Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, is one of the more even-handed commentators on Russian foreign policy. On the one hand, he isn’t much of a fan of the ‘Putin regime’, and knows how to speak the sort of critical language required to confirm one’s reputation as a respectable thinker in the West. On the other hand, he avoids most of the hyperbole generally associated with commentary on things Russian, and isn’t one of those ‘non-systemic opposition’ types who gives the impression that Russia’s interests are best served by abject surrender to the United States. In light of the West’s current rampant Russophobia, his short (120-page) book Should We Fear Russia? is very timely .
Trenin’s answer to the question posed by his book is a bit of a ‘no’ and a bit of a ‘yes’. Russia isn’t a ‘threat’, he says, but its policies do pose a ‘challenge’ to the West, and are likely to keep doing so for the foreseeable future. ‘While most fears need to be put to rest’, he concludes, ‘the Russian challenge to the US-dominated/led world order is real, serious, and long-term.’
To reach this conclusion, Trenin analyses what people in the West fear about Russia, and shows that most of these fears are misplaced. Russia is not going to attack NATO, he says: ‘Daugavpils is not Donetsk-in-waiting, and Narva is no Lugansk. Poland is an even more far-fetched case. The Donbass model is not easily exportable, and employing it on the territory of a NATO member state denies the Kremlin any rationality whatsoever.’
‘Hatred of the West is clearly not an obsession of the Russian leadership’, says Trenin. Moreover, Russia has very little influence outside its borders. Even Belarus acts very independently of it. ‘In the future’, Trenin writes, ‘Russia’s sphere of influence is more likely to shrink further than to expand. The Russian empire is definitely not making a comeback.’ Russia has little soft power, according to Trenin, ‘no resources, and no real will to re-create its Eurasian empire’. The West should worry more about Russia collapsing than about Russia strength and ‘aggression’.
All this is a welcome rejoinder to a lot of the current scaremongering. But Trenin still thinks that the West has some reasons to feel worried. Russia, he says, ‘has a unique quality; its ruling elite and its people strongly reject domination of the international system by any one power. And Russians are ready to push back when they see their own interests in danger.’ American hegemony is coming to an end. Trenin warns, and Russia will not return to its behaviour in the 1990s when it meekly followed American’s lead. According to Trenin, ‘Contemporary Western-Russian relations are highly competitive on account of the fundamental clash of interests regarding the global and regional order, and any cooperation between the parties will happen within the wider environment of continued confrontation.’
Trenin therefore concludes that, ‘One needs to drop from the start any residual illusions about a Russia reassociated with the West and more or less following its lead. That window is permanently closed.’ The best that one can be hoped for is some ‘risk reduction’ measures, such as a ‘firewall around the zone of conflict’ in Donbass, and avoiding ‘provocative military exercises.’ In order to ensure a better long-term future, Trenin argues, world leaders need to create a ‘new security arrangement in Europe’ and beyond, ‘to embrace all of Greater Eurasia’. He writes:
To be minimally stable, the emerging system will need to rest on the basic principles of rough equilibrium among the great powers, some sort of balance between competing regional ones, and adequate protection to others. … To have any chance of acceptance, the transcontinental/transoceanic security arrangement needs to be guided by the principles of politico-ideological pluralism and mutual respect.
Throughout his book, Trenin throws in occasional critical phrases to show that he is not some sort of Kremlin stooge. ‘Today’s Russia is frankly statist, patriotic/nationalist, and revisionist’, he says; Russia is an ‘authoritarian kleptocracy’, he writes; and so on. Yet his conclusion about the desirable shape of the world order could easily have been written by President Putin or Foreign Minister Lavrov. Trenin admits that, ‘This will be a hard sell in the West’, and therein lies the nub of the problem.
‘The non-West is not going to evolve into anything like the present-day West, a homogeneous community of like-minded nations with a set of shared values and undisputed leadership provided by the United States’, writes Trenin. This is, I think, a fairly accurate depiction of reality, but it doesn’t have to be a cause of trouble. Countries like Russia, which insist on defending their own interests even when they don’t match those of the West, do of course pose a challenge to Western hegemony. But that challenge only matters if the West insists on interpreting its interests as being dependent upon maintaining that hegemony. I think that there are lot of people in the West who think that that is not very sensible and doesn’t actually make their countries any better off. Were Western leaders to consider their interests more intelligently, the Russian ‘challenge’ might turn out to be not such a challenge after all.