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Expert Says Strained U.S.-Russian Relations at a Critical Point

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
May 12, 2003


Stephen R. Sestanovich, formerly a Russia policy specialist at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff, says that with George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin due to meet twice in coming weeks, it remains uncertain how quickly the two countries can mend relations after the bitter split over the war in Iraq.

Sestanovich, the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says: “The biggest issue really is how Russia orients itself toward Iraq in the postwar period. Does it continue to keep itself outside the circle of those working with the United States and snipe at American policy, or does it put the previous disagreement behind it and decide that it’s important to rebuild?”

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on May 12, 2003.

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How would you describe the overall state of U.S.-Russian relations?

A lot of Washington journalists are quoting administration officials to the effect that [President George W.] Bush is going to forgive [Russian President Vladimir] Putin for their disagreement [over Moscow’s opposition to the Iraq war]. I think this “forgiveness” may reflect the difference between the emotional level of the disagreement with the Russians and that with the French. But I think “forgiveness” is not quite the right word for two reasons.

As one American diplomat said to me recently: Russians can go from one column to the other— that is from “forgiven” to “punished” or “ignored”--with the flick of a pen. Moreover, the real problem is that in addition to this readiness to forgive, there is a substantial sense of disappointment. President Bush is no longer looking at a relationship with somebody he was probably hoping to be able to treat as a junior [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair. That degree of amity and automatic cooperation just doesn’t seem to be in the cards right now.

Do you think Bush expected Putin to go along with the Iraq invasion?

There was an expectation that, at the end of the process, the Russians would distance themselves from Saddam [Hussein] and even from the French, and indicate their uneasiness, regret, opposition, what have you, but downplay it.

Why did Putin suddenly decide to side with the French and Germans and in fact talked about vetoing a U.S.-drafted Security Council resolution that would have given a U.N. blessing to an attack on Iraq?

The general view, which I think is right, is that he was carried along by the French into a more openly anti-American position than he expected. But there is probably a little more to it than that. This was unlike the Afghan war, where the Russians could easily portray themselves as partners. In addition, there were a lot of domestic constituencies saying to Putin, “We don’t like this,” either because of Russia’s economic interests, or because the old guard from the national security establishment saw a chance to get even with Washington.

Last week, the United States and Britain submitted another Security Council resolution, in effect to lift economic sanctions and allow the United Nations some kind of undefined role in a future Iraq. What’s the Russian reaction been?

The Russians were obviously not going to declare this resolution dead on arrival. They don’t want to look as though their disagreements with the United States just come automatically to them now. But they also are not going to bestow any sort of postwar presence on the United States just in a desire to make up. Their comments on the resolution have been pretty low-level and have generally made the point that it needs work; they have some questions that need to be addressed. They’ve left themselves the option of haggling so, at a minimum, [they can] make it clear that they contributed to the improvement of an American text.

Blair was in Moscow a couple weeks ago, clearly trying to set the table for this resolution by trying to get Putin to agree to lifting sanctions. I gather Putin responded negatively, to say the least.

Putin definitely chose not to make this a reconciliation party. He was pretty brusque with Blair and in a way that seemed even to get a little personal. He’s not always the deftest manager of the tone of press conferences. But Washington has a hopeful interpretation of this, which is that he was saving the kiss-and-make-up moment for when he sees Bush. I’d be inclined to think it may be a little harder than this, because Putin is in a generally difficult political position. He opposed the United States on Iraq, was ignored, showed himself to be basically irrelevant to the main issue of world politics, and he doesn’t like that. He prefers to be seen as courted by the United States as a vital partner, and I think his concern now is that in kissing and making up he may look as though he’s essentially given up.

When is the new election?

Next March. And there are parliamentary elections in December, so the Russians are always emphasizing that they are in a high political season, and that has had some effect on the way Putin thought about his policy decisions on Iraq.

On June 1, Bush will be in St. Petersburg for the celebration of the city’s 300th anniversary, and a few days after that he and Putin will both be in Evian, France, for the Group of Eight Summit. Is the St. Petersburg session just a one-day get-together or a full-scale, prepared-in-advance summit?

The length of the meeting is less important than the political difficulties that each side has in trying to make it significant. Secretary [of State Colin] Powell is going to Moscow this week to try to prepare the ground and other officials have been visiting to work on specific issues— Iran for example.

What are the big issues?

The biggest issue really is how Russia orients itself toward Iraq in the postwar period. Does it continue to keep itself outside the circle of those working with the United States and snipe at American policy, or does it put the previous disagreement behind it and decide that it’s important to rebuild? The Russians say they want to rebuild but they are obviously finding it rather difficult to step back from the critical posture that they’ve held.

What does the United States have to do— if this is a give-and-take— to make it easier for Moscow?

There are some of the usual economic agenda items that are thought to be important to the Russians, once again pledging to [lift the] Jackson-Vanik amendment [which linked the Soviet Union’s, and now Russia’s, most-favored-nation trade status with the right of Jews to emigrate], [and] energy and space cooperation.

But for the Russians the issue right now isn’t whether they’ve got a lot of reasons for improved relations. They do, and Russian oligarchs are making that point all the time. The question is more how to deal with difficult political and security issues, and on that front the United States has got more things that it wants the Russians to do. It wants the Russians to take a different approach toward Iran and nuclear weapons. It wants the Russians to take a different approach toward North Korea and nuclear weapons. For Putin, it’s not going to be so easy just to find the economic reasons for making up. He’s going to have to ask himself whether he wants to take a more cooperative approach to the United States on those other tough issues.

Does the question of debts owed to Russia by Iraq figure into this?

The Russians talk about this a lot, but most of their official statements have indicated a kind of awareness that they’re not going to be paid back in full any time soon. Putin himself has said that some kind of rescheduling or forgiveness is a negotiable issue. The Russians are aware that they’re on weak ground now in trying to set the terms for postwar relations with Iraq and reconstruction in general, so they’re trying not to make anything a non-negotiable issue.

Putin has insisted that U.N. inspectors be sent back to Iraq. Is this really a live issue?

Putin has used this point to score a point or two against the coalition. [But] it’s hard for me to see that [the Russians are] going to let this one become a major source of friction with the United States because the American position is very clear. [Washington] is not going to let the return of inspectors in any way be linked to lifting of sanctions.

The G-8 in Evian has sparked a lot of interest, because it’s on French President Jacques Chirac’s home turf, and there may be some pressure for reconciliation between the United States and nations like France, Russia, and Germany that opposed the war. On the other hand, the Russians and the French might use the meeting to display their independence. What do you think might happen?

The Russian concern has been for a long time that the Europeans are going to find their way of making up with the United States faster than Russia does, leaving Moscow isolated once again. There’s a lot of anxiety and suspicion among the members of this trio which opposed the United States in the Security Council that each one is dying to be the first to achieve reconciliation. Russian commentary suggests that the Russians do not really expect this to be a long-term problem with the United States. They don’t expect the Europeans to stick with their opposition to Washington, and they don’t see the advantages in sticking with it themselves.

A suicide bomber killed about 40 people today in Chechnya. Is Chechnya still a key issue for Putin?

Chechnya is always a key issue for anyone who is president of Russia, and as his advisors have emphasized, it’s a key issue for anyone who is running for reelection as president of Russia. Putin has been very interested in showing that the situation has stabilized. That was the point of the referendum that they held in March on a constitution. They’ve sketched out a road map for reconstituting political normalcy as they see it in Chechnya. What today’s bombing in Chechnya does is explode those claims, because of course there really isn’t any normalcy there, and it makes it harder for Putin to claim, as he runs for reelection, that he’s solved this problem.