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Russian Politics and U.S. Foreign Policy [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speakers: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow and Director of Europe Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
February 27, 2008
Council on Foreign Relations

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Council on Foreign Relations Conference Call

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OPERATOR:  Excuse me everyone, we now have our speakers in conference.  Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode.  At the conclusion of today's presentation, we will open the floor for questions.  At that time, instructions will be given as to the procedure to follow if you'd like to ask a question. 

I would now like to turn the conference over to Mr. Stephen Kupchan (sic). 

CHARLES KUPCHAN:  Hi, it's Charlie Kupchan and Steve Sestanovich.  I am a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and I will be hosting the conference call this afternoon.

Welcome to Steve and welcome to everyone who's joined in.  Our format will be as follows:  I'm going to ask Steve to start us off with a brief overview of the election, and the likely outcome of the election, even though the race is, at this point, neck and neck.  I think we have a sense of who the victor might be.  Then I'll engage Steve in few minutes of back-and-forth and then we will open it up. 

And most of you are probably quite familiar with Steve Sestanovich, but he is someone who has been studying, analyzing U.S. foreign policy toward Russia and Russian politics for quite some time, both inside the United Statesgovernment and outside.  He is currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at ColumbiaUniversity.

So Steve why don't you get us going with some thoughts on the election, where we stand, the likely outcome, and what some of its implications may be.  

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH:  Good.  And thanks for doing this, Charlie. 

KUPCHAN:  Sure. 

SESTANOVICH:  Charlie is going to leap in wherever I get something wrong, or where there are issues that he's got a particular expertise on.  And since the likely next president was in Serbia yesterday, we may have some occasion to draw on him. 

About the Russian presidential election, what I want to do is just quickly introduce that topic by looking at three dimensions of the political transition:  First, the electoral; secondly, the factional; and thirdly, the personal or ideological -- intellectual you might call it.  In looking at the second two, we have much less to go on.  We don't know as much but there's still some interesting things going on, some hints as to what may be in store.  So I'll touch on those briefly. 

First, about the electoral process itself:  You all know that Russia will go to the polls on Sunday, March 2nd.  As Charlie said, the outcome is not really very much in doubt -- has not been since President Putin identified Dmitry Medvedev, currently a deputy prime minister, as his -- as his favorite for the position.  This came after the parliamentary elections of last December in which Mr. Putin's party scored a gigantic victory, and after a year of, kind of, behind the scenes informal candidacies by a number of members of his entourage. 

The only other candidates are -- include:  Mr. Zyuganov, the head of the Communist Party; Mr. Zhirinovsky, the head of the liberal -- the so-called Liberal Democrats; Mr. Bogdanov -- the race gets down to, sort of, pygmy levels pretty soon.  The polls show Medvedev -- depending on which one you believe, the three recent polls put his likely vote at 67 percent, 72 percent or 82 percent.  Pretty widespread, but all showing a healthy victory so there won't be any need for a second round. 

A lot of Russian commentary has focused on whether -- how great the turnout will be since interest in the election is relatively slim, given the certainty of the outcome.  And Putin's party is focusing on getting the -- to the turnout, turnout high enough to give it a -- a, sort of, the result a clear legitimacy.  There's no longer a requirement for 50 percent turnout to make the election legal.  That's one of the changes that was made, along with abolishing the write-in line "against all." 

There's not really a whole lot to say -- more to say about the, about the campaign, except that Mr. Medvedev, despite his lack of prior political experience, has taken to typical political campaigning.  He does rides on school busses; he meets with ethnic leaders; gives interviews to the media about his childhood and his hobbies. 

He's noted in a, in a very long interview with Itogi that he thinks there's a disastrous shortage of swimming pools in Russia.  He's somebody who swims a considerable distance twice a day.  This is his fitness specialty.  The interviewers noted that he follows Mr. Putin, whose love was judo, and then Mr. Yeltsin whose love was tennis.  I think there's really not much more to say about that part of the results -- about the process. 

