Reagan was right

Richard Pipes in conversation with Jarosław Kuisz and Łukasz Pawłowski · 6 October 2015
American historian and a former member of the National Security Council speaks on on Western policy towards Russia and Russian military involvement in Syria and Ukraine.

Jarosław Kuisz: During the last UN session, somewhere in between Barack Obama’s and Vladimir Putin’s speeches, the Polish president Andrzej Duda took the stage. Polish media gave his speech a lot of attention. But looking at it from your, American perspective – is this an effective way to conduct Polish foreign policy?

Richard Pipes: I don’t think Poland can exert a lot of influence.

JK: Your opinion might come as a shock to many Polish journalists.

This is a conflict between the great powers, primarily between the U.S. and Russia – and to some extent Europe as a whole. Individual European countries, however, cannot shape the events very much.

JK: Does it mean we can only stand on the side and watch the big countries play their game?

Poland should speak up in order to shape public opinion, yet I don’t believe you can have a direct influence on Russian and American foreign policy.

Łukasz Pawłowski: Is Russian engagement in Syria good news for the Central European states, because it will distract Moscow from Ukraine, or is it bad news?

I think it’s bad news for everybody, because Russia is supporting a tyrant – Bashar al-Assad who controls only a small part of the country. He should be removed and Syria should become a democracy.

ŁP: What about Russia itself? Some say it was a masterstroke by Mr. Putin who was elevated to the global stage yet again. Others claim it’s a very dangerous gamble which may involve Russia in a costly war it cannot possibly win.

Russia’s involvement in global foreign policy is very popular among the population because they want their country to be what they call “великa держава”, a great power. It is not, however, good for the country itself. Russia is not a great power, has terrible domestic problems, particularly of a economic nature and should concentrate on internal not foreign policy. Its economy is in a very bad shape – mainly due to the fall of petroleum prices and the exchange rate of the rubble – and may collapse in not too distant future.

ŁP: What do you think is president Putin’s line of thinking. What is he counting on by engaging in Syria?

That he might be able to save Assad who is his ally and by virtue of that once more become a major player in the world politics. But again, it’s not what Russia needs.

JK: What does it need then?

Major domestic reforms, both political and economic, which would lead to weakening of presidential power, decentralization and democratization.

ŁP: But when you ask Russians about such reforms they tend to answer they have already experimented with liberal democracy in 1990’s, during Borys Yeltsin’s presidency and it had terrible results. They remember it as a time of humiliation on the world stage and total chaos in the country. That is why they prefer a strong and stable – even if undemocratic – political leadership.

You are right – this is a tragedy of Russia, that its citizens are very uneducated politically and hardly interested in politics. If that sentiment remains strong, the future of Russia is pretty bleak.

JK: There are some voices saying that Putin is a pure product of Russian culture. Is he a kind of politician that must have appeared in Russia?

Unfortunately yes. Russians want very strong leaders who do what they believe is necessary for the country, do not listen to public opinion and do not follow lawful procedures. I’ve been studying Russia for 70 years and I’m very disappointed it is that way. I would like Russia to move – as the Eastern Europe did – towards lawful democracy, but it does not have that tradition.

ŁP: What do you think is the best case scenario for Russia that could be realised in the current circumstances?

To have a president who realizes that Russia needs a political culture it lacks now and to that goal it needs to develop democratic institutions over the period of 20-30 years. 

JK: Could you name anybody of that kind on the Russian political scene who could take place of such dissidents as Andriej Sacharow or Andriej Amalrik?

 There are some dissidents but I do not know anybody who would be capable of achieving such goal in the immediate future. Unfortunately most Russians are not interested in politics and are perfectly willing to let somebody else rule.

ŁP: How do you judge American foreign policy against Russia over the last 6 years? Barack Obama’s speech in the United Nations was very militant and clearly directed against Mr. Putin. Do you think it indicates a change in Russian-American and if so what kind of change would that be?

The change began after the annexation of the Crimea and then the interference in the Eastern Ukraine. I believe the sanctions are a right policy and they may eventually force Russia to take a different approach.

ŁP: But back in 2011 in an interview for Wall Street Journal you spoke favourably of the reset policy introduced by the Obama administration at the beginning of his presidency.

I think the idea of the reset was right at the time. Unfortunately events have taken a different course. Since 2011 Russia became very aggressive towards the states of the former Soviet Union and in the Middle East so the change of policy was also necessary.

ŁP: How do you see the role of NATO in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria? For many years you were against Poland joining it and at some point you said the Treaty itself was no longer needed.

I did not support the dissolution of NATO. Where did you find it?

ŁP: In the aforementioned interview from 2011 you stated that “NATO was created specifically against the Russian threat. The Russian threat does not exist. . . . So I think the time has come to consider dissolving it.”

If I said that, I regret it now because NATO is necessary.

ŁP: What actions then should it take in Syria and Ukraine?

It cannot do much in Ukraine but I think the policy of sanctions and the criticism of Russia is justified. In Syria Russia is simply going to fail because Assad is already going down and I think they are making a mistake supporting him.

JK: Do you think Ukraine could stay as an independent country in the long run?

I think it can but I would tell the Ukrainians not to dream of joining NATO or becoming part of other Western structures. In dealing with Moscow one has to take Russian mentality into account. And for them Ukraine is the cradle of the Russian state. So while they should be independent, they should not manifestly try to be a part of the West. 

JK: Do you really believe that Ukraine can be some kind of Switzerland between the East and the West?

No, that is impossible. It is historically and territorially very connected to Russia.

JK: So it cannot be really independent…

It is independent but its relation with Russia can be compared to the relation between the US and Mexico. If Mexico in the 1960’s, 70’s or 80’s became a part of the soviet bloc we would not tolerate it because of its proximity. The same applies to Ukraine – it needs to be careful about not antagonizing Russia.

JK: If you look at it from this perspective, maybe it would be even better to compare the current situation with Cuba crisis in 1962?

To some extent yes. We would not allow Cuba, which is next door to us, to become a base for Russian missiles and were ready to start a war over it. Russia would do the same with Ukraine.

ŁP: For the same reason for a long time you were against Poland joining NATO – you said it might antagonize Russia. Is your opinion different now?

I was afraid that Russians will become very aggressive towards Poland but it is now history – Poland is part of NATO and that is it. Russia cannot do anything about it.

ŁP: Cannot Ukraine follow the same path?

Ukraine joining NATO?

ŁP: Yes

No chance for it – if Ukraine tried to join NATO, Russia would invade it. I think Russia would not object Ukraine having close economic connections with the West. But they would not tolerate any form of political, let alone military cooperation.

ŁP: But the question is what the government in Kiev should do right now. Should it allow the east of the country to remain in control of Russian separatists or should it try to get those territories back?

They should fight to get these regions back, because it is intolerable that the Russians try to detach a part of a different country and take it for Russia.

ŁP: Yet we know that president Obama objects to sending military support to Ukraine. Do you think he is right in this decision?

No, in this regard he is wrong. He should provide military support.

JK: But that could lead to a regular war. Or do you hope this could discourage Russians?

I think the Ukrainians need more military help to reclaim those regions.

JK: Who therefore should be the role model for president’s Obama foreign policy – president Kennedy who dealt with the Cuban crisis? 

I worked for Reagan and I believe Reagan was right.