Who’s got the last laugh? Interview with Dmitry Rogozin in Bulgarian “Kapital”

Last week the European Council on Foreign Relations ran a commentary by compatriot Vessela Cherneva, in which she gives a summary of an interview given by Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, for Bulgarian newspaper Kapital. In addition to Ms Cherneva’s apt evaluation of the nuances and implications for Bulgaria (and beyond) in terms of Russia’s foreign policy toward Bulgaria and other “lost” spheres of influence in the wider Balkans region, a comment by one of the readers, explaining the notion of the “useful idiot” stemming from pre-Cold War Russian ideology are both well worth reading.

While Rogozin is well known to the international community for his thuggish “sense of humor”, I’m not sure to what extent such thuggishness comes across in a summary of his speech. This prompted me to translate the full interview from Bulgarian, which can be read below. Something else worth noting is perhaps the difference between interviews given to the Western press and the one in this Bulgarian publication. I cannot pinpoint exactly what those differences are, but one thing is certain: speaking to a cultural audience that one considers its adversary and another – its “historically proven and justified” sphere of influence is not the same.

Rogozin, who may or may not be having the last laugh aside, I can highly recommend the analyses and policy briefs published by the ECFR. They are a voice of hope that the EU has not entirely lost its ability for rational thought!

Interview with Dmitry Rogozin

Regardless of the West’s position, Moscow views the conflict with Georgia as unconditional victory. What is your next step?

You mean, who’s next? My colleague, the US Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker, said that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia face a threat of a Russian attack. I would like to add to this list two more categories: the Marcians and the Penguins. We are getting more and more annoyed of such panic-raising US statements. The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has proposed an independent investigation of the events in Georgia. We agree to such measures, but the Georgians don’t. In this case, the Georgian President Saakashvili is the aggressor and the criminal – and, so what? Is NATO going to cease communication with him? If we were to open the facts to CNN, are they going to apologize for the disinformation they were spreading during the crisis? And what are the faces of Dick Cheney and George Bush, the men who financed Saakashvili’s regime, going to be like?

The recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was not an easy decision for us, but it was the only way to stop the violence. In the very near future they will be recognized by another 10-15 countries. If a country is not formally recognized, it does not mean that it does not exist. The US didn’t recognize the Soviet Union until 1933. Yet we existed and developed prior to that.

Despite the civilian and military casualties, we can speak of a positive result of this war. Namely, the war was a test in morale, responsibility and who’s worth what in international politics. These things are clear. You can’t not take a side in this issue. What we want is that the aggressor is punished and anathemized by the international community, if not in real at least in moral terms. The second thing we want is peace and stability on the Caucuses for all. Third, it’s clear that our world is fragile and that it can be easily destroyed by one wrong step taken by a drug addict. This is why we have to protect ourselves from dividing into (political/ideological) blocks and to try to find stability for all of us.

You are comparing 8 August 2008 to 11 September 2001. What do you think are the long-term consequences of 8 August?

One thing is sure: we will not be acting like the Americans after 11 September. After they were attacked, instead of taking care of their national security, they attacked Iraq and Afghanistan; what’s more, under a laughable pretext. Russia will concentrate on its national security and will keep to its own part of the geographic map. Our goal is to create a wide coalition for peace and stability in Europe, to change the agreements, and to make security an indivisible issue for us all. You can laugh at me but I support the idea for obligatory conscription for everybody in Russia.

Where else are there Russian minorities that Russia intends to protect as it did in South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

Minorities are not only a Russian problem. There are Hungarians in Romania, Turks in Bulgaria…What’s important is to not provoke one another, but to secure peace of mind for our compatriots. Why, for instance, are Russian in the Baltic states refused citizenship rights? They are the second largest ethnic group in those countries. This stands in the way of friendly relations between Russia and Estonia and Latvia. There is one thing I want to clarify. We intervened in South Ossetia not only because Russians live there. We would likewise protect every small nation in our region, which is threatened by genocide – Jews, Bulgarians, all. How can we stand by indifferent if someone is shooting rockets at a civilian population?

After all the hard words of the past few weeks, is there place for constructive dialogue between Russia and NATO?

As a Washington favourite, Saakashvili has been a force of instability in the Caucuses for years. Since the beginning of August I have been in constant communication with NATO. We wanted to use the mechanisms for cooperation available in order to put a stop to the aggression with joint efforts. For some reasons America blocked this process. This is why we think that NATO’s General Secretary visit to Tbilisi on the 15-16 September, despite being planned way in advance, is amoral and not correct. We were hoping that our colleagues in NATO will understand that such a visit will be taken to mean moral support for Saakashvili, which is totally out of line.

