Ukraine and U.S.-Russian Relations

Apr 24, 2014

With balance and objectivity, seasoned Russian policy expert Tom Graham tackles the thorny question of Ukraine and the wider scope of U.S.-Russia relations across the board.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Good evening, one and all. I'm sure that the attendance this evening is testimony both to the speaker and to the topicality of the topic on this fine April evening. Welcome to everyone. I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement here at the Carnegie Council.

We are delighted to have as our guest this evening, welcoming him back to the Council, Dr. Thomas Graham. Tom is managing director of Kissinger Associates here in New York. He joined the firm in 2007. Before that, he was a special assistant to President George W. Bush and senior director for Russia in the National Security Council staff from March 2004 to February 2007 and director for Russian affairs in the National Security Council staff from 2002 to 2004. Prior to that, he had been associate director of the policy planning staff at the Department of State.

In all this, and in more, Tom is one of our most seasoned and astute experts on Russia policy. He was a senior associate at our cousin institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, and before that, a Foreign Service officer, with, most importantly, two tours of duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

In all this, he has been ubiquitous in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, and in various European and Russian publications. He's the author of two major books on Russia, Russia's Decline and Uncertain Recovery and co-author of U.S.-Russian Relations at the Turn of the Century.

Tom, welcome.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Thank you very much.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Tom, obviously there have been crisis points in U.S.-Russian relations over the past 20-odd years. It seems to me that Ukraine is by far the most severe strain that has come up in that post-Cold War period, where, if we're not mired in an absolute zero-sum contest at this point, we're pretty close to it.

How did we get to this point?

THOMAS GRAHAM: David, first, let me thank you for having me here. It's always a pleasure to speak at the Carnegie Council.

I'm always impressed that people bring me back to talk about Russia policy, given the record of the Bush administration, when I was theoretically overseeing this, in the first two terms of Putin's presidency. But I imagine that things have reached a point now where our record doesn't look as bad as I thought it was when I left the government the last time.

But how did we get here? It's a long story, obviously. To put it briefly, after the breakup of the Soviet Union back in 1991, we had a certain number of illusions about how Russia was supposed to develop going forward. Clearly, I think we underestimated the ease with which a country like Russia could move towards what we would have called a full-blooded democratic system with a free-market economy, a normal state that would have given up its empire. We thought that this was sort of the natural development of a country that threw off totalitarian communism.

What we found out was that Russia had a history. It's a complex country, and the process of rebuilding itself, of finding itself, of finding its role in the world worked out in ways that we hadn't anticipated.

We also, I think, made an assumption that Russia would work with us, by and large, in advancing an American agenda, not only in Russia's own neighborhood, but, more broadly, on a global stage.

What we have found out in the past 12 to 14 years under President Putin—but I think you could have seen this also in the Yeltsin period—is that Russia has its own sense of national interests that they believe need to be defended, and they saw some of the steps that we were taking, particularly in the former Soviet space—not so much the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, although that was a problem, but certainly, in the past 10 years or so, when we look at former Soviet states, Ukraine and Georgia in particular—that they saw this as some sort of threat to their own national security.

You tack onto that differences in how we thought political systems should be structured, what we see as a much more authoritarian system now than we had anticipated, and all these things, I think, have come together in the past couple of years, since Putin returned to the Kremlin, and led to this deterioration that we have seen in U.S.-Russia relations.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In fact, you wrote—and I can't remember when this was, so please excuse me—you at one point said that what we should have been aiming for and what we should be aiming for at this point is a security structure that's based on three pillars: the United States, a more or less unified Europe, and Russia. In other words, I think what you're saying is something of a post-Cold War security architecture that really reflects post-Cold War realities, and not what had prevailed during the Cold War.

Then you said—this was very interesting—we never tested Putin. Our policy never tested Putin to see whether he was really committed to a different type of relationship.

That's an interesting thought. What exactly —

THOMAS GRAHAM: What exactly did I have in mind?

DAVID SPEEDIE: What exactly do you have in mind?

THOMAS GRAHAM: This goes back to the early years of the Bush administration. I'm not talking about the meeting in Slovenia, where the president looked into Putin's eyes, but after 9/11. Clearly, Putin reached out to the United States at that point, because he thought that, in fact, we did have a common interest in dealing with international terrorism. In his mind, Russia had been suffering from this for some time. He would have pointed to Chechnya. Of course, we always had a different sort of perception of what was happening in Chechnya.

But he wanted to reach out. We did a number of things, at least on the rhetorical level, immediately after 9/11.

But the question really was, what type of assistance were we prepared to receive from Russia in dealing with Afghanistan? How were we going to run relations in this NATO-Russia Council that was set up?

There were times in the early years in the Afghan struggle when the Russians came to us offering certain types of assistance—strategic airlifts, for example. They offered us in 2002 or 2003, I believe, help in search and rescue for American soldiers that might be wounded in Afghanistan.

