With the Winter Olympics at Sochi set to begin in a matter of days, Former Ambassador John Beyrle, Angela E. Stent of Georgetown University, and CFR's Stephen Sestanovich discuss the current state and recent history of U.S.-Russia relations with Andrew Guff. The post-Soviet U.S.-Russia relationship has been marked by a periodic boom-bust cycle of closer cooperation followed by a mutual drifting apart. While Edward Snowden and the ongoing political crisis in Ukraine are significant irritants to the current relationship, the joint effort to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war demonstrates the ability of the two governments to constructively work together.
GUFF: OK, good evening, everyone. And welcome to tonight's Council panel on U.S.-Russia relations on the eve of the Sochi Winter Olympics. We have for you tonight an all-star panel of Russia experts across the spectrum, and let me briefly introduce them to you.
To my left is Ambassador John Beyrle. John is the most recent—before Mike McFaul—U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation, 2008-2012, very active in the reset under President Obama.
Dr. Angela Stent, she's the director and—for the Center of Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies at Georgetown.
And Ambassador and Dr. Steve Sestanovich, whom all of you know from his role here at the Council. I'm clearly the most under-titled person on this panel tonight. And so with that degree envy, let me welcome our panelists tonight.
I also want to give a warm welcome to the CFR members around the nation, around the world who are plugging into us tonight through the live meeting stream. So welcome to everyone there.
And I would just like to mention one housekeeping note. Our next meeting here at the Council is with Karl Eikenberry, Jeffrey Bader, and Michael Green on what to do about tensions in Asia, same time, same place tomorrow, 5:30 here at the Council. I would like to mention, also, tonight's session is on-the-record.
Let's start with the general topic. The Sochi Olympics are coming up, and it gives us a very time for pause to take a look at the state of U.S.-Russian relations. Angela, your book is just out, and so I'd like to ask you to kick off. How would you describe today the state of relations at this point between the U.S. and Russia?
STENT: Thank you very much, Drew, and I'm delighted to be here. As usual, it's complicated. You have the trifecta of Snowden, Syria and Sochi, and they all illustrate different things about this complicated, as I said, partnership. Edward Snowden, that caused real, serious problems in U.S.-Russian relations. The White House was very angry that he was given political asylum in Russia. President Obama canceled a summit with President Putin, and I think it's one of the reasons why neither he, nor the vice president, nor the first lady are going to attend the opening ceremonies at the Sochi games. So that shows a bilateral relationship that has many problems.
But Syria, this is an area, it's a multilateral area where we're working quite well with the Russians. We can maybe go into the details of how that happened. The Russians took the initiative. It enabled us to work with them and ward off any kind of military attack, so both with the chemical weapons, disarmament, and now in Geneva, we work quite well together.
And then there's Sochi, and there again in Sochi, it's a mixed picture. We are working with the Russians on the security problems. We're not working as well with them as we might like. I think both sides are wary about sharing too much intelligence information with each other in dealing with the terrorist threat, but we're working with them. Our athletes are going there. We will be competing. We'll send a lower-level delegation, but still this is an area where we have done things together.
And so I think it presents a picture that has been characteristic for the last 22 years, since the Soviet Union collapsed, which is on some areas, we can and must work with the Russians. We're fated to work with them on areas like Syria, Iran, the broader Middle East, and on other areas, particularly bilateral areas where we criticize them for what they do domestically and vice versa. It's very hard to work with them.
GUFF: John, you worked on the original reset, and maybe you can shed some light on what were the areas on which the U.S. and Russia found common interests and what were the areas where you just agreed to disagree?
BEYRLE: Well, I think as Angela notes in her book, resets, then detentes kind of come and go in the U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russia relationship. Just in my 30 years of diplomacy, I think I can count about three or four detentes...
SESTANOVICH: I think Angela says there were four.
BEYRLE: There were four, OK.
SESTANOVICH: There were three initiated by a U.S. presidents, one by Putin.
BEYRLE: So I think the question is, really, what is it that makes a reset happen? What are the preconditions that allow Russia and the United States or the Soviet Union and the United States to actually find common ground? When I arrived in Moscow as ambassador in 2008, I found the relationship to be about as tense and frayed as I've ever experienced it in my career, and this was a month before Russian forces went into Georgia.
I think mostly for economic reasons, as a consequence of the economic boom that Russia enjoyed between about 2003 and 2008, the Russian elite, the Kremlin had convinced itself, really, that it didn't need the West anymore. And it had even kind of conceived a narrative that the West was responsible for some of the problems that Russia had encountered.
So by sheer chance, when I arrived, it coincided with President Medvedev's arrival on the scene and, I'd say, more importantly the election of a new U.S. president, Barack Obama, which allowed the Russians to turn the page and to drop the litany of grievances that they'd conceived against the Bush administration.
But the most important reason that the reset happened was not political, but economic. It was the economic crisis that hit Russia in 2008-2009, worse than any other emerging economy. The bottom dropped out of the Russian stock markets. The ruble lost 10 percent of its value. Russia, which had been clipping along at 7 percent growth for 6 or 7 years in a row, suddenly had negative 10 percent growth.
