clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why one of Russia’s top foreign policy experts is worried about a major war with Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visit military exercises in Kirillovsky.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visit military exercises in Kirillovsky.

This is part three of a three-part interview. Part one: the US and Russia. Part two: the Middle East.

During the Cold War, when Europe became a political battleground between the Soviet Union and the Western powers, the stakes were no less than the future of the world. It wasn't just a struggle for Europe's ideological alignment; it was a virtually bloodless military rivalry, in which both sides rallied ever more armies and nuclear warheads to prepare for a war that, had it ever come, would have left the globe in ashes.

We think of that time as over, and in many ways it is. But the Ukraine crisis has renewed elements of that contest over Europe.

Western countries have sought to sanction and isolate Russia over its actions in Ukraine. They have increased their military activity, particularly in the NATO-allied Baltic states along Russia's borders, to deter any more aggression. Russia, in turn, has sought to cultivate European allies who could split the anti-Russian coalition. It has also increased its own military activity along the borders of NATO, and it has warned repeatedly that it could use nuclear weapons to deter a Western attack. Both sides are competing for influence in Germany, which is widely seen as Europe's deciding vote on any Western response to Russia — economic, political, or military.

In Western capitals, policymakers tend to be more focused on Middle Eastern problems such as ISIS or Iran. Those paying close attention, though, warn that Russia could try to permanently split NATO, or even that the saber-rattling could escalate out of control into a full-blown war that nobody wants.

Amanda Taub and I traveled to Moscow to try to understand Russian views of the struggle for Europe. One of the people we spoke to was Fyodor Lukyanov. The editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs and chair of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Lukyanov is one of Russia's most influential and well-connected foreign policy experts. He is widely considered to reflect the views of Russia's official foreign policy establishment. Our conversation left me deeply concerned about the Russian-Western rivalry in Europe, the mismatch in how the two sides see dangers in that rivalry, and the remote but real possibility of an unwanted spiral into war.

What follows is a transcript of the section of our conversation that touched on these issues. Sections on Russia's relationship with the US and on its approach to the Middle East have been published separately. This has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The great game in Europe

Fyodor Lukyanov speaks at a 2014 conference in London (Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for The New York Times)

Fyodor Lukyanov speaks at a 2014 conference in London. (Anthony Harvey/Getty Images for The New York Times)

Max Fisher: A lot of people see an effort by Russia to play Western states off of one another as a strategy meant to weaken the ability of Western states to organize action against Russia.

Fyodor Lukyanov: I hear all the time these hysterical statements that Putin is destroying the European Union and widening gaps between different countries and bribing politicians. It’s vice versa. The European Union is in very big trouble, and all the splits there are embedded. They’re not created by Putin. Mr. [Viktor] Orban became Hungary’s prime minister and will maybe remain there until the end of his life, not because of Putin. He was a staunch anti-Communist, anti-Russian guy. Greece became as it is not because of Putin.

But of course since it happened and there are deep structural troubles within the European Union, it would be strange to expect that Russia would not try to use this. So yes, of course we see wide systemic efforts to encourage those forces that can disrupt, for example, the unity of sanctions. That, to me, is very legitimate.

As I said, understanding of how the United States works is very low here. But with Europe, I think Russia understands much better how it works and how it can be influenced. To stimulate those destructive elements that are already there anyway — of course. The problem with this policy is, at the end, we may increase troubles in the EU. It’s hard to influence decision-making by encouraging countries like Hungary, Greece, or Cyprus, because they don’t have to stay in the European Union. Traditionally, there were two countries to decide: France and Germany. Now it’s only one country: Germany. And that means that the more successful Russia is with playing with marginal forces, the bigger trouble will be with the key country.

Russia and Germany’s relationship is in the worst shape since I don’t know when, since the 1950s and 1960s. And Germany is really taking a position that was initially very unexpected here. The Russian leadership underestimated the fact that Germany had started to perceive itself as the European leader, and the European leader cannot afford to make tricky deals with Russia as [Germany] did before.

