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Sestanovich: Crossed Signals at Bush-Putin Meeting?

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
March 3, 2005


Stephen R. Sestanovich, the Council on Foreign Relations’ top Russian expert, says that the recent meeting between President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin may have been a case of crossed signals. “I think what [Bush] probably imagined he was doing, by saying that Putin could be counted on to keep his word, was signaling to Putin that he really wants him to keep his word and will treat it as an important matter if he doesn’t,” Sestanovich says. But the Russians may have interpreted “this rather convoluted signal” as granting Putin “carte blanche to do what he wants.”

Sestanovich also argues that the stakes are already high for Russia’s 2008 presidential election. “What the critics of Putin lack is a candidate and an organization, he says, though potential candidate Mikhail Kasyanov [2000-04], a former prime minister, may turn out to be ”the right man at the right moment.”

Sestanovich is a former ambassador-at-large and special adviser to the secretary of state for the Newly Independent States of the Former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration. He is a senior fellow at the Council and teaches at Columbia University. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on March 3, 2005.

Where does Russia stand on the question of democracy and the law?

President Putin cannot legally run for re-election in 2008, but there is speculation he might try to have the constitution rewritten and seek another term.

There’s a pretty strong consensus in the United States that there’s been significant backsliding in Russia in the past couple of years. That consensus is pretty strong in Russia as well. What the critics of Putin lack is a candidate and an organization.

At a recent news conference, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov harshly criticized Putin. Kasyanov also hinted he might be a candidate in the 2008 presidential contest.

It may be that Kasyanov is going to prove to be the right man at the right moment. He has the credentials of having been a prime minister for four years. He is not a failed former politician. He’s not been banging away at electoral politics for years and only coming up in single digits, which is true of many of the other possible opponents that might challenge the Putin regime in 2008.

There are indications that the opposition parties are working seriously at unifying for the next time around. There are many advocates within the democratic movement, even among the communists, for presenting a single challenger to whomever the Putin entourage offers up in 2008. You could put it this way: increasingly, Russian politics is pointing toward the 2008 succession problem.

What kind of a person is Kasyanov?

His background is in finance. He’s about 50. Very Westernized in some of the superficial ways. Excellent English. A kind of relaxed political style. A lot of familiarity with Western political leaders, especially in finance ministries. He was dogged by claims, which I can’t evaluate, that he was the defender in government of corrupt interests in the family of former President Boris Yeltsin. But such charges are pretty common in Russian politics, and who knows how they would play in an electoral campaign?

The state of Russian democracy was the subtext of last week’s meeting between Putin and President Bush. But there were some other substantive issues discussed as well, such as the need to upgrade security at nuclear sites. Was this an important issue?

The administration wanted to show that, even as it raised difficult issues about democracy, Bush and Putin were able to make progress on practical security problems. An agreement on upgrading Russian and American facilities for storage of nuclear materials was supposed to be the centerpiece of this. Unfortunately, what seems to have happened at the last minute is that the two sides could not close on the fundamental questions. The administration had hoped they could get a firm commitment from the Russians to upgrade facilities by 2008 and to develop a high-priority plan for implementing that agreement. The Russians did not agree. They insisted instead on a target of 2008 and beyond, meaning no target at all.

And they got, for reasons that escape me, an endorsement by the administration that their own facilities are adequate to meet current security requirements, which, I think, nobody on the U.S. side really believes. So, what happened here is that the bureaucrats who man the Russian nuclear material facilities decided they really didn’t want a lot of Westerners running around their premises. They managed to persuade Putin to back off any agreement that would be meaningful. What was agreed in the end is something that has been agreed many times before. If there is some significant implementation beyond this, it will be because Putin decided to overrule his bureaucrats, and there is no sign of that yet.

Is there genuine concern in Washington that Russian nuclear materials could pass into the hands of terrorists?

In a country that has as much nuclear material as Russia does, and as significant a terrorism problem as the Russians do, there’s bound to be concern about leakage. Administration officials seem to have agreed that they should take a run at getting a Russian commitment to an enhanced and accelerated effort, and they didn’t get it.