And what that did was give ammunition to the economic reformers in the Russian elite who had been arguing that it was time for the economy to actually diversify itself and become more modern, more innovative. President Obama wanted to be a part of that. We saw this in the Obama administration as an opportunity, and we were fortunate, I would say, in that President Medvedev at that time had several advisers who were not only convinced that the kind of change in the Russian economy was—it was time for it to happen, but they actually knew how to work the system.
And I would say the most important outcome of that was the WTO accession by Russia. That would not have happened if Russia hadn't found itself in these dire economic straits. The other two issues I'd say that probably were the biggest successes or the best outcomes of the reset were the START treaty, continued the nuclear builddown by both countries, and the Afghanistan agreement, whereby the Russians actually agreed to help with the resupply of American forces in Afghanistan, all things that Putin agreed on, but all three issues that President Medvedev and his advisers pushed through to find a common cause with the Obama administration.
GUFF: Steve, having mentioned these four resets, why is it that we keep doing this dance over and over? Why is it that the relationship with Russia seems to be a triumph of hope over experience?
SESTANOVICH: Well, I think the main reason is that Russia hasn't decided how to align itself. It is uncomfortable with the idea of—of integration into the West. And it is disinclined just to think that its ordinary disagreements with the United States are clashes merely of national interest.
For Putin in particular, there is a kind of civilizational dimension to his—his estrangement from the West, which is—I think one of the reasons that the relationship has taken on the prickly quality that it has, going beyond just personality clashes, I think for Putin, Putin has a different conception of how the world ought to work. He treats sovereignty as something semi-holy. And for him, the assertion of Russian will is part of establishing Russian identity in the modern world.
I mean, it's a—this is not just a set—and here I think we may have left this out in the accounts which otherwise I completely agree with that Angela and John have given—there is a kind of ideological dimension to Putin's—the way in which he's distanced himself from the West. It's a principle. He doesn't want to be part of the American block, and he doesn't think that these are just ordinary disagreements.
The biggest one is, of course, this whole issue of how the West relates to political change in other countries, the idea that the West encourages reform and transformation is for him a—is really anathema. And that, I think, is the deepest kind of problem that Russia has with us.
GUFF: Is this...
STENT: Could I just add something to that?
STENT: I think that the—we and the Russians, if you look over—again, over the period—just at the 22 years, never mind going back—have a very different idea about what a good and productive relationship would look like. And for the Russians—and that's in my book—it's really the idea of, particularly since Putin came to power, of having something which one of my Russian colleagues described as an equal partnership of unequals. It's for the U.S. to treat Russia as an equal, even understanding that in many ways we aren't, at least since the Soviet collapse, and for us accepting, as Steve said, what Russia is and not trying to persuade them that they should become more like us, whereas I think our idea of what a productive relationship with Russia is, is working with a Russia that more or less shares our values. And I think that's a fundamental problem.
BEYRLE: Yeah, I would—if I could, I would try to boil that down to a kind of paradigm that we identified when we were all working on this relationship back in the late '90s and early 2000s. It seemed to us at that time that Russia always wanted to have a special relationship with the United States. The specialness, strategic partnership, detente, whatever it was, in a way, validated the sense of self-worth in the Kremlin, to a certain degree, at that time.
I think that really has changed. And when I was back in Moscow earlier last year with all the former U.S. ambassadors and Russian ambassadors to the United States, Foreign Minister Ivanov—sorry, Lavrov—said to us, Russia really doesn't want a special relationship with the United States anymore. Russia wants a normal relationship with the United States.
And I think part of the problem is our getting used to the fact that Russia really does not measure its sense of self-worth or place in the world by the level of the relationship that it has with the United States. And I think that's underlying a lot of some of the tensions that we feel now.
GUFF: Steve, you mentioned this unique Russian view of itself and its place in the world. How much of that goes back to Russia trying to define its identity in terms of grand Russian destiny, its—its messianic place in the world, from the struggles between Slavophiles and Westerners? Is this part of a long wave of historic cycles? Or is this just Mr. Putin's view of the world and where Russia fits in according to hard-headed realistic goals?
SESTANOVICH: Well, great historians have written about this, and great Russian historians, too, and...
GUFF: And great panelists have, Steve.
SESTANOVICH: I'm not going to say any of that is wrong, but I think right now, we're mostly dealing with the—with Russia's adjustment to the Soviet collapse, and then the sense of vindication that they've taken from rebuilding themselves in their economy and society as a kind of working international player in the past 10 years.
So we can do a lot of grand cultural interpretation and, you know—this is a good group for that—but I think the immediate issues that—that have dogged the relationship have—may have a slightly narrower character than that.
Putin is thinking constantly about whether or not the United States is promoting regime change in the former Soviet Union. In the '90s, as John says, that was something that everybody accepted in a way. We didn't call it regime change. We were talking about promoting reform. Clinton administration talked about having an alliance with reform. In just the way that John and Angela have described, Putin feels that was demeaning, we've gotten past it, we don't need it, and he feels that his own historical standing is confirmed by rejecting it.
