Meeting report, Vol. 3, No. 4, Feb. 21, 2001

On Wednesday, February 21, 2001, Mark Medish and Stephen Sestanovich discussed the main issues awaiting the Bush Administration in its "inbox," concerning the states of former Soviet Union. Mark Medish served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russian, Ukranian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs; currently he is a partner at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, LLP. Stephen Sestanovich served as Ambassador-at-Large and Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for the New Independent States; prior to that, he was the Vice-President for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the Carnegie Endowment. The discussion was moderated by Andrew Kuchins, Director of the Carnegie Endowment's Russian and Eurasian Program.


Andrew Kuchins set the stage for the discussion, pointing to a general perception of a downward trend in US-Russian relations. Members of the Bush administration have described Russia as a threat to US security interests in terms not heard in the last decade; while US relations with other post-Soviet states are complicated by their weakness and the complex geopolitics in the region.

Sestanovich: Russia looms large in Bush's Inbox

Sestanovich emphasized that there has indeed been a huge transformation in US relations with the non-Russian states over the past decade. Contrasted with 1991, the US no longer views these as simply nominal countries with merely nominal sovereignty. Nevertheless, there is still a danger of these states "getting lost" in the inbox among the bigger issues with Russia, and only attracting attention in case of a crisis.

These states face serious "nation-building" problems, such as a lack control over parts of their territory, insufficient investments for long-term growth, a reliance on IMF disbursements, and a lack of active regional cooperation. Sestanovich asserted that with respect to such problems, the US can achieve considerable payoffs with only a small expenditure of resources, since the post-Soviet states look to the US as a "facilitator of solutions," rather than source of material resources. Keeping this in mind, the new administration should not let the problems of non-Russian NIS linger in the inbox.

Russia on the other hand, is in no danger of getting lost in the inbox. There is now a longer list of disagreements and points of tension between the US and Russia, than the US has with any other country. Strategic nuclear issues, European security, NATO expansion, the implementation of the CFE treaty, the role of OSCE, non-proliferation, Russia's expanded arms sales, Iraqi sanctions, Russian allegations of hostile geopolitical designs in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Caspian energy development, Chechnya, press and religious freedom, the detention of Pavel Borodin, debt rescheduling - and the list goes on. There is a mistaken notion that several of these are "make or break" issues. In reality, the existing framework of US-Russian relations is more stable than is commonly assumed, and will not be significantly altered by resolution of or discord on any one issue.

There are certain disagreements the US and Russia had been able to put behind them, and some that remain, precluding the formation of a real post-Cold War dynamic.
Two sets of issues that only a few years ago were expected to shape relations for a long time - financial ones such as the exchange rate, IMF disbursements and tax collection, and the Balkans - are no longer the urgent items in the inbox. The lesson to be drawn from this phenomenon is that the US should not evade the problems, but tackle them head on.

Nuclear Missile Defense certainly requires such an active approach. The statements made on both sides of the ocean reveal that neither the Russian nor American leadership has moved beyond the Cold War rhetoric. Yet, it does not mean that NMD will inevitably destroy any chances of improving US-Russian relations. Bush's expressed desire to re-examine the strategic Cold War postures has real resonance in Russia; managing the disagreement over NMD offers the Bush administration the chance to give substance to the idea of a post-Cold War nuclear relationship. This is a difficult, but not an impossible problem that should not, however, eclipse the consideration of other issues in the inbox.

Sestanovich concluded with the thought that the tone of US-Russian relations will depend largely on Russian internal development and its relations with other post-Soviet states.

Medish: "Slouching bear, biting snake?"

Medish offered nine observations that are likely to characterize, or should guide US-Russian relations, followed by a few words on the non-Russian NIS.

1. The overall US-Russian relationship can be characterized by a comment on Wagner's opera: "It's not as bad as it sounds, but is still quite tumultuous." That is, the relations between the two states are far below from their "opportunity frontier." The issues in the inbox of the Bush administration will largely resemble those in Clinton's; the difference may be seen in the outbox instead.

