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What Putin and Xi Really Want

Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves speaks with American Purpose about Europe caught between America and its rivals.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Shirley Martey Hargis, Jeffrey Gedmin

Jeffrey Gedmin: President Ilves, last month President Biden called Vladimir Putin a killer. Was this playing to a domestic audience? Is this posturing, or is it putting down a marker, signaling a change in approach by the new administration toward Russia?

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves: Recall that in 2017, when Donald Trump was asked this question, he answered, “Well, we kill a lot of people, too.” I’m not sure how much of a marker Biden’s remark is; it seems to be a question de rigueur for presidents of the United States. Actually, given that we’re looking at the Skripal and Litvinenko’s poisonings, at shootings in broad daylight in Berlin, and a host of other incidents, it’s not an unfair question to ask. It’s quite clear that the orders have come from Putin, which, by the way, Sir Robert Owen—the judge in Litvinenko’s case—said after the inquiry, since he was poisoned with polonium, something only the military control.

JG: From the perspective of Vladimir Putin, what is his vision today for Europe and Eastern Europe; and what is he expecting from the United States?

THI: Putin wants to maintain power and to do so by claiming the mantle of the counter-Enlightenment—Version 3.0 or 2.0, I don’t know which one, but in the old Russian, Nicholas-the-First sense: orthodoxy, autocracy, and nation (Правосла́вие, самодержа́вие, наро́дность). Basically, his is an argument against reason, against liberal values. After all, the Russian czars in the 19th century were at the vanguard of crushing liberal revolutions in Austria, Poland, and in Hungary. It is in the tradition of 19th-century Russian foreign policy. Putin has really operationalized, for example, homophobia; to be against all this terrible—he wants to say, liberal—gay Europe.

I don’t think it’s a grand vision per se, but certainly it’s a matter of—first and foremost—preserving domestic power with something that is, yes, some kind of odd ideology, because it is ultimately ideology that mobilizes people to do things or to find an enemy to be against. For how else will you mobilize Russians to be against Western or European liberal democracy, free and fair contested elections, and the rule of law?

Moreover, Putin wants respect, уважение. Certainly you can detect in Putin over the years this incredible need to be on the same plane, of the same international status as the United States, which is a funny thing to want given that your economy is the size of Italy’s or Spain’s. All you actually have are nukes, and he does have a lot of nukes. That, however, is not a great claim to being a great power, other than that you can destroy millions of people. There’s no real appeal to this Russia, no soft power, to use Joe Nye’s concept. You don’t have people illegally trying to cross into Russia to live and work and plan a future there.

Still, more particularly, what does Putin want? Ultimately what I think he wants is for the European Union to fall apart, for NATO to fall apart. If he wants to be on par with anyone or to be over anyone, he needs those two organizations to collapse. As long as the EU and NATO are more powerful economically, politically, and militarily, he can’t bully the individual members and allies.

JG: If it’s his objective to destroy NATO and the European Union, the timing is not bad. We’re in the midst of a pandemic and economic recession; and, internally, our democracies are not particularly strong, unified, or vibrant at the moment. Does he smell opportunity? Are there ways in which he might test us—the transatlantic partnership and the alliance—in the next one, two, three years? Or is he waiting for us to do ourselves in?

THI: One of the things you have to keep in mind is that he’s been opening those possibilities for four, five, six years. I would rate that the beginning was the referendum that he virtually created in the Netherlands in 2015 on whether or not to grant European Union associate membership or have an association agreement with Ukraine; in the Netherlands, a referendum was held on this issue. There was no need for one. There’s never been a referendum on an association agreement, which basically is a free-trade agreement plus a student-teacher exchange. Referenda have been mooted for membership (and rejected), but for an association agreement, it’s absurd. We signed ours a decade before we ever joined the EU. No implication for or promise of membership was involved. Basically, the Netherlands referendum was the first time we saw a disinformation campaign first just to hold one and then later for the Dutch to vote against it, not only via the internet but through real active measures, such as having Russians in the Netherlands behave very badly and claim to be Ukrainian—which, of course, turned off the Dutch.

