By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
At this year’s 58th Security Conference in Munich (18-20 February) under the somewhat bizarre title “Unlearning helplessness”, it is noteworthy that at this forum for strategic security discussions between East and West (founded by Ewald von Kleist 1963) the Russian foreign minister and other Russian officials did not participate. Most of the speeches centered on the Russian /Ukraine conflict quoting US intelligence sources, whereby Russia’s attack was “imminent” for which Russia has to pay a dear price. In the chorus of voices there were a few exceptions. This included a speech by UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres who referred to the key principles of the UN Charta as a guideline for peace. The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz equally paid tribute to the UN concept of “multilateralism” by strongly calling for peace and dialogue as a means to defuse the present crisis around Ukraine.
Remarkable was also the speech by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (via Zoom) who, when being asked by the MSC chairman Wolfgang Ischinger about the recent “Joint statement between Putin and Xi Jinping”, underlined the strategic significance of this paper, that calls for respect of “territorial sovereignty, that is consistent with the principles of the UN Charter. In respect to the Ukraine Wang Yi stated that “we believe that Cold War has finished since a long time and that NATO was a product of the Cold War.” If there is NATO expansion (in the East) the question is whether that really leads to peace in Europe? “Following the assessments made at the UN Security Council, we should return to the initiative of the Minsk agreements ( II) which is a binding document that was recognized by the UN Security Council. Russia supports the new Minsk Agreement, which also Europe supports and recently US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called me and told me that also the US supported the Minsk agreement. So why should not all sit around a table and come up with a roadmap? What we see instead is the build- up of tremendous tensions and developing war hype. However all should work for peace. In my view Ukraine should be a bridge between East and West and not a frontline.”(!) Wang Yi emphasized that “the reasonable concerns of Russia should be respected. We hope that peace can be found by all partners”. Interesting at the Munich Security Conference were also discussions in smaller formats like a debate between Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz and representatives from the UAE and the Kingdom of Bahrain about the new “Abraham Accord” as a new prospect for peace and economic development in the Mideast.
Russian Colonel Dmitry Trenin on future relations between Russia and the West
In midst of the daily war hype and propaganda, it is worth to have a look at an interview that was given by the director of the Moscow Carnegie Foundation, Colonel Victor Trenin to the Russian Newspaper “Komersant” (25th of January).The Interview was re-published in the German bi-monthly magazine “Das Blättchen” (the magazine which is based on the tradition of the former Weimar magazine “Weltbühne”) in mid-February. It was introduced by a comprehensive overview concerning Russia’s demand for security guarantees that the Russian government under Putin had issued to the West and NATO by mid- December 2021.
The Interview with Trenin gives an interesting insight into the thinking of a certain part of the Russian elite. He spoke about two possible scenarios for the future:
The logical scenario: Trenin underlined on the basis of the recent demand for security guarantees, that the present situation is getting out of a “dead end” and that the entire western political, diplomatic and military elite, particularly in Washington, has been shaken up as result of Moscow’s demand for a new security architecture. “And we got something as result. First they didn’t reject off hand our proposals, but reacted. And furthermore they stated to be ready to answer in a written way to our proposals.” (This has occurred in the meantime E.H.) “And that means that de facto they recognize the seriousness of our concerns and our demands. Second they declared themselves ready to talk about themes that have been important for us, which up to now they have ignored, for example our proposal for a mutual moratorium concerning the stationing of medium- and short- range missiles. They didn’t want to hear anything about it (before), but now they demand us to negotiate. They are also ready to negotiate about limiting military manoeuvers near our territory, about sea- and air-exercises including simulated starts of nuclear missiles.”
Hence the emphasis by Trenin that dialogue is beginning: “For the first time since the debate about reunification of Germany, the West has declared that it is ready to talk to Russia about the security in Europe. In Europe from 1999 till 2021 the security of Europe was based on the good or bad will of the US with NATO being the most important instrument. Today the US and NATO negotiate with Russia about the security of Europe like during the period of Yalta and Helsinki.”
Trenin underlined the need for the US to actively push for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. He stated that the Minsk agreement was a diplomatic victory for Russia and these agreements can in “principle be acted upon.” The Donbass region could -according to Minsk (II) conditions- again be integrated into Ukraine, with the rights of the inhabitants in the region being guaranteed and the integrity of Ukraine being recognized by Russia. “Yet so far I don’t see Washington ready to force Kiev to realize the Minsk agreements. The unresolved conflict in Donbass is the best way to exert pressure on Moscow.”
Break with the West and closer ties with non-western countries
The second scenario which Trenin develops “starts from the premise that the situation is indeed very serious. We have already reached a point where a new policy of Russia begins to replace the old one. My book ‘The new balance of forces’ describes that Russian foreign policy under Jelzin as well as under Putin, including the Medvedev Period, stood on the shoulders of Gorbachev’s policy in one or the other way. It’s about continuing the integration into the western World, the search for its own place in the world, the search for a certain balance of interests in relations with the US and other Western countries, where the main emphasis is cooperation. What if this course is radically being thought over? (…) What if we distance ourselves from a period where the main task was to integrate into a common world, even if under our conditions? And what would happen if the break with the West, about which President Putin in reaction to the prospect of American sanctions spoke about as ‘sanctions from hell’, would become true?”
