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LMC 2021

Options for Rules-Based Players in a Changing Global Order

The future should be built on the right lessons from the past rather than the wrong ones. It is crucial to reach out to Russian people. China is not attempting to trash the international order the way Vladimir Putin is. Longtime Ambassadors Daniel Fried and Jüri Luik discuss how rules-based players in the global arena could deal with an acute threat – Russia – and a “systemic” challenge – China.

Jüri Luik

Estonian Ambassador to NATO

Daniel Fried

Weiser Family Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council

Servicemen of different countries walk past military vehicles during the three Swords 2021 multinational military exercise of the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian Brigade at the International Peacekeeping Security Centre near Yavoriv, western Ukraine, in July 2021. More than 1,200 military personnel and more than 200 combat vehicles from Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, and the U.S. took part in the international exercise. Photo: AFP/Scanpix

Jüri Luik (JL): When looking at the European theater of foreign and security policy, there is no doubt that the crucial influencer and spoiler of peaceful and stable cooperation is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now Putin has become kind of an amateur historian, specifically with reference to the articles in the National Interest and the recent one regarding Ukraine. What worries me is the dilettante historian’s attempt to create intellectual space and justification for marking the areas where Russia might have illegal territorial claims. Taken together with various military maneuvers which Russia has lately conducted near Ukraine there is ample reason for concern.

Daniel Fried (DF): Your concern is, unfortunately, spot on. Putin is not a historian—he is using history to rationalize Russian aggression and claim to Ukraine. He is essentially denying Ukrainian sovereignty in any form except in subordination to Russia. It is a revamped historical narrative of a great Russian chauvinist.

What worries me is the dilettante historian’s attempt to create intellectual space and justification for marking the areas where Russia might have illegal territorial claims.

Jüri Luik

In contrast to Putin’s vision, I posit two alternatives. First is that from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who said that he hoped that Ukrainians would see their future as aligned with Russia, but to reach that future Russia must reach out to Ukraine with respect and friendship. Second, as the smaller nation, it was up to Ukraine to decide its own future. That was a decent way of proceeding from someone who is a Russian patriot (some even accuse Solzhenitsyn of being a Russian nationalist).

There is also a very interesting historical counterpoint to Putin’s narrative that came from the Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian foreign ministers who issued a declaration, basically a recollection of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and they argued that it held off the Russians for a couple of centuries and at the same time developed constitutional traditions rather than political absolutism. What I liked about that declaration is that obviously the Poles, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians who signed it are well aware of all the problems in their past, but they did not decide to indulge their nationalistic grievances, they indulged a better vision of multinational cooperation.

Well, isn’t this the same ethos of the EU? Isn’t this the ethos we need? They are deciding to build a future on their best traditions not their worst. As an American, the parallel is this — we recall the declaration of independence and not the ideology of white racism and slavery.

I wish the Russians would take the right lessons from the 20th century and not the wrong ones. What we do about it is strengthen our defenses against Putin’s aggression. Push back on Russian aggression, strengthen resilience at home, and then don’t fear to talk to the Russians or cooperate where it is possible.

I would also say, reach out to the Russian people. They are not the enemy. I do not believe the Russians are somehow despotic by nature, or primitive, or can be ruled only by despots. I think that is nonsense. There is an alternative view of what Russian history can be—it is not our responsibility it’s Russia’s responsibility to reach a better future. But let us reach out to Russian people and not assume Putin speaks for all of them because he most surely does not.

Push back on Russian aggression, strengthen resilience at home, and then don’t fear to talk to the Russians or cooperate where it is possible.

Daniel Fried

JL: In a politically correct way we all repeat the importance of the Minsk agreements, but we are sort of stuck with these agreements. I am particularly concerned, that the enormous power of the U.S., which the Russians actually recognize, regardless of what they say, is lacking in the Ukrainian peace process.

Where do you see we should be going from here? Should the U.S. join the Minsk group? If that even possible? Or can the issue be pushed forward in talks between Biden/Putin? What is your take on where we should move on policy-wise regarding Ukraine?

