Media Conference Call: Russia’s Presidential Vote

Media Conference Call: Russia’s Presidential Vote

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Elections and Voting


ANYA SCHMEMANN: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Anya Schmemann. I'm director of communications at the Council on Foreign Relations. And thank you all for joining us.

And it's my pleasure to be joined by two colleagues today here to discuss the elections in Russia and prospects for what will happen in Russia next and for U.S.-Russian relations. I'm joined by Stephen Sestanovich, who is the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at CFR and also the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia University. I'm also joined by Charles Kupchan, who's the Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and also a professor of international affairs at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Thank you both for joining us today.

MR. : It's a pleasure.

SCHMEMANN: Let me start with a question to Steve about the Russian elections. You know, there's numbers being tossed around in terms of, you know, what the final count was, but I think it's clear that President Putin won decisively and will start a new term. If you could tell us, from your readings and observations, what took place yesterday? What was the result?

There are also charges of fraud. Does it look like indeed that there was fraud? And the opposition has called for a large demonstration in Moscow this evening. My understanding is -- let's see what time it is -- is that --

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: It's over. It's over. I'll tell you about that.

SCHMEMANN: (Inaudible.)


SCHMEMANN: It sounded like the numbers were significant. If you could just give us an idea of what happened there today. Thanks.

SESTANOVICH: OK. Good. Let me talk first about the vote numbers and then about the crowd numbers. The Central Election Commission has counted 90 percent of the votes and maybe more than that, and they've come up with a number a little above of 63 percent for Putin.

There are many reports of falsification, but they're not -- they're not on a massive, massive scale of the kind that people might have expected, given the much larger number of people who are engaged in monitoring. The Putin side is kind of brushing off these reports, saying, well, there are always, you know, shortfalls in election counts, happens everywhere, and it wouldn't change the result.

The main election monitoring -- domestic election monitoring organization, GOLOS, seems to be divided on this. And I've seen GOLOS people saying, yes, it would have made a difference, and no, it wouldn't have made a difference. The ones who say it would have made a difference say Putin is right at 50 percent.

The OSCE monitors, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, say that the entire -- the entire process was "skewed" -- that was their word -- not a level playing field. The -- you know, the fact that 75 percent of TV coverage went to Putin is just one example of that.

There was a little victory for Putin's opponents in Moscow where even the official count has Putin only at 47 percent. So he's not the president of Moscow. And the claim is that actually, it could be substantially lower than that, perhaps a third lower than that.

Now, about the demonstrations tonight, this was a battle of two crowds in downtown Moscow. They are now dispersed. The protesters' crowd, which was at Pushkinskaya Square, seemed to be the somewhat bigger one. They -- the police said they had maybe 10(,000) to 15,000 people. They were claiming 30(,000) to 40,000. The pro-Putin rally was smaller. The police were saying maybe under 10(,000); they were claiming more like 15(,000). But neither approaches the biggest high-energy crowds that have been organized in the course of this campaign, and certainly not the crowd that rallied last night for the Putin victory party.

The main message of the protesting speakers has been the results are invalid and Putin is not a legitimate president.

Let me just conclude by saying a couple of things, Anya, about what we can see -- this is reading tea leaves, but that's all we got right now -- in the way in which the opposition figures -- (audio break) -- positioning themselves for the period ahead, indications of how they're going to handle themselves.

Some people are already emphasizing political competition. Prokhorov -- who actually came in second in Saint Petersburg, by the way, which was not true anywhere else in the country as far as I can tell -- he's talking about forming a party, and he says, I'm the opposition alternative.

Others are focusing on keeping the momentum of demonstrations going. Vladimir Ryzhkov, who's a former member of parliament, said at the demonstration tonight that they're seeking permission to get a rally next week on March 10th. That's next Saturday. And Kasyanov, the former prime minister, said that he -- in his remarks tonight, talked about how this would create a "Russian Spring."

There are others who are more focused on confrontation. Alexei Navalny had said before the demonstration that we -- you know, we've had a lot of kind of hipster demonstrations, and now we want ones that are more politically charged. And Sergei Udaltsov, who's a kind of leader of a small leftist group, together with Navalny refused to leave the square at the end. They were standing up on the -- those of you who know Pushkin Square, on the frozen top of the fountain and would not leave, and the police had to come in and detain them. Both of them had talked about creating a tent city in Moscow, and that seemed to be what the police were particularly determined to prevent.

