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Thomas Graham: US-Russian relations have entered a new era

One of the leading US experts n Russia, Thomas Graham, in an interview with TASS


In early February, one of the leading US experts on Russia, Thomas Graham, visited Moscow. Graham used to be Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia on the National Security Council staff from 2004 to 2007 and Director for Russian Affairs on that staff from 2002 to 2004. Now, he's is a managing director at Kissinger Associates, as well as one of the co-Directors of the Russian Studies Project at Yale. On his return to the United State, Thomas Graham was interviewed by TASS.


- Russian experts say the breach in relations between Russia and the US did not really happen because of Ukraine but had other causes (beginning with Magnitsky, Snowden, etc). If not Ukraine, it would have been something else, they say. They also think the breach is likely to be long-lasting and it most probably won't end with the change of administration in DC. Do you agree with that?

- Difficult relations were inevitable, if only because the United States and Russia espouse radically different views of world order.  We interpret differently key principles such as sovereignty, territorial integrity, and self-determination; we differ over what constitutes the legitimate use of force; we disagree about the legitimacy of spheres of influence; and, of course, we count different numbers of poles of power in the world today.  Two countries with such profound differences can co-exist, and even cooperate in a multipolar world, but they can never be strategic partners, as many in both countries had hoped at the end of the Cold War. Tough competition was and remains inevitable; all that was missing in the early post-Cold War period was a Russia strong enough to defend its interests.  That situation changed after Putin rose to power.

A breach in relations, a total breakdown in communication, was not inevitable, however.  That was a consequence of the way both Moscow and Washington reacted to the Ukraine crisis.  Each side blames the other for the breach; neither side is prepared to take the initiative in restoring ties.  Simply saying, as Moscow does, that it is prepared for dialogue if Washington is, is not the same as taking steps to encourage the emergence of dialogue.  “We did not start this” is not an invitation to restore relations.  In fact, Washington is also ready to end the breach … if only Moscow backs down on all the issues  - on Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, in particular - that lie at the core of the current tension.  Mutatis mutandis, that is Moscow’s position too.

If there was a critical turning point in post-Soviet US-Russian relations I would date it to the end of 2004.  It came right after the peak in good relations had been reached.  Although it was not recognized at the time, the most promising period for relations can be dated roughly from the September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States until the middle of the fall of 2002, when sharp differences over how to deal with Iraq and Saddam Hussein emerged.  The high point was marked by the Joint Declaration that Presidents Putin and Bush issued in May 2002, which established a framework for strategic partnership between equals based on a hard calculation of national interest. 

In tone and substance, the Declaration parted ways with the joint statements issued earlier by Clinton and Yeltsin and subsequently by Obama and Medvedev.  The Clinton Administration was determined to transform Russia into a free-market democracy along American lines, and, if it talked of partnership, Russia was distinctly the junior partner.  The Obama Administration was only willing to work with Russia on a narrow range of issues in which Russian participation was indispensable, primarily in the area the strategic arms controls, consistent with Obama’s initial signature goal of creating a world without nuclear weapons. In both the Clinton and Obama Administrations there were large bilateral commissions (Gore-Chernomyrdin and the Bilateral Presidential Commission) that created an illusion of broader partnership, but the concrete result in both cases were underwhelming.

To be sure, there were those in the Bush Administration  - largely neocons - who did not pursue the goal of strategic partnership in good faith, as there were retrograde forces on the Russian side, especially in the power ministries, who feared the consequences of a genuine strategic partnership and worked to thwart its realization.  But the important point is that the two Presidents shared the ambition to create such a partnership.  That shared ambition survived even the American intervention in Iraq in spring 2003.  By the fall of that year, vigorous efforts were being made by both sides to restore the foundations of partnership.

The turning point came in the fall of 2004, bookended by two events:  the Beslan tragedy  September and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in November/December.  Those events led Putin and the rest of the Russian leadership to conclude that the United States was in fact out to weaken and contain Russia, that counterterrorism and democracy promotion were both smokescreens intended to mask America’s geopolitical advance in the former Soviet space.  By the middle of 2005, Moscow had developed a coherent strategy to push back against American influence throughout that region.  The competition there sharpened and poisoned the entire relationship. 

At the same time, Moscow abandoned any desire to integrate into Transatlantic structures, which had been the primary motive behind Washington’s Russia policy.  Putin drove that point home in  his famous remarks at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007.  There followed the Russo-Georgian War of August 2008, in which Moscow for the first time demonstrated that it was prepared to use force to resist US encroachments, through NATO expansion, into what it considered its “zone of privileged interests.”   Washington saw that war as a fundamental violation of the rules that had governed security relations in Europe since at least the Helsinki Accords of 1975.

Relations never really recovered.  The reset was a brief interlude of limited achievement brought to a definitive end on a specific date:  September 24, 2011, when Putin announced his determination to return to the Kremlin as President.  Thereafter, a cascade of events only deepened the estrangement - the protests after the Duma elections, which Putin blamed on the United States; the Magnitsky and Dima Yakovlev acts;  the Snowden affair; the Ukraine crisis; and now Syria.

