Director, Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies and Professor of Government and Foreign Service, Georgetown University
Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations
Angela E. Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies and professor of government and Foreign Service, discusses the current state of U.S.-Russia relations, as part of CFR’s Academic Conference Call series.
Learn more about CFR’s resources for the classroom at CFR Campus.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR. Thank you for being with us.
Today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org.
We’re delighted to have Angela Stent with us to talk about “U.S.-Russia Relations.” Dr. Stent is director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies and professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University. She’s also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. From 2004 to 2006, Dr. Stent served as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council, and from 1999 to 2001 she served in the Office of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State. Her most recent book is “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century,” for which she won the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Douglas Dillon prize for the best book on the practice of American diplomacy. She has served as a member of the Senior Advisory Panel for NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Russia and Central Asia. And you can follow her on Twitter at @AngelaStent.
Angela, thank you very much for being with us today. I thought we could start by talking about the current state of U.S.-Russia relations and how we got here.
STENT: Well, it’s great to be on this call. Thank you very much. I am delighted to be doing this. I’m sorry I can’t see all the students, but I’ll be able to hear you.
Yes, this is actually Russia week this week in Washington. There are many Russians in town for different conferences we’re having, and we at Georgetown are having a big conference tomorrow, 25 years since the Soviet collapse, looking at U.S.-Russian relations, which if you’re interested is going to be livestreamed. So that’s my little ad.
So let me say a few introductory remarks about the state of U.S.-Russian relations. And I would say that U.S.-Russian relations today are really worse than they have been than at any time since before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. Now, this was certainly true by the end of the Obama administration, and then I think people thought that with the election of Donald Trump things might improve. But as I’m sure you all know, with all of the revelations and counter-revelations, and accusations and counter-accusations that are in the air here in the Senate and House hearings about what Russia may or may not have done during our own election campaign, everything has been put on hold. There are no senior Russia experts in place in any of the major government agencies—not in the National Security Council, in the State Department, or the Defense Department. No doubt they will be in place in the next few months.
But the only movement we’ve seen now has been two things. Our chief of the general staff, General Joseph Dunford, has met his Russian counterpart, Valery Gerasimov. They met in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku last month, and that was the first time you’d had high-level military contacts like that since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in 2014. And then they met a second time with the Turkish chief of general staff to talk about Syria. So that’s one sign of movement. And the other one is that we gather that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be visiting Moscow next month. But as I say, until now the relationship really has been very bad.
Let me say a few things about where Russian interests and U.S. interests might or might not coincide. I think we’re in a situation now where we share a few limited interests with Russia, but we have very, very different views of the world, of what drives international politics, and really of how states should conduct themselves. Russia today would like to be treated as if it were the Soviet Union—that is to say, a great power with global reach, a nuclear superpower, dominant in its neighborhood and beyond, and one that is respected by the rest of the world. And Russia certainly feels that the United States and its allies have not given it the respect that it deserves, nor have they been willing to recognize its interests as legitimate interests.
Now, Russia definitely defines it defense perimeter today, and really has since the Soviet collapse, not as the borders of the Russian Federation, but as the borders of the former Soviet Union. And so any Euro-Atlantic structures that appear to be moving nearer to a country like Ukraine, that is considered a direct threat to the Russian heartland. And because of that, Russia very much believes that it has the right to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, and that that sphere of influence should be respected by the United States and by its allies.
And so, when the Russians look at the outside world, the organizing principle that they would like to see really would be a new Yalta—that is to say, a division into spheres of influence between Russia, the United States, and China. It’s not 1945 anymore, and China is—(chuckles)—is a rising power, but we should agree to that. And that the other Russian distinction is between absolute sovereignty, which the Russians believe only a few great powers have—Mr. Putin has said that specifically—and smaller countries that have limited sovereignty. In other words, if you live in Russia’s sphere of influence, then you don’t have the same freedom to decide what you do as if you are one of the great powers.
So those are really the basic organizing principles, I would say, when Russia looks out at the world today.
And so the West so far—and things may change under a Trump administration; it’s too early to say—but so far the West has agreed—the U.S. and its allies have agreed that we don’t—that we reject the idea of a Yalta system, of dividing the world into spheres of influence, and that we believe still in the principles of Helsinki—that is, the principles of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that each country has the right to self-determination, to freedom of choice in terms of what it does internationally, to secure borders, and to its own territorial integrity, the right to choose. And so these are fundamentally different notions of how the world should be organized. And so, if we look at the relationship, we have to start—you know, begin from the starting point that our—that our common interests are very limited.
But we have been able to work together with Russia in the past in areas where we did have similar interests, narrowly defined, for instance in the fall of 2001, when the Russians supported the NATO effort and allied effort in Afghanistan. They were very helpful in providing us information that enabled us initially to defeat the Taliban. We worked together with the Russians on the Iran nuclear deal. We have worked together with them on arms control agreements that we’ve signed, on the Northern Distribution Network where in the latter phases of the Afghan war we could transport people and equipment to and from Afghanistan through Russia. So there are times when we’ve been able to work together. But since the onset of the Ukraine crisis, it’s been much more difficult, and as I say relations are really not in good shape now.