How about -- a little bit about factionalism:  On factionalism, the real issue is how will the various elements of Putin's entourage adjust to a new -- to a new leader?  Is there going to be any kind of housecleaning in the Kremlin when Mr. Putin, as has been promised, moves over to the position of prime minister?  Will there be any kind of redrawing of lines of authority and responsibility?  Who will continue in positions on the boards of state corporations, which have been a big part of the livelihood of the Putin entourage? 

The answers to this are completely unknown.  And Putin, in his five-hour -- (inaudible) -- dimensions Press conference of a couple of weeks ago, said, basically, we'll work it out; you trust me; I have trust in Medvedev, and we'll find a way of developing this.  But he has said that there will be no formal changes in the power of the prime minister, while noting that the prime minister's office is the head -- is the supreme executive body in the Russian system.  Not really the way it's been treated in the past 15 years. 

Many of the -- because many of the people in the Putin team have a KGB background, there's been a lot of interest in what the fate of the different elements of this contingent will be under Mr. Medvedev, who does not have a KGB background.  And there have been some rather dramatic confrontations between parts of the Russian government that seemed to involve a kind of vying for power (mutu ?). 

You know, arrests of members of the drug enforcement service got particular attention last fall, and there was -- the Russian media was full of reports of confrontation among the different elements of the KGB.  And one of the former heads of the KGB, in Soviet times, took to the newspapers to say that there was a need for calm, no further fighting. 

There has been a lot of other speculation as to whether the -- how the liberals would fare in a Medvedev system, since he's sometimes typed as a liberal.  Very little is known about any of this, but there were a couple of interesting statements by people who were thought to be, sort of, liberal members of the team -- the finance minister, Mr. Kudrin, and the head of the electricity monopoly, Mr. Chubais, who issued some rather guarded, but still unmistakable criticisms of Russian foreign policy. 

So we see a, kind of, warfare -- I think that's not too strong a term, at least a tug-of-war, among elements of the Putin entourage to make sure that -- presumably revolving around the question of who's going to have what turf in the new, in the new system. 

Finally, let me say a word about what we've learned about Mr. Medvedev himself, because he has been a -- not a particularly prominent or public figure in the Putin team, well-known, and has been given some -- a lot of prominence in the course of this campaign over the past year.  But still, we're only learning what his views are, what kinds of ideas he has, and what, you know, his particular policy goals may be as president.  We don't, of course, know what kind of power he'll have to influence them. 

And here I would particularly recommend that people have a look at the speech that he gave in Krasnoyarsk a couple of weeks ago.  It's a very interesting statement because, while Putin advertised it as embodying continuity in the strategy that Putin has followed of national development, there's some real hints of differences between himself and Putin.  And this is the sort of thing that people will be watching for, to see what success Medvedev may have in pursuing what looks like a slightly different agenda. 

Let me just highlight a couple of things.  Putin said -- on the eve of Medvedev's speech, he said the principal achievement is, we've rebuilt the state.  Medvedev says, you know, the authority of state officials is too great, and it creates too many opportunities for corruption, and we have to give people the opportunity to make their own decisions.  And he said there's been no progress on this in five years, despite a lot of talk about it -- meaning, five years of talk by Putin. 

He made an open criticism of one of the distinctive features of Putin's presidency, and that is the growth of state corporations.  He said that most state officials who are -- participate, serving on boards of these state corporations, and getting quite rich and powerful as a result, have no reason to be there.  And he said that distorts the -- big corporations distort investment. 

He talked about the need for real independence of the media; he talked about the need to improve the image of Russian business abroad -- it would have been much more common for Putin to complain about the unfairness of criticisms; and he talked, as well, about the importance of changing public attitudes on issues like state control of the economy.  He said, you know, the people still have views -- they don't recognize the need for private property; they think that the government should control prices, and all of these things are bad for us and are the result of an old fashioned, outdated mentality. 

