Putin Power Profile

Putin Power Profile

Damir Sagolj/Reuters
from Academic and Higher Education Webinars

More on:


Vladimir Putin

Stephen Sestanovich, the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at CFR and the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, discusses the leadership style and policy choices of Russian President Vladimir Putin following his recent reelection.

Learn more about CFR’s resources for the classroom at CFR Campus.


Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org.


We’re delighted to have Stephen Sestanovich with us to talk about the leadership style and policy choices of Russian President Vladimir Putin following his recent reelection that we just saw. Ambassador Sestanovich is the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at CFR and the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He is the author of a book entitled Maximalist: America in the world from Truman to Obama. And from 1997 to 2001, he was the U.S. State Department’s ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union. He’s also served as vice president for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, director of Soviet and East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and was also senior director for policy development at the National Security Council.


So, Ambassador Sestanovich, thank you very much for being with us today. I can’t think of a better time to have this conversation to talk about Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy choices and what he sees as Russia’s place in the world.


SESTANOVICH: Thank you, Irina. I always like to say that in the international affairs business we’re all ambulance chasers, but that Russia’s one of the best ambulances to chase. And I think this week, and this month, and the month before, and this year have all amply proven that. Irina asked me to talk a little bit about Putin’s worldview, and strategy, and style. And I don’t like to do mindreading of Putin. There are too many people who are willing to do that. But I think it is possible to pay attention to what Putin says, to watch him on his various television extravaganzas, and to piece together a kind of picture of his view, not only of Russia’s place in the world but of his own. And then to put that in some kind of practical context, because leaders don’t just operate on their worldview. They operate in a given environment. And we need to look at what Putin sees around him, how things are going, and what the opportunities are for implementing this worldview.


So let me start first with the—with the question of Putin’s outlook, what he has said, you know, what seem to be his instincts, and preferences, and predilections—his worldview, and then talk a little bit very quickly, broad brush, on the economy, politics, foreign policy. And then with a kind of question that I’m not sure I can really answer about his priorities and likely choices.


First, on the worldview. The themes here are pretty familiar by now. We’ve had 20 years of Putin almost. And we know that he’s particularly committed to, first, restoring Russia’s status as a great power, after what he sees as, you know, the big collapse of the Soviet Union’s power and Russia’s difficult time in the—in the 1990s. Second, we—it’s not too had to pick up a resentment at perceived slights from the West. As he said in his state of the union speech last month, he said, you know, the Western countries didn’t listen to us. Now—maybe they’ll listen to us now. So that’s a second kind of motive. It’s a little different from restoring Russia’s status.


There’s an increasing kind of traditionalism—cultural or ideological, whatever you want to call it—in Putin’s view of how Russia and other countries should react to a globalizing world. There’s more reliance on the themes of cultural continuity, the importance of the church, the importance of Russian culture as a kind of bulwark against the—sort of the denationalizing, homogenizing forces of globalization.


And that leads to a kind of fourth impulse in his—in his worldview, which is an alignment against the democratizing West, a perception that Western countries, Europe and the United States, have treated globalization as an opportunity to kind of shape other countries in their own image. And he resents that. Putin’s definition of sovereignty, which he’s made clear over the years, is that you can tell other countries to shove it when they try to criticize you.


There’s a particular element of this which is important to Putin that is the—am I up to five now? I think the—a kind of assertion of national autonomy against the sort of transnationalism of the EU. So this is particular to Europe, asserting in a way that evokes Donald Trump, I might say, asserting nationalism and national autonomy against a kind of—you know, well, in the case of Europe—against the standards and criteria of the EU.


A final couple of things: There’s reclaiming national pride, which is, again, separate from some of these others in that it very much has a domestic political component to it. He has talked about—in terms that again evoke Donald Trump a little bit, making Russia great again. Finally, if you ask Russians: What is the central political tenet of Putin’s program, of Putinism? They’ll tell you it’s stability—internal stability, essentially, but external where necessary, except that, of course, many of these themes that I’ve mentioned are kind of revisionist ones.