So I want to talk briefly about the two major issues that the new Trump administration will have to face. One of them is Ukraine. We are now really at a stalemate in terms of the Ukrainian crisis. We have an agreement, the Minsk Agreement, that was signed in February of 2015. Germany and France negotiated it with Russia and Ukraine. The U.S. hasn’t been formally involved in it, although informally we’ve had many conversations with Russia and Ukraine, and with our European allies, on this agreement.
The problem with this agreement is that the Ukrainians and Russians interpret how it should be implemented very differently. And so far the Russians have not withdrawn their troops and their heavy weapons, and the Ukrainians have not passed the legislation that they’re supposed to pass to give more power to the different regions.
And the ceasefire is very tenuous. Fighting ticked up, actually, the day after President Trump had a phone conversation with President Putin a few weeks ago. And just today we read that there was a major bombing of a munitions factory in Kharkiv, which is about 60 miles or 100 kilometers away from where the fighting is, but that was sort of attacked by a drone. So it reminds us that the violence is still going on there. Ten thousand people have died, and there are about 2 million refugees and displaced persons.
So sometimes people ask, should we still have this Minsk Agreement? But there is no alternative. I think one thing that might be a good thing to think about would be if the Trump administration were willing for the United States formally to join this negotiating process with Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia. Even that would take quite a long time. But otherwise, there really is a stalemate there, and there doesn’t seem to be any way out of the stalemate.
And of course, the economic sanctions that we imposed on Russia, as did our European allies, are directly tied to the implementation of this Minsk Agreement. And if it’s not fully implemented or even partially implemented, so far the sanctions stay. And even President Trump has now agreed to that, although initially during the campaign he said something else.
The other major issue is Syria. So Russia has been remarkably successful in Syria in the last year. Since it began its bombing campaign in September of 2015, it’s essentially ensured that President Assad remains in power. Russia has increased its own influence in Syria, and really throughout the Middle Eastern area. It’s now the only great power that has good relations and a dialogue with Shia countries, Sunni countries, and with Israel. There’s no other major power that has those kind of links. And Russia really is the power that one has to go to if one wants to try and resolve this terrible civil war, which has produced of course such a humanitarian crisis and waves of refugees.
So, as I say, the U.S. and the Russian military, together with the Turkish military, are trying now to at least coordinate their military actions more. The big question is, is Russia seriously interested in working with the United States and all of our allies? We’ve just had a conference yesterday in Washington with a coalition of more than 60 countries that are allied to the United States in terms of trying to end the Syrian civil war. Are the Russians seriously interested in attacking and destroying the Islamic State organization? And so far there’s not very much evidence that they are. We and the Russians have very different definitions of what a terrorist is, and the Russians have said that any group that opposes President Assad, including groups that we support, are terrorists. So it might be possible theoretically going forward that we could work with Russia on this, and we’re certainly going to try it, but the track record is very questionable.
So I’m just going to end by suggesting what might happen during the next year and really what should happen. There’s not going to be another great reset. As Irina said, I published a book about U.S.-Russia relations a couple of years ago where I looked at the four different resets of the four different U.S. presidents, all of which ended in disappointment. There is no grand bargain to be made with Russia. Our interests are too different and our values are too different.
But I think what we do—will have to do is to take small steps to normalize the relationship. The military-to-military relations are very important. They were largely cut off after Ukraine. We need to have those. We’re in quite a dangerous situation, where the risk of an accidental event grows—has been growing. So we need that.
We need, I think, to start more broadly confidence-building measures with Russia just to defuse some of the tensions and reestablish more links, not only between the military but between other parts of the government. We have a major arms-control agreement, the New START agreement, that expires in 2021. Now is the time to sit down and talk about the next phase of nuclear, you know, arms agreements with the Russians. Otherwise we won’t have any more arms agreements. Also, our government has said that the Russians have been violating the agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces. We at least need to talk to Russia about that.
I also think that we need to begin to talk to Russia about cyber rules of the road. Obviously, the cyber issue is quite toxic given the Russian interference in our own elections. We were having discussions with the Russians before Ukraine. I think we need to reopen those discussions and at least talk about establishing some mutually acceptable rules of the road. So those—even that’s going to be tough. It’s going to take a long time. But I think we need to start doing that with realistic expectations.
And the final point is, you know, two question marks. In the run-up to the Russian presidential elections next March, it’s questionable how far Russia will be willing to go to moderate its policies. And then we still don’t really know very much about what our own administration, which is seen in the world at least as a factor of instability, about what they’re going to do. And so that’s why, again, we have to move forward, I think, with very modest and realistic expectations.
So I will stop there and I will look forward to your questions.
FASKIANOS: Angela, thank you very much for that. Let’s open up to the group for questions.
OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We are currently holding for questions.
Our first question comes from Washington and Lee University.