The behavior of the Americans was scandalous. For many people the US was also an actor in this conflict because they were arming the Georgian army. As for the Europeans, we expected from them not just propaganda but an objective evaluation of who played what role in this war, and why. We trusted that they would adopt a balanced approach. We have economic and friendly relations with Europe, we are building together a common European home, which has now been bombarded from within by some revanchists with a Cold War mentality. We did not expect such hypocrisy.

Do you think NATO’s expansion to the east has come to an end?

We consider further NATO expansion as counterproductive and very, very dangerous. If NATO had not promised Georgia membership, the situation would not have escalated to aggression. Saakashvili took this promise as an indulgence. Until recently we treated his behaviour in the way an elephant would react to a puppy barking. But when he started to exercise violence over a small nation like South Ossetia, which only four years ago suffered the tragedy in Beslan, we could no longer pretend that nothing is happening.

If NATO likes to pretend that it doesn’t matter whose hands it is shaking and refuses to see the blood on these hands, then an organization of this kind can no longer be our partner. If NATO offers Georgia a plan of action toward membership, we will terminate all our cooperation with NATO.

What will happen to eastern Ukraine if Kiev decides to pursue NATO membership?

Ukraine is another version of the Caucuses drama. There the governing coalition split apart over the question of NATO membership. The Prime Minister and the President are on non-speaking terms because of this. This shows again how dangerous it is for NATO to step in the region. Many in Ukraine are now apprehensive, and with a good reason – President Viktor Yushchenko was selling weapons to Saakashvili. Besides, we have information that the Ukranian air forces may be involved in the shooting of Russian planes over Georgia.

All other issues aside, Ukraine is for us the cradle of Russian civilization. We come from Kiev. Ukraine is our mother; this is our family. You can’t just tear apart a child from its mother – we will not let this happen.

As the winter is coming, is there danger of cutting gas supplies to Europe?

Where are such fears coming from? We have never put forth the question of cutting supplies to our European partners. There are two elements in our country which remain unchanged no matter what happens: the discipline in our energy supplies to our partners and our readiness to apply our rocket systems. Both are in order. In 1991 nothing worked in Russia – but even then these two elements were in “readiness”. Don’t doubt our reputation in these two areas.

Are you ready to use the second element the same way you apply the first?

It is the guarantee to our sovereignty from the time of the Cold War until now. It is our guarantee for security.

The Black Sea is a strategic security zone. Is Russia ready to share it with NATO?

All the countries in the Black Sea region have to be very careful when it comes to this issue. No military activity should be developed there, otherwise there will be an ecological if not military disaster. There is sulphuric hydrogen at the bottom of the Black Sea – in case of military activity, this can lead to an ecological disaster. This is why we are warning NATO to stop flexing its muscles in the Black Sea region. They say now that they are delivering humanitarian assistance to Georgia. But why use navy ships? We want the Romanians, the Bulgarians and all countries bordering the Black Sea to be very careful what they’re doing and what they allow to be done in their waters. The Black Sea should be used for trade and tourism, not for military purposes.

Bulgaria has historical ties with Russia but today is a NATO member, a host of American military bases and supporter of Georgia’s membership in NATO. Does Russia view Bulgaria as a competitor in this respect?

Russia has lost many lives fighting to protect Bulgaria and we have never regret this. We have the same religious beliefs, the same blood, and there are no bad feelings between us. Your President Parvanov is my personal friend. However, Bulgaria has abandoned us many times, but afterwards always taken the correct decision when victory was on our side. Now Bulgaria once again is in the wrong camp – NATO. But this is your own fault and it depends on you to correct it at some point.

This week the EU sent over its most senior representatives to Moscow to discuss how Russia sees its future relations with Europe. How do you interpret the answer they were given?

We want to implement the “Medvedev-Sarkozy” plan – every step of it. But there’s a problem with this plan. Actually there’s more than one plan: one signed by Medvedev and the French President Sarkozy in Moscow on 12 August; in Tbilisi, however, Sarkozy was unable to convince Saakashvili to sign it, and the word “statut” was changed to “security” for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This plan was given to US’ Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and this black American panther managed to get Saakashvili to sign a different plan, one that does not at all include the 6 points. Then the Security Council changed the plan again…We are going to discuss only the original document signed by Medvedev and Sarkozy in Moscow. The EU is mostly interested in how many Russian troops there are in Georgia and when they are going to be withdrawn. I will answer immediately. We have 400 people military personnel in the demilitarized zone, which are stationed in 19 check points. They will stay there until a peacekeeping mission of the OSCE or a common mission between us and the EU arrives there. Then we will return to our pre 6 August positions.

