Goldgeier: U.S.-Russia Relations at Lowest Point Since Cold War’s End

James M. Goldgeier, former director of Russian affairs in the National Security Council under President Clinton, says that as leading democracies head to the annual G8 meeting in St. Petersburg, the relationship between the United States and Russia "is as poor as it has been since the end of the Cold War."

July 6, 2006

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James M. Goldgeier, former director of Russian affairs in the National Security Council under President Clinton, says that as leading democracies head to the annual G8 meeting in St. Petersburg, the relationship between the United States and Russia "is as poor as it has been since the end of the Cold War."

Noting that five years ago, President Bush praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as someone he saw as a soul mate, Goldgeier says "today there is a sense of concern in the White House about who they are dealing with. " The combination of Putin’s political crackdown, his support for the fraudulent candidate in Ukraine’s elections, and the arrest of leading figures like industrialist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, have all contributed to the negative feelings, he says.

President Bush is going to St. Petersburg next week to participate in the annual G8 conference which Russia is hosting this year. What are the main items to think about, in Russia-American relations and in the G8 itself?

The way the G8 works, the host president gets to put forward the agenda items. For example, when President Bush hosted meetings in 2004, his major program was the Middle East and North Africa democracy initiative. When Prime Minister Tony Blair hosted last year, he put climate change and assistance to Africa as prime agenda items. Russian President Vladimir Putin has laid out as the major agenda items for this year’s summit energy security and then to a lesser extent infectious disease and education.

What does that mean, "energy security"?

It is clear that what Putin was hoping for by placing energy at the forefront of this meeting was to remind the world that Russia is a major player in global energy markets and energy is an issue through which Russia can look like a major world power in a way that it really hasn’t in most of the post-Cold-War period. I think that is pretty clear why he wanted to put it front and center. The problem has been that energy security means very different things to Russia and the Western countries that are the other members of the G8. For the United States, Canada, and the West[ern] European countries, energy security means diversifying the supply of energy, reducing reliance on any one partner.

The goal for the United States over time is to reduce our dependence on the Middle East. Increasingly for the Europeans, the goal is to diversify and reduce their dependence on Russia’s energy exports. Russia has a very different view on energy security: Russia wants to ensure the continued demand for its oil and gas. Russia also wants to use its position in the world energy markets as a way to be a major power. To do so, it has to be willing to use the leverage in political ways. We saw that in the winter when it intimidated Ukraine, for example, by shutting off its supplies for a while. While that is a way for Russia to remind everyone that it is a major power, all it does for everyone else is scare them into thinking that Russia is not a secure supplier and they have got to look elsewhere to make sure they can diversify. I think what will end up at this summit is some vague statement about the importance of energy security, but there won’t be any major initiatives because the countries that are involved have such different ideas.

High on the U.S. agenda and I suppose also on the Western European agenda is what to do about Iran’s nuclear program. Russia is a major player in that, right?

Right. The timing is interesting because the United States has attempted to get Iran to respond decisively to the American proposal to have negotiations if Iran would suspend its enrichment. From the Russian standpoint the goal is to put off any real efforts to move forward in this until after the G8. What they don’t want is any big blow-up on Iran prior to the G8 summit. There are huge differences between the United States and Europe on the one hand and Russia on the other. The United States and the Europeans are prepared to go forward at the Security Council and be much tougher if Iran is not willing to engage in serious negotiations. The Russians and the Chinese have rejected the idea of tough sanctions against Iran. The difference between Russia and its Western partners on this has been quite noticeable and will remain so.

Does the inability of Putin and Bush to see eye to eye on this have an effect on U.S.-Russian relations?

I think it does to the extent that there have been a lot of people who have argued that the United States should take it easy on issues of what is going inside of Russia in terms of increasing authoritarianism and the way Russia has tried to intimidate neighboring countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. They argue the United States really needs Russia for resolution of issues like Iran, North Korea, and so on. But if the United States is not getting much satisfaction from the Russians on these issues there is much less to that "go easy" argument.

In terms of Russian-American relations going into this summit, the relationship is not very good. You could argue it is as poor as it has been since the end of the Cold War.

Talk about the human rights situation in Russia. Is it really as bad as human rights groups make it out to be?