Q: Thank you very much. Doctor, in regards to the Ukraine crisis, do you foresee Russia allowing the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republic to collapse, or do you see them trying to integrate them in a South Ossetia or Abkhazia situation?
STENT: Well, that’s a great question. I’m not sure that Russia really wants to take on the economic burden of having the Donetsk and Luhansk regions become part of Russia, because, I mean, they’ve been quite badly destroyed during the war. There are also questions about how eager the government in Kiev would be to reintegrate them, again, after all this time.
So I think, from the Russian point of view, I mean, they’ve now—of course, they’re giving passports out to the residents of these regions. And they’re taking some more actions, obviously, to strengthen them. I’m not sure—I think what they really would still like is to have the government in Kiev pass far-reaching, you know, autonomy legislation that would essentially give these two regions a veto power over Ukraine’s future foreign policy situation, but have the government in Kiev pay for them.
But the likelihood of such legislation getting through is not very great at the moment, because the current Ukrainian government doesn’t have the political support for it. So I think at the moment we’re more likely to see a frozen conflict type of situation, where they’re—where they’re, you know, not part of the Russian Federation but neither are they really part of Ukraine.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Babson College.
Q: Thank you, Professor Stent. My name is Caleb. I’m a sophomore at Babson College.
And I just wanted to ask: What can college students do to improve relations with Russia and Russian citizens?
FASKIANOS: Well—(laughs)—the first thing they can do is to, you know, learn about the country and also study the language. We—you know, we need the next generation of students and experts on Russia who need to familiarize themselves with the history and the language. And then, you know, to get involved. Obviously civil society exchanges, student exchanges are very important. The Russian government has been trying to cut back on them. It’s been trying to limit the access of their own students. For instance, they’ve abolished the program by which young Russians used to come here and go to high school here. But still there are opportunities, obviously, to study and work and be involved in civil society exchanges. So I think it’s just familiarizing yourself to the extent you can with the country itself, and then engaging—going there, engaging in these groups. And then, you know, if you’re interested, then going and working in the U.S. government and trying to influence the policy there.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Daniel Morgan Grad School.
Q: Hi, there.
Based on our discussion about Russian interests and how far they might be willing to compromise with the U.S., I wanted to get your reaction from a comment from a Russian political analyst named Linda (sic; Liliya) Shevtsova. She wrote that in “to make our ‘great power-ness’—and self-confidence—more convincing,” they need to do that in “comparison to a powerful global force,” but that force has to keep itself within “confines of responsible behavior,” essentially ignoring Russia’s “naughty tricks.” She said “the Kremlin can afford to perform unexpected somersaults only if it is certain of the West’s reaction.” So I wanted to ask, how probably is it that Trump’s perceived unpredictability could act as a deterrent against some of these geopolitical gambles Russia’s been taking in terms of invading Syria or Ukraine?
STENT: I think that probably the people in the Kremlin are asking themselves the same question. (Laughs.) I think that when the Russians heard of, you know, the results of our own election, I think in the beginning they were quite enthusiastic about the prospects of an improved U.S.-Russian relationship, and made on a different basis, because for instance candidate Trump certainly, you know, said that we shouldn’t be, you know, telling the Russians what to do, that we can get on with them. In his inaugural address, he said that we shouldn’t be involved in democracy promotion. So all of those things would be music to the Kremlin’s ears. I think now there’s greater uncertainty in the Kremlin about what the United States might or might not do, just because we have all these internal investigations going on and because even the White House has backtracked on some of the things that Trump’s—of those forward-leaning things that candidate Trump said.
But so far, as I say, you know, we don’t have very much evidence. After the phone call between the two presidents, you had an uptick in fighting in Ukraine. You’ve got, obviously, what’s happened today, and then a—I mean, we had the attack on the munitions dump in Kharkiv, but we’ve also had the assassination in Kiev of a dissident member of the Russian Duma, the parliament, who was now living in Ukraine, actually a communist member there. So we—you know, we’re reminded all the time that escalation is possible. So it seems to me at the moment we don’t really have any real evidence that having a more unpredictable U.S. administration would constrain what Russia does.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from University of Southern Mississippi.
Q: Hello, Dr. Stent, and thank you for talking with us today.
What would you think of the United States and Russia dividing Syria into separate countries? And second, the U.S. is supposed to spend a trillion dollars over the next 10 years in modernizing the precision of our nuclear weapons. In our view, is this cost necessary?
STENT: Well, dividing Syria is probably—(laughs)—a non-starter. I think from the Russian point of view—I think the Russians might accept the de facto partition of Syria where you would have Islamic State essentially controlling the eastern part of it, but where Mr. Assad, or whoever succeeds him, is in control of the rest of Syria, you know, with Russian backing and Russian military bases there. I think the United States—I mean, the question is that that would be the Russian view of this. It’s hard to see what the United States gets out of it, or what—(laughs)—presumably the United States wouldn’t be interested in presiding over a part of Syria that was dominated by Islamic State. So I think—I mean, I think the fact that Syria was an artificially created state and—you know, one knows that. But I think sort of the idea that it could be divided into separate countries between the U.S. and Russia is probably a non-starter.