Was there much discussion about the arms embargo on China? Bush raised that issue with the Europeans.

This is a kind of sleeper issue in Russian-American relations. As you indicate, the United States and the European Union [EU] are at odds now about whether to lift an arms embargo on China. Meanwhile, Russia is the biggest arms supplier to China. The Russians see this as a highly profitable commercial enterprise and also know that their sales to China help cement good geopolitical relations. You hear people in the administration raising concerns about this. The Russian answer has been, typically, “We won’t do anything stupid.” But, if you get an American-European agreement on some kind of a new framework on arms sales to China, it’s going to be pretty obvious that the Russians remain outriders. The question will arise: Are Europe and the United States prepared to try to get the Russians to submit to any more explicit restraints on what they give the Chinese?

The Chinese are big investors in the Russian oil industry, right?

The Chinese have been looking to acquire a position in a lot of energy-producing areas lately, and have bought into Russian oil and gas enterprises. They are a more attractive investor in many ways to the Russians because they don’t bring the same insistence on transparency, property rights, and so forth.

One of the nagging issues in U.S.-Russian relations is Iran. The Russians are committed to supplying fuel to Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor.

The Russians have been trying to preserve their nuclear-cooperation relationship with Iran, while also saying they encourage the EU to reach some understanding with the Iranians about ending their enrichment effort. The Russians don’t want to use their own relationship with Iran as leverage. They don’t want to say, “If you can’t reach an agreement with the EU, our own exports to you are off.”

But they have said they are going to insist on strict controls in the handling of the fuel for Bushehr. And there have been suggestions that the fuel will not be delivered until there is some kind of resolution of the talks between the EU and Iran. Putin chose a pretty inopportune moment, on the eve of his meeting with Bush, to announce that he didn’t think the Iranians are trying to get nuclear weapons. This, of course, is not what other Russian officials, even very high-ranking ones, say.

The Russians today called on Syria to quit Lebanon. But Russia abstained on the September 2004 Security Council vote on U.N. Resolution 1559 calling for foreign troops to leave Lebanon.

Syria has figured in U.S. discussions with the Russians in two ways lately. First, there are recurrent reports that the Russians are negotiating an arms sale to the Syrians. That has raised concern about what kind of threat those weapons might pose within the region, especially against Israel. The Russian line has been rather like the line they take with respect to China: “We are going to sell weapons, but they are not going to be destabilizing.”

The second issue, of course, has been Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. And here the Russians have been very reluctant to join the international calls for Syrian withdrawal because the Syrians are their old buddies. They don’t want to spoil the arms sales relationship and they also don’t want to further weaken their own diplomatic position within the region. So, it’s telling that the Russians joined this consensus rather late in the game when the Syrians can no longer think their statement makes too much difference, because there’s already too much international unanimity about the need for the Syrians to get out. But it is a constructive statement, and it’s better that they should say that than set themselves against the international consensus.

Bush has spent a lot of his political capital on his relationship with Putin, and has often been ridiculed in the press for it. Have relations taken a bit of a nose dive?

The amicable atmosphere is a little bit less. I would have expected Bush to show a little more reserve toward Putin, to try to keep him a little bit more at arm’s length. He surprised me by the way in which he was prepared to vouch for Putin’s integrity and even honesty. I think what the president probably imagined he was doing, by saying that Putin could be counted on to keep his word, was signaling to Putin that he really wants him to keep his word and will treat it as an important matter if he doesn’t.

I’m not sure the Russians read it that way. They may have thought the meaning of this rather convoluted signal- and some Russian journalists have, in fact, suggested this- is that Putin now has carte blanche to do what he wants. The president is going to have many more meetings with Putin this year in connection with [observances in Moscow to mark] the May 9 anniversary of the end of World War II. If he doesn’t use those opportunities to make clear to Putin that this issue of Russian democratic institutions matters to him, then I suspect the Russians will come away with the wrong impression.