Russian president Vladimir Putin is everywhere. The former KGB officer has used virtually everything at hand to catapult himself as well as his country, the shell of a once mighty empire, on to the world stage. Whether it’s Putin’s determination to host the Winter Olympics in a semi-tropical climate, his steadfast refusal to turn on his Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad, or his contesting the West for supremacy in Ukraine and the rest of Russia’s near abroad, the man has made himself an indispensable actor—and one almost constantly in competition, if not rivalry, with the Obama White House. Recently, I spoke with Georgetown University professor Angela E. Stent about her new book The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century to get a sense of where Putin’s Moscow may be heading.
Recently we’ve seen Putin, the United States as well as the EU at loggerheads over the situation still unfolding in the streets of Kiev. Why is Ukraine central to Russian interests?
This is about classical geopolitical competition between Russia and the West. For Moscow, Ukraine is the key country in its neighborhood, and if Ukraine moves toward the West, this would diminish Russia’s role in Eurasia and prevent it from establishing the Eurasian Union that Putin wants to create.
Remember, the EU was not offering Ukraine membership, but an association agreement, at which point Russia started pressuring Ukraine, and hindering trade. After the sticks, Moscow offered carrots, like debt relief. Then protesters came out, and before the latest flare-up, the opposition parties were looking to form a technocratic government. After several days of serious violence, a compromise has now been struck. But it remains to be seen whether both sides will abide by their side of the bargain and form a genuine coalition government.
It’s not surprising the Obama administration and the EU have different ideas about what to do. Russians have pointed to American involvement in Ukraine to ask, why are you saying we meddle too much when a State Department official is heard to be making choices about which opposition figure to include in the next government? The fact is that we have limited leverage, and are not willing to exercise it that much, and Russia still holds many of the cards. Russians are in this for the long run—this is not our neighborhood, but it is theirs.
The 2014 Winter Olympics Games at Sochi just ended this weekend and wound up being the most expensive ever winter games ever. From Putin’s perspective, was this money well spent?
Well, it’s a sign of his determination to stage the winter games in what’s really a semi-tropical climate. He wants to put Russia in the spotlight in a positive way, announce that Russia is back and a major player, as well as an international tourist attraction. Also, he loves Sochi, and it is a pretty beautiful place. I’m part of a group of foreign Russian experts and we meet with Putin every year. A few years back, we visited the presidential mansion in Sochi, which is in a very beautiful location, overlooking the Black Sea, with the mountains behind it. It’s quite spectacular.
You argue in your book that since the end of the Soviet Union, there have been four separate resets between Washington and Moscow.
Yes, the first reset was under George H.W. Bush. It was a brief reset, one year, squeezed in between the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Bush 41 presidency, but it was a very successful though limited reset. The goal was to ensure that Russia became the only nuclear successor state to the USSR, and that scientists from Russia and other former Soviet states did not sell their know-how or materials to rogue states or terrorists, and this ensured much more nuclear stability. The part of the Bush 41 reset that came under criticism was that there not enough financial aid for Russia.
The Clinton reset was much more ambitious, based on the overly optimistic belief that Russia could be transformed in a very short period. This reset included work not only on the nuclear issue, but also democracy assistance programs, and the economy as well, with support for economic liberalizers, as well a push for a rapid transition to a market economy—what came to be called “shock therapy.” That reset ended poorly for foreign policy reasons, especially regarding the war in Kosovo—Russia supported NATO actions in Bosnia, but not the bombing of Serbia.
The third reset was initiated by Putin, who initially appeared interested in integration with the West. The problem with this reset was that Putin hoped for an “equal partnership of unequals.” He wanted the respect he thought Russia deserved and for the United States to understand and accept Russia’s special interests in the post-Soviet space. This reset began to sour with the Iraq war, the Freedom Agenda, then the color revolutions, then NATO enlargement to the Baltic states, and it ended after Russia invaded Georgia.
The successes of Obama’s reset—like Russia’s acceding to tougher sanctions on Iran, and then maintaining the northern transport route to and from Afghanistan—were very much driven by personal relations between Obama and Medvedev. Even though people understood that Putin was wielding power behind the scenes, the hope was that Medvedev would become the de facto as well as the de jure head. When Putin announced he and Medvedev were switching jobs, then relations started to go down hill. Putin blamed Secretary Clinton for paying anti-Putin demonstrators, Congress passed legislation against Russia, and Moscow passed legislation preventing Americans from adopting Russian orphans.
There’s also the current disagreement over gay rights. Historically both the Soviets and the Russians have preferred to deal with Republicans, because they tend to focus on strategic relations rather than on domestic issues, like Gay rights today. Since the collapse of communism, the Orthodox Church has come back to fill an ideological and spiritual vacuum. If you look at public opinion, the majority supports Putin’s policies on Gays and Lesbians, which he’s made as part of his appeal, part of traditional Christian values, as well as traditional Muslim values. This is part of Russia’s bid to say we represent different values, an alternative model, and every bit good as the American model.
But regarding Putin and Obama’s relations, the low point, so far, is Putin’s granting asylum to Edward Snowden. And it’s a wonderful PR opportunity for Putin. With Snowden, he’s telling his domestic critics, you complain about us, but look at what the United States does to its citizens, and we are harboring someone who defends the rights of U.S. citizens. Also, he can say to the Europeans, look, your ally is spying on you.
What about Putin’s maneuvers in the Middle East? It seems like he’s playing to block the Obama White House, or worse diminish American influence in the region.
Regarding Iran, Russia has an interest in talks over the nuclear weapons program succeeding, since that would increase its economic ties with Iran. The other thing is that if there’s an agreement with Iran, the Russians can say, why does Washington need missile defense deployments in Russia’s neighborhood? Washington says they’re to defend against an Iranian or North Korean attack, but the Russians focus on deployments around them. Their point is, if there’s a deal with Tehran and therefore Iran isn’t a threat, then why are their missile deployments in Europe?
Then there’s Syria. The Russians want strong secular regimes in the Middle East, partly because of their own problems with their restive Moslem population. They have argued all along that the Syrian opposition is dominated by extremist elements, and they are concerned about what happens if Assad goes, so they’ve blocked even humanitarian efforts to relieve suffering. They’re fixated on stability and strong leaders and preventing the rise of Sunni extremists. For them the Sunnis are the problem, not Shiite Islamists like Hezbollah, because most Muslims in Russia are Sunnis not Shiites.
One real change in Russian foreign policy is the blossoming of the Russia-Israel relationship. It’s worth remembering that there are something like a million Russian-speakers living in Israel, and Putin wants to appeal to them, “you are still part of the family.” Then there are lots of business ties, and Israel and Russia often see eye to eye on matters of how to deal with terrorists. From the Russian point of view, having good relations with Israel is a way of expanding their options—they have pretty good ties with Iran and Syria as well as Israel.
What do you see as the future of U.S.-Russia relations? Will a successful reset have to wait until Putin is gone, or are American policymakers part of the problem, too?
It is unlikely that the relationship will improve much for the rest of the Obama administration, particularly if Snowden remains in Russia. But Russia and the United States will continue to work together on pressing multilateral issues such as Syria, Iran, and post-2014 Afghanistan. It would be best if this and future U.S. administrations eschewed trying to “reset” relations once again, but approached Russia with more modest, interest-based and realistic expectations—at least as long as the Putin system prevails.