Thomas Graham: to improve contact, you need to see the world through the eyes of Russians

A Conversation with Former Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Thomas Graham: to improve contact, you need to see the world through the eyes of Russians

Director of Kissinger Associates on how the future US administration could improve relations between Washington and Moscow

A few days before the next US presidential election, experts share with the Russian Service of the Voice of America their opinion on how, after these elections, whoever wins at them, the United States should build its policy towards the Russian Federation.

Specialists on Russia in the United States can be roughly divided into those who propose not to ask Russia too harshly, having achieved better relations with Moscow through an attempt to take the opponent’s point of view, and those who remind that Russia took on many obligations, and there is nothing shameful in reminding her of this.

Each of these approaches is not absolute, in some ways the supporters of each of them coincide – for example, in the fact that diplomatic contacts with Moscow are very necessary. However, they disagree on what the content of these contacts should be: while the former lean towards “real politics,” emphasizing that their task is not to make Russia more democratic, the latter believe that the West’s abandonment of its principles in dealing with Moscow is unacceptable..

One of the supporters of “real politics” is considered Thomas Graham (Thomas Graham) is a renowned political scientist, retired diplomat, former director for Russia at the US National Security Council, and now the managing director of Kissinger Associates. In an interview with the Russian service of Voice of America, Thomas Graham says that the West approached Russia too demanding, and neither the West nor Russia benefited.

Danila Galperovich: A recent seminar at George Washington University, which brought together reputable experts on Russia, where you were, was imbued with one thought: that short time in the 1990s, when Russia tried to embrace Western values, was more the exception than the rule. Consequently, the West needs to proceed from the assumption that authoritarian and nationalist principles are at the heart of Russian statehood. But we remember that Russia itself assumed democratic obligations, in particular, by acceding to the European Convention on Human Rights. So how true is the opinion that Russia will always remain a non-democratic country??

Thomas Graham: I really hope I have not left you with the impression that this will always be the case. I just wanted to convey my opinion that there are basic contradictions in relations between our two countries, the existence of which both sides must realize in order to manage the progressive and productive development of these relations. Part of the problem in the early post-Soviet years was our illusion about how Russia would develop. We decided that it had no other path than the path to a free market and liberal democracy, and that Russia would definitely take it, shaking off the communist totalitarian regime. And this was a misinterpretation of everything – both Russian political tradition and Russian history. Any movement towards a more open and democratic society, which would be any lengthy, will take a long time, during which Russia itself, perhaps with a little outside help, will create “building blocks” for such a society..

D.G .: If they were illusions, what do you think they led to?

T.G .: The illusions we experienced had a very negative impact on the way the US perceived Russia. Because when, towards the end of the 1990s, it became clear that Russia was not going to make some kind of dramatic leap into a more open democratic society, and Putin began to return everything to more centralized control, which became much more autocratic during the 2000s, most of the US political class did not see this as a consequence of the complexities of Russian history and Russian political tradition, which takes time to change. She took it, rather, in a moralistic vein, deciding that “something is wrong with the Russians”, that the Russians are bad and immoral in a sense. This, in turn, led to a serious deterioration in relations and reached the current attempts in the United States to demonize not only President Putin, but also the broad Russian political class. I don’t see now that someone here defines all Russians as bad people, but I’m afraid that we are very close to this..

D.G .: What would be your approach to policy towards Russia?

Thomas Graham: to improve contact, you need to see the world through the eyes of Russians

T.G .: I would approach it this way: we recognize differences, we recognize that our interests can conflict, and that the stakes in our relationship are very high. Only by developing a kind of “strategic empathy”, by trying to look at this world through the eyes of Russians, will we be able to achieve more constructive relations. How all of this will develop over time, and what will be the internal development of Russia in general – this is a question that the Russians themselves will answer: if a more open and democratic society emerges there over time, it will be mostly the result of the work of the Russians themselves. We in the West are now, rather, in an unenviable state, and we can hardly help this process, since we hardly represent a successful model for copying. You will remember that during the Cold War it was widely believed among the Soviet intelligentsia that the West was not only democratic, but also a successful society. Indeed, the West, with the United States as a leader, has successfully coped with the challenges of our time. Now, anyone who looks at the United States and the West in general will not come to this conclusion. Now we are a society, highly polarized and fragmented, we are hardly capable of a civilized discussion about ourselves, and can this be an example for anyone from the outside? That is, the main challenge in terms of developing a good policy towards Russia is at home. We must revitalize our own society by showing that the United States has the potential, the capacity, and the wisdom to cope with very serious domestic challenges. If we want to help promote democracy in Russia, then we must prove that we are a well-functioning democracy. We can’t handle it yet.

D.G .: And, nevertheless, the policy of the new US administration in relation to Russia – whoever turns out to be the master of the White House based on the results of the November elections – will have to be shaped. What do you think needs to be done in this area in the first place, what should this policy be like after January 2021?