Instead of testing them and saying, "Yes, we could use strategic airlift. We will provide facilities for you to bring your planes and supplies into Bagram in Afghanistan," or, "Yes, we ought to try to see whether we can work together in search and rescue," we rebuffed the Russians, and we rebuffed them in part because we didn't trust them entirely—I think, again, efforts where they reached out where we could have reciprocated or at least replied in a more positive way.

The point that I would have made back then is that the United States, certainly in 2000-2001, was much more powerful than Russia was, if you looked at their economic growth, our military, our influence around the world. We could have, in a sense, taken a risk to see how far we could move with Russia in building a more cooperative relationship. If it turned out that the Russians were dealing in bad faith, it was easy enough for us to walk this back and not suffer a great deal of loss.

The problem we had was that, in a sense, we never invested the $100,000 in a relationship with Russia to see if we could make $1 million or $10 million at the end, because we didn't want to take that chance. I think that was a mistake.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You mentioned the early, reasonably optimistic years of the Bush administration and the fact that Putin was one of the first leaders to call President Bush after 9/11, in our own darkest post-Cold War moment. Then, under President Obama, we had the reset policy of a few years ago, which seemed very nice, if a little bit, perhaps, glib and not completely thought out. Now we have gone from reset to containment. According to The New York Times yesterday, we're back to containment.

I just happened to dip into this short book by George Kennan.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Where he predicted it, right?

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes, this is the guy. This is Mr. Containment, of course.

But Kennan, in his later years, was very much saying, along the same lines as you, some of the missteps and missed opportunities, really. As early as 1990, he said, "I always thought it a mistake to take advantage of the momentarily weakened position of another great power to obtain advantages one could not have obtained under normal circumstances. To do this, I said, was something that always revenged itself at a later date."

Quite prophetic. Certainly Kennan, of course, was one of the great—he pointed to the follies of NATO expansion, as you have just said.

Dmitri Trenin, our mutual friend in Moscow, has said that we will look back on this as an inter-Cold War period. In other words, the period of 1992 to 2014 is now the inter-Cold War period. Is that just a dramatically dark view from Moscow or do you agree with Dmitri?

THOMAS GRAHAM: Everybody's talking about a new Cold War at this point, and containment policy. I think that is an incorrect assessment of the situation. It's ahistorical—in a sense, it exaggerates the importance of U.S.-Russia relations. During the Cold War, the U.S.-Soviet relationship really did determine what the international system was going to be like—a bipolar competition. That's not the type of relationship we have with Russia now, nor is it one that is possible, given both the problems in Russia and the very evident problems that we have at home and abroad as we rethink through what our role in the world is going to be.

Containment—the problem we have is, I think, a lack of imagination in Washington. Every time we have a problem with Russia, we fall back on the Cold War, in part because we think it was successful, in part because most of us are too young to really remember all the history of the Cold War and the problems we had and how, in many ways, it surprised us that the Cold War ended the way it did.

But think about containment now. How do you contain a country like Russia, which is among the top 10 economies in the world, a country that exports more hydrocarbons than any other country in the world, a country that has about half a trillion dollars in international reserves at this point? How do you isolate a country when its fellow BRICS—Brazil, India, China, and South Africa—are not in the mood for trying to isolate Russia?

So I think, in many ways, it's an impractical policy. I think people are looking for a slogan at this point to try and think through clearly what the challenges are that we face in dealing with Russia, how we're going to manage them, and how we're going to use this relationship overall in order to advance American global interests.

DAVID SPEEDIE: The other thought—I hope not too, shall we say—certainly not directed at anyone—I'm not quite sure if there's a George Kennan at the president's elbow at this point to be quite the same sage advisor as the great mind was all these years ago.

Let me just—

THOMAS GRAHAM: It's interesting that you said that—


THOMAS GRAHAM: No, no. Take this more broadly. We went through a period where we had brilliant, I think, broad strategic thinkers. Kennan was among them. But remember, Kennan wasn't alone at that time. Acheson played a role. There were others. During the sort of middle years of the Cold War, we had people like Henry Kissinger, Zbig Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, who had, I think, a very broad view of how the world operates, genuine strategic thinkers. [Check out Brent Scowcroft's recent Thought Leaders Forum interview.]

What's surprising about the current period in American history and American foreign policy is that these broad thinkers appear to have disappeared. Why is that? What is the problem with my generation of people in their 50s and 60s that we haven't, in a sense, developed that ability to think broadly and to put these broad strategic concepts into play as we try to develop relations with some very important countries around the world?

Again, I don't know the answer to that, but I offer that as an observation.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Actually, it's interesting you should say that. There's a piece by Edward Luce in the Financial Times today. It's a little bit of an executive summary of some very important points. Essentially it's how the United States has lost the BRICS—and he goes through the litany, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—for all sorts of different reasons.