Now, how does all of this play out in a—in the kind of practical, real-world context? I said I’d say a word about the economy, about politics, foreign policy. The past year has actually been an OK one for Putin. There’s been some improvement. He’s come out of a recession that was caused by collapse in oil prices, a devaluation in sanctions. There is some uptick in foreign direct investment, in good trade numbers with Germany and China. And yet, you’ve had the lingering effects of recession. You know, if you look at median Russian household income, it declined in the—you know, between 2013 and 2016 by 40 percent in dollar terms, a shocking number. And in the past few days, because of new sanctions, you’ve had a big hit in the Russian markets. The company most affected by these new sanctions has lost half its value in the Russian stock market. That’s Rusal.


And you’ve got a number of economic uncertainties. And Putin has actually been rather candid about acknowledging them. He devoted most of that state of the union address, that ended with the—you know, the nuclear torpedoes coming out of the ocean and landing in Florida—most of that before that was about domestic difficulties and what we would call pocketbook issues. And Putin kind of acknowledged that things have not been doing so great for ordinary Russians, and promised—I mean, a lot of rather empty-sounding promises—to address those concerns politically.


The past year has also been a good one for Putin. He’s run for reelection, hit his 70-70 target, 70 percent for him, 70 percent turnout. No other candidate really got much traction. Last year his party won a huge victory in the—in the parliamentary elections. And he has—you know, he is arguably as dominant a leader as we’ve seen in Russia in generations. You know, it’s not for nothing that people are constantly saying he will have ruled longer than any other Russian leader of the past 150 years, besides Stalin.


And yet, there’s a lot of uncertainty within the Putin regime, the Putinist elite. People who are uncertain about their prospects in a final, perhaps, Putin term. There’s been a lot of turnover in those upper ranks, lots of governors being replaced. There have been lots of corruption prosecutions, even pitting members of the Putin inner circle against each other. And you’ve had the emergence—even though he wasn’t allowed on the ballot; the first time that Putin has not allowed a major candidate on the ballot—of a real challenger to him in the form of Alexei Navalny, who has made corruption his issue. And this has begun to resonate with Russians. Ninety percent of Russians say corruption is a big problem. And 89 percent of them say that Putin isn’t going to do anything about it.


I recommend to anybody who has a chance to look at them Navalny’s videos about corruption. Just look on YouTube. They’re in English translations. A really long one, very hilarious, brilliant political document about Prime Minister Medvedev. Definitely watch the first five minutes of that. And a shorter one about President Putin, in both cases about the ill-gotten wealth that they’ve managed to amass in office. Watch the last five minutes of that.


In addition to this kind of challenge—and Navalny has been able to inspire kind of a new generation of Russian politicians who were actually quite successful last fall in the local elections in Moscow—got a whole new generation of Russian politicians elected. In addition to that, there have been kind of outbursts of anger, the most recent involved this big fire in which a lot of children were killed in Kemerovo. And that’s a kind of outburst of popular anger that’s characteristic of autocratic regimes. And people get mad at the abuse of power and impunity. And that hasn’t involved significant weakness for Putin yet, but I’d remind you that in other post-Soviet states, it’s been that issue that’s brought other leaders down.


Finally, a couple of words about foreign policy, because Putin also can claim that he’s got some significant foreign policy achievements from the past couple of years. The intervention in the Middle East has brought—has been a kind of undertaking that really has almost not precedents in Russian or Soviet foreign policy. A very bold exercise of power. You see some disarray among Western allies, you see Russian in-roads in the Middle East with warming relations with countries that have been close allies of the United States. The prime minister of Israel goes to Moscow all the time. The president of Turkey meets with Putin all the time. You’ve had India and Egypt opening bigger arms markets for Russian weapons. You’ve got an agreement with Saudi Arabia about production cuts to keep oil prices up. You have had an affirmation by the Russian and Chinese military of their closer relations.


On the other hand, the relations with the West have never been—well, have not in decades been as bad as they are now. You have—not only is the Putin-Trump romance seemingly over, but you’ve had the imposition of new sanctions. You’ve got a crisis now in Syria. Forty-nine percent of Russians, I would note the polls say, want out of Syria. So Putin faces some choices there, and the prospect that some—that even what looked like a bold use of—and successful use of Russian power may not prove to be as successful as he had hoped. And in a—finally, I’d add that you’ve had a kind of revitalization of the NATO alliance in the past three, four years, which was also unexpected and definitely a negative, from Putin’s point of view.


