Russia’s Resurgence: Prospects for Stability in U.S.-Russia Relations

Friday, Monday & Tuesday, December 13, 16 & 17 2019

Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia, National Security Council (2004–2007)

Kimberly Marten

Professor and Chair, Department of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University

Michael Moran

Chief Executive Officer and Chief Research Officer, Transformative; Lecturer in Political Risk, Joseph Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

Our panelists discuss growing tensions in U.S.-Russia relations, potential areas for both deterrence and cooperation, and strategies to avoid conflict between the two countries.

MORAN: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Mike Moran. I once was an employee of this building. Not many of the people here would know that. And I am the CEO of a risk advisory firm called Transformative. And I am also the producer of a documentary that featured, in part, both of our guests today, Tom Graham and Kim Marten, which looks at the U.S. and Russia and the kind of quest we’ve had to stabilize that relationship for as long as any of us can remember. Quick anecdote before we’re going to run the first chapter of this, which is only three or four minutes—well, no, I’m sorry, it’s five or six minutes long. It kind of sets the stage for the conversation we’re going to have.

Ultimately, you know, my first, you know, interaction with Russia was as a young editor in Munich at Radio Free Europe, when I actually had the privilege of writing the piece that indicated that the Soviet Union was going to dissolve itself. I mean, this was the end of the Cold War. I was in my late twenties. It seemed like we were going to enter a better place, my kids were going to grow up in a better world. And yet, here we are. (Laughs.) Amazing. Are we predestined? And that’s part of the reason that I begged for money from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to do this.

Several people involved in the film are here today. Gene Scherbakov was a vital help in the creation of this film, and in the shepherding of me through the grants process. So thank you very much. But with no further ado, U.S.-Russia Quest for Stability, the Introduction.

(A video presentation is shown.)

MR.     : Russia sent more troops, tanks, and military vehicles into eastern Ukraine today to support pro-Russian rebels.

MR.     : After eighteen years in power, this was Vladimir Putin reminding Russians that their country is a world power once again, the strength of its conventional military on full display in Syria. He said its nuclear capabilities now soon to more than a match for U.S. might.

URY: It’s almost impossible to imagine. It’s almost like we’ve been asleep, like Rip Van Winkle. You know, wake up and realize we’re back in the same situation again.

GUTERRES: The Cold War is back with a vengeance, but with a difference. The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present.

GORBACHEV: (Speaks in Russian.)

PERRY: We are today, inexplicably, recreating the conditions of the Cold War. We must wake up.

GRAHAM: It’s clear that we’re going through a period of extreme disorder in global affairs. Things are changing. Great powers are rising and falling.

LUKYANOV: What William Perry is reminding us now is a rapidly growing fear of total unpredictability and uncertainty of development. And this fear is fueled not only by Putin, not only by Kim Jong-un, or another Ahmadinejad, it is fueled by the U.S. administration. It if fueled by totally unguided processes in Europe. The political system in Europe is collapsing. This is fueled by something happening in the Middle East, which no one can rightly identify.

MARTEN: I think it’s a very dangerous situation that we’re facing right now in Syria, with the U.S. military forces really being very close, territorially, to where the Russian military forces are based.

LEGVOLD: It’s not clear what the rules are when Russia becomes militarily involved in Syria, and we are also militarily involved in Syria. And you can lengthen that list.

LONG: We’re facing a new technological landscape, just as those who first grappled with nuclear strategy and the search for stability did in the 1950s. This is a real era of danger that we haven’t seen in quite some time.

MARTEN: When we’re looking at the question of the attempts to affect public opinion on Facebook or on Twitter, those kinds of activities were often committed by Soviet KGB forces.

CHERNENKO: The situation with the U.S.-Russia relations in the cyber domain is deeply unsatisfactory. But it’s also that globally this whole domain is a wild west. It’s a playground for politicians of all of the countries, for the military, for the intelligence services. And there is no rules of the road.

LONG: But of course, the politics must be shaped by the technical characteristics. I mean, arms control in the Cold War was fundamentally based on a recognition by both sides of the—of the awesome power of nuclear weapons. And I think now we just have to equally recognize the awesome power that computers add on top of nuclear weapons.

LEGVOLD: What’s been lost in the last five or six years is a willingness or even an ability to be introspective, to think about your own role in what has gone wrong. That’s simply the other blaming the other side nearly 100 percent for what’s gone wrong. When it comes to the question of Russian involvement and interference in the U.S. elections, and the risk that not only are they continuing to do it today, but they will do it in future elections, that becomes a key issue. It is not simply a separate, somewhat disembodied issue that has our Congress and our media up in arms. It is now a basic issue in the relationship that has risen to the same level as Ukraine or Syria.

LUKYANOV: I’m very skeptical about the possibility to put one nation in another nation’s shoes because public opinion, public consciousness is being created through centuries.

GORBACHEV: (Speaks in Russian.)

KENNEDY: So let us not be blind to our differences but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

ALBRIGHT: I do think that it is possible to have a relationship, a U.S.-Russian relationship, where there are any number of aspects we can work on together. Whether it’s fighting terrorism, or dealing with climate change, or dealing with a variety of issues that don’t pit us against each other, and then recognize the fact that there are some issues we’ll never agree on.

GORBACHEV: (Speaks in Russian.)

(Video presentation ends.)

MORAN: I want to introduce my panelists, both of whom, as you saw, were very gracious to give me time in interviews in the—in the documentary production as well. Thomas Graham’s a distinguished fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a senior—what, you’re managing director at—

THOMAS: Managing director.

MORAN: At Kissinger Associates, and a former special assistant to the president for Russian national—on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007. Kim Marten is a professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science at Barnard College. We are hopefully—probably don’t have to tell most of you to turn your cellphones off. That would be great. This is a good moment. If my old boss Richard Haass was here, he’d urge you to give money to the Council on Foreign Relations, so the staff doesn’t have to have a bake sale or a car wash. And I wanted to just also remind you, this is an on-the-record meeting, and that we will take questions after an initial period of conversation.

