Secretary Clinton will be in Russia this week to discuss nuclear disarmament, Iran, Afghanistan, and human rights with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and President Medvedev. In a new video Q&A, Ambassador James F. Collins, former Ambassador to Moscow, discusses Secretary Clinton’s trip, changing U.S.-Russia relations, and opportunities for future engagement.

“We’ve made a good beginning with the Russians. We now have an ongoing START negotiations. They reached the agreement on broader cooperation on Afghanistan. We have a number of areas of potential cooperation that have opened up now on missile defense as well as number of areas in the proliferation set of issues,” says Collins. “But I would say it’s still very fragile.”

Collins addresses the following questions:
What are the priorities for Secretary Clinton’s visit to Moscow?
Secretary Clinton will go to Moscow on this trip, I think, basically as a follow-up to the July summit, and her priorities will be in many ways, those outlined by the two presidents. Certainly, she will be looking at the progress on START negotiations, whether to reach a follow-up agreement—it’s my sense that she will be doing everything possible to encourage rapid progress as they really want to finish this by December 5, and I think there’s a good chance they will. I think she will also be talking with the Russians about other aspects of the nonproliferation agenda. We have an ambitious outline of what we want to do over the next couple of years and it seems to me that she is going to be pushing to try to move forward on those areas where we have work to do.

She’ll certainly look also at how we’re doing on the Afghan Transit Agreement, the agreement with Russia we reached in July to permit the transit of American lethal equipment and soldiers. It’s my understanding that it has just begun to be implemented. My guess is that she will review how it’s going, I think, though it’s also going to be a time for her to explore what else might be done in Afghanistan. We just had a meeting here with Viktor Ivanov, the man who is in charge of narcotics issues in Russia. I think that working group is also looking at what we might do together on that problem.

And she will more broadly I think, as the executive director of the bilateral commission, be reviewing the work of the different working groups. I think we’re up to fifteen now, and some of those have met already and some have not. I think she will be encouraging those who have not to move forward, as well as reviewing what the ones who have met have done.

Finally, I don’t think there’s any question that Iran will be on the agenda. I think we have made substantial progress in looking for common approaches to Iran. We do not see everything eye-to-eye, that remains the case, but I think the recent meetings in New York and Geneva, the seeming opening that has been presented to inspect Iranian sites, the revelation that Iran has this second facility for enrichment and so forth, all of that has given a degree of impetus to pressing the Iranians to live up to their commitments under the nonproliferation treaty. I think the Russians are comfortable and are prepared to push reasonably far in that direction. I think we run into differences, however, when we get up against the issue of sanctions, although that remains to be explored.

Have U.S.-Russia relations changed under the Obama administration?

The new administration made a very concerted effort to set us on a different course with the Russian Federation from where we had ended up at the end of the Bush administration. Most observers and most analysts felt that we had got to just about the lowest point in relations and the ability to work together with the Russians that we had had since the end of Cold War. And there was a very strong sense that given the broad agenda of issues on which we really have to be able to find working pragmatic approaches together, that that was not a viable situation. So when the Obama administration came in, it seems to me that they made a concerted effort to, as they said, to reset relations.

Some of us who have been talking with the Russians felt that the Russians thought it’d be a much better idea if we had a new operating system, but however you characterize it, the Bush administration had left us without much capacity to do business, and it was felt that could not go on. So you had from the very outset, a commitment to what I would call policy of engagement. I have heard it explained by spokesmen for the Obama administration as an approach which was going to be: premise number one, on the idea that we would have a very broad agenda, and that really everything would be on the table. Number two, it would be premised on the idea that we would engage the Russians on all of these topics, and we would see where we could make progress or where we had issues that were difficult, and then we would get down to business and try to deal with both opportunities and difficulties. But on the presumption that we got nowhere unless we had a commitment to talk with the Russians about how we would see our way forward.

