June 7, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Strobe Talbott

Deep Dish: Putin's Russia and its Relationship with the West

Fake news, cyber-attacks, election tampering, and expanding its territory are some of the ways Russia continues to antagonize the West. Former president of the Brookings Institution, diplomat, and journalist Strobe Talbott joins this week's Deep Dish podcast to share his view of Russia based on extensive personal experience.

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Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. Today, I'm joined by Strobe Talbott, who is a former Deputy Secretary of State, a distinguished Fellow in Residence, and the past president of the Brookings Institution. He is also currently a distinguished visitor at the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University. Welcome, Strobe, it's good to have you here.

Strobe Talbott: Thank you, Brian.

Brian Hanson: So I've been looking forward to this conversation because you're a longtime and distinguished observer and analyst of both Russia, which you've been interested in for decades, as well as the U.S. government. I want to start our conversation with Russia, and I want to ask you kind of a big question of how important is Russia in the world today?

Strobe Talbott: Very. Very, for a couple of reasons. It is by far the largest territorial nation on the planet, it stretches off two continents. It has about half of the nuclear weapons on the planet. We, the U.S., has most of the other half. Also, it's a wonderful country in a lot of ways. It has given our civilization wonderful art, music, literature, poetry, and dance. It's also given us all kinds of headaches, and not just in the last century, but before.

Strobe Talbott: It's also a challenge for not just the United States, but particularly the United States because it has a history and now a new present of autocracy and expansion.

Brian Hanson: In terms of foreign policy and engagement in the world, what do you see as primary goals of Russian foreign policy?

Strobe Talbott: Well, let's put it in not just national terms, but in personal terms. That means Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin has done something that many of his citizens think is great, which is making Russia great again. But his concept of greatness is very combative. He wants to erase the legacy of the two Kremlin leaders that came before him, one of them being Boris Yeltsin, who made Putin the next president of Russian. The other one was Gorbachev. Both of those performist presidents of Russia.

Strobe Talbott: In Gorbachev's case, the President of the Soviet Union, and the case of Yeltsin, the first President of Russia, they wanted to make Russia a democracy. They wanted to make it a normal and engaged country with the rest of the world. That was a dream. It was a reality for a while, but soon after Mr. Putin came into office, and he was really put there by Yeltsin, he decided that that hadn't worked. He wants to make Russia a country that is feared, and certainly respected in ways that he thought it was not being respected during that hiatus, when it looked like finally Russia was going to come into the 20th century, not to mention the 21st.

Brian Hanson: You, of course, were working in the U.S. government and were Bill Clinton's primary Russian hand, back in the 1990s, in this period of after the Cold War, and the emergence of Russia after the Cold War. I know during that period, you also got to meet a relatively young Vladimir Putin, as he was coming into office. What was your impression of him at that time, and how has that tracked with how he has governed since then?

Strobe Talbott: Well, I remember quite vividly my first real substantive exchange with Mr. Putin, who was then the National Security Advisor to Mr. Yeltsin. He was clearly very, very smart. He was clearly very, very suspicious of what the West was up to. I'll give you the exact context. Russia, under Yeltsin, actually worked with the European Union, NATO, and the United States to bring to an end the horrible carnage in what used to be Yugoslavia. But that required for the Russian diplomacy and Russian military action to be, in a way, subordinate under the West.

Strobe Talbott: It was pretty clear when I went to Moscow with some of my colleagues ... By the way, this was at a time when there was a crisis in Yugoslavia that Russia was helping to make more of a crisis. We went there, and we couldn't find Yeltsin. He was unavailable and pretty much everybody suspected that that meant he was on a drinking binge. Putin was really there in charge, and he was very, very careful not to lose the chance of making us sorry that we had, in his views, humiliated Russia.

Brian Hanson: So that's interesting. I want to pick up on that, because part of his narrative is that Russia was taken advantage of at the end of Cold War, by decisions that you were involved in. He's very critical, for example, of NATO expansion, and bringing NATO right up to the borders of Russian. As you look back on those decisions that were taken at the time, has he got a point? Is he completely wrong? Did the West humiliate Russia after the Cold War? How do you view that?

Strobe Talbott: Well, he had a point, but it was a very Russia-centric point. What he refused to agree with was the following. Russia, in its Soviet incarnation, had taken over much ... I would say most, of what we then called Eastern Europe. They put all of these countries that had been terribly dealt with by the Nazis, and they moved in and substituted for the jackboots of Hitler, for the brutal rule of Stalin.

Strobe Talbott: If we, the West, were going to take Russia's inferiority complex and say, "Okay, you guys have had a tough time, the Soviet Union has broken apart, now Russia is just one of 15 former Soviet states, so we're going to make it easy for you and we're not going to bring the central European countries into NATO", the result would've been that this would've been yet another outrage for those many people who had lived under Soviet domination for so long.

