This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINEs Michael Kirk conducted on June 20, 2017. It has been edited in parts for clarity and length.

The Reset and Arab Spring: Putin as Prime Minister

2008-2011

You're with the vice president at that point, in the very beginning. … So the idea of the reset, how do they go into it? What's the expectation? What are the hopes as far as Putin and Russia? 

A big part of the reset, I think, was to try, strangely enough, to depersonalize the relationship between the United States and Russia. There's a lot of criticism that President Bush had made the relationship about his personal relationship with Putin, and there was a sense that we had to broaden the relationship; we had to professionalize it. So the idea of the reset was really to break with that personal connection between Putin and Bush and to basically have the whole of government engage the whole of the Russian government. 

I think it’s also important to keep in mind, however, it wasn’t just out of some sense that we should get along with Russia. We had some very specific goals in mind for what the reset should accomplish. I would put those into three categories. The first and foremost was Iran. It was a recognition that we were not going to be able to put the type of pressure and sanctions on Iran to convince them to negotiate over their nuclear program if Russia wasn’t on our side. The reset was largely about bringing Russia into our camp on that. 

The second was the president’s commitment to end the war in Afghanistan required us to be able to get lethal assistance through former Soviet states into Afghanistan. That was the only efficient way to make sure that the war ended. It was essential to the “mini-surge.” Then [that] also allowed us to evacuate effectively. So the second goal was making sure we could get Russian cooperation on Afghanistan. 

The third was the expiration of the START arms control agreement with Russia, which took place in December of 2009, would be a break with decades of arms control and verification. 

We needed to get that agreement back in place quickly. Getting Russia’s cooperation to make sure arms control and verification and nuclear stability could be a basis for the relationship was a third building block. 

But was there also a belief that dealing with [President Dmitry] Medvedev would be easier than dealing with Putin? Some people have the theory that we knew that he didn’t have all the power, but maybe if we treated him like he did, maybe he’d be able to establish himself?

I don’t think we were playing sides with Medvedev versus Putin. We always understood who was in control and who had the power. We also understood that there were limits to how far Medvedev could go. But there was also recognition that he was the guy in charge; as long as Putin didn’t block it, we could get business done. The president wasn’t going to wait around and say: “Well, maybe we won't get what we want out of Medvedev. Let’s not bet on the come. Let’s just cut deals now.” We were able to get what we needed, especially in the first few years of the relationship, from Medvedev, without Putin blocking it, and we decided to go for it.

So when did it start going wrong? And when did you guys [begin] to talk on the NSC [National Security Council] about “Uh-oh, it’s going south here. We’ve got a problem”?

We knew really very early on that this wasn’t going to be an early relationship. I worked for the vice president when he traveled to Georgia while the Russians were attacking Georgian sovereign territory. We knew that this was not going to be some lovefest and a meeting between liberal democracies. There was always the sense that we should agree where we could agree, that we should get business done where we could. Where we disagreed, we would point at that.

But we didn’t want to add fuel to the clear paranoia and the sense of aggrievement, and also the way that Putin was using the sense of America as an enemy, as a domestic political tool. We didn’t want to add to that sense. So even where we had disagreements, if we didn’t see eye-to-eye on things related to Europe and NATO enlargement, if we didn’t see things eye-to-eye on Syria, we recognized that we could isolate those disagreements and still cooperate in other areas.

This interview was originally broadcast by PBS

Read the transcript