I’m not sure that we need to spend enormous amounts on nuclear weapons modernization. I think that it is true that the Russians have been investing more in their nuclear arsenal. And that’s because, you know, they’re still—this isn’t the Cold War and they’re not our equal militarily and can—in conventional military terms, we are far superior to them, and therefore, you know, they invest in the military because it’s one of the parts of their military that works very well. So I’m really not sure that we need to do that. we could probably spend those dollars on—you know, more effectively.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Fordham University.
Q: Hi. My name is Luther Flagstad, and I’m a student in the international political economy and development graduate program here.
And my question is, I know that this phone call was originally slated to be held last fall. And I’m just curious to know how things have changed. Like, how is this call today different than it would have been in the fall? In other words, you know, to what degree has the recent revelations about the possible collusions with—between the Trump administration or the Trump campaign and the Russians—like, how has that changed the calculus on the relationship going forward?
STENT: Yeah, it’s a great question. So we were supposed to initially have this the day after the election, and then I got very bad laryngitis and didn’t have a voice. (Laughs.) I think what’s happened since then, and you’ve already mentioned it, is that Russia has become, I would say, almost a toxic subject in the U.S. domestic political debate. That is to say, even though there were questions before the election about why candidate Trump, you know, was consistently—the one leader he consistently praised was Vladimir Putin—why he was doing that, it was—and there was clear knowledge already then about the hacking of the emails of the Democratic National Committee. You know, the issue wasn’t nearly as explosive as it is now.
And I do think that all of these revelations coming, including the resignation of the then-national security advisor General Flynn—apparently because of conversations he had had with the Russian ambassador about sanctions that were imposed by the Obama administration on Russia because of all of these activities—it’s become a much bigger subject. And as I tried to imitate in my introductory remarks, I think it has slowed down the momentum possibly of the U.S. reestablishing its relationship with Russia. I mean, candidate Trump said that he wanted to visit Moscow even before he was inaugurated. And we know now that probably there won’t be a presidential meeting until the—you know, the G-20 meeting, which is in Germany in July, even though, as I said, we will have Secretary Tillerson go there next month. So—and he’s already met with Foreign Minister Lavrov.
So I think it’s—I think it’s slowed it down. And I think it’s going to make it much more difficult for the administration to justify taking actions that would repeal some of the Obama actions—for instance, sanctions on Ukraine. I think now what you are hearing is that they’re going to remain as long as the Minsk Agreement isn’t fulfilled. And so there’s—whereas, I think had I had this call on November 9th, I might have said, well, you know, they might, because President Trump has the authority—these sanctions were imposed by executive order—because he has the authority to repeal them unilaterally, he might have done that. I think that that’s much less likely now.
So I think that—I think that what—so I think ultimately one has to question, from the Kremlin’s point of view, whether in the end they’re going to—how wise they’re going to think it was to have carried out, apparently, some of the activities that they’ve carried out, because it may in fact—you know, it may produce the outcome which is not what they wanted, because I think it’s slowed down momentum towards improving the relationship.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Atlanta Metro State College.
Q: My question is Secretary of State Tillerson will soon be visiting Russia, but will skip the NATO summit. Is this a signal that the relationship between Russia will be better under Trump? And secondly, should our NATO allies be worried?
STENT: Well, those are two very big questions. Certainly candidate Trump, when he was running for office, said some very critical things about NATO. He questioned the need for it. He said it was obsolete. And then, of course, he complained that most of our allies weren’t paying the 2 percent of their GDP for military that they’re supposed to pay. Now, so that’s what he said. Now the—but we have some contrary evidence. I attended the Munich Security Conference last month in February. You can find those speeches online. And Secretary Mattis, the defense secretary, gave a very tough speech. He committed—you know, recommitted America to the NATO alliance. He said how important it was to defending our allies. And he was very critical of what Russia was doing in Ukraine. Vice President Pence was also at that meeting and he gave a similar speech again in praise of the U.S. ties with Europe, and very critical of Russia.
So on the NATO front, what the—what the Cabinet officials have said is very much in line with U.S. policy for the past 70 years—more than 70 years. And now what President Trump has said is he’s modulated some of the things he said about NATO when he met with the chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel. He said more positive things. (Laughs.) When she left, he then went back to the fact saying that Germany, you know, owed the United States large sums of money in arrears for what it should have been contributing towards NATO. And I think that just maybe showed a misunderstanding of the way that NATO functions and how things function.
And so I would say our allies and NATO are concerned. The secretary-general of NATO, Mr. Stoltenberg, will be meeting with President Trump very soon. They’re concerned, but they have been reassured by some of the—you know, by many of the Cabinet appointees that have already been made. Now, the decision not to go to the NATO summit was made apparently because the Chinese president, President Xi Jinping, is visiting and Mr. Tillerson wanted to be at that meeting, and it happens to be at the same time. So, at the moment, what one hears officially is that the State Department has offered alternative dates for this meeting. And we’ll see whether it’s shifted. But obviously the optics of skipping a NATO meeting and going to Russia before he meets with the other NATO countries, that certainly has raised concerns.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Kansas.
