Has Russia become more powerful? Interview with Steven Pifer

“The increase in Russian power, in the case of Syria, is due to a series of poor decisions made here in the US and not an actual increase in Russian power”

By Sahra-Josephine Hjorth og Nadja Arøe Simonsen

Is the world we live in unipolar, bipolar or multipolar?
PIFER: In references to nuclear weapons it is bipolar, but if you are talking about the broad measure of power it is increasingly multipolar. China is the world’s number two in terms of economic weight, alongside the European Union.

What role does Russia play in the current international power structure?
PIFER: In terms of nuclear power, Russia very much remains a superpower. But in all other measures, with the exception of energy, Russia’s influence has declined significantly within the last 20 years. Russia does have a seat on the UN Security Council, which gives Russia the ability to use veto power and thereby inhibit UN action. But Russia’s powers are still limited and significantly less than the Soviet Union had back in the cold war era.

Some of the other people we have talked to argue that Russia’s role internationally, and Russia’s level of power has changed dramatically this past year, and visibly since the summer of 2013?
PIFER: I think Russia has only become more influential in the case of Syria, and that situation has changed dramatically the past eight weeks. At the end of August, President Obama was proceeding down a path that was likely to result in an airstrike against Syria and Russia’s ability to protect its client (Assad) was very limited. But then some unwise decisions were made in the US; The White House put the President in box, and by this I mean they limited his ability to make decisions. An example of this is that President Obama put the vote on Syria before Congress, and that vote he could not win. This limited his ability to exert power. As a result, a discussion was made by the US and Russia at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, about the possibilities for US-Russia cooperation on Syria. Now when the question was put forward concerning Assad’s surrender of chemical weapons, the Russians did not jump in to help President Obama. Contrarily, Russia saw a way to put itself at the center of the international discussion on Syria. So Russian influence over Syria is significantly greater than it was 2 months ago. But this is not a reflection of broader Russian influence elsewhere, and had the US pushed forward an airstrike on Syria two months ago, it would have left Russia looking impotent at the sidelines. So the increase in Russian power is due to a series of poor decisions made here in the US and not an actual increase in Russian power.

Is Putin positioning Russia to be a serious candidate in a multipolar balance of power?
PIFER: Yes – that is Putin’s goal, because Russia’s influence will be greater in that scenario. He does not want a unipolar world lead by the US, and the does not want a bipolar world lead by the US and China. So Putin is looking for a way to build a multipolar world. In the future, power is going to be increasingly measured in economic terms, and what you make in the high-tech industries. Russia is having cannot compete in either of those areas. Other than weapons, Russia does not make anything that the world wants to buy. About 70 % of Russian exports continue to be oil, gas, and natural resources; it is not the export pattern of a major industrial country or a world power.

How come Putin still views the US as Russia’s primary competitor over power, when there are other candidates in play such as China and the EU? Looking towards the EU seems especially important, since the EU is moving in on former Soviet states as a part of EU expansion.PIFER: That is a very good question, and I think it is a mystery to many Americans. If I was sitting in Moscow and looking at where is the threat coming from, I would be worried about the south. Instability in places like central Asia, or what spillover will happen if the situation in Afghanistan worsens. I would also consider the question “what is the most secure border” when assessing the national level of threat. That is in fact the border between Russia and the NATO countries, but Russia keeps characterizing NATO and the US as its main adversaries.

So why does Russia make “enemies” of the US and NATO in public discourse, if they are indeed their most stabile neighbors?
PIFER: Partly for domestic reasons. It is interesting to me that one of the responses of Putin to the domestic demonstrations that you saw back on 2011, was to adopt a stronger anti-American tone. An example of this is that Putin blamed former Foreign Minister Hilary Clinton for the demonstrations. I think he made and continues to make a calculation that certain portions of the Russian constituents respond well to Anti-Americanism, so anti-American discourse results in votes. Secondly, in Putin’s mind, Russia is a great power. If you think you are a great power whom do you compare yourself to? When competing in a competitive world, you are not going to compare yourself to France or Italy; you are going to compare yourself to the United States. Now why not compare yourself to China? The answer that I have heard from Russian analysts to that question is, that Russians are so nervous about China that they don’t even want to call them competitors.

Contrary to the seemingly spontaneous nature of the proposal, the plan that allows Assad to surrender his chemical weapons in exchange of non-intervention from the US, is a plan masterminded by Russia and the US at the G20 Summit. What was that whole “performance” about?PIFER: Yes, there had been some discussion in American-Russian channels going back a year or so, about the possibility of cooperating to get rid of chemical weapons in Syria, but this was a very hypothetical conversation. What surprised many people is how quickly this became a reality. It also seems as if there was a discussion on this between Obama and Putin in St. Petersburg and then [secretary of state John] Kerry came out with his comment a few days later in London. The Russians acted very quickly, and within hours they had lined up a Syrian agreement.

