The breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations is a product of long-standing disagreements about the fundamentals of U.S. and Russian national security interests and policies. This breakdown cannot be repaired quickly or easily, or without a major course correction by either or both sides.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a media call to discuss the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship as well as the findings of a high-level, bipartisan task force on U.S. policy toward Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia.

 

Tom Carver: Good morning or good afternoon, if it's afternoon with you.  It's Tom Carver here from Carnegie Endowment.  And this is a media call on our just about to be released Task Force Findings on U.S. Russia Relationship and on the U.S. Russia relationship, in general. I'm very pleased to have with me Andrew Weiss who leads our Russia and Eurasia program here in D.C., Gene Rumer who is the director of the program, and then from Chicago, Ivo Daalder who is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs who has also been a partner in the program. 

Just to say that this is, we're going to try to keep it to around 30 minutes, this media call.  And it is on the record, and we will provide a transcript in a few days later, as soon as we can get it together.  So why don't we – we'll have lots of times for questions, so why don't we just open it up? 

Ivo, do you want to just say a few headline words and then Andrew can jump in maybe?

Ivo Daalder: Sure.  Let me welcome all of you and good morning.  

The task force that we put together, the Chicago Council of Global Affairs and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was put together in the aftermath of the events in Ukraine, based on the presumption that the policy that the United States has been and our European allies have pursued towards Russia for the past 25 years, which was to try to integrate Russia into a Western framework had failed. And we needed to sort of rethink where we were going to go, so that the task force came together and has been trying to develop specific views on how to engage Russia and also how to engage the region around Russia more generally.

And rather than coming out with a very specific policy-directed framework, we decided that we should focus on the key guiding principles of what any policy framework should be.  And those principles are four specific ones. 

First and importantly, that the United States remains committed to defend its NATO allies and that that commitment remain both unconditional and iron-clad.

Second, that the United States and its allies must defend the norms that underpin European security and indeed more broadly the international order, the kind of norms that were agreed to with Russia in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and after the Cold War in the Charter of Paris in 1990.

Third, that the United States needs to continue its strong support for the Ukraine, that the future of Ukraine is absolutely vital for the security of Europe and the United States and we need to stand behind Ukraine and its reform efforts.

And finally, that any engagement with Russia cannot and must not come at the expense of the rights and interests of Russia's neighbors, at the same time the United States does need to recognize that the long-term challenge of promoting democracy in Russia and Eurasia will be demand-driven rather than supply driven. 

Those were the fundamental guideposts that should inform any policy discussion with regard to our relationship with Russia that the task force agreed. And with that let me turn it over to Andrew for a little bit more detail on the task force, itself. 

Andrew Weiss: Thanks, Ivo.  And thanks, everybody, for dialing in.  I will be real quick because obviously there's a lot to talk about.

We've been working on this project for the past two years.  The task force itself met privately over the past year.  The task force is made up of a group of distinguished former senior U.S. National Security officials, former military and business leaders.  There's a list of those names available on the Web Site and we're happy to share those with everybody. 

Instead of drafting a report by committee which is similar to what the Council for Foreign Relations does, the report that's going to be released on Thursday is coming out under the names of three or four Carnegie scholars, including Gene and myself. 

The members of the task force, just to quickly highlight folks, were people like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, Michele Flournoy, former Deputy Secretary of Treasury Bob Kimmitt, John McLaughlin, the former Acting Director of the CIA.  So people like that.  It was a bipartisan group.  

And our goal again was to, throughout the past year or so elevate the discourse.  And so, there's a series of white papers we have commissioned. There's going to be about 20 or 25 of them in total which have all been released over the past year by leading experts.  So for example former, sorry, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Itamar Rabinovich talking about in sort of big terms what Russia is up to in the Middle East, the former cyber coordinator of the Pentagon talking about the cyber and information operations threat posed by Russia.

So we've tried to be kind of, throughout this process, building a body of work which everyone can draw and to get their heads around the scale of the challenge we're facing. 

But anyway, so I will leave it there and I look forward to your questions. 

Tom Carver: OK.  Let's open it up.  Do we have any immediate questions?

Operator: At this time, I would like to remind everyone in order to ask a question, you may press star and the number one on your telephone keypad. We'll just pause for a moment to compile the Q&A roster.  Again, to ask a question that's star and number one. 