The German Ostpolitik [West Germany’s Cold War–era policy of working with the Soviet bloc and emphasizing West German neutrality] was traditionally defined by big business, which was very interested in the Russian market since the 1960s. They had enough influence on the government to get through their interests. They tried to do this last year, as well — companies like Siemens or E.ON or gas companies, machinery companies, they’re really keen to keep Russia. But they discovered that for the first time, the government told them to shut up. "It’s much higher stakes, it’s a much bigger gamble, so shut up." And they shut up. So now we see a completely different environment in Germany.

The contest for Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg in 2013 (OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg in 2013. (OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty)

Max Fisher: Germany’s policy toward Russia seems to be very divisive among Germans. Opinion polls show that many Germans don’t want to take such a hard line on Russia; they don’t want to be so involved in the Ukraine crisis. Former German Chancellors Gerhard Schroeder and Helmut Schmidt have called for a policy that's more cooperative with Russia, more in line with Ostpolitik. What’s the view in Moscow of this split?

Fyodor Lukyanov: That’s been of very low interest, until recently. When Germany took a [harder-line] position, as it took last year, the explanations [in Moscow] were very simplistic. We wanted to believe that this change was entirely because of American pressure on Germany. I spent two months in Germany earlier this year, and I can say American pressure is there, of course. But in fact it’s much deeper. This is really about Germany repositioning as the European power.

As for public opinion, it’s a very interesting phenomenon that deserves to be studied in depth. On the one hand you see, according to opinion polls, perceptions of Putin and of Russia is very low. Seventy-plus percent of Germans believe Putin is a bad guy, Russia is going the wrong way, and especially this Malaysian airliner disaster [Flight MH17, which was shot down over Ukraine in July 2014 by, it is widely believed, Russian-armed fighters]. At the same time, if you speak to people and seek more detail, the problem is not with Russia — the problem is the population's growing mistrust of the political leadership in Germany and in Europe at large.

I had a very interesting conversation with the head of the foreign policy committee with the [German] Bundestag. His staffer told me, "You know, it’s such a big problem here in Germany with Putin’s Russian propaganda undermining everything." I was really surprised to hear it, because I didn’t see it, frankly. She said, "We received a lot of emails criticizing our chairman for his policies criticizing Russia on Ukraine, for being too tough, and so on." I said, "Wait a minute, you see people criticizing him as a product of Putin’s propaganda?" She said, "Yes, of course." But don’t you think they might just be disagreeing with him? It’s a democratic society!

She was a bit confused by this, but this shows a key problem. The population increasingly doesn’t trust [Germany's leadership], not because of Russia or because of Ukraine, but because they've lost an understanding of what is going on in the European Union. This is a deep problem with the integration of the European Union. If Putin’s propaganda were smarter, this could be used [in Europe]. "If they tell us all the time that Russia is so bad, maybe it’s actually that something is wrong with them."

Ukraine became a very interesting phenomenon because on the one hand it consolidated establishments [in Europe against Russia], because establishments see an external threat, and an external threat is always a good thing to further certain policies. At the same time, many of the citizens — in Germany, not even to speak of Southern Europe, where they don’t care about Ukraine at all — they don’t understand; they asked, "Why should we suffer for this?" The Russian counter-sanctions hit some areas [in those economies]. People ask, "Why should we suffer for something we don’t want?"

Fear, tension, and miscommunication between Russia and NATO

The Russian Tu-95 long-range bomber, one of the aircraft types that has flow in or near NATO airspace in recent months, viewed by Western governments as a dangerous provocation (Wojtek Laski/Getty)

The Russian Tu-95 long-range bomber, one of the aircraft types that has flow in or near NATO airspace in recent months, viewed by Western governments as a dangerous provocation. (Wojtek Laski/Getty)

Max Fisher: Let me ask you about NATO. There is some discussion of considering steps to integrate Sweden or possibly even Finland into NATO. How are these discussions perceived here in Moscow, and what would be the consequences of actually taking steps toward that?

Fyodor Lukyanov: It's perceived very badly. NATO is back as the main symbolic threat. Sweden is especially active in reestablishing this old agenda of [portraying a] Russian menace. Finland less so, but the same sort of perception.