Strobe Talbott: We tried very hard with Yeltsin to go along with that rationale. He wasn't at all enthusiastic with it, but he did go along with it. But I don't think Mr. Putin has ever gotten over it.

Brian Hanson: In terms of how Putin's foreign policy manifests itself today, obviously we've got situations like Ukraine, where Russia is very, very active. Syria, the Middle East, where Russia is playing an increasingly important role. The elections interference in the U.S. election, European elections, what do you think are the most important actions that Russia's taking today that have the greatest impact?

Strobe Talbott: Well, I think you have, Brian, put the real problems that we're having with him exactly right. When you talk about, of course, what's happening in Western Europe, there is of course another shoe that has been dropped on us. That is Russia's systematic attacks on Western democracy. But I do think that when you're talking about Ukraine, and by the way, we should put Georgia on this as well, Russia is now back in the business of expanding its territorial writ, particularly on its own borders.

Strobe Talbott: The Russians have basically annexed parts of Georgia. They have annexed parts of Ukraine, and of course, this is not only a violation of International Law, it's a violation of a process that got going in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union was falling apart. By the way, the West did not try to break up the Soviet Union. It was the reformist leaders of a number of the republics, including Yeltsin himself against Gorbachev to say, "We're going to now split up the USSR and we are going to all be equal, independent, sovereign countries." So what Putin is doing is trying to roll back history, and roll back against something that his own predecessors had put in place.

Brian Hanson: Do you expect Russia to engage in additional expansionist regressive activities beyond where they are currently?

Strobe Talbott: Well, we've been surprised, unhappily, on a number of occasions, including of course Ukraine, including of course Georgia. But my guess is that Mr. Putin, first of all, is he's not reckless. I do not think, for example, that he would move into the Baltic states. But he doesn't really have to because there is a new, and very worrisome from our standpoint, reality in the West. The institutions like NATO, like the European Union, are in bad shape now. I've just come back from a month in Europe.

Strobe Talbott: So that means that Putin has the luxury of sitting back and watch the West suffer morale, suffer cohesion, and one of the most disturbing aspects of this, is that he is also watching a disintegration of what had been a very important multilateral community of democracies. The United States, or at least the current government of the United States, is part of that problem. It is not yet being part of the solution.

Brian Hanson: So I want to pick up on this observation that you just made about Europe. About a year ago, you wrote in The Atlantic that histrionically Russia has a tendency to overreach and then end up losing ground by overreaching. Certainly, militarily we've talked about the kinds of actions they've taken, involvement in the elections, in the U.S., in Europe, and in some ways seeding some of that dissension and lack of unity that you talked about seeing there.

Brian Hanson: You raised the possibility of overreach. A year later, how do you view this? Do you think that Putin has indeed overreached, and is going to face consequences from it? Or is his strategy more or less working out as he would like it to?

Strobe Talbott: Well, let's take Europe first, and then we'll go to the U.S. I do think that when Mr. Putin, who of course is an alumnus of the security forces in the Soviet Union, he did not expect that what was supposed to be a covert operation in all of these countries, that that would turn into an overt operation, which of course has put everybody in Europe on guard. There's no question that the Russians, and their cyber attacks, and their weaponization of social media helped get Brexit through, and certainly it had some degree of consequence for our own elections in 2016.

Strobe Talbott: But having been in France recently, I've heard a lot from the French officials and others, that they got the message so that when last year's presidential election happened in France, the French were able to basically defend themselves against this. That is, I think perhaps, an example of overreach, and Putin probably realizes it was overreach.

Brian Hanson: How do you see that in the United States? We've of course got mid-term elections coming up later this year. France learned the lesson and took actions. As a long term Washington observer, what's your sense of the United States's position and ability to defend itself in the upcoming election?

Strobe Talbott: Well, Brian, I have a perfect record as a prophet. In general and particularly on American politics in this particular, weird era that we're in now, I would hope that we as a polity and a society will have learned a lesson from this. I hope that the processes and institutions of American democracy will be under the protection of all of the appropriate agencies of the U.S. government. I would hope, but I probably will not get this hope, that the Russians would back off as it were. I don't think they will start backing off unless at some time down the road, that we're going to find ways to punish them with some of their own medicine.

Brian Hanson: Pulling back a little bit beyond just the election issue, but to think about the Trump Administration's policy toward Russia. Ivo Daalder, of course president here at the Council, makes the point that in some ways, the Trump Administration has done more to counter Russian in terms of providing defensive arms in Ukraine, actually in some of the sanctions actions that he has taken. At the same time, as many have noted, he has never had a bad word to say about Vladimir Putin, despite the fact that he seems to be quick to disparage others. What do you see? Is there a coherent policy in this administration regarding Russia? If so, what does it look like?

