Interview with Stephen Kotkin, John P. Birkelund Professor in History and International Affairs at Princeton University

By: Declan Kunkel

This interview with Princeton Professor Stephen Kotkin was conducted before his talk at the Buckley Program on Friday, March 3rd. This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited from a longer interview.

Stephen Kotkin is the John P. Birkelund Professor in History and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1989. He is also a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Widely acknowledged as an expert on Russian and Eurasian affairs, Professor Kotkin is the author of multiple books and has been featured in various publications, including The New Yorker, The Financial Times, The New York Times, and the Washington Post.


Declan: Putin. Trump. Steve Bannon. Turn on any television set, listen to the radio, or pick up a newspaper anywhere in the world, and you will see something Russia. Articles announce that U.S.-Russian relations are at an all-time low. What strikes me is that there seems to be a general fear of Russia. Americans think that Russia is strategically opposed with anything the U.S. does. Is Russia truly a match for the U.S.? Do they really deserve the “superpower” status that the media gives them? Is Russia just a small-time nation with a big-time military?

Kotkin: So, I agree with you. It has not been easy for us to understand Russia. A lot of people had their formative years during the Cold War, which was a genuine global struggle. And even if you didn’t have your formative years then, you may have heard of or be influenced by it. The Soviet Union was a menace. The Cold War was necessary. Not everything that we did in the Cold War was smart or good, and we certainly made a tremendous number of mistakes. The Cold War, however, was completely necessary. What we should be asking, however, is if the Cold War is necessary now. We cannot live in the past, but must look to the future.

So is the Cold War necessary now? Russia is a place that has none of the power of the Soviet Union. Even the Soviet Union was weaker than we were. It had fewer allies, and its allies were satellites, not voluntary. Its economy was maybe one-third the size of our economy, but they had nukes. They had the big conventional military and they had, for a while, had belief in themselves. The USSR was a significant adversary. Now, let’s look at Russia. They are smaller. They lost territory—an amount equivalent to India. They are farther from Europe than anytime since Peter the Great. Their economy is 1/15 the size of the United States economy. I’ll give them that they have the nukes, and they have cyber capability. But more importantly, Russia has the willpower to use their stuff. This is important. There is capability, and there is will. The United States is a superpower. It has a giant economy and an incredible military. You would never trade the U.S. Military for the Russian Military. We have soft power, beyond anything the Russians ever had or ever will have.

But, for some reason, the perception has set in that Russia is the superpower and that the US is weak. This is a bizarre situation. They have many fewer capabilities but impressive willpower. We have incredible capabilities, so much so that we are unmatched by anyone in recorded history. And yet we have not been very smart or confident in understanding or using our power.
Relations with Russia could get better very easily. We could simply concede what they want. What do they want? They want the status of parity with us. This does not exist in fact, but they want us to pronounce that. They also want a free hand in their region, their “sphere of influence.” If we granted them that, the playacting of parity, relations would be fantastic. But that would not be helping American’s national interest, or global stability.

So we have a situation where we have a clash of national interests with Russia. Our interests just do not overlap. The interests are just too different. Russia is a relationship to be managed. It is entirely manageable. This is not a Cold War. Russia is not a superpower, and we certainly don’t need to have warm and fuzzy relations with them. But, the one time Russia could be influential is in a U.S.-Russia-China triangle. Nixon and Kissinger understood China as a card to play against the USSR. They wanted to divide the communist world, and therefore weaken it. This was an interesting (and important) geopolitical gambit. Now, something similar is happening, just with reverse roles. There is the notion that we could cleave Russia from China and use Russia as a counterweight to Chinese power. The bigger challenge to U.S. diplomacy is China, not Russia. Russia is a declining power. China needs to be the focus, and Russia could be a help. There needs to be a U.S.-Russia axis, not the current China-Russia axis.

There are lots of challenges with that, though. The U.S. and Russia don’t have many common interests. We do not have any common goals on which to form an axis. The second issue is that Russia sees China as a power they can benefit from, and not as an immediate threat. We could change this overtime, but that just is not the world we see today.

Declan: The theory that keeps floating around is that Putin is not a “true leader.” There have been dozens of books published within the past few years that discuss Putin’s supposed lack of intelligence. Is Putin ineffective? Is he a strategic actor that can be taken at face-value?

Kotkin: Putin is not a genius. I’ll give you that. He has, however, been in power for a long time. People can often get in power by accident. Getting into power can just be luck. But staying in power in a difficult part of the world is an accomplishment. It is an accomplishment within the terms of an authoritarian regime. He is much more competent than most books make him out to be. He is sophisticated and capable.

That being said, Putin is not at the helm of a superpower. Russia is very weak, and there is only decline looking forward. That is not a good thing, I do not know who is self-interested in Russian decline. But managing the decline of a once-great power is a very difficult process. Russia is a serious issue, but it is taking up a lot more space in the American imagination that it should be.

Declan: Will Russia continue to dominate the American imagination going forward? How might the Trump Administration view or focus on Russia?

Kotkin: First, there has to be a Trump Administration. I’m not sure that there is a fully formed, or even a partially formed Trump administration yet. I’d sure like to see one, but there just isn’t one yet. There is no national security apparatus. But beyond that, there has been a lot of use and abuse of the Russia stuff in the election, both in the campaign and post-election. Russia has been too prominent for all sides. We simply need to lower the temperature with Russia. Whether there is a smart policy in there, who knows. We just need to see a policy making process that is effective and makes sense.

Declan: What do you propose? How should the U.S. proceed?

Kotkin: Every administration thinks that they can ratchet down the pressure and fix things with Russia. Why can’t we just lower the temperature, they ask? We had this with George W. Bush, with Bill Clinton, and with Obama. But there is a certain superficial plausibility to that: why does it always have to be angry? Why can we not find common ground? No matter what the U.S. does, it is always followed by disappointment.

The first answer to this is that we have to ask, “what is the goal to U.S. policy?” Only then can we come up with steps to get to that goal.

If our goal is stability, we have to know what kind of relationship is necessary to achieve that aim. The thing with Russia is that they have a chip on their shoulder. It is a chip-on-the-shoulder regime. They have a sense of historic entitlement and a sense of historic bitterness. They used to be a historic, large empire. We cannot change that, though. This is not our problem to fix. We simply cannot change the Russians. What we can do, however, is impress upon them the strength of the United States, the willingness of the US to call on those assets, and the willingness of the US to engage in a bargaining process. Diplomacy is always the answer, but diplomacy only works when you bargain from a position of strength. You have to come to the negotiating table from a position of strength.

One of the things that Reagan did—and he was probably the last successful President when dealing with Russia—was that he knew the United States needed to negotiate from a position of strength, and that we needed to pocket the concessions when the concessions came. You need diplomacy, and you need strength. We’ve seen strength without diplomacy, and it did not end well. Diplomacy without strength, we’ve seen that as well. It did not work.

Declan Kunkel is a sophomore in Morse College.