BEYRLE: I think it's also worth noting that—I mean, we talk a lot about Putin and the Kremlin or the Russians, and we're not talking about one thing. I mean, there are people in Russia now in the elite with power who really do think that Russia's fate is tied up in closer association with the West, or at least in a greater economic integration with Western institutions. And they are kind of locked in a battle with Revanchist or—I think Brzezinski called them imperial nostalgics—who always view the outside world with some sense of suspicion or even as a hostile force.
And clearly, we're never part of that debate as Westerners, but we have a huge stake in how it turns out. And the best that we can try to do is identify the people that we see on the right side of the debate, the debate that takes Russia into a more integrated way of dealing with the outside world, because this is the 21st century. Russians make about 35 million trips abroad on average now. The Internet is not censored in Russia.
So the idea that the imperial nostalgics build this mythology of a Russia under siege, building walls to keep the outside world at bay doesn't work in this century. And I think, you know, the tides of history are on the side of the reformers.
SESTANOVICH: John is absolutely right about this. There are plenty of Russians who do still want a special relationship with the United States...
BEYRLE: Or with Brussels.
SESTANOVICH: ... who do view their progress according to how they integrate with the West. There are plenty of Russians who want to be in the E.U.
BEYRLE: That's right, some of whom have run for president before, like Mr. Prokhorov.
GUFF: But I want—at the same time, we're talking about integration with the West, integration with the rest of the world, but yet the major part of government policy, the Kremlin policy is building the Eurasian trade and economic and political sphere of influence at—how realistic, Angela, do you think the goal of Eurasian economic trade and political space is?
STENT: I mean, it seems—you know, five years ago, I think we would have thought none of this is likely. Today, I think one can question it more. Obviously, if you look at what's happening in Ukraine, nobody knows where it's going, but this is clearly an instance where, on the one hand, it looks as if Russia, you know, at least for the time being, has gotten the Ukrainian government to agree to closer integration.
I mean, at the moment, you have a customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus. You have Armenia that's going to join. I doubt that Putin can create this Eurasian union, which will be a sort of Soviet Union-lite. But I do think that there are profound problems of—in really all of the post-Soviet countries, they all suffer from the same kind of syndrome, which are these kind of corrupt, rather opaque governments, and where you may have popular movements for more democracy, and the ties that bind with Russia may be stronger than we thought they would be.
So I don't think there will be the creation of another Eurasian union, but I think Putin will do all he can to make sure that a country like Ukraine doesn't have closer association with the European Union and that there will be—that this will be still a different bloc and it will look towards Russia.
SESTANOVICH: I think one fact that just drives home what Angela is saying is, four of the five Central Asian countries trade more with China than with Russia. The Ukrainians trade as much with Europe as with Russia. The idea that the Russians have that their economic weight is so great that they can dictate the terms of economic relations or political relations with their neighbors is, I think, really out of date. They sort of—that had a plausibility 20 years ago that it doesn't have anymore.
GUFF: Before we go to member questions, I want to hit on two of your other—two of the other S's, Snowden, Syria, Sochi. So, Syria. Will we see real progress on the Syria conflict? What, John, has Russia's role been? And what do we think the outcome is going to be?
BEYRLE: Well, I won't hazard a guess on the outcome. I think that Russia's position on this has been governed largely by what Steve talked about earlier, the sense that the United States really doesn't have the right to throw its weight around in the world. And much of what motivated both President Medvedev and, I think, especially President Putin on this was a very clear sense that Russia was going to put a marker down that intervention, especially armed intervention, to change a government was something that Russia, having acquiesced to that in the Libya case, would never again acquiesce to.
I think if you look at what Russia has done, everything is very explainable, very understandable from that point of view. We've obviously found a modus vivendi or modus labore (ph) now. I'm delighted to see that the two sides are at least in the same room. I'm not sure if they're talking to each other or not, but the fact that they're in the same room and the fact that the U.S. and Russia can take credit for working together on an issue that, for the three years—two years, at least, that I was ambassador was the single most divisive issue in U.S.-Russia relations is quite a step forward.
"So I don't think there will be the creation of another Eurasian union, but I think Putin will do all he can to make sure that a country like Ukraine doesn't have closer association with the European Union and that there will be—that this will be still a different bloc and it will look towards Russia."
GUFF: Angela, do you think that Putin and Russia essentially bailed out the Obama administration on the Syria issue?
GUFF: And is Russia at all vindicated on this Syria issue?
STENT: Well, I'll be a little bit more diplomatic, and I will say that the U.S. government—the White House hesitated and Russia stepped in. And basically, I mean, I think Putin is a very smart politician. And I think he was able to capitalize on the dithering in the West—and I put the West together in general—about, do you use force, do you not use force?
And I think to some extent, the Russian position from the beginning was that Assad would prevail. They've done something to help him prevail. And I think at the moment, it looks as if he may, at least for some time. And I think the other part where they may be vindicated was also warning that a lot of the Syrian opposition was controlled by extremist, radical, Al Qaida-linked forces, and we now find out—now find out that, in fact, that's largely true.
So I think they're—and they want strong secular governments in this part of the world for their own reasons. And I think in—in a way, we're not that far apart on that, but obviously we've differed on how you get there.
GUFF: Steve, on Iran, probably the largest issue on the foreign policy level—is this going to also overshadow any progress on arms control? Has arms control now taken a back seat to Iran and denuclearizing—potentially denuclearizing Iran?
