Podcast host Alexander Gabuev is joined by Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic became a new frontline in Russia’s competition with the West.

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This podcast was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.

Gabuev Welcome, everyone, to the Carnegie Moscow Center podcast. My name is Alex Gabuev. I’m a senior fellow and the host. It’s the first day of the lockdown in Moscow. Russia is trying to battle COVID, and the situation is pretty grim both by numbers of infections and by number of fatalities. I thought that it’s a good opportunity to reflect on how COVID and the pandemic have transformed international relations and Russia’s foreign policy, particularly with our neighbors in the West. Today, we are very happy to host an old friend, Kadri Liik, who is a senior fellow with the European Council for Foreign Relations, and Kadri is actually in Moscow. Welcome, Kadri.

Liik Thank you for inviting me.

Gabuev We also have Dmitri Trenin, who’s been the most frequent guest here. Dmitri, it goes without saying, is the director at the Carnegie Moscow Center, and my boss. Welcome, Dmitri.

Trenin Thank you, Sasha.

Gabuev I think that I’ll start with a very broad question and address it to Dmitri, most likely. When I watch all of the Hollywood movies, there is always an alien attack on Earth or some global challenge that makes rivaling powers, the Soviets and the Americans, or the Arabs and the Israelis, join hands and work together. I think that it was two years ago, nearly two years ago, when COVID started. I think that was the time when everybody said: “Okay, okay, a global pandemic is probably the time for great powers to put aside their rivalry and cooperate.” I think that after all of this time, what we see is exactly the opposite. I think that rivalries have become even more bitter than they were before 2020. Why is that, Dmitri?

Trenin Well, first of all, I think that the expectation that you started with is the grand illusion. I heard that many times in the last many decades. Frankly, even during the height of the Cold War, there was an idea that somehow if the Earth had been attacked by aliens, then the U.S. and the Soviets, in those days, and the Americans will stand side by side, the way we stood side by side, shoulder to shoulder against Hitler. I think it’s … as I said, I think it’s a grand illusion. That is … that was not going to happen. The analogy of the Second World War has to be treated as a special case, not as a model. For other instances of this kind, this failed in the fight against terrorism, just 20 years ago, and it was bound to fail with regard to the pandemic. So, it just did not happen, because it was not going to happen.

Gabuev You’re trying to break my world by telling me that Hollywood movies don’t actually project reality. That’s hard to learn. But okay, that is an illusion. Is my impression correct that the conflicts got even more bitter? And is it tied to COVID? Or is it just a separate logic of U.S.-China rivalry or Russia’s confrontation with the West? And then COVID is just the factor that amplifies the existing divisions, but doesn’t create new divisions?

Trenin Well, I think what COVID showed to the world is that the basic unit of international relations is a nation state, or simply a state. That ideas about global institutions—about the global community and other things global—can work up to a certain point. But in extremis, people tend to flock to the safety of their homes, and their homes are the states, the nation states. So, we saw that not only in relations between adversaries such as the United States and the Russian Federation, but in relations among friends or partners. What happened between Russia and China, as a result of the pandemic, was the immediate closure of borders and very little exchange of information. What happened within the European Union immediately after the outbreak of COVID was, essentially, nations being left to themselves; later— and Kadri will clearly contradict me at that point—the Union did step in, but it stepped in after a while, even within countries, you could see. Within Russia, for example, you could see various regions dealing with the issue of the pandemic on their own. You would recall that in the first weeks and months of the pandemic, it was the authorities at the regional level in Russia, in the Russian Federation—I should say—that were making decisions about dealing with a pandemic. So, as they say, blood is thicker than water.

Gabuev I would agree. I remember very vivid images coming from China, where people from different provinces at the border of the provinces—so, they are obviously internal borders—were fighting each other to not let the migrants from one province to cross into another province, because they might transmit COVID. That was also visible with the Muscovites going to escape the big lockdown of last year by going into the countryside, and locals were not very happy about that. Kadri, there’s the divide that Dmitri mentioned within the European Union, how deep that was, because I think that we have a lot of images produced by Russian media. We also see a lot of statements. Has this gap already been breached?

