Russia’s Strategic Interest with the West

June 17, 2015

On June 17th Mikhail Khodorkovsky visited the Atlantic Council in their headquarters in Washington for a conversation entitled “Russia’s Strategic Interest with the West “. Frederick Kempe, President and CEO of the Atlantic Council moderated the discussion.

Below is the full text of Khodorkovsky’s remarks at the Atlantic Council as prepared for delivery.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’m happy to welcome you here.

The Atlantic Council was created as an organisation with the goal of fostering the development of transatlantic cooperation. Cooperation between Europe and America. Collaboration in trade, security and politics.

Looking at the way post-war history has played out, it can be said that your organisation, alongside other parties to the process, has enjoyed some considerable successes. Almost every country in Europe has succeeded in making the transition to democratic forms of governance;

Yet there’s a part of Europe where many problems remain unresolved . In the wake of events in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, many are prophesying increased tensions, the further isolation of our country, and even a new cold war.

But there’s also an alternative scenario for the future – a scenario that, in my opinion, will inevitably materialise in the medium or long term. This is exactly what I’d like to speak to you about today. About how Russia can make the transition from isolation to integration into the Euro-Atlantic community.


Sanctions have seriously hurt the Russian economy. Of course, today’s Russia has considerably fewer resources than once enjoyed by the USSR, but they are nonetheless sufficient to keep the pressure on the West for the next ten or even twenty years.

Another question, however, is this: at what price?Of course, a new arms race, together with exclusion from the international scientific-technological order, will have unavoidable consequences.

A redistribution of budget expenditure has already begun. State investment in social capital is grinding to a halt; investment in defence and security structures is being boosted. In the first quarter of 2015, military spending totalled a record 9% of GDP. This means fewer schools and fewer hospitals. In the long term, this will lead to a serious deterioration in people’s quality of life.

The current confrontation with the West is absolutely artificial, and has been orchestrated by Russian elites eager to cling on to power. These elites desperately require an image of an enemy whose image would serve to distract the populace from the regime’s corrupt and inefficient nature.

The only way the current regime can survive is by inciting internal and external confrontation. By 2011-2012, our country had outgrown its authoritarian, retrograde leadership. We were witnessing growing discontent among the middle classes, who began to demand a different quality of superior-quality public institutions. Discontent metamorphosed into mass protests. At that point, Russia was ready to make the transition to democracy, economic competitiveness and local self-government. It was only through enormous propaganda efforts, panderings to the dark instincts of the crowd, crackdowns on demonstrations, and political persecutions that the country’s political leadership succeeded in reversing this process. To maintain their own power, they’re provoking the country into isolation and dragging us back into the Middle Ages.

The interrelationship between Russia and the West as a complex intertwining of interests

To resolve the current situation, we must first acknowledge that all the participants in the engagement between Russia and the West – the US, Europe Old and New, the Russian regime, the Russian people – have different interests.

It is important to realise that the national interests of Russia and the US are mutually contradictory on an objective level, and that careless politics on the part of either side can therefore easily lead to tensions.

Today, relations between the two countries are at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War. But this is not end of the world. We’ve seen worse.  Periods of escalated relations between Russia and the United States have all been interspersed with brief yet notable thaws. The lesson to be learned here is that abrupt fluctuations of emotional states are lethal for Russia-US relations. The two countries are, to some extent, both paying the price for the illusions they harboured during the Perestroika era, when it seemed that Russia and the US were very much on the same page.

When the reality hit home in all its unsightly beauty, both sides turned out to be ill-prepared. This does not, of course, justify today’s rancour and suspicions, but goes some way to explaining them.

The good news for the two countries is that their strategic, long-term interests overlap significantly. We face the same principal political challenges – terrorism and the rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East are equally dangerous for Russia and the United States. Even more dangerous for Russia, perhaps, if the situation in the south of the country is taken into account. The new China also represents a challenge.

The bad news is that, in the political elite of today’s Russia, there’s no one to advance the country’s genuine national interests. The interrelationship between the state and national interest has always been problematic in Russia. The reason is obvious: for centuries on end, the Russian state has given voice to the interests of the Russian bureaucracy and ruling classes rather than those of the Russian nation at large. There has, in consequence, always been a chasm between Russian national interests and the interests of the bureaucratic caste. They have occasionally coincided, but the Russian bureaucracy has almost always given voice to the national interests of the Russian people in distorted form.