The biggest issues right now have to do with the climate of intimidation, particularly in the political sphere: the lack of a real opposition in Russia. There was a lot of news during the winter about the passage of a new Russian law on nongovernmental organizations—an effort by Russia to intimidate nongovernmental organizations and be able to shut down those they are concerned about. In a sense, Russia is trying to make sure it doesn’t face the kind of Orange Revolution that occurred in Ukraine at the end of 2004. Everyone is looking toward the elections of 2008 and wondering whether or not there will be an opportunity for people of different stripes to run effectively for president in a competitive election.

The West really seemed to get very agitated at the time of the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil baron, two years ago.

When you look back at the Bush-Putin relationship think about where it started five years ago. In June of 2001 at their meeting in Slovenia Bush looked into Putin’s soul and said he liked what he saw. Today there is a sense of concern in the White House about who they are dealing with. I think you can look at that arrest of Khodorkovsky, who at the time was the richest man in Russia, and an activist in political circles, as one of the first things that struck them and led American officials to say "Wait a minute, what is going on here?" Of course that had a big effect on Western investors. It produced real concern over the kind of rule of law that existed in Russia. I would put that and then Putin’s support for the fraudulent outcome in Ukraine during the elections that ended up leading to the Orange Revolution as leading the White House really to say, "Wait a minute. This is not the guy whose soul the president liked so much."

What led to this change in Russia?

When you think about where Russia is today, compare it to ten years ago, and the relationship between President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin—one in which Yeltsin seemed very dependent on Clinton. It was still a time in which the United States was providing economic assistance to Russia. And Moscow was really looking to support a number of American initiatives, even ones they were not happy with, in order to maintain a close relationship.

Fast forward to today and you have a Russia with the high price of energy and the revenues it has coming in looking around thinking, "Hey, you know, we don’t need to listen to these American lectures anymore. We don’t need to go along with whatever these guys want. We can be more assertive." They were not happy with a lot of things ten years ago—remember the whole debate over NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] enlargement—but they went along with it because they felt they needed the relationship.

Is NATO still a big problem for Russia, the fact that so many of its former clients have joined or want to join?

Well, it still grates on the elite as a sense of what Russia has lost. I think even more so than what has happened to date is the question of whether Ukraine and Georgia will in fact seriously pursue NATO membership and whether NATO will seriously pursue Ukraine and Georgia as NATO members. There is no question that Russia would be extremely unhappy to see Ukraine and Georgia join NATO.

Despite these problems are there any U.S.-Russian agreements in the future?

There have been talks about going beyond the 2002 arms reduction treaty that would lock in reductions more than they were under the old treaty. There may be an announcement if they have something worked out by the end of next week on the nuclear issue. It is not clear how much that really means today. There are going to be a lot of questions raised because of Russia’s hosting of this summit because Russia is not a democracy, and G8 is supposed to be a meeting of the world’s leading industrial democracies. There are going to be a lot of questions raised about what the G8 is and what it is there for. We may see an increasing push to say, "Why do we do we even have this institution to begin with and does it make sense to continue to have an organization like this?" If it is an organization for democracies, then Russia does not belong. If it is an organization of major powers to deal with major questions of the day, then China, India, and maybe others should be joining. Something has to give one way or another.

Refresh my memory, how did Russia get in the G8 in the first place?

It was something Bill Clinton had pushed. Again, it goes back to that period in ’96, ’97, ’98 when there seemed to be all these things the United States was doing that the Russians were not happy about and NATO enlargement was the biggest thing. Clinton was trying to offer Yeltsin something in return for the fact that Russia was taking all these things it didn’t like and thought "Hey, what the heck, why not let them into G8? It will give Yeltsin the chance to stand with the other seven. He will like that. He will look like a world figure."

When in 2003 they had the meeting in Canada—the presidency rotates every year and Russia had not been in a rotation—they thought well, we should give this guy Putin something to help the overall relationship between the West and Russia. So they stuck Russia in the rotation to host this year’s presidency, which I am sure in the last year the other seven have regretted that they did that.

Is Russia a member of the World Trade Organization?

No, not yet. This has been a big point of contention. In fact, there was every expectation, I would say a year to a year and a half ago, that the goal would be to make sure Russia could become a member of the World Trade Organization by the time they hosted this summit. Putin has been increasingly testy about this, sort of muttering about whether or not at the end of the day Russia even wants to be part of this organization. In a recent statement, he argued, "We don’t even provide agricultural subsidies, so we are better than these countries that are lecturing us about what we need to do." It is all part of this Russian sense that they don’t need to be lectured to, that everyone should want them in the WTO, and they are getting a little fed up by the fact that things are still dragging out.

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