But for all of these people, the big question now is how to organize and take the crowds that have been mobilized and direct them to either more of the same or to something different, but in any case to advance the challenge to Putin.

Why don't I stop there.

SCHMEMANN: Good. Thanks. Yeah, it sounds like the attempt to do an "Occupy Pushkin Square" type of effort was broken up indeed by --

SESTANOVICH: It didn't sound as though there were a lot of people who really were particularly interested in that.


So Charlie, over to you. So you know, Stephen has told us what happened, and we -- you know, it looks pretty clear that Putin will probably take office and be president for at least a number of years, if not for his full six-year term. And what does this mean, do you think, for Russia's relations with the West, particularly with Europe and with the United States?

The United States today called for a, quote, "independent, credible probe" of the election results, saying that they are looking forward to working with the president-elect -- this is the State Department statement -- but urging an investigation of the election.

Has there been a(n) irreversible chill on U.S.-Russian relations, or is there a way to move forward on this?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: You know, I think that a few months from now we'll look back at the elections and this rather bumpy period in U.S.-Russian relations as more of an aberration than the new normal, in the sense that I think Russian governance and Russian foreign policy will look a lot like it -- both have in the past, that this is not a watershed event in the evolution of Russian politics, despite the fact that the sustained protests are new and over time, I think, will make a difference in the government.

But I think because around the world we're seeing political awakenings, we're seeing regimes in the Middle East fall, it's important to put what's happened in Russia in that context, because that's sort of what everybody is doing.

And I do think that it's important to distinguish between, let's say, regimes in the Middle East, which were extremely isolated and enjoyed minimal popular legitimacy, with the Putin regime. I mean, we can argue about the numbers. We know that it wasn't free and fair. We know that the -- that the books were cooked to some extent. But Vladimir Putin is not someone who is reviled across Russian society. He is someone who sustains the support of a significant portion of the Russian population, and that's essential to figuring out the stability of the regime moving forward.

I would also point out that Russia's real middle class -- and it's that real middle class that generally is in the streets, the professionals and the intelligentsia -- is tiny compared to European countries or the United States. We're probably talking single digits.

And even though the so-called middle class, if measured in income, is much bigger than that, a large percentage of that middle class works in the state sector. They're not interested in rocking the boat. So I don't think that these protests indicate a turning point in which a significant portion of those people with the capability to do so are undermining the stability and legitimacy of the regime.

That having been said, I do think there'll be some incremental liberalization moving forward, that Putin, I think, probably feels that he made some mistakes in being as dismissive and condescending to the opposition as he was originally. And it that sense, there may be a minor course correction during the forthcoming presidency.

In terms of relations with Europe and the United States, with Europe, I don't see huge implications of this election. You know, with Germany shutting down its nuclear reactors and getting more and more dependent on Russian energy, I think the relationship will be getting stronger and not weaker.

And in terms of the U.S.-Russian relationship, no question that some of the irritation has come from Putin's posturing in the lead-up to the election, no question that his position on Syria has strained relations with the United States. But I think that the reset, even if, let's say, in suspension or having been dealt a blow, is still alive and well. And on the issues where there have been -- where there's been cooperation, such as Afghanistan and arms control and to some extent Iran, that we're continue (sic). Where there has been disagreement, such as on missile defense, that will continue.

So bottom line: steady as she goes, more of same.

SCHMEMANN: Mmm hmm. OK, thanks.

Stephen, just quickly on that, do you agree that overall, the reset doesn't really need to be reset and that Putin's anti-Western rhetoric during the campaign -- was that just politics? He echoed it again in his victory speech yesterday denouncing interference, you know, in domestic internal affairs. So what do you think in terms of the U.S.-Russian relationship?

SESTANOVICH: Yeah, I mean, I think a little disagreement can be good for these discussions. (Chuckles.) So let me disagree with Charlie on that point.

I think Putin probably figures that, far from being a mistake, his harsh treatment of the rhetoric -- of the protesters and his hostile rhetoric to them was crucial to his success.

You know, a month ago, we thought Putin had -- (or two?); I'm sorry -- in December, two sort of -- three months ago, right after the -- after the parliamentary elections, a lot of people were saying, well, Putin has got a choice between some kind of liberalization and some sort of repression. But instead he really mounted a very aggressive campaign to show that he could actually mobilize more people than the protesters did and with greater emotion and he, as you said, has not backed away from it at all.

There was none of the outstretched hand in the speech last night. To the contrary, he was really talking about the people who had been his opponents as usurpers of power, people who were determined to weaken Russia, to force something on the people of Russia. He may pivot quickly to being president of all the people, but that wasn't what he was doing last night.