His bottom line is that the president's pivot to Asia was not so much a pivot to Asia as a pivot back to America. That's what he's saying now. So it may well be that the great men and women, as they are, are not in the foreign policy arena anymore.

Let me ask you just a couple of quick things about Ukraine before we open it up, Tom. Obviously, Ukraine and Russia—to say a special relationship is hardly an exaggeration. The crisis as we have watched it over the past weeks and month or so has really evolved from Crimea now to the eastern part of Ukraine. While there isn't quite the same historical umbilical cord as there was with Crimea—obviously, a very special place in Russia's history and consciousness—clearly the prevailing preference in the east, in the Donbas region and other parts of Eastern Ukraine—Donetsk and Kharkiv and others—the preference seems to be for links to Russia, and the protests are for the right to have those links to Russia, just as the protests in Kiev were for the desire for links with the European Union.

How do you see that playing out? Russia's in a pretty tough spot, it seems here to me, in terms of how to deal with Eastern Ukraine. Clearly Eastern Ukraine is not exactly an economic—would not be a benefit for Russia, shall we say. Yet there is a wellspring of pro-Russian sentiment that they are obviously not ignoring.

THOMAS GRAHAM: The point I would make is that everybody's in a difficult situation with Ukraine at this point. What has become clear over the past several weeks is that we don't have a consolidated Ukrainian state. It has been remarkable how rapidly the state, in a sense, disappeared after February 21-22. It's clear that the instruments of coercion—the army, the security forces—to the extent they exist, are not loyal to the interim government in Kiev, nor are they loyal to anyone else in particular.

We've also, I think, come to grips with how badly the economy is doing. We know it's on the verge of a major fiscal crisis. Even the interim prime minister is talking about $35 billion or so needed to deal with the emergency issues over the next couple of years.

In a sense, the problem is that the Ukrainian elites over the past 22 or 23 years have never focused on building a Ukrainian state, on building a functioning Ukrainian economy. They have enriched themselves.

The problem that we all face, not only the Russians, and the issue that we ought to be focused on now is, how do we put a Ukraine back together? How do we build the type of national consensus you need? How does an elite come in place that thinks about Ukraine as a country, that wants to build that political system, wants to build the capacity of state institutions, wants to build a functioning economy? That, I think, is one of the big issues we need to deal with at this point.

More broadly, I think if you look at this and get beyond the passion of the moment, the problem is that you cannot build that type of Ukraine unless there's some sort of cooperation among the United States, Europe, and Russia. How you do that, who has to come to the table to do that I think is the issue that we need to focus on at this point. Clearly no one has the answer to it right now, and what we're seeing is the continuation of the chaos, probably an increase in that chaos. This can lead to some very bad outcomes, not only for Ukraine, but, more broadly, for Europe, the United States included.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And this really is the heart of the problem, isn't it? Back to the zero-sum contest, too much is whether Ukraine will be allied with the West or with Russia. It's not a question of what the future of Ukraine is for Ukraine and Ukrainians. There's too much of that mentality.

The Geneva agreement from last week is obviously something designed to get to where, with the United States, Russia, EU, Ukraine, cessation of violence on all sides, dismantling the irregular units and, of course, the pro-Russian forces where there's violence in the east.

I'm sensing from your body language that you don't have 100 percent faith in the Geneva agreement holding up.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Geneva agreements have always had a hard time.

Look at the document. In a sense, it's a wonderful diplomatic agreement, because it says what needs to be done, but it doesn't say who's supposed to do it. You know that the problem that we have is that we all come to this issue with different narratives of who's responsible, who has leverage over whom inside Ukraine.

So Washington and Brussels look at what's happening in Eastern Ukraine now, and we don't acknowledge up front that there are serious issues that Russian speakers or ethnic Russians might have that are issues that need to be resolved if you want to build a national consensus. Our focus is on Russian operatives, who we say are instigating, acting as provocateurs in this part of the world, and creating the problem. It's Russia, Moscow, that needs to lean on these people so that illegal military formations are disarmed, so that the buildings that have been occupied are abandoned, and so forth.

When Moscow looks at this, they're focused on units like Right Sector, and they see an American, to a lesser extent European, hand behind this. Now, of course, we would argue that we're not responsible for this, so we obviously can't stop this. But the Russians want us to disarm these people.

I think that's where we are at this point. The question is whether we can put in place—we'll see what the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) monitors do, for example, if there's a way of organizing the details of what steps have to be taken in what sequence to build the trust, so that we gradually deescalate the crisis. At this point, none of the sides appear to want to do that. We're issuing accusations in public and in telephone calls.