So I wanted to start with you, Tom, if you wouldn’t mind. Ukraine and Russia have become, you know, kind of strawmen for electoral interference, but there’s more behind the relationship between these two enormous countries than that one issue. So invariably we’ll get into these issues, but can you kind of set the stage on the other things that are at stake in the relationship, and where you see the direction of relations going?

GRAHAM: At stake in the relationship between the United States and Russia? Not Ukraine and Russia, I take it.

MORAN: United States—no, no, no.

GRAHAM: No, look, I mean, there’s a lot at stake. We saw it in this clip that we just saw. Obviously the nuclear question. We remain the two largest nuclear powers. We have over 90 percent of the nuclear warheads in the world today. We each retain the capability to destroy each other—the other in thirty minutes. We have tended to forget about that since the—since the end of the Cold War, but that’s a reality that we need to—that we need to remember.

I think also if you look at this, I think you can argue that no bilateral relationship is more important to the United States than Russia, certainly on the security side. We’ve already talked about the nuclear. Think about European security. It’s hard to devise a European security architecture that doesn’t take Russia’s interest into account at least to some extent, at least if we want a stable and peaceful Europe. Russia is a player in the Middle East now, and an important player. Enjoys good relations with most of the major players in that part of the world. If we’re going to produce a new equilibrium in the Middle East, then we’re going to have to deal with Russia in some way. Even out in East Asia, where China is obviously our major concern, and a growing concern, the relationship between Russia and China has implications for how we’re going to manage our overall relationship with Russia.

And then finally there are a whole host of transnational issues where Russia is a significant player, and where we’re not going to be able to manage these issues successfully unless we have a working relationship with Russia. International terrorism, nonproliferation, climate change, we can go through the list. So we have a relationship, or a—with Russia that at the highest level is this nuclear existential question for us. We have a series of regional issues where Russia and the United States may be on different sides, but we need to manage properly if we’re going to avoid the confrontation that leads to a military conflict or a nuclear conflict of some sort. And then we have a whole host of transnational issues where cooperation with Russia and other major powers is critical to being able to deal with those. So there’s a lot at stake in this relationship with Russia.

MORAN: So, Kim, I want to keep this on a very high geopolitical level for the moment, and then we’ll get more specific on particular issues. But Russia is, you know, attracting a great deal of our attention and our political capital in the U.S. right now. It tends to be described as a disruptor, that their power is really to deny the United States its preference in the world by getting involved at the last minute. I mean, this is—I think doesn’t give them enough credit for being strategic. Having said that, isn’t this exactly the wrong time for the United States, having really squandered a lot of energy and treasure in Iraq in the last decade, to get involved in such an expensive, potentially, arms race with Russia when the real potential peer rival here is not Russia, it’s not Iraq, it’s China?

MARTEN: That’s a very complicated question that you just asked me, that has a lot of pieces to it. I would agree with the description of Russia as being a disruptor, but I wouldn’t say that they are disruptive only of U.S. national interests. I think there are a variety of places all around the world where they are also disrupting the international community, disrupting international norms—including the norm of sovereignty that they say that they are holding it. I think it’s more than national interests that are involved. I think it’s U.S. values that are involved. I think it’s the Western alliance that is involved.

But I think you are correct that there are some issues where we certainly could be looking to have more of a sense of dialogue with Russia. And I think one of those issues that’s extremely important is the extension of the New START Treaty, which is set to expire in February 2021, and which as far as I can see, at least in the open press, technical experts agree would be in U.S. national interest, in part because it increases the transparency of exactly what Russia is up to in its new weapons development. I think we could think about perhaps having dialogue on cyber questions and having more dialogue on counterterrorism questions. But I think the idea of finding interests in common beyond a few issues may be extraordinarily difficult to think about right now.

MORAN: Tom, to pick up on that theme, having just produced a documentary that we tried to be encyclopedic about the interactions between our two countries, it was a pretty short list of mutual interests, I have to say. (Laughs.) I mean, there were potential. But in terms of things we actually cooperate on these days, space always comes up. And even there, you know, whether it gets militarized or not is becoming an issue. Potentially on energy policy, though it doesn’t really appear—I would think that there’s nothing that the Russian energy minister would like better than for an aquifer somewhere in the United States to be poisoned by frackers, right, because fracking is a nightmare for the Russians, and they can’t seem to do it. So what are the other areas of mutual interest that really could stabilize and create a kind of a foundation where the relationship might get to a point of stability?

GRAHAM: Let me—I want to pick up on the last point, because you described Russia as a disruptor. I think that’s certainly true if you look at this from the standpoint of American national interest. But I think it’s also incumbent on us to realize that Russia has its own national interest. So you’re sitting in Moscow. You know, Putin doesn’t spend most of his day thinking how he can disrupt the United States. There may be a certain segment of time that he does that, but he is thinking mostly about how I advance Russia’s national interest. And certainly Ukraine, Syria, are clear cases where Russia believes it’s defending national interest. They may have been disruptive of what the United States wants to do, but that is not the primary reason why Putin got engaged.

And we’re not going to be able to manage the relationship properly unless we begin—or develop the capability to look at some of this through Moscow’s eyes, to see what motivates them, what they’re trying to do, and not think that everything they do in the relationship is about us. First and foremost, it’s about them and about their position in the world and defending their national interest.

Now, when we think about areas where we can cooperate, you’ve mentioned the ones that we always talk about. Space. The Arctic was an area where we actually had very good cooperation. There is a tendency now to want to militarize this and turn this into an area of geopolitical competition. And you see a bit of that in the United States. You see that in Russia as well. But I think if you look at this objectively this is a region where the severity of the climate, the risk that it posed to sort of the global environment, really require continued cooperation, and we need to reinforce the work we’re doing in the Arctic Council in that regard.

Counterterrorism. Now, I don’t think that we have a common interest across the whole terrorist framework, or a range of terrorist groups. We tend to have different definitions of terrorism. We look at these somewhat different ways. But there is a number of areas where our interests overlap or are identical. The United States and Russia still cooperate in helping to thwart terrorist attacks against the other. Putin made a very public announcement about that in December of a couple of years ago, thanking the United States for providing information that allowed the Russians to thwart a serious terrorist attack in St. Petersburg. We obviously have a common interest in maintaining strategic stability.