SESTANOVICH: I think arms control could take a back seat to just about any issue you could come up with in Russian-American relations, because the Russians aren't very interested. This administration hoped that some kind of arms control deal, a new START II, could be an instrument for reviving the reset. And the Russians just made it clear they aren't particularly interested and have rebuffed efforts to try to, you know, come up with that idea, rebuff suggestions by the Americans that they take different pieces of it, try to make it work.
Iran is a big issue for the Russians for a lot of different reasons. They have pretty good relations with Iran. But they also have the extra interest that we've been talking about off and on here, which is that a solution is a way of preventing the use of American force, because American force is the big no-no of relations between Moscow and Washington over all the postwar decades. And it is—both the postwar decades.
It's what the Russians most want to avoid, because it indicates their inability to prevent outcomes that they—that they don't approve of. It shows the meaninglessness of a U.N. veto and so forth. So there's a—there's a real interest on the part of the Russians to actually make this work, and I think it's—I mean, most American officials believe that the Russians have played a pretty constructive role.
BEYRLE: But it really has changed. When I joined the foreign service in '83, went to Moscow on my first tour, arms control was the center of gravity in the U.S.-Soviet relationship, no question about it. It's what everyone wanted to do, because it's what mattered, and not for nothing, and it still matters, because we're both armed to the teeth, 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, as we know.
The problem is that as the arms control equation has kind of receded, as the center of gravity, nothing's moved into its place. I think eventually economics, trade and investment and economic partnerships will, but it's not there yet. The advice that I give to the young foreign service officers I meet now is, don't study arms control. Don't make that your specialty. Make your specialty the economics of energy, and you'll have full employment in the 21st century.
GUFF: One more question before we go to members. Russian domestic politics, the demonstrations of a year, 18 months ago are now kind of a distant memory, things much calmer in Moscow and the other cities. What does that say about the relationship between government and the people right now in Russia? What does it say about looking forward to the end of Putin's first term? His second first term?
STENT: His second—well, I would say—I mean, I'll start off, maybe. I think Putin has quite successfully dealt with the kind of liberal pro-Western left. I mean, in some ways, he's made enough concessions to them, he's in a dialogue with them, and you don't see that many people on the streets anymore. That part of the opposition is quieter. It's always divided, too.
What I think he hasn't dealt well with in the longer run is the nationalist opposition to him, or the people who don't like the people from the Caucasus who work in, you know, the big cities and who are much more hard-line and extreme. And that, I think, may come back to haunt him, as we see with all of the things that are happening in the North Caucasus.
"So there's a—there's a real interest on the part of the Russians to actually make this work, and I think it's—I mean, most American officials believe that the Russians have played a pretty constructive role."
But his popularity rates are up. The question is, I—you know, what'll make it much more difficult for him will be what happens in the Russian economy, what happens to oil prices? If growth rates are at 1.4 percent for the next few years, as they're predicted to be, then it makes it more difficult.
SESTANOVICH: There's an interesting—interesting poll today or the past couple of days showing that 68 percent of Russians would vote for Putin today, but only 22 percent said they want him to run again in 2018, and 47 percent said they would prefer somebody else. So this is a very common view, which actually you probably could have gotten similar poll results in 2012. A lot of people in the Russian elite, people who'd benefited from Putinism, felt this is a guy whose moment has passed and for Russia to become a normal country, we need to be able to draw on new leaders, we need a system in which we actually have replacement of leaders, where democratic processes become a bit more meaningful.
What does it mean that all of this—all the protest disappeared, that—you know, you have had (inaudible) by the opposition to local elections, you know? There are elections for the Moscow City Council this year, and if you're a serious activist in (inaudible) that's what you're focusing on, gubernatorial elections, as well.
But it's amazing to me how much—we think we do our elections early—how many Russians are already talking about 2018 and how much their sense is, if only we could find some way to edge this guy out.
GUFF: Good. We have 30 minutes of time for member questions, so let me open up the floor to questions. I remind you, your questions and the entire meeting is on-the-record. Please stand, state your name and affiliation, and ask your question.
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America and the World Conference of Religions for Peace. And I would like to thank the panelists for extremely lucid and helpful commentary. Although Ukraine was mentioned, it still is the elephant in the room, certainly as we meet today and this week. The position of the foreign ministry and the government of Russia has been that they scrupulously observe neutrality and do not interfere in internal affairs of Ukraine and that the West has been interfering grossly and inappropriately.
Now, the latter point may be true, but it's been ineffective, whereas the more quiet interference of the Russian Federation seems to have been effective, at least at the governmental level. I call friends in Ukraine a lot these days, and they are convinced that the greatest influence on decisions by the president of Ukraine comes from the Kremlin and Moscow.
GUFF: Question is?
QUESTION: And the question is, what are you thinking—the panelists—about the Ukraine-Russia relationship, which I think has a lot of potential impact on what happens in Europe and also what happens between the U.S. and Russia?
BEYRLE: I think the overall problem, Father Kishkovsky, is that there are still too many people in power in Russia who measure Russia's power and influence the old-fashioned way, by how weak the neighbors are. That's not a 21st century view. That's not a view that says if Ukraine or the Baltics or Central Asia is a robust trading partner, that's good for Russia. But unfortunately, it's, for understandable reasons, the way a lot of people still measure Russia's strength.
