Leonid Gozman on Russia in NATO, Increasing Sanctions, and his “Aggressive” Country

June 20, 2014

Amid renewed geopolitical confrontation between the United States and Russia, a group of American and Russian experts convened at the 34th World Russia Forum in Washington to discuss a new foreign policy agenda that would advance the long-term strategic interests of both sides. CGI spoke on the sidelines with Leonid Gozman, president of the Russian opposition political organization, Union of Right Forces (SPS), about the implications of the Ukraine crisis and the best approach for the West to move forward with Russia.

An early proponent of democratic reforms in Russia, Dr. Gozman served as an adviser to former Russian Finance Minister Yegor Gaidar and First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais in the early 1990s. He was chairman of the Right Cause political party from 2008 to 2011, when the party was suspended from electoral participation and reconstituted itself as the non-partisan Union of Right Forces.

Center on Global Interests: What message did you want to share with U.S. officials and citizens during your visit here?

Leonid Gozman: I didn’t come to Washington with any particular message. During this trip I’ve spoken at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Endowment, and met with various people both in and outside of the government. I’m interested in what’s taking place in Washington and I think it’s very important to talk to rational people here about what’s going on in Russia. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.

CGI: Regarding the Ukraine crisis, you’ve said that the sooner Kiev wins the military standoff with the east, the better. Do you think that’s the best way out of the situation?

LG: Yes, because a terrible ending is better than terror with no end. The situation is very complicated. You have a group of several hundred or even thousand armed individuals— including corrupt factions from the Yanukovych family, Russian “volunteers” recruited through local military enlistment offices, and various types of criminals—who have already begun to fight one another. Several days ago, a new “people’s republic” sprang up and declared war against another people’s republic. The defense minister of Slavyansk reportedly arrested and threatened to shoot the mayor of Slavyansk. We can see that they’re starting to fight amongst themselves.

My contacts in Donetsk, Slavyansk and Luhansk all say the local residents strongly dislike Kiev, but they despise the militias even more. The latter walk around armed and drunk, stealing things and assaulting women, which is why girls are no longer allowed to walk outside at night. When you have a group of people who are armed and convinced they can do whatever they want, it turns into governance at gunpoint, and this has to be stopped.

Ideally this would happen without bloodshed, but unfortunately that isn’t possible. Until Poroshenko demonstrates his strength, Putin won’t seal the border and will continue to send weapons and people into Ukraine. If Poroshenko shows that his army is able to defeat the uprising, even if in just a few areas, then Putin will be willing to negotiate.

CGI: Do you support the idea of Ukraine joining NATO?

LG: I support Russia joining NATO. I think Western leaders made a tragic mistake in the early nineties: they should have started [NATO enlargement] with Russia and offered Moscow a roadmap for accession. Poland, the Baltics and the rest should have joined later. From the point of view of global security, it was much more important for Russia to have been integrated into NATO first.

But given today’s realities, yes, I welcome Ukraine joining NATO. First, it turned out, to my surprise, that my country is more aggressive than I thought. We need that constraining factor. Second, it would benefit Russia to have a democratic and predictable neighbor. A state that joins NATO will become more stable and less chaotic, so it’s in Russia’s interests to border with NATO.

Russia has neighboring NATO states on its Western border and neighboring non-NATO states on its southern border. In the south, we maintain an enormous troop presence to guard against criminals and drug traffickers form across the border. But there’s nothing bad coming at us from the West, unless you want to count the “bearded lady” [Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst] who seems to have upset us so much. However, NATO membership for Ukraine isn’t foreseeable in the near future.

CGI: Why do you oppose Russia’s annexation of Crimea?

LG: For one, I’m against the seizure of foreign territory, by anyone. Second, I’m against the idea that all Russians need to live in the same country; ethnic Germans and German-speakers today live comfortably on the territories of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and no one talks about uniting them into one. Third, Crimea is an impossibly heavy burden for us in economic terms: it’s a depressed, subsidized territory with a ruined infrastructure and high crime rates. We’ve only raised the crime rate by adding fighters from Chechnya and Dagestan to the ones who were there already.

