Multi-Track Diplomacy: a series of interviews with Dr. Andrey Kortunov and Elena Sokova

August 9, 2023

At the height of the Cold War, the Esalen Institute made a difference in US-Soviet relations, initiating and maintaining some of them through Esalen Track 2 and Track 1.5 Diplomacy.

Today Multi-Track Diplomacy remains of interest. Track 2 and Track 1.5 Diplomacy seem to complement and support Track 1 efforts by creating a favorable environment for negotiations, generating creative ideas, building trust, and generating momentum for official diplomatic processes.

Océane Van Geluwe conducted a series of interviews with Dr. Andrey Kortunov, Academic Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), and Ms. Elena Sokova, Executive Director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP). During the talks a wide range of issues were discussed, including Multi-Track Diplomacy and the parallels between the Soviet times and today, the possibility of nuclear arms control, and prospects for US-Russian relations.

The series of interviews was prepared as part of the Security Index Occasional Paper Series dedicated to US-Soviet/Russian relations in the times of crises and lessons learned from the Esalen Track 1.5 Diplomacy.

Discussion with Dr. Andrey Kortunov, Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

Océane Van Geluwe: According to you, what are the main differences between the Cold War times and the current times?

Dr. Andrey Kortunov: In my perspective, the main difference, especially in Russia, is organizational and management construction.

The Soviet system was well structured: negotiators, military, intelligence, defense industries and other important agencies came to the negotiation table on the national level with pre-made well-done research followed by a complicated process of reconciling diverging institutional interests. Soviet delegations in the high-level international negotiations included military personnel and other groups. As such, there was no Soviet leader who could claim technical expertise over the issue of nuclear non-proliferation and arms control.

It is very much different today within the Russian Federation, there is no institutionalized collegial type of the decision-making process, and the President can claim technical expertise in arms control matters. He can be very specific regarding nuclear arms, non-proliferation and arms control. As such, there are fewer formalized institutional debates on the strategy; after informal consultations with appropriate agencies the President gives the most important direction and decides.

For example, the New Start Treaty was to a large degree developed with the personal engagement of former Presidents Dimitri Medvedev and Barack Obama at the time, who directly participated in drafting the document. It is regrettable that today [January 10th, 2023], there are problems within the implementation of verification and metric systems.

Océane Van Geluwe: When it comes to disarmament, how does this change manifest?

Dr. Andrey Kortunov: If I have to reflect on the overcharge of Foreign Policy, the more important the decision is, the smaller is the decision-making circle. However, this small circle cannot know all about everything. So, the odds are, if you are qualified, you can make a difference in very specific matters, where a lot of technical knowledge is needed.

In Russia, decision-making in most cases is organized as a top-down process. Not everybody can “touch nuclear or strategic systems” planning in Russia nowadays. And opposition to the decisions is difficult: alternative positions should be based on technical knowledge, which is not broadly available. Besides, the motivations of those expressing alternative views can easily be questioned.

Océane Van Geluwe: What were your major experiences in those different tracks of Diplomacy?

Dr. Andrey Kortunov: Thirty years ago, I was stationed at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, DC, and joined a group of scholars involved in a discussion on arms control following the South Korean airline crash in 1983. It was not the best time for diplomacy, specifically for that reason that Track 2 became fashionable.

It went down again for the past decades because the first track became too comprehensive, and there was not as much need as before for any kind of second track formats. These formats were marginalized though they remained important in some areas — for instance, in working on long-term scenarios of US-Russian relations.

Océane Van Geluwe: Why would you say it made Track 2 less fashionable over time?

Dr. Andrey Kortunov: It is hard to tell. It is rather a question of how to make a difference. And there are a few things to consider to make a difference:

1) It is critical to select a focus. For instance, being an expert on Egypt during the Arab Spring is valuable, and nowadays, it is less valuable as the priorities are elsewhere. If you lack expertise, the answer will most likely be, “That’s nice, but who are you to tell us?”. There is a need to focus on the topic to be proficient but relevant for bureaucrats and their priorities.

2) The higher you get, the higher you can make a difference. The timing is very important as well — bureaucrats usually focus on immediate goals linked to particular events.  It is ultimately about luck (chance), finding the right timing to enter, and offering specific ideas.

3) In terms of language, keep things simple; write something digestible. Bureaucrats and politicians do not have time for a twenty-page study; if you want them to read you, facilitate their reading and comprehension.

In sum, if you want to make a difference, you need to know the rules of the game and seek the perfect balance between the intention to stay contrarian and the need to be within the political mainstream.

Océane Van Geluwe: If I understand you correctly, diplomacy is making a difference, and it only happens when you have the proper ingredients and dosage, as if you were baking a cake.

Dr. Andrey Kortunov: [Dr. Kortunov laughs]. It is almost like a black box; you don’t know what the right mix is nor the correct proportions, but you gamble, hoping that it will work.

Océane Van Geluwe: In that case, what is the most valuable in your perspective, Track 1.5 or Track 2?

Dr. Andrey Kortunov: In theory, Track 1.5 is the most useful, but in practice it is hard to generalize. Track 1.5 is a hybrid format, so it is by definition more delicate than either Track 1 or Track 2. For instance, for officials engaged in Track 1.5 it might be hard to deviate from the positions of their respective governments, but if they only articulate the ‘party line’, that does not help a lot to reach a compromise. Still, you can win big within this format. A lot depends on mutual trust and mutual respect; if you have both, you can produce miracles. Provided, of course, that there is an intention to solve the problem and not only to make your case in front of the opponent.