I think the other problem with regard specifically to Ukraine is there are still, unfortunately, too many people who don't see Ukraine as a separate sovereign entity, whose concept of Russia, if you want to call them imperial nostalgics, is inconceivable without Ukraine as a part of that. Until that knot is cut, we're, I'm afraid, going to—probably in for more disagreements and more tension, rather than less.
QUESTION: Hi, Esther Dyson. I'd just love to hear your comments on what Navalny published this morning. Is that going to change those poll results that Steve mentioned? What else—it's not that anybody's really surprised, but seeing it all out in public I think has got to have some impact.
GUFF: Can you just—Esther, can you just describe it for people who haven't seen it?
STENT: Is this about the Sochi Olympics?
QUESTION: Yeah, it's—so Navalny, the opposition leader who was in jail, let out of jail, whatever...
SESTANOVICH: Ran for Moscow mayor.
QUESTION: ... ran for Moscow mayor, much to—was allowed to run for Moscow mayor. That was the surprising part. On his website today, published in amazing detail records, documents, data, about all the corruption and construction and criminal enterprises and lack of completion of all the facilities in Sochi.
STENT: I think—I mean, I'll just start off, maybe. I think a lot of Russians understand that there's been a lot of corruption and they don't believe what the government says, anyway. And so—and the people—you know, he's preaching to the choir. The people who support him are going to be outraged by this, but they've been outraged, anyway.
And I don't think it's going to make that much difference. I mean, the figure—Medvedev used the figure $51 billion. Putin apparently used the figure of $7 billion at some point. Now Navalny says it's, what, $70 billion? I don't think it'll make that much difference, because people—you know, still, most Russians would like those games to succeed, because it's going to be a very important moment.
SESTANOVICH: I'd just add one thing. Corruption is a kind of wild card in Russian politics. There is—you can mobilize people with a certain amount of outrage about this. "They're stealing from us." And that—that has energized people in the past. The poll results all show that. And Navalny is an interesting character, because he's been able to do this kind of in the open. You know, he asks people to send him information.
They don't do anything—they don't hire private investigators. You know, they get most—I mean, the Navalny model for exposing corruption is just—is...
SESTANOVICH: ... is to invite it. It's—you know, right, WikiLeaks. Good analogy.
SESTANOVICH: And he has made himself a very formidable character in Russian politics on this basis. They have sought to give him a little running room when it has been convenient, but you should not think that he's going to be in the clear completely.
A little story about Navalny. He's registered – has been elected as the leader of the People's Alliance Party. The Kremlin quickly, after he was elected leader of the People's Alliance Party, registered another People's Alliance Party and now won't register his, because it's got the same name as somebody else.
So the—you know, they are—they're working on him. They're closing off these avenues. So I wouldn't—I just wouldn't rule out the idea that you can mobilize people in an angry way against...
GUFF: You think we're beyond it. OK.
QUESTION: Marta Varela, formerly of Hunter College. A follow-up on Sochi. The host country has, in many years, that they've acted as the sponsor of the Olympics gotten a kind of bounce from that. Now, you know, as the former speaker said, there is a great deal of knowledge that the Olympics have involved a great deal of corruption. Will Putin get some kind of Sochi bounce from this? And if so, how long will it last? And is it going to be something effective in terms of his doing exactly what you spoke of, Steve, exerting the will in a particularly Russian form on events?
QUESTION: OK, Sochi bounce. I think everyone needs to comment on that one.
STENT: I mean, I'll start off. So the—I mean, the reason Putin obviously wanted these Olympics and he got them, in 2007 and, really, when Russia was doing fantastically well economically—I mean, it was before the crash—was to show that not only Russia is back, but it can build a world-class tourist resort, it's going to excel in the games, the athletes are going to do well.
And some of that has already become tarnished before it happened. One of it—one thing has to do with the corruption and the realization and the questioning about whether these facilities are going to be completed and in what shape they're going to be. Then there's, of course, the question of the sub-tropical climate, so one hopes they have enough snow, but maybe they do.
And then you have to ask yourself why they passed this legislation before the Sochi Olympics, you know, the so-called homosexual propaganda legislation, that's obviously caused an uproar. It's alienated people. It's added an entire dimension to this which they really didn't need.
And then he's put himself forward, as we've already heard from Steve now, that Russia is the leader, if you like, of the new conservative international, that it represents traditional Christian values, which the West doesn't. I'm not sure when the Sochi games are over whether—I mean, what kind of a bounce it will give him. He would also like Sochi now to be a sort of world-class tourist resort that people will go to in the future, remains to be seen.
I mean, even if there are no terrorist incidents, which hopefully there won't be, and there are no other, you know, incidents that have to do with protests against Russia's laws, I'm not sure that it will give him that bounce, because of all the other things that have preceded it.
BEYRLE: I think that even though Russians do list corruption as their number-one concern about the country when asked by pollsters, it's the kind of corruption that makes them have to pay $25 to get the sheets changed at the hospital where their grandfather's staying. Corruption on the scale of $70 billion that Navalny maybe rightly points out I don't think is going to really redound to Putin's discredit.
