Vladimir Lukin: I Am a Bit Wary of a “Popular” Foreign Policy
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Vladimir Lukin

Russian diplomat, politician, and international relations expert; former Ombudsman of the Russian Federation (2004–2014), Research Professor at National Research University–Higher School of Economics.

– Looking back over the past 25-30 years, what illusions did the Soviet Union and Russia have about the West?

– “Illusions” is probably not the most accurate and adequate way to describe that phenomenon, but illusions did exist. It was a time when the communist system was falling apart, unfortunately along with the Soviet Union. Communism gave rise to a fierce interstate ideological war that was completely black and white. That war had a strong impact on our foreign policy and the foreign policy of other major powers with regard to us. The Soviet foreign policy was based on two convictions. The first one was that foreign policy was “the driver” of ideology, which was not surprising for the Soviet Union at that time, and the second postulate was that foreign policy was a direct and automatic result of domestic policy.

There is no doubt that foreign and domestic policies are connected, but this connection was portrayed too primitively at that time. The logic was that since the Soviet Union was the ideological antagonist of the United States and Europe within NATO, a bipolar world and bloc-to-bloc confrontation would be a “normal” course of events, although in real life this was not quite the case. By that time, the “autonomous” phenomena of China, Yugoslavia, and de Gaulle’s France had been around for quite a while, but were somewhat marginalized in the black-and-white scheme of things. And since the communist regime in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had collapsed, the opposite side had to be urgently employed to turn black into white. As a Chinese poet once said, “What once was upside-down has to be turned around.”

However, any person who is more or less versed in international relations knows that there is more to foreign policy than just ideology. It is not confined solely to geopolitics, as some political neophytes say now, and it is not a direct continuation of domestic policy. Foreign policy has a dimension of its own, though relative. The fact that a large part of Russia is in Eurasia affects the country’s policy, which differs substantially from that of Mexico, located on the opposite side of the world. This is obvious. And no change in ideology or internal circumstances can shake this fundamental fact. However, the late 1980s were marked by an emerging ideological zeal to turn around everything that some thought was “upside-down” until then.

– With just as much fervor and ideological thrust?

– Exactly. Any domestic and foreign policy actions during a revolution – and the 1990s were undoubtedly a revolutionary period – “shine” with the light of moral indignation or admiration. In the past NATO was “very bad,” then it became “very good.” If the Caribbean crisis was horrible, let’s do the opposite, like giving up all our foreign bases unilaterally and for nothing. Not everyone in the Foreign Ministry and the leadership of the country shared this point of view, of course, but this was the general vector.

This provided the background for many events that occurred at that time, including the reunification of Germany, which was inevitable, but could have happened differently, or NATO enlargement essentially to the Russian border without any legally binding documents regulating a thousand related issues. As a result, the policy of the late Soviet Union and subsequently of young Russia (which inherited the key features of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy at the time of its breakup) was not so much pro-Russian as pro-American to the same extent that it was aggressively anti-American before (for example, under Andropov).

As I have already said, not everyone shared this point of view, and I, too, called for caution and more conventionalism, if you like. But no one listened to us. On the contrary, we were irritating. On top of everything else, this shortsighted foreign policy led to some unforeseen consequences inside the country. For instance, it quickly turned into an impediment to serious reforms and movement forward away from the Soviet past. This allowed the so-called “red-brown opposition,” a motley crew of people with different views, including strong opposition to the new foreign policy, to score points by criticizing the blind pro-American course.

– In other words, a blind pro-American policy encouraged opponents of liberal reform?

– Right. But it was also a natural reaction. After all, a revolution is a revolution, and it thinks in absolute terms, not in nuances. When the October Revolution triumphed in 1917, the Bolsheviks and their first foreign minister Leon Trotsky did a lot of things. Trotsky was somewhat contemptuous about foreign affairs, but he did two major things for Soviet foreign policy: he participated in the first round of the Brest-Litovsk talks with the Germans (under the “bold” “neither war nor peace” motto) and ordered his aide Markin, a sailor with the Baltic Fleet, to publish the secret treaties of tsarist Russia in the hope that this would lead to global peace simply because everyone would see the insidiousness of “the damned bourgeois and landowning diplomats” who had been conducting their shady business in secret. We know the end of this initiative from history. It surely wasn’t a “lasting peace.”

