Sergei Karaganov Reveals a Russian Elite’s World Vision

Photograph Source: Chatham House, London – CC BY 2.0

The cancel culture has hit high level diplomatic discussions. U.S. Russian negotiations are in the deep freeze. Even the head of the humanitarian International Committee of the Red Cross was severely criticized for talking to and shaking hands with the Russian Foreign Minister. Dialogue or contact with Russians is nyet, nyet. We have little knowledge of what Russians are thinking.

This was not always the case. The previous Cold War (1.0) was not as cold as it is presented. There was some dialogue. Georgi Arbatov, adviser to five Communist Party general secretaries and founder of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies in Moscow, once told me he had had constant contacts with American officials during the Cold War. “Averell Harriman [American politician, businessman, and diplomat] and I spoke frequently about what we could do to avert an out-and-out conflict,” he confided. “It was in no one’s interest to have a nuclear confrontation.”

So, with no Arbatov or Harriman around in Cold War 2.0., Serge Schmemann’s interview with Sergei Karaganov in the NY Times warrants careful reading as an insight into what the Kremlin is thinking. Amid Western unilateral condemnations of the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have had little information from intellectual, cosmopolitan Russians who have had decades of contacts with Western elites. Professors at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations or Moscow’s Higher School of Economics or members of think tanks like the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, many of whom have also held government positions, have not been heard from in the mainstream Western press.

Have we not heard from them because they are afraid to speak up against Putin? Or have we not heard from them because they support Putin and we don’t want to hear what they are saying? While responses to both questions are difficult, the Schmemann/Karaganov interview gives insight into some Russian elite thinking by those in the second category. And that’s worth a short exegesis of the interview.

Who are Schmemann and Karaganov? Schmemann was the Times Moscow bureau chief and is a current member of its editorial board. He writes he has known Karaganov for over twenty years and has frequently interviewed him.

Karaganov has an impressive record as a political scientist, candidate to be defense minister under former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov (1998-1999), adviser to several Russian presidents and close to Vladimir Putin. Before the February 24 invasion, he was a regular CNN commentator on Russian foreign and defense policies with an excellent command of English. He co-founded the Institute of Europe with Alexei Gromyko, grandson of the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, Andrei Gromyko. He can certainly be considered a member of the Russian intellectual, policy elite.  I first met Karaganov over 30 years ago at an academic conference in Dubrovnik with Western and Soviet scholars. We have had occasional contacts since.

In the interview, Karaganov’s general thesis about the Ukraine crisis is that “the West was collapsing in economic, moral, political terms” so the war was inevitable for Western elites “To divert attention they need an enemy.” For the eminent Russian political scientist and close Putin adviser, the Ukraine war is “to preserve the failing supremacy of Western elites.” More specifically, he described the current East-West confrontation as “a prolonged Cuban missile crisis” without the “people of the caliber of Kennedy and his entourage on the other side.”

His attacks on Western elites are not attacks against all in the West. “But most Western countries, not their presently ruling elites, will perfectly survive and thrive even when this liberal globalist imperialism imposed since late 1980’s will vanish.” And, optimistically, in the future “the elites will partially be changed, and we shall normalize relations.”

Beyond the changing of Western elites, this normalization of East-West relations will be based on a new world order. According to Karaganov: “Belligerent Western policies…are cleaning our society, our elites, of the remains of pro-Western elements, compradors and ‘useful idiots.’” “Ukraine is an important but small part of an engulfing process of the collapse of the former world order of global liberal imperialism imposed by the United States and movement toward a much fairer and freer world of multipolarity and multiplicity of civilizations and cultures,” one of which will be centered in Eurasia.

Karaganov’s vision of the future is that it will be non-Western and non-Western elitist. The rest of the world “is developing largely in the right direction and is becoming larger and freer, while the West is rapidly shrinking.”

His condemnation of Western elites and decaying Western power are easy to understand. He surely knows the statistics about growing inequality in the United States; I’m sure he watched replays of the murder of George Floyd and the January 6 assault on the Capitol. Karaganov’s rejection of Western liberal imperialism comes from someone with intimate knowledge of NATO and the major U.S. universities and think tanks. He has seen the inside the belly of the beast, and, for him, it doesn’t work.

Karaganov believes that a growing diffusion of global power post-World War II American hegemony is inevitable. And this is where his argument loses strength. What about Russia? Where will Russia be in this new constellation?

Karaganov sees Russia as a future center. According to him, “Russia will be playing its natural role of civilization of civilizations.” “We are proud heirs of a great culture…We are heirs of unbeatable warriors…” By mentioning great writers and great marshals, he falls into the same elitist trap he has accused Western elites. Where are the workers of the world uniting?

By concluding with praises for great writers and great warriors, Karaganov negates his criticisms of Western elites. While he condemns Western elites for “failing and losing the trust of their populations,” he seems less concerned about the Russian population. “For Russia this conflict is about preservation of not only its elites, but the country itself.” So the Western elites have to be changed, not the Russian ones. The only Russian elites who should be changed are those who had pro-Western tendencies.

Sergei Karaganov’s interview reflects Russian perception of Western decay. But what about self-criticism of Russia? What about the internal problems of a country with an extraction based economy with many young IT people leaving? How to praise famous Russian “warriors” while watching the bombing of civilian targets throughout Ukraine? Is the cleavage between elites and the general population only valid in the West?

Serge Schmemann and the NYTimes have done us a service by publicly showing the thoughts of a prominent Russian political scientist/policy adviser. Unfortunately, and sadly, the opportunities to have an open discussion or debate are not possible. And, unfortunately, and sadly, people like Arbatov and Harriman are no longer with us to have conversations to keep conflicts like Ukraine from spiraling out of control. At least that, dear Sergei, we can agree upon.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.