Then we saw the Brexit referendum, clearly and strongly supported by Putin, in order to advance fragmentation tendencies in the European Union. I don’t even need to get into the 2016 U.S. election. Then, his financially backing Marine Le Pen and hacking of Emmanuel Macron’s campaign server, hoping for a Hilary Clinton Redux.

I think it’s not so much that we are weak: Putin has been pursuing these policies consistently since 2015. He just applied to the West the same policies, means, and measures he used in 2014 to discredit Ukraine, which worked exceedingly well. Russia would make up stories of Ukrainian atrocities and, in the spirit of even-handedness, reliable Western news media would report “both sides” of a story that was completely fabricated. Then he moved on. He has been doing this ever since, in all kinds of ways—really nasty stuff: spreading anti-vaccine propaganda, for example, not just during covid but three years ago in Italy on measles. These are all different efforts to weaken the West.

It took a while for the West to wake up. Troll farms are operating; targeted assassinations continue. Threats against the Baltic countries get louder and louder. In Ukraine these weeks, the pressure is even greater with a massive military build-up along its borders with Russia and genuine war rhetoric in the media. I think he’s just trying to push to see how far he can go. It’s in his interest for the West’s cohesion to dissolve. But he doesn’t want or need to invade the West. This is not the Cold War paradigm; there is no Fulda Gap the Red Army has to get through on a push to the Atlantic. This is a much better way: manipulate elections to control the governments of Europe and to be able to dominate them, without being blocked by the EU or NATO, or even to get countries to leave those two bodies. But you don’t want to invade them. You still want to go to Paris; you still want to be able to launder your money in a rule-of-law country where it will be safe. And why would you want to launder your money in the first place? Because property is respected in the West. You want to go to your villas on the Mediterranean and your apartments and villas in Belgravia in London and in Miami, where you have your luxury condos.

Shirley Martey Hargis: Going back to the Biden Administration, are there any areas in which we can revitalize cooperation efforts—on key non-proliferation issues, for example?

THI: I think the Start Treaty is one of those things. Look, it’s in both sides’ interests, the West’s and Russia’s, and the Start Treaty is fine. On anti-terrorism, I don’t see it happening, given Russia’s role in Syria and the highly likely funding of the Taliban by Russia. Syria’s is a horrendous regime, it’s backed by and would not last a month without Russia. We had some near misses for a real conflict, too—when, for example, Russian mercenaries, the Wagner group, actually attacked U.S. positions two years ago in Syria.

A lot of people in Washington and elsewhere were much more willing to talk to Russia in the past than they are now. Throughout the foreign policy establishment, I think what you have is foreign policy liberals mugged by Russian reality. What’s odd, though, is that conservatives—in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe, have taken the opposite tack and embraced Putin.

SMH: Right. Let’s bring in North Korea a bit here. Is there a path, possibly, for Russia and China to cooperate with the United States to denuclearize North Korea?

THI: China is a more serious country than Russia. It’s not driven so much by spite as Putin is (though there is quite a chip on China’s shoulder in recent times). But on North Korea, I think you’re frozen. Let’s talk, though, about Russia and China. Between the two countries there is no love lost. I read about a month ago that in one of the cities along the Yellow River, there’s a “Friendship Museum” devoted to Russia and China; Except Chinese will not let Russians visit it, because the tone of the exhibits are so anti-Russian.

So, the Macron thing—“We need the Russians to stand against the Chinese”—I would say that it really doesn’t get China and really doesn’t get Russia, either. Yes, there was this ideological tie for a while under communism; but in fact you could also say that Gorbachev scared the hell out of the Chinese. As a result, instead of liberalizing, they cracked down in Tiananmen Square. Today there’s nothing that binds the Russians and the Chinese ideologically, especially when you have this 19th-century Russian chauvinist ideology dominating in Russia. The Chinese aren’t interested in that. Each side looks down on the other so what you see is a strictly transactional relationship between an energy-rich/cash-poor Russia and an energy-poor/cash-rich China. Europe doesn’t fit into that equation unless it abandons standing up for fundamental Western values.

