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Expert Says U.S.-Russian Strains May Not Be Easily Repaired

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
May 30, 2003

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Stephen R. Sestanovich, a top Russian expert who served as ambassador-at-large and special adviser to the secretary of state in the Clinton administration, says that despite Washington’s willingness to “forgive” Moscow for its opposition to the Iraq war, it may not be easy for Presidents Bush and Putin to repair relations when they meet in St. Petersburg and at the Group of Eight (G-8) Summit in Evian, France.

“There’s no question that the personal relationship between the two presidents has already changed,” says Sestanovich, the Council on Foreign Relations George F. Kennan senior fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies. “There is a strong sense of disappointment in Putin.”

Sestanovich was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org, on May 12 and again on May 30, 2003.

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Are the Bush-Putin meetings in St. Petersburg, for the city’s 300th anniversary, and at the G-8 Summit in Evian going to show that the two presidents have put aside their differences over Iraq?

The administration’s shorthand, which a lot of Washington journalists are using, is that President Bush is ready to “forgive” Putin. This reflects the low emotional intensity of the disagreement with the Russians compared to that with the French. But it’s a somewhat misleading term, for a variety of reasons.

First, it’s completely provisional. As one senior American diplomat said to me recently, the Russians can quickly go from the “forgiven” column to the “ignored”--or even “punished”--column. We don’t know how Putin is going to respond to being forgiven— he didn’t ask to be, after all!

Second, there’s no question that the personal relationship between the two presidents has already changed. There is a strong sense of disappointment in Putin. President Bush can no longer tell himself that he’s dealing with somebody who can be a kind of junior Tony Blair [the British prime minister and Bush’s most dependable ally.]

Finally, and most important, “forgiveness” doesn’t mean that any of the big issues on which the United States and Russia disagree have become any easier to deal with.

What are those issues?

They’re the front-burner security problems that the administration is grappling with— in particular, Iran and North Korea. Nobody believes that the Russians can fix either of these by themselves, but I hear a lot of exasperation that, at a time when both of these countries are more openly displaying their determination to acquire nuclear weapons, the Russian approach remains pretty passive.

Take this example: previously secret nuclear facilities in Iran have been discovered. In response, one might hope to hear Russian officials say something like, this is very grave, all states must work together to address this matter, we are urgently seeking clarification from Iran— all the bland diplomatic phrases that nevertheless signal an approaching crisis.

Instead, just this week the Russian atomic energy minister affirmed that Russia would “fulfill its duties” to Iran— meaning no second thoughts about ongoing nuclear cooperation or about delivering fuel to start up the Bushehr nuclear reactor complex that Russia is finishing in Iran.

Iran and North Korea are crucial, but don’t forget Iraq itself. Russia’s support for the U.N. Security Council resolution that lifted sanctions was encouraging, but it isn’t clear that the Russians have settled on a strategy toward postwar Iraq. Will they keep themselves outside the circle of those working with the United States and snipe at American policy, or will they put the issue behind them and try to refashion a relationship of real cooperation?

Tony Blair was in Moscow a few weeks back and, judging by their joint press conference, Putin gave him a pretty chilly reception. Should we expect Putin’s meeting with Bush to be equally unfriendly— and unproductive?

Putin does not always control the tone of press conferences too deftly, to say the least, but he clearly had decided not to make the Blair visit a reconciliation party.

There was, of course, the predictable Washington reaction to this: perhaps Putin had decided to save the kiss-and-make-up moment for his meeting with Bush? That may turn out to be right but, if it isn’t, we should understand why not.

Putin is in a genuinely awkward political position. He opposed the United States on Iraq, was ignored, showed himself to be basically irrelevant on the main issue of world politics, and he doesn’t see an easy fix. Yes, he likes being courted by the United States, but he doesn’t want anyone to say that, in kissing-and-making-up too quickly, he is admitting that he didn’t handle Iraq too brilliantly.

Is Putin looking for some kind of economic gesture from the United States— a give-and-take to make the rebuilding a little easier for Moscow?

Putin isn’t going to turn anything down. The Russians would like be out from under the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which has linked trade issues and freedom to emigrate since Leonid Brezhnev’s time and is definitely outdated. They would like more energy cooperation and more space cooperation, and they would especially like some lowering of trade restrictions, particularly on their steel exports.

