The annual conference on Russia, Putin’s Fourth Term: What Lies Ahead, featuring an ambassadors’ roundtable with five former U.S. Ambassadors to Russia.
By: Simon Machalek, Reporter
Where is Russia heading? What is behind Russia’s aggressive foreign policy? How do Russian constituents view their president Vladimir Putin? To examine these essential questions, scholars and diplomats from around the world gathered on September 24th, 2018 at an annual conference hosted by the Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies (CERES).
Russia’s year of 2018 has been marked by multiple key events and actions that signal how the country may change going forward. Although president Putin won the last presidential election by a large margin and secured his rule until 2024, his political future after that is uncertain as the Russian Constitution prevents him from being elected to a third consecutive term. Due to a hugely unpopular pension reform, president Putin’s ratings have also been steadily decreasing over the last months, signaling that preferences of the domestic constituency may undermine his position. And in the international arena, Russia has been increasingly aggressive, conducting hybrid warfare tactics against Western countries, actively operating in the Middle East, and even sending its agents to use chemical weapons on British soil. Because of these reasons, the conference could not have come at a better time, as it is essential to understand what is going in Russia.
The event was divided into four different panels. The first panel, titled “Ambassador’s Roundtable on U.S.-Russia Relations,” was composed of five former U.S. ambassadors to Russia who started off the morning with a discussion of the U.S.-Russian relationship. All panelists agreed that the 1990’s was a decade of a considerably extensive collaboration between both sides. Ambassador James Franklin Collins mentioned how, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia accepted the U.S. as a source of expertise and wanted to pursue further cooperation. However, this relationship did not last long. As Ambassador Alexander Vershbow noted, any hopes for a long-term successful partnership vanished after President Putin took control and began to engage in extensive propaganda and revisionism. Looking ahead, all ambassadors agreed that the current state of relations between U.S. and Russia is dangerously hostile, even by Cold War standards. To improve the relationship, Ambassador William Joseph Burns argued that Washington should keep as many connections to Moscow as possible and that it should work with president Putin on extending important international deals, such as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
The second panel, titled “Economic Growth, Stagnation, or Worse,” focused on the current economic situation in Russia. Sergey Aleksashenko, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued that the economy has improved since the recession, but that overall it is slowly developing, unstable, and statistically driven.
He highlighted natural resources as a significant source of revenue for the Russian economy, as well as its defense industry and the financial sector. On the other hand, Mr. Aleksashenko noted that incentives are lacking and that the overall emphasis is put on state generated growth, not private growth. Vladislav Inozemtsev, a Russian economist and Director of the Centre for Post-Industrial Studies in Moscow, was more negative, noting that the business climate in the country is increasingly hostile and that it lacks important innovation projects. He argued that President Putin is intentionally pulling Russia back into premodern times, as Mr. Putin opposes any structural and societal changes. He also added that President Putin has been primarily focused on investing solely around the borders, in an attempt to secure sovereignty and control.
The third panel, under the title “The Drivers of Political Change,” discussed how Russia is changing internally. Panelists presented several consequential trends, asserting that preferences of the Russian society have drastically changed during the last years. Mikhail Dmitriev, a researcher of Russia’s social and political trends, argued that Russian people are less and less relying on the state and are instead focusing more on their individual actions and capabilities. He added that Russians are increasingly more open to external ideas, that they are not attached to an ideology and that they are more willing to draw attention. Elizaveta Osetinskaya, a UC Berkeley fellow at the investigative reporting program, mentioned that Russian people are more and more using alternative media, such as social networks (whether Russian or foreign) and internet blogs, and less depending on state run media, which often deeply engages in propaganda. All of these changes have massive implications for Russia’s future, as they show how the country is changing from within.
The event concluded with the fourth panel, titled “Russia in the Global Arena,” which looked into Russia’s place in the international community. This session presented the most controversial ideas and multiple alternative viewpoints. Alexander Lukin, a scholar from the MGIMO-University in Moscow, argued that it is the U.S. who is revisionist, and not Russia. According to him, the U.S. has not been willing to adjust to the multipolar world and has instead engaged in provocative and aggressive foreign policy strategy, in an effort to claim back its hegemony position in the international system. He also highlighted the importance of Russian-Chinese strategic partnership, which he considers essential to counterbalancing U.S. power. On a different note, Mikhail Troitskiy from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations analyzed Russian election interference tactics. He proposed the idea of potential negotiations between U.S. and Russia, where both sides would come to a mutual pledge of never interfering in elections again, which could lead to a de-escalation of the conflict and improvement of relations.
The conference demonstrated how deeply problematic the U.S-Russia relationship is and how both sides differ in viewing any future prospects. It is certain, however, that there is a lot of room for improvement and for an intensified dialogue that would decrease the tensions and promote further cooperation. Policymakers should carefully examine all of the mentioned issues and understand that both countries are going through significant changes that need to be dealt with using appropriate, flexible, and modern policies.