One of the things that does concern me in the current situation is that the channels of communication appear to have broken down, particularly between the United States and Russia. You're never going to resolve this issue, quite frankly, if the presidents talk to one another, or the ministers of foreign affairs. There have to be people who are lower down in the bureaucracy who are fleshing these agreements out, looking at what the details are, testing various ideas, so that we can come to some sort of understanding about how this process might unfold—an understanding that then can be endorsed by the ministers of foreign affairs, endorsed by the presidents. But you're never in a good situation when the main channel of negotiation is between two presidents.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes. And that leads into the issue of what lies ahead. Clearly, as you say, these things have to be hammered out at a level and then reported to the presidents and so on. But where do we go from here? Obviously, some reasonably good things happened. We had New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). We had some degree of dialogue at least over Syria, which is still out there, by the way, even as we read about Ukraine every day. There's the question of P5+1 talks on Iran, where Russia clearly has an interest and it need not be completely antithetical to our interest.

Is all that going to go by the board just because of the breakdown in communication that you talk about?

THOMAS GRAHAM: Well, one would hope not. But obviously all this is put on hold until we see some forward movement on Ukraine, some sort of sense that we've really put this into a diplomatic track and a political track inside Ukraine. So it's going to take some time. What you hope is that damage is not done on these other issues while we're focused on Ukraine.

Again, the problem: channels of communication, working on these issues while the focus of the senior leadership and the bureaucracies is on Ukraine.

So the short answer is, I don't know how this is going to play itself out. But eventually something will happen in Ukraine. Some sort of political resolution will be reached, one would hope short-term as opposed to long-term, with less violence.


QUESTION: Can we really afford to wait until we reach some sort of settlement over Ukraine to come to some kind of an understanding with Iran? Isn't this is the ideal time to bring Iran back into the Western fold?

THOMAS GRAHAM: The negotiations are continuing. The only point that I'm making is that it's more difficult now than it was previously to coordinate our position with the Russians on Iran. The Russians are part of this negotiation, and some issues have come up as to how they're dealing with Iran—trade issues, for example—that, if not handled properly, in fact could complicate the task of coming to an agreement with Iran.

The danger is that all the air is being sucked out by Ukraine at this point and that people aren't listening to one another, that those channels aren't open in a way that will allow us to at least come to some sort of understanding of how each country is going to deal with Iran and to coordinate those positions to the greatest extent possible so that we do reach some sort of resolution of our concerns about the Iranian nuclear program.

QUESTIONER: Of course, but can we do that while we're picking fights about delegates and other sideshows? I'm talking about Mr. Aboutalebi.

THOMAS GRAHAM: That's an issue as well.

What you need is an administration that can focus on what the real core national security interests are, make that case, and stand up in public and defend it.

Again, there is a problem when the Congress gets too directly involved in the details of any type of diplomatic exchange. Congress is there to make sure that the sort of broad principles are outlined, so that there's confidence that the administration has the support of the American people in its foreign policy. But having worked in the executive branch, I can tell you that none of us really appreciate when Congress thinks it should be looking over our shoulder, making sure that every sentence in the demarche is written in a way that would cut mustard in some committee meeting.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Were you referring to the Iranian—the proposed UN ambassador?


DAVID SPEEDIE: The word I had on that is that his role in 1979 is now being regarded as less significant, and that would be worked out. But it's got some obvious partisan—

THOMAS GRAHAM: Yes, except that the president has just signed a law saying that we can't admit people who are connected to—

DAVID SPEEDIE: In any way.

THOMAS GRAHAM: In any way. So that issue—

DAVID SPEEDIE: To be determined.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Right. [Editor's note: For more on Ambassador Aboutalebi and the P5+1 talks on Iran, check out David Speedie's recent interviews with Joseph Cirincione and Professor William Beeman.]

QUESTION: Tom, you mentioned a paucity of strategic thinking. I have a personal sense that Kerry and Obama actually do have some larger and longer-term strategic vision.

But I want to flip that to the Russian side. Thirty years ago, nobody would have thought that there would be a Gorbachev that would dramatically reshape the frozen wasteland of Soviet politics. While he's despised now by Putin and his crowd for having dismantled the Soviet Union (even though it was really Yeltsin who blew it apart), one wonders, underneath that seeming surface of serenity that Putin has apparently created on Russian politics—presumably there are currents coursing underneath.

If you think 10 years, 20 years out, what are the forces that you see inside the Russian polity that could produce, not another Gorbachev, but something surprising and unexpected? How should American policy be calibrated to allow for a change that would not be instantly discredited on that side?

Does that make sense?

THOMAS GRAHAM: Yes, it does. But you're looking for a positive change, right?

QUESTIONER: Insha'Allah (God willing), yes.

