In an interview with Bernard Gwertzman of Council on Foreign Relations, Steven Pifer said U.S.-Russian relations have “deteriorated significantly” since the Putin-Bush summit of 2002. Pifer believes the current state of relations has not left much in the U.S. diplomatic tool-kit to use against Moscow, and he suggests that the next administration try to return to negotiations on limiting strategic arms.
Bernard Gwertzman: Shortly after the fighting in Georgia began, I had an interview with a former colleague of yours, CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Sestanovich, who said that we’ll know in a few months whether this turned out to be just a bump or fork in the road in relations between Western countries and Russia. How permanent do you think this conflict will be in U.S.-Russian relations?
Steven Pifer: Well, certainly the conflict has had an impact on U.S.-Russia relations. But I would wait before making a longer-term assessment until you see several months into the next administration, and see how either President Barack Obama or President John McCain deals with Russia.
Gwertzman: What do you think the Russians are looking for right now in the aftermath of Georgia?
Pifer: Well, I think there are a couple things going on here. First, the conflict with Georgia was not just about South Ossetia. It’s also important to remember that-and this sometimes gets lost in the American narrative-that however badly he was provoked, on August 7, [Georgian] President Mikheil Saakashvili made a miscalculation when he sent his military into South Ossetia. The speed of the Russian response suggests to me that they were ready, prepared to go, and were just waiting for the pretext, and unfortunately that decision on August 7 gave them the pretext. But I think that the Russian message was not just about South Ossetia. That was a broader signal to Georgia, and to other neighbors, that Russia is serious about having influence in its neighborhood. That is going to be an issue that we’re going to have to deal with.