Today, as noted above, these interests have diverged dramatically. The ruling regime in Russia requires a confrontation with the US and the West, just as weak paint needs a regulator. The interests of the people, meanwhile, are best served by the closest possible cooperation with the Western world.

Russia’s Strategic Interest with the West

Unfortunately, there can be no question of a new strategic rapprochement while Putin remains in power. Under the current system, any decision can suddenly be altered at the whim of a single man unrestrained by any domestic political mechanisms, with the Kremlin’s court politologists rushing, with sincere ardour, to convince flabbergasted experts of the legality and logic of the new resolution, diametrically opposed to the previous one though it might be.

Due to Russia’s monopolised media, such abrupt changes of direction find support among a large proportion of the country’s population. Moreover, foreign leaders, having access as they do to objective information, assume, quite reasonably, that Putin often deliberately feigns madness and unpredictability, deeming this a shrewd political move.

Nonetheless, we should be fighting to prevent a global war within the framework of a containment strategy. The current regime is ready to play, but let’s not think too much of these people – they do want to live, after all. The main thing is to prevent them from getting too carried away with the game.

Sooner or later, the current system will collapse, and this is something we have to prepare for now. The West needs to establish the closest possible cooperation with Europe-oriented Russians, and to set up mechanisms for our country’s rapid reintegration into the global system once the current regime departs the scene.


Russia’s citizens, much like people in any other country, crave security, life in comfortable homes, a good education for their children, and confidence in the future. To make this possible, Russia needs an economic transformation. But, as the last hundred years have demonstrated, such a transformation is impossible without integration into the Western world.

We’re familiar with several successful examples of economic transformation in the twentieth century: Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, even China. Their respective transitions to a new stage of economic development all began with an upturn of relations with the West.

Russia is the only northern country in the world that has not made a transition to democracy. When the current regime departs the scene, the United States and Western Europe must make every effort to facilitate Russia’s economic integration, and to promote technological exchange. The West can under no circumstances repeat the 90s-era mistake of partially or incompletely integrating our country. Russia’s accession to NATO and the EU after a change of regime is just as necessary for us as for the West. Such a move will, of course, lead to an overhaul of these institutions, but the alternative scenario would be much worse.

A greater diversification of the economy and exports, in combination with the free movement of people (predicated, in part, on a visa-free regime), ideas and capital, will ensure that an authoritarian regime that poses a threat to Russia’s neighbours will not be restored in the country. For one of the key instruments wielded by the current government is its ability to take control of export revenue sources and use them to buy the loyalty of television channels, security services and the justice system.

In a technologically advanced, diversified, Western-integrated Russia, potential dictators would be denied an economic base and popular political support owing to the fact that a plurality of alternative interests and power centres will have been established in the country.

And now, allow me to summarise the aforesaid. Here’s what we have to understand about today’s relations between Russia and the West, and what we must strive towards:

1. Today, Putin’s Russia is heading down the road of self-imposed isolation, but this road is an erroneous one, and, in the post-Putin era, the situation is certain to change.

2. It’s not Russia’s isolation that must be sought by the West, but Russia’s gradual, if challenging, integration into the Euro-Atlantic world.

3. In terms of its historical genesis, its people’s mentality, the predominant elements of its culture, Russia is a European (Euro-Atlantic) country, with European and Euro-Atlantic integration fundamentally in its interest. This will ultimately entail accession to NATO and, subsequently, the EU.

4. Despite on-going events, Russia remains the most powerful and economically developed country within post-Soviet space. It must therefore assume the mantle of directing the integration of post-Soviet space into the Euro-Atlantic community – of diffusing the latter’s political, legal and economic norms into the region as a whole. Russia remains the region’s leading country, but our goal is make sure that this leadership manifests itself in terms of ideas and technology rather than in any imperial fashion.

5. The current political regime in the Russian Federation must be convinced into adopting conventional stances on key questions, whether anyone wants this or not.   

6. It is vital that America’s elites understand and accept that Russia has its own objective interests. These interests will have to be translated into action by the next generation of elites, which, in terms of personnel, will partly overlap with the current generation, however critical our attitude to it may be.

7. Russia has no goal of “containing” China – our largest neighbour – but the Russian Federation of the future can develop a joint common policy on China together with the US and EU. Its essence? “Cooperation without domination.”

8. We, those who see Russia differently, are seeking out allies to help Russia finally cement its place in Europe; Russia, in its turn, will enable the West to take part in a new economic leap, and shall play a crucial role in neutralising a variety of global threats, including terrorism and Islamic extremism.

This is how I envisage one of the most important challenges awaiting us.