This article is part of our special report Multi-vector diplomacy.
In a wide-ranging interview, Ariel Cohen, a US expert with ties to Kazakhstan, spoke about the various international initiatives of the Central Asian country, including improving US-Russia relations, finding a solution to the Ukraine crisis, nuclear arms control and more.
Ariel Cohen is the director of the “Energy, Growth and Security” programme at the International Tax and Investment Centre in Washington, DC. He is also Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council and runs his own firm ‘International market analysis’.
He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
We are speaking in Nur-Sultan, where as a panelist in a conference, you mentioned that you have a family link with Kazakhstan, can you elaborate?
Indeed. My grandfather, his last position was the editor of Kazakhstanskaya Pravda at Almaty and in 1938 he was executed by Stalin. During the war both my parent’s families, they were children, were in Kazakhstan. My mother was in Almaty with her parents and my father was in Karaganda with his mother. But the country provided a refuge for a lot of people during World War II.
And you keep coming to Kazakhstan?
Yes, since the 1990s.
Can you sum up your main messages from this forum, which was dedicated to Nazarbayev’s legacy.
As Nazarbayev is taking a position of a senior statesman, people want to acknowledge his role in the development of the country and his new role. That’s why I mentioned Lee Kuan Yew [he compared Nazabayev with the first Prime Minister of Singapore, who has governed for three decades], I could mention Deng Xiaoping and other similar leaders that after a long period of being the chief executive change or shift their power position, remain powerful clearly, but they’re more in a role of a guide than the role of a day-to-day executive.
Do you think that in general, Kazakhstan has had a successful post-Soviet transition, especially if you compare with other countries, such as Ukraine? The corruption there has created problems even for the US administration…
With the exception of the Baltic states, which are sui generis, in the Soviet area, I think Kazakhstan has probably had the most successful transition.
Ukraine is an unfortunate case. I like Ukraine, I was born in what used to be Ukraine or was to be just to be Ukrainian Republic of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan avoided all the pitfalls of Russian speaking population going against non-Russian speaking population. Russia is trying to grab territory, whereas in Kazakhstan nobody is thinking about Russia territory. Ukraine did have or does have a track record of pretty transparent democratic elections, and pretty comprehensive freedom of the press. But I’m sure a lot of Ukrainians would be willing to trade it for security and stability.
You called Nazarbayev a “convener”. One of his initiatives was to mediate in the Russian-Ukraine conflict. Do you think this is a good idea? Let’s not forget that we have the Normandy format summit upcoming; the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany are meeting on 9 December…
But I think Nazarbayev played a role already in pushing the sides to meet and go to this Normandy format meeting.
I know that.
What do you expect from the 9 December Normandy summit in Paris?
Well, first of all, I want to acknowledge the role of President Nazarbayev in making it happen. It wasn’t happening for a while. Secondly, the question for Russia – Russia keeps the majority of cards, if not all the cards and this, – the question for Russia is: are they rational enough to be driven by greed? Or are they irrational enough to be driven by glory? Because the glory would be pushing the Ukraine too far, and then continuing in this politico-military offensive that they’re squeezing Ukraine for the last five years. On the other hand, if they’re driven by greed, and they want to begin the process of lifting sanctions, they need to achieve a real progress in the relationship with Ukraine. That would, from the European perspective, and also from the American perspective, include restoring the Ukrainian territorial integrity. That means that the Ukrainian troops have to control the 400 kilometers of Donetsk-Lugansk that they don’t control now. So you restore the territorial integrity by restoring the border. The second question is: is Russia ready to follow, I would call it the Colin Powell dictum ‘if you break it, you own it’. And Russia, I think is responsible for the situation and Donbas by supporting these separatist militias. So if you’re going to get to a solution there…
Russia doesn’t care about Ukraine. As far as Russia is concerned, Ukraine could disappear, cease to exist, join Mother Russia, do whatever. Tomorrow. And they’ll be happy. They don’t acknowledge Ukrainian right for independence, Ukrainian nation’s independence, they don’t acknowledge any of that. By the way they did the same with the Poles a hundred years ago. But what they want is status quo ante 2014 vis-à-vis Europe and possibly the United States. They want sanctions lifted. Sanctions, I hope will not be lifted before we sorted out Ukraine, territorial integrity, and Donetsk-Lugansk. And then probably agree to disagree about the Crimea. Nobody’s going to acknowledge Russian sovereignty in the Crimea but we’re not going to continue with massive sanctions that were not imposed over Crimea. They were imposed over two things. First, Donetsk-Lugansk and then the Boeing [MH17]. So the question is, what does Russia want? Is Russia, as I put in the New York Times 2011 article, does Russia want to be fortress Russia, or it wants to restart the integration as it existed before 2014?
How about Nazarbayev’s big idea of having a four-way forum with the four big players of the United States, Russia, China and the European Union?
Look, I’m in this business for longer than I care to admit, for almost 40 years. And I do not remember when the relationship between Russia/ the Soviet Union and the United States was as bad as it is now. With the exception 1979-1984: so [the times of] late Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko. So it’s really bad. And if Nazarbayev can convene, the question is – can he change the minds of the leaders and the elites? And I was in Moscow very recently and it’s very hard for me to imagine how one changes the minds of the Russian elites that became extremely anti-American. And for that matter, the American elites that are extremely suspicious of Russia after the 2016 elections. On top of that, the roots of the strategic competition between the US and China and the trade war are very real and very deep.
