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In Moscow Talks, Iran Looms

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 17, 2010

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's agenda for her Moscow visit this week includes the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, Iran sanctions, and a meeting of the Middle East Quartet. Of these, Iran is "probably the biggest question in the diplomacy of the major powers," says CFR's Stephen Sestanovich, a former ambassador at large and adviser on the former Soviet Republics in the Clinton administration. Sestanovich also notes that U.S.-Russia relations are affected by domestic Russian concerns, and that Russians are more focused on their own politics--and a likely renewed bid for the presidency by former President Vladimir Putin--than in foreign policy.

START negotiations will be a top item on Secretary of State Clinton's agenda in Moscow this week. The original agreement expired in December, and there's still no new agreement despite expectations that one would be approved quickly. Is this a major hang-up?

There's no doubt that the new START treaty has taken a lot longer than the administration had hoped. Last year, there was an expectation that the treaty could be wrapped up quickly, before the expiration of the old one December 5. When that deadline passed, the thought was that maybe a few weeks would be needed to wrap up a new treaty. Instead, months have passed. It seems as though the big obstacles were removed when President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke directly a couple of times in the past few weeks. The expectation now is that treaty text can be ready perhaps in time for Obama's Nuclear Security Summit in Washington the second week of April. The official American statements have been a little more guarded than the official Russian ones, which have said that now it's possible to think about fixing a date for signature. The Russians are leaning further forward. The Americans, having seen expectations of this sort dashed in the past, are being careful.

Medvedev and Obama signed a joint understanding last July in which they reduced strategic warheads to a range of 1,500-1,675, and strategic delivery vehicles--bombers and missiles--to a range of 500-1,100. What's holding up a final agreement?

Those numbers haven't been the hang-up. And, in reality, the reductions to be taken aren't all that great. The biggest obstacle was Russian unhappiness, which they flagged last summer, with American missile defense programs. They said they were not happy with the plans announced during the Bush administration for radars and interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic. The administration at the end of the summer scrapped that plan and came up with a new plan that involved sea-based interceptors and, further into the future, land-based systems in southeastern Europe. Agreements have since been worked out to put some of those in Romania and Bulgaria.

The expectation now is that [START] treaty text can be ready perhaps in time for Obama's Nuclear Security Summit in Washington the second week of April.

At first when this new plan was announced, the Russians were very happy with it, but they claimed the details make them nervous and that they see a potential here for a more robust American capability than they had imagined. A lot of this is involved in bureaucratic infighting in Russia, and when the American side made clear there really couldn't be any real link between offensive and defensive weapons in the treaty without jeopardizing ratification in the Senate, the Russians seemed to back down.

So the two sides are on course to wrap up the details of an offensive agreement?

One way of placating the Russians seems to be to put some language in the preamble of the treaty about a connection between offensive and defensive capabilities. Another has to do with the possibility of a Russian statement that they would exercise their right to withdraw from the treaty if they were unhappy with American missile defense programs. The Russians plainly thought that they could drive a harder bargain here and get what some American officials call the incorporation of the old ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty into the new START treaty, and that hasn't happened.

More than a year ago, Vice President Joseph Biden made a speech saying the United States wanted to "reset" relations with the Russians. Has this worked?

The atmosphere of the relationship is certainly very different. If you remember the kind of nastiness of the late Bush administration and the end of Vladimir Putin's presidency, and the anger created by the Russian-Georgian War in August 2008, the starting point was very low. The administration thought that it could get results faster than has proved to be feasible, not just in the area of arms control. They worked hard on getting Russian cooperation as a transit country for getting supplies into Afghanistan, and that eventually started to work but has taken a long time.

I read one report that said there might be one flight a day, maximum.

That's out of date. There are now many more than that, and people in the Defense Department will tell you they're impressed with how much the effort's been ramped up of late. But that's been long in coming. Similarly, the administration thought they could get a quick movement on getting Russia into the World Trade Organization (WTO), but that has also fallen victim to internal Russian politics.

You'd think the Russians would be enthusiastic about joining the WTO.

