On June 14, 2018, IMR and CSIS held a panel discussion on the current downward spiral in tensions between Moscow and Washington. Participants in the discussion included former Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, Vice Chairman of Open Russia Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russian political strategist Vitali Shkliarov, and Free Russia Foundation president Natalia Arno. Senior Adviser and Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS Olga Oliker moderated the discussion.

 

Right to left: Andrei Kozyrev, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Olga Oliker, Vitaly Shkliarov, Natalia Arno. Photo: IMR.

 

With the FIFA World Cup opening this Thursday in Moscow, all eyes are on Russia. Despite this global celebration of sports, the key problems of the Putin regime are still on the West’s agenda. However, despite some calls for boycotting Russia, panelists at CSIS believe that communication with the regime is possible as long as the West understands the real interests of the current Russian leadership.

According to the panelists, Putin’s key foreign policy objectives range from disrupting the West to countering the United States to achieve domestic political goals (i.e. promoting the “foreign enemy” narrative or the idea of “us vs. them” to sustain the regime), to responding to what Putin views as the West’s “betrayal” of Russia, to uniting anti-Western and anti-American forces behind the Russian leadership.

How should the U.S. respond to these challenges? As the discussion showed, a nuanced knowledge of Russia and its history may be the key.

According to Vitali Shkliarov, boycotting Russia or trying to isolate it may not be the best way to deal with the current regime. Dialogue needs to continue: If the U.S. could find a way to talk to North Korea, why not talk to Russia? He suggested that building bridges and developing communications in some areas of common interests (e.g. Syria) could be a way forward.

In response, Vladimir Kara-Murza argued that one should not make the mistake of equating Russian national interests and the interests of Putin’s kleptocratic regime. History has shown that nothing good can come out of it. On a separate note, Kara-Murza added that Putin’s foreign policy directly depends on the domestic situation, and, despite what some Western and Russian observers may think, the current tensions with the U.S. are not inevitable, given that not too long ago, in the early 90s, Russian foreign policy was quite different—pro-Western and pro-democratic.

Mr Kozyrev, a career diplomat who served as Russia’s foreign minister in 1990-1996, also underscored the need to distinguish between Russian national interests and the regime’s interests. Can the West achieve something with the current regime? Kozyrev’s answer is yes, it can—in things like soccer. The FIFA World Cup, in his words, is a well-organized event, which is good for the country and for the people. In these narrow windows of opportunities the West can and should cooperate with Russia. However, Kozyrev cautioned against stretching a welcoming hand to Putin, who, like many Soviet leaders before him, wants legitimization through meetings with Western politicians. “It’s common knowledge that diplomacy is better than war, but sometimes talking is not the best option—sometimes silence speaks louder than words,” he noted. 

While Russia under Putin may seem monolithic, thus presenting unsurmountable challenges to the U.S., Natalia Arno argued that there are still many opportunities for the Russian pro-democratic forces at the local and municipal level, as the 2017 elections in some Russian regions showed. “We see lots of activity at the grassroots level,” she said.

 

Full video of the event is available at the CSIS website.

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