Océane Van Geluwe: How much Track 1.5. is going on nowadays?

Dr. Andrey Kortunov: There is little to talk about nowadays. Due to the current crisis, there is less appetite to discuss, and we can call it some self-censorship on both sides. Nobody in DC wants to take the appeasement approach with Putin, and the same is true in Moscow with Biden.

Océane Van Geluwe: I understand that both sides suffer from the standby state of their relationship. Could we expect a dialogue opening and a domino effect to generate more dialogue?

Dr. Andrey Kortunov: I am rather pessimistic about that possibility for the moment. There has been a huge overflow of experts from Russia to the West, some leading scholars from think tanks and universities moved to Europe and US, and they are now interpreting Russia’s policies to the West. These experts can be very smart and creative, but they do not have contacts to the government and are usually very critical of the official Russia’s positions. Thus, it is hard to count on this community as a channel for Track 2 or Track 1.5 consultations.

Engaging experts and bureaucrats from within Russia has become more complicated, and the circle is less accessible from the outside than before. I believe the current crisis does not give incentives for the mainstream expert community in Russia to open up to the West anytime soon.

Discussion with Ms. Elena Sokova, Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP)

Océane Van Geluwe: General question about informal diplomacy and the Esalen Institute – why has it been successful?

Ms. Elena Sokova: I am not familiar enough with the Esalen Institute’s Track 1.5 Diplomacy. Still, I would love to share my overview of Track 1.5 diplomacy and the work of the VCDNP in this dimension based on my personal experience and the experience of the VCDNP in organizing Track 1.5 and Track 2 dialogue meetings in Vienna and beyond.

Some essential VCDNP Track 1.5 workshops and meetings are organized outside of Vienna. It helps to create a more relaxed environment and incentivizes more frank and open conversations. Beautiful and close-to-nature venues allow participants to interact during breaks and off-hours and to have more private conversations. These could be small group discussions or tête-a-tête meetings between government officials.

Moreover, being away from the office or duty station allows one to focus on ongoing issues and interactions. It guarantees more time and attention to dedicate to the current conversations and connect on a person-to-person level.

Océane Van Geluwe: At the VCDNP, you organize events in Vienna, particularly for US-Russia talks; why Vienna?

Ms. Elena Sokova: There are many reasons behind selecting Vienna as our central location. First, Vienna is hosting several key international organizations focused on nuclear issues, including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. As a neutral country, Austria has also been a host to many sensitive intergovernmental negotiations, including, most recently, the JCPOA (or Iran Deal) talks. Furthermore, concerning the visa processes, it has been easier to bring participants from Russia and the United States to Vienna than to have such meetings in Russia or the US.

The VCDNP organized several events with PIR Center and the Center for Energy and Security Studies on Track 2 and Track 1.5 Diplomacy on its premises. The most memorable Track 1.5 meeting was the 2012 meeting, when we brought together the US and Russian government officials and non-governmental experts to discuss lessons learned from the New START negotiations and ratification processes and the scope and prospects for future negotiations. As it turned out later, it was the first meeting when the heads of the US and Russian delegations – H.E. Gottemoeller and Ambassador Anatoly Antonov, respectively – met each other after the treaty’s signing.

Océane Van Geluwe: How would you assess the current political environment?

Ms. Elena Sokova: We are in a deep crisis in the US-Russia relationship, which took a nosedive in the face of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. A few of the existing communication channels were shut down at the time. There are very few opportunities left, even for a Track 2 dialogue. Most of these meetings and initiatives were put on hold if not canceled.

Even before the war, there were some difficulties in conducting Track 1.5 meetings, particularly during the Trump administration, which did not fill many senior diplomatic positions for a long time and needed to develop specific policies and approaches. As a result, the US officials were hesitant to engage in dialogue meetings with their Russian counterparts.

Nowadays, the dialogue on nuclear issues at the state-to-state level seems to have stopped completely. There was a hope for a renewal of the Strategic Dialogue and resumption of consultative meetings under the New START. However, Russia abruptly canceled the meeting of the bilateral consultative commission. Russia suggested that all dialogue with the US on these issues was only possible once the US changed its attitude towards Russia and stopped supporting Ukraine, which is a grave and unfortunate retreat from both the Soviet and Russian approaches to nuclear non-proliferation and arms control issues, which the USSR and Russia have been deliberately isolating from tensions and disagreements on other matters.

Océane Van Geluwe: What would be the window of opportunity from your perspective?

Ms. Elena Sokova: There are few remaining Track 2 dialogue formats between the US and Russian non-governmental experts. Despite the desperate need for dialogue, I unfortunately do not have much optimism for resuming Track 2 meetings between the two countries. I am even less optimistic about the Track 1.5 meetings and direct government-to-government interaction. It will take time for parties to realize that dialogue is indispensable, and Track 2 meetings, followed by Track 1.5 meetings, will resume.

In the meantime, non-governmental experts should focus on developing new proposals, approaches, and ideas for these future dialogue meetings; they need to re-assess the concepts and practices in arms control and other critical areas, particularly in the post-conflict era. Academia and think tanks play a unique role in this process as generators of these new ideas and approaches that governments later pick up.

Key words: Russia-USA