T.G .: This is a difficult question, because the answer to it should not be simply listing the steps that should be taken with regard to Russia. There are three things the next administration must do exactly in order to develop a sound policy in the Russian direction. The first is to develop a consistent policy towards Russia, to determine what it wants from Russia, in what role it wants to see Russia in the world, in which areas Russia is a challenge to the United States, and in which areas it can help the United States achieve its strategic goals. Second, the administration must, having developed a consistent policy, achieve its public approval. This may be part of a broader goal of building public consensus in the United States. And the third is the restoration of trust in our relations with allies, at least with the main ones. This is not only about Europe, this direction is obvious, as can be seen that Russia is also trying to play a role there. I’m talking about our allies in Asia – Japan, South Korea and Australia, about strengthening relations with India.

Thomas Graham: to improve contact, you need to see the world through the eyes of Russians
Thomas Graham: to improve contact, you need to see the world through the eyes of Russians

D.G .: After the US administration develops a clear course towards Russia – how to carry it out?

T.G .: For this we need to normalize our diplomatic relations with Russia. This is not a return to what is called “business as usual”, not an interaction, as if nothing had happened, no. But in the American political class, there is a widespread misconception that normal diplomatic contacts are a reward for good behavior, and that we should not do anything in this area until Russia agrees to fulfill a number of conditions, in fact, to surrender, and does not apologize. for some of the ugly things she has done over the past few years. We establish diplomatic contacts to advance our own interests, in order to understand where our competitor comes from, how he positions himself in the world, what the “red lines” are, and what challenges he presents. We need to know all this for ourselves in order to formulate effective policies. By the normalization of diplomatic relations, I mean at least regular contacts at a high level, during which the whole range of issues related to relations between the two countries would be discussed. In part, this is a search for common ground, despite the fact that there are currently very few of them. But besides the areas where we have understanding, there is a lot of everything where we disagree – this also needs to be discussed. Because if you do not regulate important areas of relations, then they can get out of control and harm both countries. We also need to decide what each party considers to be interfering in its internal politics. This is a very delicate matter, here, on the one hand, there is the topic of Russia’s interference in the affairs of the United States through cyberspace, and on the other, how the United States is promoting democracy in the world. At the very least, all of this needs to be discussed..

D.G .: The issue of extending START-3 is still in the air, how to solve it?

T.G .: The extension of START III lays the foundation on the basis of which it will be possible to conduct a permanent, thorough dialogue on issues of strategic stability. This, by the way, will not necessarily lead to another detailed arms control treaty, as it did during the Cold War. In general, we may enter a time when such bilateral treaties with a large number of small details no longer meet the challenges that have arisen for both the United States and Russia. The number of countries with nuclear capabilities is growing, there is the development of conventional weapons, weapons in space, the development of artificial intelligence, the use of cyberspace, and so on. We must consider the question of how to manage the issues of strategic stability so as not to provoke an arms race that would be destabilizing – not only for the United States and Russia, but for the world as a whole..

D.G .: Are you not afraid that in the perception of traditionally minded specialists in international security, such as you, all these concepts – mutual interests, responsibility, maintenance of international peace – still exist, and the leaders of the populist-authoritarian structure are no longer interested in them? These leaders may be convinced that it will not come to a big war, and everything below this line is allowed, and therefore they are happy to use the escalation of external tension for domestic political purposes – is it not??

T.G .: It seems to me that there is both what you are talking about, and some kind of understanding of national interests, and it is rather difficult to draw a line between these two things. What Russia did in Ukraine in 2014, in Syria in 2015, and what it might do in Belarus this year, can be summed up in the case of such a special understanding of national interests. Almost any Russian government would react to what is happening in a similar vein, at least considering it a matter of its national interests, and we have seen such a reaction for decades, if not centuries. The fact that her actions towards Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, towards Syria received public support in Russia – despite the fact that such support was not something fully expected. We will see how Russia will ultimately react to what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh, how this will affect its relations with Turkey. But at the same time, some other actions were clearly not in the interests of Russia, and it would be clearly difficult for them to get public support, and they were taken in the personal interests of individuals or groups within Russia. For example, what strategic interests Russia has in Venezuela is completely unclear. Does Rosneft benefit from its activities in this country – probably yes, but what does Russian national interests have to do with it? What is Russia doing in the Central African Republic? It is very difficult to present this to the public as something that Russia needs as a state. Russia starts having problems when it jumps over its head, climbing somewhere where it has no clearly expressed national interests. This happened in the 1970s-1980s, when the USSR participated everywhere in the defense of the Marxist-Leninist regimes, and this was very far from the strategic interests of Moscow. Something like this is being repeated now, and if with some of the adventures in Russia everything can go without sad consequences, then this is mainly due to the confusion in the West. But this mess won’t last forever.

  • Danila Galperovich

    Reporter for the Russian Voice of America Service in Moscow. Collaborates with Voice of America since 2012. For a long time he worked as a correspondent and host of programs for the BBC Russian Service and Radio Liberty. Specialization – international relations, politics and legislation, human rights.


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Thomas Graham: to improve contact, you need to see the world through the eyes of Russians

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