So the question is, what kinds of priorities does Putin pursue in this environment in which he has some real achievements, but in which there are lots of uncertainties going forward on the economic front, on the political front, on the international front? What we don’t really know is how much Putin has completely revised what have been the traditional priorities of Russian foreign policy. For all that he has an edgy new rhetoric, does he still have the kind of interest in a détente with the West, with a cooperative relationship with the United States of a sort that he seemed to really relish when Trump was elected?


Or is he more ready now for a path that involves long-term antagonism with the West and no further efforts to build cooperation, or even to stabilize that relationship? That’s something that one of his advisors, Vladislav Surkov, who’s a kind of, you know, leader of his brain trust, described in an article this week in which he talked about how Russian may now be entering a period of solitude, in which it’s not isolated—isolationist, but in many ways isolated from the Western powers, at odds with Europe. So you have in all of these—in all these categories, as Putin looks out on the world—increasing uncertainty, and in particular a kind of developing confrontation with Europe and the West that he has to regard as an increased source of instability internationally, and certainly for Russia’s interests.


So why don’t I start with that, Irina, and we can get a discussion going.


FASKIANOS: Great. Thanks very much for the comprehensive overview and insight. Let’s open it up to the students for questions, please.


OPERATOR: All right. Thank you.


(Gives queuing instructions.)


All right. Our first question will come from Amanda Fleming with the University of Central Florida.


Q: Hello. My name is Allison Wolfarth. I’m with the Global Perspectives Office at the University of Central Florida.


My question is in regards to Eastern European nations—specifically Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania—that are part of NATO. There was concerns over last year’s 2017 Russian wargames, especially in reference to intimidation. And can you kind of shortly detail of the relations that Putin is going to address with Eastern European nations going forward, as he’s kind of changing his foreign policy outlook?


SESTANOVICH: It’s a great question. And it has been a contentious issue between Russian, and neighbors, and other European countries, and NATO. Over the past couple of years, NATO has agreed to add some troop deployments on the front lines with Russia, as a—in order to kind of reinforce and make more credible its security guarantees to countries that bump up against Russian territory. The Baltic states have been particularly anxious for this kind of reassurance. And that’s now been built into the U.S. defense budget, an increase of about $5-8 billion for what’s called the European Deterrence Initiative. It is not just an American initiative, though. It’s all of the alliance. And many other countries are beginning to commit some small units—this is all still very small-scale and symbolic—but commit small units to rotational assignments in Eastern Europe.


The alliance has wanted to make credible its security guarantees under Article 5 of the NATO Charter. But of course, there are other ways in which Russian influence can be felt, short of aggression and short of directly confronting a NATO country. There have been—the biggest controversy has, of course, involved Ukraine, where—which I think was really the turning point. And Putin’s advisor, Surkov, wrote about it this week in his article about Russia’s growing solitude. He said: The crisis of 2014 was the big turning point in Russia’s relations with the West.


And I agree with that, because it created a response that I think Putin was not prepared for, solidarity with Ukrainians, and a support of all kinds—economic, political, military, and now this year with the decision of the Trump administration actually involving lethal weapons. So you’ve had a kind of choice forced on Putin there as to how much he would continue to support this ongoing insurgency, this war in eastern Ukraine—really, an occupation of, you know, a small chunk of territory is eastern Ukraine—or whether he’d try to resolve that diplomatically. There was some thought last fall that he might be interested in moving toward some kind of resolution of that, but there hasn’t been much progress.


There are a couple of other areas where one can look at Russian influence in Eastern Europe. Energy has traditionally been one them. Russia has dominated the supply of energy to Eastern European countries. It was thought that Russian’s stranglehold when it came to energy in Ukraine would actually force Ukraine to submit to Russian preferences and to back off this confrontation. What’s happened over the past few years on the energy front is that Russian leverage—although its overall share of the European gas market has increased, its ability to use this for political leverage seems to have decreased. The Ukrainians now get no energy from Russia. Other countries are able to purchase natural gas on something more like the open markets that you have in oil, with the availability of liquified natural gas. So that’s been a reduced weapon for Putin.


