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Russian Wariness on U.S. Iran Policy

Interviewee: Stephen R. Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 16, 2009

CFR's top Russia expert, Stephen R. Sestanovich, says the Obama administration believes it has put relations with Russia on "a more practical" basis, with new engagement on Iran, Afghanistan, and arms control. But on the question of Iran in particular, he says, the two sides have yet to achieve a convergence of views on how to address that country's nuclear program. Russian officials continue to remain guarded about expanding cooperation with the United States on missile defense despite the Obama administration's decision to drop plans for installing a shield system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Sestanovich says. And though the White House has "put a lot of hope in creating a good relationship with President Dmitry Medvedev," it has been "unnerved by the way in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin takes shots at them," he says.

It's been several months now since Vice President Joseph Biden said that the new administration wanted to "reset" relations with Russia (WashPost). The Russians seemed pleased by that. We've had some friendly visits including a visit by Obama to Moscow during the summer and Hillary Clinton has just finished her first visit as secretary of state to the Russian capital. How would you say the relations are overall right now?

I think the administration would say there's been a more practical approach to dealing with some high-priority problems faced by the United States and Russia. It would emphasize the importance of both Iran and Afghanistan as high on the Russian-American agenda. There has been an agreement on overflight over Russia for U.S. military planes supporting our campaign in Afghanistan. There has been continuing discussion of the Iran problem, and possibly we'll get to some convergence. There has been a reinvigoration of arms control negotiations with the target of getting a new START treaty before December 5. So it's a pretty robust agenda with some results but still with a lot, hopefully, to follow. The administration has seemed to have put a lot of hope in creating a good relationship with President Dmitry Medvedev but they continue to be a little unnerved by the way in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin takes shots at them. While Clinton was in Moscow, Putin was in Beijing referring, it seemed, to the United States as our "hot-headed" colleagues.

Was that in relation to Iran?

He said it's really important for Russia and China to be a stabilizing force within the great powers so as to restrain "our hot-headed" colleagues.

I must say I was a bit surprised that Secretary Clinton pressed so hard on getting some agreement  on possible future sanctions against Iran when just recently, everyone seemed fairly pleased with the talks they had with the Iranians in Geneva.

She said that the United States was not asking for new sanctions at this time, and that made it possible for her to say that there hadn't been any rejection of the idea by the Russians. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov -- who was negative about sanctions -- said that sanctions would be counterproductive in the "current situation." So he too was not making a categorical statement about how Russia might view sanctions in the future. A senior State Department official, [briefing] the press on the way to Moscow, said that what they were aiming at was a meeting of the minds about how to go forward. It looks as though they didn't get that -- certainly no new synchronization of watches -but we don't know everything that was said privately. It's clear that Russia is handling this a little differently, but they may still be prepared to act in the spirit of what Medvedev said here last month, that "sanctions may become inevitable."

Of course the Russians right now stand to gain if the Iranians carry out the program that was agreed upon in principle at these talks in Geneva earlier this month, where Iran would ship most of their enriched uranium to Russia for initial upgrading and then that would be shipped on to France. This is something the Russians have always wanted to do, right?

"There was not much chance that Ukraine was going to be part of NATO in the short term even a year ago, although the Russians allowed themselves to get very exercised about it."

The Russians made a proposal like this about three years ago under which Iran would rely on Russian enriched fuel for their reactors of all kinds-power reactors, medical programs, and so forth.  The Iranians at first sounded positive, and then rejected the idea which apparently annoyed the Russians. But they're obviously glad to have this idea back in play. It might involve, I understand, as much as 80 percent of what the Iranians have already enriched. The American goal is of course to get all of it out of Iran if possible.

On the nuclear talks, let's talk a bit about that, what is it that we're trying to do on the START negotiations?

Well the presidents, Obama and Medvedev, agreed on some rough numbers involving pretty wide  ranges for a follow-on START treaty -- launchers, warheads -- and now the attempt is to fill in the details before December 5 when the START treaty expires. What Clinton said in Moscow was that there was not a lot of time but that they were hopeful that there could be an agreement. American officials have been saying that of course their aim is to get a full treaty with as much verification as possible, and with all the numbers filled in. But there is of course the option of just extending the treaty for an interim period while the details are worked out. There are some significant disagreements though.

Like what?

Well, about verification. The Russians have said they are not happy with the very extensive and intrusive verification arrangements that were agreed to in the old treaty.

When we talk about these treaties, it has such an old-time flavor to it going back to the Kissinger-Nixon days of negotiating with Leonid Brezhnev and Andrei Gromyko. It's interesting that we still have these negotiations so many years later.

