25 Jan 2022

IMEMO Director Feodor Voitolovsky: Lavrov-Blinken meeting wasn’t marking time

Feodor Voitolovsky

Feodor Voitolovsky
Photo: Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) Feodor Voitolovsky has given an interview to Interfax special correspondent Vyacheslav Terekhov in which he comments on the meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Geneva.

Question: This is was an ‘interim’ meeting, as both sides described it. Why was the opening ceremony so pompous? An interim meeting could have taken place online. Even presidents use online communication. This looked more like a public show of marking time, for people to see that the parties are doing something while in fact relations are at an impasse.

Answer: I don't agree that the past meeting was marking time. The very beginning of this dialogue initiated by the Russian side is a step forward. What matters is how far both sides are ready to go.

Relations have been at an impasse for seven years. This is our reality. Measures of economic pressure, so-called sanctions, are being used against Russia. Their goal is to create systemic restrictions for the development of the sectors of the Russian economy that are the most integrated into the global economy, that make considerable profit for the budget or that are targeted at markets on which Russia is a U.S. competitor just as with arms and military hardware.

Constant political pressure is bring exerted on Russia. We are accused of preparing to attack Ukraine, of intending to attack Baltic States and of attempts to break the unity of NATO allies. Suspicions that Russia doesn't observe the Chemical Weapons Convention appear worldwide and that Russian special services are accused of cyberattacks, of meddling in elections in the United States and other countries. Why? The answer is clear. The U.S. has been addressing its strategic goal, which is to prevent Russia's growing influence in Eurasia all this time. Achieving it would complement the strategic policy of containing China in the Asia-Pacific region and on a global scale.

The Ukraine crisis, controversies in the post-Soviet space and growing tensions in relations with NATO are part of the logic of this process. Constant accusations that create a system of political and psychological pressure on the Russian elite and society are always being made against Russia. One question has been keeping me occupied all this time. Does Washington understand that it is creating as many incentives as possible for the rapprochement of those who are the targets of this ‘dual containment’ strategy? No one since President Harry Truman has ever done so much for the Russian-Chinese rapprochement as Barack Obama and Donald Trump did. I wonder whether Joe Biden will distance himself from this strategy.

Q.: In this case, what do the latest Russian-U.S. negotiations bring?

A.: The negotiations between the ministers, as well as their deputies, mean that Russia has proactively tried to set an agenda for constructive and rational dialogue on a range of security problems. It’s another matter that movement is possible in only a few areas of this range, and, regrettably, by no means all of them. Naturally, I am certain that decision-makers in Moscow, as well as in Washington and NATO, understand this. It is valuable that Russia proposed two drafts: an agreement with the U.S. and an agreement with NATO member states as a complex framework for discussing a broad spectrum of security problems and their interconnection, namely their interconnection. This is the essence!

Q.: If we are talking about breaking the stalemate and offering a package agreement, in my opinion this is the least realistic thing that could be proposed! Apparently, this package won't be accepted. The Americans proposed to return to discussing the INF Treaty at preliminary meetings. Life has shown that this document – although it was at first harshly criticized by Russia's military circles and not only military ones – solved a serious and still relevant problem.

A.: The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty is dead. The previous U.S. administration killed it. The Russian side introduced a unilateral moratorium on the deployment of such missiles in European Russia. It is being observed until the Americans deploy their missiles. But neither the U.S. nor NATO member states have made any response. Two years of silence. However, this proposal can still be discussed and it seems that things could start moving now. Various options of solving these problems could be discussed. The principles of non-deployment of ground-based intermediate-range missiles at least in Europe could be discussed.

In 2021, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was prolonged for five years. The Russian side has many times let it be known that it is ready to discuss the outlook for new moves in strategic arms control given new technological factors – strategic stability negotiations are taking place in Geneva. These issues cannot be discussed further without the sides speaking plainly about the political factors and trends in the security sphere, without talking about each other's concerns. Now Russia has proposed a number of measures in the sphere of European and global security of the U.S. and NATO. However, [Russian Deputy Foreign Minister] Sergei Ryabkov said very accurately that the package of measures is not a menu.

