Q&A with Giedrius Česnakas: Russia, and the West

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Dr. Giedrius Česnakas, is Vice Dean of the Faculty of Political Science and Diplomacy at Vytautas Magnus University

Fuad Shahbazov (FS): Russia has become a strong headache for the North Atlantic Alliance once again, how would you estimate the current relationship between Russia and NATO?

Giedrius Česnakas (GČ): From my perspective, Russia, with its aggressive actions missed an opportunity to become normal regional power, to become a reliable partner of the West against raising China, which form my perspective, is the greatest threat to Russia. Being partner and not an adversary of NATO Russia could “soften” NATO, and make much more impact that it does today. While Russia was cooperating with NATO, threat from Moscow in NATO was perceived as a delusion of the Baltic States. Before the occupation and annexation of Crimea, NATO was losing itself, it was not sure about its role and causes of existence. After Russia’s aggression NATO found the basis for its existence once again, found reassurance in its role, and started to make its military presence in the states that joined after 1999 more noticeable.

It would seem that possibilities for deep cooperation between NATO and Russia are lost for a very long time, however, mutual fight against terrorism could lead to some cooperation, but it would not be deep.

FS: Recently Russia sent its fighter jets into NATO’s air space countries with the “military exercises” pretext. Might it be a cause of concern?

GČ: Such actions by Russia are a real cause of concern, as flights of Russia’s aircrafts next to NATO member states boarders, and some intrusions in an air space and territorial waters might trigger military escalation of events. Russia is provoking NATO forces, this game is not new as it was very common during the Cold War. Of course NATO forces have to be very careful, but at the same time show commitment to defend.

FS: Is there any real threat for civil aviation over Ukraine?

GČ: Unfortunately, I cannot answer this question, as I do not have sensitive information what weaponry is available in the Eastern part of Ukraine. Nevertheless, it is obvious that both sides of the conflict have weapons threatening aviation security. I am sure, that sides are not willing to target civilian aircrafts, but mistakes occur, and of course the shooting of the Malaysian airline was a  mistake by the rebels.

FS: According to some sources, Russian servicemen and weapons are thrown to the Eastern Ukraine. Could you share your views about that?

GČ: Since the beginning of the conflict rebels continue to be supported by Russia, otherwise it is difficult to explain how heavy weaponry fell in their hands. The US and NATO intelligence agencies informed that they observed  Russia’s military movements in Ukrainian territory numerous times, even some Russian soldiers were captured in Ukraine. Crimea’s occupation  and Russia’s actions in Eastern Ukraine show that Russia does not recognize international law and does not uphold to its commitments. We observe a new type of conflict where states are at war, but the war is not declared, at the same time, states maintain limited cooperation. “Uncertain conflicts” might mark the beginning of the new type of conflicts.

FS: What kind of perspectives will CIS countries win from tense relations between two actors in the region?

GČ: The CIS countries see that Russia strives for domination, so they probably ask themselves whether they are going to be next. I do not see how CIS countries could benefit from the conflict in the long term. Russia suffers from Western economic sanctions, the economy of Ukraine (second in CIS countries) is on the verge of collapse, these negative elements directly affect economies of CIS member states. Russia’s decreasing economic capabilities due to sanctions and decreasing energy resources prices do not allow Moscow to increase economic support for CIS countries in order to gather support for its positions. Of course, some short time benefits were received by Belarus, as Minsk has provided place for discussions between Russia and Ukraine, which tried to increase its diplomatic positions.

FS: What’s your impression of Putin and his leadership?

GČ: President Vladimir Putin had the chance, to become Russia’s rescuer as well as political leader who restored Russia’s economic power, and legitimated Russia’s role as one of the most powerful countries in the world. However, he strives for authoritarian rule, persecution of political opponents, limitations of free media and failures to modernize economy – from rental resources based to production based economy will probably be assessed as one of the greatest mistakes in Russia’s history. Aggression against Ukraine shows that President Putin is not capable of playing according to international rules of the 21st century, and has even alienated one of the friendliest nations. This will have very long-term negative consequences. It does not matter how events will develop in the future but Russia will probably be considered as the “odd one” in the international community.

FS: Over the past 20 years, as more and more states in Eastern Europe have joined NATO, critics of the enlargement worry that it would provoke Russia into defensive acts of aggression. Is NATO’s enlargement part of what led to this crisis? 

Russia would like that the international community would think so. However, I am certain, that NATO’s and EU’s enlargement  allowed Central, Eastern European and Baltic States regions to stabilize. If there was no enlargement, we could observe less stability in the mentioned regions, more conflicts, and more clashes of interests among NATO, the EU and Russia. We can never be certain that without NATO’s expansion there would be no Russian aggression in Ukraine, or anywhere else. At the same time, we have to understand that the societies of Central, Eastern European and Baltic States regions wanted to join NATO and the EU, and Russia has to learn to respect choices of sovereign states.