This is a far more liberal perspective on how Russia ought to work.  It suggests that there are problems that have accumulated in the course of Putin's presidency, problems that are left over from Soviet times; and it raises the possibility that a next phase of Russian policy will actually be more interesting than we think, and that it will continue to provide interest and employment -- (chuckles) -- for those of us who have, you know, made it a professional interest. 

The last thing I might say about foreign policy and that is the tone of the presidential campaign has actually been somewhat different from internal -- in  the way foreign policy has been discussed.  It's been a little different from what we heard in the parliamentary debate -- parliamentary campaign, which had a sharper anti-Western edge. 

Russian commentators have noted that the tone in talking about the West has been calmer in the presidential campaign -- less edgy, bristly, snarling, confrontational.  And that may be a result of Medvedev's own preferences.  But even Putin himself is emphasizing an interest in good relations with the United States, underscoring that several times in his recent speeches and in his press conference. 

Foreign policy has been treated, of course, primarily in the campaign in the form of the issue of Kosovo independence.  And Medvedev made a -- what I think we're going to have to consider a, kind of, campaign stop in Belgrade to show support for Serbia on the issue of Kosovo, also to sign a gas deal -- two rather characteristic elements of Russian foreign policy, and ones that we should expect to continue in the future. 

Charlie, why don't I stop with that, and we can pick up questions from the audience and see where they want to -- what issues they want to focus on. 

KUPCHAN:  Sounds good.  Thanks a lot, Steve. 

The line is now open, and the host will give you some instructions on how we'll proceed. 

OPERATOR:  Okay, at this time we'll open the floor for questions.  If you'd like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the 1-key on your touchtone phone now.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received, and if at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, please press star, 2.  Again, it is star, 1 to ask a question. 

Our first question comes from Christina Bergman (sp) with TWO German, International.  

QUESTIONER:  Yes, hello.  Thank you very much for having this conference call.  I'm interested in the relationships between the United Statesand Russia.  Could you please describe how -- yeah, the status quo, how the relations are now?  And what impact do you expect the presidential election inRussia to have on this relationship?  Thank you. 

SESTANOVICH:  Well, a good, if a big, question -- (laughs).  I think one has to say that Russian-American relations had deteriorated over the past several years when Mr. Putin compared the United States to the Third Reich.  It wasn't meant warmly, and it wasn't taken that way. 

But there have been also specific issues of disagreement reflecting Russian -- particularly Russian interest in challenging a lot of the political and diplomatic arrangements made in the 1990s.  What has kept relations from being worse than they might have become is a strong American interest in a couple of issues that are -- where Russian cooperation is thought to be particularly important. 

There's this, sort of, broader issue of cooperation against terrorism.  I think that's less central to American interests than the specific issue of gaining Russian cooperation dealing with Iran's nuclear programs.  And on that issue there has been a careful attempt to keepRussia, as much as possible, within a American and European consensus for adding sanctions as necessary in the Security Council. 

Russian enthusiasm for this effort has been limited, but it has repeatedly gone along to support, generally weakened but still significant, sanctions -- or resolutions in the Security Council.  That effort is perhaps the heart of the Russian-American relationship right now.  It clearly reflects a strong priority that the Bush administration attaches to this effort.  But on other issues there's been a, kind of, deterioration. 

Will new leadership in both countries approach these matters differently?  My guess would be that President Medvedev -- who will be, you know, working -- (laughs) shall we say, in close cooperation with Prime Minister Putin, will probably not see very much benefit to be gained by any breakthroughs with the Bush administration, much as President Putin in 2000 was clearly in a waiting mode in his dealings with President Clinton -- waiting for the next administration. 

So we'll have to see what -- for a real change in the relationship, we're likely to wait until new presidents are in position in both countries, bearing in mind that in Russia there will be a new man, you know, at the president's desk, but it's not clear whether he is going to actually -- how much independent presidential authority he's going to exercise. 

