20 years under Putin: a timeline

The relationship between the United States and Russia is going through a difficult time. The “reset” policy has come to a logical end, but new ways of cooperation have not yet been found. The scope of the mutual agenda has narrowed. As Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), points out, within the given context, reelected U.S. president Barack Obama’s stance on Russia will be a key factor in determining the future of this relationship. Dr. Aron spoke of the priorities of U.S. foreign policy and this policy’s influence on the Russian regime with IMR’s Olga Khvostunova.



Olga Khvostunova (OK): At the beginning of December, the U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which had been causing a great stir in Moscow even while it had been discussed. On various occasions, the Kremlin would say it would come up with a “symmetrical answer.” What impact will this bill have on the U.S.–Russia relationship at large?

Leon Aron (LA): Everything will depend on whether Moscow sees a wider context of this bill or not. Russia understands the American political process quite well, and particularly the fact that the U.S. administration opposed the Magnitsky Act. This is how the separation of powers works: since the Congress decided to pass this bill, it did so, and the opposing position of the administration was not enough. Russian officials can have these ritual splashes of indignation or threaten to take symmetrical actions, etc. Of course, they can ban the wives of high-level American officials from shopping in Moscow or ban these officials from keeping their money in rubles in Russian banks. I’m joking, but these so-called “symmetrical actions” look ridiculous to the American establishment. Besides, according to, say, the Helsinki Accords, human rights in any country is an object of international law, so from the legal point of view, there is nothing Russia can appeal to on this issue.

OK: What do you mean by a wider context?

LA: This is a very interesting moment. After President Obama was reelected, President Putin called him to congratulate him on the victory. As [Putin’s press secretary Dmitri] Peskov reported later, Putin invited Obama to come to Moscow not just for an official visit, but rather for a personal conversation. And, allegedly, Obama agreed. Washington denies the latter, or, to be more precise, refuses to comment. If this is true, then it’s a very serious signal of the U.S.–Russia relationship. Why worry about the Magnitsky Act if the American president comes to visit Putin? That very Putin who, since his inauguration, has signed a number of toughening laws—on demonstrations, on foreign agents, on state treason, on libel, et al. If Obama comes to see Putin after Russia vetoed the resolution on Syria, after [U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael] McFaul was bullied in Moscow, after USAID was banned from the country—that will create a new context for the U.S.–Russia relationship, and in this context, the Magnitsky Act will be a minor disturbance.

OK: Do you think that Obama can really agree to such a meeting with Putin?

LA: Barack Obama is a president who mostly focuses on domestic policies. He doesn’t have special ambitions in foreign policy. But he has one ideological passion—the world without nuclear weapons. He declared this idea in Prague in 2009. But Obama’s will to reduce U.S. nuclear weapons is not enough; the Congress will not let him do it. But this idea can be implemented as a part of a new nonproliferation treaty, and Obama needs Russia and Putin to achieve this goal. Putin clearly understands this.

OK: What are the consequences?

LA: It would send a signal to the Kremlin that it can continue tightening the screws. Russian authoritarianism will transform from soft to hard. Specifically, the authorities can behead the protest movement by imprisoning [Alexey] Navalny. They will do it by the Khodorkovsky scenario. But instead of oil embezzlement, it will be forest embezzlement. [Sergei] Udaltsov’s future will be clear too: since he was accused of talking to the Georgians to plot against Russia, he will be convicted. No doubt, the U.S. State Department and the U.S Helsinki Commission will ceremonially call for human rights protections. But there is only one country that Russia cares about—America—and only one person—the American president. And if this person delegates human rights issues to the State Department, the message will be clearly heard in Moscow. It’s a worst-case scenario, of course, but it is possible.

“We should not say that we support Navalny or that we are against Putin. We should say that we are for a free, stable, prosperous, and democratic Russia.”

OK: Do you think there will be a new policy towards Russia? Something like a “new reset”?

LA: The “reset” had concrete goals: cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan, and nuclear arms reduction. There was a ritual part to it: talks on nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the fight against terrorism, but these issues are handled by low- and mid-level diplomats and officials of respective ministries and agencies. Neither the president, nor the White House, nor special policy à la “reset” is required to resolve these issues. Look at what is happening. First, in the summer of 2014, American troops will withdraw from Afghanistan. Now this is for certain. Secondly, it is clear that Russia will not help to escalate sanctions against Iran. The same thing with the resolution on Syria. It was a complete failure—no support from Russia. Finally, Obama had some hopes for softening the Russian stance on the strategic antimissile shield. But even in this issue, Russia let it be known that it would not compromise. Besides, in June 2013, Russia is quitting Nunn-Lugar, a bilateral program sponsored by the U.S. and aimed at dismantling outdated Cold War-time nuclear weapons. Thus, there is no more room for cooperation besides the aforementioned ritual and routine issues. Today, the mutual agenda has narrowed down to two things: arms control and the antimissile shield. In other words, the geostrategic role of Russia in the area of U.S. national interests has dramatically diminished.

