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Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies

Expertise

Russia and the former Soviet Union; Caucasus and Central Asia; U.S. foreign policy.

Programs

George F. Kennan Roundtable on Russia and Eurasia

Bio

Stephen Sestanovich is the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He is the author of Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, published by Knopf in February 2014.

From 1997 to 2001, Sestanovich was the U.S. State Department's ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union. He has also served as vice president for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, director of Soviet and East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, senior director for policy development at the National Security Council, a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, and legislative assistant to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. 

Ambassador Sestanovich received his BA summa cum laude from Cornell University and his PhD from Harvard University. He comments frequently on international issues for radio and television, and has written for Foreign AffairsNew York TimesWashington PostWall Street JournalForeign PolicyAmerican InterestNew Republic, Politico Magazine, National Interest, and other publications. He is a member of the board of directors of the National Endowment for Democracy. 

Languages:

Russian, German, and Spanish (familiar).

Putin's Russia as an Exceptional Power

In recent years, Russia has charted an increasingly solitary course, both in its foreign policy and in its internal evolution. Confrontation with Europe and the United States over Ukraine, prickly relations with other members of the "Eurasian Economic Union," the prospect of further re-nationalization of the Russian energy sector, tighter controls over social media, an anxious but assertive authoritarian discourse—all these are aspects of Russian exceptionalism. The conceptual and practical challenge is clear enough: What are the direction and dimensions of this tendency? How sustainable is it? What are its implications for Western governments that have for a quarter of a century seen Russia as, in some fashion, a "partner?" What are likely future flashpoints, and how can they be successfully handled? This analytical agenda has been taking shape for some time, but current developments give it added importance and urgency. I will continue to monitor the issue in future writings, in lectures and media appearances, and in meetings of CFR's George F. Kennan Roundtable on Russia and Eurasia.

American Foreign Policy in Recovery

Since World War II, periods of intense international exertion by the United States have always been followed by retrenchment. After the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Bush administration's campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense budgets were cut, global commitments questioned, and domestic priorities re-asserted. Yet, just as regularly, the search for a downsized, "sustainable" foreign policy itself comes under challenge. I examined this pattern in my recent book, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, and will do so in future writings as well. After a hiatus in the first term of the Obama presidency, a vigorous debate about American national strategy has resumed. It seems likely to continue well into the next administration. This debate will take up basic policy questions, including whether the United States remains willing and able to play an international "leadership" role, how it should manage relations with allies and other major powers, what place ideology should have in defining global aims, and the balance between force and diplomacy in advancing American interests. Answers to these questions are up for grabs in both parties, within the national-security institutions of the U.S. government, and in the public at large.

Featured Publications

All Publications

Op-Ed

Is Russia an ‘Existential Threat’?

Author: Stephen Sestanovich
Wall Street Journal

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on Russia last week to address this question: How should we think about Russian actions in the Middle East and Europe? Having been invited to speak, I found that one theme of my testimony stirred up an argument—among other witnesses, senators, staff, and even (in follow-on e-mails) administration officials.

See more in Russia and Central Asia; United States; Presidents and Chiefs of State; Diplomacy and Statecraft

Op-Ed

Will Obama Look Weak If He Meets With Putin?

Author: Stephen Sestanovich
Wall Street Journal

It looks as though President Barack Obama will sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the United Nations later this month. In a New York Times report Wednesday, journalists Peter Baker and Andrew E. Kramer described the administration’s internal debate about whether to schedule the meeting.

See more in United States; Russian Federation; Presidents and Chiefs of State

Op-Ed

A Suggestion for Obama’s American University Speech About Iran Deal

Author: Stephen Sestanovich
Wall Street Journal

 A major concern of the Iran nuclear deal is that it only imposes constraints for 10 years. After that, the “breakout time” needed for Iran to build a bomb may shrink again. President Obama should say that if Iran expands its program to the full extent allowed by the agreement, the United States will consider it a threat to our security and that of our allies. The president should also add that if the threat begins to grow again, Washington is prepared to renounce the agreement—reimposing sanctions, reviewing military options, and urging other states to do the same.