Q: Yes. Les Nadinus (ph) from the University of Kansas.
Dr. Stent, if Trump explodes—and I think we have to speculate about that—and Pence becomes President Pence, I mean, how would that influence further Russian relationship?
And second question relates to this article in Foreign Policy, this latest Foreign Policy, about the antagonism towards expert, yet at the same time that it’s the star system. I don’t know whether it’s in the article, but there is the star system in any relationship, star professors and so on, star leaders, and—such as Navarro, such as Trump, such as Putin, such as Berlusconi earlier. And Angela Merkel is the only one, as someone said, who can deal with testosterone—(inaudible)—men in the present world stage. So how do you see these two impacts in relationship between Russia and the U.S.? Thank you very much.
STENT: Well, yeah, I think on the question—I mean, you know, so the—you know, where you see the most, shall we say, forward-leaning policy toward Russia in the White House, it’s what President Trump has said, and then it’s things that Steve Bannon tweets and says. So if one were to postulate that Vice President Pence became the president, and one were to assume that he then put in the White House people who he had chosen—and those are two ifs, right—then I would assume that the policy toward Russia would return to being—to being, you know, much more what it’s been for the past 25 years. And there’s been a lot of continuity between Republicans and Democrats in the past 25 years despite, you know, what people say. And those officials will say the same thing.
Now, and the Republican House in general has also taken very tough stance towards Russia. I mean, it was the Republican—the Republicans in Congress who wanted to furnish lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine. And it was, I believe, Mr. Manafort and some of the people on the Trump team who insisted on removing that language from the Republican platform before the Republican Convention last year. So I think one could—one could expect then a more traditional policy toward Russia, and probably, you know, less forward-leaning and certainly stronger on things like sanctions, and stronger—the other side of it—more of a wholehearted commitment to NATO. So I think that’s what would happen.
I’m not quite sure that I understood your second question. I would just say that Angela Merkel certainly is someone who has had a lot of experience with dealing with President Putin. She’s known him, I believe, since the year 2000. And she has seen all sides of him. And I think probably—she understands him better than any other, I would say, world leader, partly because she grew up in East Germany, partly also because, you know, she won the prize for the—Russian language prize. She was always very interested in Russia and Russian language and culture. And I think she understands—you know, having lived in East Germany and having spent time in Russia—she probably understands him better than anyone else. And I gather that during the 30-minute conversation that she had with President Trump when she was here last week this is one of the issues they discussed. So hopefully he was listening to her.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Northeastern University.
Q: Hi, Professor. Thank you for your time and your expertise.
My question, maybe to piggyback off of what students can do to better engage Russia, what similarities do common Russians and common Americans have? You spoke about the differences that we have in values, but what similarities do we overall have at the basic level?
STENT: (Laughs.) That’s a very good question. And it’s actually a very difficult question for me to answer. I do joint video classes with my students here and students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, which is, of course, directly under the Foreign Minister, unlike, say, the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, which is obviously a private institution. So when we—when the students talk to each other, it tends to be pretty polarized, because they have very different views of, you know, facts, right? (Laughs.) The versions of facts that the Russian students have are different from the American students. And, I mean, we can—in those kinds of classes where we’re discussing, you know, foreign policy issues, you know, we could clearly agree that issues like nonproliferation, the Arctic where we are cooperating with the Russians, space where we—you know, we’re cooperating, where we do have some common interests. But otherwise, you know, it’s not very easy to find common ground if we’re talking about those issues.
Now, in terms of, you know, everyday lifestyle, I’m sure that, you know, if you go to Russia, you mix with young Russians, there’s probably people, you know, like, to some extent, the same food, the same music. I mean, on the cultural level, there clearly are going to be things that people are going to like. But what I find interesting, at least with students—with Russian students, and the ones at the elite institutions—and I’m sure that it’s the same in other parts of the country too—is even though these people were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they really feel that Russia, you know, has the right and should be a great power, and that it’s been denied this right. In other words, they’ve somehow inherited a feeling of resentment against the United States.
And the other thing that you definitely see if you watch Russian television—and the television is, you know, controlled by the state—you have very negative images of the United States. I mean, it changed a little bit after President Trump was elected, but in general the United States is blamed for all of the problems that Russia has, and including its economic problems. So there obviously are things that young Russians and young Americans have in common, but I would say if you had asked me this question 10 years ago it would have been easier to say what they are than it is now.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Norwich University.
Q: Hello. I’m Matthew Bachmann (sp) from Norwich University Corps of Cadets.
And I was wondering, with the current situation unraveling in the Middle East, as well as what has currently happened in the Ukraine, do you believe that this, in a sense, is a modern cold war, with the stance that may be occurring from the United States?