“In case of a break with the West, Russia could build closer ties – de facto alliances – with significant non- western countries, in the first place with China, but also with Iran as well as with opponents if the USA in the Western Hemisphere, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua . ..”
According to Trenin this means “zones of influence as well as the right to overthrow unwanted regimes” (by force). Trenin emphasized that Russia looks for a new “crystallization” point in the post-Soviet space with all kinds of variants being possible. “For example the use of ‘Union State’ in order to integrate new territories. If the Russian authorities conclude that the agreements of Minsk can’t be realized, they could recognize the self- proclaimed Republics of Donezk (DNR) and Lugansk (LNR) as one or two states and integrate them into the Union- State of Russia and White Russia. Hypothetically also South Ossetia and Abkhazia could be integrated into the Union (…) If we can’t do it in a simple way we will use violence. It is improbable that the US could really prevent this; they will not go for a direct conflict with Russia.” According to Trenin it is only up to the Russian President to decide what steps will be taken and nobody knows what President Putin may decide; “the Russian State and its Armed Forces are ready to solve any of the tasks put in front of them.” He also pointed out that both scenarios have a price and that there are many inherent risks, including a loss of reputation for Russia and major economic effects on the Russian population.
“The second scenario which opts for a violent development, leads to a major break down of relations also within the country. It destroys the hopes of a small but influential part of the Russian Elite that still hopes that sometime in the future relations with the West will normalize.” Such scenario, according to Trenin, could imply the “occupation of Ukraine” i.e. the installing of a Russian friendly and loyal government in Kiev, the consequences of which would be very negative, with great human and financial losses.” Such a “worst case scenario” will however bear enormous risks for Russia.
What means Putin’s reference to “military technical response”?
The interviewer pointed to Trenin’s book in which he had stated that an enlargement of NATO doesn’t involve such big threats for Russia. And that by stationing missiles near Kharkiv the US will not really get military advantages in respect to the Russia Federation (with a flight time of 7-9 minutes for missiles). Trenin responded that “Russia in response would install ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ for example ‘Zirkon’ on its submarines that cruise along the US coast. Deterrence is maintained on a higher and more dangerous level. But an American Brigade in Poland or NATO battalions in the Baltics could not seriously endanger the security of Russia. The only thing which could seriously threaten is elements of missile defense system (!) from the US in Romania and in Poland.” (This was also echoed in a discussion which Trenin had with the senior journalist Werner Sonne, 12.February, in an Atlantic Society Podcast. E.H.)
Trenin was asked to explain what Russia meant by threat of a “military technical response” to which the colonel answered that for a long time there was the opinion that Russia may station “Iskandar Missiles in Kaliningrad” which is a region looked at as a forward based bridge head, from which Russia could threaten any adversary. But Kaliningrad is physically separated from the territory of Russia. “It is much simpler to station something on the territory of White Russia, Russia’s allied partner, where so far no Russian bases and missiles (including nuclear ones) exist…”
There could also be other variants from a global point of view, according to Trenin: “For example closer cooperation with China, a closer cooperation between Moscow and Beijing in the military field and a more active military technological cooperation between both countries. There is also the possibility for a rapprochement in the military field with countries such as Iran. And after all the President on the background of the Ukraine crisis held telephone discussions with Venezuela and Cuba.” Yet Trenin does not think that Russia would station missiles in Venezuela and Cuba.
Given the “horrendous scenarios” that were described, Colonel Trenin explained the history of the underlying development and the reaction formation which Russia has experienced during the past 30 years. He used the word “loser side”: “If it (loser) is not integrated into a new security system which corresponds to its conditions, if it’s “Ego” is wounded and if it’s not ready to give up its sovereignty, then in the time span of 20 to 30 years it will be stronger and demand more respect for its international interests. For 30 years such a moment has been prepared for. The winners of the Cold War first thought that Russia had lost its former significance. Russia would be no longer interesting; nobody should get involved in the difficult business with integration into the western world. The precondition for this would have been that the US is ready to give Russia the right for a decisive voice. Washington always wants to have the last word and Russia does not want to get integrated into the Euro -Atlantic space on condition of an un- equal partnership, he stressed.
Looking back to the period when the Cold War ended and the SU collapsed, Trenin emphasized that “at that time nobody cared. Russia was looked at as a weak economy, with a weak political system, that it could be ignored. However Russia’s attitude began to change “after Crimea, especially after the operation began in Syria.” Obama had qualified Russia as a regional power, but then Russia established itself as a “subject in international relations. Russia’s actions were perceived as being against Western interests. It was perceived as adversary that had to be punished and put under pressure, through sanctions (…).
Trenin also reflects about the crisis of the West: “The West which felt its weakness was in general much less ready for compromises. It is less ready to sit at a negotiation table with other rivalry or hostile regimes and negotiate with them on an ‘equal footing’. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the West has no more negotiated on equal footing not even with China. One can also understand the West. It lives through a very complicated period of development and this is really about the ‘decline of western dominance’- and in that perspective – of its ‘global leadership’.” Colonel Trenin’s conclusion is quite pessimistic when he states at the end that we are steering towards a serious crisis in relations and that maybe after a serious showdown a new World Order may emerge.