But aside from that, the annexation of Crimea has destroyed the international system of nuclear nonproliferation. Russia dealt a blow to its own credibility because it had signed the Budapest Agreement guaranteeing Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for its giving up its nuclear weapons, but backed out of the agreement as soon as Ukraine went up in flames. Ukraine will eventually associate with NATO and the EU, so it’s not likely to start developing nuclear weapons again. But imagine if, in 20 years, a country like Uganda or Myanmar or Turkmenistan began to develop nuclear weapons, which is becoming easier and easier to do. If a delegation from the United States, UK and Russia tried to persuade them to give up their nuclear weapons like it had with Ukraine, it would never work, due to the Crimean precedent. As a result of Russia’s politics, the likelihood of nuclear war has sharply increased.

CGI: What would you like to see from the United States in its relations with Russia?

LG: In the short term, a firm response is unfortunately necessary. I think imposing sanctions against the Russian president’s inner circle was the right thing to do—they’re not targeting the Russian people, but a very narrow and ultimately criminal collective. On the other hand, if I were President Obama, I would figure out who Putin is willing to talk to among the U.S. president’s trusted officials—someone who is respected in Russia and speaks the language fluently, like Deputy Secretary of State William Burns—and engage in quiet diplomacy. Putin is very sensitive to being humiliated or called out in public, so the only way to reach an agreement with him is through private talks. Since it would be impossible for politicians of Putin and Obama’s level to speak in absolute secrecy, they will need to communicate through intermediaries. But the United States doesn’t even have an ambassador in Russia. Even Michael McFaul, who I regard very highly, was unable to perform this function because he wasn’t liked or trusted by President Putin.

In the long term, we have to expand rather than cut down on our cultural and academic exchanges. Putin will most likely be president until the end of his life, but no one knows when that will be. It’s important that the person who takes Putin’s place won’t be someone even worse, like Dmitri Rogozin, and that after Putin’s Russia there will be people in the country who are free of today’s crazy notions. The level to which the Russian public is misinformed today is the worst I have seen during my life; people say the last time something like this happened was in the 1930s. In fact, we are already bringing back the lexicon of that period. Putin recently floated the idea of changing the name of Volgograd back to Stalingrad, while the newspaper Izvestiya blamed the failure of a Russian rocket on “Western saboteurs,” a term that hasn’t been used for the past 80 years.

CGI: Finally, do you see the United States as a credible world leader after the experiences with Iraq and Afghanistan?

LG: The fact is, there is no other leader. Some would point to China, but it’s clear that China is a future opponent, if not an enemy, to the Christian civilization. That’s exactly why we need to be in NATO and need to be together—because sooner or later, we will have a collision with China. It’s a different civilization, a different world, and Russia won’t be able to handle China alone. According to an analysis by the Russian Joint Chiefs of Staff that was recently leaked to the press, in the case of war with China, Russia would have to deploy a tactical nuclear weapon by the third day in order to stop its advance. In fact, deploying a nuclear weapon means defeat, because you might stop the current advance but there will be another one in the future.

Of course, the United States have made many unfortunate mistakes: NATO’s treatment of Russia, the bombing of Belgrade, the recognition of Kosovo—we had warned Condoleezza Rice that it would set off a domino reaction—and the campaigns in Iraq and Libya. But mistakes are not crimes. The prestige of the United States has fallen, and the high hopes for President Obama’s leadership in the world were not realized, which was personally upsetting to me because I’m very partial to him. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, I was asked if I thought he deserved it. I said that he certainly did not—but the American people, who elected a black president, certainly did. Bill Burns, who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia at the time, said on Obama’s election night, “we are sick with hope.” I think that really was the case, and I’m sorry these hopes never materialized.

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