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Former U.S. State Dep't Official Pifer Asks, 'Are The Russians Ready To Reengage?'

Russian President Vladimir Putin (far left) sits across from U.S. President Barack Obama (far right) before the G20 summit in Los Cabos in June.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (far left) sits across from U.S. President Barack Obama (far right) before the G20 summit in Los Cabos in June.
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 since the "reset" of 2009-10 and the return to the Kremlin of Vladimir Putin.

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson spoke recently with Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Pifer is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a former deputy assistant secretary of state with responsibility for Russia and Ukraine (2001-04). He is also a noted expert on arms-control issues.

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.

Steven Pifer
Steven Pifer
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.

RFE/RL: Now, looking ahead, what are the prospects for the next four years?

Pifer: I think we have passed the reset stage. The reset succeeded and we are now into something else. In the last four years, the sides have made progress solving some relatively easy issues -- they weren't [completely] easy issues, but they were easier than some of the questions they now face. The challenge looking forward is can you sustain a more positive U.S.-Russia relationship, and I think that's the big question mark. The relationship today is, again, by any objective measure, better than it was in 2008, but can you sustain that? Can you continue to find ways to improve it or are some of the gains of the last four years going to be eroded? And at this point, we just don't know.

I think that one of the problems is that with the last year, you have had an election in Russia and an election in the United States. Obviously I think the elections run on very different terms, but it has been a distraction for both capitals. They haven't engaged with the intensity they might have over the past year. Now the question becomes: With those elections behind them, will they be able to reengage and find ways to move?

In particular...the Obama administration is interested in trying to move forward on further nuclear arms reductions. It would like to find a cooperative solution, a cooperative missile-defense arrangement that would defuse that question on the agenda. And my sense is that for the last 18 months the Russians have been pretty much in a holding pattern on arms control and missile defense because they didn't want to go too far down the road with the Obama administration and then find that they were dealing with a Republican in 2013. And I had Russian officials telling me as early as the summer of 2011, well over a year ago, that they weren't going to do anything more on nuclear arms reductions until 2013 because they didn't want to move until they saw who the American president was going to be. They now know that answer, so the question is: Are they prepared to reengage in a more positive way on those questions?

RFE/RL: You suggested it might be possible to find a compromise position on missile defense in Europe. What might that look like?

Pifer: Russia says -- and we heard this last week, I mean, this is still the Russian position -- that they need a legal guarantee that the American missile defenses will not be again directed against Russian strategic forces. Now, if Russia wants to continue to stalemate missile defense, they will hold to that position because Russian officials understand -- their embassy here is smart, they report this -- there is no way that President Obama, even if he wanted to do a legal guarantee, a treaty on missile defense, there is no way that the treaty would be ratified by the Senate. And people understand that here, and people understand that in Moscow. So the question, in my mind, is: Will the Russians find a way to move off that demand for a legal guarantee? Which is a recipe for stalemate. If they move off that demand, then you can see a lot of pieces that are out there...that would provide the basis for a solution.

The United States has already said it's prepared to make a political commitment that it would not direct missile defenses against Russian strategic forces. There have already been discussions between the Pentagon and the Russian Ministry of Defense on a jointly manned data-fusion center where you'd exchange data from radars and other sensors, [and] on a planning and operations center where you would talk about how your rules of engagement will operate. There are other things that I think, going beyond that, the United States can do in the way of transparency that would give the Russians the ability to understand American missile-defense developments.

RFE/RL: How do you assess the Obama administration's position on the Magnitsky bill, an initiative in Congress that would put targeted sanctions on Russian officials implicated in the death while in custody of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky? (That bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives on November 16 and is currently before the Senate.)

Pifer: I think the Obama administration would have preferred to impose these kinds of sanctions administratively as opposed to by law. And I can understand that view. I mean, look at the current Jackson-Vanik legislation, which denies Russia permanent normal-trade-relations status. Now the Jackson-Vanik was passed in 1974, and the goal or the objective was to require that the Soviet Union then and later Russia after the Soviet Union broke up to allow free emigration for religious minorities, particularly for Russian Jews. In the early 1990s, the Russians opened the gates and pretty much every Russian Jew who wanted to leave has been allowed to leave. For all of the democracy problems that we have seen in the last 12 years under Putin -- and there have been many -- there is still open emigration. But through all this, even though the Russians clearly in the 1990s met the standards of Jackson-Vanik, here we are in 2012 and Jackson-Vanik still applies to Russia. So, I think, Congress tends to be much quicker at putting sanctions on than they are at taking them off.

So I think the administration would prefer to do the Magnitsky bill administratively. Now I'm also personally sympathetic with what drives the Magnitsky bill, and I disagree with the Russians when they say this is interference in Russian internal affairs. It is not. The United States as a sovereign country has an internationally recognized right to determine who it is going to give a visa into the United States to and who it won't give one to. And so it is perfectly within the U.S. rights to deny individuals the ability to come to the United States. This is not interference -- this is the United States, I think, executing its rights. But I think the administration would prefer to do that administratively as opposed to doing that as a mandate by Congress.

The one last comment that I would make is that I think it is unfortunate that Congress is moving to link passage of a bill that would graduate Russia from Jackson-Vanik with the Magnitsky bill because Congress will completely dilute and cover up the message that it wants to send to Russia. Because if the Russians see those things passed together, they will not see the Magnitsky bill as an expression of outrage over what happened to Mr. Magnitsky -- which was truly outrageous -- but instead it will be read as: 'Well, the Americans want to keep beating us up. The Congress wants to beat us up on something. They had to graduate us from Jackson-Vanik so they just put this in its place.' So, unfortunately, Congress's message will be lost.

RFE/RL: Is there anything else that you'd like to add about the future of U.S.-Russian relations?

Pifer: I just might make one comment about looking forward. I think when you look forward, the agenda gets tougher. Further nuclear reductions, just because the lower the numbers get, the more difficult it gets to find agreement. So that won't be an easy issue. I think finding a solution on Syria, where I think the Russians have a mix of motives, some of which are not the best. But I think they also have a legitimate question, which is: If [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad goes, what comes in behind him? And I'm not sure we in Washington have a good answer for that question.

I also personally think that Washington and Moscow have allowed Syria to become too much of a U.S.-Russia issue. This is not a question that we should be fighting as much about as we seem to have been fighting over the last eight or nine months. I guess the last observation I would make is that I think, both in Washington and Moscow, the sides want this -- they would like to see an expansion of economic, trade, investment relations. Which would be good in terms of creating some economic ballast that would cushion the relationship. In the way that the depth of the economic relations between the United States and China gives both sides a little bit of pause when they may have political differences because they realize there is so much money involved. We don't yet have that with Russia, and it would be good to have a stronger economic component to the relationship. But that's probably going to turn mostly on questions that the Russians decide regarding the kind of business and investment climate they are going to have within Russia, because that will determine how much American business goes into Russia.