Relations between the United States and Russia probably will not improve as long as Vladimir Putin is running Russia.
That was the consensus of a panel of Russia experts, who spoke Friday during the Ambassador William C. Battle Symposium, “U.S. Presidents Confront the Russians,” hosted by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The symposium, which started Wednesday, explored the 100 years of U.S. relations with Russia since the Bolshevik Revolution.
Eric Edelman of the Miller Center moderated Friday’s panel discussion, “The Putin Challenge.” The panelists included Derek Chollet of the German Marshall Fund of the United States; Allen Lynch, a professor in UVA’s Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics; Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies; and Eugene Rumer, senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at Washington, D.C.’s National Defense University.
Chollet said the Obama administration overestimated how much Putin supported initiatives taken by Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Russian president from 2008 to 2012, though it is believed that Putin, as prime minister, was still the man in charge of Russia during this period. Chollet said that Medvedev went along with some areas in which the United States and Russia had overlapping interests.
“Obama was aware that Putin had a different character, but Obama thought Putin was more on board with the Medvedev period,” Chollet said.
But relations later soured, in part because Putin believed the United States was behind the Arab Spring in Egypt, which Putin thought was directed at him. Negative Western reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 further alienated Putin.
“These were missed opportunities for the U.S. to respond more forcefully,” Chollet said. “The U.S. viewed Russia as a regional power with a strong military.”
He said that on the world stage now, there are fewer issues over which the U.S. needs Russian cooperation, though Lynch questioned whether Ukraine can be stabilized without Russian help.
Lynch said there are imbalances in the relationship between Russia and the United States that frustrate leaders on both sides. He said the Russians have a much smaller economy than the United States, that the U.S. is a global power, with 180 military bases around the world, while Russia’s sole base outside its own territory is in Syria. Lynch said Russia’s values, from political freedom to the treatment of gay people to modernity, are different to the point where Putin has generated enemies on the right and the left.
He said Russia sees a sphere of influence in its immediate surroundings, while its neighbors are being courted by the European community and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a mutual defense pact between the United States and Europe.
In discussing the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Chollet said that the United States was concerned about cyberattacks during the election, but was seemingly unprepared for apparent Russian manipulation of social media.
Lynch said that the Russians were not interested in electing Donald Trump president. He said Putin believed Hillary Clinton would be elected and that she might seek human rights changes in Russia.
“Putin thought it would be the third term of the Obama administration and Obama had identified three threats: Ebola, ISIS and Russia,” Lynch said. “And what do you do with these? You eradicate Ebola, you annihilate ISIS, and where does that leave Russia?”
So while Putin believed Clinton would be the next president, he wanted to weaken her administration, Lynch said.
With Trump in office, relations between the Trump administration and Russia are “dead in the water,” Lynch said. “Putin, at this point, has nothing to hope for, or to fear.”
Brands noted that while there may have been some issues on which the U.S. and Russia could agree during the Medvedev period, “It is a mistake to see tactical cooperation as a key to wider cooperation. I think the relations will get worse before they get better.”
He said that the United States should expect the unexpected from Putin, who has a higher risk factor than some world leaders. “He will not push where the U.S. has drawn red lines, but he will move if he thinks he can catch someone flat-footed.”
Rumer said that for years, U.S. policy toward Russia was based on promoting a market economy and democracy, preventing the return of the Soviet empire and encouraging the eastward expansion of Europe and NATO, a strategy he called “containment lite,” referring to U.S. Cold War policy of preventing the expansion of the Soviet Union.
Chollet, who thinks the blame for the poor relations between the U.S. and Russia lies with Russia, said that Putin’s goals are a weak Europe and a weak NATO, so there is little space for the two powers to cooperate.
Lynch believes there is fault on both sides, “as in any relationship, it is impossible that only one party is responsible.”
“It’s a conflict of different world views,” Brands said. “The U.S. did not defer to Russia in the 1990s.”
Robert Zoellick, former deputy secretary of state and president of the World Bank and symposium participant who spoke from the audience, said Russia was willing to cooperate with the World Bank to help its stalled economy. But he also questioned who the Russians saw as their enemies. “When will the Russians realize that the threat is coming from China and its southern borders?” he said.
Rumer said the Russians thought the West to be more “intrusive” in the country’s domestic policies. “The Russians think the West wants their souls,” he said, while the Chinese pose more of an external, long-term threat. “China is so big that Russia needs to keep it in a bear hug – keep your enemies close.”
Lynch agreed that Russia’s highly centralized, corrupt and crony-ridden economy is exhausted and in fundamental crisis. He said this is something of which Putin is aware and that he knows the longer he waits to correct it, the harder it will be.