What’s happening now in Northern Europe and the Baltics is a very unfortunate and dangerous development. It’s not the goal of Russia, as many believe in the West, to take the Baltic states or to test Article V [the NATO provision for mutual self-defense, in which all member-states would come to the aid of an attacked ally]. I don’t think it’s the aim of the Russian leadership.

The problem is that since the Cold War, all the mechanisms for taking each other seriously and disposing means to control damage, all those mechanisms were disrupted or eroded.

Max Fisher: What do you mean by mechanisms?

Fyodor Lukyanov: Telephone red lines between chiefs of general staffs, to communicate. Mechanisms to agree where our aircraft might go and might not, where yours will go.

I mean the extensive Cold War infrastructure that was developed, after the Cuban Missile Crisis especially, to manage hostility. Because they understood that they were bound to be adversaries, but measures were needed to prevent fatal collisions. To have proxy war in Afghanistan or somewhere else, to be extremely careful how submarines with nuclear missiles go alongside one another’s coasts, that’s important. And that has been degraded since the end of the Cold War because the common perception is that we don’t need it anymore. Unfortunately, it’s back, but we need to reestablish mechanisms.

What happens in the Baltic areas and in Northern Europe, all these claims about Russian aircraft with switched-off transponders and so on, it’s very difficult to understand who is lying and who is not. Both sides are, if not lying, leaving a lot of omissions. As one major person told me, of course we switch off transponders, it’s a normal thing, they need test different options for exercising what they need to exercise. But it’s an issue for communication and agreement. How do we do it? What can you expect us to do and to not do?

Unfortunately, the Baltics have become a centerpiece for that, for understandable reasons. The Baltic states are especially concerned, if not terrified, by what happens. They want NATO physically there in case of emergency. Basically the problem is that they don’t trust NATO; they trust only the Americans. They don’t trust their European allies, because of their historical experiences. They’re afraid that in the case of emergencies, their German friends will say, "Sorry, we cannot protect you now; next time."

To reassure the Baltic states is one of the major tasks for NATO. That’s why so many military activities happen in that area. Russia reacts to that because Russia perceives it as a hostile approach to the Russian border. And it’s a vicious circle.

Max Fisher: Are there specific areas or triggers that you worry could lead to dangerous misunderstandings?

Fyodor Lukyanov: Without any intention to create the big conflict, it might happen. One step, another step, and reciprocity can become very dangerous. Say a Russian aircraft comes very close to an area that NATO believes is prohibited while Russia believes it’s not prohibited, and then British aircraft respond. It might be manageable, and in most cases of course it will be, but who knows.

Amanda Taub: There’s a perception in the US that one of the dangers of Russian actions is that it would be politically advantageous for Putin to be seen as aggressive. They look at what happened in Ukraine, and they see that it’s really helped his popularity at home. So there’s a fear that Russia might be eager to do something like that.

Fyodor Lukyanov: I remember a lot of conversations in 2000 with many Americans and Europeans about NATO enlargement.

I told them there were a lot of risks ahead of us, especially if Ukraine was invited into NATO. The argument I heard several times cited was Poland. When Poland wanted to join NATO, Russia objected several times, but then peacefully accepted it. Lithuania wanted to join, and it was the same. [The Americans and Europeans] said it would be the same story with Ukraine.

I tried to convince them it would not be the same because Ukraine is completely different for Russia — it’s seen by many people as something that’s actually a part of our country, or if not part of our country then a country that’s absolutely essential to Russia’s security. If you try [to integrate Ukraine into NATO], that might be very bad. I didn’t see a lot of understanding for this argument. I think Putin said about the same in 2008 to President George Bush at their famous Bucharest summit. The message basically was, "Don’t touch Ukraine. If you don’t touch it, we don’t touch it."

Nuclear threats and nuclear deterrents

A Russian intercontinental ballistic missile railway launch complex is shown in a 2002 photo (Sovfoto/UIG via Getty)

A Russian intercontinental ballistic missile railway launch complex is shown in a 2002 photo. (Sovfoto/UIG via Getty)

Max Fisher: Putin has been talking more about Russian nuclear weapons recently. There’s a particular quote he gave in September, speaking at a youth conference in Seliger, that’s generated a lot of discussion in Washington.

