Goldberg: Can we reset relations with Russia?
Kissinger: “Reset” is not the appropriate word. I prefer “adaptation to the new circumstances of a world in upheaval.” The issue is whether both countries are able to achieve their minimum security objectives and cooperate towards stability in regions within their reach? It is a formidable, but necessary, enterprise.
Goldberg: So why didn’t the reset go well?
Kissinger: Dmitri Medvedev was president during the beginning of the reset, with Putin acting as prime minister in a bow to a Russian constitutional requirement limiting presidents to two consecutive terms. (After an interval of one term, they can stand for reelection.) The White House, in that interval, carefully limited contact with Putin. Some in the administration seemed to hope that Medvedev would dismiss Putin as prime minister—the Russian Constitution permits that—and that the evolution of Russia would be towards a democratic, Western-oriented kind of aspiring NATO member. It was part of the argument in your interview, that history is moving in America’s direction and that Putin will eventually realize it.
When Putin resumed the presidency in 2012, the reset inevitably faltered. To understand Putin, one must read Dostoyevsky, not Mein Kampf. He knows that Russia is far weaker than it once was—indeed far weaker than the United States. He is the head of a state that for centuries defined itself by its imperial greatness, but then lost 300 years of imperial history upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia is strategically threatened on each of its borders: by a demographic nightmare on its Chinese border; by an ideological nightmare in the form of radical Islam along its equally long southern border; and to the West, by Europe, which Moscow considers an historic challenge. Russia seeks recognition as a great power, as an equal, and not as a supplicant in an American-designed system.
The notion that Russia is organically a kind of NATO state ignores the experience of history. America was built by people with the faith and courage to explore new lands. Russia was built by an elite who transported serfs to distant fields and by Tsars who proclaimed, “This swamp land will be the city of Odessa or the city of St. Petersburg.” They are sustained in part by a sort of mystic relationship with their hardships and their vision. They had survived centuries under the Mongols. Charles XII of Sweden marched into Russia because he thought it would be easy to impose a Swedish ruler in Moscow. What he found were Russian peasants burning their own crops in order to deny food to the invaders. They would starve themselves before they would let him take over their country. He had marched across Europe, but he had never seen this before. His troops were forced to go south into Ukraine just to survive, where they were ultimately defeated.
Geopolitically, Putin governs a country with 11 time zones. Few countries in history have started more wars or caused more turmoil than Russia in its eternal quest for security and status. It is also true, however, that at critical junctures Russia has saved the world’s equilibrium from forces that sought to overwhelm it: from the Mongols in the 16th century, from Sweden in the 18th century, from Napoleon in the 19th century, and from Hitler in the 20th century. In the contemporary period, Russia will be important in overcoming radical Islam, partly because it is home to some 20 million Muslims, particularly in the Caucasus and along Russia’s southern border. Russia will also be a factor in the equilibrium of Asia.
I say all of this to underscore that it is not possible to bring Russia into the international system by conversion. It requires deal-making, but also understanding. It is a unique and complicated society. Russia must be dealt with by closing its military options but in a way that affords it dignity in terms of its own history. By the same token, Russia must learn a lesson it has so far refused to consider: that the insistence on equivalence goes both ways and that it cannot gain respect by making unilateral demands or demonstrations of power.
Goldberg: How can the next president get out of this mess?
Kissinger: There are at least two schools of thought. One says that Russia has violated international law by annexing Crimea, so it must be taught again the lessons of the Cold War. We must make them restore normal relations with Ukraine by sanctions and isolation, and if they collapse in that process, that’s the price they have to pay and, in a way, an opportunity for world order to reestablish itself. That’s the school of thought held by the left-wing Democrats and neoconservative Republicans. Mine is the minority school of thought: Russia is a vast country undergoing a great domestic trauma of defining what it is. Military transgressions need to be resisted. But Russia needs a sense that it remains significant. We will probably win a new Cold War; but statesmen must comprehend the limits of their definition of interest. A post-Tito-type Yugoslavia wracked by conflict stretching from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok—from Europe across the Middle East to Asia—is not in America’s interest. Russia should not be regarded as an incipient NATO country; such a goal would simply move to the Manchurian border the crises we now face on the Ukrainian one. The goal should be to find a diplomacy to integrate Russia into a world order which leaves scope for cooperation.
Ukraine has in effect become symbolic of the crisis but also of the way to overcome it. We must be determined to defeat any further attempt at a military solution. But we need also to operate from an appropriate definition of security that relates strategy to diplomacy. To fix NATO’s security border on the eastern side of Ukraine places it 300 miles from Moscow—to the Kremlin, a dramatic upheaval of the border’s Cold War position along the Elbe River 1,000 miles west.
At the same time, a Russian security border along the western side of Ukraine fixes it along the perimeters of Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, countries whose not-so-distant memories of Russian occupation will not abide such placement. Ukraine should be conceived of as a bridge between NATO and Russia rather than an outpost of either side. Russia can contribute to this by forgoing its aspiration to make Ukraine a satellite; the United States and Europe must relinquish their quest to turn Ukraine into an extension of the Western security system. The result would be a Ukraine whose role in the international system resembles that of Austria or Finland, free to conduct its own economic and political relationships, including with both Europe and Russia, but not party to any military or security alliance. Advocates of NATO expansion say that Russia should not be concerned, that NATO has no intention of attacking Moscow. Historical experience obliges Russian leaders to assess the capabilities of their neighbors. To negotiate what I just described would be exceedingly difficult. And it could not be achieved by walking into the Kremlin and declaring, “Here is our plan.” Like all dealings with Moscow, it would require an understanding of the Russian spirit and an appreciation of Russian history, as well as sufficient military power to squelch any temptations.
Goldberg: Did we lose credibility with the Russians in Syria?
Kissinger: In the beginning of his presidency in 2001, Putin sought America as a potential strategic partner, primarily against Islamic extremism. But starting with American support for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, Putin has gradually convinced himself that the U.S. is structurally adversarial. By “structural,” I mean that he may very well believe that America defines its basic interest as weakening Russia, transforming us from a potential ally to another foreign country that he balances with China and others. Even this does not preclude the possibility of better U.S.-Russia relations, but Putin’s motivations for cooperation in the present period will be narrower than they were when he spoke of “strategic partnership” in 2001. The challenge will be whether clashing national interests of the moment can be reevaluated in terms of a larger design.
Goldberg: Would you cede Russia Ukraine in order to get their maximum cooperation in the management of the Middle East?
Kissinger: No. I favor an independent Ukraine that is militarily non-aligned. If you remove the two Donbas regions from eastern Ukraine, you guarantee that Ukraine is permanently hostile to Russia, since it becomes dominated by its Western part, which only joined Russia in the 1940s. The solution, then, is to find a way to give these units a degree of autonomy that gives them a voice in military entanglements, but otherwise keeps them under the governance of Ukraine.
Goldberg: I don’t see you and Obama being very different on the question of Ukraine.
Kissinger: Not on the objective of preserving an independent Ukraine. Technically, his goal is to compel Russia towards his goal. Mine would be to try to make Russia a partner in a solution.