And Putin may have an interest in showing that the reset can go on, but I think what he would particularly like -- and (now ?) I don't like to do mind-reading of Putin because nobody knows what they're talking about, but here's one speculation -- he would probably like to show that the reset can go on without having to back away from his tough rhetoric. He is somebody who has made that kind of truth-telling, as he sees it, about the United States, his political calling card. And I think we shouldn't really expect that to change.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you.

We have a number of people on the phone -- I think, actually quite a few people. So let's turn now to questions.

And operator, we'll take a first question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our first question will come from Garrett Mitchell (ph), The Mitchell Report (sp).

SCHMEMANN: Hi, Gary (sp), if you could give us a short question.

QUESTIONER: OK, thanks. Thanks to all three of you, by the way.

Let me -- having listened to the distinction between Charlie and Steve's take on where Putin is, let me try it in a slightly different way, which is, is there a way now to, if not predict, to get a sense of what the difference is apt to be between Putin 1 and Putin 2 and whether he has the skill set, the mindset or even enough domestic pressure to make certain accommodations in Putin 2 that weren't there in Putin 1, including for example the direct election of state governors, et cetera? So are we going to -- is Putin 1 and Putin 2 going to look a lot alike? Are there going to be differences? And is he up to that?

SCHMEMANN: Mmm hmm. (Affirmative.)

Steve, why don't you take a shot at that?


One of the things that Putin has said and a lot of his spokesmen have said is that he's of course in favor of reform and of modernization. He's adopted some of Medvedev's rhetoric about the need to create a more innovative society, to have more investment, to have less corruption. He may mean that, and he may have the skill set, as you say, to push it. He has the kind of power to push things through that he never let Medvedev acquire.

What I hear from Russians, though, is that the big difference that people feel about Putin -- and this is not just in the streets, but in the elite -- is people are not afraid of him. If they want to go into opposition, they can do it, and they don't feel that Putin wrecks their lives. If they are, you know, kind of pushed by Putin to join the team, to be coopted, to lead a coalition-type of cabinet and they don't want to do it, they don't have to do it.

So I think there's a more challenging political problem for him, which is actually how to assemble a team of people who believe that they will have the freedom of action to do the kinds of reformist steps that they might like. And if they don't want to do it, they will -- many of them feel that they are, you know, showing their independence that way.

I mean, I'll give you one concrete example. This is the finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, who quit in the fall after Putin came back -- indicated that he was going to come back as president, and it was -- he has since then been in negotiations with a lot of other, you know, high-voltage people around Putin, talking about creating a liberal party that would be maybe oppositionist, maybe not oppositionist, but at any rate, separate from the government.

And I think Putin's whole approach to reviling the people in the street has made -- and I've heard Russians say this -- has made it harder to attract the figures of liberal reform that Putin needs to show that's -- that's where he's going.


For the benefit of anyone who dialed in late to this phone call, this is a CFR on-the-record call on the Russian elections with Professors Stephen Sestanovich and Charles Kupchan.

Operator, we'll take the next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.) Our next question will come from Alexandre Gussick (ph) from Russia Gazette,

QUESTIONER: Good afternoon. And thanks for doing this.

Since transparency of elections in Russia has been concern since the very beginning of this conversation, I'd like to ask you what is your take on that cameras which have been used in great numbers during last presidential elections in Russia? Do you think it did help in terms of transparency? And do you actually believe this live-feed election technology is something that the U.S. and other countries should adopt?

And secondly, if I may, very briefly: Do you expect Mr.. Putin to attend NATO summit in Chicago in May? And if yes, do you think this can bring any breakthrough in U.S.-NATO-Russia relations, and if it is possible under the new Russian leader?


SCHMEMANN: Charlie, why don't --

SESTANOVICH: Why I don't I say a word about the cameras and then let Charlie handle the NATO summit?

KUPCHAN: Sounds good.

SCHMEMANN: Yeah. Charlie, lets start with you on NATO.

KUPCHAN: Steve, you want to go first?

SESTANOVICH: Sure. You know, this innovation of producing all these cameras is a kind of interesting one. I think the real question is whether people will say, looking back on it, that it actually inhibited fraud. And two, will they say that it provided the basis for investigating results? I mean, there were a number of camera shots that were on the Internet yesterday showing people putting multiple ballots into a box. I think this was in Dagestan; I'm not sure. And, you know, the question is, is anybody going to follow up on that and do anything about it?