More discrediting, I think, would be an Olympics which is judged by the outside world as a failure or is lampooned as, "Nice try, but you just really didn't manage to do anything."
Putin's trump argument will be, as Angela said, this wasn't $70 billion spent to stage an Olympics. It was $70 billion invested in the infrastructure of our main southern resort, and that's as good for the Russian people, who want to take a vacation there, as for the Bulgarians or the Germans.
QUESTION: Sochi bounce?
SESTANOVICH: You know, pocketbook issues are going to be more important than the Sochi bounce. You know, we remember the '69 Mets here, but I don't think that's what's going to happen.
You know, you've got an economic slowdown in Russia that is pretty disturbing to a lot of people in the policy elite, trying to figure out what to do about it. I think it's—it's the first time in a long time you had Russian growth slower than America two years in a row. For—you know, Russia grew twice as fast as in the United States in the past decade. It's now growing more slowly.
That is a threat to Putinism in a way that—probably greater than, you know, the exposure of corruption. That's what he's got to deal with the day after Sochi. That's stuff—he's got a full plate of problems to deal with.
GUFF: I'm very surprised, actually, at all the responses. The American public's view of Russia is—seems to be still locked in the—in the Cold War...
SESTANOVICH: You're calling us the American public...
BEYRLE: Or are you contrasting?
GUFF: But no one feels that when the lights go on, and NBC starts to show the games and patriotism starts and medals are given out, that this view of Russia will change and become a little more modernized?
BEYRLE: In this country?
SESTANOVICH: Oh, you mean the outside view...
QUESTION: In this country. Yeah, in America.
STENT: In this country.
SESTANOVICH: Oh. That kind of bounce, I can't predict. Inside Russia, you know, we should remember that morning in America in 1984 was connected to the '84 Olympics in Los Angeles. There was a kind of national euphoria over that. You can't rule that sort of thing out.
BEYRLE: Which the Soviets boycotted, if I recall.
GUFF: OK, next question, please, with the—your glasses, yes, and the necklace.
QUESTION: Hi, my name's (OFF-MIKE) I'm a former Sovietologist (OFF-MIKE)
BEYRLE: We're all—we're all unemployed ex-Sovietologists.
QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) nice to see some employed ones. My question is about civil society and gays, really. And so Khodorkovsky let out, Pussy Riot let out. Like, this week it's OK to be gay in Russia. What happens post-Sochi? Will there be any positive—what's your prediction for post-Sochi, both on gay rights and also on civil society, freedom of speech, those types of issues?
STENT: Maybe—can I start off with that? I—I think that—I mean, this legislation that was passed, it has the backing—the strong backing of the Russian Orthodox Church. It has—it's also trying to appeal to the Muslim population of Russia. I've heard Putin say, you know, these are traditional Christian values, but they're also traditional Muslim values. Putin the other day gave an interview on one of our talk shows saying 70 countries in the world have similar legislation, and 7 of them behead people for this, by the way.
So I think this is part of a longer-term—this is how this current Kremlin has staked out its appeal both domestically and abroad, that this isn't part of Russian culture and you shouldn't force it on us. And I also think the release of Khodorkovsky and the Pussy Riot people, I think that was largely done to sort of preempt criticism at the Sochi Olympics. He let them out. He let the Greenpeace people out. It doesn't really auger any liberalization. I would be very surprised if that was so.
SESTANOVICH: Just a word, though, about civil society in general, because I would say that we tend to exaggerate Putin's success in repressing civil society groups that are involved in all kinds of activism, environmental activism, you name the issue. And those people have a tougher time getting funds from abroad, but they are still able to do it, and they've got a lot of mission and a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of ability to operate, really, across Russia in the big cities and smaller ones.
I think there's a—what I hear from Russians is, don't count us out. We are much more resilient than Putin thinks and able to organize and take action in a way that he's going to be surprised by. So I—there's a kind of confidence and ebullience there that I—I think we should not lose sight of.
GUFF: Uh-huh, question in the very back?
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Contessa Bourbon from the New York Times. I'd like to ask, how optimistic are you that a new reset for U.S. and Russian relationship will take place in the aftermath of Sochi Olympics, considering that they are cooperating in security matters to prevent terrorist attacks?
BEYRLE: Well, I'll try it. You said, how confident am I that a new reset will take place in the U.S.-Russia...
GUFF: A fifth—a fifth reset.
BEYRLE: A fifth reset? Very confident. Because the history of U.S.-Russia relations is a never-ending boom-and-bust cycle, series of boom-and-bust cycles. I just saw this week that the International Space Station has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize next year. This is a joint Russian-American project which will lead to, if it actually happens, if it's granted the Nobel Peace Prize, a tremendous outpouring of good feeling on both sides.
The Americans and Russians are working together more in Syria than we were a year ago, as I pointed out earlier. And I think the—the figures on trade and investment, especially the American investment in Russia, the success of American companies in Russia, also augers well for a bit of an uptick from what I think is probably a low point that we hit maybe a year, 14 months ago in the relationship.
But then it'll go down again.
