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Kinder, Gentler U.S.-Russia Mood at NATO Summit

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, CFR George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 19, 2010

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's presence at the NATO summit in Lisbon this weekend is part of a warming of U.S.-Russian relations during the Obama administration, says CFR Russia expert Stephen Sestanovich. Russia wants to show it's expanding cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan, Sestanovich says, from facilitating transport of NATO equipment to working with the alliance on counternarcotics - and wants to explore cooperation on missile defense. Sestanovich thinks ratification of the new START treaty, signed in April, would demonstrate a crucial element of the reset in relations pushed by the Obama administration, but points out Russia isn't concerned about the timing. Sestanovich says Russia has worked with the U.S. and NATO on counternarcotics efforts in Russia, and that Russian officials privately say "it would be a disaster" for Russia if the U.S. and NATO were defeated in Afghanistan. He also notes that on the domestic front, the polls numbers of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- "the ultimate decider" are still high, but that Medvedev is "pulling even."  Still, says Sestanovich, nothing will stop Putin from running for office again if that's what he chooses to do.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will be attending the NATO summit in Lisbon this weekend along with the 28 leaders of the NATO countries. Is there any special significance in Medvedev's attendance at the summit?

Well, it's not the first time that the Russian president has attended. Then-President Vladimir Putin came to the summit in Bucharest in 2008, but it was a pretty contentious meeting and there was a lot of disagreement, particularly about the question of NATO enlargement [Moscow opposed Ukraine and Georgia joining]. The atmosphere this time is a little different. The focus of Russian interest is twofold. They want to show that they are expanding cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan, and they want to find out whether it's possible to actually cooperate in a concrete way on missile defense.

Yet the Russians were opposed to President George W. Bush's missile defense plan, which included bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The focus of Russian interest is twofold. They want to show that they are expanding cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan, and they want to find out whether it's possible to actually cooperate in a concrete way on missile defense.

The change in Russian attitude is not complete. Russian officials still criticize the updated "Obama plan." The Russian ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said the other day that they didn't like the plan, that it is not focused on threats outside of Europe -- by implication that it's really directed still against Russia. The Russian approach is still basically "you've got to show me," and that's why the next phase is going to be a six-month joint study of what cooperation means, whether it's going to be, as the Russians say, "on a truly equal basis." They say they have questions about the architecture of the systems to be created, about the control, timing, operations, and so forth. We've been expanding our cooperation in a lot of other areas, and perhaps there's a possibility to cooperate here. But they're reluctant to say "yes, this is a go." That may change over the course of six months, but they are indicating that they still have doubts.

One item in the news is a "hurry up" effort by the Obama administration to ratify the New START treaty in this current lame duck session, and the Republican Senate opposition to having a vote now. The second is the arrest in Thailand of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, whose extradition to the United States caused a furor in Moscow, with the foreign ministry even issuing a statement denouncing it. How important are these developments?

The first is a lot more important than the second. The New START treaty for the Russians is a crucial element of the "reset" in relations pushed by the Obama administration to show that the relationship is continuing to improve. I would quarrel a little bit with your term "the hurry up effort" to get ratification. The treaty was signed in April, there were hearings in the late spring and early summer, and a vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to approve it in August. So the process has been unfolding in a pretty orderly way, but Senator Jon Kyl, who has been the pivotal figure among Republicans in giving thumbs up or thumbs down to the treaty, said this week that he thought there was not enough time to close on ratification in the lame duck session.

Although Kyl has been involved in negotiations with the administration on a number of issues, particularly on funding for the modernization of the nuclear stockpile, he didn't raise any specific substantive problems. He just said it's complicated, and there's not enough time. This may be a way of leaving himself the option of discovering that in fact there is time. Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he didn't think there would be any difficulty in carving out a space in the schedule. Kyl has gotten a lot out of the administration on modernization, and it's not so clear what the game is now. It's possible that the administration did not get an explicit commitment, or insist on one from him, for a ratification vote in exchange for all of the dollars that they've piled up for modernization.

It's been a long time coming, and it's kind of hard to understand why it took so long, but the kind of support that the Russians are giving at this point is of genuine value to NATO policy in Afghanistan. And it's expanding.

If the Russians ascertain that the Senate will not take up the START treaty in the lame duck session, is that a setback to efforts to "reset relations?"

It will be a setback, of course, but the initial reaction from Russian legislators and other officials has actually been somewhat relaxed. Their view is: We're not tearing our hair out over this. If it can be ratified early next year, that's good. Better to have it ratified now. Their message is: This is your problem. It's an issue of American domestic politics. This hasn't got anything to do with us. The Russian position is they're not going to ratify until we do, so they're waiting to see when this is.

Of course, there is no problem in getting the Russian Duma to ratify.

The Russian view may not reflect a really good understanding of how the Congress works because a new Congress will surely take a while to get around to this. It's not as though in January they'll just put it on the calendar and then vote. But the Russians are never really well-informed about congressional matters.

You mentioned earlier Russian cooperation on Afghanistan. What is it, and what's the significance of it?