Lastly, it’s worth noting that he seems to have found some resonance with what you could call an ideological weapon. That is, encouraging populist nationalist governments elsewhere in Eastern Europe. He and Viktor Orbán, who was just reelected president of—prime minister of Hungary, the ruling party in Poland, the president of the Czech Republic. There’s a kind of mutual admiration society there. So far, this has not produced big geopolitical gains for Putin. But it has created this perception that you have a slightly less-unified bloc of states in Central and Eastern Europe which, in the aftermath of the Cold War were strongly aligned with the United States. And now—and with the eastern—and with the European Union. Now, they’re a source of a certain kind of challenge to the authority of the EU in particular.


And that’s been a plus for Putin. It has made it look as though he has some ideological allies. But I wouldn’t say he’s been able to take it to the bank yet. There hasn’t been any palpable disunity on the part of the EU and NATO in dealing with Russia. And in fact, all of these countries that have been over the past couple years expected to support Putin on issues like sanctions, for example, have actually supported the U.S. and the European consensus—in particular, the Germans.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Berkeley City College.


Q: Thank you very much for taking our questions. We were interested in Russia’s participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Putin’s relationship with President Xi, and what’s going on with the Eurasian countries with respect to Putin’s ambitions there.


SESTANOVICH: It’s a very good question, and one that Americans tend to pay less attention to. But let me assure you, the Russians and the Chinese are very aware of this as a kind of high-priority region and monitor each other’s rivalry and relative gains in this region. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has been touted by the Russians and the Chinese as a kind of, oh—you know, an alternative grouping that allows other countries that are—do not feel part of the Western high table to actually shape an international organization that has some security dimensions to it—say, unlike the BRICS. And the Russians and the Chinese have had a strong interest in it.


The Central Asian states have been a little more wary of it, because they sort of see the potential for a kind of condominium that allows increased Russian and Chinese domination of their economies, political life, security, environment. And they have, for that reason, sometimes viewed Western states as a kind of geopolitical lifeline. The Uzbeks, the Kazakhs have tried to maintain actually rather cooperative relations with the United States, even on the security front. And you see a kind of opening up of the Uzbek political system right now in the aftermath of the death of President Karimov.


One thing that is—that you will hear from both Russians and Chinese if you talk to them about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is that one shouldn’t exaggerate the overlap of Russian and Chinese goals. You know, there is a story that when Putin and Xi met for the first time, that Xi said something to him like, you know, I have the feeling we’ve got rather similar personalities. (Laughs.) Meaning, we’re sort of two autocrats who kind of envision dominating our political systems for a long time to come. But that doesn’t mean a kind of easy relationship in an area that is between them that could some—could be a buffer zone or could be dominated by one or the other.


The traditional ties are between the Central Asian states and Russia, but the economic impetus and momentum is entirely on the Chinese side. And all over Central Asia you see new projects undertaken by the Chinese who are interested in the supply of Central Asian energy, in other—in other minerals, and in transportation projects, and in infrastructure. The Belt and Road initiative has a significant place for the—for the Central Asian states. It’s an example of an area where the Russians would like to emphasize their close cooperation with the Chinese, but underneath that cooperation you’ve got a lot of latent rivalry.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the University of Southern Mississippi.

Q: Hello. Thank you for talking with us today.


First, is there a new arms race with Russia, which both President Trump and Mr. Putin have alluded to?


And, second, is there a danger of bringing foreign policy so deeply into our domestic U.S. politics, with each U.S. party either supporting or opposing Mr. Putin primarily for political purposes?


SESTANOVICH: Yeah, great questions. Arms race—in the past decade, Putin has increased the Russian defense budget by well over 100 percent. You won’t see that kind of growth in the American defense budget, although if you go back 20 years you will see a significant increase. And in that past decade, Russia has done a lot of modernization of its strategic nuclear forces, in particular—even under the rubric of the New START treaty, which was negotiated between President Medvedev and President Obama in 2010. The United States is now coming to the beginning of a decade of modernization of its strategic nuclear forces, which is going to cost a lot of money. And the Russians—I mean, part of the point of Putin’s speech in which he talked about all of these new weapons that they have, was to emphasize that, you know, the United States cannot overcome the security that Russia created for itself with all of the spending that it put into its nuclear forces in the past decade.


Putin has got a bit of a problem in sustaining the military—the buildup in military spending that he’s had over the past decade. But he claims he’s committed to it. And while it—you know, the American budgetary outlook is also kind of tight, the defense budget is one area where it’s gone up. And the military’s been able to get President Trump’s support for this very expensive modernization of nuclear forces, involving some new systems, by the way, that the Pentagon has very much wanted to get if only, as they say, for bargaining purposes with the Russians. In this case—in one case, to bring the Russians back into compliance with one treaty that we feel they’ve violated.