STENT: So the real answer is, it would be much better if there were no more resets. I mean, we've had this rollercoaster relationship with Russia. It's much better to stand back and say, we work on some areas very well together. There are other areas where we don't work that well together. And as long as the—we have the current sort of system that exists in Russia and the attitudes towards each other, we shouldn't keep trying to find some golden key to a much better relationship, because that then leads to disappointment. The expectations are wrong. The relationship has to be much more realistic.
GUFF: Yes, with the—holding the paper?
QUESTION: Thank you. Laurie Garrett from the Council. I think until the Boston Marathon, the average American could not have told you what part of the planet Dagestan was on, and probably most Americans could not on a map tell you where Chechnya is, and certainly not Abkhazia or any of the heavily divisive areas.
So they're hearing on the news about black widows, and they hear the U.S. Olympics Committee says don't wear anything that looks American if you're in Sochi, and that even the athletes, when they're not in the village or in competition, are not to wear anything that looks American, explain to us, why is this incredibly powerful, almost police state, however you want to characterize Putin's government, unable to control and stifle these separatist movements? And how much are Americans outside of the Boston Marathon likely to be targeted by them?
SESTANOVICH: I was a little surprised by the suggestion that Americans were targets. And it may be that that is the expression of some kind of intelligence that somebody has picked up that some particular group or individual has got, you know, an aim to target Americans.
But I think the purposes of the—you know, the Caucasus Emirate groups, the sort of—the terrorist groups that have been operating in the Caucasus for some time is—and outside, I mean, you know, bombing in other—bombings in other cities, they aren't making Americans their targets. And I would—I'd be a little surprised to discover that that's the nature of the operations that they're—that they're conducting.
The—you know, some people have asked whether—how damaging it will be for Putin to—if there is some kind of terrorist attack. I think the—it will be embarrassing, and it will be a revelation of the limits of his power. But his response to it will be what it has been in almost all other cases, and that is to extend his power, to make the case that this sort of attack requires a concentration of power in his hands, and a strengthening of the state, and an ability to act against its enemies. So that—and there's just no doubt about that. That will be—that will be the opportunity, as he sees it, if there's an attack.
GUFF: Left side, please?
QUESTION: Thanks. I'm Kimberly Marten from Barnard College at Columbia University. I'm wondering if each of you could say a little bit more about the Russian relationship with China. Steve talked about Chinese energy investments or investments in general in Central Asia. It had looked a few years ago like there might be Russia-Chinese competition in Central Asia, but it appears more recently as though Russia is almost falling in line behind China.
So what do we think the Russia-China relationship will look like in, let's say, a decade?
BEYRLE: Well, I think the—from the Russian point of view, the China relationship is arguably the most important one that they have to manage, maybe in this century, certainly for the next 10 to 20 years, and it stems from that imbalance, demographic and economic imbalance that you see on the border between Siberian Russia far east and the parts of China that are pushed up against, where you've got 220 million Chinese and only about 8 million Russians. I mean, they're mirror images of each other. The Russian land is bereft of people and full of resources, and the Chinese land just across the border is exactly the opposite, no resources and nothing but people.
Managing that is the biggest single challenge that, when I meet with thoughtful Russians, they identify after they get done talking about the E.U. and NATO enlargement. They start talking about that. And the idea that somehow Russia and China are fated to be allies somehow against us or against the Europeans, if you—as you pointed out, if you look at the parts of the world that matter most to both countries, they're rivals, China and Russia. Central Asia, if Russia is falling in line behind China, that's going to rile a lot of people in Russia, because they still see part of Central Asia as their backyard.
Meanwhile, the Russians in places like Vietnam are helping the Vietnamese develop their offshore energy resources in waters that the Chinese say are theirs. So I think we all have a lot of work to do to make sure that the rise of China's managed in a way that keeps China playing by international rules, but Russia in particular has to manage that relationship carefully, and right now the only way it can do it is politically.
STENT: Yeah, I was in China a couple of years ago talking to Chinese Russia experts about all of this. And the Chinese are very clear-eyed about everything. They say, Russia supports us on all the important foreign policy issues for us, Taiwan, Tibet, a multipolar world. We can work together.
Then you start talking to them about the domestic system in Russia, how Russia is governed or not governed, and they were pretty critical. If—I mean, the Chinese see this very much as—you know, to quote a colleague of mine, an access of convenience. It's very useful for them. It's instrumental for them. They need the Russian energy. They work with Russia. Again, they support each other in the United Nations Security Council, but there's no kind of romantic notion of a great strategic partnership.
I think on the Russian side, it's very complicated, because, on the one hand, they also see this as an important partnership with China, again, against, you know, the Western—if you read their foreign policy doctrines, you know, the number-one enemy is still NATO and the United States. And you can't even talk about China publicly in Russia in that vein.
But on the other hand, as John said, I mean, you go to the Russian far east, and it's quite clear what the dynamics are there. And in the long run, the Russians have to be very concerned about this, and I don't think they know how to manage that, either.
SESTANOVICH: Just one word on this. For the Russians that—you know, China is a fabulous market and opportunity to develop a relationship that pays off economically. The problem is letting themselves be in the position where they don't have any other friends. And that's not a good relationship to have with the Chinese.