You have proposed a new foreign policy concept for changing the security architecture in Europe. How does this idea look now in the aftermath of the recent events, and is there place for the US in this scheme?

This concept was presented in July. There is a need for a common security system for Europe, the US and Russia. The US is part of this. We are talking about a security zone from Vancouver to Vladivostok. We must stop acting divided in blocks, and move into a common, inter-related security system.

In the last month the fear from Russia was revived; investors left and your country is understood in this international isolation. Was the war with Georgia worth the price?

History will be our judge. The historical truth will be on our side. The West has become cynical and double-faced. It is morally poor and acts according to double standards. A few months will pass and everything will normalize. But we are going to draw our lessons learned. Two countries will pay the bill – Georgia and the US. Georgia has to cure itself of its nationalist-populist illness. The US has lost its reputation. What America has done in the past few years, has degraded it in the eyes of many people around the world.

So Russia is back in the Great Game?

(Long silence.) Yes. But everything will be ok. In the past there were moments when I thought that we have lost everything in the face of insults and hatred. I used to tell myself that things will turn around, that a time will come when we can look back at the situation and laugh. This time has come and I would like to conclude with a fitting joke. In Russia the optimists learn English; the pessimists learn Chinese; and the realists learn how to use a Kalashnikov.

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Strategic Inflection Points: Myth, History and Russian Foreign Policy

greek-alphabet.jpg inflection-point.jpg  berlin-wall.jpg 

Theoretically, an inflection point is an intersection on a curve, where the curve changes its direction. Two characteristics of an inflection point are that the change is caused by an outside agent (hence my use of the word ‘intersection’), and that the change of direction is dramatic, if not opposite, to the previous course. The second characteristic is what makes an inflection point, a ‘strategic’ inflection point. If the change were not dramatic but a mere fluctuation, it would lose the magnitude of its impact, and would therefore not be strategic. Like Grove, I believe a strategic inflection point is not exactly a point but a dynamic transition caused by the collision of an outside agent with a system, and resulting in a markedly different (sometimes opposite) re-arrangements of the constituents of the system.

I believe that the bigger the impact of a strategic inflection point, the harder, and often impossible, it is to predict. The recognition of a strategic inflection point is a hindsight process from an analytical perspective and a 50-50 wild gamble if we are more prone to intuition. The 9/11 attacks were in hindsight certainly an example of a strategic inflection point: a move from state vs. state warfare to asymmetric warfare, where a variety of non-state actors are involved. Attacks from non-state actors are not new phenomena, and cannot be qualified as strategic inflection points as such. What added the “strategic” part to the 9/11 inflection point, was the magnitude of its impact. Seven years after this event, there has been enough speculation and analysis on this subject that I believe I have few original thoughts to add to the discussion. As to Hurricane Katrina, like any natural disaster, I do not consider it a strategic inflection point. Perhaps one way a natural disaster could qualify as a strategic inflection point would be to examine it under a climate change/environmental degradation category, but this will remain outside the scope of this discussion.

What I would like to do in the pages below is look at strategic inflection points first from the perspective of a myth (the myth of Theuth as narrated by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus), then a historical event (the collapse of the Soviet Union), and finally offer a theoretical summary of the dynamics of power. The choice for my first example is based on past extensive academic research on the transition between an oral to a written culture in ancient Greece, and the role of memory in this transition. My second example pertains to my current research on Russian foreign policy, which I intend to use for the final project of this course.

Our Western tradition of philosophy and metaphysics is one based upon a system of opposites.  Many of the early Greek thinkers conceived the universe as a unity, but a unity formed by a harmonious combination of polarities, bound together by necessity:  mind vs. body, good vs. evil, speech vs. writing, memory vs. forgetting, etc.  These opposites cannot stand alone as independent entities, but can only exist and function in pairs.  The second term in each pair is thought of as the negative of the first.  Language is also rich of terms that contain their opposites in one “form”, such as the word pharmakon, which in Greek can mean both remedy and poison.  Socrates’ own death by drinking the hemlock becomes ambiguous given the dual nature of this word.  A pharmakon is then something like a catalyst for change in the power dynamics of opposites. In our strategic inflection point, it plays the role of the outside agent causing a dramatic re-arrangement of the system.