Let me stay a word about partisanship and Russian involvement, and the way in which that plays out domestically. You know, I saw an interesting poll, a comparison of Russian—of Republican attitudes toward Russia over the past couple of years. You know, traditionally if you’ve asked Republican voters about Russia, they’ve been very, very negative. And in the course of the 2016 presidential election, that was still true. If you asked Republican voters what they thought of Trump—of Putin, it was 20/70 negative, something like that. Twenty favorable, 70 representing some kind of unfavorable, shading toward very hostile. In the first year of the Trump administration, interestingly, what happened was that the president kind of got his—got Republican voters to flip. And it became closer to even—you know, 35/45 favorable to unfavorable view of Putin last year.


What’s interesting is that the way in which this has played out is that Republican voters have now gone back to their traditional view of Russia—partly, I think, because Putin has had—or Trump has sort of given up on the—on his hope for a bromance with Putin. Partly because Putin’s behavior has made it a little harder for people to countenance and approve of what he’s been doing. And now it’s back to essentially 20/70 favorable/unfavorable. So you’ve got a more traditional Republican view of Russia.


Meanwhile, Democratic views of Russia has become increasingly negative, so that if you had a—you know, there’s a new ambassador—Russian ambassador in Washington now. One of the things he’s surely reporting home is trends in public opinion. And if he’s prepared to tell the truth, he’d have to say that the way in which Russia figures in partisan debate and discussion and preferences is increasingly adverse. That they’ve—you know, they’re—opinion is definitely against them. And this is the way the Russians explain their problems with—in Russian-American relations. They say it’s just—it’s a matter of domestic politics. I think that’s an incomplete version of the story, but it’s worth tracking this kind of evolution of popular views, even on partisan lines.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)


And our next question will come from San Diego State University.


Q: Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity.


My question is in regards to Russia’s foreign policy in terms of military expansion. In regards to China’s new military base in Djibouti, and with the U.S. AFRICOM, do you see Russia having any interest in opening new bases in Africa? And if so, what effect would that have for both the U.S., as well as Africa in general?


SESTANOVICH: (Laughs.) You know, the foreign minister of Russia was just in Africa this week doing a tour of a number of countries, and written up in an interesting way by a bunch of analysts at the Jamestown Foundation. And if you’re interested in tracking this issue, the Jamestown Foundation people produce some interesting writing. You might look for it online. What Lavrov was doing in Africa was mostly showing the flag. There are some issues of energy cooperation. You know, the Angolans are big oil producers, and that was the first assignment of—when he was a KGB officer—of the current head of the Russian state oil company he represented the Soviet Union in Angola.


But it’s not traditionally been much of—an area of much interest for the Russians. There was a brief period in the ’70s where they kind of thought that deploying Cuban forces in Africa might be—might be a plus for them. It didn’t go awfully well. It kind of inflamed more antagonism on the part of the United States. But you’re—it’s an interesting way to look at the problem, to see it as a competitive of China these days. It typically—when, you know, decades ago we would analyze Russian initiatives in Africa and in the Indian Ocean, say, in relation to a kind of rivalry with the West—part of the East-West competition of the Cold War. The Chinese are, of course, very active in Africa, and establishing bases in the Indian Ocean. And that is probably as important as any rivalry with the United States, as the Russians think about it.


They have to think about positioning themselves. This is why there’s a continuing Russian interest in close relations with India. There is an interest in the—sort of the greater Middle East as a big source of influence in international energy markets. And the—and Africa is, you know, it’s a kind of growth area that has figured very, very prominently in the enlargement of Chinese international economic activity. So it’s probably something worth watching, particularly for this new—this new jockeying between the Russians and the Chinese.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Thank you.


(Gives queuing instructions.)


And our next question comes from Prairie View A&M University.


Q: Good morning and thank you for taking our questions today.


I was going to ask, can you speak to the current relationship that Russia has with the Assad regime in Syria, and how that has an impact on the Middle East?


