Building a Constructive U.S.-Russian Relationship

Strobe Talbott

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to join you and your colleagues in a discussion of Russia and U.S.-Russian relations.

I would like to begin on a personal note, Congressman Lantos. You and I go back a ways on this subject and in this setting. I remember an interchange we had in this chamber fourteen years ago, in 1993. I believe Congressmen Ackerman, Berman, and Smith were also present. Post-Soviet Russia was then less than two years old. It was a time of both hope and apprehension. The question on our minds then was whether Russia, having broken out of the Soviet Communist system, might cast off the dead hand of its history and become (in a phrase of yearning we often heard from Russians) a normal, modern country—an open society, with a pluralistic democracy, with a free media, with rule of law, with an independent judiciary, with a system of checks and balances—and beyond that: a country that participated to everyone’s benefit in the international economy, and a genuine partner of the United States in the task of ensuring a peaceful 21st century (the beginning of which was still seven years in the future).

Boris Yeltsin was locked in a struggle with Communist hardliners in the Parliament. In fact, news of that confrontation turning violent interrupted our hearing fourteen years ago and required me to return urgently to the White House. The policy of the administration for which I worked at the time—then in its first year in office—was to help the emerging Russian state shed the legacies of communism and authoritarianism so that it could take Russia in the direction I just described.

That policy of the U.S. executive branch had bipartisan support here in Congress and on this Committee, first under Lee Hamilton’s chairmanship and later under Ben Gilman’s. There was recognition on both sides of the aisle that America has an enduring interest in Russia’s evolution. Why? Because how Russia conducts itself beyond its borders has always depended in large measure on how it is governed internally. A totalitarian—that is, Soviet—Russia pursued an aggressive and threatening foreign policy, while under Yeltsin, a reformist post-Soviet Russia accepted the inter-republic frontiers of the old USSR as international borders; it withdrew troops from the Baltic states; it cooperated with the West in ensuring the denuclearization of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine; it entered a collaborative relationship with an expanding NATO; and it assisted in ending ethnic cleansing and slaughter in the Balkans.

Here we are, fourteen years later, dealing with what many in the West (and in Russia too) see as a revisionist Russia. Some have even called it a revanchist Russia—a Russia whose leaders and much of its political élite feel that it’s payback time for what they recall and resent as the hardships and humiliations of the first decade after the collapse of the USSR. Six months ago members of the Russian political establishment buried Yeltsin in Novodevichy Cemetery with only the most muted and qualified praise. Their aspiration, like Yeltsin’s, is to join the world—but, as many of them see it, that means joining on their terms and nobody else’s, least of all ours.

The personification of that attitude is, of course, Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin. Not only has Russia become more autocratic—it has also, in keeping with the organic link between the nature of the internal regime and its international behavior, adopted a more competitive and sometimes obstructive posture in its dealings with the West and has tended to throw its weight around in its own neighborhood.

Before further comment on Mr. Putin and what he stands for, let me pose a proposition that is unprovable, but one that I believe to be true: even if Yeltsin’s successor were not a former spy with a penchant for the “dictatorship of law” and the “vertical of power,” that person would probably be pursuing a more assertive external policy than Yeltsin, not least because Russia now has the means and the motive to do so, with oil revenues pouring in and with a relish for pounding its chest a bit after years of tearing its hair and gnashing its teeth.

Under Putin, however, that natural and perhaps inevitable backlash against the 1990s has been exaggerated. Russia’s periodic spasms of anger toward small countries are sufficiently emotional on all sides that they risk getting out of control. None of us wants to have the topic of the next hearing of this Committee be a post-mortem of an outbreak of conflict between Russia and Georgia or Estonia.

You and your colleagues on this Committee, Mr. Chairman, have focused on these worrisome developments in a series of hearings since March 2004, of which today’s meeting is a part. Of all the testimony you have heard and I have read, I would like to zero in on one point that was made most forcefully by Ambassador Stephen Sestanovich, who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations and Columbia University. On May 17th, he told you that the testiness in U.S.-Russian government-to-government relations reflects the deterioration on both sides of public support for the once-vaunted concept of partnership. I focus on that point because of what it says about the Russian side of the equation: real politics has come to Russia in the sense that government policies and public attitudes are largely in sync—and they are mutually reinforcing.

Notice that I said “real politics”—I didn’t say “real democracy.” Nor did I say “dictatorship.” Rather, what we’re seeing in Russia is an experiment in managed quasi-democracy as designed and practiced by alumni of the security services and supported by a recentralized government bureaucracy. Russia’s rulers today want public opinion on their side, and they need the legitimacy that only a constitution and elections can confer; but they also want to control public opinion through the media, and to control the electoral process and its outcome through the consolidation of Kremlin-supported forces into a virtual one-party system.

The only major change since your last hearing on Russia five months ago is this: back then, it was generally expected that, after next March’s presidential election, Mr. Putin—who is prohibited by the constitution from serving a third term—would turn over the leadership of Russia to someone else, albeit surely his own handpicked successor. Now it appears that he may well remain the top leader even when he assumes a different title—perhaps that of prime minister.

