On April 4th, the Brookings Institution hosted a panel discussion on what can be expected from Moscow as Vladimir Putin begins his fourth term in office. The participants included Vladimir Kara-Murza, Julia Ioffe, Strobe Talbott, and Angela Stent, who touched upon the most pressing issues facing Russia and the U.S. today, including the possibility of a new Cold War, the Skripal case, and the future of Putin’s presidency. Alina Polyakova moderated the discussion. 

 

Left to right: Strobe Talbott, Angela Stent, Alina Polyakova, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Julia Ioffe. Photo: Youtube.

 

Panelists:

Vladimir Kara-Murza, Vice Chairman, Open Russia; Chairman, Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom
Julia Ioffe, Staff Writer, The Atlantic
Strobe Talbott, Distinguished Fellow in Residence, Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution
Angela Stent, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe
Alina Polyakova (Moderator), David M. Rubenstein Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution

 

Discussion brief

Polyakova: It’s widely thought that today is the lowest point in U.S.-Russian relations in recent years; that this is a new Cold War. Is this really so? How significant are the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions that have occurred over the past few weeks?

Talbott:

  • This is a new kind of Cold War, and there is no end in sight. The conflict has taken the form of a dangerous zero-sum game. Russia has been reverting back to an autocratic system of governance, and has been waging asymmetric warfare abroad. It is carving out spheres of “domination” that go beyond normal influence and trying to rattle NATO countries.
  • There is currently no process underway to mitigate the consequences of a hot war between Russia and the U.S. We are seeing the emergence of an arms race, but there is no arms control regime in place to mitigate its development. This differs from the status quo during the original Cold War.
  • Meanwhile, the West is faltering in its stance toward Russia. The transatlantic alliance is weaker than ever. The EU is fractured on its stance toward Russia. The Trump administration does not have a coherent strategy toward Moscow. Trump still claims affinity toward Putin and other authoritarian leaders. That disqualifies him as a proponent of Western values and interests.
  • Putin has gotten away with so much on the international stage, and he will likely try to get away with more going forward.

Polyakova: What is the Kremlin’s point of view on the Western policies toward Russia? 

Stent:

  • Putin sees a U.S. with two Russia policies. One is the White House’s hardline stance toward the Kremlin; the other is Trump’s personal, conciliatory stance toward Putin. The Kremlin considers this as a way forward for relations.
  • Moreover, the Kremlin recognizes that some of the U.S. European allies have hesitated on sanctions, and sees this rift as an opportunity to further split the transatlantic alliance.

Polyakova: Is the Kremlin apprehensive about the recent personnel changes in the White House and State Department and their implications vis-a-vis Mike Pompeo and John Bolton’s stances?

Stent:

  • Pompeo and Bolton have indeed taken a hard line on Russia, and the Kremlin may be lobbying for a Trump-Putin White House meeting to maximize leverage ahead of their tenure.

Polyakova: It was no surprise that Putin won the recent presidential election. But to what extent is Putin’s support “real”?

Kara-Murza:

  • The OSCE summarized the election quite well: “Choice without competition is not real choice.” There were numerous instances of ballot stuffing and other violations. Unfortunately, Russia does not have a judicial system that will deal with these issues.
  • There were only two true opposition politicians who had planned to run for president in March 2018: Boris Nemtsov, who was shot and killed, and Alexei Navalny, who was arrested on trumped-up charges and disqualified from running.
  • It’s not hard to win an election when your opponents are not on the ballot. Putin’s popularity has never been tested in a free and fair election. 

Ioffe:

  • It should be noted that Putin’s popularity ratings are not statistically reliable, and are often based on a self-selecting sample of respondents.

Polyakova: Although Russia is relatively well integrated into the world economy, it is becoming increasingly politically isolated. Do you think the consequences of Russia’s electoral interference and adventurism abroad have hampered Moscow’s goal of once again being a major player on the world stage? Or do you think these actions will continue to bolster Putin’s domestic popularity? 

Ioffe:

  • Putin generally lashes out when cornered; he will likely engage in another major foreign escapade within the next year. He is trying to demonstrate that the West is not in a position to punish Moscow – because such an action would imply a level of superiority over Russia.
  • Relations will likely grow far worse before they get better. We might once again see an Iron Curtain divide Russia and the West.
  • Relations will not improve so long as Putin is in office, which may be for the long-term.

Kara-Murza:

  • It is indeed possible that Putin will remain in office for life. However, it is also entirely possible that he will be overthrown. Authoritarian regimes are stable, until they’re not.

Stent:

  • Although the West has sanctioned Russia, it is not true that Moscow is isolated globally. Russia has become closer with China, India, Turkey, and Iran.
  • These and other countries are willing to accept Moscow’s behavior, which limits the West’s ability to stop Russian malfeasance.

Polyakova: The Skripal poisoning case has exemplified how the Russians try to muddle the international community’s understanding of events.

Talbott:

  • I wonder if this is part of an emerging Russian tactic to express that they can protect their interests anywhere in the world.

Ioffe:

  • I think it is. It also reminds me of the Dupont Circle Hotel assassination [of Mikhail Lesin].
  • In Putin’s mind, there are opponents, and then there are traitors; Putin considered Skripal to be the latter. Putin himself has said, “Traitors will always be found dead in a ditch.”

 

Q&A: 

  1. What is the status of Crimea?

Kara-Murza:

  • There is lots of repression in Crimea, particularly against the Tatars. Corruption is also rife, as we have seen with the land bridge being built there.

Ioffe:

  • Tourism, long a major driver of the Crimean economy, has slowed. There is also lots of bureaucratic theft occurring.

 

  1. Does Putin’s popularity depend upon support from the oligarchs? How important is it to target the oligarchs’ Western-based shell companies as a means of punishing Moscow’s bad behavior?

Kara-Murza:

  • In the 90s, oligarchs influenced state decisions. Today, however, the dynamic has been reversed; oligarchs are chosen and controlled by Putin.
  • Russian corruption is enabled by Western countries; we cannot allow these oligarchs to steal from Russia and then spend in the West.
  • A strategy targeting these oligarchs specifically will prove more likely to limit Russian malfeasance abroad, without affecting the Russian population at large.

 

  1. What do you expect to see in the U.S. 2018 midterm elections?

Talbott:

  • An anti-Trump wave will likely sweep the U.S. Congress.

Stent:

  • I expect to see further Russian electoral interference (including hacking of voting machines) and social media-based disinformation.

 

  1. What is the outlook for Russia’s policy in the Middle East (Syria)?

Stent:

  • The looming U.S. pullout (as recently announced by Trump) can only help Russia’s clout in the Middle East.
  • The Kremlin is very good at identifying power vacuums, and inserts itself in those spaces accordingly.

 

Full video of the event is available below.

 

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