The record from the parliamentary elections is not very encouraging. I believe that out of 2,000 formal protests that were -- complaints that were filed, all but two were thrown out. So the Central Election Commission does not start this process with the idea of taking a fair-minded look at where there was falsification and trying to get to the bottom of it. If they want to change course and show that they are making use of these cameras, it is an interesting technology, I agree with you.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thanks. And on NATO.

KUPCHAN: Yeah. On NATO, let me just back up a second and touch on a couple things that have already come up in the conversation.

First, I agree with Steve that the anti-American undercurrent in Putin's policies -- that's not going to go away, because it's part of Putin. It's part of what has given him a certain stature and cachet within the Russian political scene. But I'd point out that that was true even during the best days of the reset. So in some ways, the relationship between the United States and Russia can be on a relatively even keel despite his predilections in that respect.

And in predicting that there might be some liberalization or that Putin might embrace some of Medvedev's original proposals, I think the most significant pressure will be coming from outside the country, from the EU, from markets, and there will be pragmatic pressure rather than political pressure, for Putin to move in a somewhat more liberal direction, particularly on economic issues.

And then finally on NATO, I haven't heard any announcements about Russian participation, but I have heard talk that NATO will be inviting non-NATO partners, and it would therefore, I think, be very awkward if countries like Australia were in Chicago but not Russia. And in that respect, I do think that Russia will be present and accounted for at the NATO summit.

And despite the tension of late over policy, particularly Syria, as well as this election back-and-forth, I think that the general effort to try to move the ball forward on NATO relationship with Russia will continue. It advanced at the NATO summit in Lisbon, and I don't think that it has fallen off the radar screen.

SESTANOVICH: Let me just add one thing to that. There is of course the G-8, which backs right up against the NATO summit.


SESTANOVICH: And Putin will presumably be there for that. The question is, can creative minds come up with some way for Putin to interact with others who are present in Chicago, not merely for the -- for the G-8?

But that assumes he wants to do it, Charlie --

KUPCHAN: Mmm hmm. (Acknowledgment.)

SESTANOVICH: -- and right now I don't think, no matter how many other people are coming from outside of the NATO membership, that Putin has indicated whether he wants to do that. And in fact he keeps talking about the missile defense issue as the fundamental obstacle.

KUPCHAN: Mmm hmm. (Acknowledgment.)

SESTANOVICH: So we don't know.

SCHMEMANN: (Chuckles.) OK. Another question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. our next question will come from Anthony Walker, East Village Radio.

QUESTIONER: Hello. Hello. Good afternoon. I just have a quick question about -- I read that the Kremlin said it's going to review the Khodorkovsky case. And is this significant in any way, or is this just going to be a review without any -- (inaudible)?

SCHMEMANN: Steve, Khodorkovsky?

SESTANOVICH: Yeah. Medvedev said today that he had ordered a review of this. Whether this was to offer a goodwill gesture toward people who were thinking of coming out on the streets and to try to get them to calm down a little bit or whether there's something more to it than that, I don't know.

It has generally been thought that Medvedev is more sympathetic to the idea of some kind of pardon, but I don't know that we've got a really good basis for that.

It would be an interesting manipulation of this funny relationship between Medvedev and Putin right now -- Medvedev will be president for another two months-plus, and in that time, he can -- as a lame duck, he can issue pardons just like anybody else. Putin doesn't have to have his fingerprints on it. We kind of know that Putin doesn't want to pardon Khodorkovsky -- (chuckles) -- but maybe he'd be willing to have somebody else do it.

I just toss that out there as one possible interpretation of what's going on. But the -- but the truth is, it may just be another Russian bureaucratic maneuver that sort of runs into the sand.

SCHMEMANN: Mmm hmm. Just to clarify for everyone, Mikhail Khodorkovsky is the former oil tycoon who is seen as anti-Kremlin, who has been jailed for a long time.

Operator, we'll take another question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Oren Dorell, USA Today.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks for doing this talk.

I wanted to ask if there's, you know, a relationship between -- you know, whether Putin's going to be dealing with a domestic -- with his domestic opposition to the degree that it will keep him, you know, too busy to take stands on the international stage that oppose U.S. interests?

SESTANOVICH: I think it's possible -- in fact, kind of likely -- that for at least the rest of this year, Putin has got to work on trying to put the genie back in the bottle. You've got an unparalleled popular mobilization, and it -- and it goes beyond that. I think we've in a way paid too much attention to the number of people in the street and have missed the deep cracks that are opening up within the elite, where Putin has been able to count on considerable subservience. He is going to be looking at a lot of complicated questions.