See more in Iran; United States; Treaties and Agreements; Presidents and Chiefs of State

Op-Ed

Reagan, Nixon and Lessons for Obama’s Iran Deal

Author: Stephen Sestanovich
Wall Street Journal

The agreement on Iran’s nuclear program announced this week has got pundits everywhere talking about Reagan gambling on Gorbachev and Nixon going to China. President Barack Obama, who has made both comparisons, insists that the deal is not based on hope that Iran will “mellow.” The author Sestanovich analyses what history tells us about reaching out to hostile ideological regimes.

See more in Iran; United States; Treaties and Agreements

Op-Ed

Suppose Iran Doesn’t Cheat but Abides by a Nuclear Deal. What Then?

Author: Stephen Sestanovich
Wall Street Journal

If an Iran nuclear deal is reached, there are three areas of debate: the deal would disarm the U.S. psychologically; the Iranians might cheat; and the Iranians comply. If Iran does abide by the agreement, the Obama administration could respond in two ways—intrusive inspections, or does not fully accept the agreement.

See more in Iran; United States; Treaties and Agreements

Op-Ed

Greece’s Lesson for Ukraine: More Populism, Please

Author: Stephen Sestanovich
Wall Street Journal

Can Western governments learn anything from the Greek fiasco that will produce a better result in Ukraine?  There are countless differences between the two situations, but one big similarity should worry us: In both countries an economic crisis has begotten a political crisis, and the two have begun to feed on each other.

See more in Greece; Ukraine; Financial Crises; Politics and Strategy

Op-Ed

From Putin, a New Tune on Ukraine?

Author: Stephen Sestanovich
Wall Street Journal

Vladimir Putin’s annual call-in show is not where I usually look for important statements of Russian policy. Most of the four-hour event is devoted to semi-comical political pandering (Mr. Putin presenting himself as the friend of struggling dairy farmers, for example). Still, last week’s extravaganza contained unmistakable hints of a new line on Ukraine.

See more in Ukraine; Russian Federation; Presidents and Chiefs of State; Conflict Assessment

Op-Ed

Is Netanyahu Right About How to Bargain?

Author: Stephen Sestanovich
Wall Street Journal

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last week was described here and there as “maximalist”—meaning, he insisted on the best imaginable terms for any agreement with Iran about its nuclear program. Because “Maximalist” is the title of my book on U.S. foreign policy since World War II, people have asked me whether Bibi’s approach isn’t the one the United States used for its own tough negotiations.

See more in Israel; Presidents and Chiefs of State

Events

George F. Kennan Roundtable on Russia and Eurasia

Director: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
October 1, 2001—Present

The Kennan Roundtable is an ongoing series of meetings that focus on the major policy questions posed by changing U.S. relationships with Russia and the former Soviet states of Eurasia. Meetings examine areas of expanding cooperation and emerging areas of discord, with topics including governance and the rule of law, social and economic issues, and nuclear weapons and nonproliferation.

CFR Events

Meeting ⁄ Washington

Russia: What to Expect From Putin

Speakers Agnia Grigas

Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council; Senior Fellow, McKinnon Center for Global Affairs, Occidental College; Author, Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire

, Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

, Julianne Smith

Senior Fellow and Director, Strategy and Statecraft Program, Center for a New American Security


Presider Nadia Diuk

Vice President, Programs, National Endowment for Democracy

April 26, 2016 6:00 p.m.-7:30 p.m.


6:00 p.m.–6:30 p.m. Dinner Reception
6:30 p.m.–7:30 p.m. Meeting 

April 26, 2016

This meeting is on the record.

Read Listen Watch

Meeting ⁄ New York

A Conversation With Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Speaker Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Founder, Open Russia


Presider Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

October 6, 2014 8:00–8:30 a.m. - Breakfast
8:30–9:30 a.m. - Meeting

This meeting is on the record.

Read ListenWatch

Meeting ⁄ Washington

What to Do About Russia and Ukraine

Speakers Karen E. Donfried

President, German Marshall Fund of the United States

, Robert Kahn

Steven A. Tananbaum Senior Fellow for International Economics, Council on Foreign Relations

, Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


Presider Richard N. Haass

President, Council on Foreign Relations

June 9, 2014 6:00–6:15 p.m. - Registration
6:15–7:30 p.m. - Meeting
7:30–8:00 p.m. - Reception

This meeting is on the record.

