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This transcript appears in the July 2, 2021 issue of Executive Intelligence Review.

[Print version of this transcript]

Andrey Kortunov

Has the Geneva Summit Changed Relations Between the U.S. and Russia?

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Schiller Institute
Andrey Kortunov

Dr. Andrey Kortunov is the Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). This is an edited transcript of remarks he delivered to the first panel, “Whom the Gods Would Destroy: War with Russia and China Is Worse than MAD!” of the June 26-27, 2021 Schiller Institute conference, “For the Common Good of All People, Not Rules Benefiting the Few!” Subheads have been added.

Dennis Speed (moderator): To introduce our next speaker, we want to welcome Harley Schlanger, well known to the Schiller Institute audience for his daily updates, weekly webcast interviews with Helga Zepp-LaRouche, and his writing in Executive Intelligence Review magazine. He’s going to also be doing co-moderating duties today, so welcome, Harley.

Harley Schlanger: Thank you, Dennis. It’s my pleasure to introduce our next speaker, Dr. Andrey Kortunov, who’s a scholar and historian, and the Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council. He was a recent participant in the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group, which issued a call for a re-affirmation of what was contained in the Reagan-Gorbachev communiqué from their summit in 1985, in which they stated, “Nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought.” This statement was subsequently included in the Biden-Putin communiqué of June 16th. Dr. Kortunov?

Dr. Andrey Kortunov: Thank you, Harley. Dear Madame LaRouche, dear friends and colleagues, it is definitely my pleasure to be a part of this discussion. I think it is a very timely event, and I hope that it will be useful for all participants. I hope that it will be inspiring and also intellectually gratifying. I was asked to share some of my perceptions of the recent Biden-Putin summit in Geneva. Let me take a couple of minutes of your time to discuss this issue.

Background and Expectations

Let me start with saying that expectations in Moscow were pretty low. When Biden was elected, the overall mood in Moscow, and I assume in the Kremlin as well, was pretty pessimistic given the election campaign rhetoric of President Biden and his team. There were many doomsday forecasts about how the relationship might evolve. Many expected that we will see much more robust sanctions against Russia, and a lot of negative rhetoric coming from the White House. These expectations were partially right, as you know. President Biden in one of his interviews even entertained the idea of President Putin as a killer, which, of course could not make him a lot of friends in Moscow.

But, on the other hand, in terms of arms control, in terms of strategic stability, I think he surprised many analysts in my country, and not just in Russia. Because, indeed, one of the first decisions by the new administration was to extend the New START agreement with no strings attached. So, he did something that President Trump unfortunately failed to do, and though the previous administration considered an extension of the New START agreement, but they were discussing a lot of modalities about this extension.

So, the first step was clearly appreciated in Moscow. It was followed by a round of sanctions against Russia, but these sanctions were mostly symbolic. The Biden administration did not try to target critical sectors of the Russian economy, such as the energy sector or the Russian financial system. Russia was not put in the same league with Iran or North Korea. So, sanctions were, of course, an important irritant, and we also observed a continuous diplomatic war between the two countries, but it turned out to be better than many had expected.

The Summit

So, the meeting that took place in Geneva a couple of weeks ago was a meeting with carefully managed expectations on both sides. I think that both sides realized that they could not count on any reset, or even détente in their relationship. Not only because their positions on important international issues diverged, issues like Ukraine, or Syria, or Venezuela, but more importantly, their views on the fundamentals of the international system and on the future of the international system, on the preferable world order to come, were also quite different, if not opposite to each other.

So, it was clear that there was no personal chemistry between the two leaders. Nevertheless, both of them were ready to take certain political risks to get together in Geneva, primarily in order to make the relationship more stable and more predictable. Both were, and I think are still interested in reducing the costs of this adversarial relationship, and in cutting down the risks associated with this adversarial relationship. So, that was the intention of Mr. Putin when he got to Geneva.

Was the summit successful? I would grade it as B or maybe even B+. First of all, because the two sides agreed to continue the strategic arms control dialogue. Again, I don’t want to sound too optimistic, it will be an uphill battle for both of them. The perceptions of how we should move further from the New START agreement to new reductions of the nuclear arsenals of the two countries are not the same. The Russian side tends to focus primarily on strategic systems—both nuclear and non-nuclear, while the United States prefers to talk about nuclear systems, both strategic and non-strategic. So, there is a different approach which will not be easy to reconcile.