KUPCHAN:  Thank you.  Next question, please? 

OPERATOR:  Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the 1 key on your touch-tone phone.  We are currently waiting for question. 

KUPCHAN:  Steve, could I ask you to comment -- going back to your initial remarks about whether there's any chance of some kind of -- institutional crisis might be too strong a word, but a situation in which, in the aftermath of Putin's centralization of power in the Kremlin and in the office of the presidency, he then moves to a different office and becomes the prime minister.  Is the system so personality-driven that there will be a smooth adjustment?  Or is it possible that one could actually see some sort of constitutional/institutional crisis? 

SESTANOVICH:  Well, both Medvedev and Putin have emphasized that -- and their phrases tend to be along these lines -- that Russiais, kind of, done with turmoil, done with revolutionary upheaval, done with crises.  And so, even if they were not long-time colleagues, they would probably be looking for a kind of smooth transition and a kind of behind the scenes adjustment.  It's hard to imagine that there won't be some kinds of adjustment here. 

You know, many people dismissed the idea of Putin taking the prime minister's job because they thought it would just be too weird to have two major figures at the top of the Russian system.  And the prime minister's job has been, in many ways, kind of technical, administrative, almost clerical.  A lot of people on our call will not know the name of the Russian prime minister, and it's not because they're uninformed, it's because he's not very important.  And that's -- so making the Russian prime minister's job more important will be an inevitable part of Putin's move into the job. 

Whether there will be a crisis, I think that's a -- I think, a strong term. 

KUPCHAN:  Okay. 

SESTANOVICH:  And I would say that there is -- there will be, at a minimum, some change in bureaucratic routines.  People will have to be told how they're supposed to proceed.  Who's signature do they need on pieces of paper before they can consider that policy has been, has been made?  Right now the answer is obvious.  It won't be so obvious after the change of jobs takes place. 

But I'd add one other thing:  Even if Putin were retiring from prime minister's job, he would be -- from any job, he would remain important in the same way that Yeltsin sought out certain kinds of guarantees of stability when he handed the reins over to Putin.  I always like to point out that Putin kept Yeltsin's chief of staff for almost four years.  And that was not because he thought he was a great administrator and mover of the paper, it was because it was a symbol of stability. 

And Medvedev is likely to -- would be likely to do something of the same, no matter what.  But then he will have to, inevitably, I think, exercise some greater control over personnel, change the administrative norms if he wants to be a president in more than name only.  And, at that point, you may have a constitutional crisis, or at least a political confrontation. 

It will be very important for Medvedev, if he decides he wants to move out some of the senior figures of the so-called "siloviki" -- the KGB team that has been running the Kremlin over the past several years -- when he decides he wants to do that, he had better know where Putin stands on the issue, and where all of these other guys stand in relation to any moves that he wants to make. 

You're right about this sense.  There are -- there's a real potential for political confrontation if Medvedev wants to be a president in more than name only.  Thank you. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you. 

Our next question comes from Heidi Brown, with Forbes. 

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  You basically have been touching on this point now for the last few minutes but, you know, when I speak with Russia observers, a lot of people who, you know, who are, kind of, insiders the way you are, point to, kind of, a pattern that's gone on in the last several administrations, including under the Soviet Union, of the successor, kind of, overthrowing his predecessor --

SESTANOVICH:  Yeah, it's a great tradition. 

QUESTIONER:  -- and, you know, while -- for example, in the Democratic debates last night, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, kind of, you know, made assumptions about Putin, kind of, pulling stings from behind the curtains even after Medvedev takes over. 

You know, there's a -- there's a chance, and history indicates that this might not happen.  So, I mean, you've kind of been discussing this, but if Medvedev decides to, kind of, tow the line in Soviet tradition, and undo some of the things that Putin has done -- the way Putin undid some of the things Yeltsin did, why would Putin choose Medvedev? 

