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Interview With Ariel Cohen: Russia's Agenda Creates Unnecessary Friction With U.S.

U.S. President Barack Obama in June with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Mexico.
U.S. President Barack Obama in June with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Mexico.
Following his reelection, U.S. President Barack Obama now faces the task of revitalizing U.S.-Russian relations. Ties between Washington and Moscow have seemed to stagnate somewhat following the reset of 2009-2010 and the return to the Kremlin of Vladimir Putin.

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson spoke recently with Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. Cohen has worked as a consultant to the U.S. executive branch and the private sector on issues related to Russia and the former Soviet Union. He is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations and co-author of the 2005 book "Eurasia in Balance: The U.S. and the Regional Power Shift."

RFE/RL: Where do U.S-Russian relations stand at the moment and what are the most likely points of conflict?

Ariel Cohen:
The Russians have an agenda that brings them into friction with the United States. First, it is Syria, where they do not want the [Bashar al-]Assad regime to fall. They, together with the Iranians and the Chinese, have blocked any diplomatic resolution and are still providing weapons to the Syrian regime. The Russians are setting themselves up for a fall because the minority Alawite regime cannot survive against the onslaught of the Sunni majority and the international support the Sunni fighters receive, especially from other Sunni countries in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, etc.

The second area of disagreement is missile defense and the U.S. plans to build a ballistic-missile defense in Europe, primarily aimed against Iran and possibly other rogue players -- but not against Russia at this moment. Russia has a massive arsenal that can overwhelm any missile-defense arrangement that we can predict in the future. And, finally, I would say that the second Obama administration will focus on domestic priorities. We have very significant economic, fiscal issues to resolve and the president will not have that time to deal with the Russian agenda.

Having come back from Russia recently, I would say that the Russian leadership is not putting forward a comprehensive and coherent program of cooperation with the United States. There are small things that they point out, such as the visa regime that has been improved by an agreement between [U.S.] Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and [Russian] Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov. But overall, after Russia received U.S. approval for joining the [World Trade Organization], there is no major, positive list of priorities. It is all criticism, it is all negative. And this is very disappointing. Because, after all, the Russians need to develop their economy, especially beyond oil and gas. And the United States could provide a lot of assistance in terms of investment, in terms of developing the lagging Russian health-care sector, etc. So, I would say that both sides should be working harder to come up with a positive priority agenda.

RFE/RL: We have seen a lot of anti-Americanism out of Russia lately and particularly on Russian state television. Should this be a cause for concern?

If you go back over 100 years in history you find that in the late stages of the Romanov empire -- the last quarter of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century -- the regime was nationalistic and xenophobic. It was nationalistic and xenophobic, for example, compared to the more liberal regime under Aleksandr II, because it felt insecure. So, yes, there is a strong domestic dimension of anti-Americanism. It is to consolidate the society, to create what is called in Russian "vneshny vrag," the external enemy, and to boost the prestige of the intelligence services, of the military, of the state, of the commander-in-chief -- the president. That is, indeed, a means to legitimize the current regime that feels somewhat weakened in terms of its popular legitimacy because it needed to take extreme measures to create an impression that the ruling party was legitimately elected to the Duma in the December [2011] elections.

Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen
But there is also a deep-seated suspicion and dislike of America for the rulers who come from the Soviet intelligence services and, unfortunately, believe their own propaganda. There is very little competition in terms of sources of information, in terms of competing world views in Russia today -- even in comparison with the 1990s. There is one world view that is fed by the intelligence services and anti-Western -- what they call anti-liberal -- and anti-American values play a very significant role.

RFE/RL: How do you rate Russia's cooperation with U.S. and NATO operations to establish security in Afghanistan?

Russia is playing a positive role in terms of the provision of the transit and is willing to provide logistical support -- for which they're paid, by the way. This support is helping Russia to deal with the Islamist threat in Afghanistan. And I see that this cooperation will continue even beyond the withdrawal of the American troops in 2014 because the Russians are interested in maintaining a presence in Central Asia themselves and probably will be expecting support of American logistics and intelligence in case they need to step in and provide more security in Central Asia.

Magnitsky Bill

RFE/RL: You mention Russia has been paid for its help. Is Moscow more of a like-minded ally in Afghanistan or more of a paid mercenary?

Russia has a geopolitical interest in preventing the Taliban from spilling over into Central Asia. It views a number of regimes in Central Asia as aligned with Moscow -- Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, to a lesser degree Turkmenistan. But in any event the Russians do not want either the Taliban or drug lords that they don't control -- and I stress "don't control" -- running around Central Asia and doing things that may hurt Russian interests. So, in that respect, they played the game because it is in their interests. But also, on the logistical side, there was a certain amount of interest in U.S. operations there because they provided hundreds of millions of dollars a year in fees to move cargo, to fly airplanes, etc., to provide fuel to the American troops and logistical operations.

RFE/RL: It looks as if the U.S. Congress is going to pass the Magnitsky bill, which would target sanctions at Russian officials implicated in the death in custody of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Is this going to be a sticking point in relations going forward? (Editor's note: The Magnitsky bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives on November 16 and is currently before the Senate.)

Maybe. It depends. I heard senior Russian officials saying that they can live with it. I heard other officials who are looking for a confrontation with the United States who are saying that it is a very important issue for Russia and they will not tolerate such a limitation. But, I would add, as we have a strong anticorruption campaign going on in Russia right now, it is in fact something that the Russian government and the Russian people are benefiting from. This is a step to single out corrupt officials and I think the authors of the Magnitsky bill deserve a medal from President Putin for focusing attention on this painful problem in Russia.

RFE/RL: One Russian analyst was recently quoted as saying the best that can be hoped for in U.S.-Russian relations over the next four years is that things don't go badly wrong. Is this your view?

Objectively speaking, meaning that if you take into account Russian priorities and Russian national interests -- which is to improve the economy, to have safe and secure borders -- there is no inherent conflict with the United States. Especially if Russia addresses the concerns of the United States in the human rights area, allows political life to proceed...and I think Russia is taking some steps in that direction -- just not enough. For example, the election of governors, the competitive election of governors, eventually competitive elections of the upper house -- the Council of the Federation, the upper house of the Russian parliament. These are all good steps. The question is: will Russia allow a real multiparty competition and what will happen with TV channels? And also I think that there is a crackdown on political activists. [Former oligarch Mikhail] Khodorkovsky is still in jail and it is past the time when it's probably the best for U.S.-Russian relations and for Russia to release Khodorkovsky.

But beyond that, what Russia needs and what Russia wants, the U.S. is not standing in its way. The tragedy is that there is part of the elite that thinks that in order to consolidate its power in Russia they need an external enemy and such an enemy can only be the largest superpower in the world. So this is really a hiccup from the Cold War. It's a mentality that does not take into account the realities of the 21st century -- or the real threats to Russia, such as economic underperformance, corruption, crime, and religious extremism in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in the Russian Federation.

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