And they are working a little bit at some of the networking that they need to do in order to make sure that they are not all by themselves against the Chinese. So you see some cultivation of the Japanese. They've really worked at getting Prime Minister Abe to come to the games. There is an awareness that being—being all by yourself in the—in a junior partner relationship with the Chinese may not be so great.
GUFF: Yes, please, front row?
QUESTION: Bill Drozdiak, American Council on Germany. Do you think there's a conscious and deliberate strategy on the part of Putin to use the Snowden revelations to damage and drive a wedge between the United States and the European allies? Or is it just opportunism that he's taking advantage of?
And, secondly, just—would it be in American interests to export a lot of the shale oil gas we're producing in order to drive down the price and put pressure on Putin?
BEYRLE: Let me try...
STENT: I'll take—oh, sorry.
BEYRLE: OK. You want Snowden?
STENT: Can I start with Snowden?
GUFF: Start with Snowden, and then, John, please jump in.
STENT: I mean, in—in the old days of the Cold War, right, we'd all talk about the Soviet Union is trying to drive wedges between, you know, the United States and its European allies. I mean, I haven't—I can't remember a time when U.S.-German relations—I mean, they haven't been this fraught for a very long time, and this is all thanks to Edward Snowden.
So if Putin had dreamed something up, I think he couldn't have dreamed something better, in terms of everyone shocked, we know there's a lot of hypocrisy in all of this, but at least outwardly everyone has to be shocked that these things are happening.
And, you know, one can debate how deliberate this was, but it certainly worked out pretty well on that score, in terms of, you know, the problems between the U.S., particularly, and Germany now, and this is not going away. And you may have—I'm sure you followed his latest interview yesterday on—with Hubert Seipel, I think, where, you know—and he reveals more and more about all the terrible things we're doing to Germany. So this—you know, it's almost a fantasy, I would think, for someone in the Kremlin.
BEYRLE: I agree that this is mostly opportunism on Putin's part, and I think it's mostly run its course. Snowden now is a wasting asset, if he ever was an asset for the Russians. The benefit that Putin got from sheltering Snowden and, in essence, sticking a finger in the American eye will pay negative dividends in greater measure in the months to come, and that's why I don't think after the one-year temporary asylum that Snowden was granted by Putin that this will be extended, and you can even see this a bit in some of the things that both Putin and Snowden are beginning to say.
STENT: But not Pushkov, huh? He said he can stay there as long as he likes.
BEYRLE: Not running the country, last I checked.
GUFF: Yes, please?
QUESTION: Norma Globeman (ph), ex-UNDP. President Obama has three years almost left to go, two years of which will be lame-duckism, but never mind. What is your view of the state of the relationship with Putin now, the real state of the relationship, and to what degree will it be a potentially useful or an impediment—how serious an impediment, if it is an impediment, over the next few years?
GUFF: Well, this is probably good questions to close on. We're approaching the witching hour of 7 o'clock, so let's—why don't we wrap up with some closing thoughts on that topic?
SESTANOVICH: Bill Clinton, when he went to Moscow in 2000 and Putin has just become president, said that his feeling about Putin was that he was like somebody looking over the shoulder of the person he's talking to at a cocktail party and looking for somebody more interesting who's coming in. And before too long, Putin is going to be doing that to Barack Obama. Barack Obama doesn't seem to like it very much. And I would say, if there's been a downgrading of the relationship on the U.S. side, probably been as much the president's doing as anybody else.
You're right that lame-duckism is a—is a problem for American presidents. It hasn't kept American presidents from reaching major agreements with Russian presidents in their last year or two in office. But I'm not sure that either side really has an agenda that will yield that kind of agreement. They're not into reset-ism. This is more—has become a more transactional relationship.
STENT: I think, you know, in the beginning, President Obama, this was a very high priority for him. We had the reset. Then, when Putin and Medvedev switched jobs, it got much more difficult. I personally—I agree with Steve—I don't think this a high priority for the White House. I don't think there's much on the bilateral agenda for the next few years. The economic relationship we will try and push, and we're trying to do that. They're not interested in any more arms control. So I think you're going to see generally Russia taking a lower—it already has priority, except in those areas, international, multilateral ones, where we will work together. But bilaterally, I think not much.
BEYRLE: I think there's always a tendency to overanalyze the body language between leaders. I mean, having sat in meetings with Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, I can tell you, the body language in that—some of those meetings wasn't very good, either.
GUFF: But it sells books.
BEYRLE: But it depends on which picture you choose. In the end, both leaders are very pragmatic. Putin has showed that pragmatism again. He showed it at the end of the Bush administration, the Bush 43 administration, and I think, at the end of the day, this is an important relationship for both countries. It has to be, simply because of the special place that we both occupy.
And we really—and I think both leaders realize this—don't have the luxury to downgrade the relationship to the degree that I think the press sometimes accuses us of having done.
GUFF: Well, a big thank you to our panelists tonight. I want to make one reminder.
Yeah, one very important reminder. Angela Stent's book is available for sale right outside our doors here and available on Amazon.com. Steve Sestanovich's book comes out in preview on Amazon.com, called Maximalist. Please take a look at it. Thank you very much.
BEYRLE: And I'm still writing.