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Council Expert Says Putin Eager to Repair Relations With U.S.

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
September 24, 2003

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Stephen R. Sestanovich, a top Russian expert who served in the Clinton administration as ambassador-at-large and special adviser to the secretary of state for the newly independent Soviet states, says last weekend’s Camp David meeting demonstrates that Russia’s Vladimir Putin and President Bush “have successfully managed to undo most of the damage done by their disagreement over Iraq.” As for the possibility that Russia may send troops to Iraq, Sestanovich says Putin has “left the door open.”

The Council’s George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Sestanovich also says that Putin, the overwhelming favorite to win re-election next March, presides over a government dominated by his KGB cronies and riddled with corruption.

The interview was conducted by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on September 24, 2003, and updated on September 28, 2003.

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President Bush met with President Putin of Russia on Friday and Saturday at Camp David. Can you draw some conclusions on the general state of Russian-American relations?

You can’t gauge the state of Russian-American relations without answering the question: compared to what? Let’s do this thought-experiment: can you imagine Bush receiving either [French President Jacques] Chirac or [German Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder at Camp David for two days and having the visit go off without a single difficult moment? Obviously not. To say this doesn’t necessarily mean that Russia has somehow become closer to the United States than either France or Germany, but it does mean that Bush and Putin have successfully managed to undo most of the damage done by their disagreement over Iraq. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that the United States has not made this transition as successfully with any other foreign government as it has with Russia.

Of course, the really interesting question is what either of these two presidents wants to do with the relationship in the future. Camp David revived some opportunities, but it didn’t tell us much about how Bush and Putin intend to use them.

What did we learn from the Russian position on Iraq? Is it likely that Moscow will provide any help?

This was an all Axis of Evil summit. Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were far and away the most important topics. Interestingly, the meeting suggested that Iraq may be the easiest of these three for Russia and the United States to deal with. Putin made it pretty clear that he is not going to make the United States sweat over the details of a new U.N. Security Council resolution. I suspect the French are rather unhappy with the way Putin handled the issue of a timetable for transferring power to the Iraqi governing bodies. He indicated this just isn’t an urgent matter for him. In an appearance at Columbia University before going down to Washington, Putin even went so far as to compare Iraq and Chechnya. It was a mistake, he said, for Russian forces to pull out of Chechnya altogether in 1996. The result was only to give international terrorists a safe haven from which to threaten others. That mustn’t happen in Iraq: order is important. If this is what’s inside Putin’s head as he thinks about Iraq, he’s not going to have trouble handling the issue with George Bush.

As for sending Russian troops to Iraq, there are a lot of Russian political figures who oppose this idea, and Putin has not endorsed it— he’s merely left the door open. But if he wants a dramatic symbol of Russian-American cooperation, he’ll probably keep coming back to the idea of troops. Nothing else really sends that message as effectively as a military presence.

The Russians are the main nuclear supplier to Iran. How would you describe Putin’s talks with Bush on this problem area?

U.S. officials describe their Russian counterparts as “saying all the right things” about Iran— and, for a change, it isn’t just privately or for foreign audiences that they’re saying these things. Over the past six months or so, Russian officials all the way up to Putin himself have been emphatic about how Iran has to accept new, more intrusive international inspections. They’ve said that the burden is on Iran to prove to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it doesn’t have a weapons program, that it has to stop trying to evade its commitment to return spent nuclear fuel from the nuclear reactor that the Russians are completing at Bushehr, and so on.

The Russians are a little wobbly in explaining what they’ll do if Iran rejects all these appeals. What the United States doesn’t yet know is whether the Russians are avoiding this issue because they think it would be diplomatically counterproductive to threaten Iran, or because in the end they don’t intend to do very much.

There’s been one very interesting shift in the way the Russians frame the Iran problem. They used to treat it as a case of unwarranted U.S. pressure on Russia to do something. Now they treat it as a case where Iran has obligations to other countries— including Russia— that it hasn’t met. Once the issue gets re-defined in this way, Putin has more room to turn against the Iranians without looking like a tool of the Americans.

Can the United States expect much Russian cooperation on stopping the North Korean nuclear weapon threat?

The Russians have handled the North Korean issue in much the same way as the Iran issue. Their public line has been tough— telling Pyongyang that it mustn’t go ahead with nuclear weapons. But as with Iran, the Russians have been far less strong and far less clear about what would happen if North Korea continues to defy the rest of the world.

Now the Russians probably tell themselves that they don’t have a lot of leverage over North Korea, and that’s true enough. But that’s not the only reason that their policy matters. If the Russians take a tough line on this issue, it’ll put more pressure on China to do the same thing and thereby guarantee that the North Koreans face a united phalanx of the great powers.

What are the main domestic problems facing Putin?

Let me go back again to where we were two years ago. At that time, Putin was seen— both here and in Russia— as having made a move toward the West that had implications far beyond foreign policy. It meant he understood Russia had to become a truly Western country. Today, those expectations seem at a minimum premature, and maybe naïve. Russia is clearly further from Western democratic norms than it was two years ago, or at the start of his presidential term [he took office when Boris Yeltsin stepped down on December 31, 1999]. His first term in office, which ends next March, has been marked by a rollback of press freedom. It’s been marked by the growing domination of the Russian regime by members of the military and intelligence establishments. Putin himself is, of course, a KGB alumnus, and he seems to have decided that his fellow alumni are the best pool of people to draw from in running the Russian bureaucracy and even filling the ranks of electoral politicians. Now who are these people and how do they see their place in Russian politics? They share, I believe, an incredible corporate arrogance, a conviction that they are the most— maybe, the only— qualified people to deal with the practical problems of running the country, and they can do it the way they want. They also seem to believe that they haven’t benefited as much as they might like from the transformation of the Russian economy.