He said, "Let me remind you that Russia is one of the world’s biggest nuclear powers. These are not just words — this is the reality. What’s more, we are strengthening our nuclear deterrent capability and developing our armed forces."

A lot of people have been trying to figure out why he would say something this provocative and what he was trying to signal.

Fyodor Lukyanov: That’s interesting. For me and for a lot of people here, there’s absolutely no secret what he was trying to signal.

Russia feels very vulnerable, although maybe a little bit less since the improvement of conventional forces [after the 2008 war with Georgia]. There is a widespread belief that the only guarantee for Russian security, if not sovereignty and existence, is the nuclear deterrent.

After the Yugoslavian wars, Iraq War, Libyan intervention, it’s not an argument anymore, it’s conventional wisdom: "If Russia were not a nuclear superpower, the regime change of an Iraqi or Libyan style would be inevitable here. The Americans are so unhappy with the Russian regime, they would do it anyway. Praise God, we have a nuclear arsenal, and that makes us untouchable."

That’s why, in the very popular view, [the Americans] try to undermine us in different ways by injecting revolutions and regime change through Maidan-ization and so on.

Max Fisher: Some people have read Putin’s recent statements on nuclear deterrence as a way of signaling that Russia could potentially use its nuclear weapons in the case of a conventional military attack on Russia, including Crimea.

Fyodor Lukyanov: Yes, I believe it’s in the Russian security doctrine, the preemptive use of nuclear arms in the case of conventional aggression [against Russia].

Max Fisher: Given what we talked about earlier, with the risk of an unwanted conventional conflict between Russia and NATO, it seems like this nuclear doctrine could be very dangerous.

Fyodor Lukyanov: Yes, it could be very dangerous, again because of the perception of weakness. Russia is looking at the military superiority of the United States, and it feels unsafe.

That’s why you hear all these statements like one from a Russian TV anchor last year that Russia can turn the United States into radioactive dust. This was perceived, of course, as something completely unacceptable, and it was. But it was treated here as nothing new.

Is war imaginable?

President Obama speaks to US and Estonian soldiers in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, where he pledged the US would come to Estonia's defense in the case of aggression by its neighbor, Russia (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty)

President Obama speaks to US and Estonian soldiers in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, where he pledged the US would come to Estonia's defense in the case of aggression by its neighbor, Russia. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty)

Max Fisher: We talked earlier about scenarios that could lead to armed conflict in Europe between Russia and NATO. No one thinks it’s likely, no one wants it, but it could happen. Is there a fear of this risk in the Russian leadership, in the Russian establishment? Is it something the decision-makers in Moscow are afraid of?

Fyodor Lukyanov: There is a fear. A question that was absolutely impossible a couple of years ago, whether there might be a war, a real war, is back. People ask it. It’s terrible, but it shows how much the atmosphere has changed. Five years ago, nobody could even think about this.

Max Fisher: Those people in the government who are talking about the possibility of a war, how do they imagine it starting?

Fyodor Lukyanov: People don’t think of it in that particular of a way, but, for example, massive military help to Ukraine from the United States — it could start as a proxy war, and then [trails off]. It’s not a scenario that is explicitly discussed. But the atmosphere is a feeling that war is not something that’s impossible anymore.

Max Fisher: Do you worry that this has desensitized people to certain policies or acts, such as Russian military flights in the Baltics or something else, that could be destabilizing? That the acceptance of war as a possibility has weakened taboos against it, rather than scaring people away from it?

Fyodor Lukyanov: According to opinion polls, big majorities of Russians are against a Russian intervention in Ukraine, for example. Of course that might be changed by propaganda means, but in general I don’t think Russian people are in the mood of launching a war.

But the Russian people are starting to think it’s not impossible. Most Russians don’t want more land after Crimea, polls show this. Rather, the perception is that somebody would try to undermine Russia as a country that opposes the United States, and then we will need to defend ourselves by military means.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.