Where Are U.S.-Russia Relations Headed?

Where Are U.S.-Russia Relations Headed?

Andranik Migranyan shares his thoughts with the National Interest in an exclusive interview.

Andranik Migranyan: But Russia didn’t establish a commission to investigate the leaks of the Panama Papers. Sure, the revelations of secret accounts in Panama was not very good for some Russians, but nobody made such a big fuss about that as Americans are doing about the hacking allegations. The Panama situation was open and maybe even some explanation followed: whose money was involved, how did it appear over there, and more. But as I said, Russians didn’t make a big fuss about that. In Russia, we are grateful to find out more about corruption because it will help us to clean up our society. And I think that one of Trump’s main slogans was to “drain the swamp” in Washington or something like that, yes?

Paul Saunders: Yes.

Andranik Migranyan: Which means that in all major countries we need to clean our houses. Corruption, the “deep state,” behind-the-scene deals, you name it. These are all happening against the interest of the public at large. And behind all of these events are selfish interests.

Paul Saunders: Let’s shift topics, because I’m sure we can talk about that one for a very long time indeed. Coming back to Iran and to Syria, some of the Iranian protesters seem to be critical of their government’s support for Syria and the Assad government at the expense of their own needs inside Iran. Now that ISIS has largely been defeated in Syria—and President Putin certainly has declared success in the fight against ISIS—how committed is the Russian government to continue military operations in Syria if the objective is not to defeat ISIS but to help President Assad to retake parts of Syria that are controlled by other forces, some of which are supported by the United States or other outside powers?

Andranik Migranyan: Turkish and American forces operating on Syrian soil are in violation of international law because they entered without the consent or approval of the existing government, which is considered legitimate from Russia’s point of view. If Bashar al-Assad tries to expel them, then Assad is in the right because he is acting in accordance with international law. I don’t think that Russian forces will interfere or try to stimulate some kind of clash. Russia is not inclined to escalate its involvement because it is quite happy with the results of its military action against ISIS.

Russia declared its victory, the Americans declared their victory, and generally everybody declared their victory. But everybody knows that Russian participation was decisive in Syria. Russia is pleased with the result because it will have a formal military naval base in Tartus and an air base in Khmeimim. Russia provided its presence over in Syria, its influence over there, and, on some level, cooperation with the regional powers over there: Iran, Turkey, even Saudi Arabia and Qatar, though some of these actors don’t get along well. Nonetheless, Russia happened to be successful in Syria and managed to be an indispensable partner in the region.

Paul Saunders: What about the U.S. National Security Strategy? The Trump administration has described Russia as a competitor seeking a global geopolitical realignment. The Russian government has criticized that formulation, from what I understand. Do you think the National Security Strategy and the approach it outlines towards Russia have changed the Putin government’s view of the United States, the Trump administration, or President Trump himself, and the possibility and desirability to work with the United States?

Andranik Migranyan: I don’t think it will have any serious impact. I read very attentively this national strategy and I must say it is a great move forward on behalf of this administration vis-à-vis Russia. If the Obama administration put Russia between Ebola and ISIS, then this concept is putting Russia in one group with China, meaning two great powers who are considered to be revisionist. I don’t see anything negative in this because China and Russia really are revisionist powers. They don’t agree with the situation that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union, in which the United States was left as the sole hyperpower or superpower. At that time, when the United States was formulating the rules of the game in the world, it decided to ignore international law and international organizations like the UN and the Security Council, and began unilaterally making decisions while not paying attention to the interests or the goals of other countries—regardless whether they were their partners or allies or foes.

This is not tolerable anymore. Putin first mentioned that in 2007 in his Munich speech at the Wehrkunde, where he created something of an international stir with his remarks. Now China is becoming bigger, greater, and a more assertive power, as is Russia. Both are demanding a redo of the rules of international behavior, which will affect not only minor countries, or medium-sized countries, or even big countries, but also includes the United States. The United States put itself on top of the world order and did not allow itself to be bound by any rules or regulations.

That’s over. The world is changing, American capabilities are shrinking, and the capabilities and resources of the other powers are increasing. This is the new reality, and somebody has to adjust to it. It will either be Washington or the others—if Washington can force China and Russia to accept their rules, then they will demand the use of more resources and place more pressure upon China and Russia. We’ll see. It’s a long-lasting process.

Paul Saunders: I imagine that many Americans would have a different view of the U.S. role in international affairs. But I want to ask you a final question on a different topic. And that would be Russia’s presidential election and its implications for Russian foreign policy. There is kind of a conventional wisdom that Russian leaders are perhaps somewhat less flexible, and maybe a little bit hardline, before elections, when they need to demonstrate toughness internationally. But there may be greater flexibility in Russian foreign policy after the election.

At the same time, there seems to be a new uncertainty in Russia. Everyone assumes President Putin will win this fourth term in office. But what about his key personnel? Will some perhaps be ready to step down? Do you think the election will have a significant impact on Russian foreign policy, either before or afterward, or do you basically expect more of the same?

Andranik Migranyan: As you mentioned, it is quite possible that after the election there will be a kind of reshuffling in the government, and especially in the area of foreign policy. But I don’t foresee any strategic changes in policy. I remember when I was writing in 2012 just before the Russian elections, and then afterwards when Putin won, I suggested that Russia under Putin will be more open for closer cooperation, and that Putin can go much further than Medvedev because of his legitimacy, his toughness, and because nobody will think he is trading the national interest.

It didn’t happen. Unfortunately, Obama’s administration was not ready to take this chance after 2012, and that is why Putin’s policy changed. We didn’t see real changes in Washington policy. After Libya, the Arab spring, and then after Syria and Bashar al-Assad, Obama’s posture stiffened. Then, of course, there were the events in Ukraine which totally ruined the relationship. At this moment, I can see that there are some constants which are not matters of negotiation. Crimea is not a subject of negotiation. Ukraine is not the subject of negotiation. Many other problems, though, could be.

Russia participated and voted for sanctions against North Korea together with the United States. Cooperation on the Iranian question is very limited because Russia did its best to help America to cut a deal on its nuclear dossier. And Russia will not be supportive of the idea of regime change in this country. I don’t think that too big a change will happen. But there may be some personnel changes in foreign policy and the foreign policy establishment in the Russian government.

Image: Reuters