You know, the -- is he really going to allow the election of governors? If so, which -- what kinds of people is he willing to have elected? One can imagine strong, strong opposition champions winning such elections. Is he prepared to have the local elections that are on the calendar for the fall be fairly contested by groups who form -- who have formed new parties under liberalized party law? That's what they said they're going to do. Are they really going to do it, or is Putin going to try to take that one back?

If he doesn't take these things back, if he moves forward with some of this liberalization, it doesn't necessarily calm things down. It stirs things up. It gives an opening for people who want to build a base of opposition to him. And they've got a pretty significant base. If Putin can't get a majority in Moscow and if United Russia, by many accounts, could only get in the high 20s in Moscow in the parliamentary elections, you've got the opportunity for a much more open political scene that is challenging for Putin.

And that's why it came -- you know, I come back to this question of whether he kind of continues the permanent campaign, waging this sort of hostile, confrontational rhetoric toward his opponents as the strategy that he thinks has worked best for him. If that's the case, he's going to have a tenser political atmosphere at home, and he's going to have a more challenging relationship with other, particularly Western, governments.

So I think it's a little more up in the air. I'm not predicting how it's going to turn out, but I think there's a possibility for things to come unraveled in a way that Putin is not used to.

SCHMEMANN: (Inaudible.)

KUPCHAN: I'll just add that the uncertainty on the domestic front doesn't in my mind mean that he won't be able to focus on foreign policy. It means he'll focus on it even more, because his track record is to use foreign policy for domestic purposes, and I don't expect that to change. In fact, it could -- it could grow worse in the sense that he, you know, attempts to use nationalism and rally around the flag to beat back the opposition. And as both Steve and I have suggested, that's vintage Putin. He's been doing it to pretty good effect from the very beginning.

And in some ways, I think the interesting question is really how will Obama deal with this; how will he deal with a -- with a Russia that isn't quite as amenable as it -- as it was during the heyday of the reset. And I think it puts Obama in a somewhat awkward direction in that he made the reset with Russia a signature piece of his foreign policy in the first term, and now that look a little bit shaky. And there's no question that the Republicans will come after him if he appears to be getting too close to Putin or not expressing sufficient disapproval of what's gone on there.

And so I expect Washington to kind of take a quiet middle ground -- that is to say that -- to point to the fact that the reset has worked in important respects, but also not to go too far, especially when there are other places to look for the success of his strategy of engagement, Myanmar being one of them. And it's too soon to tell, but North Korea and the recent deal on the nuclear issue could be -- give Obama a little bit of breathing room and enable him not to focus as much on the Russia question.

MR. : Is this Stephen speaking?

SESTANOVICH: Does anybody know whether Obama called Putin? I think we would've heard about it, right?

SCHMEMANN: No. So far, there's only been that State Department announcement that they are ready to work --

SESTANOVICH: Proposing an -- proposing an investigation. (Laughs.) That's a little less than a congratulatory phone call.

SCHMEMANN: Well, saying that they're ready to work with the president-elect and calling for an investigation.


SCHMEMANN: Actually, I'd like to take another question. So we may come back to you in just a couple of minutes if that's OK. But operator, let's take another question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Tony Papert, Executive Intelligence.

QUESTIONER: This is Tony Papert -- yes, Executive Intelligence Review. You're -- the both of you, your approach to this thing is so myopic that you're leaving out the really important questions. We are in a period where the top generals of the United States and Russia are simultaneously warning repeatedly of war. I mean, you're obviously aware what General Dempsey has been doing repeatedly.

Now, you know, admittedly, looking at it naively, you'd think he's just talking about war with Iran, but he's not. He's aware we stand before the danger of a general thermonuclear war. And from Russia, Makarov, the chief of staff, has been saying repeatedly in the recent period we have a near-term threat of thermonuclear war. So this is the context --

SESTANOVICH: He has not. This is rubbish.

QUESTIONER: Yes, he has, absolutely.

SESTANOVICH: This is rubbish.

QUESTIONER: I'll get you the reference. Give me your email. I'll get you the reference, and I expect you to retract that.

SESTANOVICH: I -- you can probably find my email, but look --

QUESTIONER: I can find your email.


QUESTIONER: Makarov has said that. Let me just finish a second before you're denying -- go on denying reality.

SESTANOVICH: "Near term" -- "near term" is the phrase that I promise you he has not said.