DF: You are certainly right that the Minsk framework has not produced the results we hoped for. It principally failed because Putin wants it to fail.

The Minsk agreements have their flaws, but they also have certain advantages. They recognize Donbas is Ukrainian sovereign territory. They recognize that the end state, a solution, includes Ukrainian sovereign control over its eastern international border. The Minsk agreements, if Putin is willing to act on them in good faith, could be the basis of a fair settlement. The problem is not the forum, the problem is Putin. So, the issue is how do Ukraine, Europe, and the U.S. convince Putin that it is in his interest to settle in Donbas, and not increase the pressure against Ukraine. I fear that we have been passive for too long and we need to put greater pressure on Russia.

Now, the Ukrainians face two great challenges: one is external aggressions and Russian aggression operating within Ukraine—disinformation, agents of influence, corruption, etc.—but there is also Ukraine’s need to transform itself even when its territory is under attack. Ukrainian patriots have given the Ukrainian nation time and space to act, to reform and transform themselves. In doing so they may build up their sovereignty from within. The Kremlin wants Ukraine to be weak, corrupt, divided, and therefore manipulatable. The West wants Ukraine to be strong and independent, with strong independent institutions of a modern state, both government and non-government.

The enormous power of the U.S., which the Russians actually recognize, regardless of what they say, is lacking in the Ukrainian peace process.

Jüri Luik

Domestic reform is national security, and I am not saying this to avoid your question which is a legitimate one—what the U.S. should do? How it should bring greater pressure to advance a settlement and help Ukraine continue its own transformation? The Biden administration reacted strongly and swiftly to Putin’s military threat against Ukraine. They take it seriously. But it is also up to the Ukrainians, and they can do this, but they have not—they have done this—the transformation at home—unevenly back and forth.

But who am I as an American to start complaining about someone’s problems with reform—by God look at us! I am going to quote Solzhenitsyn again, “The line of good and evil runs through every nation and every human heart.” And I am quoting Solzhenitsyn, not because he is my favorite political thinker, but because it is important to remember a better Russian tradition and to remember that we all have gained from the better parts of Russian culture.

JL: Indeed, it seems that President Biden also invests a lot of hope in Russia appreciating being part of the club of civilized nations and wanting to be back around the table. Biden opened the way to talk to Putin; the EU also discussed the possibility of having a high-level summit—this did not pass in the EU Council. The EU decided after a lot of debate that Russian behavior does not justify such a meeting.

Regarding Biden, one of the reasons for the Geneva meeting was to look into the eyes of Putin and say, “look, we are serious”. I do not think Biden saw the soul of Putin and he did not expect to see it, which of course is even more important.

But on concrete issues—the strategic dialog for instance. With strategic nuclear weapons, Estonia has no particular angle, as these weapons fly over our head, figuratively and literally. However, when it comes to discussion regarding the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, tactical nukes or conventional forces, there are interests of the European allies, including Estonia, which should also be taken into consideration, and we will of course make this clear to the Biden administration.

So, from the area of hard military security, do you believe this is a feeble exercise where they will sit around the table and talk about stuff, or do you think there is a possibility of a breakthrough? Do you believe that allies will be kept in the loop? The U.S. tradition is mixed when it comes to these kinds of issues…

DF: I do not see a breakthrough. These channels can be useful, but I would not expect too much dealing with Putin.

I get the point about U.S. consultations. I believe in it myself and I think the American administration needs to remember that Europe is France, Germany, Britain but it is also Estonia, Poland, Sweden. We have a lot of friends, and real ones for God’s sake.

The Biden administration offered Putin a stable and predictable relationship and Putin’s answer was to increase provocations against us, including cyber-attacks made by private criminal organizations in Russia.

Daniel Fried

You walked around an issue that I thought you would hit on, so I will do it anyway—it is cyber, right? The Biden administration offered Putin a stable and predictable relationship and Putin’s answer was to increase provocations against us, including cyber-attacks made by private criminal organizations in Russia. I am sorry but you—President Putin—do not get to privatize your means of aggression against the U.S. then throw up your hands and say you have no idea about what’s going on. You are responsible.