You mean they want a cut?

Exactly. Not to reverse privatization, but to share in it. Most analysts in Russia will tell you that the KGB folks around Putin feel that they haven’t gotten as much as they deserve of the new wealth created since Russia became a market economy. And that’s how many of these same analysts explain the confrontation we now see between the new business elite and the old intelligence elite.

So the reason for the arrest of Platon Lebedev— the chairman of Menatep, the financial group that owns most of Yukos, the largest and fastest growing oil company in Russia— was to shake him down? What was he charged with?

So far it’s unclear exactly what Lebedev will be charged with. He is being investigated for the alleged embezzlement of state assets— to the tune of a couple hundred million dollars— in the 1990s. But he’s almost surely not the real target of the pressure being put on him. The real target— perhaps not the only one— is Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the chairman of Yukos and someone who is seen by Putin’s entourage as having violated the ground rules that Putin established when he took office for good behavior by the oligarchs in the business elite. At the time, Putin told the oligarchs they were free to make money but they shouldn’t interfere in politics. Khodorkovsky has funded opposition political parties— he claims to have done so with the explicit assent of the Kremlin— and has even hinted that he may have political ambitions of his own.

What about the KGB cadres who want a greater share of the wealth— is that pure corruption?

As opposed to “impure?” It’s a good part of the way the Russian bureaucracy does business.

Do they get kickbacks?

Yes. But it’s not just cash. More interesting than mere bribery— the selling of jobs or the buying of favorable policies— is the expectation of government people that their position enables them to claim a share of the wealth of private business.

How do they do that? Do they get shares of stock?

Under-the-table arrangements that allow government officials in invisible ways to become part owners of big business.

So Russian bureaucrats constitute a kind of official mafia?

That’s certainly what the political opposition claims. They say that Putin, having promised almost four years ago to deliver a “dictatorship of law,” has perpetuated and deepened a corrupt relationship between business and the upper echelons of political power. It’s ironic: when people first heard this phrase, the fear of many was that the enforcement of the law might be too rough. Now the complaint is that the law simply isn’t involved at all.

Does Putin have his own political party?

It’s a kind of tradition in post-Communist Russia that the president not be the leader of a political party. But over the past dozen years there has always been a party, known informally as the party of power, that was seen to be favored by the Kremlin and to represent its political agenda in parliament. In the early 1990s, this was the role of the party of Yegor Gaidar, the leading reformer of the time; subsequently, it was true of the party of Viktor Chernomyrdin, the prime minister in the mid-to-late ’90s. Today the party of power goes by the name of United Russia. It is essentially a party of office holders, regional officials, and some business figures. It tries to trade on its position as the favorite of the Kremlin to gain votes and bestow favors.

Is it popular with the voters?

Right now, United Russia looks as though it will disappoint those who thought it might put the Communists out of business in [parliamentary] elections [to be held in December] and score a really sweeping victory. But it still has a chance of finishing first, possibly second behind the Communists. Polls show it going back and forth, trading the lead with the Communists, each of them getting support in the mid-20 percent range.

Isn’t it remarkable that the Communists can still win races?

They have managed to hold on, but they don’t seem able to add to their electorate. The Communists are still mostly the party of older people. You find few Communist voters who are in their early 20s. Russia’s economic boom doesn’t help the Communists either: it hasn’t by any means benefited everyone, but it has created a spreading feeling of well-being, a sense that the country at last may be moving in the right direction.

What is the current makeup of the Duma?

Putin has a strong position in the current Duma. The predecessor of United Russia did well in the last elections, coming from almost nowhere in the fall of 1999 and capitalizing on Putin’s sudden popularity in the successful early phases of the Chechen war, which had just broken out again. Then it linked up with a number of other parties in the Duma. Right now, Putin’s position in parliament is so strong that many commentators treat the Duma as a spent force in Russian politics.

So Putin is likely to do well in the parliamentary elections and to be re-elected to another term as president in March?

I don’t know anyone who thinks Putin will not be re-elected. In fact, most Russian political discussion is about 2008 and who will succeed him then. The reason it’s not considered too early to talk about that election is that many people argue it will be decided behind closed doors, in the Byzantine maneuverings of oligarchs and KGB types that are already under way.

Are there electoral issues— the war in Chechnya, for example— that will hurt Putin?

It’s probably a small drag on his popularity. Polls show fewer people believe Putin’s Chechen policies are working, but it seems the issues voters care most about are the economy, corruption, and a lack of confidence in the integrity of political leaders and the political process. I think the word that shows up most among voter complaints is “poverty.” What’s interesting, however, is that this doesn’t seem to make for a large or growing protest vote. It would probably be healthier for Russian politics and Russian policy if Putin and his colleagues did have to worry that people were going to bring these frustrations into the polling booth.

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