Andrey Kortunov: “Regional conflicts will increase in the aftermath of the epidemic”

We are facing a generational change among the leaders of the world’s great powers. Russia can return to closer relations with the West only if the Kremlin’s future leaders sets itself the goal of serious social and economic modernisation, according to Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), who would have been a speaker at the Lennart Meri Conference. The RIAC was established in 2010 by Russian presidential decree.

Piirsalu: At the Lennart Meri Conference you were due to speak about Russia’s role in the world. What message did you want to send?

Kortunov: First and foremost, I would have wanted to draw attention to the existing, though limited, opportunities for cooperation between Russia and Europe. I would not have wanted to talk so much about problems, but rather about positive shifts that took place within the last year. In my view there were several of these.

Russia returned to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which was indeed a difficult decision for all. Russia ratified the Paris climate change agreement. The Minsk process moved forward slightly, and in December there was a top-level summit in Paris of the Normandy Four. Agreement was reached on gas transit. Consultations between Russia and the European Union began on 5G communications.

It is true, of course, that one cannot really speak of a serious shift in relations [between Russia and the EU], but there are certain positive moments. I would have wanted to speak about how to make use of these limited opportunities. But that was the topic before the epidemic and now, of course, much will change.

What effect do you think the coronavirus pandemic will have on the global political situation?

The economic impact is huge, of course, but is this also true of the political impact? Clearly, the cost of the epidemic will be high. In some ways, Russia’s situation is specific because, in addition to the economic crisis accompanying the pandemic, it was hit by the sudden reduction in oil prices, which will result in a decrease in gas prices.

If we look at the broader picture, then without a doubt the epidemic will see an increased role for states throughout the world. Indeed, national governments bear the primary role in fighting the epidemic. In some ways, we are returning to the Westphalia system [the concept dating from the 17th century that each state is sovereign and others may not interfere in their internal affairs—JP].

It turns out that, during a major crisis, societies place more hope in their governments. The current crisis has revealed the weakness of international institutions like the G7, the G20, the EU, the Eurasian Economic Union and even the UN Security Council.

It is noteworthy that the Security Council was even unable to pass resolutions on the coronavirus pandemic, which it managed to do during previous pandemics such as Ebola and HIV/AIDS. The revelation of the weakness of international institutions is a very dangerous tendency, because it will begin to impact the international system of the future.

Third, I would draw attention to China’s growing strength, which may be somewhat paradoxical given that the virus originated there. Indeed, China is becoming stronger at the expense of others: the US, the EU and Russia. I believe that China will come out of this epidemic with the smallest losses. Economic growth will be restored faster there than in other regions of the world. China is currently consciously implementing a politics of soft power, to show the advantages of its state model in fighting the virus.

Fourth, I would emphasise the instability that will grow in many regions of the world due to the epidemic. We are seeing a rise in religious fundamentalism in places where states are weak. We are seeing a decrease in international aid. We must be prepared for a situation in which regional conflicts will increase rather than decrease during and in the aftermath of the epidemic. This will create additional problems for all of us, for we will not succeed in any way in isolating such conflicts.

But some things will certainly remain the same. For example, relations between Russia and the West in the form they were established in 2014 are proving to be very strong and firm. The epidemic will not change anything about that. I do not think either side is prepared to make any concessions.

The West’s sanctions against Russia will remain. I see no possibility on the horizon for a breakthrough in respect of Ukraine; rather, the [influence of the] epidemic there carries a minus sign. The next Normandy Four summit was due to take place in April, but now no one knows when it will happen. I also have no faith in positive developments on the subject of arms-control agreements.

Of course, I hope that the START III treaty will be extended, but unfortunately so far there are no grounds for such a hope. [Kortunov is referring to the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the US and Russia, which will expire at the end of 2020.—JP]

You claim that the role of international institutions is starting to decline. Does this benefit the Kremlin?

On the one hand, the Russian leadership—at least its current leadership—has always been cautious about international institutions. For example, up to this point Russia has not had serious experience of cooperation with the EU; it has always preferred to deal with individual states rather than the EU as a whole. [Russian president Vladimir] Putin once said how fortunate it was that Russia did not belong to any alliances.

For Putin and his team, national sovereignty is very important. In that sense, everything we can see now, what is happening now, confirms Putin’s views of the contemporary world. In a tactical sense there are clearly certain opportunities for Russia in what is happening.

However, if we look at Russia’s strategic interests, then in my opinion Russia needs international, multinational, institutions because it is getting harder and harder for a country to cope alone, not only with epidemics, but with securing economic growth and dealing with problems related to security.

How might global power relations change as a result of the pandemic? You already mentioned the rise of China, but what about other major powers in the world, such as the US, the EU and Russia?

It is difficult to say, because at best we are only near the middle of the epidemic. It seems to me that this crisis will not create new tendencies, but rather reinforce existing ones. The strengthening of China will continue, even faster and more and more strikingly.

We are seeing a very interesting development in the US. Usually when problems such as war, an extensive crisis or an economic downturn occur there, we see a phenomenon the Americans call “rallying round the flag”: everyone gathers around the nation’s leader, the president, whose popularity rises sharply; internal problems recede into the background and the nation mobilises to fight the external danger. It is very interesting that this has not happened at present. [Kortunov is one of Russia’s most distinguished experts on the US.—JP]

Quite the contrary: political and social polarisation has increased. Therefore, it seems to me that, unfortunately, the US will emerge from this crisis weakened. I cannot see how Russia could strengthen its position [in the world] in the aftermath of the pandemic because, in addition to the coronavirus and economic problems, we have the sharp decrease in oil prices with its associated problems. As a rule, such crises are much more dangerous and painful for emerging economies like India, Brazil and Russia than they are for the developed Western countries.

Speaking of Europe, the coronavirus has coincided with a generational change among national leaders and crises in political parties in several EU countries. I predict that the next few years will be difficult for the EU, and a great deal depends on whether its leaders can maintain unity and solidarity, not allowing the populists to take the initiative, as well as retaining enough power to enter into agreements.

Indeed, we can see even now how difficult it is for them to agree on the budget and common strategies to combat the virus. However, I still hope that all of this will help the EU to find new ideas and mechanisms, perhaps even to accelerate the generational shift in political leadership, which is also a very important issue.

Two years ago you wrote a long article in Kommersant1 on the growth of Russia’s international influence. You emphasised that this was expressed primarily in only one dimension—politico-military—and that Russia’s influence on global economic, social, financial and technological processes was small. At the end of the article you said that if the centre of world politics shifted to non-military areas, Russia’s influence would unavoidably begin to devalue. Are you already seeing this? Is Russia’s influence beginning to decline? READ MORE BY FOLLOWING THE LINK