Q.: This is a set meal if we are talking in culinary terms. Take it or leave it!

A.: Yes, the Russian proposals are viewed precisely as a whole. Probably, this approach will help single out the issues on which compromises could be reached, as well as some acute issues on which this or that side preferred to keep silent and raise them for discussion. Let me stress that there was no reaction on intermediate-range nuclear forces from the U.S. before the Russian proposals were made.

Q.: Has the package prompted them to at least start meeting us halfway?

A.: Hopefully, the package and the very form in which these documents were presented will make the U.S. and its allies start a deeper and more detailed discussion of certain issue both separately and all together. This doesn't mean that there will be equal progress on all issues when the package of proposals is discussed. It's quite possible that strategic arms issues will have one speed, the intermediate-range missiles and moratorium another speed, and the discussion of political aspects of Russia's proposals, which are the format of Russia-NATO relations, confidence measures, and obligations in this sphere, a third gear.

First of all, this is the future of strategic stability and strategic arms control. What will we do after 2026? Will we have a new treaty? This is the most important thing. Secondly, this is the future of intermediate-range missiles. These are intertwined. If intermediate-range missile are deployed as the Trump administration expected, in the Asia-Pacific region and in Europe – and many things show that Biden hasn't so far given this up – this will be a very serious destabilizing factor. It will naturally influence strategic arms control system as well, as it will increase the parties' concerns.

And further on, questions about other security aspects arise, for example the balance of power in Europe in the sphere of conventional arms. And what will be happening in Russian-NATO relations? If U.S. ground-based intermediate-range missiles are deployed in Europe, this will naturally result in response measures on Russia's side. The result is the escalation of military and political tensions on the whole and a drastic deterioration of the situation in Europe. Then we will get to the European missile crisis of the late 1970s – early 1980s. A way out was found then, and the INF Treaty was signed in 1987 – but there is and will be no more of it – both sides scrapped the whole class of arms although both sides had military motives not to do so. If everything goes according to this scenario, we will get a totally different picture of European security, much worse than we have now. The current level of tensions will look like a Sunday school picnic.

Q.: And we decided to play their way?

A.: The Americans previously tried to propose package agreements, and the Soviet Union and later Russia, was to either think in their system of coordinates or give up the package format and reach agreements separately. Russia started to propose package initiatives for the first time in relation to strategic arms when New START was drafted. It was proposed then to tie it up with the new missile defense situation. Regrettably, the Americans didn't react. Now Russia has proposed to the U.S. and NATO a single system of coordinates not only in the strategic stability sphere but also in the international security [sphere] in general. From this point of view this is an unusual move. Military issues were tied in with political issues.

Attention to political items is justified if we are thinking about a long-term perspective – it is still unclear how the situation surrounding NATO's further enlargement will evolve. It seems that it has reached certain limits today. On the one hand, Georgia and Ukraine have unresolved territorial disputes and issues and subsequently Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty cannot be applied to them. No one, even the U.S., would take on responsibility for risks related to these countries joining NATO contrary to the provisions of this article of the treaty. Not to mention the European members of the alliance, especially taking into consideration the consensus nature of decision-making.

On the other hand, NATO, starting from the Bucharest Declaration of 2008, has been insisting that "the door remains open for them" if they meet the criteria. De facto this issue is becoming a domestic political issue in these countries. Are the governments of Georgia and Ukraine capable of taking responsibility and saying that for example they give up Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Crimea respectively. So far such a step for any Georgian and Ukrainian government – to give up anything that sells to voters - is a slogan of the battle for territorial integrity. But what will there be in five years? Will these items be relevant for Ukrainian and Georgian people?

