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‘The Russians Are in This for the Long Run’

Talking to Angela E. Stent about her new book on U.S. Russian relations.

1:15 PM, Feb 27, 2014 • By LEE SMITH
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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.

Obama, Putin in Ireland

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.

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