If you do want to touch on U.S.-China cooperation on North Korea, I don’t see it going very far at the moment. Right now, relations are too dicey between the United States and China. I’m just looking at the anger in Congress—and at all the intellectual property theft issues, and the nasty massive hacking, and all of that. But if you look ahead four or five years, you could see a rapprochement coming, at least to the point of solving mutual issues like Korea.

North Korea is dangerous—and utterly unpredictable. That’s scary with its nuclear arms. China is not particularly happy about having a nutcase with nuclear bombs right next to it, either, because you never know when it’ll suddenly go whack and do something.

SMH: Let’s talk about Ukraine. Do you have any advice for the new administration? How do you define current Russian aims?

THI: That’s a tough one, especially with tensions raised by Russia as we speak. I think Giuliani did such damage that there’s now a spillover effect—its image has been weakened in the United States. The degree of corruption you have in Ukraine is its biggest problem, reducing trust from all its friends, from little Estonia to the United States. I think the degree of corruption is so massive that the decision to sanction [Ukrainian billionaire] Kolomoyskyi this winter was a very good move—and, in fact, an even more active and conditional approach is needed. I suspect the recent crackdown on corruption is also a factor in Russia’s escalation in rhetoric and military moves in the past few weeks.

I believe lethal aid to Ukraine is something the United States should pursue more actively, because they’re getting hammered. The Russian army is illegally in the Donbass and is using howitzers to bombard Ukrainian cities and towns. Basically, Ukraine needs serious military assistance. I don’t see any U.S. government at this stage of things putting troops on the ground, but why not? Certainly military advisors and more lethal weaponry are needed in a big way. You’ll recall that Obama refused to give them lethal weaponry. Trump allowed some. A lot more training of Ukrainian troops would be very good.

Also good would be a carrot-and-stick approach, cleaning up this corruption, which is massive. Their Transparency International rating is no longer eighteen points behind Russia’s as it was, and indeed has improved, but still ranks between Sierra Leone and Niger, a ranking you don’t want if you have aspirations to being taken seriously by the United States, NATO, and the European Union. It’s not that it’s just a post-commie country and therefore corrupt, a stereotype from thirty years ago. Estonia is in ninth place in the European Union in terms of corruption. The United States ranks eight places behind us, so there is no such thing as a former communist country being inherently corrupt. Maybe the United States will be less corrupt when the Transparency International ratings come in a year. I think the last four years really did damage to America’s standing, at least from the point of view of Transparency International.

In any case, there can be strong pressure on boosting anti-corruption efforts, by both the United States and the EU. On the carrot side, if you’re not going to use AstraZeneca, give Ukraine some of it, because they have ridiculously small amounts of vaccines and desperately need them. If the United States has half a country’s worth of AstraZeneca it’s not using, well, give some to them. Give some to us while you’re at it.

JG: How do you make the strategic case today to a member of Congress for why Ukraine matters to the West and the United States?

THI: As Zbig Brzezinski said, with Ukraine, Russia is an empire; without Ukraine, Russia’s just a big country. That’s the simplest thing. Its grand imperial design, or self-image as the repository of the 19th-century, anti-liberal czarist credo I spoke of above, cannot take the fact that Ukraine is independent—even though it’s an awful, overbearing, patronizing approach to say that Ukraine is a little Russia. Even less can Russia take Ukraine as a successful, liberal democracy. For throughout the Putin era Russia has maintained that liberal democracy is not possible on what was the Soviet Union. It’s why the success of Estonia and the other Baltic States so vexes them. Imagine though if what it considers the birthplace of Russia—Ukraine—successfully becomes a vibrant, rule-of-law-based democracy.

SMH: You said there’s no love lost between Russia and China. Can you speak just a bit more to Russia-China ties? Is there anything in this relationship that ought to cause Europeans and Americans concern?