Andrew Weiss: It's Andrew, again.  And just before I forget, I was remiss in not mentioning our two co-chairmen, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, who led this effort over the past year.  And they'll be speaking at Carnegie on Thursday along with Ivo and Carnegie President Bill Burns, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia. 

Andrew Weiss: Go on.  

Operator: Yes, I'm sorry.  We do have a first question from Howard LaFranchi, from Christian Science Monitor.  Sir, your line is open. 

Howard LaFranchi: Yes. Good morning.  Thanks for doing this.  I'd just like to ask Andrew and what you were saying, you talked about the cyber threat from Russia.  But more generally you mentioned other challenges.  And what are the – what are the, just to put it bluntly, openly, what are the – what are the challenges that we're seeing from Russia?  Why this in recent months, what it looks almost like a growing fear of Russia?  What's behind that?

Andrew Weiss: Gene, do you want to jump in on that?

Gene Rumer: Gene Rumer, yes, it's Gene Rumer here, Carnegie.  I would say that the biggest challenge that Russia poses is not so much necessarily in the cyber domain, or in what Russian-supported separatists are doing in Eastern Ukraine.  I think more broadly, we're looking at a Russia that has staked out a position that thrives on basically asserting Russian interests or Russian standing in the world at the expense of the United States. 

So they are seeking out opportunities not necessarily, for example, to bring a lasting peace in Syria, or resolve other regional disputes, but more to insert themselves as a power to be reckoned with.  We don't have any illusions about Russia's ability to put an end to the Syrian civil war or to put an end to the chaos in Libya.

Yet, it's their insistence on being at the table and having a vote and a veto that makes it very difficult to move forward.  And generally, I would say Russia has positioned itself as the challenger to the global liberal international order that the United States has upheld and promoted the world over since the end of World War II.  

So looking to the future, barring major changes in the U.S. policy which of course cannot be ruled out with the present administration but we think it would be mistake.  Russia will continue to poke and prod, and challenge us where the United States feels the norms are being challenged.  

So Ivo or Andrew, you want to add anything?  No.

Ivo Daalder: No, I think from my perspective, that's exactly right. 

Howard LaFranchi: No, great, thank you.  

Tom Carver: Andrew, I just wanted to ask you a question, this has been in the works for a while.  Obviously, since then Trump has come in.  How much have you adjusted this in the light of what is Trump's behavior?

Andrew Weiss: I think what we've focused on and I think people will see this in the report is that the U.S. Russian relationship is broken.  And that for people to assert that there is some formula for a quick fix, and that the United States and Russia will have a breakthrough, or that there will be a dramatic new way of our cooperating together in places like Syria or dealing with China's rise or dealing with the threats posed by Iranian adventurism in the Middle East, that's all I think deeply misguided. 

And what we really want the focus to be on and think a sensible policy of course should focused on is on managing what is a very dangerous and volatile relationship.  And so, there's dangers of unintentional military escalation, there's dangers as we've seen of the conflict in Ukraine getting out of control.  And then we have the implications of unprecedented Russian interference in our elections. 

So we're dealing with a far more opportunistic, risk-taking Kremlin.  And the idea that there's going to be some kind of – as President Trump gets along, a moment where we can just get along with Russia it seems awfully naïve to us at best and misguided at worse.

Gene Rumer: And I might just add, of course, we all know that President Trump's election was a surprise, but this report was not written to suit the interests or the needs of any particular administration.  I think we, from the get-go focused on those guiding principles that Ivo and Andrew talked about. 

Tom Carver: OK.  Other questions?

Operator: We don't have any other follow-up questions, sir.  Please continue.  

Tom Carver: On one area that's obviously of interest is sanctions, what are your views about the sanctions regime and whether it's likely to crumble? 

Andrew Weiss: I'm struck by the very deliberate drumbeat of comments, this is Andrew, deliberate set of comments from senior representatives of the new administration. 

So we've had Mike Pence over the weekend, and then last week the new U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, all talking about sanctions in ways that look very carefully crafted to set in motion possible changes or relaxation of the sanctions package.

So in the case of Mike Pence, he talked about the possibility that if Russia cooperates in Syria and helps us fight terrorism, the sanctions could come off.  And then Nikki Haley when she was talking last Thursday, she got a lot of credit for being so tough and pointed about Russia's involvement in Eastern Ukraine.  But when she talked about sanctions she spoke only about the Crimea-related sanctions which are obviously going to stay in place indefinitely because no one is expecting Russia to give Crimea back any time soon.