The Biden administration is now grappling with the question of how to respond. I do notice that suddenly the Russian criminal hacking organization REvil has gone offline. Who knows if this was a U.S. Cyber Command operation but they have reached out and visited the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg troll farm, in the past.

What you are going to have in U.S.-Russian relations is a strange, yet not unique, combination of nasty business in the shadows and a measure of dialog and cooperation. Do not forget, I believe the U.S. is going to be reaching out to Russian society. Putin hates that. There’s a school of thought in the U.S. that we ought to not do such things. That debate is still with us in some quarters, but the programs are still there and well funded.

JL: Even from five years ago and when I was Estonian ambassador to Moscow, the situation has gone from bad to horrible. Declaring various democratic organizations as extremists, Putin effectively has disbanded them, people have self-disbanded these organizations just to protect themselves from being thrown into prison.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. President Joe Biden prior to the U.S.-Russia summit at the Villa La Grange, in Geneva on June 16, 2021. AFP/Scanpix

When it comes to the foreign agents’ law which is actively used against democratic organizations, the question is how can we actually help them? Many of these democratic organizations do not want us to send them money or material or us coming to Moscow to meet them because every one of these steps can lead them to prison in the worst circumstance. At the same time, I agree it is in our self-interest to strengthen the Russian civil society because this also influences and puts a stronger check on Putin and on his aggressive foreign policy endeavors.

The situation is horrible, I would say that on certain instances it might be worse than during the Soviet times.

DF: It does feel Soviet, but how did all that work out for the Soviet Union? In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union was externally aggressive, internally repressive, and many in the West thought they were winning, and that democracies would never get organized to compete against them. It is not that I expect history to repeat itself, but Putin keeps going back to Soviet tactics as if he thinks he could replay the Cold War and this time it would come out differently.

Well, during the Cold War, let us remember, they were able to threaten Western Europe and they had 300,000 soldiers in the middle of Germany. Now they’re fighting to maintain control over Donbas. How is that working out for Russia? Their great alliance with China—where they are a junior partner? Didn’t we learn in school that the history of Muscovy began when they overthrew the Mongol yoke? That means Putin is inviting the Mongol yoke right back. Do you think the Chinese have forgotten what the Russians did to them in the late 19th century? I do not.

Even from five years ago and when I was Estonian ambassador to Moscow, the situation has gone from bad to horrible.

Jüri Luik

We, the West, are not a threat to Russia. The threat to Putin from the West is the idea of democracy. Play Czar Nicholas I if you must, but that led Russia to miss the industrial revolution and deepen its backwardness.

I am talking about these historical points because they can make a rough sense and you can see the parallels with today. During the Cold War, the most effective programs we ever had were not the ones that were tough and confrontational, they were the programs that included outreach to Russian society. It was exchange programs and student programs. We should remember that our best weapon, so to speak, is also our best virtue: the rule of law, honesty, transparency, freedom.

JL: You mentioned Chinese-Russian relations and I absolutely agree with you that Putin is toying around with the idea of some type of an Alliance. No one in China believes in it. Very few in Russia believe in it. I do not think Putin himself believes in it; it is more just to show he has options available other than the West.

But let me come to U.S.-Chinese relations. President Biden said in his visit to Europe there were two important deliverables: one was to show the U.S. is back, and of course it is undeniable, his is a very pro-European administration, a pro-international cooperation and pro-international organizations etc.

The other result was to prove to Europeans, I am paraphrasing, that China is a threat, a real threat. Do you believe China is a threat? There are several schools of thought in the U.S., Richard Haas has written about it saying we overemphasize or overjudge the Chinese ability to maintain big power status although they have made a whole list of mistakes which countries of that kind usually do and it weakens them. This belief that within 5-10 years China will catch up with the U.S. is an overblown threat.

On the other hand, it is a fact that China is militarizing. There is a certain discrepancy between the U.S. and Europe regarding their assessment of China. Even if you read the 2021 NATO summit communiqué, you see that Russia is called a threat, but China is called a “systemic challenge” to the international world order.

