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Is the West at a Breaking Point With Russia?

Interviewee: John Beyrle, Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 28, 2014

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Relations between Russia and the West have seesawed since their alliance in World War II, but it's unclear if the Kremlin's intervention in Crimea is just another low point in this cycle or a "fundamental change in Russia's objectives," says former U.S. ambassador to Moscow John R. Beyrle. While Vladimir Putin was eager early on in his first presidency to partner with the West, he began to turn away in the mid-2000s, driven largely by Russia's petroleum wealth, Beyrle says. Despite their current rupture over Crimea, he notes that Russia and Western governments are still cooperating in a number of important areas, like Iran, and says there is still room for diplomacy on Ukraine.

U.S. president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 17, 2013. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters)

President Obama was in The Hague and in Brussels this past week drumming up support from the European Union and NATO allies for sanctions and economic and political support for Ukraine's new government, and to show defiance toward the Russian-backed annexation of Crimea. What is your opinion of how well the week went?

You have to take a historical perspective and look back at Russia's relationship with the West and the United States over about the last 100 years. It's been marked by a boom-and-bust model. There have been periods of intense cooperation, and then a period of disillusionment, or bitter rivalry.

There was the World War II alliance, giving way to the Cold War and nuclear brinkmanship; the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 followed by disarmament agreements; the Soviet-led incursions into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, which raised tensions; then the perestroika period of Gorbachev, which led to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1992.

The question we have to ask is: Is what we're seeing in Russia's relationship with the West and the United States a consequence of what has just happened in Crimea—another low point in this up-and-down cycle—or does it represent a fundamental change in Russia's objectives, which changes the game and the model? I'm not sure we really know the answer to that question yet, but the response from the Obama administration certainly has gone far beyond what we saw in 2008 after the Russians went into Georgia.

Talk about Russian support for the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the summer of 2008. What was Washington's reaction then?

At that time in the George W. Bush administration, I had just become ambassador in Moscow [2008-2012], so I was involved in those conversations. We talked a lot about imposing economic sanctions on Moscow, but for a number of reasons we never really went into the kind of serious economic and personal sanctioning that the Obama administration and the EU have started to pursue [in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea].

It's going to take time to determine the effect this will have on the Russian economy. I think it will be more substantial than a lot of people give them credit for right now.

The Russians have put a lot of troops right on the border with eastern Ukraine, and there's concern that they're not yet finished and might try to take over much of Ukraine proper.

We saw large numbers of Russian troops massed in those same areas doing what were called prescheduled exercises before the move into Crimea. And in fact, those forces weren't used to go into Crimea. It's obviously something that we've got to keep a very close watch on, and both the Obama administration and the European Union have made clear that there's another round of economic sanctions if there's any further move by the Russian military to try to control, much less occupy, the eastern provinces of Ukraine.

When you served in Moscow, you got to know President Putin. What kind of guy is he? He's been described in many ways—by some as wanting to resurrect the old Soviet Union. Do you think that's what he's trying to do?

There's obviously a lot of speculation and armchair psychoanalysis of Vladimir Putin going on right now. I don't think he has taken leave of his senses, despite the comment a couple of weeks ago by [Germany's] Chancellor Angela Merkel to President Obama.

Putin is someone who has always, up until now, been capable of making pragmatic and rational decisions. He's not an unpredictable kind of person, but if in the start of his term as president back in 2001, 2002, he looked at what would make Russia strong ultimately, he may have measured that more in terms of the kind of strategic partnerships he wished to build with the with the United States and with the Europeans.

That calculation has changed over time. Even when I was the deputy U.S. ambassador in Moscow in 2003 and 2004, we saw Putin and Russia begin to turn away from the West in a way that was expressed most dramatically in his 2007 speech in Munich.

There were a number of causes for that turn away, but the main was economic. The oil- and gas-funded reversal of fortune that the Russians had seen over the preceding seven years had really convinced President Putin and the power elite that it really didn't need the West anymore, to the extent that it thought it might have needed a strong partnership with the West in the early 2000s.

