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Sestanovich: Russia's Attitude toward Iran Seen Decisive in Measuring Policy

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 3, 2006

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Stephen Sestanovich, the project director of the newly released Independent Task Force report on U.S. policy toward Russia, says a major test of how close Moscow wants to align its policies with the United States and Europe will be how it handles the delicate nuclear negotiations with Iran. The United States and Europe have backed so far the Russian initiative, but the key question will arise if Iran firmly rejects the Russian offer.

"If that happens, the issue is going to be, will the Russians say, 'All right, we gave them a chance, they've shown they don't want to discuss this reasonably; we have to join with the United States and Europe in putting pressure on them, perhaps even through sanctions, to change course,'" says Sestanovich, the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies. But he adds, "Some Russians will doubtless be saying their interests do not lie in being part of a Western group that tries to punish Iran. We really don't know what Russian policy is going to be in this area."

Sestanovich, a former ambassador-at-large and special adviser to the secretary of state for policy toward the states of the former Soviet Union, says President Vladimir Putin of Russia has become a "soft autocrat." He says it is important for the United States not to gloss over disagreements but "to speak more directly about the disagreements that we have and try to defend American interests where those are at risk."

You've been deeply involved in the publication of the new CFR Independent Task Force report on Russia. The question I have is, why now, and what's the point of it?

The report comes out now, but the idea for it originated more than a year ago, in the wake of the Ukrainian presidential election of November and December 2004, which as you recall, involved deep involvement by Russia in Ukrainian politics and support for a fraudulent election. That crystallized a lot of concern that had been building for a number of years about the direction that Russia was taking. People who had been worried by the fact that Russian democracy was being rolled back had to worry further that Russia was trying to produce the same sort of rollback in neighboring states. So, Richard Haass, the Council on Foreign Relations president, suggested this was the time for a review. After all, we were now almost fifteen years past the end of the Cold War, and in many ways, for all of the improvements in the international situation since then, Russia seemed to be heading in a direction people hadn't expected. And his idea was to look at that question, see what it meant for American policy, and whether there were some things we weren't getting right.

Would you say that, as for democracy, it's gotten a little worse? President Vladimir Putin seems to have established himself as the man in charge without much political opposition. Is that correct?

Yes, the Task Force report concludes there's been a weakening of pluralism, constitutionalism, the rule of law, and democratic institutions across the board in Russian politics. It's not just this or that specific change that has been made on Putin's watch, like the personal appointment of governors, but the entire pattern, which represents the consolidation of what might be called "a soft authoritarian regime."

How about the elections of 2008, when Putin, constitutionally, can't run for reelection? How will that play itself out? Will he try to run again?

This is an issue the co-chairs heard a lot about when they visited Moscow last fall, and it's one that has been discussed quite a lot in our Task Force meetings. The transition of 2008 is plainly a potential watershed for Russian political evolution. All the indications right now are that Putin will probably leave the presidency and that there will be the election of a designated successor under circumstances that are very confining. That prevents a real democratic election from taking place. The Task Force's view on this is that the United States—but not just the United States—Western countries together, ought to be making clear what they will regard as the criteria for seeing this process as a legitimate one.

Is there a consensus on which person might be able to replace Putin?

The Moscow rumor mill is always dredging up candidates. The common view now is that Putin is weighing the potential advantages and disadvantages of two of his principal associates. [That includes] his former chief of staff, Dmitri Medvedev, whom he's now made a deputy prime minister in charge of what are called national projects, meaning some increased social spending and infrastructural improvements. The second candidate is Sergei Ivanov, the defense minister and now also a deputy prime minister, who's a longtime associate of Putin's.

Did you get into this other question that's been a lot in the news last year, which is the Khodorkovsky case, the strange case of the Yukos [oil] leader, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, being sent to jail on tax evasion?

We discussed that in the context of a look at two trends. One is the growing power of the state, particularly over strategic sectors of the Russian economy. And secondly, is the increased corruption of the Russian system. The Yukos affair was perhaps the single-most important event in the reassertion of Russian state control over the energy sector in particular. They dismantled Yukos, and brought it under the control of [the state oil company] Rosneft. But more generally, what's happened is the Kremlin has reasserted its control, and that means a lot of big decisions about the direction of this sector are now taken by a handful of people around Putin himself.

And do they profit materially, also?

Well, many of them are directors of these companies, and while I can't tell you how they're compensated, I'd be surprised if it were badly.

With the end of the Cold War, there was a hope that somehow Russia and the United States could pool its resources and make sure the world was a safer place to live. Have the United States and Russia actually worked together on many issues, or have they gone their own ways?