The 70th-anniversary celebration of the founding of the People s Republic of China. “China is not attempting to trash and destroy the international order the way [Vladimir] Putin is,” Ambassador Daniel Fried argues. EPA/Scanpix

What is your assessment? Is China a real threat to the U.S.? Is China a military threat in the Pacific? I would say if you take protecting Taiwan as a starting point, I can easily understand the enormous limitations the U.S. has in terms of weaponry, ships and the need to catch up. But what is U.S. policy towards Taiwan?

DF: I agree with you that Russia is an acute threat. With China it is much more complicated. At one end, there is as you say a potential military flashpoint if the Chinese attempted to attack Taiwan. That is the worst. There are potential flashpoints if the Chinese challenged the U.S. as it is sailing in the high seas. But China is not attempting to trash and destroy the international order in the way Putin is. Putin is almost a nihilist. He just wants чем хуже tем лучше; the worse the better.

The Chinese have gained a lot from their participation in the international economic system that the U.S. took the lead in building and maintaining. It has worked out well. It is interesting that when asked about this a while ago, Secretary of State Tony Blinken gave an answer that I think we saw elaborated on during Biden’s June trip to Europe—Blinken said we are not seeking a Cold War with China, we are seeking to strengthen the international rules-based system so that they have to play on our rules rather than write their own in a way that benefits them and their system.

Look at the U.S.-EU summit declaration. I know people look at the headlines and never read the documents from meetings but look at the document because it outlines areas in which the U.S. and EU can cooperate to do exactly what Blinken was talking about, which is strengthen the rules-based system.

Some time ago the U.S. government put out a set of regulations—so-called Business Advisories—cautioning business to do due diligence to avoid participating in slave labor in China and repression in Hong Kong. Basically, Uyghur-gulag produced products. This is very clever; it is not a hard sanction but is a way to enforce our own rules against slave labor. This is what we need to do.

We [the West] should remember that our best weapon, so to speak, is also our best virtue: the rule of law, honesty, transparency, freedom.

Daniel Fried

JL: I agree, one of the important issues for us is clearly the distinction between Russia and China. Of course, there are people in Europe who are concerned that the political establishment in the U.S. will unavoidably focus on China and will lose the political time and space to deal with other threats. Obviously, the Biden administration has been strong in emphasizing this is not the case, that they recognize the threat of Russia and the U.S. as a superpower has enough resources to deal with two countries simultaneously as well as various other threats.

There are other issues on the agenda of President Biden. One of the challenges of course is Afghanistan. Estonia has, similarly to U.S., invested in comparative terms a lot of treasure and blood there. We have now decided jointly to withdraw. Are you worried that should Afghanistan fall into the hand of the Taliban again, which seems to be a very realistic scenario, that this would send a signal to all our enemies that in the end if they can wait us out or if they can raise the cost high enough, we will get tired and go home? Also, is there a risk Afghanistan will become the birthplace of terrorism as it was before we started the military operations?

DF: I take the point about your concern that if we are too focused on China we tend to forget the Russian threat. There are two problems, one is that the moment that we jump down the rabbit hole of trying to buy Russian support against China we risk selling out some other country. I heard such cynical nonsense from the Trump administration; that such approaches are a favorite game of amateur and shallow strategists who think they are playing at the big table, and they have not a slightest clue what’s going on.

So, it is a problem but not much of one. Remember that the President Biden and Secretary Blinken are Europeanists. There are other “Asian first” people in the administration. So, I get it but even if we want to park the Russian relationship in a stable place and concentrate on China, Putin is not making that possible. Count on Vladimir Putin to make us deal with the problem.

On Afghanistan, I understand where Biden is coming from. 20 years—how much more, how much longer are we going to stay there and to what end? The counter argument is we did not have that much in Afghanistan but what we had could keep off the Taliban and if the country collapses like Saigon in 1975 then that is a big problem. But the Biden administration is going to have to consider its options. It is taking a risk. I understand where they are coming from, but it is not an easy decision either way. It is just not as deep or steep a problem. I hope.

Taliban fighters have gained control over Afghanistan since 1 May when US forces began withdrawing. EPA/Scanpix

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