If the Ukraine crisis bears a special significance it is this:  Both sides concluded not simply that there would be no return to business as usual but that a return to business as usual was no longer desirable.  Although relations need not continue to be as confrontational as they now are, in the future relations will be built on a different foundation, on hard-nosed calculations of national interest.  The goal is no longer strategic partnership.  Each side will focus intently on what the other side can bring to the table to advance or thwart its policy goals, and then act accordingly.   This situation will not change with a new administration in Washington, no matter who is elected in November, barring a radical change in Russia’s posture.  The American foreign policy establishment has concluded that Putin is seeking to undermine America’s position in the world; the Russian foreign policy establishment has long believed that the United States is determined to weaken and contain Russia.  So US-Russian relations have entered a new era.  The post-Cold War period is over.   Whether this new relationship will ultimately be marked more by competition or cooperation remains to be seen, but for the time being competition will predominate.     

- If you trace everything bad back to Putin's return to Presidency, then the only policy option for the US is regime change in Russia. Is it?

- The return of Putin was a turning point for the Obama administration because it had wagered on Medvedev's serving a second term. Putin's return came as a shock and spelled an end to the reset. But, as I said, the problems in relations go back much further and they concern fundamental questions of world order, not personalities.  For that reason, they will continue no matter who the next president of the United States is. Better relations will come when world developments convince both sides that they need to work together to advance their respective national interests. When that moment comes, it will make little difference to the American president if Putin is Russian president or not. He will deal with the Russian president, whoever that might be.

- Sanctions against Russia are just a tool, a means of exerting pressure. So in one form or another they'll remain in place for as long as Washington wants to have such a tool. Do you think they are here to stay?

- Sanctions have been a constant in US-Russian relations for at least several decades; they will remain a tool of US policy well into the future (for use against Russia and other countries).  Even if the Minsk agreements were to be fully implemented, the United States would retain the sanctions imposed for the annexation of Crimea, and the Magnitsky Law would remain in place. 

Whether Russia should seek to discuss sanctions and their removal with the United States is a question Russians will answer in part, I would suspect, on the impact of those sanctions.  Even if sanctions are in place, the United States can pursue them with greater or lesser zeal (the Obama Administration has not been particularly active in levying sanctions under the Magnitsky act, for example; it has been much more assertive in implementing the sanctions linked to Russian actions in Ukraine).   And American presidents often have the authority to waive them for longer or shorter periods (from the end of the Cold War until its repeal, presidents waived the enforcement of restrictions under the Jackon-Vanik amendment).  There will be times when discussing sanctions makes sense from the standpoint of Russian national interests, and other times when it does not.

- Do you agree that Russia should let the Americans themselves do the calling and asking to mend fences since Russia did not initiate the breach in relations?

- The breach in relations is a product of actions and reactions by both Moscow and Washington for the past several years.  In other words, Moscow bears some responsibility for the breakdown:  Did it really believe that the United States would calmly accept its annexation of Crimea?  If the breakdown is doing harm to both countries – as I believe is the case – then it makes little sense to quibble over who bears greater responsibility for it.  True statesmen would find a way to restore relations.  And a country that felt itself strong would be prepared to take the initiative because, confident of its power and capabilities, it would not care about “saving face”; it would know that taking the initiative was not a sign of weakness but rather of wisdom.   Only the vulnerable worry about saving face.

- Acting Treasury Undersecretary Szubin could not have made his recent BBC comments about President Putin without clearing them with his superiors first. Do they represent a dangerous escalation and a change in policy?

- As a general rule, I believe leaders of major countries should show one another respect in public by both their words and behavior.  That entails both the White House and the Kremlin doing what it is in their power to do to prevent direct personal attacks against leaders.  In this regard, neither side is blameless.  Each side has done much to fuel an atmosphere in which it is acceptable for the media to demonize the leader of the other country. 

- Ukraine seems to be on the way to self-destruction, economically and politically. Is Russia going to be the one to pick up the pieces?

- Ukraine is indeed a mess.  Russia, Europe, and the United States all have an interest in its stabilization, and in the end all will have to play some role in calming the situation there and rebuilding the economy. Russia cannot do that on its own, especially at a time of growing domestic socio-economic stress (this is one reason Moscow is so insistent that the Donbass remain part of Ukraine); nor can the United States or Europe, especially given the mounting disarray in the European Union.

-In Syria the Russians seem to be succeeding where the Americans failed. With or without Assad, Russian interests will be preserved. Do you agree?

In Syria, the question is how to define success. Since the beginning of its military operation last September, Russia has secured its military bases on the Mediterranean coast and helped Assad consolidate his position in the West of the country.  It has guaranteed that Russia will have a seat at the table in any future geopolitical reckoning in the Middle East.  But Russia is still far from having defeated ISIS and put an end to the terrorist threat to Russia.  Moreover, no matter what happens to Assad, and in Syria for that matter, the question of the future equilibrium in the Middle East is still open.  In that light, Russian successes have been tactical; they are not strategic, that is, not irreversible.  The future equilibrium will tell whether Russia has had success or not.   Russia however, cannot create this new equilibrium on its own.  It will need to deal with the United States in some way, as well as with the major regional powers, including Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.  The most difficult challenges in the Middle East lie ahead. 


Interviewed by Andrei Sitov