SESTANOVICH:  Yeah. 

QUESTIONER:  I'm very -- I just, I'm hoping maybe you can help us understand the logic of what Putin is doing, given what we've seen before in history. 

SESTANOVICH:  Yeah.  Look, there's just no use in asking me why Putin has chosen Medvedev -- (laughs) -- because I don't know, and nobody does.  And I always marvel when people claim to have some special fix on the mental processes -- (laughs) -- you know, that led Putin to this. 

But I'd say, broadly, there are probably two possibilities.  One is -- there -- maybe, maybe three -- one is that he saw Medvedev as offering the kind of advantages of a weak leader who would not accept the -- upset the current balance, and will lead to a kind of satisfaction among all the groups that have been part of his team, that they're not going to lose out. 

A second is that he sees him as a sort of, you know, close colleague whom he can work with, instinctively, finishing each others sentences.  And he'll just stay in charge and continue pretty much as he has until now. 

The third is that he is aware that a lot of problems have been deferred under his tenure and that something has got to be done that's a little different.  And Putin himself made a kind of interesting statement along these lines in his Press conference a couple of weeks back.  He said, we've achieved much over these last eight years, but if we continue on the same road we'll come to a dead end.  Meaning, he's aware -- or is at least alleging that whoever he picks is going to have to stir up the system a little bit. 

And he -- for that purpose he wants to have somebody that he can trust totally, and that will be with him in every respect; and whose instincts are in the direction that he wants.  You know, it may be that Putin is -- has been convinced that the next phase of Russian development actually is going to have to involve more reform and liberalization. 

I don't think we have much basis for saying that that's -- that's the deep and true Putin, from what we've seen of him so far.  But you're absolutely right, he picked this guy and he must know something of where he's going to head, and think that there's either some, you know, that there are some big advantages and needs in that -- reflected in that course. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you. 

Our next question comes from Matt Spitalnik (sp), with Reuters. 

(No response.) 

OPERATOR:  Mr. Spitalnik (sp), are you still on the line? 

QUESTIONER:  Yes, I am.  Can you hear me? 

SESTANOVICH:  Yep. 

QUESTIONER:  Okay.  I wonder if you can give an idea of how much power Putin would be -- would be expected to exercise behind the scenes, and --

(Cross talk.)

SESTANOVICH:  -- Putin would be exercising behind the scenes? 

QUESTIONER:  Yes. 

SESTANOVICH:  Is that what you said? 

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  And who would Bush be dealing with in his final months -- his own final months in power?  Somehow -- would he have to somehow reach out to both -- maintaining relations with Putin, and developing a relationship with Medvedev? 

SESTANOVICH:  I don't know that Russian officials have given any indication to foreign governments, what they expect the protocol of this period to be.  The constitution -- Russian constitution says the president represents Russia in international forums and meetings, so we can infer from that that Mr. Medvedev will go to the G-8.  He has been introduced already -- to the other members of the CIS, by Putin in a meeting that they had this week. 

And I think, without any suggestion, that Putin will be -- (chuckles) -- will be attending further meetings.  Although stranger things have happened in other countries than that a president and a prime minister should both attend international conferences.  There was a time when the French did this, when they had divided government.  But you're pointing to a question that we don't really have any answer to yet. 

Everything that Putin has said so far suggests he's going to play this largely by the book.  If you would expect the Russian president to show up, you should -- at some international meeting, you will see Mr. Medvedev.  If you want the Russian president's signature on an international agreement to show that it really means something, you'll get Medvedev's signature. 

Whether foreign leaders will get into the habit of having an official lunch with Medvedev, and then going over to have tea with Putin -- in order to make sure that what they heard at lunch is right, and has his support, that's a little hard to say.  You know, there was a time in the fall of 1991, when visiting leaders in Moscow would arrange meetings with both Gorbachev and Yeltsin.  But remember, that was at a time when, you know, they were clearly at odds, even though nominally trying to work together. 