And then I guess the final point I would make here is a lot of areas around the world, what we have an interest in is to cooperate so that we can compete more safely. We realize that our differences are significant. We have different national interests when it comes to the Middle East, Ukraine. But we want to be able to conduct that competition in a framework that prevents it from spilling out of control and leading to the type of military confrontation that neither country really desires.

MORAN: So historically, or at least since World War II, the kind of uber-conversation ways always about nuclear weapons. I believe I’m right in saying that there’s no longer an active treaty from that era, other than START one.

MARTEN: The New START treaty.

MORAN: New START. But could you help the members here—not everybody is going to be the propeller-head that I are—that I am about this stuff, and know what New START is, and what it represents, and what is at stake this year.

MARTEN: Sure. So you’re absolutely right that New START is the only remaining bilateral nuclear treaty between the United States and Russia. There are issues that New START does not cover that at some point there will need to be conversations and dialogue about. And so New START is not the last treaty that we want to consider, either with Russia or with other members of the international community. Two of the scary things that are new that are not covered by New START are extraordinarily accurate conventional weapons that can be very destructive and can be delivered by mechanisms that are very hard to have defense against. And another thing to be very concerned about is cyber and all of the things that are associated with it, including artificial intelligence and so forth.

But nonetheless, having the—at least a limited extension of New START would allow us to continue to have a means of having a strategic dialogue with each other on a regular basis. It would allow us to continue to have way of having an exchange of information both sides about what is happening on new nuclear developments, including some of the things that Putin has been adverting very widely as very destructive new weapons. And would also maintain in place a framework that if it’s gone is going to very hard to restore. So I don’t think that the New START is at all something that we should see as a panacea, but I think it’s something that is a low-cost idea. Both sides agree that they’re currently in compliance with it. Putin indicated a couple of weeks ago by allowed U.S. inspectors to look at the avantgarde system, the hypersonic reentry vehicle nuclear missile system that he’s talking about deploying, that he’s interested in being flexible about what New START contains. And so I think we don’t want to lose this opportunity for at least a temporary extension of the New START treaty at this point.

MORAN: And it has, of course, brought to—deployed warheads down to levels we haven’t seen since the ’60s.

MARTEN: The entire history, yes, of those strategic arms control has brought down the level of nuclear missiles and strategic delivery systems incredibly. And one of the things that the Trump administration talks about is that we need to have China somehow become part of the New START framework. And that doesn’t make sense because China is such a small player in comparison to where the U.S. and Russia still are. That doesn’t mean that for other kinds of agreements on missile limitations and nuclear limitations we do not want to include China. But there is no particular reason why China has to be included at this point to have an extension of New START be successful.

MORAN: If mean, if you look at the numbers you would imagine that China would come to the table and demand an increase. (Laughter.) I mean, they really are—they’ve been very careful and cagey about their nuclear arsenal. They’ve not—they’ve only recently MIRVed their warheads. They’ve never really engaged in an arms race with the United States, or with Russia, or the Soviet Union. Where do you think this conversation—let’s assume we could get a table of, maybe, Russia, China, the U.K., France together, Pakistan, India we’ll throw in for the heck of it. What kind of a protocol comes out of that? Is that a—is that a situation that could lead to an enforceable deal?

GRAHAM: (Laughs.) Well, not at this point, I don’t think. Kim’s absolutely right about where we stand on these issues now. You know, the strategic environment we’re facing is radically different from the one that gave birth to the bilateral arms control agreements between the United States and Russia. And what we need to do is to use the New START as a bridge from the old into the new, and not destroy that bridge in the process. You know, the Chinese are not—again, given the size of their arsenal, given their experience—are not going to engage, and perhaps aren’t even prepared to engage seriously in a conversation with the Russians and us about strategic stability at this point.

But sometime in the not-too-distant future we are going to have to engage the Chinese, particularly if the goal on the U.S. side and the Russian side is to reduce even further our strategic arsenals. Remember, we have an obligation under the nonproliferation treaty to take steps to reduce our nuclear arsenals—something that we tend not to remember all the time, but something that we do need to keep in focus, also to maintain the goodwill of other countries in the world.

But if you want to go down to a thousand warheads, as the Chinese are building up—and there’s some indication that they’re going to expand their nuclear arsenal—at some point that does become a relevant factor in how you manage strategic stability. So what we, I think, and the Russians need to do is to begin to acclimate the Chinese to having these types of discussions. Maybe not in a trilateral environment to begin with, but certainly in a bilateral conversation. Letting the Chinese know that sometime on the not-too-distant future, as a matter of obligation on their part, if you want to create a stable, strategic environment, they are going to have to be part of this conversation.

My suggestion would be the United States and Russia think through what strategic stability would look like in the new era in a multipolar nuclear world, and then begin to try to sell that new concept to the relevant players, including the Chinese, first of all.

MORAN: Kim, the opening frame of that video we watched had just stunning dashboard camera of Russian special forces traveling over a Ukrainian highway on their way to Crimea. Starting roughly in 2014, it was hard to look at what happened in Georgia in 2008 as an aberration. It became clearer that the Russians were willing to do things that we perhaps believed was the kind of things that we had left behind in the Cold War. And we’re seeing—now, again, to go to Tom’s point, from their perspective we had been in Iraq, and Afghanistan, et cetera, et cetera. We seem to be willing to intervene anywhere, and any way. But having said that, that furtive kind of hijacking of Crimea, then the kind of—the move into Syria, the involvement now in Libya, and even in the Central African Republic, we were talking about potentially Venezuela. Could you give me some kind of overlay of how an American should process all of these Russian activities?

MARTEN: Sure. Well, I think there’s been a lot of attention paid recently to what’s called the Wagner Group, which sometime gets called a private military company. It is not. It’s very strongly associated with the Russian military intelligence agency. And so the idea that Putin sometimes puts forth that he’s not in control of what they’re doing I think is false. But we have seen groups of special operations forces, and these sort of semi-state forces, appear everywhere. And I think you’ve named where they have been.