THOMAS GRAHAM: There's a lot going on in Russian politics today. I think we don't focus enough on what is happening more broadly across society. The point is that a new generation is eventually growing up, which we haven't studied in enough detail, and a generation that will eventually make its mark on Russian politics sometime, probably, in the next 10, 15 to 20 years.

But that generation, in addition to being much better educated, much more knowledgeable about the world, also expresses a range of opinions.

One of the things that we need to pay attention to, and I think what we need to be concerned about, is this growth of ethnic Russian nationalism that has an anti-American bent to it at this point. We're seeing that playing itself out in Kremlin politics. But that view is actually shared broadly with the younger generation as well. Whether that generation carries this forward or not is going to depend a great deal on how they believe the United States is dealing with Russia at this point.

So it is important, no matter what our differences are with Russia, at least to demonstrate that we understand to a certain extent why they think that way, what might be motivating their behavior, and treat them with the type of respect that we would treat any other big country with.

I can tell you, for example, that the way the Western press, and particularly the American press, reported about the Olympics and the run-up to the Olympics created a great deal of dissatisfaction, concern among people that we would normally think of as our natural partners in the world. And it did because it showed, in their minds, simply a total disregard for Russia. People didn't check their facts. Any story about corruption, about how the Olympics were going to be poorly prepared and poorly run, was printed in the Western press, even if the facts didn't check themselves out. So it's a sloppiness about how we deal with Russia that is of some concern. And when the Olympics turned out more or less okay, we were on Ukraine, so we didn't have to talk about that anymore.

So that's a problem.

There is a younger generation that also sees itself as, I think, part of Europe going forward and wants to feel welcomed in that environment. They have been educated. They want to travel. Again, how you maintain the ties with these people going forward I think is important.

Here I would argue that one of the things that we need to pay attention to is how we talk about domestic politics in Russia. There is a concern, I think, within many of these sort of pro-Western elements in Russia that the United States and Western Europe focus on people that they see marginal inside, and, in a sense, it narrows the space for them to pursue the types of policies or advocate the types of policies they think would be a benefit to Russia over the long run and bring them closer to the United States and Europe.

So how we modulate this so that we show respect, so that the Russian nationalists, going forward, will not be anti-Western Russian nationalists, so the young people who are more pro-Western feel that they can advocate those types of things and not be branded as agents of the United States, is a difficult thing for us to do and something that we are, quite frankly, not very good at doing.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Tom, a quick follow-up to that. You just came back from Moscow. It's also true to say, isn't it, that the carryover of the Sochi neuralgia, as it were, is also here in the Ukraine situation, where even people who are not reflexively pro-Putin or pro-government are disturbed by the coverage and by the EU response to the Ukrainian situation. Is that fair?

THOMAS GRAHAM: I think that's a fair assessment.

But to get back to the question that was just asked, what we were talking about, it is important that in the reporting, in the way we talk about Russia, we do check our facts.

We have a credibility issue with a lot of Russians now because of the way we talked about the Sochi Olympics. The Russians knew that certain things that we were writing were not accurate reflections of the situation on the ground. They take that now, the suspicion about the West, and they apply it to Ukraine: "If you were lying about or actively misinforming us about what was happening in the run-up to Sochi, why should we believe what you're saying about Ukraine?"

So, in a sense, we have complicated our own task of trying to present an image of what we're trying to do, what we think is happening in Ukraine that could be persuasive with an audience that we would want to be persuasive with. So it is a problem.

QUESTION: My name is Yanni Kotsonis. I'm at New York University. This is one of the more intelligent conversations I've heard in a long time on these issues.

On the last issue on Russophobia, I think that's quite true, that we have lost a lot of credibility. I think there's a generalized perception in Russia that there is such a thing as Russophobia, going back to the 19th century even, and which has continued more or less unabated. So it makes it very difficult for us to have the kind of conversation we're looking for.

My direct questions are—one of them, about the issue of containment. I was wondering if we could even look further back to the 1940s and remember what Kennan was arguing against, which was rollback. There has been, I think, a certain pattern whereby, given the opportunity, the United States will engage in trying to push Russia within certain borders, its current borders as the Russian Federation and outside, what the Russians call the near abroad, which they consider to be their sphere of influence.

I was wondering if that's a model to consider about how the United States has been conducting itself, because it does have a regional policy, even if it doesn't have a bilateral Russian relationship, that's quite good.

Related to that is the question of what Russia can do in return. Russia is powerful by those metrics, in terms of hydrocarbons especially and in terms of foreign currency reserves. But I'm not sure that any country can depend so much on one export, and whether or not Russia, therefore, can have not only the capacity to intervene by turning off the spigots once in a while, but then what happens after that. The big example would be Pristina. The Russian army arrived first and then couldn't feed itself.

THOMAS GRAHAM: So what was the question?

QUESTIONER: Do these analogies make sense to you?