OK: You are saying that there is only one country for Russia, and it’s the U.S. Meanwhile, Russia is under an illusion that it’s an equally important rival to the U.S. In reality, what is Russia’s place in the list of U.S. foreign priorities?

LA: It’s important to understand that the U.S. has four key priorities: the Middle East, Iran as a separate issue, China, and the fight against Islamist terrorism. All other issues are secondary. Russia can be found in the second or third echelon. I learned this from my own experience when I was invited to be an advisor on Mitt Romney’s foreign policy team—I was responsible for Russia. Besides one little blunder, when for some reason Romney said that Russia was the U.S.’s number-one geopolitical foe, no one asked us any important questions about Russia. Obama was right to point to that blunder in his third debate with Romney. From my personal conversations with other members of Romney’s foreign policy team, I know that they were on the phone all the time talking to journalists. Since the American media more or less reflect the public interest, it is clear that for now, the U.S. government takes little interest in Russia. On the other hand, Obama can upgrade Russia’s status into a priority if he decides to pursue nuclear arms reduction. It could be a game-changer.

OK: Leaving your worst-case scenario aside, what would you do if you could change U.S. policy towards Russia?

LA: I’d like to stress that my pessimism is not caused by Romney’s defeat, because whichever candidate won, the pattern of the U.S.-Russia relationship would not have changed, except that Romney would have come to power with certain rhetorical baggage. In my opinion, the key message of the American president and of the White House should be the following: we want Russia to transform into a normal, stable, prosperous, democratic state. Imagine that it really happened. A major headache for the U.S. would immediately go away. Look at today’s Russia: enormous stockpiles of arms, ammunition, strategic missiles, and enormous levels of corruption. The regime is based on the legitimacy of one man. It’s a serious threat to the direct interests of U.S. national security. If Russia becomes a democratic country, it will have a great positive impact on the surrounding states, including China. Recently, I have been at a closed talk of a former high-level official of Bill Clinton’s administration. He has just returned from China. You know what he said? He said that in China, on the highest level, there is a sense of great loathing for Russia, mostly due to its weak and corrupt economy. As was once predicted, Russia has turned into a gas station for China, and it’s hard to have respect for a gas station. All of this can change fundamentally if Russia changes its politics.

OK: Is this a realistic scenario? And what can the U.S. do now?

LA: It’s a real scenario, and now the U.S. administration needs to try not to make mistakes that can prevent such a state from emerging. The president’s visit can be such a mistake. The U.S. stance on Russia is a major factor of domestic legitimization of the regime. This view was shaped in the times of Lenin and Stalin. It gained momentum in the post-Stalinist period of the Cold War. And that is why I think that Romney made a big mistake when he called Russia the [number-one] geopolitical foe. Not only was it wrong, but also it created an opportunity for the Kremlin to show off by saying that the current regime in Russia was important for America, regardless of whether it’s good or bad. The current president and the White House can and need to cooperate with Russia, but they have to do it carefully and not cause the regime to transform into a more reactionary one. Today, Russia’s transition to a democratic state is linked to the opposition’s activities and a split within the elites. It’s important for the U.S. not to intervene in that process.

OK: The experience of recent years shows that if American politicians publicly voice support for any of the members of the Russian protest movement, it can backfire in Russia. . .

LA: It’s a delicate issue. America is a great, very large, and jagged democracy. It doesn’t always follow a sense of measure, and with Russia today, it’s really important to escape extremes. The U.S. rhetoric towards Russia needs to be adjusted so that, on one hand, it will be sincere (and will sound so as well!), and, on the other hand, will not give the Russian opposition an illusion about American support that we would not be able to offer in terms of technique, ideology, or diplomacy. We should not say we support Navalny or that we are against Putin—names are not that important. We should say that we are for a free, stable, prosperous, and democratic Russia. Show me a Russian citizen who wouldn’t want this. This goal includes a lack or at least a decrease of corruption, and respect for the human dignity of Russian citizens. We have to let Russia know that we are pursuing the same goal. In my view, it’s a win-win message.


According to Leon Aron, it would be a “mistake” for Barack Obama (right) to accept Vladimir Putin's invitation to visit Moscow in 2013.


OK: Why do you think Russia overreacts to everything that is going on in the U.S.? Where does this almost unhealthy interest come from?

LA: There are many theories explaining this. Where does it come from? Maybe from the fact that we all read Fenimore Cooper and Mayne Reid when we were kids? Maybe from the fact that America is also a continent-sized country? An ally in two world wars? A major adversary in the Cold War, yet a respected one? Or maybe it all comes from the fact that America is a recognized world leader, and an opportunity to level up with it makes Russia feel closer to the status of the world arbiter? In a way, Russia has always wanted to be like America in terms of prosperity, freedom, amplitude. In the 1840s, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his famous book Democracy in America that there were only two countries that would define the destinies of the world. He meant Russia and the U.S. This was exactly what happened for 70 years in the 20th century. Russia has developed an almost romantic attraction to America. But this contradictory attraction—“a love-hate” relationship—is typical for many countries. The only exception would be France, which doesn’t feel any love for the U.S. or any other country, for that matter, except for itself.