They have been in Crimea. They have been in eastern Ukraine. They have been in Syria, and are now back in Syria again, which is very dangerous for the U.S. forces who are currently in Syria because we learned a couple of years ago that the Wagner Group forces were willing to stage an attack on the Kurdish area where the U.S. special forces were providing attention, and essentially to launch an attack on U.S. forces. And we saw how dangerous that was. We know that the Wagner Group and other Russian special operations forces are in Libya, where the U.S. and some other Western allies have some interests at stake. And as you mentioned, we know that they’re in the Central African Republic and other places in Africa, definitely including Sudan, including Mali. There are many other places where they’re also in place.

And so I think that we need to understand that the very presence doesn’t necessarily threaten the United States, but that any place where those forces are present we have good indications that they can launch attacks without warning and without coordination that could be harmful to U.S. forces and U.S. interests. And that means that we have to pay a lot of attention to where those forces are. The one thing that helped in Syria was having a deconfliction line that, for all of its faults, did allow the U.S. and Russia to communicate with each other so that the U.S. knew that Russia was not going to take responsibility for the Wagner Force attacks of February 2018. So I would hope that we are able to put into place some sort of similar communication mechanism for Libya. I hope that it is sustained in Syria. And if Wagner now moves into places in Africa, where U.S. special forces are in place, I hope that we could establish something similar there as well to at least, as Tom points out, limit the possibility of escalation of what are going to be conflicts between U.S. and Russian interests.

MORAN: You know, one of the things that it strikes me is different about this—radically different than it was in the Cold War, where we would butt heads in places like Angola or in Central America, is that the kind of tree of escalation is now vastly complicated by cyberwarfare capabilities. The kind of—we all—it looks like we’re old enough to remember WarGames from the ’80s, the movie. Which turns out to have been pretty prescient. That could actually—that could actually happen. (Laughs.) They could—or someone could kind of dupe one of the other of us into thinking that there had been a launch. Now, that’s probably pretty simplistic. There are probably much more nefarious ways to get the national security system overheated. But how does that affect the tactical kind of bumping of heads in a place like the Central African Republic or Sudan? Has there been much thought given to how do you—how do we verify incidents that are happening and prevent them from winding up in an escalatory process?

GRAHAM: You know, a lot of thought has been given to how you do attribution in cyberspace. Now, I’m a little out of date on this. There are people in this room I think that probably know more about this. In fact, you actually have to be inside the U.S. government and have access to classified material to give an accurate answer to the question. But the short answer is that attribution is still very difficult to do. And so the question is not simply verifying that something like this has happened. Is it the Russians in particular that have done it? Cyber opens up a whole host of opportunities for false flag operations. Countries that may have an interest in creating an incident between the United States and Russia could use the cyber tools in order to create that type of situation. So that is, I think, very difficult to do.

What this means is that we do need to have, I think, a very serious dialogue with the Russians about cyberspace, something that we had begun I think in a—in a real fashion in the very late stages of the Obama administration. All that fell apart after the Ukraine crisis in 2014. And clearly that hasn’t been renewed in the current period. But we need to talk about that, how we’re going to manage this, how we think about cyberspace. And an additional part of that is not only what we’ve been talking about now in the military tactical realm, but obviously it’s in the domestic political realm. You know, cyber is the primary tool that the Russians used to meddle in our domestic processes in 2016.

That is continuing. It will continue into 2020, into our upcoming election campaign. This is obviously a very—an important, sensitive domestic issue for the United States. The Russians obviously continue to deny any hand in that. But we do need to sit down and have a conversation about that. I think the Russians are aware of that as well. How we get that structured and how we move forward I think are difficult questions at this point. But it’s a—it’s a conversation that is necessary. And the sooner we get started on that, the better.

MORAN: Kim, I know you have some thoughts on this.

MARTEN: Sure. Yeah, let me follow up on that. I think Tom is absolutely right, from my understanding as well, that you have to be inside the U.S. government to understand what’s happening on cyber questions. And my understanding is that we are able to see each other moving much more on cyber questions than we were a couple of years ago. So in that sense technical attribution issues are changing very rapidly. But the question of whether you want to reveal that you know that somebody has committed a cyberattack against you is still very complicated politically and in terms of the security implications of it, because it would involve revealing sources and methods and also possibly getting you into a conflict that might not be worth escalating for whatever issue has happened.

But I think, you know, one cyber issues that we need to be very concerned about is not so much believing that the other side has launched a nuclear weapon when they haven’t, but making one of the sides feel that they are not secure in their ability to launch a nuclear weapon when they wish to do so, that the cyber actually might turn off the weapon. And I think having a dialogue on how we can have reassurance about the continued operability of nuclear weapons on each side, so that we retain that sense of mutual assured destruction, and therefore have a deterrence against a nuclear attack happening, is indeed extraordinarily important.

One final thing to keep in mind is that Russia defines cyber issues very differently from how the United States does, because Russia sees it all as part of this broader panoply of actions that they refer to as information warfare. So for them, information warfare also involves what they call internet sovereignty, being able to cut off their internet from the outside world rather than having the free flow of information. It includes the use of propaganda and the use of disinformation to try to make people believe that you can’t believe anything that you see in the press. That’s part of information warfare. And so trying to separate out something, to actually have some sort of a limited cyber accord, gets extraordinarily complicated. And I don’t think Russia has done anything in the last couple of years to indicate that it is interested in moderating its information warfare activities. So I think that that’s a gap that we face.

MORAN: So I’m going to ask one more question before we go to throw it open to members. So it looks as though for the next decade, at least, Russia and the United States, together with Saudi Arabia, will be among the three top producers of oil and exporters of oil in the world. Climate change is one of those things that used to be bandied about as something that the Russians and the United States could really cooperate on. That seems pretty dead in the water at the moment. But what are the conversations that take place? Is there any dialogue whatsoever on this issue? Or is this just off the table completely?

GRAHAM: Climate change?

MORAN: Yeah.