Unfortunately, this sort of morphed into a sense that the West, and the U.S. specifically, were ignoring or infringing on Russia's interests, and that fueled a sense of grievance that I think has animated a lot of Putin's moves.

Does he blame the United States for the eastward thrust of NATO?

Yes, he has said that very clearly. If you read the speech he delivered to a joint session of the Russian Federal Assembly and assembled members of the government at the time they signed the formal documents annexing Crimea, he made it very clear that a lot of what he described as a kind of disillusionment came from the fact that the West was not to be trusted—that the West, the United States, the Europeans, in his view, promised one thing but delivered very little.

In other words, he didn't like the Baltic states and Poland joining NATO?

Yes.

On Tuesday, at The Hague, President Obama called Russia "a regional power." Was that a deliberate put-down? Russia's always been called a world power.

When President Putin first came to power in 2000 succeeding Boris Yeltsin, he made clear that one of the things he was seeking to do was restore Russia's seat at the head table internationally, which he felt they were in danger of losing, or maybe had even lost in the context of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

He also said he was going to restore order internally, which he succeeded in doing, certainly in relative terms to what happened in the last years of Yeltsin's rule. H also rebuilt the economy with a great deal of help from increases in the price of oil. Russians' disposable income during that time tripled between about 2002 and 2008. But the goal of restoring Russia's place as a respected global power was, again, something that President Putin looked at in different ways in different times.

As I said, in the beginning he measured respect and sense of belonging to international institutions much more in a Western framework than he does now. And the emphasis that he has put recently on establishing the Eurasian Economic Union as something of a counterpart, economically and maybe even politically, to the European Union is a case in point.

And without Ukraine as one of the centerpieces of that economic union, it's very difficult to see that as a long-term sustainable entity. I think that's been a lot of what's animated President Putin over the last year or two in terms of what he's seen happening in Ukraine. Obviously, if Ukrainian leaders had done a better job of making their country strong economically, they would have been in a much better position to fend off the pressures from Moscow over the last four to five years.

What is the attitude of Russians toward the United States these days?

Even in the worst of times, when the political relationship was on a downswing, there was still a majority of Russians who looked at the United States in a kind of positive way. In other words, they divorced the political side of things from the United States in which their kids study, or to which they want to be able to travel on tourism or for business or just for family reunification. A lot of Russians are living in the United States now.

At the same time, if you ask Russians what countries are most unfriendly toward Russia, the United States usually scores "unfriendly" or even "hostile" by a majority—sometimes 60 to 65 percent of Russians still see America as an unfriendly place.

They see the policies coming out of Washington as unfriendly, and a lot of that is driven by the Russian state-controlled media, especially television, which can ratchet up the anti-American tone in a way that the average Russian understands and reacts to.

Can U.S.-Russian relations be put back together again?

We in the United States have a great interest in making sure that Russia isn't working against us or working against the international community on problems that we have. So far, in areas like the Iranian negotiations, the P5+1 talks on nuclear enrichment, the space cooperation we've had with Russia, the inspections that are going on under the START Treaty, all of that is still continuing.

So we're not at a break point with Russia. We're certainly at a time in which we both need to understand where Russia feels it's coming from on this, and Russia needs to understand the degree to which it risks seriously isolating itself from the world in a way that will have an impact on its desire to be a globally competitive economy.

You'd think the time would come, at some point, for a summit conference to get the sides together and hopefully ease tensions.

It won't right away, but it will have to happen eventually in the same way that the Russian leadership is going to have to find a way to have a dialogue with Kiev. Those are two countries that are in many ways fraternal partners: culturally, historically, politically, economically. It's something that both the United States, the Europeans, and Russia's other partners need to promote as a next step in, if not resolving, certainly dialing back a lot of the tensions that have come as a result of Russia's annexation of Crimea.

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