QUESTIONER: The -- you promise that Makarov has not said that we have a danger of thermonuclear war?

SESTANOVICH: You said "near term."

QUESTIONER: You're just completely misinformed.

MR. : (Chuckles.)

QUESTIONER: Perhaps you're only interested in elections. The -- I mean --

SCHMEMANN: Well, this -- OK, finish up your question, because this is -- the question (of ?) Iran is interesting. So let's go ahead.

QUESTIONER: This is -- this is -- Mr. Kupchan is making it rather difficult to say anything.

The -- (audio break) --

SCHMEMANN: All right, so the question being Iran and the threat of war.

KUPCHAN: Do you want to -- want us to jump in on that?

SCHMEMANN: Yes, go ahead, Charlie.

KUPCHAN: You know, I am not familiar with these statements. So I can't comment on the -- when or if they were said. But I do think that the issue of Iran does loom on the horizon. I think it puts a certain amount of pressure or at least highlights the U.S.-Russia relationship in the sense that there will be efforts in the days ahead to tighten the screws -- the economic screws on Tehran and to use what leverage Moscow might have in pushing forward an agreement with Tehran.

But in general, I don't think that's where the action is right now. I think the action is kind of the triangle of the United States, Israel and Iran, and we're in a day when Netanyahu and Obama are meeting on this issue. And so I think the U.S.-Russia aspect of this is important, but not -- right now it is not in the limelight.

SESTANOVICH: Let me add one thing about this. There are always -- when the issue involves senior military officials in the Russian hierarchy and the possibility of, you know, military confrontations that the Russians are always a little bit more ready than we to think could, you know, escalate to a larger confrontation -- there are always people who are saying rather outlandish things and there are -- than Russian voices are divided.

Putin had an interesting meeting, last week or the week before last, with senior defense specialists, including military officials, I believe, who -- among them, missile and weapons designers, and the message that he got from them was actually kind of interesting -- mixed, as always, but he -- a senior Russian missile designer said to him: You know, a lot of this talk about how -- that I hear from politicians about how the American missile defense plans threaten Russia's deterrent are totally baseless. They have no foundation whatsoever, and I can tell you this having spent my entire life in -- as an expert -- as a senior expert in this field.

So the Russian debate is, as always, kind of mixed. And there's a lot of things that get said for political purposes and then there are others who try to bring everybody down to earth and say: Look, let's try to focus on what's really going on.

SCHMEMANN: Stephen --

SESTANOVICH: So I think that's an important part.

With missile defense, the Russians are always on a hair trigger to say goofy things. But that -- but those goofy things are not the only things that get said.

SCHMEMANN: Stephen, if I could just turn that around to the U.S. perspective just for a minute.


SCHMEMANN: There is a question of Russia's cooperation or really lack thereof on some issues of importance, from Syria to Iran to the missile defense. And the conventional wisdom has always been that, you know, we'll overlook some of the, you know, Russian rhetoric as long as they are cooperating on issues of, you know, high importance to us at the end of the day. But what if that cooperation is not forthcoming?

SESTANOVICH: Well, I think that in that respect, I would say the -- you know, the reset set of issues may actually not produce as promising returns for the administration going forward as has been true in the past couple of years. They managed to quiet the missile defense controversy a bit, but the Russians are plainly not interested in joining up to anything that is on offer right now. On Iran and Syria, they have really have got their backs up. So in that respect, I think there is going to be a challenge in finding a formula for cooperation.

And I would say on missile defense, many Russians are resigned to the idea that this is going to be -- and I think American officials too -- resigned to the idea this could be a contentious issue for another five years.

SCHMEMANN: Mmm hmm. OK, thanks.

Operator, we'll take another question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. (Gives queueing instructions.) Our next question will come from Dong Liyu (ph) from China Review news agency.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Good afternoon. Can you hear me?



QUESTIONER: OK, thank you for doing this. Do you have any comments on the implications of Putin's victory for U.S.-Russia-China triangle relations, particularly on Russia-China, particularly partnership in the context of U.S. pivot to Asia? Thank you very much.

SCHMEMANN: Hmm, China. Charlie, you want to take the first stab at that?

KUPCHAN: Not really, but I will anyway. (Laughter.) You know, I'd say that -- couple of things. You know, one is that the Russia-China relationship has been getting a great deal of influence over the last decade or so -- the SCO, the Shanghai cooperation council, the BRICS meetings -- and this kind of gives Russia as well as China an ability to form kind of non-Western groupings and to create some sort of counterweight to both NATO and other institutions that are dominated by the West.

