Let me start by saying that Dmitri Trenin is one of few Russians who can explain Russia to the foreigners. It is not easy. He is unique - a retired Russian Amy officer who has become a director in an American foundation, he possesses a command of English which is not merely very good, it's wonderfully idiomatic. His new monograph is thoughtful and well written, but I think it has some weaknesses, which nevertheless do not diminish the importance of the book.
First, he has avoided discussing the most salient issue: what the Russian policy vis-à-vis the U.S. should be in the short and in the long term. The United States is not a remote irrelevant power, it is Russia's superpower neighbor to the East, the West, the South, and the North - the US's presence in Korea, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, or in Georgia, or via NATO allies in Turkey, Poland, or Estonia - only 100 miles away from St. Petersburg, makes it a country which virtually surrounds Russia. The US is, de facto, the European Great Power, as well as the Asian Great Power, and the Middle Eastern Great Power. Whatever the stated policy, the U.S. factual policy has been to keep Russia, well, off-balance, at least keep it from interfering with the U.S. interests, which in practical terms means not interfere with anything at all. So far, Russia and the U.S. have been muddling through, but the "modus vivendi" is unraveling.
Secondly: what is going on in the world today? what are the major trends? One cannot devise a Grand strategy for a country like Russia without answering these questions first. The author needs to probe these questions more. In the end, the country survival depends on its survival in the international enviroment.
Thirdly, I believe the Latin expressions like "imperium" and "res publica" he uses, reflects confusion and need clarification. He uses the two terms in opposition: Russia will be either "imperium" or "res publica". In think to the contrary: a state can be a "res publica" while still maintaining "imperium". "Imperium", in its original usage, simply means "authority to rule". In Russia this authority has been invested in the Office of the President, and the Office of the Prime-Minister. The Ancient Romans elected two Consuls (joint rulers), in whom the "imperium" was invested for a period of time. The Russian system would have been MUCH better if the second Consul (the Prime-Minister) was also elected instead of been appointed by the President. The Romans were wise.
I like the suggestion in the book: the Russians should move its capital to Asia, away from the city of Moscow. I think it is a good idea, because Moscow is over-invested with power. It is, in fact, over-burdened with power. In the same time, the Office of the President is over-invested with legal power ("potestas" - using the Roman slang). You don't want to concentrate all power in one place, in one person. For centuries, the Romans had maintained legal "Imperium", while keeping a republic, not an empire. What the Romans would not understand about the office of Vladimir Putin -- it fuses "the political initiative" ("auctoritas") and "legal power" ("potestas"). A clear confusion, since one office cannot be both: a spring of political initiative and a reservoir of political power. For Romans, one could be a teacher or a commander, but not both.
To Trenin's credit, the book gives a well-needed summary of what we already know about Russia. It offers a rare bird's-eye view of the Russian political and social landscapes during the last 20 years of turmoil. The picture is often not pretty. Russia is a paradoxical country with a long and complicated history (both communitarian and autocratic). Russia is a multi-voiced creature, consisting of a variety of beliefs, many pilling in different directions or competing with one another. Russia remains a "wild card" for the West. Trenin correctly stresses that Russia underutilizes its "soft" power. The image Russia projects is very often distorted. He underscores a point, which not everybody in the West understands - that an aggrandizement of Russia or a restoration of the Soviet Union is not in the cards for the Russians. No Russian is seriously considering it, because the Russians are exhausted by the conflict with the West and an internal civil war and strife. In the last 200 years Russia was invaded seven times by the Western countries, started with the invasion by the French Empire in 1812, followed by several invasions by the British and the Germans, two revolutions, a civil war, and the Cold War, the revolution of 1991, and the following collapse of the economy of 1998.