I think, for the foreseeable future, we can have some considerable confidence that Putin and Medvedev are going to be working together perfectly amicably.  I would not expect any of these confrontations that -- (audio break) -- talking about to materialize early.  They have made stability and continuity their platform.  But, I expect some of these adjustments to become visible to us only over time. 

OPERATOR:  Thank you. 

Our next question comes from Jim Dingman (sp), with World Report. 

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, hi.  Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about this today. 

I wanted to know what your impressions are of what would be the likely policies that Russia will adopt in the situation in the Balkans with the independence of Kosovo, and also what happened in Belgrade last week with the burning of the embassy? 

SESTANOVICH:  Well, Russia has presented itself as the, you know, the strong apostle of international law, and the defender of consensus solutions within the U.N. and a critic of policies taken by the United States and Europe that unilaterally recognize the, you know, the secession of Kosovo from the Serbian state.  That's been a, you know, a matter of high principle, as they've stated it. 

And they've also seen that this has some domestic political resonance.  The theme of helping the Serbs when they're being beaten on by Western powers is a largely popular one in Russia.  And it surely hasn't surprised the Russians to find, you know, Prime Minister Kostunica saying, you know, "Putin is with us," and, you know, stirring up the crowds that way. 

Of course, they criticized the burning of the embassy, and deplored it along with other members of the Security Council, but their broad stance has been to encourage, you know, Serb resistance to the actions that, you know, the U.S. and its European allies were trying to push it toward. 

The Russians have said they will not recognize Serbia; that they support Serbia in downgrading its relations with other states that do.  I'm sorry, did I say "not recognize Serbia?" -- not recognize Kosovo.  They support the Serbs in downgrading their relations with states that do recognize Kosovo.  Russian officials have gone further than that to say, this wrecks the system of international law, and to say that even -- that force has to be contemplated. 

On those I'm a little skeptical that we'll see that actually defining Russian policy.  The Russians are aware that a, you know, a new confrontation has developed over Kosovo and they're going to be sticking it out with the Serbs on one side.  But that is not, does not mean they are going to view you know, international law as no, you know, as no longer a force in international affairs, nor are they going to encourage military solutions. 

Both the Serb and Russian governments before this emphasized that their approach to this is going to be one that does not involve violence and while it's already involved some violence, I think the Russians are not interested in a military confrontation here.  They are interested in gaining some of the diplomatic and economic benefits that have come from being Serbiasupporters.  And Mr. Medvedev inBelgradepicked up one of those benefits in signing an agreement on gas, gas pipe, gas transportation.

Charlie, you want to add something?

KUPCHAN:  Yeah, I would just add one thing and that's that I think that Russian policy is likely to shift from being more proactive to more reactive in the weeks ahead in the sense that the Russians are going to try to and have already capitalized on this dispute to kind of take a principled stand although I'm not sure how principled it is, and to get on the backing of many other countries in that respect. 

But I think that a lot is going to now depend upon what happens on the ground and in particular, whether the violence gradually subsides or whether you begin to see things build in two different respects.  One is the possible separation of northern Kosovo from Kosovo proper.  I don't think that the Russians are going to sort of actively try to make that happen, but it might happen, it might be unstoppable.  It's already to some extent happening before our eyes.  And also Republicof Serbska.  Will there be a referendum some have called for that just in the last few days, some of the opposition --

SESTANOVICH:  You're referring to theBosnia --

KUPCHAN:  Yes, Republic of Serbska in Bosnia.

SESTANOVICH:  Yeah.

KUPCHAN:  And that, you know, those are the two things that I think are most worrying in the, and they're very much sort of on the ground, and then Russia would be forced to react to it.  So I don't see Russia to be doing anything that would be an additional provocation, but it has certainly contributed to the sense of instability and the sense of grievance inSerbia that we're seeing manifest in the protests.

