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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

Article

Do Americans Want a New ‘Grand Strategy’ or Less Overseas Engagement?

Author: Stephen Sestanovich
Wall Street Journal

Few things make professors happier than thinking that the public has finally begun to agree with them. No surprise, then, that John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard open their article in Foreign Affairs—in which they propose a new “grand strategy” for the United States—by observing that “[f]or the first time in recent memory, a large number of Americans” are saying they want the same thing.

See more in United States; Politics and Strategy

Article

Why Credibility Matters

Author: Stephen Sestanovich
The Atlantic

President Obama has a clear idea of what unsound foreign policy choices are, which he has real determination to avoid.  He has made such understandings and determination the organizing framework of a downsized, less expensive, more risk-averse foreign policy. For better or worse, this is his “doctrine.” It is helping him to clean the policy arena. What it may not do is sustaining the American role in the world that he himself claims to want.

 

See more in United States; Presidents and Chiefs of State

Article

Falling Oil Prices, the Saudis, and the Soviets

Author: Stephen Sestanovich
Wall Street Journal

With oil prices collapsing, Saudi Arabia is facing similar problems that the Soviet Union faced decades ago. Saudi policymakers’ economic reform strategies also echo those of  Mikhail Gorbachev. However, different from Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, Saud Arabia’s foreign policy is both confrontational and interventionist. Saudi seeks change, but hopes to keep it in bounds, and may want the world to remain a dangerous place.

See more in Saudi Arabia; Oil; Russian Federation

Article

Obama’s Focus Is on Nation-Building at Home

Author: Stephen Sestanovich
The New York Times

Every period of great exertion in American foreign policy — World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the cold war, the post-9/11 wars — has been followed by some sort of downsizing. To many, this feels like weakness; to others, mere realism. But there's no arguing with the pattern. The past few years were going to be a time of retrenchment no matter who was in charge.

See more in United States; Development

Article

Russian Democracy in Eclipse: Force, Money, and Pluralism

Author: Stephen Sestanovich

Journal of Democracy
Volume 15, Number 3, July 2004

Vladimir Putin has pursued an anti-pluralist strategy, remaking the balance of power in Russian politics to favor "force" (the coercive apparatus of the old state bureaucracy, especially the KGB) over "money" (those who gained new wealth after 1991, especially the "oligarchs"). Will this new balance endure? Business has many reasons — and increasing resources — for pursuing a larger political role. The future of Russian pluralism depends above all on the response of business interests to changing economic and political circumstances. Will they doubt their legitimacy and seek a protector — or ally with others to alter Putin's bureaucratic order?

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.

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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