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Sestanovich: U.S.-Russia Relations Once More Revolving around Nuclear Issues

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 3, 2007

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Stephen Sestanovich, CFR’s top Russia expert and former ambassador-at-large to the states of the former Soviet Union, says the overall U.S.-Russia relationship is “incoherent,” but notes the two countries are putting increased emphasis once again on nuclear issues. Assessing the weekend’s informal summit at Kennebunkport, Maine, Sestanovich says “it may not seem so surprising that for the two most significant nuclear powers in the world this would once again become the core of the relationship, but for some years it hasn’t been. And now it looks as though those issues are once again the dominant ones in the interactions.”

Presidents Bush and Putin met in Kennebunkport, Maine; they had a press conference after their fishing trip, in which Putin caught the only fish, and the atmosphere at least conveyed from television and the press was very cordial. What do you make of this latest summit?

They are almost always cordial. The run-up to the meetings between Bush and Putin always involves a forecast that this time maybe the gloves will come off, that the true conflicting nature of the relationship, or their deep personal dislike for each other will come out, but it never happens. Neither one of these leaders seems to see any advantage in having difficult meetings. And maybe they really do like each other.

Ever since Bush met Putin in 2001, he’s always been extremely praising of him.

Both of them seem to have made a calculation that they get further with the other by creating a cordial atmosphere. It has not always translated into substantive results, however.

The two big issues that apparently were discussed was one, the ongoing discussions in the UN Security Council on the Iran nuclear issue, and the other was of course this U.S.-NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] plan for missile defense which calls for missiles and radar stations in Poland and Czech Republic which Putin countered with a plan for a radar station in Azerbaijan. And now he’s countered with yet another plan to widen the antimissile defense. Could you break the substantive issues down?

These both involve Iran. The Russian position on further sanctions against Iran through another Security Council resolution is “Let’s go slow, let’s see if we can’t work something out.” Putin points out the Iranians are talking with Javier Solana, the EU secretary-general, and he argues that maybe we can get a diplomatic solution. He says Russia is not ready for any new pressures on Iran.

On missile defense, which the United States has presented as a parallel response to the problem of growing Iranian military capabilities, the Russian attempt has been to block the American effort by suggesting that shared access to Russian radars in Azerbaijan and southern Russia would serve any legitimate American purpose. Neither a missile defense in Azerbaijan nor in southern Russia is likely to satisfy the Americans completely. There’s virtually zero chance the United States and NATO will be comfortable relying completely on Russian-controlled facilities. Similarly, in the UN Security Council, the Russians can stall for a while by pointing to the possibility of ongoing discussions with Iran, but so far the Iranians have been pretty resistant to any compromise deal on their uranium enrichment. If they continue to be unwilling to offer something that satisfies the United States and the European Union, the Russians are going to have to decide whether to support another resolution that imposes further sanctions.

What is Russia’s real feeling about Iran? Is it strictly materialistic that they see a big market there? They don’t have any great ideological affinity for this Islamic state, do they?

The Russians' commercial interests in Iran are not all that great. Two-way trade is under $2 billion, but they have seen it as a promising market in two areas: nuclear power and weapons sales. Those commercial possibilities have attracted the interests of two significant bureaucratic lobbies in Russia. On the ideological front, Russians have actually been rather early to recognize Iranian politics is trending in a radical direction. While Mohammed Khatami was president, well before the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, took power, I heard from Russians their concerns, which proved to be very well-founded, that the real momentum in Iranian politics was toward radicalism and fundamentalism.

Can we talk about the overall state of U.S.-Russian relations? They’ve gone up and down, and I thought it was interesting that they had this meeting at Kennebunkport, the home of the senior George Bush, who was president when the Soviet Union fell apart, and was very interested in better relations between the new Russia and the United States. Are relations really bad?