Something similar happened to us [after the breakup of the USSR – Ed.]. After the first shock, our “Atlantic partners” began to do as they saw fit, fully convinced that we would automatically approve of all their actions, even those that were obviously at odds with our own interests.

– How much did the West know and understand about what was happening in the Soviet Union and then in Russia at that time?

– They knew that revolutionary events were taking place; that is, ignorance   was trampling upon justice, as it happens in any revolution, and the West eventually decided to grab as much for itself in this turmoil as possible. It would be ridiculous to blame them for egoism. That’s like blaming a person for egoism, which is a source of his motivation. Whether this egoism was reasonable or not is a different issue. This discussion has been going on in the West for about a quarter of a century and it is still far from being over.

– And when did surprise become a desire to fish in muddy waters?

– That happened gradually. At first President George H. W. Bush in his speech in Kiev in July 1991 told Ukrainians to act with more caution so that the Soviet Union would not disintegrate completely. In fact, many people in the West knew that the Soviet Union was a nuclear power and were afraid of undermining it too much. The U.S. president’s cautious and balanced approach has not been fully appreciated so far in our country. But later, when everything collapsed, Washington assumed its usual stance: the United States is a natural leader, and all others must follow its orders, with no need to go through complex coordination procedures, but with everyone having to look up to the superior.

I remember the early 1990s when I was ambassador in Washington and we were discussing at the State Department the idea of convening a conference on the Partnership for Peace program for NATO’s interaction with Eastern European countries. When the Americans began to spell it out, I asked them a simple question: “Will NATO form a ?partnership’ with each country in the region separately or collectively?” I was told it would be done with each country separately. That said everything. It foreboded NATO’s eastward expansion. It was the biggest mistake the West made and gradually led to the current situation in which both sides feel uneasy.

– You said NATO’s eastward expansion was a mistake. Could Russia have corrected the trajectory of that expansion, influenced it somehow if not prevented it? Did it try?

– A conviction formed over time that the United States was abusing the friendship offered by Russia. It took time to realize the need to counter Washington and it became completely manifest at the turn of the century during the conflict in Yugoslavia. It was the position of the U.S. and its allies on Yugoslavia and NATO expansion that made both the general public in Russia and its elites take a critical view of Washington’s policy.

Unlike in the Soviet era, when anti-American sentiment was an official policy yet one the people did not share, such a clear watershed no longer existed. Anti-American attitudes began to take root amid the current political circumstances coupled with old complexes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries stemming from naïve ideas of Slavic unity, largely idealized, but virtually nonexistent at the political and diplomatic levels. The ideological pattern of struggle between the two systems, which ceased to exist together with the Soviet Union and the socialist camp, was replaced with whatever came handy in the pantry of old and long forgotten things.

True, there were some politicians who argued that ideological liberalism did not mean following U.S. policy, that Russia had its own interests to pursue. I was one of those. When working in Washington as ambassador I published an article in Foreign Affairs, where I described Kozyrev’s policy as “infantile pro-Americanism,” which apparently shortened my term of office. Americans asked me what Russian foreign policy should be like. And I told them “it should not be infantile in the first place.” We have to discuss and advance our own interests, not make blind decisions, pandering to the wishes of others. I wrote that pro-Americanism was not necessarily tantamount to anti-Americanism; it simply meant a mature pro-Russian policy.

– You mentioned Andrei Kozyrev. But what did Yeltsin think about America at that time?

– He made his first visit to the United States in 1989, and it was a very bad trip, as far as I can remember. The trip did not improve his image, to put it mildly. When he became chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Russia but was not yet an elected president, he began to score points in the United States. I think he sincerely wanted to protect Russia’s interests, even though at first he tried hard to avoid being branded a Soviet-style functionary since he had been a party boss recently.