Essentially, the plan is only attractive for the US, because they realized that the Congress would not vote in favor of military intervention?
PIFER: Yes. From a US perspective, and the box that he President had put himself in, an agreement facilitated by Russians with Assad was an attractive option. All things considered, if you can get Syria to surrender their chemical weapons, this is a better scenario than simply punishing [Syria] by bombing them for the usage of chemical weapons in the past. But there are still some pretty tricky issues at play, and the question is will the agreement between the US and Russia be a success?

Why is this plan attractive for Putin?
Because it allowed Putin to reinsert Russia as a central player on Syria, to the extent that he could move the conversation back to the UN Security Council, a venue where Russia has vetoing power.

And how come Obama allowed Putin to move the conversation back to the UN Security Council? It made Obama look weak, and allowed Putin to come out the situation looking like the victor, almost as if Russia had exerted power over the US?
PIFER: I see this as a result of US decisions and not Russian decision-making. The fact that he is cooperating with Russia about Syria is less about Russia and more about that Obama is at a dead end on Syria if he does not cooperate.

Why did Obama put the decision regarding a military intervention before congress in the first place?
PIFER: I have no idea. This is a decision he took with the counsel of just a few people. His entire national security staff was surprised by the decision. As far as I can tell, he did not consult with anyone from Congress. Some skeptics say that Obama really didn’t want to use force and therefore he put the vote forward to get Congress to stop him. I don’t know if that is true, but I don’t understand why he put himself in that box.

John Kerry thanked Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergej Lavrov and Russia for their efforts in diverting the need for military intervention in Syria, stating that: ”the Russians have made a real effort here. We congratulate them”. It is quite unusual to hear the US thanking Russia. Is this a sign that the diplomatic relationship between Russia and the US is improving?
PIFER: I think that Secretary Kerry’s point gives him something to work with. Quite frankly, I think he was as surprised as everyone else by the President’s decision to put the vote to Congress. The only path I see now for the US on Syria is working together with Russia to make the chemical weapons ban a reality. By all appearances, there is a pretty good chemistry and working relationship between Kerry and Lavrov and you could not say that about the relationship with either Secretary Rice or Secretary Clinton.

How do we know if Assad has turned over all of the chemical weapons?
PIFER: We don’t.

So it is a deal based on trust?
PIFER: No not entirely, but the US intelligence community believes that the number declared chemical weapons in Syria is close to the correct amount. We think we are going to get most of the chemical weapons.

In terms of weapons, is the ultimate goal getting rid of chemical weapons in Syria, or is that just a priority because the use of chemical weapons got the attention of the international media and the public?
PIFER: The United States’ focus is on chemical weapons, but I think there is a broader question: If you can cooperate on chemical weapons, can you also gain political momentum towards getting a Geneva II Conference and broader cooperation towards an overall political settlement.

Leading up to the confirmation that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, there had been rumors of chemical attacks going back about a year, and disagreement about which side of the conflict was in fact using the chemical weapons. Have we reached a final conclusion on how many times chemical weapons have been used and by whom?
PIFER: It is difficult to get hard evidence on this. The evidence the US intelligence community is in possession of was described by Secretary Kerry as very good evidence that the attack on August 20th was carried out by the Syrian government. And there are two reasons why I believe in that statement; 1) the US intelligence community as an institution still feels that it was badly burned by the intelligence which was used in 2003 in regards to Iraq. Had the information been less than persuasive on the August 20th chemical weapons attack, I think there would have been leaks/whistleblowers coming out stating that. 2) The President does not want to get involved militarily in Syria, if the information was ambiguous the President would have said that, because then the President would not have had to get involved.

Steven Pifer is director of the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and a senior fellow at Brookings. Working as a diplomat, Mr Pifer served as the US’ ambassador to the Ukraine and had postings in London, Moscow, Geneva and Warsaw, as well as on the National Security Council.

Published by The Editorial Board

Clement Behrendt Kjersgaard (f.1975) startede RÆSON i 2002, er bladets udgiver og medlem af chefredaktionen. Tog studentereksamen (IB) på United World College of Hong Kong (1992-94), er MA i Filosofi, Politik og Økonomi (PPE) fra University of Oxford (1994-97) og BA i Statskundskab fra Københavns Universitet (1998-2002). Studievært på DR siden 2004; tillige kommentator og foredragsholder.