OPERATOR:  Ladies and gentleman, once again, if you'd like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the "1" key on your touchtone phone.

I have a question from Mesha Duton (sp) with Voice of America.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  I'd like to explore a little further the U.S./Russian relations and in the current position compared in the United States, I don't hear a lot of nuance in the positions of candidates towards Russia, and indeed Hillary Clinton's kind of dismissive reference last night when she said whatever, Putin, without being able to pronounce Medvedev's last name, she said , well, whatever, it doesn't matter. 

It kind of to a lot of Russians, it sounds kind of dismissive.  And it seems like that's the main point of contention for the Russian position and the Russian public as evidenced by the reaction to the New York Times article over the weekend; they -- a lot of people wrote that they don't want to be lectured by the West, they want to be taken seriously.

So I would like to ask Mr. Sestanovich what advice would you give to the next president of the United States toward, as far as foreign policy towards Russia goes.  And what kind of new ideas are possible in this regard?

SESTANOVICH:  Well let me just say one thing about the word "whatever" there.  American politicians are famous for being unable to pronounce foreign leaders' names.  And I don't think it indicates a lack of respect or any kind of dismissiveness.  Often, American politicians are not embarrassed by this inability, often they are.  But I don't think one can infer it -- (chuckles) -- from anything -- from the way in which they pronounce the names.  I remember when Victor Chernomyrdin became Prime Minister of Russia, it was a long time before Americans -- (chuckles) -- were able to get that name straight.

Now, you're right, there is a kind of Russian public view that the West has been lecturing them for a long time, although it's interesting how, and maybe not a surprise to psychologists to see how strongly negative the response is to an article that appears in the New York Times, which could easily have appeared in any number of Russian newspapers and -- without surprising anybody because the reality that was described in that New York Times articles is, of course, rather familiar.  It wasn't as though this was a piece of investigated journalism that shocked people, it's a description of a relatively close political process. 

So, you know, you're talking about issues of pride and autonomy and that are all the stronger added in a moment where Russia feels as though its put itself back on its feet and deserve a little more respect internationally.  And the challenge for both Russian and American leaders is to adjust to that new reality, find ways to deal with issues that involve kind of common interests and to address other issues where there are disagreements in a way that seems consistent with their own values and the principles and preferences of their, you know, domestic supporters.

I think that's become a tougher issue in part because of the way in which, you know, both presidential campaigns have, you know, handled these issues, in particular in the case of Russia where a kind of bristly rhetoric has become fashionable.

In the case of the American political campaign, you discover that Russian isn't really very high priority, has I think it's last night's question about Russia was maybe the first time it's been mentioned in 20 debates between the Democratic presidential candidates.  So you know, there is going to be a kind of review, just as you'd predict, as new presidents take over, by their advisors of the options available.  I don't think any of the advisors to any of the new figures, on both the Russian and American side, are going to be satisfied with the relationship as it now exists.  And there'll be a desire to define it somewhat differently, there are different choices available there and, you know, we'll have to see what kinds of new policies appear.

But it's not -- the status quo doesn't satisfy anybody much, and some of the old buzz words about partnership and near alliance don't seem all that relevant.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Our next question comes from Chip Barnett (sp) with Thompson News.

QUESTIONER:  Hello.  Almost exactly two years ago the Council put out a report from an independent task force onU.S. policy towards Russia basically saying that the relations needed a lot of improvement because they were heading in the wrong direction.  I was wondering if you could tell -- give me an update.  Do you feel that in the last two years it has gone in the wrong direction, it's sort of stayed the same or have gotten better?