But he was not very knowledgeable about foreign affairs. I believe he differed little in this respect from some of the American presidents who were hardly the best and brightest in terms of foreign relations. But he listened to advice. At a congress of the Russian Supreme Soviet, where he was elected its chairman and I was named to head its foreign affairs committee, I approached him and said that I was also a man of democratic views and was ready to work with him, but I had never been and never would be a “yes man.” “That’s the kind of people we need!” he exclaimed emotionally. With time he began to tire of that, but early in his career he listened carefully, sometimes becoming grouchy, but generally was quite attentive and responsive.

When U.S. Secretary of State James Baker visited Russia in early 1992, he said he wanted to organize and chair something like a Politburo meeting with the heads of new post-Soviet states. We discussed this with Yeltsin. I told him that Baker’s proposal was sheer impudence and suggested cutting him down to size demonstratively. When asked how this could be done, I advised Yeltsin against attending the meeting and suggested going in his place. And I did. The desired effect was achieved.

– Kozyrev called himself “the most pro-Western foreign minister in the history of Russia.” You were Ambassador to the United States during his term, but your views were very far apart. Did you have to fight?

– Naturally. It was a fight and it ended with my bureaucratic defeat. Kozyrev was in Moscow, I was in Washington. When Yeltsin visited America for the third time in the summer of 1992 on an official visit, he told me: “Vladimir Petrovich, I trust you one hundred and twenty percent. Just tell me who is bothering you here at the embassy or elsewhere and I will remove them.” I understood that this was the beginning of the decline, my decline, as it was a matter of trust. The closer it got to the Vancouver summit, the more Moscow frowned at me and my statements, including in Foreign Affairs, and in my confidential reports. Eventually, considering my “great success in America,” I was asked to run the embassy in Great Britain where things were critical. I said I would not go anywhere, but would return to Russia, as I did. I ran for a seat in the Duma and after the election became head of its foreign affairs committee, just like in the Russian Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin neither helped me nor stood in my way, even though there was a lot of talk against me. But I never regretted my decision.

– In his 1994 book “Diplomacy,” Henry Kissinger writes that “integrating Russia into the international system is a key task” for the United States. But as he was saying this, the Americans were actually pushing Moscow away with their policy? Why?

– It is in the genes. America has a simple ideology – that there is only one truth in the world, that truth is held by God, and God created the United States to be an embodiment of that truth. So the Americans strive to bring this truth to the rest of the world and to make it happy. Only after that will everything be well. This ideology has a strong influence on their policy. A wise traditionalist and a geopolitical expert, Kissinger had good reason to call such politicians “Trotskyites” for advocating a world revolution, albeit in their own way, but always in the front and in shining armor. This is a tempting ideology and has been professed by different countries at different times, not only the United States.

– So Russia took off its ideological blinders in 1991, but America still seems to have them on. The Soviet Union is gone, but the policy against it is not.

– I would not say that the evil desire of Washington was behind everything that happened. There is the issue of states that are content with their position and of the so-called “revisionists.” In the situation we have described they considered our country no more than just a huge crumbling state, and the United States could afford anything at that time. We can criticize our politicians, but in the 1990s they did not have sufficient resources to stand up to that policy. Revisionist states, as we know, try to change the world in accordance with their understanding of justice, but this understanding is often just a ribbon attached to the actual balance of power.

This is why India, China, Brazil, and several other major countries oppose the United States in one way or another. There is a gap between what a country thinks it can do in the changed balance of power and what other countries think it can do. This is the root cause of conflicts. China’s possibilities have changed dramatically since the watershed plenum of the Communist Party’s Central Committee in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping proclaimed his Four Modernizations policy. And yet Beijing is being very cautious; perhaps at times even more so than many would consider reasonable. India and Brazil are also trying to avoid drastic movements, preferring instead to “let eagles lead the way.” Eagles mostly soar in the sky. The view from up there is beautiful, but unfortunately some details cannot be seen clearly. And as we know, the devil is in the detail.