If that happens, it will be largely because Putin is not just powerful but popular. He is widely regarded as indispensable to preserving the economic progress, domestic stability, and revived international stature that Russians welcome and want to see continue.

Moreover—and this goes to one of the points I want to stress in these remarks—we Americans must recognize that one reason for Putin’s popularity is the way he stands up to us. While he and our president still call each other George and Vladimir, they or their close colleagues have had other, less friendly names for each other’s countries. When Vice President Cheney suggests that Russia is morphing back into the USSR, Putin strikes back by dropping thinly veiled hints that our international behavior is comparable to that of the Third Reich—and then, of course, Putin denies having intended any such invidious comparison and, for good measure, compares himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Last week, shortly after Putin made the latter statement, our very able ambassador in Moscow, William Burns, gave a speech noting that President Roosevelt is remembered and revered not because he served more than two terms as president but because of his mastery of the principles and institutions of democratic governance.


“Touché,” I would say, but, to his credit, Ambassador Burns made the point in a constructive way that was not simply an extension of a fencing match. Instead, his comeback about FDR was dropped into a speech in which, while recognizing what is troublesome about Russia’s current course, he also highlighted favorable trends (particularly in the economy) and opportunities for—if not partnership—then at least selective cooperation where our interests converge.

That, it seems to me, is the right way to parry Mr. Putin and his spokesmen in their current combative mode. Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates had a chance to demonstrate the same restraint when they went to Moscow nearly three weeks ago. Mr. Putin welcomed them with some sharp-elbowed comments to please the local grandstands. The two American visitors kept their cool—and they were right to do so. Had they reacted otherwise, they would have put more points on the board in the game President Putin is playing domestically.

It is also a game he is playing internationally, as Mr. Gates himself discovered last February when he was the senior representative of the administration at a security conference in Munich. (Congressman Berman was there.) President Putin used his turn at the podium to lambaste what he depicted as the heavy-handedness of U.S. foreign policy. When it came time for Mr. Gates to reply, he did not rise to the bait. Instead of rebutting Putin point by point, he stressed areas of actual or potential convergence in U.S. and Russian interest, thereby not letting himself be used as a foil to Putin’s America-bashing. At the same time, he made clear that the U.S. will firmly and candidly oppose Russia when, for example, it carries out cyber-attacks on Estonia or violates Georgian airspace—with a Raduga cruise missile, no less.

In his Munich reply to Mr. Putin, Mr. Gates noted that “one cold war was enough”—a line that did double duty: it refuted the fashionable idea that we’re in a second cold war already, and it subtly took Putin to account for suggesting such a thing.

I recount these episodes because they illustrate the importance of getting the tone and tactics right in conducting our end of what is probably going to be a sometimes-contentious U.S.-Russian dialogue for a long time to come.

Another point about the Munich incident: we face the challenge of keeping our allies as much as possible with us in how we see Russia, how we talk about Russia, and how we deal with Russia. While Putin was delivering his broadside against the U.S., quite a few non-Russian heads in the audience there were nodding in silent agreement—that is, West European heads.

That said—whatever their current exasperation with U.S. foreign policy (and it is considerable)—our allies are, to put it mildly, a lot more worried about Russia, and not just because of their dependence on Russian oil and, especially, gas. I believe, Mr. Chairman, that we Americans should be consulting much more frequently and intensively with our European counterparts with an eye to concerting our views and coordinating our policies. In addition to other reasons for doing so, we need the Europeans’ help in encouraging a constructive Russian role in the ongoing multilateral diplomacy over Iran, Kosovo, the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, and a variety of other trouble spots that this Committee has considered in its deliberations in recent months, including, of course, our biggest problem, which is Iraq.

Let me, in my remaining time, touch on two other issues.

The first concerns what I’ll call the New Russia—Russia in the Age of Putin—Russia as an “energy superpower.” That phrase has been used in the recent past by some Russians because it helps them cope with what they feel they lost with the end of the USSR. Under the hammer-and-sickle, the Soviet Union was—or tried to be—an autarkic superstate with a defining ideology that was totalitarian in nature and expansionist in aspiration. Today Russia is a resurgent nation-state with a chip on its shoulder, a bundle of petrodollars in its pockets, and the whip hand of being a major gas supplier. The Russians are trying to leverage their oil and gas wealth into both economic and political power. To paraphrase Clausewitz, they are treating international commerce in energy as politics by other means.

Our strategy should, of course, include opposition to Russia’s use of its giant energy resources and companies as instruments for exerting state power—but it should not be confined solely to defensive and punitive measures. Our strategy should also entail engaging Russia commercially and financially in a way that underscores the tangible rewards of doing business according to international norms. Through a combination of incentives and disincentives, we should encourage those enterprises in Russia that are prepared to expand into the wider world on the basis of transparency and equitable rules—permitting them to share in the markets of the industrial democracies—while at the same time rebuffing those that represent Russia’s use of its energy clout for zero/sum geopolitical purposes. For this to work, of course, Russia has to treat international investors in Russia the same way Russians are treated abroad.