The headline item on Afghanistan has been transportation of NATO equipment and supplies through Russian territory, especially by rail. That has reduced the cost of the shipments and made it possible to avoid a sometimes hazardous route through Pakistan, although still more than 60 percent of supplies go through Pakistan. The Russian-NATO Council in Lisbon will apparently agree on an expanded arrangement for more equipment to include, for example, armored vehicles that could go by rail through Russia.

But it's not just transportation. There're some other new wrinkles that are being added to cooperation on Afghanistan. One involves the sale of Russian military equipment. The Russian-NATO council will create a trust fund apparently to pay for Russian helicopters to be sold to Afghanistan for spare parts and training. The Russians are indicating their commercial interests here in the Afghan effort. They have also indicated that they want to expand, and have in fact expanded, cooperation on counternarcotics. There was a bust of a drug lab last month in Afghanistan, in which Russian and NATO personnel cooperated. And the Russians are pretty forthright about this. Sergey Lavrov published an article this week, in which he said, among other things, Russia wants to be sure that when ISAF withdraws from Afghanistan that it won't destabilize the region. Russian officials will privately say it would be a disaster for Russia if NATO and the United States were defeated in Afghanistan or leave too early. Lavrov's comment was about as close as they get publicly to indicating their view.

So Russia would be pleased with this new timeline in which the ISAF forces will stay at least through the end of 2014.

The Russian line has been NATO shouldn't stay forever. And they've tied that in particular to their unease with an American military presence in Central Asia. But they generally back off when they demand a concrete date certain for withdrawal.

But you're saying they think it would be a disaster if we left too soon.

That's what Lavrov suggested.

That's really an interesting change in tone.

The Russians often emphasize that their own previous experience in Afghanistan limits what they can do, so that just this week their NATO ambassador reiterated that while they can't provide personnel in Afghanistan, they want to be able to do a lot of other things.

Overall would you say there's been a quantitative improvement in U.S.-Russian relations? In other words, the policy that's been followed over the last couple of years seems to be producing results?

I don't think there's any question about it, and I wouldn't say that the cooperation in Afghanistan has increased quantitatively only. It has changed qualitatively. It's been a long time coming, and it's kind of hard to understand why it took so long, but the kind of support that the Russians are giving at this point is of genuine value to NATO policy in Afghanistan. And it's expanding. We'll see how far it go. There may be some limits that we'll bump up against, but right now this is still a growth sector.

Obviously, this all wouldn't be happening unless Prime Minister Putin backed it, right?

I think Putin is still the ultimate decider in Russian politics.

Talk a minute about Viktor Bout. Why did the Russian Foreign Ministry feel impelled to issue a protest?

No one really knows. Viktor Bout is an arms dealer who's been particularly active in the civil wars in Africa in the '90s, but he's sold weapons worldwide and was captured in a sting operation in Thailand a couple of years ago when U.S. agents posed as representatives of the FARC, the Colombian group. He was extradited this week from Thailand.

The Russian complaint is first a kind of legal one: What's the nature of the charge, the evidence, the jurisdiction of the U.S. and so forth - the kinds of complaints always made about extraditions. But the suspicion has been that the Russians are especially concerned because Bout, who's a former air force pilot, may begin to talk about the involvement of Russian officials in his activities over the years. People have speculated that he may be prepared to talk about Igor Sechin, a close associate of Putin's, a deputy prime minister, who in the past has been a KGB officer working in Africa. I think the connection is somewhat speculative, but it would not be a surprise for the KGB to be unhappy about what Bout might say, even if Sechin were not involved.

What's new on the Mikhail Khodorkovsky case [a billionaire Russian businessman convicted of tax issues, but whose latest trial has become linked to a crackdown by Putin on opposition.]?

There's going to be a final judgment in the case next month. Smart money in a trial like this is always in favor of conviction. The Russian government doesn't lose a lot of cases of this sort, and it is a very political one. It has provoked a lot of criticism inside Russia. His final statement was very powerful and attracted a lot of attention. And many Western journalists have been writing about it. Joe Nocera had an interesting column in the New York Times a few days ago.

This is a second trial, right? These are additional charges to keep him in prison longer?

It's a second set of charges. The defense and many other commentators have argued that the second set of charges doesn't make any sense in relation to the first, but it would be really big news if the results were anything other than a conviction. The thought is that Putin at a minimum does not want Khodorkovsky at large during the next political season, especially the presidential election of 2012.

Do the odds still favor Putin running again?

If Putin wants to do it, not much is going to stand in his way. But we don't know what he wants to do, and how he's weighing the pro's and con's. I think it would be unwise to bet on this at all.

Is he very popular in public opinion polls, as he's been all along?

He is. Putin's rating went down when the economy seemed to be shaky in the spring of last year, but it's rebounded. What's interesting is that the Medvedev's rating has pulled evenly with his. And the Russians put a lot of stock in this for some reason. For several years Medvedev's rating has been just a few percentage points behind Putin's. But it's now pulled even. This has had Russian commentators asking whether that creates a further pressure on Putin or legitimizes Medvedev as a political figure in his own right. The real news will be when his rating pulls ahead of Putin's.

 

 

 

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