STENT: So in many ways it feels like the Cold War. You know, if you go back and you say, what was the Cold War about? Well, it was about an ideological competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, between communism and, you know, a free market society. That ideological competition is gone. But in fact, Russia today does present itself as an ideological alternative to the United States, only this time Mr. Putin, you know, describes Russia as being the leader of a conservative international movement, of a status quo international movement. And he talks about the West as having abandoned true Christianity and of being Satanic and things like that.
So we haven’t—there’s an ideological competition there, but it’s not global, as it was during the period of the Cold War, and nor does this particular Russian ideology have a huge amount of adherents, although it’s certainly popular among right-wing movements in Europe and among some of the people who voted for President Trump, I mean, if you look at opinion polls and some of the things that people are saying. But anyway, it’s not—it’s different from that during the Cold War.
And in the Cold War, we were—you know, the Soviet Union and the United States were military equals and had a global rivalry. That’s also not true anymore, because the United States militarily is far more powerful than today’s Russia. Even though Russia’s military is being built up it’s still much weaker in overall terms than the United States. Another difference is that during the Cold War period the Soviet Union was not integrated into the global economy. Today’s Russia is integrated into the global economy in a way that it never was before. And so that’s a difference.
But I think that the way that we’ve now to come define, say, what happens in Ukraine or, you know, in the post-Soviet space essentially as a competition between Russia and the West, and certainly the Russians feel this and to some extent the Europeans and the U.S. feel this too, that is more like the Cold War. And I think more and more in the West, people, you know, are coming back to the idea of containment, that the way that you deal with what the Russians have done in Ukraine and in other places is—and might do in the Baltic States, which is another area of great heightened tension—is you have to contain them. And therefore, now for the first time since the Cold War ended, NATO has been beefing up its troops. It’s been sending more troops to the Baltic States, to Poland, to try and contain, you know, possible future Russian aggression. So, in that sense, it feels more like the Cold War. And I think the kind of mistrust, et cetera, is there.
But another thing that’s different is that even during the Cold War, we had channels of communication between the United States and the Soviet Union, both military and in other ways, that were regularized. We don’t have those anymore. And that’s partly because Russia today—the system of rule in Russia is really by, you know, one man and a few people around him. It’s a very personalized system. And you don’t have the institutions in Russia today that you even had during the Soviet period. And therefore, you know, we don’t have the channels of communication that we had, even in the Cold War, and that those are the kinds of things where you really have to try and rebuilt it, because if you have some of the sort of heightened dangers that you had in the Cold War without the channels of dealing with them, then that can lead to a very dangerous situation.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from University of Florida.
Q: Hi, Dr. Stent. This is Christine Le Jeune from the University of Florida Department of Anthropology. I’m fellow.
Q: Hi. (Laughter.) Thank you—thank you for your time today.
My question is, how much do you see Crimea as an ultimate hurdle to any future U.S.-Russian cooperation going forward? So, you know, this dispute over Ukrainian sovereignty is the big elephant in the room that’s hovering over any future policy discussions in the future.
STENT: Thank you. Christine’s a former student of mine, which is why I said hi. (Laughter.) So the Crimean issue—I mean, I think it doesn’t—the Crimean issue itself—had it just been Crimea, I think certainly the U.S. would have said, and its allies would have said, we cannot recognize the forcible annexation of a piece of one country’s territory into another country. We cannot recognize this. It wasn’t done, you know, under procedures. The referendum that was carried out, it was not done under internationally recognized procedures. But what we would have done would probably be—you know, the analogy is always with the Baltic States. So we never recognized the incorporation of the three Baltic States into the Soviet Union, you know, for 40-whatever years. And then in the end, of course, that issue solved itself.
But I think had it just been Crimea, that would have been how it would have started. And maybe there would have been other discussions. But the problem is, no sooner had that happened than Russia, you know, was instrumental in launching this war in southeastern Ukraine. And then, of course, the sanctions that were imposed after the Crimean annexation were rather mild. They’re against individuals. Obviously, you had more robust sanctions once the war in the Donbass started. So I think right now the focus, of course, in the Minsk Agreements is what’s happening in the Donbass, because there’s an actual war going on there, whereas in Crimea obviously there’s—you know, that’s already happened.
So I think what’s likely is that nothing will change vis-à-vis Crimea for a very long time. I mean, the Crimean sanctions will probably stay in place, and there will be a non-recognition policy. Now, eventually if there’s some other—you know, if there were to be a solution to the—to the southeast Ukraine situation, it’s possible that people would revisit the Crimean issue. But as long as that war’s going on, I think—or even as long as there’s a frozen conflict there, I don’t think there’s going to be any change in that policy.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question come from Villanova University.
Q: Hello. My name is Christian Miller. I’m a freshman at Villanova, and I was just curious—with all that we’ve seen in terms of how—of what Trump’s done on the campaign trail and nominating Rex Tillerson, is there anything that he said about Russia or what he’s done that has to do with Russia—do you have any predictions of how the U.S. will act towards Russia over the next four years?