Strobe Talbott: Since the answer to your first question is no, I think it looks very different. It's a strange thing for me to think or even to articulate. There is the Trump Administration, and then there's Trump. They don't have the same view of Russia. For example, the new National Security Advisor, John Bolton, is very hard over when it comes to dealing with Russian. The Secretary of Defense the same. In fact, it's pretty much everybody around him, but he happens to be the President of the United States.

Strobe Talbott: It's, of course, even more complicated than that because he's sort of stymied about trying to make nice with Putin and have a better relationship with Russia, when he's under investigation over the meddling in Mr. Trump's favor in the election. He's got to be very careful and sort of stay back, and let his inner circle do their thing.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, and certainly Congress, too, has expressed its desire for a strong policy vis a vis Russia as well. I want to ask about a policy area that you have long followed. It used to be kind of at the heart, during the Cold War, when I grew up, it used to be at the heart of the relationship between Russia and the United States, which was arms control. As a matter of fact, the very first book of yours I read was your 1984 book "Deadly Gambits". It's fascinating looking that, because I took a look at my copy to see, "What was that that you argued?"

Brian Hanson: At the time, you were concerned ... This was at the end of the first Reagan Administration, and you argued that we're experiencing the most serious protracted break down in the history of Soviet-American negotiations on arms control, and that this was a portentous and dangerous development, the fact that we weren't engaging in a process of arms control.

Brian Hanson: Now the Cold War is over. The context is different. At that time, there were 25, 30 thousand nuclear warheads aside, so it's a different situation than it is today. But we do face a situation in which arms control treaties ... There's no positive movement in terms of negotiating arms control treaties. There've been violations of some of those that have existed, particularly on the Russian side with intermediate range nuclear weapons. There are time-limited treaties that are coming to an end. How important is this? It's not anywhere on the agenda. How important is it? Or is negotiating over arms control just not all that relevant or that important in today's world?

Strobe Talbott: No, I think it's very, very important. Let me go back to the period where there was a hiatus in the Reagan Administration. It had to do, among other things, with a kind of a no race relationship whatsoever with the Kremlin. But that was for a short time, because Gorbachev soon came in. So with hiccups along the way, if I could put it that way, we as, a nation, and the USSR, followed by the Russian Federation have been having summits between their leaders over a period of many decades and have been not only negotiating or talking about how to not blow up the planet, but actually putting treaties in place.

Strobe Talbott: That was kind of the saving grace of the Cold War. It was started, of course ... Well, I would say it was started by President Eisenhower saying, "Let's have a global compact on this." But what really brought the necessity of arms control to the fore was the Cuban missile crisis. That's when Khrushchev and Kennedy, and then Johnson and all that came behind them made sure that even in times ... And especially in times of tension, we had to be talking to the Russians, and we had to keep the process of arms control going.

Strobe Talbott: We are now in a completely different mess, a perilous mess because we have not really had any progress on arms control for the last number of years. President Obama was able to get the New Start Treaty, but it's dead. The whole process is dead in the water. A lot of those treaties that were put together in recent years and decades are now out of reach. They are kind of moldering. Technology gets more dangerous, and there is no indication now that there is going to be a return to arms control.

Strobe Talbott: I think that makes this actually ... Some people, and I'm one of them, think that we are in a new Cold War, and this one is more dangerous because there isn't arms control negotiations going on.

Brian Hanson: So that's interesting to evoke the Cold War, because some people wonder, "Is this a new Cold War? Or this just simply a return of a great power rivalry?" Is there a distinction between those two things?

Strobe Talbott: Well, Brian, I would say that I don't fuss too much over the phraseology we use. The reason I think it is a Cold War is it has two dimensions to it that the old Cold War had. One is ideology, and the other geopolitics. Now the ideology isn't communism versus capitalism, but it's basically between dictatorial governance and democratic governance.

Strobe Talbott: By the way, the bad guys, if I can put them that way, are winning. We hope not for long, because there is a backlash against democracies. Strong men around the world, and Putin is kind of the poster man for it, they're pretty smug. While in the democratic world, people are worried if we're going to be able to put back a system that allows people to choose their government and to have the sovereignty of those governments be in the hands of the people.

Brian Hanson: Just last week, the Deep Dish episode was in Armenia, where kind of a counter experience happened, as you know, where the so-called Velvet Revolution people of Armenia in Russia's back yard rose up and actually forced a change of government.

Brian Hanson: So there's some hope as well, but I want to move to another major country that was not anywhere near able to play the same role during the Cold War as it is now, which is China. How does China figure in to this dynamic, both for Russia and Putin, as well as the way we think about how to engage Russia?