So, in a way, the current situation is worse than the Cold War, and therefore it will be more difficult to overcome. Because the Cold War was a dichotomy. It was the US and the Soviet Union, one. Two, the Soviet economic system was not effective, period. The current Russian economic system and definitely the Chinese economic system are more competitive with the American capitalism than the Soviet system ever was. And there was no contest in terms of size of the economy, back in the day. And people in the orbit of the Soviet Union, a lot of people were not happy with having the Soviet Union as a patron. I don’t know what the Bulgarians thing but I think even the Bulgarians, who the Russians always considered big friends of Russia, were not that happy, and definitely were not Poles, Czechs, Romanians, Hungarians, and many East Germans. So where was the support? If you look at Russia today – it doesn’t have a lot of allies. But those who are connected, they are connected by economic ties, like Lukashenko, and not only by military or ideological ties. Let alone China where people are connected by a lot of economic ties.
Nazarbayev pushes a lot for nuclear disarmament, or nuclear arms control. We are both old enough to remember the Euromissiles crisis – the fear of the population that mid-range nuclear missiles can hit European countries. Today, I don’t sense any worries in the public opinion that a nuclear holocaust could happen in Europe. Why is that? Is it because, as Macron says, NATO is “brain-dead,” Article 5 does not apply, which means that nuclear weapons will not be used? Which on the other side makes local wars possible?
Well, I was laughing when people were surprised by what Macron said, because this is a classic Gaullist rhetoric vis-à-vis NATO. And de Gaulle would be proud, he would see Macron as his grandson. The French policy is always a mélange of aspirations of grandeur, the proclaimed will to lead Europe, which means to spend German money, the deep dislike of America and fear of Russia. But at the same time, keeping in mind the disparity of economic power, the Germans will never acquiesce to the French leadership. And the further we get away from World War II, the less the Germans will acquiesce to the French leadership. What I’m afraid of in the long term is that if NATO does not survive, I don’t think NATO is brain-dead at all, I think NATO is a very effective alliance that has a problem, illustrated by the Russian saying Рыба гниет с головы : the fish rots from its head. And the head, the United States, doesn’t give NATO the love it deserves because it wants the money. I think US deserves the money but you should get that money from the Europeans through love and not through abuse. And Europeans now feel abused…
Back to your point about Nazarbayev and nuclear arms control. I think that generations of people in the Soviet Union, the United States and elsewhere built this arms control edifice, and destroying it so quickly is not serving US interests and not serving Russia’s interests, and anybody’s interests. But at the same time I recognize with the emergence of China, Pakistan and other actors, India, North Korea, we are in a much more complicated, complex and unstable environment. When I was the head of Eurasia and Russia studies at the Heritage Foundation, we war gamed. There was a gentleman named Baker Spring, who was the architect of these war games, and war game after war game demonstrated that the system with multiple nuclear armed actors is much more unstable and therefore dangerous. So the challenge for Mr. Nazarbayev is to convene, if he manages to convene, not just US and Russia.
The problem is that the Chinese reportedly don’t want.
The Chinese don’t want. And the Chinese don’t want either because they don’t want or because they’re smart negotiators – and they are. So the first position in the negotiation where you want to arrive to a point is to say “I’m not interest. What can I get?” So that’s a negotiating tactic. Then, why would Pakistan, that is much smaller and much more afraid of India than vice versa, would give up its medium-range nukes? If I was a Pakistani leader would I give it up? Why would Israel that has an undeclared arsenal, give it up when the Iranians day in and day out, say “Israel, death to America. Death to America, death to Israel,” depending on which day of the week it is. Now Turkey is talking about getting nuclear weapons, Erdoğan said something in that sense. Why would Israel give it up? It won’t. So we have a problem.
And I think we will not have a zero nuclear option. The INF Treaty went out of business, the US toppled it. But it went out of business because it didn’t apply to the current conditions anymore. And because the Russians violated it, or so the US says. So I think you can have a situation where you have limitations on intermediate-range arsenals, you may have limitations and certain types of intermediate-range systems. Air launch, space launch, submarine launch, this launch, that launch. So not everything, not every toy you can buy in the store you will have, but you’ll have something. India will have something. India doesn’t need ICBMs. Israel doesn’t need ICBMs. Israel is not about to go to war against the United States, or Russia. Or, actually, Russia they can get if they had a real long-range. 5000 kilometers, most of Russia is in the range. So you don’t need ICBMs when you talk about nuclear regional powers. When you have crazies like North Korea and Iran, who would starve their people but get a big ICBM because that’s what real men have, big ICBMs, maybe they will go to that but before that we have a different problem. We have an intermediate-range problem. Nobody knows how to resolve it. If people knew, they would be talking about solutions. Nobody’s talking about specific solutions.
To return now to Kazakhstan, and their multi-vector policy. Do you think the new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, will continue the policy of Nazarbayev?
Yes, he will. Mr. Tokayev is one of the most accomplished diplomats I ever met. He has the Chinese language, and Chinese experience in Beijing, for several years. He has a foreign ministry experience, he has been twice foreign minister. Not once, but twice [1994-1999 and 2002-2007]. He was Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva. You can’t wish for better than that for a mid-size capture like Kazakhstan.
Regarding the multi-vector policy, of course it was the right policy for Kazakhstan and for that matter for any Eurasian, Central Asian or Caucasus country. The problem now that I see – is as China is rising and Russia is becoming more anti-American – will they be wise enough not to put a gun to the head of a multi-vector country? Putting countries in choices they shouldn’t be doing is wrong. Would Xi Jinping, or Putin, or Putin 2.0, or whoever that may be, or Trump for that matter, be wise enough not to force the choices that a country like Kazakhstan is better off having good relations with everybody. And we need to have maturity and wisdom to recognise that.
That’s an interesting point. How about the European Union?
[Smiles] What’s that?