THOMAS GRAHAM: On the rollback, I would agree wholeheartedly. That shouldn't be what our goal is.

The former Soviet space has been a neuralgic point for the Russians, a neuralgic point for us as well. But we're going to have to do, I think, a lot of hard thinking about how we think about that part of the world, particularly when the United States appears to be in a period when we're retrenching.

Russia has interests there, but Russia is not the only actor in that part of the world now. Look at Central Asia, for example. Where we tend to focus on some level of rivalry or competition with the Russians, the fact of the matter is that the Chinese are the largest commercial partners of Central Asia as a whole and four out of the five Central Asian states as well. They are investing heavily in that part of the world.

So this isn't an area where it's the United States and Russia and five Central Asian states. You've got to add the Chinese, you've got to add the Indians, the Pakistanis, the Iranians, and so forth.

The question really is, how do you develop a policy that leads to the type of stability we would like to see in that part of the world, particularly as we withdraw our own forces from Afghanistan? That would lead to the question of what we really think about a Russian presence in that part of the world. Do we have an interest in that presence waning, and if so, why? Or do we have an interest in that presence remaining, perhaps increasing in some way, as we try to form the type of regional balance that we'll need in order to provide security and also provide the environment in which those economies of Central Asia can develop in a way that is good for themselves, good for the populations, and good for the world as a whole?

You can go around the periphery of Russia and the former Soviet space, and a similar set of questions emerges. So it is a difficult issue for us, because we have tended to see this space solely through the prism of our relationship with Russia. On the economic side, obviously Russia ideally would develop a more diversified economy going forward. They have talked about that for how many years now. There's a little evidence that they are moving in that direction, but by and large the economy still is dominated by oil and gas, other commodities.

QUESTIONER: If I could follow up, that being the case, then, what I'm trying to wrap my head around is, what is to stop the United States from continuing to act without considering Russian interests if the power it's encountering is actually quite narrow?

THOMAS GRAHAM: Well, it is and it isn't. After all, oil and gas is not a minor issue. But you also think about issues of strategic stability, nonproliferation. Solving those problems without Russia I think is almost impossible. You're looking at the other great nuclear power.

Then I think the other thing that we need to do that we haven't done up to this point is think in terms of the opportunities. It's not only places where Russia may be challenging us, areas where we specifically may need their assistance at this point, but what are the opportunities that the United States has if it can develop a type of constructive relationship with a country that obviously has its problems but still has tremendous talent? You think in terms of scientific ability—space, for example. It's interesting that we cut off all our ties on the space side, except as related to the International Space Station, because we can't get there without the Russians at this point—

QUESTIONER: Or get back.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Or get back, more importantly. You can't maintain it without them.

But I think also, as you look out over the next 10, 15, 20 years and think about how the world is going to change and the types of strategic challenges we're going to face, particularly in Eurasia, how we're going to deal with China, Afghanistan, the broader Middle East—Russia is a factor in those. Is there a way that we can work with Russia or handle our relationship with Russia so that we advance our interests in stability, in developing economic relationships that are good for ourselves, but, more broadly, for most countries in the world?

It's a complicated issue.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I think that's a terribly important point. It's not just the issues we know that we need to do business on—nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and so on—it's also, as we have said here before, if you look at simply the map of the world, Russia borders on just about every dangerous neighborhood conceivable, from a tiny border with North Korea, to the greater Middle East.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Right. It's a regional power, but what a region.

DAVID SPEEDIE: It's a heck of a region, absolutely.

QUESTION: Tyler Beebe.

As we all know, Mr. Putin's list of resentments against the United States and the West is very long. My sense is that one of the most urgent ones to him is his perception that we guaranteed Russia back at the end of World War II that NATO would not expand eastward.

Did we, in your opinion, give the Russians such a guarantee or didn't we? It doesn't seem to be clear, at least to me.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I think you've heard this one before.

THOMAS GRAHAM: I've heard this one before, but I wasn't there when the conversations were had.

DAVID SPEEDIE: What did Gorbachev tell you, Tom?

THOMAS GRAHAM: Right, exactly.

Let me frame it this way. The issue of expansion came up in the very narrow context of German reunification. The specific issue was whether NATO was going to put forces into eastern Germany at that point. The response was that NATO would not move its forces eastward at that point—no eastward expansion into eastern Germany.

If you had asked someone in 1989 about Poland, the Czech Republic—or Czechoslovakia at that point—and so forth, the question is, who told us that the Warsaw Pact was going to break up? That wasn't something that was on the minds of American policymakers, because the breakup of the Warsaw Pact, let alone the breakup of the Soviet Union was something that we weren't even contemplating at that point.

The issue of expansion beyond the borders of Germany into Eastern Europe comes with the breakup of the Warsaw Pact, the breakup of the Soviet Union. The issue that American policymakers needed to wrestle with at that point was a very real security issue: A vacuum has just emerged. How do you maintain stability in this part of the world, in a radically different environment?