Liik Yes, I would not want to over dramatize it. It is true. But in the first days of pandemic, when no one had a clear idea how fast it was spreading, the reaction in many countries was to close the borders. But it actually lasted for very little time. I think, a week or two later, definitely the huge queues that emerged at Polish borders had cleared, supplies were moving again. But even before that, member states cooperated in order to get stranded citizens back from all sorts of countries, European, non European, and so forth. So that was the temporary panic reaction, maybe not very wise. But you cannot blame people too harshly either, because that was the situation all of us experienced for the first time. And you know, sometimes also inside the countries, certain areas were sealed off. In Estonia, there was a huge outbreak on Saaremaa Island, and the government made access to the island much stricter, which was actually very important to me, because I have my summer house there. Later on, the European Union cooperated on vaccine development, joint vaccine procurement. So, you know, looking at it back from now, I wouldn’t say that it would be a stain on European unity. Rather, I would say that the episode is largely forgotten in Europe and not much talked about.

Gabuev Is my impression correct that the pandemic was also one of the new frontlines in Russia’s competition with the West? Because if we look at the vaccine diplomacy in the Balkans, and in countries like Moldova, there was a lot of going on with … for example, when President Dodon was still in office in Moldova, he was receiving the Russian and Chinese ambassadors with a cargo load of Chinese vaccines brought by a Russian military plane, and there was a push back by the European Commission. So, it looked like the pandemic didn’t bring Russia and Europe closer together, but rather was contributing to creating a new division line.

Liik Yes. Well, it seemed to me that there were elements of that. Russia was trying to promote this vaccine as the first in the world, and Moscow’s Sputnik was the first registered vaccine. But later on, Sputnik has still not received a nod from European Medicine Agency, and yet again, I wouldn’t want to overdramatize it. Thankfully, you know, many, many governments in Europe have said that once Sputnik achieves its registration, it is welcome in Europe. Several countries acknowledge Sputnik as a measure to cross borders, meaning Russians vaccinated with Sputnik can enter European countries without quarantine. Not all yet. But I hope that the EU develops a more uniform approach to that, too. So, I think the sort of race that there may have been has also died out by now. All countries are struggling to vaccinate our people as best we can.

Gabuev But do you see any geopolitical motivation and desire to compete with the Russians? Russia was the first country to register a vaccine not fully undergoing the third stage of clinical trials. And it was this kind of Sputnik moment—sorry for my awkward joke—that Russia was trying to promote its vaccine, including in Europe. And it turned out later on, that Russia doesn’t have sufficient manufacturing capacity to meet all of the obligations on contracts. But at the time, it seemed that some quarters in the European Union are worried and wanted to really push back in a more forceful way and compete with Russia, in order to provide vaccines to places like Serbia or other countries of Eastern Partnership, rather than say: “Okay, if Russia is taking the lead on this, it’s fine, because we will have more Western vaccines to vaccinate our population first.”

Liik I don’t know. These are largely decisions made on the level of countries, and you know, even some countries in the European Union ordered supplies of Sputnik before other vaccines became available. Some of them later became disappointed. They said it doesn’t work like that. Some of them probably kept using some of what we bought, but I don’t think it was a major trend. You know, I come from Estonia, but it’s usually not viewed as a Russia-friendly country. Even the Estonian prime minister … I remember she made the statement saying let’s not politicize it. If Sputnik gets accreditation, we can use it in Estonia too, and for countries like Estonia, it’s also important in the sense that some Estonian Russians have greater faith in Sputnik than Western vaccines. So, for Estonia it would be very good if Sputnik got its accreditation with EMA, because that would allow another portion of our population to conquer their fear about vaccination. So, I don’t think that Europe rushed, you know, to be first, to be ahead of Russia, in any other countries. You know, you cannot really even do it, in the sense that vaccines take their own time to develop to get accredited, and then many orders were in place long before that, the European Union had its own problems by being not the first to buy AstraZeneca. As a result, the UK took it from us, that was a perception, briefly. So, I wouldn’t overdramatize the race against Sputnik.

Gabuev Dmitri, at the very beginning, you said something very sensible, sober, but also sad: that global challenges like the pandemic don’t necessarily bring countries and adversaries closer together. Can we think about any lessons learned? Or will the current experience with COVID not bringing the rivals on the same page on many, or at least the issues on how to fight the pandemic? Can that be an example on how we deal with climate change? So, it’s a global challenge that, but nation states still have competitive agenda, and they will continue to compete, rather than to cooperate?

