Editor’s Note: In an interview with Radio Free Europe, Steven Pifer discusses the future of U.S.-Russia relations, saying that now that election seasons in both countries have come and gone, there is question as to the degree to which they will be able to reengage and move their relationship forward.
RFE/RL: Before we begin discussing U.S-Russia relations in President Barack Obama’s second term, could you give us an overview of relations over the last four years?
Steven Pifer: I think the reset succeeded in the sense that when Obama took office in 2009, U.S.-Russia relations were at their lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Just go back to the fall of 2008 and the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia conflict, when you had a U.S.-Russia relationship that had nothing but difficult issues and issues where there wasn’t a lot of cooperation. And I think the Obama administration made a calculation that improving that relationship would be in the U.S. interest in order to secure Russian help on issues that were important to the administration, such as pressuring Iran, such as access to Afghanistan. And therefore it set about trying to address some Russian concerns in order to secure Russian help on those questions.
And in that sense I think it has been successful. You have seen the new START treaty. You’ve seen on Iran — people sometimes forget [that] two years ago Russia supported the UN Security Council resolution that, among other things, imposed an arms embargo on Iran and thereafter Russia canceled the sale of the S-300, which is a sophisticated antiaircraft missile that it had [an] earlier contract to sell to Iran. And the Russians have been very helpful in providing access to American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, which has been important when Pakistan cut off supply lines. So I think by any objective measure, the relationship today is better than it was in 2008, although it is certainly not a relationship that is without problems.
I think it's unusual for the chief of staff to go on a trip, particularly on a trip this long. The chief of staff is usually more of a chief operating officer in the White House itself, and normally when your principal—whether it's the president himself or the head of Cabinet agency—goes abroad, you have his deputy and those folks staying behind to help manage operations in his absence.
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