A rebuttal to “Russia Reborn,” by Dmitri Trenin. Foreign Affairs, November-December 2009

A leading Russian specialist in security issues, director of a major NGO in Moscow, has just delivered a muddle-headed analysis of his country’s foreign policy which merits a point for point rebuttal. Read on.


A rebuttal to “Russia Reborn,” by Dmitri Trenin. Foreign Affairs, November-December 2009

By Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


Dmitri Trenin is the Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a prestigious foreign NGO whose events attract the serious attention of world media. His biographical sketch on their website indicates that most everything about his education and previous career has been similarly prestigious, beginning with his bachelor’s degree from the Military Institute, his Ph.D. from the Institute of USA and Canada in 1984 and his service as research fellow at home and abroad, including the 1993-1994 academic year when he was Visiting Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

However, it is hard to see who is going to be pleased by his latest essay in Foreign Affairs.. The dominant theme is highly critical of his country’s foreign policy, calling for a wholly new strategy. And yet, en passant, the author lets us understand that there are serious obstacles created or encouraged by the United States which explain exactly why the present foreign policy exists and cannot easily be changed. As for the litmus test issue of the Russian-Georgian War, Trenin does not share the simplistic official U.S. view of Russian aggression, speaking instead of Saakashvili’s ‘reckless action’ and the inconsistency of U.S. policy in neither restraining the Georgians nor coming to their rescue. What comes across is shocking muddle-headedness in Mr. Trenin’s argumentation.

Why was Russia unable to integrate into the West in 1990s? The author himself states: “the West lacked the will to adopt Russia as one of its own” That has not changed to our day.

You have to work with the hand you are dealt, and Russia was not given a winning hand, neither in the 1990s, nor in the reshuffles so far in the early 21st century. The Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to find its own way as a great power are a work in progress. They cannot be called successful, since the situation is still fluid. But neither are they the failure Trenin claims. To suggest that Russia’s foreign policy needs a new strategy is to ignore the environment including a still hostile U.S. policy towards it that strives to undermine the economic foundations of Russian power even when this does not serve America’s own economic interests out of purely geopolitical considerations, and U.S. meddling in Russia’s relations with its neighbors, also for the sake of a geopolitical objective of ‘promoting pluralism’ in the post-Soviet space.

Given the author’s military training and previous career dealing with security issues it is stunning that he refuses to see present NATO policies as threatening to the interests of his homeland. The notion of a benign NATO is merely his say-so.

Let us look now separately at the foreign policy issues facing Russia which Trenin enumerates.

1. Question of the CIS

The issue of the ‘near abroad’ exists whatever Russia’s overall foreign policy strategy may be. Its economic interests are closely bound up with its neighbors, the former Soviet republics, especially in hydrocarbons. There are a large number of immigrant workers from the poorer neighbors drawn into the more dynamic Russian economy. There are common security concerns vis-à-vis the region of instability to the south and Islamic fundamentalism. In short, the CIS is a reality which Russia must deal with whatever its relations with the US and the greater world.

The fact that these countries are largely undemocratic and politically volatile limits what Russia – or the U.S. for that matter – can achieve in terms of cooperation with them. U.S. meddling does not make this any easier.

2. Russia as a geopolitical powerhouse

Trenin’s disparaging remarks on the Kremlin’s unrealistic expectation of becoming an economic and geopolitical powerhouse reveal a scandalous lack of perspective. Today’s Kommersant reports that Russia’s foreign currency reserves have now been restored to their level at the start of the year, circa $430 billion. Here again, the leadership has to work within conditions imposed by the world macroeconomic situation. When the price of oil doubles from below $40/barrel in February to more than $80 in October, we may expect Russia’s fortunes to rise substantially. The real question is whether the country will enjoy such windfall profits in hydrocarbons long enough to achieve the economic diversification and to invest in its depleted infrastructures as everyone recognizes to be essential, not least of all the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.. This is a question of possibly greater importance than legislative reforms and concessions to attract new direct foreign investment.

As regards WTO accession, Trenin is completely ignoring the macroeconomic and overall political context in which the Kremlin’s withdrawal of its membership application was taken. At the very peak of the worldwide crisis, the notion of WTO membership and the painful changes in industrial policy it would entail suddenly appeared very questionable. As regards politics, since the WTO application was put among the goodies that the US administration was holding out to Russia in any reset of relations, it was a pointed and intelligent tactical move for Russia to openly reject an incentive which has been held out repeatedly for 16 years to encourage the Russians to swallow one unpalatable Western imposed policy after another. Yes, with his rejection of the WTO, Mr Putin was giving the US the finger.

The ‘zone of privileged interests.’ What is exceptionable in this formulation by President Medvedev? This is not ‘exclusive,’ merely ‘privileged’ and seems entirely reasonable given the deep shared economic activities of the neighboring states and the realities of good neighbors.