Read ListenWatch

Meeting ⁄ Washington

Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama

Speaker Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


Presider James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations

April 28, 2014 5:30–6:00 p.m. - Registration
6:00–6:45 p.m. - Meeting
6:45–7:15 p.m. - Reception and Book Signing

This meeting is on the record.

ListenWatch

Meeting ⁄ New York

Does U.S. Leadership Have a Future?

Speakers Robert Kagan

Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Project on International Strategy, Brookings Institution; Author, The World America Made

, Michael Mandelbaum

Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; Author, The Road to Global Prosperity

, Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies; Council on Foreign Relations; Author, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama


Presider Gideon Rose

Peter G. Peterson Chair and Editor, Foreign Affairs

April 23, 2014 12:30–1:00 p.m. - Lunch
1:00–2:00 p.m. - Meeting

This meeting is on the record.

Read ListenWatch

Meeting

Overdoing or Underdoing: Why Can't American Foreign Policy Do Better?

Speaker Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


Moderator Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

March 12, 2014 12:00–1:00 p.m. - (ET)

This meeting is on the record.

Listen

Meeting ⁄ New York

U.S.-Russia Relations on the Eve of the Sochi Winter Olympics

Panelists John Beyrle

Director, U.S. Russia Foundation; Former U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation (2008-12)

, Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for the former Soviet Union (1997-2001); Author, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama

, Angela E. Stent

Professor and Director, Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies, Georgetown University; Former National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia, National Intelligence Council; Author, The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century


Presider Andrew J. Guff

Managing Director, Siguler Guff & Company L.P.

January 27, 2014 5:30–6:00 p.m. - Reception
6:00–7:00 p.m. - Meeting

This meeting is on the record.

Read ListenWatch

Meeting

The Iron Curtain and Beyond: Eastern Europe in the Cold War and Today

Speaker Anne ApplebaumColumnist, Washington Post and Slate
Presider Stephen SestanovichGeorge F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
November 27, 2012

This meeting is on the record.

Listen

Meeting ⁄ New York

Russia Update

Panelists Masha GessenAuthor, The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin , Stephen SestanovichGeorge F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider Drew J. GuffManaging Director, Siguler Guff & Company L.P.
March 2, 2012 1:00–1:30 p.m. - Lunch
1:30–2:30 p.m. - Meeting

This meeting is on the record.

Read ListenWatch

Meeting ⁄ Washington

Russia: Politics, Protests, and the Presidential Election

Speakers Leon AronResident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies, American Enterprise Institute, Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr.Member, Federal Council, Solidarity Democratic Movement (Russia); Former Duma Candidate, Stephen SestanovichGeorge F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider Fred HiattEditorial Page Editor, Washington Post
February 29, 2012 12:00–12:30 p.m. - Lunch Reception
12:30–1:30 p.m. - Meeting

This meeting is on the record.

Read ListenWatch

Meeting

Why the Russian Protests Matter

Speaker Stephen SestanovichGeorge F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Moderator Anya SchmemannDirector, Task Force Program, Council on Foreign Relations
December 14, 2011 10:30–11:30 a.m. - Conference Call

This meeting is on the record.

Read Listen

Meeting ⁄ Washington

Negotiating Iran from the European and Russian Perspectives

Speakers Charles A. KupchanSenior Fellow and Director for Europe Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, Stephen SestanovichGeorge F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider Ray TakeyhSenior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
May 25, 2006

This meeting is on the record.

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Meeting ⁄ New York

U.S. Policy Toward Russia

Speakers John EdwardsFormer U.S. Senator, Vice Presidential Candidate and Task Force Co-Chair, Jack KempFounder and Chairman, Kemp Partners and Task Force Co-Chair, Stephen SestanovichGeorge F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations and Task Force Project Director
Presider David RemnickEditor, The New Yorker
March 7, 2006

This meeting is on the record.

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Press/Panels