But the link between economic issues and other Russian-American issues is less than it was in the last decade and less than we have generally assumed. The reason is partly that the Russian economy is in better shape. But it’s also that the Russians have not resolved for themselves basic questions like what kind of role they want to have in the world, what security threats they face, how to deal with them, who their friends should be, and so on.

They’re not going to find the answers to these questions in our steel tariffs or in the World Trade Organization.

Don’t the debts owed to Russia by Iraq figure into this?

The Russians talk about this a lot, but they know they’re not going to be paid back in full or even in part any time soon— or maybe ever. Putin himself has said that some kind of rescheduling or debt forgiveness is a possibility. Russian officials are trying to keep all options open on this issue until the moment somewhere down the road when Iraq’s debts are discussed by the Paris Club.

Let’s step back a moment: has the administration understood Russia’s Iraq policy adequately? Could Bush have actually expected Putin to go along with the invasion?

Across the administration— and I mean the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon— people expected that the Russians would eventually distance themselves from Saddam Hussein and that, if the French stuck to a position of all-out opposition to U.S. policy, the Russians would be prepared to distance themselves from them, too. No one I have talked to expressed much confidence that they could win outright Russian support, but many people thought that some kind of middle stance was negotiable.

So why did Putin decide to stick with the French and Germans and threaten to veto a Security Council resolution clearing the way for an attack?

On this, I think the conventional wisdom has it basically right: he was carried along by the French into a more openly anti-American position than he expected. He found it a little hard to drop off their bandwagon.

But there was probably more to it than mere psychological or political momentum. Unlike the Afghan war, this was not an enterprise in which the Russians could easily see themselves as our partners. There were too many pressures pushing them in the opposite direction. There were domestic constituencies, especially economic interests, telling Putin that they had a stake in Saddam’s survival. The old guard from Russia’s national security establishment saw a chance to get even with Washington.

So getting Putin to take a middle position might have been possible, but it would have taken a lot more careful— and high-level— diplomacy than the administration gave it.

The G-8 in Evian has sparked a lot of interest, because it’s on French President Jacques Chirac’s home turf. Will France, Russia, and Germany— the governments that most strongly opposed the war— use the meeting to display their independence or to promote reconciliation?

Don’t underestimate the degree of mutual suspicion in this group. Many Russian commentators have expressed the view that their European friends are going to make every effort to reconcile with the Americans faster than Russia does, leaving Moscow isolated once again. We already saw a hint of this in the U.N. Security Council, with the Germans making clear that they weren’t going to stand in the way of what the United States wanted.

From Washington, it may look as though there’s this new political alignment forming to check American power, but a lot of Russians have their doubts. They don’t expect the Europeans to stick to this line, and they question the wisdom of sticking to it themselves.

When does Putin have to stand for re-election, and is it going to have any effect on foreign policy?

The election is in March 2004. The polls suggest that Putin has little to worry about and almost no credible challengers. But the parliamentary elections, which will take place in December, are another story.

A lot of Russians point to these elections as a factor in Putin’s thinking on virtually every issue, including Iraq. It’s said that he wants to do absolutely nothing that would give either communist or nationalist parties and candidates an opening. If they made a very strong showing and were able to regain the kind of control they had over the Duma under Boris Yeltsin, it would have a very big effect on Putin’s second term.

Right now, the polls show the communists running about even with the pro-Putin parliamentary bloc, but these numbers have been pretty volatile.

There have been suicide bombings recently in Chechnya. How big a problem is this for Putin? And has the Bush administration basically decided to duck the issue?

Chechnya is always a key issue for whoever is president of Russia, and as Putin’s advisers have emphasized, it’s particularly pressing in a re-election campaign. Putin has been determined to show that the situation has stabilized. That was the point of the referendum that was held in March on a new Chechen constitution. The Russian government has sketched out a kind of road map for what they would consider political normalcy in Chechnya. Bombings and other operations by the Chechen fighters explode those claims. They make it hard for Putin to say he’s solved this problem.

But he has succeeded in wearing down Western governments on this issue. They’ve grown tired of repeatedly calling— without effect— for a political solution. They’ve also lost patience with Chechen resistance figures who have failed to put enough distance between themselves and terrorists, terrorist actions, terrorist strategies. This has been a source of real damage to the legitimacy of the Chechen resistance.

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