Russian-American relations now are incoherent. The Russian characterizations of this relationship are all over the map. One day Putin compares the United States to the Nazis; the next day his spokesman talks about Russia’s interest in raising the level of the relationship to that of “allies.” Putin himself at Kennebunkport spoke of the importance of raising relations to a higher level than ever, and revived the term “strategic partnership.” So the Russians, while stoking anti-Americanism in some ways, are still tempted by the idea that this is a special relationship. On the American side, officials have pretty much given up trying to find an appropriate label for the relationship because nothing seems to quite capture the mix of confrontational and cooperative. Yesterday you had a cordial meeting, beneath the surface of which was a lot of disagreement.

One thing that is emerging in the relationship, and that may not have been fully thought through on either side, is the way in which it’s coming to revolve around nuclear issues once again. The issue of missile defense seemed to be the core of the meeting yesterday. On the margins, officials were discussing the new negotiations or at least discussions to take into account the expiration of the START I [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] treaty.

That expires in 2009?

Yes. They also finalized a so-called “123 agreement” which provides for enhanced civil cooperation between the two sides on civilian nuclear power projects. It may not seem so surprising that for the two most significant nuclear powers in the world this would once again become the core of the relationship, but for some years it hasn’t been. And now it looks as though those issues are once again the dominant ones in the interactions.

In other issues they find it harder to agree. On Kosovo, [where the UN special representative proposed a path for independence from Serbia] they didn’t even pretend to have made any progress or have any new ideas. On the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, there was an urgency meeting called by the Russians a couple weeks ago which ended in deadlock. There is no agreement between Russia and the United States on a series of conflicts, including separatist conflicts in the other states of the former Soviet Union where Russia is supporting [predominantly ethnic Russian] separatist forces.

That’s mainly Georgia and Moldova?

Yes. The pattern that seems to be emerging is that the superpowers work most seriously on nuclear issues. On other political problems they find it harder to make any progress.

What about overall trade? Is there a good business relationship now?

Our ambassador in Moscow [Bill Burns] points out that business is booming. American exports to Russia have increased 20 percent for each of the past three years. American investment in Russia increased in 2006 by 50 percent over the past year. This progress has taken place even while the Russians have not been in the World Trade Organization [WTO], and while there’s been no repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment [approved in 1974 as an amendment to a trade bill with the Soviet Union, barring most-favored-nation trade treatment until there was free emigration], and while there’s been a series of actions by the Russian government to curtail deals with the foreign energy companies.

The Jackson-Vanik still bars the Russians from most-favored-nation treatment?

No. The Russians have most-favored-nation. They don’t have permanent trading relations because under the Jackson-Vanik amendment the president has to certify that they allow free emigration. For years now, Bush—and Clinton before him—said the Russians are in permanent compliance, so there’s no need to do what used to be done during the Cold War, which is to waive provisions of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. In practical terms, the amendment has no significance whatever. It only bugs the Russians on a symbolic level.

And Congress won’t repeal it because of the same symbolic reasons?

Congress has taken the position, as has the administration, that this is an issue that they’re going to come back to when Russia is ready to make its final accession to the WTO. When that deal is done, Congress will probably vote on the matter. The Russians have made it a little hard for members of Congress to vote what seems a vote of confidence in Russian human rights policy, but in practical commercial terms it makes sense to repeal the amendment, which does seem to most people like a Cold War relic.

Putin’s term expires next March. What then?

The current rumor that has the ascendancy is that Putin will leave the presidency temporarily, whether for one year or two or four, and then return. Now the constitution allows him to do that since it only bars two consecutive terms. But when you press people and say, “Is there even a shred of evidence this is what the Kremlin is going to do?” they admit that actually, it’s just pundits taking in each others’ laundry. Nobody has the first clue what’s going to happen.

The assumption is that he wants to remain in charge, even if not in office, right?

“In charge” is a little stronger than he has said. He’s said he wants to exercise influence. To some extent it’s the people around him who want him to be in charge, because they don’t have confidence they can maintain the factional balance from which they have benefited so much over the course of his rule, whereas if Putin goes, one faction may prevail over another. In modern Russia that doesn’t mean a trip to the gulag [prison labor camp], but it can mean an end of your livelihood. They all see Putin as someone who can maintain stability.

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