U.S.-Russia relationship at crossroads

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The Dec. 14 event, “Russia Looking Back and Looking Head,” featured CISAC and FSI Russia experts William J. Perry, far left; Michael McFaul, second from the left; David Holloway, center; Siegfried Hecker, second from the right. Journalist David E. Hoffman, on the far right, moderated the discussion.
Photo credit: 
Rod Searcey

While Russia poses one of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing the U.S., an opportunity for rapprochement may exist with the incoming administration, several Stanford scholars said Wednesday.

The panel event, “Russia Looking Back and Looking Ahead,” featured Russia experts William J. Perry, Michael McFaul, Siegfried Hecker, and David Holloway from Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Freeman Spogli Institute. The discussion came at a time when American-Russian relations are arguably at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. On top of this, the Central Intelligence Agency recently concluded that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election. Against this backdrop, the Stanford scholars examined both the past and the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship. (Click here to watch a video of the event.)

Amy Zegart, CISAC co-director, said in opening remarks that there is “no more timely moment to be looking at the state of U.S.-Russia affairs than today.”

Perry, a former U.S. Secretary of Defense and director of the Preventive Defense Project at CISAC, said that he hopes Russia does not fall prey to its worst tendencies, the way the Weimar Republic of Germany succumbed to Nazism. Perry pointed out, however, that some bright spots in Russian cooperation have occurred.

“You could never have predicted that was going to work,” he said, referring to the post-Cold War cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in reducing and safeguarding the latter’s nuclear stockpile. There was also collaboration on solving the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s.

“The greatest disappointment is that we let all this slip away,” said Perry, citing the NATO expansion as one trigger effect. “Our greatest challenge is trying to avoid a war with Russia. We’ve gotten to a point where that is a real possibility.”

The Russians, Perry noted, realize they’re outgunned by the U.S. in conventional weapons, so they have made it known they may use tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a war with America.

Perry urges re-engaging with Russia on nuclear issues. The best approach, he said, may be to separate out some problems that may be too difficult so the focus is on nuclear cooperation. Still, he acknowledges he is "profoundly pessimistic,” but what is at stake is the survival of human civilization, so these two countries must find a way to work together. 

Protests and people

McFaul, the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute, recently penned a column urging a bipartisan examination of Russian involvement in the 2016 election.

McFaul explained the Obama Administration’s efforts to engage with Putin’s Russia. He served in the administration during that period that some refer to as an attempted “reset” of Washington’s relationship with Moscow. Some cooperation definitely occurred – the successful raid on Osama Bin Laden would not have happened without Russia’s collaboration, among other examples, he added. “It was an amazing achievement."

Why did the reset end? “It ended because protesting people got in the way of our policy,” he said, noting mass protests in Russia and in Middle Eastern countries that were allies of Putin’s regime.

“We were not imposing our values on the government when I was in office,” said McFaul about his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Russian from 2012 to 2014.

On Trump, McFaul expressed cautious optimism, but described him as exhibiting “mixed-up ends and means,” and Trump seems to suggest everyone “should just get along.” Putin, on the other hand, has very clear strategic priorities, McFaul said. 

“There’s a history of interference,” he said about Russia’s forays into elections here and abroad.

In addition, many issues have connections – such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Russian relationship – that are so complex that the new administration needs to truly understand the broader context, he said.

Prior nuclear agreements - such as Nunn-Lugar – were viewed in Moscow as American intelligence efforts, McFaul said. This reflects Russia’s wariness to talk about nuke issues.

‘A country coming apart’

Hecker, a senior fellow at CISAC and FSI, recently wrote an article about how the recent U.S. election may have opened a window of opportunity on U.S. Russia nuclear cooperation. The idea for the panel originated from the publication of Hecker’s recent book, Doomed to Cooperate.

Hecker recalled his career as the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where they were faced with helping strengthen the U.S. against Soviet nuclear capabilities, to the years of transition after the Cold War when he led U.S. efforts over a 20-year period to work with Russian scientists on safeguarding loose nukes.

“'They were Russia’s inheritance from Hell,'” he said, quoting a passage in a book by moderator David E. Hoffman, a contributing editor to The Washington Post and Russian expert as well.

The scientists in Russia, however, were heroically motivated to collaborate with American scientists like Hecker in protecting their country from a nuclear catastrophe. “It was like looking in a mirror,” Hecker said about their talents and conscientiousness.

Such scientific collaboration and support from both countries’ governments is a template for future relationships, he said. Unfortunately, that type of cooperation is “being held hostage” by political differences in both countries, said Hecker, who has visited Russia 52 times in 25 years.

“There is no reason we should be enemies,” he said.

Hecker suggests not “demonizing” the Russian people and avoiding imposing American values on those people. Staying out of internal affairs in Russia is critical, too, he said.

‘Not the Soviet Union’

Holloway, a senior fellow at CISAC and FSI, has analyzed the steps taken to shrink the world's nuclear stockpile.

“Russia’s not what people hoped it would become 25 years ago, but still something remains. This is still not the Soviet Union,” said Holloway, pointing out some limited freedoms exist in contemporary Russian society compared to the country’s Stalinist past.

“The failure to integrate Russia into the international system” has created a serious problem, he said. “We’ve had a real downward spiral” since the Obama administration’s attempted reset. “There is a debate about who is to blame,” but that is a complicated debate.

“What is to be done?” asked Holloway. This is the question to ask and answer in order to ascertain ways to improve the relationship. The liberal world order, created by the U.S. in the wake of WWII, may be coming to an end, he said. China and Russia feel they have not been accommodated by such a U.S.-led world order, such as in trade deals and military alliances.

Like Putin, who uses unpredictable tactics in world affairs, Trump, too, seems made from the same template.

“This is not good to have two unpredictable leaders facing each other” with many nuclear weapons at their commands, said Holloway, who recently visited Russia and observed many reactions there about the 2016 election outcome.

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Clifton B. Parker, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-6488, cbparker@stanford.edu