Harvard Political Review: You have been with the Carnegie Moscow Center since its founding in 1993. How have you seen its role in the U.S.-Russia relationship evolve over time?

Dmitri Trenin: The Center has been a unique place. By the Carnegie Endowment, it is part and parcel of the global think tank. I often liken it to the International Space Station. You have Moscow––a Russian element––and something that is global. We are very proud of that: we are a local and a global think tank at the same time.

Dmitri Trenin
Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has been with the center since its inception. He also chairs the research council and the Foreign and Security Policy Program.
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In this capacity, we serve many communities in Russia and in the United States, as well as other countries. We function as a funnel, bringing Russian views to the global level and bringing global views to Russia. We publish in Russian and English. We aim to be objective; we aim our provocations to be evidence-based and focused on something practical that would further the cause of international peace––part of the name of the Carnegie Endowment.

HPR: Western observers have described you as a “mediator” and “therapeutic go-between” with respect to U.S.-Russia relations. How do you see yourself fulfilling that role? Where do you see yourself in the reverse perspective, in the world of Russian geopolitical thinking?

DT: In my previous life, when I served in the military, I was oftentimes an interpreter, and I take that position in a very broad sense now. We all need to be able to interpret, as correctly as possible, to a different audience, something that you know best. I try to convey my knowledge of Russia in ways that would be better understood by English-speaking audiences. In that capacity, I try to be as impartial as possible, so I walk somewhat away from my Russian identity. I try to take a view that would not be pro-Russian, although I am very pro-Russian myself. You do not have to carry that with you when you try to be an analyst.

HPR: You title your book with a question: “Should We Fear Russia?” In what areas are Western fears of Russia overblown, and in what areas should Western policymakers pay more attention?

DT: When I am addressing the questions in the book, I am not talking about the expert community, but rather a broader segment of Western society that is not concerned with Russia on a daily basis.

Perhaps the most salient deficiency of any outsider’s view of any country—and that fully applies to both Western views of Russia, and Russian views of the West—is over-ideologization. For example, to a lot of people, Russia is just an authoritarian polity, ruled by one person, and that is basically it. It is a kleptocracy, it is expansionist, it is aggressive, and it has always been that way. That is a very narrow view and very much a caricature. You have to take a view that is more rooted in history and is more dynamic.

I talk in my book about something that is much more specific. People started to talk about a new Cold War, and I take on that analysis. I do not think that we are in a new Cold War, nor do I think that we are likely to be in a new Cold War, because I think there is only one Cold War, and that Cold War is over. What we have now is confrontation: if we talk about the United States and Russia, I think it is worse at times than the Cold War was, but it is bad in its own way.

One of the most important messages of that book is that you should not allow yourself to be misguided by old clichés. We live in a different environment. If we think in terms of the Cold War, we will be thinking about things that will never happen, because the world has changed, and we will be missing the things that will happen, because again, the world has changed. I am talking about things like an invasion by Russia of the Baltic States and Poland, which is totally unlikely. At the same time, I am talking about new methods of competition and new methods of warfare that are focused on the information space, which has become a battlefield. It is the information and economic spaces that have become the battlefields of choice in this new confrontation, rather than the military space.

HPR: In your book, you state the next system of global governance will “need to rest on the basic principle of rough equilibrium among great powers.” Given the power disparity between the United States and Russia, what would that equilibrium look like?

DT: I was talking about equilibrium rather than balance. It is a slightly different concept, although they are fairly close. What we have seen in the last few years is the re-emergence of rivalry among great powers. We have just quit an unparalleled period in world history, in which one power, the United States, was globally dominant. That is a very sublime, a very advanced form of dominance which no other power has been able to practice on the global scale. That period has come to an end. The United States is still the leading power, yet this dominance is no longer uncontested. You have this contestation coming in a big way from China and other countries.

In an overt fashion, this world order is being challenged by Russia, although Russia is not a major challenger to the United States when it comes to economic and many other issues. The role of great powers is, historically, crucial in any model of the world order. It will be crucial in the world order that comes after this unique period of one nation’s dominance. The United States, China, India, Europe—if Europe becomes a full-fledged strategic player—Russia, Japan, and maybe some other countries will all be part of this informal great power club, that will bear supreme responsibility for managing world order. I am not suggesting that they will establish an oligarchy that will impose themselves on other nations. I do not think that other nations will be servants at the pleasures of great powers, but great powers will certainly bear more responsibility than other countries. For this group of nations, that responsibility will be global.