OK: In the early 1990s, people in Russia were euphoric about America, but today the situation has changed to the opposite: the level of anti-Americanism is over the top. Why is that?

LA: You know, there is a great difference between romantic love and practical cohabitation.

OK: “The love boat has crashed against the everyday”?

LA: Correct. It’s one thing to be a troubadour, stand by the castle walls, and dream of a beautiful princess. And it’s another thing to enter the castle and face the reality. The same story happened in China. When Deng Xiaoping sent the first students to the U.S., China was euphoric. Remember also the events of 1989 at Tiananmen Square: Chinese students brought an improvised Statue of Liberty. Today this would be impossible. Not because the Chinese people realized that America was not a free country, but because the ideal and reality parted ways. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students saw that, though America is a great country, there’s no reason for iconizing it.

OK: But don’t you think that Russia’s authorities encourage anti-Americanism in the country?

LA: It’s true. The idea of an external enemy and of Russia being a besieged fortress (coming from Lenin and Stalin’s times) has been exploited since 2004—since Beslan. After Beslan, Putin came out with a very interesting speech. Two-thirds of it was quite correct: condolences, pain of loss, but then, all of a sudden, he spoke of the terrorists who besieged the Beslan school and who were mere tools in the hands of some unnamed external enemies. In his speech, Putin also mentioned that these enemies wanted to “bite a fat piece” of Russian territory. Later, [then-Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vladislav] Surkov developed this idea in his interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda. He said that some villains were trying to tear Russia into pieces and conquer its national riches. And a typical Russian townie has an image of this enemy on a genetic level: it’s not an image of France or Germany. This idea was once again used by the Russian propaganda after the public reacted to the rigged elections in December 2011. The authorities came up with insinuations about “cookies” from the State Department [to bribe the protesters]. They started to bully McFaul and criticize Hillary Clinton. Later came the scandalous documentaries on NTV. Similar things happen in many authoritarian states: an external threat is always used as a legitimizing factor. Look at the totalitarian Cuba: it’s completely paranoid about an American invasion.

“The genie cannot be chased back into the bottle. It might take six months or ten years, but this regime will be destroyed.”

OK: Last year, shortly before the Moscow protests, you gave an interview to IMR in which you said that revolutions develop in cycles. At what stage is the Russian revolution today?

LA: In the past year, the Russian middle class reached the level of development where it realized that it wants to participate in the country’s government. Other countries’ experience shows that the genie cannot be chased back into the bottle. It might take six months or ten years, but this regime will be destroyed. The next big frontier for Russia is 2018. Look at the history: the same things were happening in the 1970s in southern Europe—Greece, Spain, Portugal; in the 1980s in Taiwan and South Korea; in the 1990s in Mexico.

OK: Why has this shift happened now?

LA: First, it’s because the Russian middle class has reached a certain stage in its development—a high level of individual prosperity and individual freedoms. The middle class has this historical characteristic: having reached high social and economic living standards, it starts to aspire to govern the country, demand transparency of government and a more responsive state. Secondly, a rigged election is always a bad sign for the regime. People get very insulted by it. Similar stories happened with Milosevic in Serbia and with Marcos in the Philippines, not to mention Ukraine and Georgia. The most interesting part is that people never forget this insult. It took Burma 20 years, but, in the end, the people managed to overthrow the junta that had been ruling the country. The middle class doesn’t like being lied to. And this moment puzzles Putin. He thinks that he gave these people everything that their parents couldn’t even dream of in the Soviet Union. And he is right, with only one correction: it was not he who gave it all to the people, it was oil prices that grew from $18 [per barrel] in 1999 to $147 in 2008. And now these people are upset and are even coming out to the street! Of course, the regime will come up with reciprocal measures. For example, a number of recent laws are supposed to target the protest movement. The regime can go further: undermine the financial base of the middle class, behead the protest movement, close borders, and so on.

OK: In your opinion, if the U.S. condemns the tough actions of the Russian authorities, will it help the protest movement?

LA: It will definitely increase the costs of repression for the regime and will deprive it of internal legitimization. If the U.S. president tells the Russian president that he acts as a dictator, it will resonate everywhere.

OK: What could make the U.S. president say that?

LA: Decision-making at any level is based on priorities: What price will you pay for a policy? If President Obama decides that a new round of agreements on arms reduction with Russia could be a cornerstone not only of his foreign policy, but also of his legacy at large, then he will say nothing of the kind. He won’t praise the Russian authorities either, he’ll just keep silent. But if Obama decides that silence is too high a price, and that repressing a nonviolent civic protest is against basic American values (as well as against the position of Congress, the media, et al.), then he will have to voice criticism. And he can say a lot about the regime. Quite soon we will find out what choice President Obama has made.