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates narrates the following myth:

Socrates:  Very well.  I heard, then, at Naucratis in Egypt there lived one of the old gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called ibis; and the name of the divinity was Theuth.  It was he who first invented numbers and calculation, geometry and astronomy, not to speak of draughts and dice, and above all writing (grammata).  Now the king of all Egypt at that time was Thamus who lived in the great city of the upper region which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes; the god himself they call Ammon.  Theuth came to him and exhibited his arts and declared that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians.  And Thamus questioned him about the usefulness of each one: and as Theuth enumerated, the King blamed or praised what he thought were the good or the bad points of the explanation.  Now Thamus is said to have had a good deal to remark on both sides of the question about every single art (it would take too long to repeat it here); but when it came to writing, Theuth said, “This discipline (ta mathēma), my King, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories (sophōterous kai mnēmonikōterous):  my invention is a recipe (pharmakon) for both memory and wisdom.” (Phaedrus, 274 c-e)

The art of writing is presented to the king of Egypt as a pharmakon which will improve memory and bring wisdom.  But in itself, writing has no value unless the king Thamus (another name for Ammon) accepts it.  The pharmakon comes to the king not only from the outside, but also from below.  The king’s ignorance only affirms his sovereign independence.  He does not need to write.  He speaks or he dictates his word to scribes. The god of writing, according to this myth, is a subordinate character, a kind of an ingenious servant. His gift is not only useless to the hegemonic power but it is also a menace in that it threatens its very foundation, its raison d’etre. This ambivalent figure, the god of writing, or simply writing, or pharmakon is thus both a remedy and a poison.  Writing, according to Plato, has a double dimension:  no more a remedy than a poison.  Hence, the logical objection of the king to the pharmakon as an aid to both memory (mnēme) and wisdom (sophia); under the pretext of supplementing memory, it makes one more forgetful; instead of increasing wisdom, it diminishes it. 

Applied to our argument on strategic inflection points, the outside agent has the inherent dual capacity of creating growth and decline, opportunities and threats, winners and losers. And this duality translates into something more: ambiguity, uncertainty, slipperiness, and outright deception, which make possible outcomes obscured and extremely difficult to predict. Faced with a transition point situation, a leader who needs to make urgent decisions is like the Egyptian king: he can choose to assert his hegemonic authority by disregarding the intruder or accept the challenge and try to transform it to his advantage. The choice will ultimately depend on whether the leader is the suicidal, proud hero type of the Ajax variety or the “cowardly” but sly Odysseus crop, who despite all challenges thrown at him by the Gods, eventually manages to get back to his Ithaca.

Fast-forward to 1989.

Could anyone have predicted, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet system, which ended the Cold War? Despite hindsight arguments that the collapse was predictable due to the discernible economic and political decay of the Soviet Union by the late 80s, no one actually predicted that on an early November day in 1989 people will take down the Wall with hammers in Berlin while millions of others in the satellite countries would take to massive demonstrations on the streets, in what I can describe from personal memory as mass euphoric hysteria or hysteric mass euphoria, or both. The end of the Cold War and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union is certainly one of the most dramatic strategic inflection points of the 20th century. It is true that the internal decay of the system was predictable and even predicted though various channels, not least of which theoretical. Already in 1947, George F. Kennan, ironically echoing Hegelian-Marxist dialectic principles, wrote:

…the possibility remains (and in the opinion of this writer it is a strong one) that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.

Perhaps the most dramatic impact of the end of the Cold War was the re-distribution of power in the system of international relations from bipolar superpowers to…? I leave this sentence unfinished because despite the temptation to say unilateral power, with the U.S. as the dominant superpower, I believe the post-Soviet power dynamics are changing so rapidly that we should be careful not to rush to conclusions. The U.S. might still be enjoying a certain privileged position in the pantheon of international relations, but the emergence of regional powers, regional power politics, reliance on interconnectedness and interdependency as opposed to traditional allies, is quickly shifting toward a multipolar system, whose center of gravity might ironically end up being the periphery.

In this light, the end of the Cold War might be seen both as a triumph of peace over conflict or as the return to a more dangerous system, in which each newly emerged power will be willing to fight tooth and nail for a larger chunk in the power distribution system. Regardless of whether one adopts an optimistic or a pessimistic view, one thing is sure: we are in the middle of a new political strategic inflection point – a rapidly developing process of regional powers coming to parity with the established superpowers. This, according to power transition theory, signals a red alert. Power transition theory is an international relations theory developed in the late 1950s, which postulates that war is imminent when the distribution of power between the dominant state and “the challenger” reaches approximate parity. It is not a purely realist theory like other systemic IR theories in that it focuses not only on power, but also on “satisfaction” (an interesting divergent discussion outside the scope of this paper would be on the trend of happiness theories and happiness economics. One of the main arguments is that conflict will only occur if the following two conditions are present: first, “the challenger” achieves parity with the dominant power; second, “the challenger” must necessarily be dissatisfied with the existing power status quo set up by the dominant power, so that it would wish to re-write the rules of the game, so to speak. Therefore, a weak dissatisfied challenger or a strong satisfied challenger are not to be feared. The power transition theory is practically opposite to the Cold War balance of power theory according to which equality of balance keeps the peace.