SESTANOVICH: (Laughs.) Well, I guess we were going to get to Syria at some point. The relationship with the Assad regime is, as I was saying earlier, one of the key elements of a more activist Russian policy in the Middle East, beginning—or dramatized by their intervention in the fall of 2015, when Russian forces went into basically keep the Assad regime from falling. And people ask me, you know, what were the Russian motives in doing this? And I think the big one—not, you know, strengthening their hold on a Mediterranean naval base—but it was to show that their guy would not be brought down by an insurgency, even if holding him up was going to perpetuate a civil war that had, you know, already killed more than half a million people.


For the Russians, that kind of commitment is a crucial way of demonstrating that they have an alternative approach to that of the United States. I mean, Russians will tell you, you know, when there were demonstrations in Cairo, what did the United States do? It eased their friend Mubarak out the door. When there were—when there’s hostility, opposition, peaceful and then becoming violent, in Syria to the Assad regime, what’s the view of Russia? Stand by your man. And this involves—when it turned to a military intervention, it had some other advantages, of course. And the Russian military have talked a lot about the opportunity to exercise their forces, test their weapons.


And they’ve—I mean, they genuinely feel they’ve benefitted from that. One of the other things that it has done is create some opportunities for developing relations with other countries in the region. The Russian-Iranian relationship has typically been close, but it has deepened in a very significant way as the alliance that helped preserve Assad, because the Russians were not really prepared to put a lot of boots on the ground to keep Assad in power. But the Iranians have produced—have provided that, both their own manpower and that of Hezbollah from Lebanon, which is—neighbors that part of Syria.


And that has meant a very—now, a quite cooperative relationship. The Russians have many suspicions of the Iranians, but this project—holding up Assad—has been a kind of new glue for their relationship with Iran. Their intervention has also enabled them to gain a kind of influence with some of President Assad’s big enemies in the region, President Erdogan of Turkey, who is as angry and hostile an enemy as Assad has, but he has now—he now routinely sits down with Putin to talk about the future of Syrian politics. I mentioned earlier that Prime Minister Netanyahu also very wary of President Assad, now has a kind of regular consultation with Putin about events in Syria, and the emergent and evolving military problems that that poses for Israel.


So the sort of it is, the relationship with Assad is one that has demonstrated kind of Russian commitment to an ally. It has given a boost to the Russian military—you know, a kind of new rationale for their increased spending. And it has deepened the relationship with other states in the region. Oh, until it’s—I mean, the problem is, as I said, there’s still a lack of kind of domestic enthusiasm for it. But as a foreign policy venture, until this new confrontation with the United States this week, it has been mostly seen by the Russians as a plus.


FASKIANOS: Thank you, Steve. While we wait for more questions to queue up, I wanted to ask. You know, Trump called Putin to congratulate him following his reelection. And we now have seen a new national security advisor, John Bolton, take his place in the White House. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. How do you think they will shape the Trump administration’s approach toward Russia?


SESTANOVICH: Well, let’s start before Pompeo and Bolton. One of the dramatic—(laughs)—parts of General McMaster’s departure as the national security advisor was the speech that he gave on—devoted primarily to relations with Russia, in which he seemed to criticize the administration for not taking the Russia problem seriously enough, for not having posed—imposed significant enough costs on Russia for challenging American interests in one way or another. And, you know, it’s kind of rare for a national security advisor, even one who’s unhappy, to leave office with that kind of blast against his boss.


What’s interesting here is that to the extent we can divine Bolton’s and Pompeo’s views, they are just as critical of the Russians. We don’t know to what extent they are going to kind of accommodate to, you know, sort of—as they see what they’re—what President Trump’s residual preference is for a good relationship with Putin are. But their own inclinations seem to be quite hostile toward Russia. And it may be that some of what we’ve seen just this week in terms of a kind of more bristly and robust anti-Russian rhetoric from the president, may reflect something of the—you know, the new team. Because you’ve got a group of people, a pair of people coming in, Pompeo and Bolton, who, unlike General McMaster, clearly have a natural rapport and a seeming ideological affinity with the president. And they may be in a position to have more influence over him than General McMaster did.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. And are there potential areas of cooperation between the United States and Russia? I know we’re at a very interesting point, but are there any?