STENT: Well, I mean, I think this is what I’ve been discussing so far. (Laughter.) I mean, you know, I think we—at the moment, we don’t have a Russia policy. And as I said in answer to a previous question, I think that’s partly because all of these investigations into what’s happened has delayed the development of any policy. So if revelations come out over the next few months that give us new information that we didn’t have before about the relationship between different Russian people or entities and different people in the Trump campaign, then that could have an impact. It could make the relationship more difficult. But if these investigations, you know, continue but there’s no definitive answer to any of these questions and nobody comes up with any definitive proof about anything, then, you know, as I said, I think it will mean that the relationship will develop very slowly, but there will be—there will be some momentum towards reengagement in the dialogue.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Q: Good afternoon. This is Kay Boulware-Miller. Thank you, Doctor.
My question is, given the concerns about the Islamic State, can you comment on any heightened scrutiny that Moscow may have over its predominantly Muslim region of Tatarstan?
STENT: Well, you raise an important question, and one of the reasons why Russia—if we go to Syria for a moment and then we’ll come back to—(laughs)—we’ll come back to the Russian Federation. So I think one of the reasons why Russia, so far, hasn’t paid as much attention to destroying Islamic State is because, as President Putin himself has said, about 4(,000) to 6,000 people have gone from Russia to fight with Islamic State in Syria. Some of those are Russian citizens, some of them from Tatarstan, some of them are from the North Caucuses, and some of them are Central Asians who live and work in Russia and have gone from Russia there. Russian is, I think, the second-most widely spoken language in that part of Syria, so it’s a problem.
And from the Russian point of view, it’s preferable to have people fighting in Syria than to have them come back. And, you know, Russia itself has had—has suffered from terrorist attacks inside the Russian federation.
So I think President Putin is very careful when he’s dealing—there are 20 million Muslim citizens in the Russian Federation, and I think he’s, you know, very, very careful about dealing with them, about dealing with their clerical representatives. And there is of course scrutiny on all of the—you know, both in Tatarstan and in the North Caucuses on those regions, but so far I think he seems to—you know, I think the Russian authorities seem to be dealing with it.
And that’s why when you come back to some of the things particularly that Mr. Bannon has said or tweeted about Russia—(laughs)—you know, Putin has never used the word, for instance, Islamic terrorism. He doesn’t use phrases like that. He understands that that’s a very counterproductive thing to say. So I think that—I think people in our own country and in our own administration need to understand a little bit better the relationship between the Russian government and its Muslim citizens.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
Our next question comes from Minnesota State University.
Q: Hi. Good afternoon, Dr. Stent. My name is Ahmed Abenyang (ph). Thank you very much for this conference call.
My question is that with all the current events that show a more aggressive Russia, many political scientists and experts call—are calling the situation a second Cold War. Meanwhile, measures have been taken to counter this expansion, I would say, like economic sanctions. Putin’s Russia seems persistent in (a restoration ?) its spheres of influence from the region like the Soviet Union days. While it is true that both nations are ideologically and culturally different, do you believe that it is proper to continue with the measures that the past administration placed to tackle Putin’s tactics with the risk of a second Cold War between the biggest nuclear powers of the world and maybe looking to a different approach? That’s my question.
STENT: Well, I think the reason why sanctions were imposed on Russia as a result of the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine is because the United States and its allies realized that there was no military response to this, because obviously the NATO alliance doesn’t want to get into any kind of, you know, direct military conflict with Russia. So that’s why they were imposed. The sanctions have had an economic impact on Russia because Russia doesn’t have access to global capital markets in the way that it did before. Even the Chinese, for instance, who are against sanctions, but their major banks are adhering to the Western sanctions because China has a much larger economic stake in its relationship with the United States than it does with, you know, in its relationship with Russia. So I do believe that sanctions, it’s not a perfect instrument, but it’s certainly—you know, I think that it’s probably the most efficacious way, you know, of dealing with Russia. And really the only methods of dealing with this are either sanctions or, you know, containment measures that I already talked about—you know, beefing up the Western military presence, or reassuring countries like the Baltic states. So there’s really—the toolbox is rather limited, and I think those are the—you know, to lift sanctions when none of the provisions of the Minsk Agreement have been fulfilled will be to send a message that essentially, you know, one country can annex part of another country with impunity, and I’m not sure that that’s a message that the U.S. wants to send.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Syracuse University.
Q: My name is Ruslam (ph). I am from Azerbaijan. I’m—(inaudible).
My question is, regarding President Trump’s recent statement in his State of the Union address saying that America—it will be “America first” as a foreign policy and he is only the president—he is going to behave like a president of the United States, basically implying, in my view, that all the other countries are on their own from now on during his presidency. As a country—as a person who comes from a country that’s located in Russian sphere of influence, I am extremely concerned about this. How do you think this kind of isolationist view of America’s foreign policy is going to affect security of small countries in post-Soviet space and America’s relationship with Russia? Thank you.
