Snowden, Syria and Sochi in the U.S.-Russia Relationship

limits_of_partnership_bookThe Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) held a discussion yesterday to launch Angela Stent’s new book, The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton Press) in which she explores U.S.-Russian relations since the Soviet Union’s collapse and the challenges ahead. Why has it been so difficult to move the relationship forward? And is there any prospect for changes in the future? Stent, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings and Georgetown University professor, joined Brookings President Strobe Talbott, CUSE Director Fiona Hill, and Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, to discuss the “limits” of the U.S.-Russia partnership.

Stent stated that her book shows that “U.S.-Russian relations have been on a roller coaster since the Soviet Union collapsed,” including “cycles of political boom and bust.” Today, she said, “we’re certainly in a political bust.” She illustrated the state of the relationship today with reference to the “trifecta of three major issues … Snowden, Syria, and Sochi.”

On Edward Snowden

Stent said that President Putin’s decision to grant Snowden political asylum “was a conscious choice from his point of view” and maybe “a rational choice”:

Because there were great PR benefits to be gained by showing that Russia was granting asylum to someone who would expose the intrusive policies of the United States. And secondly there has been an amazing fallout, I think from the Russian POV, from these Snowden revelations in terms of the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and its European allies, particularly Germany. So that may have been quite rational from Putin’s point of view but it was also a conscious decision and it really led to the lowest point in U.S.-Russia relations … for a very, very long time.

On Syria

“And here again,” Stent said, “you see all the complexities of the relationship.”

Because we are cooperating with Russia on this very important multilateral issue in terms of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons. And we saw how Russia took the initiative last fall when the U.S. was frankly not sure what it was going to do. And that process is working reasonably well. But then we also see that we are really fundamentally on different sides in terms of how to end the Syrian civil war, what to do about humanitarian intervention. Secretary Kerry yesterday had very sharp words for Russia and for its unwillingness to stop the slaughter by still providing arms to President Assad. President Obama himself had rather harsh words about that. So we do clash with the Russians over how this war should end, but we are also working with them in terms of the chemical weapons.

On Sochi Olympics

Stent observed that Sochi “again shows competition and cooperation, in a way.”

I would say that the U.S. media was exaggeratedly negative in their coverage of Sochi by and large before the games opened, and painting a very dark picture of what was wrong with everything. Since the games have been on, it’s been 10 days now, the media coverage has gotten more positive, the athletes seem to be pretty happy with the conditions, except for the weather. … There again we are kind of grudgingly working with the Russians on some of these issues.

Stent said that in the current context, “I don’t see … that there is that much on the bilateral agenda for the rest of the Obama presidency in terms of relations with Russia.” 

Given this context, Stent asked “why has it been so difficult to develop a productive relationship between the United States and Russia? What would it take, maybe, to develop a more productive relationship?” To answer, she reviewed the four “resets” in U.S.-Russia relations since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991:

  1. Under President George H.W. Bush: “… the great accomplishment of that was to ensure that Russia was the only nuclear successor state in the former Soviet space … and the security of nuclear materials.”
  2. President Bill Clinton’s reset, which “involved a much broader involvement both with the Russian economy, with Russian society, with trying to build the institutions of democracy. It also involved trying to get a reluctant Russia to cooperate on the Balkans, on Bosnia, and then on Kosovo. And it was very much driven by the personal relationship between Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin.”
  3. President Putin’s, following the 9/11 attacks, after which Putin “was interested in seeking … a better relationship with the west.” But the problem was that “what Putin was looking for was an equal relationship of unequals. In other words, he wanted the United States to treat Russia as a strategic partner, to recognize its rights in its neighborhood, its sphere of privilege interests. … And he thought that that’s what he would get in return for his support.” The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, plus the Bush “Freedom Agenda,” she said, soured the relationship.
  4. The Obama administration: “And that I would say started out quite well and was quite successful during the first term. And we know all the results of that: the New START treaty, the cooperation on more sanctions against Iran, cooperation on Afghanistan, and Russia joining the WTO. The issue then was … that reset was very much driven by the personal relationship between President Obama and President Medvedev.”

“Things started to go sour” after this fourth reset, she said, “when Prime Minister Putin announced that the two [he and President Medvedev] were going to switch places and he was going to come back to the Kremlin, and then you had the demonstrations in December of 2011. You had Mr. Putin blaming Secretary Clinton for paying demonstrators for going into the street, and after that the relationship went south.”

“I think it would be much better to avoid future resets,” Stent concluded.

Strobe Talbott focused on the relationship of leaders in the U.S. and Russia. “We [the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia) did not have compatible interests. In the mind of Boris Yeltsin [and other Russian officials], I think there was, you can either call it a bright shining moment or a period of mutual self illusion, when the leaders on both sides did think that there were fundamental compatibilities. And I don’t think there is a more powerful example in history that I can think of where personality really matters.”

Peter Baker talked about the importance of the U.S.-Russian relationship, the Bush-Putin relationship and how these interactions had an impact on where we are today. During the Putin-Medvedev “tandem arrangement” period, he said that “There were a lot of optimists [in Russia] … People thought Putin was going to be a technocratic professional, new generation, cementer of Yeltsin’s legacy.” Yet “today of course it’s hard to find an optimists. It’s hard to find somebody who will look positively at the prospects.”

Long-term, he said “Russia is going to be different over time. It’s just not going to be in the direction we wanted it to go. … If you visit Russia … and you don’t spend time talking about politics, you are struck by what a modern country this is by comparison to the way it was in the 70s and 80s.”  

He pointed out something we don’t fully understand, which is that this “is accepted by the society there,” he said, “this is a country that is being ruled the way it thinks it wants to be ruled. … I always tell my friends who don’t know much about Russia, that when we were there, polls showed 25 percent of Russian would have voted for Stalin for President.”

Listen to a full audio recording of the event.

Mingwei Ma contributed to this post.