SESTANOVICH: Well, the president’s idea—reiterated throughout the campaign—was that the United States and Russia should cooperate against terrorism. And that meant in particular ISIS. And that was going to be true in Iraq and Syria. You have had a greater commitment on the part of the Trump administration, largely following the Obama strategy but with more—with a kind of freer use of military power—a real commitment on the part of the administration to the defeat of ISIS. But it hasn’t actually involved a whole lot of cooperation. It’s involved more what—you know, what they call at the Pentagon “deconfliction.” That is, we stay out of each other’s way in doing what we do.


So the Russians have been able to support President Assad. And the U.S., you know, rather small number of forces there have supported the units and movements that have wanted to oppose Assad. And they stayed out of each other’s way. With the kind of—you know, the disappearance, or the sort of—I hate to use the word “defeat,” because I’m not sure it’s complete yet. But with the—something like a defeat for ISIS, the question will be what kind of conflict could U.S. and Russian forces come into with each other. Could this kind of deconfliction unravel?


When other people—when people talk about other areas where you could get some greater cooperation between Russia and the United States, unless it’s just sort of kind of make-work cooperation, the one that tends to come up among both Russian and American experts is some kind of renewed effort at arms control. The New START treaty expires in 2021. And it can be renewed by a joint agreement of the two parties. And that is—you know, as many people see it, kind of low-hanging fruit if the two sides wanted to find some way of symbolizing, demonstrating a renewed interest in just keeping things from getting too nasty and dangerous. So far, there hasn’t been much movement in that direction. No proposals for talks to begin.


I’d mention a third area, where you do have regular consultations and there is an envoy at the State Department. And that’s Ukraine. Because it seems to me that that’s the big stumbling block that, as we said earlier, turned relations downward. If the two sides could find a way to begin to untie that knot, a lot of other elements of the confrontation, disagreement, might begin to more soluble. In particular, if you—if you really could get the Russians to back down from their support of a kind of frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine, a lot of sanctions would immediately—would be reexamined by the United States and Europeans. Because the European in particular eager to remove some of those. But, of course, there’s been a deeper commitment to sanctions. So it may not be so easy to do that.


But I would say, you know, you have to look at terrorism. You have to look at arms control. You have to look at Ukraine.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the University of New Mexico


Q: Good morning. Can you hear me?






Q: Wonderful. First of all, thank you so much, Dr. Sestanovich. It’s been wonderful to have your perspective on all these different issues.


I just wanted to get your perspective on how you think kind of the recent rhetoric on nuclear weapons changes the discourse of international relations, particular in relation to, like, how it affects matters—the discourse on collective action, especially in terms of the imperatives for the need for states to cooperate on global problems, like climate change.


SESTANOVICH: Well, let me ask you what you mean, or at least suggest that you could mean a couple of different things with this, when you say discourse on nuclear weapons. You could mean the way in which Putin has deigned to talk about nuclear weapons as a—you know, a real part, an active part of Russia’s defense posture, and with a kind of threatening rhetoric—those videos and so forth—suggesting a kind of readiness to use weapons that we have, you know, generally—in talking about Russia’s relations with the United States and with other great powers—tried to keep on a rhetorical back-burner.


That has definitely created a kind of an inflamed sense of how the two—the two countries, the two biggest nuclear powers interact. And it has—you know, you have a rhetorical escalation. As a result of it, you had a pretty robust set of approaches in the so-called Nuclear Posture Review of the Trump administration, which has talked about Russia as a—you know, kind of the emergent adversary. General Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, has said, you know, he worries more about Russia than about China. And nuclear weapons have been a kind of part of that anxiety and friction.


A second thing that you might have meant is sort of how do we think about nuclear weapons in relation to, say, North Korea, and the diplomacy involving North Korea? Here, the Trump administration has made this a kind of top priority for its near-term foreign policy. And a determination that you absolutely cannot allow North Korea to get weapons. In a very general way, Putin is part of that diplomacy, because Russia has been one of the states, for example, supporting new sanctions at the Security Council, saying that, yes, that’s something we—states can—the great powers can cooperate on. Probably should have added that to the list of issues that Irina asked about. But, you know, the Russian role here is pretty marginal. The administration—Trump administration has, I think properly, seen China as the pivotal outside player. And so in trying to address this nuclear weapons issue, they’ve gone to—they’ve sort of thought they needed Beijing’s support more than Moscow’s.