Another even more important issue is whether the U.S. will take on obligations to ensure the security of potential new members of the alliance. I doubt that! Take a look, despite all the noise surrounding Russia's hypothetical invasion of Ukraine, despite the hysteria, the U.S. has outlined it position very clearly. If there is a full-scale Russian-Ukrainian military conflict, the U.S. would impose new economic sanctions against Russia, is likely to make some loud political statements, as well as provide some assistance in the form of weapons. Nothing new. Arms have been supplied for the past few years, and American military advisors, both representing the state and private military companies, have long been in Ukraine. But despite all this, U.S. President Biden stressed that under no circumstances will any U.S. servicemen go to fight in Ukraine! Admit that this is a very significant statement and it has already cooled down many hot heads in Ukraine.

Moreover, let me tell you that Washington has been consistently drawing this line in a series of statements at various levels. It is particularly important that it was the president who said that. It is very important and in fact is a kind of an answer to the question whether Ukraine could become a U.S. ally outside of NATO. The U.S. doesn't want to take on obligations and risks underdoing the whole contradictory nature of foreign and domestic policies of present-day Ukraine and isn't ready to give security guarantees either in the multilateral format under the NATO auspices or in the bilateral one under the aegis of possible allied agreements. This is a very significant issue.

One version is to incite Kyiv to a military conflict with Luhansk and Donetsk and to then blame Russia for everything. Some people in Washington seem to consider it appealing to provoke Russia and to drag it into the conflict, but no one in Washington definitely needs to be responsible for the security of an inconsistent and unstable Ukraine and risk the lives of American citizens for the sake of reckless actions with Kyiv's participation.

Despite the fact that this conversation between Moscow and Washington, between Moscow and Brussels at NATO, at the OSCE has been very difficult, Russia has secured a considerable political result having initiated the most acute security issues. The focus partly shifted to discussing these issues rather than a mythical invasion of Ukraine. This is also a significant result of our initiatives.

Q.: It turns out that we brought to the fore NATO's non-enlargement, understanding beforehand the absence of prospects for making the Americans discuss other important issues and create a new system of coordinates for their discussion. This is a way of showing that Russia has been offended for a long time, at least since 1997, after the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed and that Moscow has such causes for offense, grievances and concerns. And now we have openly stated this in two documents. Does this mean that Moscow tolerated this before because Russia didn't have the opportunities and strength to put them on the agenda?

A.: Look, the Americans didn't refuse to discuss package agreements. They didn't say that they were unacceptable and that they wouldn't discuss them. They first agreed to discuss them at the level of deputy heads of foreign political agencies and now at the state secretary level. Representatives of military agencies are taking part in the discussions as well. Probably, there will be contacts at the presidential level further on if there is any progress at the level of foreign and defense ministries.

The Americans thus show that they treat our grievances with understanding. They might not share them, they might not share these approaches, but they treat the very wording of the problem with understanding. This proves that they understand how serious the situation has become, how big the risks of the further escalation of tensions are. What if for example indirect involvement of both sides in a civil conflict in Ukraine and confrontation on other tracks, not necessarily at the interstate level, are added to these risks? For example, the involvement of private military companies. What if all this is accompanied by the quite real intensification of nuclear and missile confrontation and takes place against the backdrop of the further escalation of U.S.-Chinese confrontation?!

Will we, the Americans or the European Union feel safer in such a world? I seriously doubt that!

That is why the fact that such a conversation, or bargaining if we speak not political and diplomatic language, in which both sides raise the stakes, proves that both sides have serious intentions.

Q.: Moscow warned ahead of the Lavrov-Blinken meeting that there may be a tough response if an agreement isn't reached, if sanctions against the leadership are imposed and so on. Was this done to spur the negotiations, or are we really ready for even harsher confrontation with the U.S.?

A.: In this case every side tries to show that it could be even tougher. It wasn't the Russian side that started to bring the situation to such a level of escalation.