Issues Not Addressed

On top of that, of course, we have many pending issues that were not properly addressed by the New START agreement. We have BMD systems that the United States has deployed in Europe, in Poland and Romania. We have tactical nukes that Russia has also in Europe, and the United States is trying to curb. We have, unfortunately, a deconstructed INF agreement, so in theory we can have a new arms race in Europe, involving medium-range and short-range missiles. Not to mention new technological developments in the defense sector.

And there are many new dimensions of the arms race, like cyber, and space, and hypersonic, and autonomous lethal systems, and prompt strike and artificial intelligence; and the fact is that nobody really knows how to handle all these agendas. But now, we’ve got a breathing space, and we have four and a half years until the New START agreement expires. Hopefully, this time will be used productively, and by that time we will have a new concept of arms control.

Again, I would warn against being too optimistic. It was important that both sides agreed that you cannot really win a nuclear war, and therefore, the nuclear war should not and must not be fought. But the movement towards a new non-nuclear world is likely to be slow and quite precarious. Still, I think it’s a positive sign, and hopefully we will see more communications between the U.S. and Russian militaries, and civilian experts and diplomats, and maybe we can reach progress before too long.

Now, let me turn to cyber. I think this is a much more controversial and difficult issue than strategic arms control, because in arms control, we have a common strategic culture that emerged gradually since the late 1960s, while in cyber, we don’t have such a culture. And we have very different perceptions of how to approach cyber warfare. For many, many years, the Russian side insisted that we should have a joint taskforce to explore opportunities for cyber control. The United States, especially under the Trump administration, always rejected this idea. When Putin and Trump met for the first time in Hamburg on the margins of the G20 summit, President Trump seemed to agree to have some kind of joint taskforce with Russians on cyber, but when he got back to Washington, he basically said that he was not ready to embark on this road.

So, we’ll see how it goes. I think it’s a positive sign that we might have such a group, but we should keep in mind that the perceptions of cyber attacks are very different in Moscow and in Washington, though both capitals are concerned about the capacity of the other side to interfere into their domestic political system, or into the national economy with the use of sophisticated cyber weapons. But how to limit the cyber warfare, how to resolve the problem of retribution, how to have a reliable red line in cyber, this is something that is yet to be discussed and hopefully agreed on.

Regional Issues

Now, let me turn to regional issues. Apparently in Geneva, they discussed a very broad set of regional issues. On some of them, I do not see any prospects for immediate joint actions or even coordination. I don’t think that in Geneva they were able to narrow the gap in perceptions on what’s going on in and around Ukraine, or in and around Belarus. But I think on issues like Afghanistan, probably there is more common ground. I think that they could have even agreed on some parallel actions in Syria, related to the humanitarian situation in Idlib, for example, or to potential negotiations between the Syrian Kurds and the leadership in Damascus. I think that they could have probably discussed North Korea; maybe the Iranian portfolio, assuming that the United States is still committed to getting back to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action].

Finally, let me add that, of course, there were some global comments, where Russia and the United States more or less share their views and visions. Let me refer to the climate change, but also to potential cooperation in the Arctic region. They could definitely have agreed on something related to international terrorism, and potential cooperation in space.

Finally, I think it’s important that now the two ambassadors are back to where they should be, respectively in Moscow and Washington, D.C., but this is not the end of the story, because of course it’s great to have ambassadors back, but you also need to bring back the staffs. Ambassadors are like generals; they need their armies: If the diplomatic war is not over, I’m afraid neither John Sullivan nor Anatoly Antonov will have a lot to do in their respective locations.

Going Forward

I know that my time is running out. I don’t want to take too much of it from other speakers: But let me just say that the next couple of months will tell us whether a stabilization in the U.S.-Russian relationship is possible. Or, we continue this downward movement to even greater risks and uncertainty of an unlimited confrontation. I stay moderately optimistic that probably this relationship can be stabilized. But at the same time, I think we should keep in mind, that the relationship will continue to be very difficult, and it will be in some cases confrontational.

If we are thinking about a real change in the relationship, this change will not come without new innovative ideas going beyond conventional wisdom. I do hope that conferences like the one we participate in today, might make a contribution to go beyond conventional wisdom, to think about more creative, more unorthodox ways to fix the U.S.-Russian relations, but also more general problems of global management that we all have to approach today. Thank you.

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