Steven Pifer, an expert on Russian affairs at the Brookings Institution who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during the Clinton administration, says U.S.-Russia relations have "deteriorated significantly" since the Putin-Bush summit of 2002. Pifer says the current state of relations left not much in the U.S. diplomatic tool-kit to use against Moscow for its "disproportionate use of force in Georgia" which he said went beyond international norms of behavior. He suggests that the next administration try to return to negotiations on limiting strategic arms, something he says both presidential candidates support. "When there’s a nuclear arms dialogue going on between Washington and Moscow, it seems to have a broader positive impact on the relationship," he says. "The Russians like it, if for no other reason than it’s an acknowledgment that they are a superpower on nuclear terms, on par with the United States."
Shortly after the fighting in Georgia began, I had an interview with a former colleague of yours, CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Sestanovich, who said that we’ll know in a few months whether this turned out to be just a bump or fork in the road in relations between Western countries and Russia. How permanent do you think this conflict will be in U.S.-Russia relations?
Well, certainly the conflict has had an impact on U.S.-Russia relations. But I would wait before making a longer-term assessment until you see several months into the next administration, and see how either President Barack Obama or President John McCain deals with Russia.
What do you think the Russians are looking for right now in the aftermath of Georgia?
Well, I think there are a couple things going on here. First, the conflict with Georgia was not just about South Ossetia. It’s also important to remember that-and this sometimes gets lost in the American narrative-that however badly he was provoked, on August 7, [Georgian] President Mikheil Saakashvili made a miscalculation when he sent his military into South Ossetia. The speed of the Russian response suggests to me that they were ready, prepared to go, and were just waiting for the pretext, and unfortunately that decision on August 7 gave them the pretext. But I think that the Russian message was not just about South Ossetia. That was a broader signal to Georgia, and to other neighbors, that Russia is serious about having influence in its neighborhood. That is going to be an issue that we’re going to have to deal with.
After the Russian intervention in Georgia, there were calls for kicking Russia out of the G8. But I noticed the U.S. government’s response recently has been rather muted. Is it because Washington is so preoccupied with financial problems right now?
That’s probably part of it. But another big part of the problem is that U.S.-Russia relations unfortunately have deteriorated significantly from what I would say was their high point in recent years, which was the Bush-Putin summit in Moscow in 2002. As a result, the relationship has been very thin. There weren’t a lot of tools in the diplomatic toolkit to influence Moscow in August. We didn’t have a lot of cooperation. There’s also an effort to balance a couple of things. One is that there needs to be a response to the Russians because the disproportionate use of force in Georgia went way beyond international norms. But on the other hand, there are certain areas where, even if relations are at rock bottom, there still is an interest between the United States and Russia, on things like controlling nuclear materials. The third piece is trying to keep that door open, because you’d like to find a way to encourage Moscow back to more a cooperative, integrated road.
There’s sort of that balancing going on, which might make for a less robust response than people had hoped might come about. In part it reflects the fact that we may not have all that many sticks to brandish at this point. On the question of the G8, it seems that the administration has actually played this one quite well, because what they’ve done is have some teleconferencing among G7 foreign ministers, which sends a signal to the Russians that G8 is not carved in stone. But they haven’t gone down and said "Let’s throw the Russians out completely." There is interest in keeping the Russians in the G8 because to the extent that President Dmitri Medvedev has to come and sit down with his G8 counterparts, that creates a certain pressure on him to come up with approaches to issues that are more consistent with what the other folks want. There’s also a parallel question on the World Trade Organization, where my understanding is that the U.S. position now is that because of Georgia, we aren’t going to help push Russia’s case in the WTO, which the Georgians, in any case, can block. But at some point we probably have to ask ourselves "doesn’t it make sense to get Russia into the WTO, because then the Russian economy is playing by trade rules that generally we’re comfortable with and work to the West’s advantage."
Let’s jump to next year. A new president comes in, and a new secretary of state. They’ve gotten all the position papers from the outgoing administration. They are briefed. And they’ve got to make a decision on how to deal with the Russians. What would be your recommendations?
On the one hand, you want to have certain penalties. Make clear that the Russians can’t break international rules without some sanction. On the other hand, on things like controlling nuclear materials, cooperation has to go forward. That’s an interest we share with the Russians and we share with the Europeans.
What are the possible incentives for Russia?
When the Russians were contemplating going into Georgia, and whenever they made that decision, I’m sure, at some point, somebody asked: "What will this do to our relationship with Washington?" And, given the thin relationship in August, they decided they didn’t much care about it. What I’d like to see is a relationship where you’d have people saying, "Well, if you do this, President Medvedev, it will do severe damage to a relationship that’s important to us." So we might want to be thinking about ways that we can add to the relationship. One suggestion that I know both Senator Obama and Senator McCain have spoken about is reviving a more traditional approach to strategic nuclear arms reduction, cutting levels of strategic weapons significantly below the numbers that were provided for in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. I think that would be good in a couple of ways. First, the treaty now limits each side to 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads. We don’t need these numbers at this point; those numbers don’t make sense. Second, above and beyond reducing the number of Russian nuclear weapons that could be targeted in our direction, if you look over the past twenty years, when there’s a nuclear arms dialogue going on between Washington and Moscow, it seems to have a broader positive impact on the relationship. The Russians like it, if for no other reason than it’s an acknowledgment that they are a superpower on nuclear terms, on par with the United States.
Isn’t there another treaty, the START treaty of 1991?
There are actually two treaties: Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty [SORT] of 2002; and that treaty runs until 2012. There’s the START treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, signed in 1991. That treaty actually expires in December of 2009. The problem is the START treaty, the treaty signed in 1991, is a "book," because it has very detailed, complex measures for verification, monitoring, and inspection. The SORT treaty from 2002 is two pages, because it gets all its verification and monitoring from the 1991 treaty. If the 1991 treaty is allowed to expire in December of 2009, neither treaty is verifiable. So, in January either President Obama or President McCain will have a certain impetus to try to deal with that, and figure out how do you maintain the verification measures.
There’s been a certain amount of publicity around the Russian navy and air force visiting South American countries like Venezuela for military exercises. Is this a tit-for-tat for the U.S. defensive missiles planned for Poland?
There’s a little bit of that. They were unhappy, for example, this August that there were U.S .warships in the Black Sea. And in fact U.S. warships delivered some of the initial assistance to Georgia. That was just because to go into the Black Sea, you actually have to notify in advance to get permission to pass through the Bosporus Straits. We had some ships going there anyway, so they took on the humanitarian supplies to take to Georgia. And I think part of that is irritation that they see us planning to deploy these military interceptors in Poland with radar in the Czech Republic. Part of it also is that the Russian military, which still is suffering from the economic decline of the 1990s is getting more money, so they’re able to fly long-range bombers. They’ve been flying bombers on such missions now for about seven or eight months. They’re using this to demonstrate that they’re restoring their position as a global military power. But it’s also a reflection of a fact that they have a bit more money so they can afford to send airplanes out and ships out.