Steven Pifer on U.S.-Russia Relations Beyond Snowden

NSA-secret leaker Edward Snowden gained temporary asylum last week in Russia, a move called “insignificant” by aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin but one that angered White House and State Department officials.

Speaking to Fox News prior to the Snowden announcement, Senior Fellow Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control Initiative at Brookings, called the episode a “distraction” and correctly predicted that the chances that Russia would send Snowden back to the U.S. were “zero.” In the interview, Pifer looked beyond the Snowden imbroglio to a range of U.S.-Russia bilateral opportunities and challenges.

“What’s going to drive both Obama and Putin in terms of how they approach this,” Pifer said, “is their perception of national interest. Sometimes a good relationship can help get things going but again if the interests aren’t there, it’s going to be hard to sustain it.” What are their interests?

When you look at the big issues, in many cases—on nonproliferation, trying to promote bilateral commercial relations between the two countries—the interests of the two countries align. Certainly there are areas of differences. One is Syria. … There’s differences over human rights issues within Russia, and the political repression. But when you look on big questions—Iran and North Korea, controlling proliferation—there are a lot of areas where the United States and Russia should be working together.

Pifer also addressed a question about international investment and Russia’s financial picture. Is Russia open for business?

… for a lot of other investors, particularly medium-sized companies, when they look at Russia what they see is red tape, complex tax and customs rules, a huge bureaucracy. They see a legal system you can’t have confidence in. … There a lot of issues with regards to the investment climate in Russia that make companies reluctant to come in.

Finally, Pifer noted the huge capital outflows out of Russia that show Russians are reluctant to keep their money in the country.

In a new opinion piece for the Moscow Times, Pifer elaborates on the prospects for a positive U.S.-Russia relationship, with a particular focus on Putin’s return to the Russian presidency and his policies regarding internal politics, Iran’s nuclear program, Afghanistan, commercial relations and arms control. Looking ahead to a potential Obama-Putin bilateral meeting, Pifer said:

Putin may prefer to cling to outsized nuclear forces and veto any progress on arms control. If Obama concludes that there is no prospect of Russian movement on this or other issues key to his agenda, the value of going to Moscow for a bilateral meeting with Putin on the eve of the Group of 20 summit in St Petersburg becomes questionable, particularly when the Edward Snowden case and political repression in Russia would generate criticism at home. More broadly, the White House may decide that Putin has little to offer—and thus does not really matter—for Obama’s goals in his last three years in office.

Read Putin’s Problem of Irrelevance »