But what is rather striking is that if you compare what she said with Samantha Power, the former U.S Ambassador to the U.N., was saying we constantly have drawn a linkage between the sanctions program and the implementation of the ceasefire agreements under the Minsk accords.  The Trump people seem to be dropping that linkage which I think is a very significant policy change. 

We'll see if it's borne out in terms of their actual policies.  But if the signaling is correct, I think they are looking to make a big trade here.  And I think that's extremely treacherous territory to be heading into.

Ivo Daalder: And I may let me, this is Ivo, just add to that.  I think that in addition to all the very good points that Andrew made, I think the administration is underestimating the degree to which the sanction regime depends on strong American leadership on sanctions. 

Our ability to maintain the regime sanctions with the Europeans, depends crucially on the United States being willing to take the diplomatic and forceful lead in making the case for sanctions.  These sanctions didn't appear out of nowhere.  It was a very hard slog on the part of President Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel to get the European Union, all 27, to impose the sanctions in July of 2014.  Every single six months when these sanctions need to be renewed by the E.U., it is a hard-fought battle within the European Union to maintain those sanctions. 

There are many Europeans who would like to relax them, who would like to go back to business as usual.  And the only way in which we have been able to maintain the sanctions through the last rollover which just happened earlier this year in Europe, is with strong American leadership.  

And the kind of indications we're getting from the administration, the failure to mention sanctions and the read-outs of the phone calls that the President made with President Poroshenko and indeed with President Putin.  The kinds of indications about no longer talking about linking sanctions to Minsk implementation that Andrew talked about are all indications that the Europeans will take of a sliding American interest in sanctions.  And that will make it that much more difficult for Angela Merkel and those who still believe in maintaining the importance of sanctions to win the day in Brussels.  

And that's the real point.  The understanding that the United States in this instance, as in so many other instances has to be the leader of our effort with regard to Europe in order to address the challenges that we face from Russia, and that is missing in the current approach.  

Tom Carver: OK.

Gene Rumer: I just want to say that the removal of sanctions if it comes to that is not going to do much for the Russian economy.  There has been a good deal of adjustment there.  And there have been other reasons why – there are other reasons why the Russian economy is not doing well or doing very -- is stagnating.

But the political, the psychological victory for the Kremlin would be huge.  And just to pile on to what Ivo said the blow to our critical European partners, such as Angela Merkel, would be very severe at a time when they really do need a show of Trans-Atlantic solidarity, because she's going in to an election that is going to be contested where the Russians will be working very, very hard to undermine her candidacy. 

Tom Carver: And presumably also a blow to Ukraine, right, because if they are signaling a move away from support of the Ukraine.

Andrew Weiss: It would be a blow to Ukraine as well.  It would undermine the government in Kiev for sure.  

Tom Carver: OK.  Let's see if there are questions. 

Operator: And if you want a question again you may press star and the number one on your telephone keypad.  We'll just pause for a moment.  You’ve got a follow-up question from Howard LaFranchi from Christian Science Monitor.  Sir, your line is open.

Howard LaFranchi: Yes.  I just want to – so what is – where is this task force report destined, what are your contacts in the administration for getting this into the – into the mix on the debate and the discussion? 

Tom Carver: Andrew, you want to…?

Andrew Weiss: So we've had throughout the last year or so regular interactions with people in the U.S. government about where we're up to and keeping them apprised of what we're doing.  

We -- we'll see what people say about this report.  I think we're trying to be constructive and we're trying to – as Ivo outlined, identify principles as opposed to an action plan. People who are in government have to figure out what they're going to do tomorrow.  We have the luxury of being able to step back a bit and say that there are these broader drivers in U.S. Russian relations and in U.S. policy towards the entire region.

I think part of what we're hoping for here and I think part of what guided our efforts over the past year was the sense that Western policy was heavily reactive and that we were basically allowing ourselves to be drifting, either based on the actions the Russians were up to or events on the ground. 

So I think what we're hoping for is to again, be able to sort of say to people, there's some bigger phenomena at play here, and here's how you should understand them and here's how you should set your expectations. 

Howard LaFranchi: What about -- what does the report say about this issue of NATO and how much the -- the U.S. government should reinforce the messaging to strong support for NATO?