Now, how can theories of power and analysis of strategic inflection points provide practical guidance to political leaders or business executives? What conclusions from the above theoretical discussion and historical and mythical analogies can we draw when looking at Russian foreign policy today and Russian leadership?

One essential component of Russian foreign policy is Russia’s view of itself, i.e. self-identity. What is Russia and who is ultimately Russian? I would like to argue that Russian identity (at least post 1917) is based on negation. Russia’s view of itself has historically been a reaction to the West, i.e. Russia has seen herself as the counterbalancing reaction to what she has labelled Western capitalism and imperialism, a sort of a global “saviour” from the evils of the West, or in the words of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz:

…a collective body, a human society, cannot be the Saviour…Guilt is individual, it is my guilt. Sin is universal – not I am guilty but society, and I can be saved not through my own effort (Grace given to me) but by the collective of which I am a particle. That’s why they [Russians] are always in search of the kingdom of God, but I placed in time, substituting for it Communism, or perhaps, in the future, another type of eschatology. (Milosz and Merton, The Letters, 28)

I was reminded of this type of “reactionism” when I read the following sentence in Grove’s book: “Intel equalled memories in all of our minds. How could we give up our identity?” (p.90) Well, how could Russia give up its identity as the “counterbalancing” force to the U.S. (and certain parts of Europe)? How can it transform itself from a reactionary to a pro-active player; one that sets the rules of the game, not merely plays by them? It would seem, Vladimir Putin might just have the “right” idea of how to do that. Whether, the West likes to admit this or not, he has managed to ride the wave of success through a transition period of the gloomiest and direst economic and political degeneration, which characterized Russia in the 1990s. By hook or crook, intelligence and agility, vision, and belief in his mission, he has managed to reposition his country in quite a favourable position in the international arena. The sustainability of his policies is irrelevant to this discussion. He has shown leadership and exceptional determination in a period of serious crisis for Russia. That he might not do as good a job in a situation less characterized by crisis, is possible. Grove remarks that “People who have no emotional stake in a decision can see what needs to be done sooner.” (p.92) I agree only partly. Passion is the underlying quality of a leader, and that which makes other people follow him. Hence, it might be good to have a dispassionate analyst or adviser, but when it comes to leadership, passion is key.

Grove goes on to describe his anxiety upon presenting to the people at Intel’s Oregon facility the new strategy of switching from memory chips to microprocessors, and his surprise that they took the news much better than he expected: “These people, like our customers, had known what was inevitable before we in senior management faced up to it. There was a measure of relief that they no longer had to work on something that the company wasn’t fully committed to. This group, in fact, threw itself into microprocessor development and they have done a bang-up job ever since.” (p.94) I can’t help but draw another parallel with Putin’s leadership. Again, despite Western criticism and internal opposition to his leadership methods, Putin has been an immensely popular leader. One could easily see the same type of “measure of relief” among the Russian people when he turned away from what the West considered “more democratic” policies of the Yeltsin period back to centralized, hierarchical authoritarianism thereby decreasing the level of uncertainty so uncomfortable to a people used to be ruled by the iron fist for decades, if not centuries. One Russian daily observed recently that there was communism and democracy, and then, there was a third way – the Putin way: extreme right wing nationalism (my addition). It is both surprising and understandable that the people of Russia should be so enamoured with their leader. Russia is, after all, the birth place of various reactionary, revolutionary and terrorist forces, coupled with an uncanny dose of affinity toward religious mysticism – a powerful cocktail indeed!

In summary, a study of strategic inflection points is comparable to a study on the dynamics of power. Viewed from an international relations perspective, balance of power theory seems more applicable to the Cold War era while the emergence of regional power challengers to the international status quo is better viewed through the prism of transition power theory. While on the losing side of the power coefficient less than ten years ago, Russia is rapidly regaining influence in the geopolitical sphere through strong but not necessarily sustainable leadership and foreign policies. National identity and energy security will be the two defining factors that decide if Russia is to coast through its current strategic inflection period as a winner or become a marginalized loser in the international power reshuffle.