2. The primary US national security interests with respect to Russia are fourfold. These are strategic stability (questions of arms control); non-proliferation; cooperation on issues of regional stability (in Europe and elsewhere); and an interest in the success of the Russian internal transition and its integration with international institutions.

3. The Clinton administration's operating assumption was a fundamental link between Russia's domestic development and its external conduct. It would be unwise for the Bush administration to move away from this assumption and ignore the domestic affairs of post-Soviet states.
4. The American "toolbox" of influence is limited; the Bush administration cannot hope for the possibility of any "grand bargains."

5. The US interests are best pursued through a policy of active engagement; isolation is not an available strategy. It is likely that the Bush administration will not behave very differently in this respect from Clinton's, as the policy of engagement enjoyed broad bipartisan support over the last eight years.

6. There is an overlap of interests between the two states, which provides a basis for optimism. Nevertheless, even when impartial experts see a win-win situation and a compatibility of interests, the misperceptions of both sides may preclude cooperation. It should not be surprising that some opportunities for cooperation are missed.

7. Russia's "identity crisis" and the concomitant struggle for direction and purpose results in a foreign policy that is not always consistent or coherent. In a manner of speaking, there are two competing Russias - the transforming Russia that is trying to integrate into the international system, and the broken superpower Russia that is suspicious and adopts a zero-sum view of its interactions with other states. The paradigm shift from the latter to the former is not complete, but will hopefully continue.

8. Russia's economic and political weakness is the biggest dynamic risk to the content of US-Russia relations, and the chief reason for the failure to take advantage of the existing win-win opportunities. If the US's demons are arrogance, too much self-confidence and too much unilateralism, then Russia's are pride and resentment. Consequently Russia often appears as a chess player playing "black"- that is, defensively to delay and thwart, not to win.

9. Putin's approach to foreign policy is more pragmatic in the Russian sense, and more activist. He is setting a contrast with Yeltsin, mostly for the Russian domestic audience, who considered Yeltsin too soft on the outside world. The danger of setting too much of a contrast with Yeltsin is, once again, the tendency to view the opportunity frontier as a zero-sum game, and not a possibility for mutual benefit.

Medish characterized the situation of the non-Russian post-Soviet states with the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Challenges that face these countries are not monolithic. The overarching aim of US policy is to support and promote their transitions; the Clinton administration has approached them all on a bilateral basis, which should be continued. It is important to make it clear that the US does not have a hegemonic agenda and is not supporting the movement of these states away from Russia, but helping them to "get their house in order" and integrate into the international system.

Question and Answer: "Lessons Learned"

Several of the questions sought to explore the theme of "lessons learned" - which assumptions previously held by the speakers were overturned by their terms in office, what misconceptions do Washington and Moscow harbor about each other, what would they have done differently now.

Sestanovich cited the difficulty of making policy decisions on both sides as somewhat of a revelation that one does not see, being on the outside of government. On the US side, the "structured pluralism" often impedes taking timely and proper action, while "dysfunction" on the Russian side has similar effects. This dynamic may prevent coordination of actions in situations where interests do converge.

Medish pointed out the gap between "macro-objectives" and "micro-progress" as not easily apparent to government outsiders. While the overarching stated goals may be correct, the magnitude of smaller steps necessary to achieve these goals was a "humbling epiphany over and over again."

Addressing the past mistakes, both Sestanovich and Medish asserted that the Clinton administration has managed as well as it could, given the available information. Sestanovich suggested that perhaps the administration should have been less delicate on problematic issues such as non-proliferation, pushing for a resolution with somewhat greater force.

As one of the "profound misunderstandings" between the two states Medish identified the tendencies to ascribe a monolithic quality to each other, conceptualizing the other as a single voice and a single path emanating from each capital. Sestanovich added that the single path Moscow often faultily ascribes to the US is one of hostile geopolitical intent.

Summary by Elina Treyger, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program.