SESTANOVICH:  I think they've gone pretty much as we forecast in that report, which is to say that it, both sides have been aware of, you know, sort of up-tier issues of involving the security of each side, that they wanted to continue to cooperate on. It's become somewhat harder to cooperate on those issues.  That -- the relationship has also become more infected by disputes about -- about other issues that had been more on the sidelines of relations over the past several years, NATO enlargement, Russian's relations with its neighbors and the course of Russian internal development.  And those have become harder to keep to the sidelines, as I think was more the aim of both Putin and Bush in the early period of their tenure.  And so you've ended up with a relationship in which it's harder to cooperate on some of the sort of top tier security issues, and harder to keep some divisive issues that had been more marginal from the center of the relationship.  That's not a, you know, a forecast that we have, you know, made with a great deal of satisfaction but I, that seemed to be the way things were heading.  And I think that's pretty much how they have developed.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Our next question comes from Jim Dingman (sp) with World Report.

Mr. Dingman, are you still on the line?

SESTANOVICH:  I thought he actually asked a question a little while ago.

KUPCHAN:  Sounds like he's not there.

SESTANOVICH:  Okay.  Can we get another question?

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir, our next question comes from Matt Spitalnik (sp) with Reuters.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, hello, just one more question.  I was asking before about President Bush and how he might deal with this new leadership --

SESTANOVICH:  Yeah. 

QUESTIONER:  -- he does have a history of a long -- of a personal rapport with Putin -- look into his eyes and all of that -- and how will he have to cope with the next round?

SESTANOVICH:  I'm sure that the one thing -- you can bank on this -- that the one thing President Bush is not going to say after meeting with Mr. Medvedev is that he looked into his eyes and got a sense of his soul.  (Chuckles.)  That's become too much of a guaranteed laugh line for anybody talking about Russian/American relations.  You know, my guess would be that he will want to get to know Mr. Medvedev a bit as he -- because the Bush approach tends to be, you know, somewhat personalized.  But there will be a kind of correctness in this at the early stages.  And it will probably as I suggested earlier, probably be influenced on both sides by an awareness that there is not a lot of real potential in the relationship over the sort of dwindling months of this administration. 

There are a couple of things that could happen, though.  One shouldn't ignore them.  For example, the Russians are right at the end game of their accession to the WTO.  That could easily be a nice little box to check for Mr. Medvedev in his early days of his tenure, if that's the way the timing works.  There are some other agreements that has been percolating, I would not say with rapid results but these can often be accelerated.  The two sides have been discussing a, what's called a 123 agreement on civil nuclear cooperation.  There have been also teams of people meeting on the question of ending the START I Treaty which expires next year.  Those are issues that have been kind of a little bit below the radar screen for the leaderships but that can want to elevate if they wanted to show that they're, you know, Russian/American relations still a growing concern.

I'd mentioned one other thing that we haven't talked about, and that is Putin's scheduled appearance at the NATO summit in April which is going to be his farewell appearance presumably on the -- at a major Atlanticgathering.  And what he says there will be, you know, eagerly anticipated and will be one of the important moments of the NATO summit, somewhat unexpected that he's attending at all, and he may come sort of in Munich mode to blast NATO for making -- you know, for not following policies designed to support cooperation and security in Europe, or he may strike a different note.  And we -- we're just not going to know about that for a while. 

But it's plainly going to have an effect, even on the rest of the NATO summit, on the way in which people talk about issues -- for example, ballistic missile defense, facilities that have been envisioned for Poland and the Czech Republic or the steps forward in the -- developing the relationship between NATO and Georgia and the Ukraine.  So, you know, if there were one speech I would really like to know the content of ahead of time, it would be that one.  It will fall, I might note, about halfway between the Russian election and the formal inauguration of Mr. Medvedev in May.

KUPCHAN:  We are right at the end of our allotted time, so just let me wrap things up by thanking Steve for taking the time to walk us through the election and its likely implications.  And thanks to all of you for joining.  Thanks again Steve. 

SESTANOVICH:  Thank you, Charlie. 

KUPCHAN:  Bye-bye.

OPERATOR:  Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes today conference.

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