I think it is true that for Russians in general, the idea that nuclear weapons are a source of their indispensable, ultimate security—sort of closer to—sort of more integral to protecting national interests. If you get a description of Russian national security policy, nuclear weapons will be more prominent in that respect. So the idea that most American policymakers have had, most presidents since the end of the Cold War, that you could kind of downplay nuclear weapons and get cooperation among the great powers on, you know, limiting their significance, kind of keeping other countries from crossing the nuclear threshold—it’s been always sort of difficult to do because the Russians are in some ways sort of more attached to their nuclear deterrent. And—but I think that’s—it may be that our own thinking is actually developing somewhat in that direction too.


FASKIANOS: I’m going to try and sneak in one last question.




OPERATOR: OK. Our last question will come from the University of Washington.


Q: Yes. Hi. Can you hear me?






Q: Hi. This is Jill Dougherty.


I know—


SESTANOVICH: Hey, Jill. How are you?

Q: Hello. In my academic hat.


You know, I am, as usual, looking at breaking news, and looking at the tweets by Donald Trump this morning. And, you know, quite surprised that he is saying that, “Get ready, Russia,” “they will be coming nice and new and ‘smart.’” This is a tone that we really haven’t heard directed toward President Putin. And if you could put on your President Putin cap, I’m just wondering how they—if this has changed—the tone has definitely changed—how Russia will react. They obviously don’t want to engage in Twitter, but realistically, will they ignore this? Will they—what—how do you think this will play out?


SESTANOVICH: Yeah. I mean, this is a sort of anxiety-inducing story, to be sure. There is—you know, I’ve heard Ryan Crocker, our, you know, very respected former diplomat, comparing the situation in Syria now with interlocking alliances to 1914 in Europe. The president’s, you know, propensity for, you know, provocative tweets is not a new one to anybody. You’re right, it’s only new in that it’s—you know, Putin has been the target of it. Although, he didn’t personalize it. He did say “Russia,” not “Putin.” I think it’s probably worth noting, Jill, that he is—that this has kind of been going back and forth this week.


You know, the Russians, when there was a previous round of American statements saying we were going to be doing something, the Russians said: We are going to shoot down those missiles. So the—and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the president’s staffers showed him this kind of stuff saying: You see, Mr. President, they’re calling your bluff. They’re challenging you. And this is how, you know, at least rhetorical arms races—(laughs)—work. It may also be that there’s a—there’s an element to it, which is to say we really—you know, we want you to stay out of our way, in line with the kind of deconfliction agreements that we’ve had so far.


So one thing I’d want to know is, at the same time that that provocative tweet was going out, what other contacts were there on the ground in the region between American forces and Russian forces? And where’s the—you know, the Pentagon and the ministry of defense have been in contact in the course of the past year and a half over deconfliction. And one thing you’d want to know in the runup to a new American initiative is what’s happened to that, because these two organizations are—you know, they’ve grown somewhat accustomed to interacting with each other.


It may be that—I’ll just add one other speculation here. It may be that in the runup to some kind of attack, the American preference has been to go dark a little bit, and not to want to communicate too much with Russian forces, because they don’t—they don’t want to tip their hand as to where and how they’re going to—they’re going to strike. But this—so in that respect, it may be in fact that the communication is actually more by—this is diplomacy by tweet, which is another way of saying this is a slightly hair-raising moment. And I guess that’s where you started, right?


FASKIANOS: Yes, it is.




FASKIANOS: So, Ambassador Steve Sestanovich, thank you very much for your—or, this discussion today. It was very insightful, and we appreciate your analysis.


SESTANOVICH: My pleasure.


FASKIANOS: I thank everybody around the country for your comments and your questions.


Our final call of the semester will be on Wednesday April 25th at noon, Eastern time. Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia, will talk about “India’s Rising Global Role.” So I hope you can join us for that. In the meantime, I encourage you to visit CFRCampus.org and follow CFR Campus on Twitter at @CFR_Campus for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events.


So, thank you, again, for joining us today.



Top Stories on CFR


Iranian support has boosted the military prowess of Yemen’s Houthis, helping them project force into the Red Sea. In return, the group has extended the reach of Iran’s anti-West axis of resistance.

International Law

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC),[1] Karim A. A. Khan,[2] faces several challenging policy issues in the months ahead regarding the Israel-Hamas situation.[3] In this co…


Nigeria needs a change of direction, not a change of government.