GRAHAM: You know, I don’t think there’s any serious, sustained conversation with the Russians about climate change. This administration doesn’t want to talk about climate change with anybody, is my impression. And there’s no added incentive to talk to the Russians about that. You know, there was, you know, ten or fifteen years ago somehow that the United States and Russia would be build cooperation in the energy realm. You know, the United States is the largest consumer at that point. Russia was the largest producer. But the shale revolution has changed this equation radically. So there’s not a conversation on energy—or, at least, not the same conversation on energy we can have going forward. Another area where the United States and Russia have now turned into competitors as opposed to possible partners in dealing with this issue.

MARTEN: So Tom spoke earlier about the importance of the Arctic Council. And it’s interesting that just recently Russia did finally ratify the Paris accords, I believe. They’re not necessarily enforcing what they have agreed to do under the Paris accords, but we should keep in mind that the Russian permafrost is melting, and that this is creating immense problems, and will continue creating problems for infrastructure in the far north and in Siberia. And so that means that when we have future administrations on both sides who are more capable of seeing some of their common interests in these areas, that might actually open up as a place for, again, dialogue in the future with Russia. And the Arctic Council is a place that would make sense for that dialogue to happen.

MORAN: You know, a couple years ago, I guess it was 2013, right before the real spike—the real collapse of oil prices globally, I interviewed the Russian—soon-to-be Russian foreign—economics minister Siluanov—finance minister. And he was in this interesting period where his predecessor had left but he hadn’t been confirmed yet as permanent. So he was really tip-toeing around things. But one of the things he was very honest about was the extent to which oil prices will continue to haunt Russia’s economy as the metric that can at any moment stop progress there. Just put corruption aside. There’s an awful lot of that in the energy sector in Russia. But has there been any progress at all, from either of your perspectives, in diversifying Russia’s economy to—whether it’s because of reaction to sanctions or the learned pain of the collapse of global oil prices, to make it a more sustainable economic force?

GRAHAM: There’s been some thought given to it. Not much action has been taken on that. I mean, it’s still an economy that is largely dependent on natural resources, oil and gas. Oil and gas first of all. You know, there’s a general recognition, I think, at the highest levels of government that that’s not good for Russia over the long term, that they do need to diversify, that they need to do much more in the high-tech area. But that requires greater investment. The problem’s a political problem of how you make this change from a resource-dominated economy that has sort of the political structures that are—feed off of that and reinforce that. These national champions, Gazprom, Rosneft, for example, that are the foundations of Putin’s political support. How do you diversity and still maintain the structures that you need to continue, or to maintain political stability?

I think the leadership in the Kremlin in haunted by the experience of the 1980s. Gorbachev realized that the—that the Soviet system was moribund, that it needed to change in a radical way. He understood the economics of it. He didn’t quite get the politics right, to put it mildly. So how you do this reform, how you diversity and maintain the integrity of the Russian state is a—I think, a—from the standpoint of the Kremlin leadership, a paradox that they haven’t—they haven’t mastered.


MARTEN: Couple thoughts on that. The Russian agricultural sector seems to be doing pretty well as a result not of response to Western sanctions, but in response to Putin’s countersanctions against the West, where he decided not to allow the imports of basic foodstuffs. And as a result, the Russian diary industry and the Russian meat industry are doing quite well. So that is one place where diversification seems to be having some effect.

But when we’re thinking about basic reforms of the Russian economy, I think it’s important to keep in mind that Russia currently works as a patronage-based political system. Which means that it is in Vladimir Putin’s interest, and the interest of his inner circle, to keep the number of large enterprises limited so that they can monitor what’s happening and who’s loyal. And if they were to have a decentralization, and if they were to do things that were to encourage free enterprise by anybody who didn’t have political connections, they wouldn’t be able to keep control over what’s happening politically.

And so the question is, how do you imagine a future in which you don’t have the people at the top needing to be in control of the patronage-based system in order to have politics operate. So I think it’s a little bit different from the situation that Gorbachev was facing. I don’t think the Russian system today looks much like the Soviet system did. Certainly there was patronage in the Soviet system too, but the Communist party bureaucracy was—had an independent effect on this. But there really isn’t a bureaucratic counterpart today. It’s a question of how Putin maintains control. And I think that’s—I don’t think there’s going to be much change for that for reason.

MORAN: Well, thank you, Kim, Tom. I wanted to open this for members’ questions. I want to remind everybody, when you raise your hand wait for the microphone, please, you know, give us an idea of who you are, your affiliation. And, all right, have at it. Right here.

Q: Hi. My name is Neil St. Clair. I was formerly with the Karma Network, focused on impact investing, and how work in child sexual abuse prevention.

I want to ask—I hope it won’t come across as an ignorant question, but a first principles question—which is, how did we get here? I think we’ve talked a lot about consequences, but not cause. The wall fell down, capitalism came in, we’re not supposed to be in this situation. So I guess, why is Russia at loggerheads in so many areas with the United States? Is it a question of economic and national interest? Is it Putin being an authoritarian? And why has Putin been allowed to rise? Because I think as we want to unpack solutions I want to understand causation a little bit more. It seems like we should be allies and friends, and yet we’re not. So I’d love to understand a little bit more of that consequential moment in the ’90s that’s led us to where we are today.

MORAN: OK. Who wants to hit that one? That’s—there’s so many answers to that question.

MARTEN: I can start. Yeah, it’s a very complex question, and there’s no easy answer. It’s not that there was one moment in time that wrecked the relationship. It’s that the relationship was progressively wrecked over time. I would say that the U.S. moved very quickly in the 1990s in ways that it might have made sense to move more slowly in terms of a new architecture that was developed. I think that there’s been too much made of NATO enlargement as being what is the causal problem. I don’t think NATO enlargement is what caused a sense of Russian threat.

I think the primary thing that caused a sense of Russian threat from Western behavior was unilateral interventions without U.N. Security Council support, because that meant that Russia’s one remaining power tool in the world, its veto on the U.N. Security Council, no longer could control what the U.S. did. I don’t think that the means that the U.S. should have necessarily acted differently, for example, in Kosovo. But we might have acted differently in Iraq. And at the same time, I think that things have been happening domestically at a Russian level that have nothing to do with what’s happening in the United States, or nothing to do with the international situation.