I think the result of that was the first meeting of the two presidents in London on April 1 that was followed by the very important meeting they had in July, which really set some very serious work. We now have an ongoing START negotiation and I think they made some serious progress on defining the parameters of a new treaty. They reached the agreement on broader cooperation on Afghanistan. We have a number of areas of potential cooperation that have opened up now on missile defense as well as number of areas in the proliferation set of issues.

So I think the broad sense is that this is an administration which has decided that we have a relationship with Russia, which is important, and that it needs to be conducted on the basis of talking with the Russians on the full agenda of our relations. And that we’re going to try to work with them where we can, and where we have differences, we’ll continue to talk with them and try to manage those differences in ways that are not going to be disruptive on our ability to work where we can on other issues.

How does Russia’s “ruling tandem” influence U.S. policy?
The issue or question about the relationship between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin is a constant. It is, as I have noted, the biggest parlor game in Moscow. But frankly, for the government in Washington, the only sensible way to approach the issue is essentially is to undertake our relations on the premise that there is one government. If there are differences between them, or if there is cooperation between them and they see things the same way, for us we can only work with one Russian government at a time. I think the way in which relations have been developed and conducted up to now makes a great deal of sense. President Obama, as the president of the United States, deals with his presidential counterpart as his main interlocutor. No one however, is under any illusion that Prime Minister Putin is not a very important and very influential leader in Russia—and President Obama saw him.

The key point is we work with the Russian government as a whole. I would certainly council anyone that it is rarely in our interest to try to play one side against the other in any foreign government and that is particularly true with the Russian case. So if we’re getting agreements with the Russian Federation, than we have to presume that those are agreements reached in their own way internally. It is my assumption that Prime Minister Putin does not act without consultation with his president, and that President Medvedev has very close relations and consultation with his prime minister. Therefore, it’s probably a fair assumption that the policies we are seeing of the Russian government have the support of both.  

What are the prospects for replacing the strategic arms reduction treaty which expires in December?
One of the priorities that has been at the top of our bilateral agenda, really from the first encounters between Secretary Clinton and Minister Lavrov, has been what do we do to have a follow-on to the START agreement. I think it’s fair to say that neither side has any interest in seeing the framework for a treaty-based arms control regime that is verifiable disappear. And yet, there is a time deadline of December 5 by when it really is important to get a new agreement or we will somehow find ourselves in great danger of losing the existing framework, which has served us very well now, since the START agreement under which we’re operating.

The purpose of these agreements is really twofold: to determine the agreed number of, in this case, warheads and delivery vehicles that will be permitted on each side and then to establish a system where we can each verify that the other is living up to its commitments. That was the essence of the first START agreement and the basis for this follow-on agreement and the agreement that was reached in the Bush administration, the so-called SORT.

I believe the chances of reaching a new agreement are very good. From all the information I have, both sides are negotiating very seriously. But there are issues. Some of them will rise to the political level. Many of them are technical and they are in some ways a function of getting the technical issues sorted out and resolved, which is often a case of just working hard on both sides. I have every reason to think that both sides are now energized to get this agreement done on time. I do think when Secretary Clinton goes next week, she will be underlining very strongly the need for everybody on both sides to get on with it and get the work done expeditiously because time is short and this is a very complicated agreement. But, I think there is reason for optimism.

What is the significance of the U.S. decision to reconfigure the proposed missile shield in Europe?
The missile shield in Europe, as announced in the Bush administration, became, as I think pretty much anyone who followed it at all knows, an extremely contentious and difficult issue between the United States and the Russians. Whatever the merits of each side’s arguments about either the relevance or non-relevance to Russia’s missile capabilities and what the missile defense system’s implications were for strategic arms on the Russian side, the perception was that it was a problem. And it became one of the principal issues that seemed to come up and prevent any kind of sort of serious dialogue on a variety of issues from arms control to European security and a number of other areas.