Tom Carver: Ivo, do you want to take that as you are the ex-ambassador to NATO?

Ivo Daalder: Sure, I'm happy to.  I mean, the report doesn't go into great detail about what it is that we need to do other than making the very important statement about the unconditional and iron-clad nature of the American security guarantee.  

And I was struck yesterday that for actually the first time we heard the words out of the President's mouth that he and the United States strongly support NATO which is a good thing.  We previously had heard more, weaker language with regard to NATO's problems. 

The point about unconditionality, however, is that it is unconditional.  It is a treaty commitment that we think is important to set first and foremost in front of everyone else, and then we can talk about how you implement that treaty and commitment through enhanced defense spending and enhanced capabilities provided by all countries. 

NATO has moved quite a bit since the last few years to reinforce its commitments to the security of all allies no matter where they are, including the allies in Eastern Europe through the deployment of additional forces to the east on at least a rotating but not a permanent basis in the Baltic States and Poland, near the Black Sea, in the waters of the Black Sea, in the Baltic Sea, and in the air.  All of which are meant to make it very clear to Vladimir Putin, to Russia, to anyone else that there is a -- if you want to call it, a clear red line which extends to the very territory of every NATO ally.  

And it is important that there be no doubt about that commitment because it is only on the basis of understanding that commitment that engaging Russia makes – is fruitful, which is why we put it as one of the most important guiding principles of our policy.

Howard LaFranchi: How much do you feel that from your sense of what Putin's behavior is that he is prepared to test that?

Ivo Daalder: I think up to this point he is not prepared to test it.  I think he realizes that a military confrontation with NATO and the United States is one that is not going to come to the benefit of Russia or frankly of anyone else.  

But it is very important that that message be reinforced every single day.  And it is particularly important when you have a new administration coming to power, that every opportunity is taken to reinforce the fundamental commitment that the United States has in defense of its allies.  I take comfort in the trip that the Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis made to East Asia in which he strongly reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defense of South Korea and Japan.  

Later this month there will be a NATO ministerial, defense ministerial which Secretary Mattis will attend.  I expect him to make equally strong statements with regard to the defense of NATO.  And it's those kinds of statements, including the one by the president yesterday that he needs to repeat day in and day out in order not only to let our allies know that we have their back, but more importantly to let Vladimir Putin know that we have their back.

Tom Carver: Gene, do you want to…

Gene Rumer: Yes.  Just to amplify what Ivo has said, as part of our work for this task force we had a chance to travel to Europe and in particular, the Baltic region.  And for example there, it's very clear that Russians do take the NATO security guarantee very, very seriously.  

But what they're doing is trying to undermine the confidence of the Baltic nations in that security guarantee through various disinformation operations, through poking and prodding in the airspace, on land, at sea.  And that's why it's all the more important as Ivo said for the United States and other allies to reiterate their commitment to especially the front-line states. 

Tom Carver: OK.  Any other questions?  

Operator: Yes.  We have another question from Neil MacFarquhar from The New York Times.  Sir, your line is open.

Neil MacFarquhar: Hi.  Thank you.  I wonder if you could talk about a little bit about the ramifications or the fall-out from the lack of a policy and whether it's different this time around than it has been for other administrations.

I mean this is just the third week of the Trump administration and obviously they've put an emphasis on domestic matters.  But I'm just wondering what concerns you might have about the questions.  And there's been some speculations, for example, the war in Ukraine reignited with such ferocity because both sides are trying to influence the policy discussion. 

So what do you see as the dangers of not having more specifics at this point and whether or not they have a president?

Ivo Daalder: Maybe let me take that first shot at that.  And say that of course transitions are always difficult for foreign countries, allies and adversaries alike because there is great uncertainty about where the direction of the new policy is. 

In this case, however, that uncertainty is greater in part because of what was said and not said during the campaign.  And what has been said and not said since then. 

One of the reasons we think it is very important to have a clearer sense of the guiding principles of our policy is because those principles themselves don't seem to have been fully embraced by the administration.  These are not new principles that we're putting forward.  They are fundamental principles that have guided our policy towards Russia for decades. 

So that is why it is so important early on for the administration to reconfirm its unconditional commitment to the security of NATO.  Why it is important for the administration to reconfirm its unconditional commitment to defend the norms of the European security order, including condemning when those norms are being broken as they have been with the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, why it is important that we stress that we stand by Ukraine and want Ukraine's reforms to succeed.  And why it is important that we will not sacrifice the security of Russia's neighbors in order to engage with Russia. 