Of course, besides these powers, there will be other important actors in the world, a lot of them acting in the economic field, such as transnational corporations. At the basic level, you have many non-state actors—political, ideological, and other actors—some of who will be groups, some will be movements, and still others will be individuals of global or regional authority. These three layers will jointly make up the new world order, though I would still insist on the great powers being the salient part of the world order.

HPR: When you are talking about the emergence of this new system in your book, you say that it needs to be “guided by the principles of politico-ideological pluralism.” What exactly does that phrase mean? Does it mean mutual respect for political systems?

DT: Sure. Mutual respect for political systems will be a very important part of that. We cannot expect the world to follow any one kind of political system. Even within political systems that are closer among themselves, all those that call themselves democracies, there are important differences. You look at India and the United States, the biggest democracies in the world, and you see substantial differences in how democracy is practiced. If you take other countries, such as China and Russia, and at a regional level, Iran and Saudi Arabia, you will see that there is little chance of those countries adopting any kind of unified political system. This means that for the world order to be stable, there has to be a fair amount of tolerance towards political systems.

And yet, there needs to be some universally applicable principles, those that pertain to the dignity of human beings, human rights, in the way that they are understood around the world. There are differences in how human rights are understood in different countries, but there is still some degree of overlap. That degree needs to be expanded.

We will not get very far if we talk about everyone subscribing to the same, fairly-expanded list of common norms and principles, such as the principles of what is now known as ‘Western political democracy.’ We have to be more humble. We have to accept the diversity of different cultures, different systems, different peoples, and we can only hope for a growing overlap among the ways people view their polities. But we cannot hope to have perfect overlap.

HPR: In the near to medium-term, how do you think Russia might respond if, from its perspective, the United States refuses to give up these prerogatives in favor of “politico-ideological pluralism”?

DT: People have to be realists, and the United States will not give up its quest for democracy around the world. It is not practical to believe the United States will be guided by realpolitik. But the United States is not only an ideological power; it is a power that has its natural interests in mind when it pursues its foreign policy. My hope is that it will be in the interests of various countries to moderate their ideological fervor, and that countries will have to accept that there is a limit to how far they can push their principles in any given moment, or in any given place.

This is what I would call ‘equilibrium.’ The United States will not change its nature. Nor will other countries simply accept American-promoted principles. It will take time for them to develop their own principles and ideas, which may dovetail with American ones or European ones, but they will also have their own characteristics, their own national issues.

HPR: You have talked about Russian foreign policy being driven, in part, by a need to appeal to a domestic audience. What are the current attitudes of the Russian populace toward the intervention in Syria?

DT: Most people do not think about the operation in Syria every day. It is something that is happening ‘over there.’ It is something that is fought by professional Russian soldiers. It is an operation where people are dying on both sides, and Russia is losing its servicemen, but the most important thing for the Russian population is that the servicemen are all professionals. Russia is not sending its conscripts into Syria. That relieves the pain and anxieties of a large portion of the population. This operation remains okay with the Russian public.

HPR: Looking back at the marches led by Alexei Navalny in June, would you say there is an emerging generational gap amongst Russians, in terms of support for the current political system?

DT: A lot of people in Russia are dissatisfied with the way things are. People have fairly low wages. Their well-being is not improving. There was a big improvement in people’s living standards at the beginning of this century, but it stopped with the current financial crisis. It clearly stopped just before the Ukraine crisis. In the last three to four years, Russia has been in recession. It is only bottoming out of that recession now.

People are not well-off at this point, but that is only half the problem. The other half of the problem is that there is too much corruption of various kinds in Russia. A lot of people are able to exploit their positions, the connections that they maintain with those in government. Alternatively, people in the government have ways of participating, in a very lucrative way, in various business operations. The disparity between the bulk of the Russian people and the few who are fabulously rich is growing.

Most Russians do not think that they are well-governed; to the extent that the system of governance is in place, they feel it is performing very badly, not performing, or only performing for a select few. This is an issue. Vladimir Putin is still popular as a symbol of the Russian state, but the system of Russian bureaucracy, the political-economic establishment of the country, is highly unpopular. This tension will be looking for a way to resolve itself, one way or another.

But I do not think it is a generational thing. I do not think it is the younger people, who are clamoring for change, versus the older people, who have accommodated themselves to the way things are. The situation is more complex. Navalny has been able to mobilize large groups of younger and more active people who are more susceptible to his message. But it is not a generational issue.