Well, the Task Force found kind of divergent trends here. On the one hand, there are some issues where cooperation is pretty good. And that's true in one case in particular that's in the news a lot these days: how to deal with the problem of Iran's nuclear programs. The cooperation has probably gotten better in the past year than it has been earlier. You also have Russian-American cooperation to secure nuclear materials, and there has been cooperation on the counterterrorism front as well.

In the wake of September 11, the assumption of U.S. policy was that you now had the opportunity for a full-blown Russian-American partnership, and that these issues of nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and energy security, would be the strong pillars supporting that relationship. Since then, the aftermath of September 11 probably represents the high point of Russian-American relations. Since then, there was some erosion, at least on the issue of nonproliferation, but with some warning signs on energy issues—think of Ukraine—and on terrorism—think of Hamas. The two countries may be starting to see things a little differently.

The Hamas issue is interesting because the Russians, of course, want support for their own problems in Chechnya, which is an Islamic part of Russia, and it was unusual to have Hamas go to Russia. In fact, some Chechens even put out a statement attacking Hamas for visiting Moscow. The Russians say they invited Hamas to Moscow to tell them they had to do the right thing under the road map [peace plan]: recognize Israel, renounce terrorism, etc. Do you think that's worrisome?

What immediately concerned American officials when this happened was that they thought they had an agreement within the "quartet" that drafted the road map—the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the UN Secretary-General—that there wouldn't be high-level contacts with Hamas. And Putin's announcement of an invitation to the Hamas leadership to come to Moscow seemed like a sign of an early defection from that consensus.

Dealing with the ascent of Hamas is obviously a problem for the foreign policies of lots of different countries. If there existed strong confidence between Russia and the United States and its allies, on how they would approach these issues, a separate Russia initiative or channel to Hamas might actually support American policy. But under current circumstances, where you've got accumulating disagreements and some suspicions, this action by the Russians tends to worry people more than it otherwise would.

When the Soviet Union existed, it was a constant rival of the United States in almost every part of the world. Do you think Moscow or Putin is trying to reassert a sense of Soviet importance now around the world to give Russia a distinct voice in foreign policy?

I think that's pretty clear. How far they want to go in diverging from American and European policies, we don't yet know. Is it just an effort to show they can have separate channels of communication? That would be one thing. Is it because they have interests that are actually quite different from those of the United States and Europe? That'd be another thing.

Iran is going to test this, maybe more than any other issue. So far, the Russians have played a pretty constructive role, trying to produce a formula by which Iran would not develop its own nuclear enrichment capabilities. And the United States and Europe have supported that initiative. But the Iranians, while not closing the door, have given a lot of signs of basically rejecting this idea. If that happens, the issue is going to be, will the Russians say, "All right, we gave them a chance, they've shown they don't want to discuss this reasonably; we have to join with the United States and Europe in putting pressure on them, perhaps even through sanctions, to change course."

That would be a big test.

That would be a big test. Alternatively, they might decide there [are] commercial interests; there's a lot of trade, including the prospect of selling nuclear reactors and selling weapons. And there are political and even geopolitical interests that go beyond commerce. Some Russians will doubtless be saying their interests do not lie in being part of a Western group that tries to punish Iran. We really don't know what Russian policy is going to be in this area.

When I was a correspondent in Moscow, I always found that even though the official line was very anti-American, popular sentiment in the country was pro-American. Americans were admired for all sorts of things, mostly material accomplishments back home they didn't have. Has that changed? Is the popular mood in Russia now less pro-American?

Attitudes toward America go up and down, as they do in other countries, with international events. Kosovo drove anti-Americanism up. The Iraq war drove anti-Americanism up. But typically after these events, after the spike of animosity toward the United States, opinion stabilized, you get a reassertion of many of the favorable attitudes toward the United States. There are plenty of polls that show different results on this question. I think it's fair to say that there's a lot of suspicion of the West as wanting to weaken Russia and there's also a lot of sentiment in favor of achieving in Russia those conditions of life and even those political norms that we have in the West. So there's not a single answer to your question.

Is the report saying policy toward Russia should change?

The Task Force report discusses these areas where Russia and the United States have to work together, issues that are too important to be neglected. And in fact, it says we need to do more in some of those areas. For example, it says we need to have a more developed form of nuclear cooperation, and that to get this we need to have an agreement that creates a legal framework for it. But it also says there have been issues where current policy has tried to ignore problems that probably shouldn't be ignored, and it calls for dealing more directly with the disagreements that we have, whether it's Russia's pressures on its neighbors, the negative trends in Russian domestic politics, Russian policies on energy security and on counterterrorism, which seem to be going in a slightly different direction from ours.

The premise of this [Bush] administration's policy has been that you could keep some of those issues manageable and neutralized and not let them interfere in a broader positive relationship. The Task Force says that has worked as well as it could and we need to speak more directly about the disagreements that we have and try to defend American interests where those are at risk.

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