STENT: Yeah, I think you have a very valid concern, there. I think that certainly what we heard from Candidate Trump and from people in the White House is exactly the idea that America’s just going to look to its own security and it’s going to be less concerned about alliances in general—be it the NATO alliance—and also about the issue of the countries in the post-Soviet space. So if—you know, if these views—the views that we hear from the White House are—actually become American policy, then I think it’s true that, you know, say a country like Azerbaijan will have to realize that it’s going to have—there’s probably going to be, you know, less of a U.S. commitment to, you know, supporting its own independence, let’s say.
But that’s an if. You know, on the other hand, we have a Defense Department and we have a State Department which is filled—you know, which has to have its personnel flushed out, but we have other parts of the U.S. government that I think wouldn’t share that view. So my question on all of—I can’t give you an answer to this, and I think the question is we have to wait and see, you know, which part of the U.S. government prevails or what compromises are made. I mean, again, I think the U.S. Congress is pretty committed to the relationships that we have with countries like Azerbaijan, the—you know, military, political, economic, et cetera. They are committed to that. I think they’re not going to want to let that slide. But it’s going to be—it’s going to be a question of negotiation, if you like, between the different parts of the U.S. government.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Our next question: City College of New York.
Q: Good afternoon. Can you hear me?
Q: OK. Thank you, Dr. Stent. My question is regarding your—you advocated for a roadmap for—like a road—like, basically a rules of the road for cyberwarfare and cybercommunication. It seems like in cyber disinformation and cyberwarfare that President Putin has found a way to exert influence abroad with relatively little possibility of seriously devastating consequences. So my question is, what is—what would bring Putin to the table for a negotiation of a cyber roadmap? What would be his interest there?
FASKIANOS: Well, it’s an excellent question, and I can only say, you know, assuming that the United States can take actions that we don’t know about in this field, I’m assuming that something could be done to persuade the Russians to come to the table. They were at the table before. We have an agreement with the Chinese. That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect agreement, but we do have one. So this is in the realm—this is purely in the realm of speculation because I think it would be a product of actions that would be taken by the U.S., as I say, that would not be made public.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
And I’m going to try and squeeze in one last question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from St. Edward’s University.
Q: Hello. Hello? This is Micah and I am going to ask a little more of a fun question. So back in the ’50s and ’60s we enjoyed a nice space race, and recently Donald Trump signed a—I mean, $15 billion spending bill. And Putin recently said that he was interested in joining another space race. So I’m wondering if you think there’s a possibility of getting into that again.
And then a second question is—from another student here is: What—OK—how do you think the relationship between Hillary Clinton and Putin, while she was secretary of state, influenced the cyberattacks in our election?
FASKIANOS: Well, I’m going to take the second question first. So in 2011, in December of 2011, there were large demonstrations in Moscow against what people believed were falsified election results for the elections for the Parliament, the Duma. Tens of thousands of people went out to the streets. And Vladimir Putin blamed Hillary Clinton. He said that the State Department and Hillary Clinton had encouraged these people to go out and demonstrate. They even said that she paid them. So I think it’s quite possible that Putin himself believed—this was a shocking event in Russia. I mean, he was—he was prime minister at the time, but he was about—he was going to come back as president, and it was shocking to see all these people go out in the streets and protest. They didn’t expect that. And so it was, I think, quite easy to blame Hillary Clinton and the U.S. for encouraging what he says the U.S. wanted in Russia, which was a color revolution similar to what had happened before in Ukraine and Georgia, and then what happened subsequently again in Ukraine. So I think—I think that the attitude towards her stems from that time where he believed that she was seriously interested in regime change. And so I think that certainly affected the Kremlin’s attitude towards her and her candidacy because I think they believed had she become president not only would there have been a tough policy towards Russia but it might have, you know, gotten even tougher.
On the space race, I mean, we rely on the Russians now for the space station. We couldn’t send our people up to the International Space Station if we didn’t—if the Russians didn’t transport them there. So actually, you know, we’ve fallen behind in this and they’re ahead of us. I don’t think there’s going to be another space race as there was, you know, in the 1950s and ‘60s because the world has changed very much. And as I say, they’re doing more in that area than we are.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Angela, thank you very much for your insights today—it was a terrific discussion—and to all of you for wonderful questions. I apologize for not being able to get to all of your questions but, alas, we are out of time.
Our next call will be on Wednesday, April 5th, at 12:00 p.m. Eastern. Eve Bratman, assistant professor of environmental studies at Franklin & Marshall College will lead a conversation on environmental policy in the Amazon. So, in the meantime, I encourage you to follow CFR’s Academic Initiative on Twitter at @CFR_Academic for information about new resources and upcoming events at CFR. And, again, you can follow Professor Angela Stent on Twitter at @AngelaStent.
So thank you all.
STENT: Thank you.
More from this series
Adam Segal discusses the increasingly contentious geopolitics of cyberspace and cybersecurity policies.
Eve Bratman discusses environmental policy and sustainable development, focusing on the Brazilian Amazon.