And I think we have to keep in mind in addition to being an authoritarian that Putin has very strong connections to criminal background, and that many of the interests that he’s pursuing internationally are not just Russian national interests. They’re his personal financial interests. And that that is something that contributes to the negativity of the situation.


GRAHAM: I would—this is sort of a broader framework. You know, the interesting thing is why we thought after 1991 we should be partners across a whole range of issues. You look at the U.S.-Russian relationship historically, we’ve been competitors from the time the United States emerged as a major global power at the end of the nineteenth century. A lot of that difference was geopolitical. Different geopolitical interest in East Asia and in Europe that have developed over time. We’ve had different concepts of world order, how the world should be ordered, how it should be structured, what the role of the major powers should be, what role rules play in the international system. And we’ve had fundamentally different systems of values that have informed our political system. So I’d add an ideological element to the geopolitical competition that we had.

In 1991, there was a hope, I think, in the United States that all those things disappeared, that for somehow we had in fact reached the end of history, there was no—there was no alternative to a Western liberal democratic style if you wanted to thrive as a great—or, as any type of power in the twenty-first century. And we assumed that Russia was going to move in this democratic direction. And we based a lot of our—at least our rhetoric, public rhetoric, on the fact that Russia was making this transition that undergirded what would be the cooperative relationship between Russia and the United States.

But what we’ve seen over the past thirty years, what we saw even in the 1990s and 2000, was Russia’s own political transitions reasserting themselves as they came through this period of tremendous political crisis, socioeconomic collapse. And they did what you would expect them to do. They rediscovered themselves and had to organize themselves politically. And that was at odds with the way the United States wanted the world to be organized. And it was at odds with the way we thought partnership would work. How can you be a partner with an authoritarian power? You can only be a partner with a democratic power. That’s what we thought.

The second thing I think that was a significant factor here is that throughout the period up until 2014 we seriously underestimated Russia’s power. Now, in the 1990s that was probably a correct assessment, but Russia under Putin has regained a significant amount of its power, its ability to project that beyond its border, coupled with the political will to defend its national interests. So where NATO expansion may have been an issue but not one that led to a confrontation between Russia and the United States in the 1990s, in the early 2000s. When we moved into Eastern Europe, regions of the former Warsaw Pact, it really did become a problem, when we moved directly into integral parts of the Soviet Empire and the Russian Empire, when we were interested in Ukraine and Georgia.

And what Russia demonstrated in 2008 and again in 2014, is that it was prepared to use force to prevent what it saw as an American-led effort to extend NATO, the American sphere of influence, if you will, into areas that the Russians saw as critical to their own—their own national security going forward. So I think there’s a historical element to this, a geopolitical ideological, and then a misreading of what Russia was in 1990s, that has led to where we are at this point. So in a sense, where we are now is in a natural place for U.S.-Russian relations. Probably more dangerous than we would like it to be. We need to put some guardrails on this relationship. But that we’re competitors shouldn’t be a great surprise to anyone who’s looked at this through a historical lens.

MORAN: And it’s worth mentioning that Gorbachev, for all his good intentions and Nobel Peace Prize, is a deeply unpopular figure in his own country now.

Right here. Yes.

Q: (Off mic.) So I sympathize with your—(comes on mic)—whoops.

GRAHAM: Success all around.

Q: Right. My name is Toby Gati. I now have a consulting firm, but I had the same job Tom did in the White House, a special assistant to the president.

My question to you is maybe it has to be this way. But what you are talking about is the agenda of the 1980s—arms control, strategic security, regional conflicts—minus important elements. There’s no economic component really. I mean, I shouldn’t say that. I’m on a board that has a lot of economic relationships, and there is a U.S.-Russia Business Council. But there’s no organized, on the government level, if you will, exchanges, or an interest in that. No exchanges, frankly. No student interaction, which means our next generation is not going to have the experiences we did. And so if we aren’t even where we are in the 1980s, do you see any way of getting there? Is there way of expanding the agenda to include a broader agenda? I know President Putin doesn’t seem very interested in some of these agreements, but we don’t either. And I wondered if—are we frozen until 2024, a date I pick which has relevance to both countries.

MARTEN: (Laughs.)

GRAHAM: Yeah, let me—want me to—and then I’ll leave it to Kim.

You know, we ought to be doing more on the exchange side. I mean, it’s a real tragedy that we’ve cut off a lot of that. A lot of that the Russians have done—(coughs)—excuse me—but, you know, we’re making an effort to limit those types of contacts right now. A lot of Russians who get admitted to American universities now have problems getting visas. Why we are denying visas to Russians who want to come and study humanities in the United States is something of a mystery to me at this point. So we ought to be fostering that type of dialogue, that type of interaction between our younger people, in particular. We ought to be encouraging more tourism in each country. We ought to be encouraging the cultural exchanges that we had in the—in the Soviet period, and things that have become more complicated now because of the toxicity of Russia in the United States, particularly in Washington, and to a certain extent the toxicity of the United States and Moscow, and elsewhere.

On the economic side, again, I’m all for trying to expand contacts. There’s still a lot of American companies that are invested and are doing quite well in Russia. But I think we have, over time, tended to exaggerate the extent to which we can develop the economic relationship between our two counties. I think there’s a lot less American interest in investing in Russia than there is elsewhere in the world. China would be a case. Less interest on the Russian side in investing in the United States. And the fact of the matter is that our economies aren’t complementary, right? We are competitors on the global stage. We export oil and gas. The Russian export oil and gas. We export grain. The Russians export grain. We export arms. The Russians export arms.

The desire for American companies to get engaged in the Russian market in the 1990s, when you were looking at this expanding sort of consumer class—you looked at one hundred and fifty million people at that time and said: Well, if they get rich they’re going to buy things. And they did, initially. But the expansion of that now, you can’t look at these exponential leaps in the size of that consuming class. So Russia becomes much less attractive as a place to invest for consumer goods distribution.