To illustrate the two sides of this proposition, I would contrast Lukoil, which owns a gas station at the corner of 28th and Pennsylvania, and Gazprom, which keeps picking fights with Russia’s neighbors.

Lukoil, thanks to its quiet but successful partnership with ConocoPhillips, is showing that a big, ambitious Russian energy company can meet a high standard of corporate governance, transparency, and compliance with other countries’ laws—and thereby develop not only its domestic operations but expand internationally. If, in the near term, Lukoil succeeds, it is possible that, over the longer term, the power of example, combined with that of self-interest and a favorable bottom-line, may pull unwieldy behemoths, perhaps even including Gazprom itself, in a more sensible direction.

In this connection, it is important for the U.S. to encourage all parties involved to bring about Russia’s final accession to the World Trade Organization. Membership in the WTO will require Russia to meet the obligations it has undertaken in its bilateral and multilateral agreements. That goal fits with what should be our overall, long-term strategy of inducing Russia to accept the terms and standards of the international community.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, I wish to touch on a subject that, like Russia itself, has, in recent years, tended to get short shrift in Washington policy circles—not least because it is a subject many of us in this room associated with the Old Russia and a period now mercifully behind us. That subject is nuclear arms control. In fact, it is a subject for today and tomorrow—or at least it had better be.

While Russia claims to be an energy superpower, it is definitely still a nuclear superpower: it possesses about 15,000 nuclear weapons (including stockpiled ones), compared to approximately 10,000 in the U.S. arsenal (France is a distant third, with about 350 warheads).

Jointly regulating the size, nature and deployment of those weapons used to be the principal business of U.S.-Soviet relations and, for a while, it remained very much on the agenda of U.S.-Russian relations as well. It was essential to avoiding a global thermonuclear war. The edifice of treaties and agreements whereby we and the USSR kept the nuclear peace constitutes a valuable legacy of the cold war, an otherwise grim, dangerous, frightening, and unlamented period that has passed into history.

That legacy, however, is in jeopardy. Arms control is in danger of passing into history as well—and that state of affairs is potentially tragic and perilous. It arises because of the breakdown in recent years of the strategic arms control process. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty—which was an integral and supposedly permanent part of the SALT I agreements signed by Richard Nixon in 1971—is now a dead letter. President Bush made it so when he withdrew from the treaty in 2002. The same fate could await the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, which were initiated by Ronald Reagan, and produced a START I treaty in 1991 that was signed by the first President Bush. (Just last week, in compliance with START, Russia dismantled nine ICBMs, bringing the total number of Russian missiles destroyed this year to 36.) That treaty expires in 2009, the year after next, and with it, all provisions for mutual inspection and accountability will also disappear.

The Bush administration has essentially set the START process aside and chosen to rely instead on the so-called Moscow Treaty of 2002. That accord is little more than a MOU; it claims to keep alive the goal of strategic offensive reductions—but not very credibly, for it fails to deal with the details where the devil of arms control reside; and it repudiates many of the key features of effective arms control as practiced by seven previous administrations.

The combination of the current administration’s withdrawal from the ABM treaty, its abandonment of START, and its endorsement of the Senate’s refusal, eight years ago, to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which Russia ratified in 2000) has had two dangerous consequences.

First, it has given the Russians a pretext to threaten to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement and the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement. To put it bluntly, Mr. Chairman, by nullifying or gutting arms-control and nonproliferation treaties the current administration does not like, we’ve set a bad example that the Russians are following with ones they don’t like.

Second, the U.S. and Russia share an obligation under Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to keep reducing and ultimately eliminate their nuclear arsenals. The NPT is in terrible shape for many reasons, but having the two principal nuclear-weapons state failing to comply with one of its key provisions is certainly one of them—and having one of those two states, our own, entertain the idea of large-scale national strategic defenses is another.

All that said, Mr. Chairman, I am going to conclude on a more upbeat note. I sense—once again, particularly in what we have been hearing from Secretaries Gates and Rice—that there are those in high levels of the administration who are giving serious thought to how to revive arms control, including in the critically important area of making sure that we don’t stumble into an offense/defense spiral of the sort that Lyndon Johnson warned Aleksei Kosygin about in Glassboro, New Jersey, forty years ago—in 1967.

I hope I’m right about this. I’m not sure, in part because the signals out of the administration are mixed.

But I know for certain that here in Congress, there is indeed imaginative thinking about how to revitalize arms control and repair and strengthen the global nonproliferation regime. About three weeks ago, on October 8, Senator Lugar led a discussion on this subject at Brookings. It contained so much in the way of timely, carefully argued recommendations that I have included it in my submission today and ask that it be put in the record along with the written version of my testimony. I have no doubt there is such thinking in this Committee as well.

As was the case when we met to discuss Russia fourteen years ago, Mr. Chairman, the challenges we face from—and with—that country are of a magnitude, importance, and complexity that they require both parties, both branches of government, and allies on both sides of the Atlantic all working together, with some help, I hope, from those of us on think tank row.

Thank you.