Now, we can debate over whether NATO expansion was the appropriate response or not. The point that I've always made is that, no matter what we did on NATO, we needed to have a different type of relationship with Russia that would have made them comfortable, made them sense that they were a central part of whatever security structure we hoped to build in Russia, and they needed to be a partner in building that.

The way we approached NATO expansion, it was basically to say it's open-ended, but open-ended with the understanding that Russia itself could never become part of NATO.

Then we turned it into, any European country that asked to be part of NATO, to become part of NATO, would that makes strategic sense or not? NATO expansion, in the way it was presented publicly—and I think it's the way we thought of it internally in the government—was clearly directed against Russia; something we would never say publicly, but if I were sitting in Moscow, I could see where it would be difficult to feel comfortable with what the United States and its NATO allies were doing in the European continent.

QUESTIONER: So you sense his claim is somewhat valid?

THOMAS GRAHAM: I'm not sure Putin knows what was actually said at that point either. The point I'm making is, the way you handle NATO expansion has implications for Russia's strategy. The point is not whether we gave a promise or not; the point is that we handled the actual expansion in a way that made it very easy for people in Moscow to come to the conclusion that this was ultimately directed against Russia.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Tom, is it true that Putin did at one point actually directly approach the United States on the question of Russia being admitted to NATO?

THOMAS GRAHAM: And Yeltsin did as well. And so did Putin.

The problem is that NATO is a certain type of organization. I think if you look at the way NATO has operated internally over the past 40 or 50 years, it's hard to see how Russia would have fit in that.

Again, my solution to this is to think of these three pillars, the United States, a more or less unified Europe, and Russia, as the three key pillars in building a durable security structure in Europe. Whether you could have gotten that through NATO expansion and the NATO-Russia Council—I think perhaps yes, if you had thought about this creatively. But the problem we've had in the United States is that so much of the bureaucratic energy has been focused on saving NATO. I always thought that the goal should be European security, and if we could supersede NATO with a more durable structure that allowed the Russians to feel comfortable, we would be better off over the long term than trying to rethink a mission for a narrowly construed NATO.

QUESTION: My name is Peter Boysen.

I think I know where you're coming from, but I think these couple of questions should be asked.

Just refresh our memory in regards to Crimea. Which international laws or charters did Russia break, if they did at all, in your mind? Two, if they did, should they be punished? How severely? And who the hell's going to do it? The Europeans don't want to do anything, for obvious reasons—the major European parties.

THOMAS GRAHAM: Look, this is a complicated issue. If you want to argue this legally, you've got a Ukrainian constitution; you have certain rules about how you go about organizing referendums on secession, the way Scotland is doing it at this point, elsewhere in Europe. [For more on Scotland's independence movement, check out Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond's 2013 Carnegie talk.]

The problem I have with the referendum in Crimea is the haste with which it was organized. Separating from one country, joining another you would think is an issue with tremendous political/socioeconomic consequences. If you're going to do this in an appropriate fashion, you really need to give people the time to debate those issues, to make sure they feel comfortable about this. Issues like this shouldn't be decided in the emotion of the moment, because they do have far-reaching consequences. That's also true for Russia; it's true for Ukraine.

Now, whether, if we had waited two or three months, we would have come up with a different result, I don't know the answer to that question. If you look at the demography of Crimea, I think you could make a case that you would have gotten overwhelming support for what has actually happened. But we don't know that because it wasn't done in that way. And there's always going to be, I think, some sort of air of illegitimacy about how this decision was made.

To answer your second point, de facto, nobody's going to do anything at this point. It's interesting, the extent to which Crimea doesn't really figure in the discussions we're having about what to do with Ukraine at this point. The Europeans, the United States have already sort of written this off as too difficult to do.

We probably won't formally recognize the inclusion of Crimea in Russia. What types of practical consequences that brings I don't know. It's a little bit like our non-recognition policy vis-à-vis the Baltic states, which we never recognized as part of the Soviet Union. The practical consequence was that we handled our relations with the Baltic states out of our consulate in Leningrad, not out of the embassy in Moscow, during the Soviet period. It's hard for me to see that ultimately we're going to not allow people from the Crimea to travel to the United States on Russian passports or deny Americans or Europeans the opportunity to travel to Crimea for vacation or for tourism if they want to.

So I think the practical consequences will be few, but I do believe that we will maintain non-recognition for some time.

QUESTIONER: So if the Russians were to move forces on the eastern border into Ukraine, violating sovereign borders, would they violate any international rules or laws then?

THOMAS GRAHAM: Yes, that would be an invasion, yes. That would be a violation.

QUESTIONER: And they'd probably get away with it if they did it.