And the final point I would make here, which is interesting, is that even when American companies invested in Russia in the 1990s and the 2000s, the one thing that we—American companies never did, and the Russians never really pushed for, was to make Russia part of this—sort of this global change. If you produced in Russia, you produced to sell in Russia. You never thought of producing in Russia to sell things abroad. And so, again, the conclusion I’d draw is that American business, by and large, is really not that interested in Russia. This relationship will not be sustained by an economic relationship. This relationship is fundamentally what it has been historically, which is a security relationship. An important and critical one to global security, but it doesn’t have the broad dimensions of our relationship with a country like China.

MARTEN: Just two very brief things on the student exchanges. We have to keep in mind that Putin shut down a lot of those programs, probably because he didn’t want people to come to the United States for long periods of time. But that secondly, the Carnegie Corporation has been very good about funding young people’s exchange programs, including those that are continuing at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. So we shouldn’t give up hope.

MORAN: Let’s take someone from the back. How about this gentleman in the blue? Oh, I’m sorry. It’s an understandable mistake. You first.

Q: Oh, OK. Thank you. It’ll be an interesting question. I’m Lucy Komisar. I am a journalist.

Der Spiegel in Germany has just published a major investigation documenting that investor William Browder, famous for promoting anti-Russian Magnitsky Acts around the West, is a fraudster, a tax cheat, and his Magnitsky story, on which the U.S. and other Magnitsky Acts are based, is a fabrication, in some cases based on his forged documents. That Magnitsky was not a whistleblower, but his tax accountant, whose death in a Russian prison resulted from mistreated illness, with no evidence of murder. As the Magnitsky Act is a major impediment to better U.S. relations, which Tom—which you advocate—will you examine and, if you agree, speak out on the Der Spiegel revelations?

GRAHAM: That’s a question directed towards me, I think, right? You know, there has been a large debate about Magnitsky over the years. You know, I haven’t read the Der Spiegel, so I don’t know what the details are of that. I’ve seen some other information over time. I tend to believe that the broad outlines of Browder’s story are, in fact, correct. And I’ve seen some of the dissenting views as well. But I think it’s correct. You know, that said, I wasn’t supportive of the Magnitsky Act. I don’t think that it makes sense to levy sanctions against the Russians for that purpose. It was certainly, I think, a mistake on the American part when this was first announced to focus this exclusively on Russia, not give it a global—a global focus. That, I think, has been corrected.

But my own sense is that these types of sanctions do very little to improve the situation inside Russia. They do very little to punish the individuals that are engaged in acts that we find problematic—in part, because those people don’t bank in the United States, and they don’t generally take their vacations in the United States. And so I just don’t—I would sort of put this issue to the side, if I possibly could, in the relationship.

MORAN: All right, the gentleman in the beard and the blue suit. (Laughter.) Lucy, the New York Rangers need you, Lucy.

GRAHAM: That’s me.

Q: Thank you so much. There seems to be—Peter Kutzen, Morgan Stanley Risk Management. Thank you.

So when we’re thinking about a pragmatic relationship, there seems to be, like, a fundamental divide. You have this identity shift that’s taking place within Russia, and then you have a complete lack of trust. And so these don’t quite seem to square with pragmatic reengagement. And it’s a very interesting example, Mr. Graham, that you bring up with this subject of Ukraine, is how maybe you would reintegrate the Donbas with Ukraine. Russia could have Crimea, something of that sort. But I seem to remember that around the time of the invasion in 2014, that, you know, there were senior Russian security officials, the Novorossiya project had such emotional fervor. They wanted to go all the way to Kyiv, this sort of thing. So they had to settle for something else.

And then it seems like it’s not so much tension as much as complete war mentality within the establishment. Whether it’s proxy conflicts, whether it’s in the intelligence sphere. So it just seems like we’re going to have to establish a minimum level of trust and reconcile ourselves, and somehow grapple with a very emotional identity shift within the Russian establishment. So how do we—how do we do that? How do we get to the table, but then have some substance and overcome that divide as well?

GRAHAM: You know, we didn’t start out in the—in the Soviet period with a great deal of trust either, during the Cold War period. And we managed to find a way to manage that relationship, certainly in the 1970s, in a way that dealt with the nuclear issue, reduced the risk of a nuclear confrontation, inserted some restraint in the way we competed elsewhere in the world, and allowed us to work on some international issues. Space, for example, that blossomed during that period.

I think where you start now is that if there’s anything that you can trust the Russians to do, and that is to defend their national interests. And so we really do need to have a very good understanding of how they look at the world, how they define their interest, where the red lines are, as a way of building a relationship that isn’t necessarily founded on broad-based trust, but on this narrow issue, that does in a sense regulate the competition, that pulls us off this perch that we’re on very dangerously now, where we could tip over into confrontation in a number of different places.

If you’re going to do that, you have to engage. You have to have an ongoing conversation with the Russians at high levels of government, but also throughout the bureaucracy, something that we have been resistant to doing since 2014, which I think is a mistake. Remember, this type of engagement, we’re not talking about cooperation. We’re not talking about treating the Russians as partners. We’re doing this as a matter of prudence. We want to understand them, what the challenges are that they face. We want them to understand where our red lines are as a way of managing what is going to be a competitive relationship, in a way that is safe for the two countries. So that’s where I would start on this. Trust may come later on, but that’s not what—I think you don’t need that broad-based trust to begin the type of dialogue that I’m talking about.

MORAN: Well, Kim, the last time we had that kind of a dialogue, when Reagan and Gorbachev managed to really change, you know, the paradigm, they had a lot of political capital, mutually, between them to spend. Reagan had won his second term. Gorbachev was perestroika and glasnost were not yet derisively referred to by Russians. It was exciting new things. Are we anywhere near that situation, where the leaders of these two countries have either the incentive or the political capital to start a genuine dialogue?

MARTEN: I think Gorbachev was a very unique human being, and we should not expect another Gorbachev to emerge in Russia anytime soon, I think for the reasons that you’ve indicated, that many Russians believe that he’s responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union and therefore for the selling out of Soviet national interest. But I think Gorbachev was a very creative thinker who was able to see beyond a short-sighted view of his interests. And I guess we can hope that there are more creative leaders that emerge in the future. But I would just agree with Tom that you don’t need trust to have dialogue. And you don’t need trust to have some basic interests recognized as being in common with each other. I don’t think we trusted each other during the Cold War.

