decided against any quest for greatness, and those for whom such a quest would be absurd, such as Switzerland or Singapore, managed to reach the summit in completely different things. In reality, the ability to give valuable guidance to the rest of the world isn't everything.
I'll allow myself one more quotation. You were once interviewed by the newspaper "Vzglyad" about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The interview inspired many comments from readers, and I would like you to comment one of them: "I don't care what happens to Karzai's government. I remember well that under the Taliban, ALL fields of opium poppies were destroyed. But now Russia is suffocating on Afghan heroin."
What happened is that the United States kicked out the Taliban, which had an ideological opposition to drugs. Ideological. It was connected neither with the United States nor with anything else. The US entered with a primary task not to end the drug trade in Afghanistan, but to democratize. Any democracy means the need for grassroots support. And to be able to attract people, it at least needed not to go against the peasants for whom poppies were the most profitable product. Some grains could have been planted there, but they don't bring as much money as opium poppies. You can't convince the peasant not to grow opium poppies that are worth five times more, and instead plant something different and be satisfied. You can't say this to anyone. The US did not fight against the opium poppy as the Taliban did. First of all, they didn't have the ideological stance, and they understood that a fight against the opium poppy meant a fight against the Afghan peasant, which would turn them to the side of the Taliban and against the government of Karzai, which was and is the mainstay in the country for the US.
If to eliminate the angry tone of this comment, the person is saying he doesn't care how life is arranged within Afghanistan. For him, it's important that Russian people don't die from Afghan heroin. In my view, that's absolutely right. Russia is not concerned with who governs in Kabul. Ultimately, that's the concern of the people of Afghanistan. And it's not for the Russians to teach Afghans how to arrange their affairs. By the way, it's not for the West either. Let the Afghans deal with it. But the Russian government should protect health of Russian citizens, so it becomes necessary to do everything in order to decrease the wave of heroin sweeping Russia, and ultimately reduce it to zero. But that's a difficult task.
Since 2003, you have published a book every year plus newspaper articles and radio interviews. Where does the time and energy come from?
I don't know, probably from the desire to say something. No articles or books appear out of habit or because I have nothing to do. I don't want to make the direct comparison, but writing a book is sort of the equivalent of childbirth. The intellectual equivalent. At the beginning there is a seed, and then it somehow bears fruit, some sort of thoughts. And after that, it all rather painfully emerges. It's not very pleasant to write books, and they often come with difficulty. It's simpler with articles.
And for work, there's always Saturday, there's Sunday. What else? Vacations and holidays, there are airplanes. No, of course, there's time during the workday too. You just need to organize it a little bit better than I do. But if you have a desire to speak out, as a rule, you find the time to get it done.