I think the real meaning of the decision on missile defense is not so much why it was done, but what are the effects of having made the decision. And I think probably from the bilateral point of view, that is, from the Russia–U.S. point of view, what it did was remove a major contentious issue from the table. The Russians have now essentially welcomed the decision. They have been saying now in the last few days that the new system, which is indeed going to give us missile defense capability in Europe, is not a threat to the Russian Federation—and that’s a very different story from what they were saying about the previous system.

What this means, in the first instance, is it removes a very diverting and distracting issue from our agenda and it lets people talk about a lot of things in a much more conducive atmosphere. Secondly, though, I think it’s also important that it appears to open up opportunities for exploring cooperation on missile defense, and that is at its very earliest stages. I think it is too early to tell how that will develop. Both sides have said we are prepared to do it. If you go back to the first statement of Presidents Obama and Medvedev, this was mentioned as an area of possible cooperation. It was reiterated in July. I think there is no question the American side is serious about seeing what can be done. I am sure the Russian side is, too.

But I would frankly say that it is probably true also that there are plenty of people on each side who have great doubts about cooperation in this area really going very far. I think there is going to be a lot of internal debate on both sides about how far you can go, what is possible. I just hope that we will have a serious exploration of the potential for cooperation as we move forward. I think we are at the very early stages of that, but I think this will be a subject of discussion when Secretary Clinton and Under Secretary Tauscher are in Moscow.

How effectively are the United States and Russia cooperating on Iran?
Since the beginning of the Obama administration, Iran has been a priority issue for the United States in talking with the Russian Federation. I think most agree that we do not differ with the Russians and have not for some time, if ever, on the idea that it would be a bad thing for Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Nobody thinks that’s a good idea. The question is what do you do about it if they are trying to do it, as we believe they are, and I think as more and more the Russians and others agree seems to be a real likelihood.

What has happened over time, I think, is that the Russian side has come much closer to the American side in assessing the realities of what is happening on the ground in Iran on the nuclear program. I think that we have agreed that we should do whatever is possible to prevent the development of a weapons capability, in so far as that means holding them to observe their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Where we seem to part company often, or where the debate gets difficult, is in what do you do if the Iranian side refuses to cooperate and this gets into sanctions debates and so forth. I believe the Russians see sanctions differently from us. They have very great doubts that they will be effective. As we saw in New York, President Medvedev said he doubted their effectiveness, but that maybe they would be inevitable. I’m not quite sure what to make of that statement. I believe we should not overestimate how far it carries the Russians in our direction.

At the same time, I think the recent revelation that Iran had been secretly developing yet another enrichment plant, the evidence about all this, the fact that this showed that they were not observing the requirements of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This has strengthened the hand of those who say we really need to press Iran to be more transparent, to be more open, to give access. I think the Russians are comfortable with that and I believe that is why we have seen a strong—I would say a somewhat closer on insistence—that Iran open up its facilities, that it cooperate with the IAEA—those kinds of measures. I think where we end up having differences still, however, is what do you do if we run up against a brick wall in Iran. And there I think we shouldn’t underestimate the continuing differences that we probably share.

Finally, I would say, one place in which we clearly differ is that Russia would say we rule out any use of force to compel Iran to do anything. And, as you know, the American position and the position of many others is that nothing is ruled out. And I think that is a very definite difference. Russia simply would not accept the use of force.

How effectively are Washington and Moscow working together on Afghanistan?
Cooperation on Afghanistan has been one of the more successful elements of the Obama administration’s effort to open up new areas of work and cooperation with the Russians. In July, and I understand this was basically a Russian initiative, there was a proposal to have Russia play a greater role in the support operation for American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. That took the form of opening up new transit routes across Russia and the areas to the south for American aircraft and land transport.

There was an agreement reached as a result of that opening, an agreement was signed in July, and it’s my understanding that now we actually have at least tested the first flight and so forth. That’s a very major achievement. I mean we were far from that kind of cooperation seven, eight, nine months ago. And so I think it’s a serious step.