THI: Cash. That’s basically because the Chinese are energy poor and the Russians are cash poor. It’s a strictly mercantile, commercial relationship. Ideologically, there’s nothing there, as I’ve said.

The Chinese, obviously they’re very good at diplomacy, and they realize that it’s in their foreign policy interests to have Russia as someone they can talk to. It’s also in their interest to keep Russia weak. They really plan on taking advantage of the northern transit route, with the Arctic melting, to take goods from China to the European market—which is much, much faster and cheaper. That’s of supreme interest to them. They have this Belt and Road Initiative—but that’s rail, and it’s a mess. Instead, they can ship directly to Europe. Their relations are very calculated.

Kennan was right when he said that if you are on the border of Russia, you only can either be a vassal or an enemy. That’s, I think, where the tension comes in for Russia-China relations—because China is not, cannot be a vassal, but Russia can’t afford to make it an enemy.

Clearly, China can change course. Deng Xiaoping said, “It’s glorious to get rich.” There are over a hundred billionaires in the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Maybe I’m too much of a cold warrior in that I still take ideology seriously, but it does strike me as weird. I don’t know about you, Jeff, but we’re old cold warriors. At least Russia dispensed with the Marxism and Leninism, but it just strikes me as odd to have all those billionaires running the Communist Party.

This last year, when they’ve trotted out this wolf-warrior diplomat concept, is also very weird to me. You’d think that instead of bullying countries they instead would continue to promote their old mantra of “the peaceful rise of China.” This belligerence indicates some people in the leadership don’t get how you do things in the world in the 21st century. That’s a benign view. I don’t know, when the extremely independent Danish or Swedish press has an article critical of China, and then the Chinese ambassador in Stockholm or Copenhagen says, “We demand you put a stop to this,” people in the West who otherwise would perhaps be less critical sit up and say, “What? Are you demanding that the government of a liberal democratic country put an end to what is written in its free press?” They need more sophistication than that. Personally taunting democratically elected leaders as I recently saw in a Chinese ambassador’s tweet about Canada probably draws the wrong lessons from Donald Trump. That was an aberration, not a new standard. If you want to be accepted as serious people, people you can do business with, as it were, then you don’t have diplomats use this thuggish rhetoric. I guess wolf-warrior diplomats are the equivalent of swagger, right?

Full transparency on what is happening to the Uighurs, ending threats to Taiwan and observing the 1984 UK-China agreement on the status of Hong Kong would all do much to calm the rest of the world about China’s intentions.

SMH: I would like your opinion about the agreement signed recently between China and Russia linking the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and Russia’s Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities—to cooperate, to create a permanent moon base. The two governments are setting themselves up for a new global space cooperation era, at least in their ambitions. Do you have any concerns?

THI: Well, I don’t know. I would hope that it would be friendly competition and would be an incentive for both Europe and the United States to do a lot more together. First and foremost in cybersecurity, going beyond the current Five Eyes cooperation to involve other liberal democracies. Cyberattacks are not constrained by geography, as alliances always have been before. After all, NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But what do we do to defend liberal democracies when distance and time, thanks to the digital era, have become irrelevant?

I would go further and say that unless the United States and Europe overcome their own egotistical and often scoffing views of each other, China will economically dominate the West. There’s a knee-jerk anti-Americanism when it comes to tech that you find in Europe, where everything is defined as being opposed to GAFA—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon—and on the U.S. side, “Oh, those silly Europeans. What do you they know? They don’t do anything anyway,” whereas, in fact, they do quite a bit. That is a huge weakness, particularly on the commercial side.

Though I have little hope for it, it is imperative that cooperation between U.S. tech and European tech develop quickly and abandon these pointless negative attitudes toward each other, especially in the case of Europe. It’s really not, “Oh yeah, why don’t we just let Huawei come in here. What the hell, right?”