Yes, there is a kind of time-warp feel to the negotiations. And in fact, some of the rhetoric is at least as confrontational as you heard in the détente days, and surely more than you heard in the late eighties when START I was being negotiated. You have the sort of Russian rocket forces commander talking publicly about their suspicions of American purposes, their objections to this or that American proposal, their denunciation of the programs that they think would increase the risk of nuclear war.  The Russian military doesn't mind the time warp at all, they rather enjoy dusting off the old rhetoric.

Well that I guess helps them in their budget fight.

The strategic nuclear forces of both sides are dinosaurs in the budgets of Russia and the United States, and there's a need to explain why they're still relevant and require all this money. The Russian military's answer is, "Because we're still locked in a tense rivalry with the United States."

I thought it was interesting that recently of course, the United States, without much warning, abrogated its plan to have missile defenses set up in Poland and radar stations in the Czech Republic to fend off Iranian missiles which had drawn severe attack from the Russians. But they haven't gotten much credit for it, have they?

Well, the Russians praised it, and they were right to do so. If they were going to raise all those objections, and then say they weren't happy when the Obama administration put the plan aside they would really have seemed like ingrates. What they have said is that they need to know a lot more about the new plans that the U.S. is pursuing, understand whether these involve possible so far undetected problems for Russia. When she was in Moscow, Clinton said she was hoping it would now be possible to push "deep cooperation" between Russia and the U.S. on missile defense, but the Russians are rather guarded about this. The senior military line is, "We have to see what the new programs look like: do they also encroach on Russian capabilities?" I will be very surprised if at least some Russian military commentators do not discover threats to Russia even in the American focus on Iranian short-range missiles.

Now of course while Clinton was in Moscow, she also met with some critics of the Russian regime at Spaso House [residence of the U.S. ambassador], and she also spoke at Moscow State University where she talked about the virtues of more political openness. At the same time, some major political opposition parties walked out of the Duma [parliament] in protest at what they call the "rigged elections" which had taken place just over the weekend for local elections. I guess nothing really changes that much, does it?

"They may still be prepared to act in the spirit of what [President Dmitri] Medvedev said here last month, that 'sanctions may become inevitable.'"

The picture of Hillary Clinton at Moscow State with the old Soviet flag behind her did remind me of Ronald Reagan with the bust of Lenin behind him speaking at the same university in May 1988.  It's right to note how many different meetings involved one way or another the issue of Russia's internal politics. She spoke at Moscow State, and talked about political freedoms. She met at Spaso house with NGO's that are part of this effort to bring the societies of the two countries together and she went to Tatarstan, and visited the mosques there, and expressed her interest in religious tolerance. Tatarstan is a Muslim center of Russia. So the idea that in the "reset" there would be a de-emphasis of American interest in Russia's evolution is plainly not right. It's a prominent issue, it plainly is one that Secretary Clinton takes a real interest. Now whether it can be done without exacting the same sort of nostalgic initial negative Russian response that we saw in the Bush administration, or whether it can be more productive-those are still questions we don't have answers to. But there is interesting ferment in Russian politics: that you would have a big walkout from the Duma by parties that are basically no threat to the Kremlin or creations of the Kremlin is very unusual.

Why do you think the Russian leadership is so reluctant really to have an honest election? I mean this goes back a long time ago. Under former President Boris Yeltsin they were more honest, weren't they?

The Yeltsin Government had the [hardest] time trying to sustain majorities in the Duma in those days, and constantly had initiatives go nowhere because there wasn't support for them. Now the United Russia party [led by Putin] has 2/3 of the Duma. They face no really serious opposition, but they don't even want to let grassroots democracy take hold at lower levels. For instance Nikolai Petrov, who's one of the most interesting analysts of Russian politics, said that you used to have more progressive and open politics in big Russian cities, but that that's died out because political bosses in these cities now are absolutely unwilling to allow any opposition and he mentions Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov as the outstanding example. Moscow used to be the closest thing that you had to the open politics, and now opposition parties rarely have a chance of getting above the threshold for seats in city council.

What about Georgia and Ukraine?

The question of Russia's periphery has receded a bit since this time last year, when the Russian invasion of Georgia was still fresh in people's minds. It's not as pressing for either side, and that's a big change in the atmospherics from a year ago. The Americans emphasize that they still object at every meeting to Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and of South Ossetia as sovereign states when they're really part of Georgia. But that has a pro forma feel.

And since Ukraine is so screwed up internally, there's no chance that NATO is going to absorb them, so that's not really a live issue, right?

There was not much chance that Ukraine was going to be part of NATO in the short term even a year ago, although the Russians allowed themselves to get very exercised about it. How much of an issue it will be in Russian-American relations is going to depend a lot on the presidential elections [in Ukraine] next year.

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