HPR: How do you see the Kremlin negotiating that sort of dissatisfaction and the cynicism that accompanies it?

DT: The Kremlin’s most important resource is the President himself. He is popular for a number of reasons. For many Russians, the head of state is almost tantamount to the state itself. He is not just a human being but also the embodiment of Russia at this point.

Those who have lived through the difficult years of the 1990s, the late 1980s, remember the crumbling state, the chaotic conditions after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They do not want a return to those conditions. Democracy has earned a bad name in Russia, because it quickly turned into an oligarchy of the few. Most Russians are more likely to put up with a unified government, a unified regime, personified in the Russian fashion and tradition. They see the system as more stable, as simply preferable to any likely alternatives.

Having said that, I would add that Mr. Putin himself is also a very capable politician, precisely in the environment where he functions. He has a way with the ordinary people. He can reach out to the bulk of the population: if not to their hearts, then to their minds. Not all: the people who follow Navalny will not follow Putin. But eighty percent would rather go with Putin than look for alternatives. He has the unique combination of being able to appeal to the mass majority of the Russian people and discipline the high and mighty, the boyars, in the Russian tradition. These people are notoriously difficult to discipline, and he can do that.

Also, I would say the Kremlin is very attentive to the changes in the popular mind. It is a government that is following the changing popular mood more closely than many governments around the world, including some democratic governments. They are always commissioning polls, sociological surveys. They want to know what is going on, and they want to be able to react to the minute changes. So far, I think they have been fairly effective at that.

Clearly, on the other hand, there is little serious opposition to the way things are. In a country like Russia, you would expect the left-wing forces to have wider appeal. Now, the Communist Party has been co-opted into the system. It is essentially the second-strongest party, after the party of power. Old communists would call today’s communists ‘opportunists’: looking for opportunities, building themselves into the system, becoming part of the system, getting all the perks that come with the system, repeating some slogans, but that is about it.

The Kremlin has been able to neutralize the forces that could potentially be dangerous, such as the nationalists. They have their in-house nationalist leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who neutralizes the negative force of nationalism, which would be dangerous for the Kremlin. There are also other technologies: Russia may not have the kind of politics that Western European countries have, but it has very well-developed political technology under an authoritarian regime.

HPR: In what circumstances might this system break down?

DT: First of all, I would distinguish between the system I described and the regime. The regime is more closely tied to the figurehead of the system. Mr. Putin has been in power in Russia for 17 years, and he is very active and fit for his 65 years. Yet you can imagine the timeframe in which people would have to be thinking about the next leader, the next head of the regime. It may be tied to an election. It may not be tied to an election.

But at some point, whether in the mid-2020s or the early 2030s, this issue will come up. This is normally a crisis in an authoritarian regime. It is not a given that the people in power, the elites, will be able to come up with a figure that would be like Putin, in terms of furnishing legitimacy for the regime and insuring order within the system: packing the web, giving out goodies, and disciplining those who are at the top. Putin has talents that other people do not have, and it is not clear whether an equally capable leader will follow.

Even if the next leader is equally capable, it is not a given that the bulk of Russian people would fall for that person and follow that person in the way that they fell for and followed Putin. We do not know how things will be seven years from now, 13 years from now, 15 years from now, but that is the political side of the issue.

There are other sides to consider. There is an economic side. Russia, as I said, is bottoming out after a fairly bad recession. Economic growth is minimal. We are talking 1.5 percent, on average, for the foreseeable future. This is not very impressive growth and certainly not enough for a country that needs a lot of development. We also have to consider the country’s growing inequality. The pie is not getting much larger, but the inequality is getting worse. You can see some tension at some point, and there may be a point where dissatisfaction will just blow over, and this will coincide with a time when the Russian people will face the choice of a new leader.

There is also the difficult international situation. So far, it has been more consolidating than destabilizing. Most people have rallied around the flag. They see Russia as under attack, primarily by the United States. Being proud, Russian people come together and resist this pressure. But at some point, we do not know what will happen. We do not know how the Russian people will react to developments that I am sure will be taking place and will affect Russia.

We may find a point, looking into the future, of the confluence of three crises: the domestic political crisis, the economic and social crisis, and the geopolitical crisis. At some point, there will probably be big changes in how Russia is run, and the way that Russia acts around the world.

This interview was originally published in Harvard Political Review