They willingly give us the role of “heading the protest against the treacherous Americans.” Washington claims, however, that it wants to preserve the status quo, but the status quo of the first postwar period when the United States was the indisputable hegemon that would never retreat. As to whether we should act in the Chinese way or follow Heinrich Heine’s “Beat the drum and fear not” principle, I always was and remain an advocate of a pro-Russian foreign policy, a policy to make the most of the current situation and focus on how to modernize the country, save the nation, and enter the 21st century in full vigor. This should be done without much ado, like the Chinese did, even though we have been, are, and will be Europeans. In other words, we should find the right balance between adapting to the rapidly changing world and going too far beyond the red lines.

A Japanese general told me once that Japan suffered so much and sustained so many dramatic strategic losses during the war because it had mixed up two things: a dream and a strategy. We had a dream in 1990 to do everything quickly in line with our rigid ideological plans and to make a giant leap into an era of happiness. But the ship of a state as big as ours is very bulky and moves slowly, and it is dangerous for it to make a sharp turn. But it can steer its course carefully, paying attention to changes in the balance of power in the world. It is important, though, to keep its weak spots shielded from enemy attacks, and this is real art. I say “art” because this is something professionals should do.

– Has diplomacy changed much over the past twenty years?

– In terms of technologies employed, diplomacy today is very different from what it was in the past, both during the Cold War era and in the 1990s. Henry Kissinger has even suggested that ambassadors are no longer needed. What is an ambassador? In the past it was a person who was given a mandate, general instructions and several sable skins, wished good luck, and sent away on a voyage of his own. It’s different now. Diplomacy is largely conducted online, with the heads of state keeping in touch with each other all the time. And as a former ambassador, I can add that when they talk on the phone, ambassadors do not always know what exactly they discuss. So technologies change, but the essence of diplomacy remains the same. We have to pursue our interests with a clear understanding of our possibilities and those of our opponents. Plus, diplomacy today comes in a soft and sparkling PR package designed to hype certain events or people just like in show business.

– You participated in the talks on the release of OSCE officials in Donetsk and in Yanukovich’s talks with the opposition. What are your impressions from those events that have already become history?

– The OSCE officials were released in May. Before that, in February, there were negotiations between Yanukovich and the Ukrainian opposition, and then a revolution. Our president asked me to go to Kiev and take part in the meeting on Russia’s behalf. Whether or not any documents were signed depended entirely on the circumstances. Naturally, since I am quite experienced in conducting negotiations, I was supposed to consult Moscow from time to time, which I did. And the decisions made were the decisions of political leaders, not of the diplomats, who simply implemented those decisions.

The agreement between Yanukovich and three opposition leaders was actually reached on February 21, but when it came to its implementation, the Maidan supporters rejected the compromise and continued their unilateral actions, causing Yanukovich to flee. The agreement was torpedoed. With its object and subject gone, there was no sense in signing any document.

And then a civil war broke out. It was during that war that the OSCE monitors had to be rescued in Donetsk and Slavyansk where rebels had detained them. They simply had to be extricated with the assistance of both sides. I received a great deal of help from Moscow. It took a lot of effort and hard work with Kiev, the West, and the local authorities, and I received a lot of assistance from the many people involved in the talks from all sides. I greatly appreciate that. Thank God we could do it, although not always easily and smoothly.

– You said that the public and the elites were united in the 1990s in their attitude towards the West, and that today’s foreign policy is also popular, but for how long?

– I am a bit wary of “a popular foreign policy” because it is often short-lived and based on emotions that do not last. Russian history knows periods when foreign and domestic policies alternately enjoyed strong emotionally charged popularity, but rarely both at the same time. I would like to see a strong and lasting balance between domestic and foreign policy aimed at strengthening our security and facilitating Russia’s internal development. It is a real challenge to make foreign policy serve internal development so that people live better and the country becomes stronger with more external capabilities. This is a complex art that requires consolidation, consistency, self-restraint, and the ability to listen to different voices and resist various populist temptations… What exactly needs to be done to achieve this goal is something politicians and career diplomats have to decide.

Interviewed by Yegor von Schubert, a journalist and publicist.