In addition, from a number of people I’ve been discussing this with on both sides; I think there is a sense that there is more to be done and there is much more that could be done together on Afghanistan. The Russian side is very much insistent on doing more to counter the narcotics production and trafficking out of Afghanistan. It’s affecting them very seriously. Their chief of narcotics matters, or I guess their drug czar if you want to call him that, was here recently, really making a very strong case that this is a huge problem for Russia and they want more done by the Americans and NATO to deal with it, and they’re willing to work with us. That I think opens up some serious additional opportunities for greater work.

So I would say on balance the Afghan story on cooperation is a pretty good one with the Russians, so far. We of course are in the midst of a review about what we’re going to do next on Afghanistan. I have no idea what the Russians will be counseling. One of the things I do know is that Russians, in general, believe that we would do well to listen to them and look very carefully at their experience there, which was not a happy one, and that they would not like to see us repeat the same problems.

I think what this all reflects is the fact that, strategically, we really do not have differing objectives regarding that part of the world. We do not want to see it as a source of instability, of terrorist training camps, or Islamic destabilization by the militants. We don’t want to see it as a source of narcotics for Eurasia and Europe. So I mean there’s not much in which we really have differing objective there, I would say at this point. We may have different emphases but not differing objectives.

What does the future hold? Are there opportunities for further cooperation? And continuing tension?

We have a lot of unfinished business, I would say, in the sense of developing a more stable set of future relations, both between us and more broadly in the region, regarding, in essence, the post-Soviet space. The aftermath of the Georgian war is still with us. There are disagreements that are very sharp about Russia’s action in recognizing these two territories that we recognize as a part of Georgia. So we have that issue, there are the other unresolved conflicts in the region like Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria, and there is broadly-speaking, an unresolved set of issues which are very complex and very large over the future of what kinds of arrangements will exist going forward to set-up the future European security system. Russia is adamantly opposed to NATO moving further to the east and taking in members—either Ukraine or Georgia, or probably others in that region. NATO is equally insistent that NATO’s open to new members and so forth. Now I don’t think that’s a major issue at the moment. It has been to some extent placed on the back burner. But it’s still there and I think that one of the areas in which there is potential for difficulty—if anything were to flare up—or where we still have major unresolved issues is in the relationship between us and Russia in this post-Soviet space around Russia’s neighborhoods and the role of Europe there. So I think that’s one area where, just because it’s quiet at the moment, no one should be complacent.

I would say also that we have a lot of areas in which we have yet to find out what the degree of cooperation or rivalry might be. Will we see things like global warming, climate change, the new environment treaty, things of that kind in similar ways, will we find it in our interest to go forward and work together on this. Or are we going to see the world differently and therefore have a lot of difficulties coming together?

I think we have done reasonably well at seeing each other as both engaged, along with most of the rest of the modernized world, in a pretty serious economic mess. The crisis has thrown everybody together with ideas about how we need to come out of it and that something has to be done to change from where we were before it started to where we’re going to go after it’s over. Whether that’s more regulation of the financial and banking system or the international economics structures or a new reserve currency—there are all sorts of ideas out there. I think we’ve only begun to explore with Russia and many of the other countries involved just how far our views are compatible with theirs or whether we’re going to find tensions rising over our approaches to this as opposed to others.

So I think I would leave it that we’ve made a good beginning with the Russians, we have a capacity it seems to me to discuss with them just about anything that we might see necessary on either side. I think we are gradually building patterns of joint work, but I would say it’s still very fragile. We have a structure now for conducting our business, this bilateral commission. It is in its earliest stages of work. If we make the most of the opportunities on both sides, I think that can go a long way to regularizing the way we do our business and broaden the areas of cooperation. If it does not reach its potential, I think we will be the worse for it. I think it doesn’t mean we will have confrontation, but it seems to me we will miss opportunities, and the patterns of cooperation—and we are learning to work together across a broad range of issues—will be less than they could be.