The "Populus Rus" is tired and want peace and security, whatever definition of security is. The West, while rhetorically supporting the new Russian democracy, wasn't much help after the Soviet collapse - Bill Clinton's decision to expand NATO to Russia's borders and subsequent Bush's decision to expand NATO to Russia's "front yard" are suspects to me, as well as, I think, to the author. The "shock-therapy" of the early 90s devised by the Russian "liberal economists" with the patronage of the Western institutions was a disaster and destroyed the last remains of the safety net the citizens enjoyed. Anyone who tries to impose the "once-size-fits-all" formulas (as neo-liberal Russian disciples on Milton Friedman and Fridrich Hayek, and self-professed admirers of Margaret Thatcher) are doomed to create havoc. This type of utopian thinking unites the Russian "liberal" politicians who believe that "rational" plans may be imposed on a society by the government with their Western brethren: the internal arrangements of a society appear not as a manner of political behavior rooted in history and tradition, but as pieces of machinery to be transported about the world, indiscriminately.
In that sense, Trenin's idea of "modernization" sounds suspicious to me: the Russians should pursue their own private ends and visions of "modernity", not any governmental scheme, particularly with the "blue-prints" devised by the international organizations. The Russians should pursue their private lives, with the State ("civitas") acting as an arbiter, maintaining the rule of law. What should unite the Russians shouldn't be engagement in a common enterprise, BUT respect for their common history and respect for the law.
To his credit, Mr. Trenin is not one the ideologues. He has an eye and disposition of a practitioner. His critique of the Russian government is reasonable. It boils down to this: the Russian Grand Strategy is not working. The elites are over-confident, and often don't have the "Plan B" (perfectly illustrated by the "Gas wars" fiasco, perhaps also the Russo-Georgian war). The Russian State tries to do too much in the areas it shouldn't intervene at all. Russia needs new Grand Strategy. With this book Trenin plays a role of a "one-man loyal opposition". Trenin's discourse is a nice departure from the slogans of the "irreconcilable" opposition gathered around Boris Nemtsov -- a weird combination of liberals who practice non-liberal methods, radical bloggers, and nationalistic "bomb-throwers" united by the vision that the solutions to intrinsic Russian problems could be found in the blueprints envisioned by the unemployed bloggers or could be found inside the minutes of the U.S. think-tanks.
Trenin is right to point out that Russia's short-term aim should be, not to put a finer point on it, survival. Russia's margin of error is very thin. As I see it, Russia doesn't have a luxury of internal turmoil if it wants to remain a unified state. Russia is a regional Great Power but it is attracting an attention of the United Sated - the premier power in the world today. Vladimir Putin's Grand Strategy has been based on the idea of a multi-polar world. In reality we are living in the world where the U.S. is a hegemonic power. Today the U.S. is showing how it subdue a country even without military intervention - by cutting off the Central Bank of Iran from the international financial system it will shortly strangle Iran economically. But more importantly, the US has a vital interest in keeping the wayward Europe harnessed to the American power. It's much easier to do it if the Russian threat is inflated. In the Southeast Asia, the US is looking askance at China's rise. Unlike Russia's weak "threat", the China's challenge doesn't need be over-inflated. China's rise is becoming a real headache for the American strategists today. Trenin thinks that Russia should worry too. May be, but I think only IF the U.S. abandons its strategy of hegemony in the Southeast Asia. Until this happen, Russia and China will be natural allies. In the long term, I think the Russian chances for succeeding are good. But in the medium term, Russia might be caught in a conflict with the U.S. over some wacko leader of the U.S.-client state or/and the missile defense, because the Russians are losing confidence and are infuriated by the US rolling out (circa 2018) of the modernized missile interceptors based on the Aegis ships and Poland. According to the Russians, it could render the whole Russian nuclear arsenal ineffective, whereby "undermining the strategic stability". In the short term, Russia is entering the risky unchartered waters where it could be caught up between Scylla of the U.S. and Charybdis of Iranian and Syrian turmoil.
Lastly, what the Russians must really worry about right now is this: Dr. Dmitry Trenin being on the payroll of an American foundation signifies a tragic brain drain that Russians have not been able to stop so far. You get what you pay for.