SMH: To follow up on the point about the space cooperation: Now that we see that Russia and China have this signed agreement, and China is clearly looking for more partnership, and Russia is on board and that’s their first partner, do you see other countries jumping ship from the International Space Station (ISS)? Because the funding only goes through 2024 for the ISS; do you see these other countries like Canada and Japan jumping over to the CNSA with China and Russia?

THI: I don’t know. I really don’t. I did just read a piece saying U.S. kids want to be TikTok stars but Chinese kids want to go to the moon (which is how I thought sixty years ago), which indicates the United States and perhaps the rest of the West has lost its appetite for scientific projects, or perhaps science in general.

On the other hand, the image of Russia and China is not that popular. Due to the actions of the Chinese and the Russians themselves, I think, going for short-term gains with bad behavior, they have failed to take into account the long game, which is odd for the Chinese. We’re used to the Russians always trying to grab whatever they can and, if there’s no locked door, sneak in and steal it, whereas the Chinese play the long game.

JG: I would like to wrap this up with two questions, one about the United States and one about Estonia. To the United States, we started talking about President Biden and President Putin. I have a specific question about President Trump and President Putin; is it at all a concern that President Trump, now out of office, a President who had access to secrets … is it possible or plausible or of concern that he might share secrets with the likes of Vladimir Putin out of carelessness, vanity, or even commercial interests?

THI: I think that given his behavior, it’s more than possible. Against that we have, however, the reports of all the various U.S. intelligence agencies that, “Well, he never read anything.” He had access but whether he actually went into these reports, that is more dubious. It got to the point where his advisors had to vet material that they then showed him because he didn’t want to see anything critical of Putin.

Given that while in office, indeed almost immediately after becoming President, he basically betrayed Israel, giving away secrets at his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russia’s Ambassador to Washington Sergey Kislyak, this cannot be ruled out. This is just based on media accounts, of course, but apparently the Israelis had a source inside ISIS and Trump, in a moment of boasting, said, “Well, we’ve got this guy here”—So for the United States, it’s a worry.

Regarding Estonia: During the pandemic, with rather low infection rates for the first half of 2020, the government was in a rush to open up, so we are now one of the worst countries in the world. I don’t go anywhere. There is a particular mindset here, which, I would say, wasn’t anti-mask politically, but it was that people didn’t think it applied to them, so now we have horrible statistics on covid.

Economically, well, we just had, a week or two ago, our sixth unicorn. That’s incredible—that a country of 1.3 million people has six unicorns. That’s way more, per capita, than Israel, the number two nation for start-ups becoming billion-dollar companies. We’re doing really well there and have ever since. A group of young Estonians developed Skype.

Domestically, things don’t seem to be moving very quickly, partly of course because of covid. We’ve been around long enough so that the radical reform drive we had in the nineties and then the first decade of the millennium until the financial crisis has petered out. We’ve become comfortable. Recently Estonia ranked as number eleven in quality of life—the United States ranks as number fifteen. Considering that just thirty years ago Estonia became free after fifty years of communist rule, we’re doing great. Leaving covid aside, the economy has not really suffered that much, more than anyone else, really. Estonian companies are doing real well. The biggest worry—the dominant worry, of course—is covid at this point, especially with our very high numbers.

To Russia, well, the rhetoric has become more belligerent toward us as it has toward basically everyone else. We’ve been getting it for so long that now it’s just more of the same, and it’s, like, “OK.” There has been, again, a spate of articles saying, “Oh, Putin’s going to attack the Baltics.” I don’t really take that very seriously.

I think Moldova and Ukraine are far more vulnerable, because they don’t have the protection of either the European Union or NATO. I’d say that if Putin is moving on a more belligerent path, then those are the places I would be nervous about.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves served as president of Estonia from 2006 to 2016, and before that as foreign minister and ambassador to the United States. He lives on his farm (pictured above) in southern Estonia and is professor of government and digitization at Tartu University.

Shirley Martey Hargis is senior advisor for China at the Oxford Diplomatic Society, University of Oxford, and a contributor to the Politico China Watcher newsletter.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

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