And I presume that that is going to continue, but I also think that over time Russia is not going to find the Chinese a particularly attractive partner, in the sense that I think China will be looking to other areas. It will be looking east. It will be looking at naval issues. It will be looking at its East Asian neighbors. And I think that that will give continued pressure on Russia to look to the West, to deepen its commercial and strategic ties to Europe and ultimately to NATO.

So even though I think that where we are now is not in a particularly good place -- and I would agree with Steve that the reset has essentially already taken the low-hanging fruit and that moving ahead, there's tough love, including missile defense, the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Iran and Syria -- the other point I'd make in this respect is that, you know, I do think that the outcome in Russia does give more kind of wind or momentum to the view that -- you know, that we're heading into a world of great political diversity. And I think some people would have thought that Russia by now would have turned the corner on democracy. Instead, we see a brand of state capitalism that looks not unlike the authoritarian capitalism that exists in China, even though the Russians like to call it "sovereign democracy."

And in that respect, I think the -- for -- to some extent for ideological reasons, there will be cooperation between Russia and China, if only in terms of kind of trying to say to the West, you know, we have our own model about governance; stop telling us what to do.

SCHMEMANN: Stephen, if I could put a sharper point on that for you, Jackson Diehl said today in the Washington Post that Putinism, you know, as a form of autocratic government is essentially over both in Russia and in China. Is that an overly optimistic point of view, do you think?

SESTANOVICH: I would say that Putinism is definitely under challenge in Russia. And the question is, is Putin going to be able to sort of put the pieces back together again in some recognizable form that is still Putinism? And I think there are a lot of open questions for him in his ability to do that.

I wouldn't have described the Chinese system as an example of Putinism -- (chuckles) -- but others who know China better than I may -- may be able to enlighten me on it.

SCHMEMANN: OK. Let's take another question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will -- (inaudible) -- Jibral (ph) from Newsweek.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Good afternoon. I actually have two questions, the relationship of Putin with the media. I heard in this conversation that people are not afraid of him and they can -- you know, protesters or political opponents. But what about the media? I mean, a serious investigation about corruption or abuse of power really never took place, and many journalists were threatened.

And the other question is, when and if the protesters -- the opposition will have a stronger call on eventual regime change, meaning that what happened in Egypt and Tunisia and these countries. Are we going to see something similar in the next years, maybe, in Russia, or not?

SCHMEMANN: Steve, freedom of the press in Russia.

SESTANOVICH: Well, freedom of the press in Russia is a very mixed picture, because you can read any nasty thing you want in the newspapers, but you cannot say any nasty thing you want on television. And in fact, many people are blacklisted from television. I mean, just to give you one example, the most interesting charismatic new political figure to emerge from this whole period of popular mobilization is this guy Alexei Navalny. He hasn't been on TV once. (Laughs.) In any system where journalists were able to make their choices as to who to have on television on the basis of what they think people would be interested in, you would be -- you would have a mad scramble to book Alexei Navalny. But when Alexei Navalny was booked for one show, that show was cancelled.

So there's a two-tier system. The regime has decided that it is not willing to tolerate diversity in television, and it doesn't really care about newspapers.

The third leg of this media picture, though, has become kind of interesting, and that is the Internet. And many, many more people are using the Internet, which is now, you know, very popular in Russia, not just for the usual commercial and pornographic purposes, but as a means of political communication and debate. So that's a challenge for Putinism, in fact.

And your second question was about?

QUESTIONER: Protesters. Are they --

KUPCHAN (?): Protesters and regime change.

SESTANOVICH: Oh, regime change. You know, Putin is going to try like hell. There were a lot of people in December who were saying, you know, we really -- the jig is up, our system is as doomed as Mubarak's. And Putin gave a hell of a show of being able to mobilize popular opinion in a way that Mubarak never could. You know, you didn't see Mubarak managing to bring together competing rallies in downtown Cairo in which he got as many emotional people as his opposition.

So Putin doesn't think that he's doomed. Some people think he is, but he's going to give it a fight.

KUPCHAN: I'd just add a few thoughts. You know, I agree with Steve that something has changed in the sense that people are out in the streets and they're not afraid. But I wouldn't underestimate the staying power of the patronage system that Putin has erected. And, you know, in the case of China, I think the -- I wouldn't call them oligarchs, but the people with wealth have created a symbiotic relationship with the party, whereas in Russia, I think the wealth has been cowed, in the sense that you either go along with Putin and become part of the system or you're in big trouble.