We've heard none of this from the incoming administration.  Instead, what we have heard is a sense that somehow it is better to get along with Russia than not get along.  Of course it is better to get along with Russia, the question is on what basis and for what purpose.  And the basis has to be the set of principles that has guided American policy, Democrats and Republican presidents alike for decades.  And that is why we are making such a strong plea that the administration come back and make very clear that the principles upon which it is engaging Russia have been unchanged.

Neil MacFarquhar: Was that, sorry, was that Ivo?

Tom Carver: Yes. 

Ivo Daalder: That was Ivo, sorry, yes.

Neil MacFarquhar: OK.

Andrew Weiss: And then just one thing to add there, Neil, I think it's a great question, is we tried to position this whole discussion about U.S. policy in a broader context and say there is major shifts unfolding in terms of new regional power dynamics, power fragmentation, the rise of populous nationalism, sweeping technological changes, all of these things are happening, and for the administration to singularize relations with Moscow as if that's a panacea for everything else that's wrong in the world.  To us it seems very inappropriate. 

And what we're trying to focus on is that the challenge as Ivo is how do you preserve what we're calling the liberal international where our alliance system, U.S. economic role, where all these things matter a great deal for our security and our prosperity.  

They are not saying that just having a backroom deal with Russia we'll benefit from.  And I think the administration has really overstated the potential gains from having some kind of kiss and make-up dynamic going on with the Kremlin.

There's something about this that just doesn't track with the realities that we've been observing in the world in the last couple of years.  And just as Russia is not the source of all America's problems in the world it's not going to be the solution to all of the problems we have in the world, including the threat we are facing from the Islamic State. 

Tom Carver: OK.  Other questions?

Operator: We do not have any other questions on the queue, sir, please continue.  

Gene Rumer: This Gene Rumer now.  Yes, I just somewhat more sort of down to earth about the transition it seems that this administration is less prepared to take on the challenge of managing the Russian policy and other policies, speaking about Russia and I will stick to that. 

You have unprecedented differences between the President and his major Cabinet appointments on issues dealing with Russia, dealing with the NATO alliance.  These gaps in their public statements that are very difficult to explain or rationalize.  So it just really raises a lot of questions about the direction this administration will take which underscores the difficulty that this team will have in transitioning to the governing rather than the campaign mode. 

Tom Carver: You are talking one of your four principles about how approach the democracy needs to be demand driven rather than supply driven, I mean, is that a kind of acknowledgement that the past administrations have got that wrong? Gene?

Gene Rumer: Well it definitely has been a learning experience and I think given the progress of a number of countries in particular around the periphery of Russia, the former Russia, the former Soviet Republics, perhaps we moved into those regions early on with exceedingly ambitious agendas.  And too much in terms of reform, too much for those countries to digest in a relatively short historically period of time.  

So, yes, there is a measure of acknowledgement that perhaps we've gone too far at times.  But also I think there is also a recognition that with the newly assertive role that Russia has staked out for itself in the international arena and in particular around the former Soviet States, we should be more sensitive to our partners in that region and their preferences, and their ability to engage with us on major issues of domestic, political, economic security reforms so as to not upset their very delicate relationship with Russia. 

We have to be sensitive to their very difficult predicament and not to put them in a position where they are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place where we're coming in with a set of hard demands.  Yes, they really do have to live next to Russia and live with that on a day to day basis.  

Tom Carver: OK.  Great.  Well we're coming up on 30 minutes if there's no other questions, Andrew, Gene, do you want to, or Ivo, do you have any final thoughts? 

Andrew Weiss: No, we're -- we're delighted by folks' interest in the report.  All that stuff should be sent to you if you don't have it already.  There will be a rollout event at 3:00 o'clock on Thursday with Bill Burns, Ivo, Richard Armitage, and Senator Murphy.  It's going to be live stream. 

We also have an article coming out of the next issue of Foreign Affairs which will be out I think in the middle of the month.  But we're delighted to engage with folks offline if that's helpful to you and we're happy to make anybody else available. 

Tom Carver: And as Andrew said we'll send you the actual task force and the summary of it as well and feel free to quote from that and from the call this morning.  It's all on the record.  

OK, thank you very much.  It's the end of the call.  Thank you.