Gazprom and Moscow’s plans for energy dominance:

Trenin is speaking in the past tense, as if Moscow had lost its bid to remain Europe’s largest external energy supplier and to control Central Asian hydrocarbon resources because of assorted blunders. However, this is a contest which remains very much alive, and which recent developments suggest they are winning.

Moreover, the clumsiness and negative fallout from the gas wars with the Ukraine were not a simple matter of Russian-Ukrainian bilateral relations. It is naïve not to see U.S. diplomacy in the closing months of the Bush Administration and the forging of its strategic partnership agreement with Kiev, including agreements to assist with modernization of its energy grid, as bearing on the relations with Moscow.

In any case, the past month brought news of major Russian successes in diversifying export markets for its hydrocarbons, principally to China and East Asia, as well as signs that Russia is winning the economic war with the United States over pipelines to Western Europe – namely its reported success in reaching a deal with Turkey over early construction of South Stream through its waters, Russia’s tapping into the new Azerbaijani gas fields in 2010, thus diverting an essential supply to Nabucco, and the encouraging news about a cascade of environmental impact approvals of Nord Stream from the Baltic nations en route. While it would be incautious to claim victory for the Russians, it is clear that their leadership has demonstrated masterful execution of a sophisticated, world-class set of policies to promote energy exports. In this situation, Trenin’s remarks look pitiful.

Soft Power

Trenin’s excursion into the politically fashionable domain of ‘soft power’ is ill-informed. The Kremlin needs no lectures on powers of attraction, particularly the cultural dimension which Trenin cites. The author seems not to be aware of the opening this spring of Russia’s major cultural embassy to Western Europe in the form of the Hermitage Amsterdam, which in scale and diversity of cultural activities puts in the shadow similar activities of the British Council or the Alliance Française. Indeed in this realm, Russia happens to be a worldwide trend-setter, and I would note that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is based on the Russian model, just as the commercial innovativeness of Russia’s cultural institutions generally ever since their loss of state support in the early 1990s has been exemplary.

But then across the board Mr. Trenin seems to be weeping into his beer. He disparages Russia’s military industry and he manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by claiming that Russia’s apparent agreement to procure French naval materiel and its ongoing procurement of Israeli drones is a proof of national weakness instead of being the victory these are for the integration of Russia into the world in even the most sensitive areas of commercial exchange.

Similarly, to speak of Russia’s isolation from the world due to visa regimes as Trenin does is to ignore the stunning successes of its diplomatic corps in opening up country after country – now more than 40 around the world – where no visas are required for Russians to travel abroad or for foreign nationals to enter Russia. Only obtuseness prevents Mr Trenin from seeing that the current tough visa regimes with the U.S. and the European Union are imposed on Russia by the other side, not due to Russian wishes.


Trenin seizes upon the US-inspired notion of drumming Russia out of BRIC due to its suffering the most from the recent worldwide recession. He mentions the history-making meeting of BRIC leaders in Yekaterinburg earlier this year but mistakenly dismisses it as just a photo opportunity. The strategic talks of Prime Minister Putin in Beijing earlier in October indicate that this very partnership, once viewed by American geopolitical experts as a nightmare scenario, is proceeding exceedingly well. Notwithstanding the disparity in population size and relative economic ranking of the two countries, it is hard to characterize the relationship as according a junior standing to the Russians given their ongoing status as major supplier of high tech arms to the Chinese, as well as their extremely important and growing status as secure supplier of energy, meaning hydrocarbons, electricity and nuclear plant. For tactical reasons, the Chinese still see it to their advantage to be deferential to American worldwide hegemony, but they surely profit from the Russians’ ability and willingness to speak out at every world forum in favor of a multipolar world. I think it would be fair to describe the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership as paralleling the French-German relationship in Europe.

The Way Forward

I will not comment separately on the exotic if not delusional recommendations of Mr Trenin for Russia’s future foreign policy, including a transfer of focus to the Pacific Rim. His call for Russia to look upon Vladivostok as its 21st century capital is an unforgivable folly for an expert trained in security strategy.

Meanwhile, Trenin’s dismissal of NATO membership for Russia is trivial. Surely the impact this would potentially have on relations with China could be mastered. Indeed the U.S. would have every interest in using such as expanded NATO as a platform for bringing China to into a closer security partnership.

The real issue standing in the way of NATO membership for Russia is the new members of Eastern and Central Europe. Here Trenin obstinately looks at their relationship with Russia from the wrong end of the telescope, calling on Russia to make nice.

I freely concede that Russian foreign policy is not perfect. But it is coping admirably with the hand it has been dealt.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2009-2010



G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.

One thought on “A rebuttal to “Russia Reborn,” by Dmitri Trenin. Foreign Affairs, November-December 2009

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