And to some extent, the same is true of the media, with some exceptions. And I don't think that system has been dismantled. I think it's alive and well, despite the fact that there are significant and sustained protests. And I think that creates a self-censorship, and it gives Putin a continuing ability to exercise authority through the back channel, through patronage, through the people whose wealth is preserved by staying within the system.

And it's partly for that reason that I'm not someone who believes that we're on the cusp of regime change. As I said at the beginning, I think the number of people who are really out in the streets and ready to take on the regime are too few, and the movement is too limited to really shake the foundations of the regime.

SESTANOVICH: What we mean by "regime change" we could -- we could discuss, but let me just give you one example of somebody who -- whose independent political activity you could not imagine in China, and that's Mikhail Prokhorov, who is this guy -- he's a, you know, megabillionaire -- who is not intimidated by Putin and is talking about forming his own party. I don't think there are any Chinese billionaires who are out there forming opposition parties.

How big a challenge Prokhorov ends up mounting, we don't know, and he may be pushed back into his box. That's still probably an open question. But the degree of boldness of some people who have been part of the elite in Russia, I think, is -- makes it necessary to say something new could be happening. Whether it's regime change, I -- that's another matter.


Operator, if you could just give a last reminder about how to get in the queue. And we'll take just the last few questions before we wrap up.

OPERATOR: Thank you. (Gives queuing instructions.) Our next question will come from Huahua Xien (sp), China Daily.

QUESTIONER: Yeah. Hey, I don't know if you followed John McCain, Putin's -- tweet today, I mean, about -- you know, one said the Russian spring is coming to a neighborhood near you; the other putting -- calling McCain nuts, basically, are the words.

You know, my question is really, you know, Putin win -- won by a landslide victory, and Russia is actually better than many countries in the world, I mean, including many Middle Eastern countries supported by the United States. So why make such a sort of a fuss? You know, do you think the U.S. would even get involved in supporting the opposition in Russia? Thank you.

SESTANOVICH: Well, I -- you know, I -- when I get asked a question like that, I always say: But you know, Russia pretends to be a democracy and wants to be accepted in Europe as a democracy, with its own characteristics and its own slower path toward the full realization of, you know, normal European democratic practice.e

But that means that they're not -- you know, they're not saying to the -- to the Europeans, well, you know, we're -- we aren't different from what Tunisia was or -- and the -- and the -- and by the way, the Europeans have a different view about whether it was smart to be as indulgent of the Tunisian regime.

Now the Russians have a kind of problem that other dictatorships of the sort that you mention don't, which is, you're absolutely right; they're more open. And they have more of a kind of pretense of respecting democratic norms. And that means it's harder to actually make the system work. That's why the term "managed democracy" was created. (Chuckles.) It meant we can't really have a full democracy. We have to manage it. And that means they get in the position of having to abuse democratic norms.

So the idea that you would end up with a conflict between Russia and other, fully democratic states as to where they -- how much they've actually progressed toward real democracy -- that seems to me not at all surprising.

KUPCHAN: And I think that it's important to -- in understanding the American debate to appreciate the importance of history and the degree to which Russia's role in the Cold War still looms large, particularly in some quarters on Capitol Hill. And that continues to kind of color political debate in the United States. And I think it's safe to say that even though Saudi Arabia is a much more illiberal country than Russia, American politicians are more likely to bash on the Russians than they are the Saudis, in part because of the salience that Russia has due to history and the weight of the Cold War.

SESTANOVICH: I agree with that.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thanks.

I think we have time for one more question. Operator, are there any more questions?

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we have no further questions in the queue.

SCHMEMANN: All right. With that, I will thank my colleagues Stephen Sestanovich and Charles Kupchan. I should note that we have additional resources and information posted on our website at There are a number of pieces related to the Russian elections, so I do welcome you to come and visit the site. And I thank Professor Sestanovich and Professor Kupchan. A transcript from this call will also be posted online, probably tomorrow. So you can get that information there as well.

SESTANOVICH: Great. Anya, can I say one thing that you haven't said because you're too modest, which is Anya has an excellent piece on CNN Global Public Square today about what's happening in this political awakening in Russia. And among the pieces that you would find on the website, you'd want to definitely focus on that one and read it.

SCHMEMANN: (Chuckles.) Thank you, Stephen. That's very kind.

So with that, I thank you all for participating. And this closes our call. Thanks.







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