Over 100 rounds of sanctions have been imposed on Russia over the past few years. Over 1,150 Russian individuals and entities are under various American restrictions. Of course, not all of what we are promised is realistic and could be implemented. Russia's disconnection from SWIFT has been discussed for seven years and nothing is happening. But they keep on discussing it. This is called psychological warfare. Appropriately, the Russian side also promised to take response measures, including in the military sphere. Of course, they are calculated and quite real. There are various options but not all of them should actually be considered real prospects. They could be considered hypothetical scenarios. If the parties show no readiness for compromise. No one wants deterioration here, but there are no preconditions for improving the situation either.

Q.: When you said that we didn't have enough strength before, I recalled a statement attributed to Molotov. Whoever has more powerful guns has stronger diplomacy. We have received the most powerful and the most advanced arms, missiles systems and so on over the past two years. Does this mean that we have more powerful guns and decided to go head-on at the diplomatic level?

A.: I don't think this was the decisive factor. Moreover, any professional understands that the Americans are developing a broad range of arms and military hardware. Indeed, as far as some areas are concerned, we are ahead, but as far as others are concerned, the Americans are ahead. In my opinion, political and economic factors, and the understanding that we have been at an impasse for a long time were more significant when we came up with the package proposals. Both sides understand this.

As for the Russian Armed Forces, yes, we have really carried out technological modernization of strategic arms. Many research and development projects are at an advanced stage and new systems are being put into service. But this isn't a revolution. This is somewhat gradual movement. Russia has shown its readiness for expeditions, this took place back in Syria, for flash operations, 2014 in Crimea, and for special events related to the rapid redeployment of special-purpose forces, now in Kazakhstan.

At the same time, I would like to mention that Russia proceeds from the as low as reasonably practicable principle. It wasn’t us who initiated the arms race. The Russian military budget is roughly at the level of 2013. There are minor fluctuations to either side.

Q.: How the military budget is drawn up is much-maligned...

A.: Even if we look at not only Russia's open data on the military budget, for example discussions in the State Duma, but also evaluations of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, even American studies, we will see there are numerical differences, but not gaping ones. They differ by just a few percent. At the same time, the Russian military budget is ten times smaller than the American, and three or four times, again that depends on the assessment scale, smaller than China’s. The Russian military budget is 15% smaller than the Indian one. What is the global threat? What are we talking about? What pre-war preparations? What preparations for countering the U.S. on all tracks? Of course, some things were said just to tease the opponent, to get media hype and even to rock the financial markets.

But seriously the Russian Federation is addressing the purely pragmatic tasks of ensuring its defense and security with the most efficient use of resources at hand. But no one is going to spend more. Everyone remembers the experience of the USSR, whose economy use to be depleted by the arms race. The fact that we have new systems is not the main incentive for our political and diplomatic initiatives.

Q.: Does the Chinese factor matter?

A.: For the U.S., China is a much more significant challenge than Russia from a strategic perspective. China's military potential hasn't so far matched the economic and dynamically growing scientific and technological potential, but it will do. China has huge capabilities for developing all types of weapons, military hardware and military technologies.

Confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region will be growing, just as the arms race at sea, in air and in space. There is every reason to believe that China will evolve in the strategic arms sphere within the next decade. If I were a Washington decision-maker, I would think hard. By the way, professional experts in the U.S. – whose voices were not heard at all under Trump and I don't know if they are being heard under the Biden administration – speak and write about this openly. They are asking why the U.S. needs the dual containment strategy. What will it lead to? What are the risks?

Q.: Do the Geneva negotiations look like a game of poker?

A.: There are so far no preconditions for qualitative shifts and any considerable improvement of the situation in Russian-U.S. relations, although I'm sure that both sides have various options on the table. But it is a big achievement that a serious conversation is taking place. There hadn’t been real negotiations for several years. Things that were under Trump in the sphere of discussing strategic stability were a comedy. Today, both sides have serious intentions.

Q.: Those who can wait win poker games. Is it the same here?

A.: International politics is more Russian preference than poker. It is necessary not only to read the opponent's intentions but also to count cards and calculate possible moves. The current situation so far outwardly looks like poker but hopefully there is pragmatism, common sense and calculations behind the rash statements.