On Ukraine in particular, I would hope that it does not become something that is a geopolitical football between the two countries, the United States and Russia, trying to decide what that “buffer zone,” quote/unquote, should look like. I think we need to recognize that Ukraine deserves our support because it is a sovereign state and a democracy that held free elections in 2019, where the people elected were people that are believed to be the best ones capable of overcoming corruption and gaining peace. And I think that it would be sad if we decided to sell out Ukraine for the sake of having some sort of strategic cooperation with Russia, because I think that Ukraine has demonstrated that it wants to be part of the West. And it’s moving in that direction. And I think we owe it our support.

GRAHAM: Mike, can I add one comment here?

MORAN: Absolutely.

GRAHAM: What’s lacking in order to have a dialogue with the Russians today, to a certain extent, is stability inside the administration. You know, we have moved in that direction only to have things cut off by personnel changes. John Bolton actually had a fairly good trip to Moscow in October of 2018. He had a long conversation with his counterpart, a man named Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the security council. They didn’t agree on much, and you wouldn’t expect them to agree on much, but they talked across the full range of national interest and concerns on both sides. That was cut off by the Kerch incident in Ukraine. But it got restarted last summer, actually, in a trilateral format in Jerusalem. But the two men had a bilateral as well.

We’ve had a series of, I think, very good conversations by our special representatives on a series of discrete issues—North Korea, Afghanistan in particular. What I hear is that the Russians have been mildly constructive in how they’ve dealt with that. You know, so we had a good meeting between the two presidents in Osaka. At least, it wasn’t disastrous, the way in Helsinki was. And that’s sort of the mark of success now. But everything changed in the fall. Bolton has been fired or resigned. So that dialogue doesn’t continue. The people who were managing the relationship day-to-day inside the administration and in Moscow shifted. Fiona Hill resigned. Ambassador Huntsman resigned. So we’re in a period of rebuilding those types of contacts.

And then Secretary Pompeo had his first meeting with Lavrov after being in office for a year in May of this year. He had—he’s had a series of meetings, most recently in Washington last week. And that would prove to be a—could prove to be a good channel to have these types of conversation, except the rumor is that Secretary Pompeo is going to run for the Senate from Kansas. So he’s going to have to resign sometime in the next—in the next several weeks. So unless we have in place individuals that can conduct this dialogue over an extended period, it’s going to be very hard to do this. So one would hope that will a—after 2020, whatever happens, that we can get some stability in the personnel that would allow us to start this conversation in a serious way.

MORAN: So I’m going to exercise my moderating prerogative here and talk about the elephant and donkey in the room. Somehow we’ve managed not to get a question on it. I can’t believe it. We deliberately steered clear of it, thinking that everybody’d be asking for this. But so I’ll start with a small anecdote. I had lunch with a former ambassador to the United States from Rwanda once. And she said to me, what do I do about this problem? She went on her iPhone, and she typed in Rwanda, and what came up was genocide. First result. She said, how do I fix this? Do you know anybody at Google? I said, well, no. But is there a way for us as American citizens to delink the concept of Ukraine and Russia from Mueller and the impeachment? Or are we now in the situation where, as with Vietnam, which was just a war for years, and Rwanda and its genocide—are we now—is that baggage that we’re not going to be able to unload?

MARTEN: I would say that there’s a huge difference between Russian interference in the election and the Rwanda case that you mentioned, which is that the regime in Rwanda had changed by the time that people wanted to take Rwanda and the genocide off of relationship to each other. I think it would be a terrible mistake for us to forget that the Putin regime did interfere in the 2016 election, it interfered again in the 2018 election, and election experts are predicting it’s going to try to interfere again in the 2020 election. So I don’t think we’re ready to delink that yet.

MORAN: Tom? I know I have to ask. (Laughs.)

GRAHAM: You have to ask me. Look, Putin did interfere. The Russians interfered in 2016. I think that’s clear. Did it affect the result of the election? My own view is no. And I think that’s—and that’s the position that we ought to operate on. They’re going to continue to interfere. But a lot of other countries are going to interfere in our election this way in 2020. The Chinese, the North Koreans, the Iranians have an incentive to do this. We need to keep that issue on the agenda in our conversations with the Russians. But what we really need to do in the United States is to deal with the issue in a way that prevents or reduces the risk of hostile powers being able to penetrate our computer systems, our electoral systems, to do the—and weaponize the information in the way the Russians did, but prevent them from corrupting voter rolls, or perhaps even corrupting vote tallies at the end.

And we know we need to do that. And we haven’t done nearly enough. We ought to be able to harden our systems much better than we have. It’s a difficult political problem because it involves federal-state relations, public-private. You get into the issues of civil liberties. But because it’s a difficult political problem in the United States doesn’t mean that we ought to use the Russians as an excuse for doing—not doing what we need to do on our own—on our own part.

And then finally, when it comes to the—to the social media, I think we really have to think about, you know, the Russians aren’t the only people who manipulate us through social media. It’s a common problem. And we need to deal with that, again, as a national and a public policy issue, of how we’re going to operate in this new digital environment. How do we educate our population to be discerning when they look at this information, to know when they’re being manipulated and how they’re being manipulated, so that they can be active citizens of a democratic society?

So my concern is not that we don’t need to do something with the Russians about this, but we’re using the Russians as an excuse to deal with a hard—to not deal with the hard public policy issues in the United States. That’s the real danger to our democracy going forward. Most of the problems that we have are domestic in origin, that require serious debate and serious decision-making in the United States. And we’re engaged in things that don’t focus the debate on that. We’re engaged in accusations, tribalism, and so forth. And that’s going to be a real problem for us going forward. The Russians will exploit that. But they’re not the only ones that are going to exploit that.

MORAN: Well, I’m going to have to wrap it up there. I want to thank everyone who came out in this miserable weather to attend today, and thank the panelists, Kim Marten and Tom Graham. (Applause.)

MARTEN: Thank you.


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