Strobe Talbott: Well, there are some similarities between Russia and China, but there are also some very important differences. President Xi is now basically ... Elected himself to be President for life. That's not democracy. But China is a very globalized country. It is a mercantile country. It is a state capitalism country, and it's very modern in a lot of its resources and its policies, but not all. It's doing very well in a globalized world. Therefore, the Chinese have a big stake in it being a peaceful world.

Strobe Talbott: Now going to Russia, Russia is in decline demographically and economically. They're in ascendance in what's called bullying their neighbors, and in their military power. My guess is that the Chinese and the Russians are going to try to convey to the world that they've come together. But I think in due course, because of the natural resources that Russia has out in the eastern part of the country, and the fact that there is very little population out there, and that part of Russia is cheek by jowl on the most populace country in the world, which does not have a whole lot of resources, that's I think a recipe for major troubles between the two countries down the road.

Brian Hanson: So I want to pick up on part of that answer, which portrays, certainly and accurately, a rising China, and also a declining Russia. [inaudible 00:29:56] and Politico had this great description of Russia as "little more than a ghastly hybrid of an overblown police state and a criminal network, with an economy the size of Italy and the world's largest nuclear arsenal."

Strobe Talbott: Italy's not doing so well, either.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, that's true. So even then, you're on the escalator down. Does that mean that Putin isn't going to be able to sustain this challenge that he's had? Is the best strategy for us just to wait it out, because this regime is just going to become less and less important? Or do we need to actually be more proactive than that?

Strobe Talbott: I think we need to be more proactive when it comes to the undermining of our institutions. I think we have to be more proactive when Russia and its leader feel that they can track down any of their exiles and kill them on the streets of western countries.

Strobe Talbott: But at the same time, I do think that Mr. Putin, if this is going to be his last term, has a real dilemma. If he simply goes the route of kind of cloning himself, he finds a mini-me who becomes a autocrat, that's just going to accelerate Russia's problems. What I've heard from Russian friends ... And I have a number and they wouldn't probably put it this way in public. His challenge is not just to find another person, but to find a set of institutions that can deal with the difficulties in the economy, in health care, and in integrating itself into a globalized world.

Strobe Talbott: But about a week ago, I had a chance to talk with a couple of these friends, and I asked them. Putin has a slogan, and it's the vertical of power. Will he give up the vertical of power? Which basically says that the top guy is the only authority that really matters. They all said, "No, if it's Putin's choice, nobody will dare to touch the vertical of power."

Brian Hanson: That's rather ominous for what would happen after he departs.

Strobe Talbott: Yes, but what makes it worrisome is that it's not just going to be bad for the Russian people. It will mean that Russia will continue to be in this paranoid posture of slaying enemies that aren't really their enemies, namely the western countries.

Strobe Talbott: If a really astute president of Russia were in charge, he would say ... Maybe she would say, that the threat to Russia is first of all internal, and the other two threats come from the south, from the Islamic world, and ultimately from China itself, but not Europe and not the United States.

Brian Hanson: As we close, you've been a very close advisor to one U.S. President. You've already said that you have no control over the current President. But for the sake of argument, and to put out significant ideas onto the table, if you did have the ear of this President, and you thought he would listen to you, what would you put at the center of U.S. policy toward Russia? What should the most important goals and most important principles be for U.S. policy to Russia?

Strobe Talbott: Well, in this fanciful scenario you've just given me, and if he would allow me to stay in the room long enough to say it, I would say, "Mr. President, the most important thing you can do is to reverse the policy or the strategy that you have brought into office, which is to go it alone. America first. Showing that you personally are not a fan of multilateralism, to make people who will be very skeptical. They see that you've have seen the light and you now know that having a strong Atlantic community, having a strong NATO, having a ... If it's still possible, a Britain that is in the European Union, and also you would need to put back into place what all 12 of your predecessors did in the course of nearly 70 years. By the way, six of those Presidents before you were Republicans and sic were Democrats. They had lots of disagreements among and rivalries, but they were all as one when it came to having the United States not alone, but in a leadership position of democracies and the institutions that go with them.

Brian Hanson: Terrific. Well, thank you, Strobe. This was really very helpful, and one of the things that's so beneficial of getting your perspective is that you can put it into a longer-term context and a policy history that you've played a critical role in. So thank you so much for being here, I really appreciate it.

Strobe Talbott: My pleasure.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. As a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who expressed them, and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you like the show, please let us know by tapping the Subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find us under Deep Dish on Global Affairs, wherever you listen to podcasts.

Brian Hanson: If you think you know someone who would enjoy this episode, please take a moment, tap the share button, and send it to them as well. If you have questions about anything you heard today, or if you want to submit questions for upcoming episodes, join our Facebook group at Deep Dish On Global Affairs.

Brian Hanson: This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio, which research help from Marissa [Flignore 00:37:24]. Our audio engineer is Joe [Palermo 00:37:27]. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

 

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.

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