Trenin Well, the problem with global issues or the feature of global issues is that they are not to be treated in isolation. We have just discussed the pandemic, and there the fight against the pandemic was not only about saving lives, or keeping people in good health, it was also about markets for your pharmaceutical industries. It was about national prestige. It was about many other things, political things, about using the opportunities to step onto somebody's, presume the territory, and do something there to stake your own influence. Similarly, I think we have to expect climate to be an area of both cooperation, because we all live, globally, in the same environment, and what happens in China, what happens in Siberia, what happens in Africa, Brazil, wherever, North America, it all has relevance for the rest of the world. On the other hand, we also need to understand that climate issues cannot be divorced from any other issues, starting with economics. And clearly those who devise at the national level their country’s climate policies have to take—this is the responsibility of governments, let’s face it—have to take the interests of the industries of their economies, of their people, in the final analysis, into account. So, basically, you will have to see a lot of competition, a lot of, well, some conflicts between different countries, and maybe some very strange alliances being formed on the basis of national interests in the climate area. So, it’s going to be very interesting. But it’s also going to be a pretty contentious fight against climate because this fight will be also married to the competition, rivalry, and confrontation that will continue to exist and even intensify in this world.

Gabuev Well, we switch from one global challenge, the pandemic, to the climate, and I’m really tempted to ask Kadri, because I know that you are doing research on Russia’s response to the climate change. We are really waiting to read your forthcoming research on this. But would you characterize the state of the discussion in the European Union ... is climate change an area where people want to cooperate and to do more together with Russia, and what are the division lines on this issue within the European Union?

Liik Climate change is clearly a big issue for Europe. And I think that was clear after the last European Parliament elections that brought the huge wave of Green politicians from various countries into the EU parliament. Then it was visible, but this issue is of utmost importance, especially to the younger generation of Europeans and younger generation of European politicians. So, Europe definitely is sincere and serious about its ambitions to tackle climate change, but when it comes to relations with Russia, then of course, I mean, there are trade-offs to be discussed, and these will not be easy. You know, the line of many in Russia is that decarbonizing Russia is a lot cheaper than decarbonizing Europe, because in Europe, the low hanging fruit has already been picked, where it has been easy to cut emmisions, that has been already done, unlike in Russia, where a lot more could be achieved more quickly and more cheaply. So, the argument here in Moscow that I hear very often is that, now, help us to decarbonize Russia, meaning pay for it, either via loans, investments, or something like that. And some of it would clearly contradict the EU sanctions with Russia. And that would be a very interesting dilemma for, say, Green Party in Germany, who is fairly harsh on Russia in terms of rules, norms, values, rights, and so forth. And at the same time, climate is very high priority for them. So how do they balance that, or how do they go about it? And we think some are about to be debated.

And actually here, if I may, I would want to go to another, also angle, but I have been thinking of, when visiting Russia. It’s my second time in Russia this year. I was here also in May. And it’s my growing impression that actually one of the effects of the pandemic is that it has made us read each other less correctly than we used to, Russia and the European Union. I mean there has always been some sort of understanding gap. But now it has widened to the extent it wasn’t before. I can see Russia ascribing motivations to Europe that are not there, and vice versa: Europe interpreting Russia’s actions in ways that I do not think are correct. And, and that makes me worried, because that will hinder even the little cooperation that would otherwise be possible. And in the worst-case scenarios, that could create new dangers, and that I think is the sort of ever-more severe effect of pandemic, that people travel less, people do see less: exactly people like us experts. Because we have a sort of important layer between politicians and wider public that we somehow help to read minds, fill in some gaps in knowledge. And if we cannot perform that function, then I think actually the world landscape will be more dangerous than would be the case otherwise.

Gabuev Well, I can’t agree more, particularly looking at the gaps that we have in understanding China, nowadays, that China is imposing a three-week quarantine. And it's very hard to get a visa or permission to travel inside China. And the cost is just really prohibitive. And the online discussions don’t really contribute to understanding what’s going on in one of the power centers. So it’s really aggravating, the danger of miscommunication between the elites and the expert community, but also the people. But it’s really a topic that should be discussed in person. So, I hope that the situation in Russia stabilizes and then improves. I hope that the borders will be open at some point, and we can reconvene in person, in a not too distant future. I thank you very much, Kadri and Dmitri.

  • Alexander Gabuev
  • Kadri Liik
  • Dmitri Trenin