Yes, and a deal was really in reach. Senior Russian trade officials thought it was just days or weeks away last May and June. But Putin gave a speech announcing that Russia was pulling back and would only enter jointly with eight of the former Soviet states. The Russians have now had to backtrack from that, very slowly. They're now kind of back at square one, and it may be possible to push this forward again, but it's an example of how nothing gets agreed with the Russians as quickly as one hopes.

So is the "reset" working, but just too slowly?

That's a key question for the administration. They entered this new phase of Russian-American relations with high expectations, and it has had some achievements. But you have to worry about the past patterns. Both the Clinton and the Bush administrations had high expectations and some achievements, and a sense that their administrations' relationships were put on a new track. That was followed by deterioration, disappointment, and renewed tension.

Right now, if you talk to Russians, they're much more interested in what their internal evolution will be than in the details of this or that foreign policy issue. They see the next two years at least, leading up to the next presidential election, as involving some basic decisions about their future direction.

The question for the Obama administration as they complete this first round of problem-solving is whether they can put the relationship on a steadier foundation than was true in the 1990s or in the last decade. It's not all that hard, really, to pull Russian-American relations out of the dumpster. The administration has done a pretty good job of that. The question is: What will enable them to avoid the kind of shortfalls and disappointments that have been true of the relationship in the past. Is there something that will sustain the relationship and make it closer to what previous administrations have wanted? The term, typically, is of course "partnership."

Mikhail Gorbachev had an op-ed piece in the New York Times in which he said Russia "has many free, independently minded people who are ready to assume responsibility and uphold democracy. But a great deal depends now on how the government acts." In other words, it was a plea for democracy. How much are U.S.-Russia relations dependent on Russian domestic politics?

In a fundamental way. And one of the things that has been a source of disappointment, in the 1990s and in the past decade, and undermined the Russian relationship, is that the Russian domestic evolution made it hard to move forward. That's not because the United States' goal is democracy, but because the internal politics of Russia pushed it in a different direction, where good relations with the United States were not always a priority. Right now, if you talk to Russians, they're much more interested in what their internal evolution will be than in the details of this or that foreign policy issue. They see the next two years at least, leading up to the next presidential election, as involving some basic decisions about their future direction.

Are they concerned that Putin's going to try to run for election again? [He had been limited to two terms and put up Medvedev to succeed him.]

Most Russians are taking for granted that Putin is coming back. That's by far the most likely outcome. And they're worried that that may mean a replay of Putin's second term: a return to authoritarianism and a deterioration in relations with the United States.

One focus of Secretary Clinton's visit is a Quartet meeting on the Middle East talks, which are stalled. Are the Russians eager to get involved in that?

The Russians have wanted to have a conference in Moscow, on Middle East issues, for some time, for years in fact. But this is probably a diplomatic multitasking trip for the secretary. She has to sit at a meeting of the Quartet, but her real interests are going to be other issues.

Like what?

We talked about arms control, but that will probably not be as important as discussions about the next phase of Iran diplomacy. You remember that she traveled to Moscow last fall, on a trip promoted by some of her aides as involving a hard negotiation over Iran sanctions, when in fact nothing of the sort really materialized. This time they are not emphasizing that this is a decisive discussion of Iran, but they are plainly going to be addressing it. This is now probably the biggest question in the diplomacy of the major powers. And one real uncertainty for the administration is whether you can separate the Chinese and the Russian positions. On the surface, the Russian position looks a lot more constructive than the Chinese. The Russians have said there can be a time when sanctions are necessary, but it's clear that they want a pretty watered down set of sanctions and a new resolution.

Which has been their consistent position, right?

On all of the sanctions votes, the Russian body language has been pretty negative, up until the last moment when they agreed to a deal. At this time, they've been signaling a little more receptivity, but they haven't been consistent in all their statements about it. Typically, receptivity of an idea of a tough resolution comes from the Russian president; a little more caution comes from the foreign ministry.

Depending on what the Russians do, the Chinese might follow suit?

This is the big question of the diplomatic dance that's now underway. If the Chinese feel that it's watered down, and they don't like the idea of being the lone holdout in the Security Council vetoing powers, they'll come along. On the other hand, if they're really unhappy with the idea of sanctions and want to block it, maybe they will work out a position with the Russians that makes it impossible to reach any agreements so that they don't look like the only obstacle.

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