THOMAS GRAHAM: That's an open question. Remember, Crimea is radically different from Eastern Ukraine. The demography of the Crimea was an ideal area for the Russians to do what they did. A large bulk of that population is retired Soviet military, retired Russian military, in addition to the families of the actual officers and sailors who are stationed there, also overwhelmingly Russian in ethnic composition, about 60 percent Russian.

If you go into Eastern Ukraine, first of all, the history is somewhat different. The ethnic makeup is different. I think certain elements in Ukraine would fight under those circumstances. It wouldn't be sort of bloodless, the way Crimea was.

What Russia would have to contemplate if it moves into that part of the world is moving into hostile territory. Would they be able to sustain themselves against an insurgency? Open question. Would Europe and the United States help feed that insurgency? I think, almost certainly, yes.

So there would be a different type of resistance. It's a much more serious type of step, and the Russians would have to contemplate that. I think that's one of the reasons you see that what they are doing in that part of the world is largely through covert operations at this point, where they are maintaining a certain level and feeding some instability, because the goal here is what the structure of the government in Kiev is going to be like, and they are using that as leverage. The last thing they want to do is have to move troops across the borders.

QUESTION: Dan Davydoff, Eurasia Group.

I guess I just want to have a devil's advocate sort of question about constructive engagement. In the 2000s, you could say that there was some seeing eye to eye on the issues of terrorism, for example. In Russia we have the Beslan massacre, we have the theater incursion, we have the rise of Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya, human rights violations, and so forth. Then you fast-forward to today, and even though the majority of our experts didn't think Putin would go into Crimea, he did. Even though it hurts Russia economically, he's going in there, and the polls are rising, nationalism is all for it.

My question is, if we do the kind of constructive engagement, inclusion, and security structures that you say, are we, to some extent, giving up some of these ethical human rights issues, but at the same time not guaranteeing any sort of positive security outcomes if, say, all of a sudden imperialism ideology has a more prominent role and he decides to go for it anyway, regardless of the NATO threat?

THOMAS GRAHAM: Our policy towards Russia should never be one-dimensional. You've got to look at the whole range of issues in which Russia is a factor in the way we think about our interests in the world. The challenge for diplomacy and the challenge for statecraft in the United States is, how do you construct a relationship with Russia that advances our interests across the broadest range of interests possible?

European security is one aspect of it. You're not going to make a lot of progress on European security on the types of structure I've talked about in the near term because of Ukraine. I'm thinking more about a longer-term type of arrangement that might lead to a more stable security environment in Europe.

We do have a lot of concerns about these ethical concerns that you raised. The issue for the United States [vis-à-vis Russia] has not been to support what we would call the advancement of democracy, of these ethical norms in the world. In part, that's who we are as a country. It's hard to imagine an American foreign policy where this wasn't an element. The issue really is the practical one of how you do it in the current environment. How do you ensure that your actions lead to this expansion or the opening up of the political system and don't close it off?

My argument here would be—and it also has a long lineage in American foreign policy—is that of the United States as an example. We need to demonstrate that our system actually works at home in solving the problems that we face now, making it an attractive model that other people want to emulate. By the way, it worked throughout much of the Cold War and through, I think, the initial years after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

We obviously have a challenge with that right now because of the nature of our politics in the United States. It's remarkable, as you travel abroad, how willing people are to challenge the United States now as a model that they should emulate. And it's not only countries like Russia. If you think about Germany and the reaction to the revelations about what the NSA (National Security Agency) was doing, we have sort of an image problem that we need to resolve in some way.

That would have, in my mind, a much greater impact on the types of things we would like to see happen inside Russia than the more forward interference in Russian affairs, trying to support individual actors, which I think, in many ways, plays against our interests because of the way those people are situated more broadly in the Russian population.

So we need to think broadly, not unidimensional. The challenge for us is to balance what we're doing in a broad number of areas to create the best opportunity to see the types of long-term developments we would like to see globally and inside Russia.

QUESTION: I'm Krishen Mehta.

It concerns me that, both politically and in the media, we're almost at the edge of a precipice, where Russia and the United States are not talking to each other; there are lot of aggressive statements on both sides. The media is almost ganging up, once again, to the pre-Sochi kind of dialogue. Is it not time to pull back from this?

We learned from the Cuban missile crisis that the slightest miscalculation when the relations are such an edge could have devastating consequences. Is it in the world's interests that perhaps both sides pull back from this precipice and avoid this escalating further? Is it possible to do so?

THOMAS GRAHAM: The short answer is, yes, it's in the interests of both to pull back at some point. There is a risk of this spiraling out of control, in part because no one really controls the forces that are operating, or all the forces that are operating on the ground in Ukraine.

The question is how you would go about doing that. That's why I would argue that you need some sort of channel of communication that allows you to explore the options, to be a bit more creative than we have been at this point in the types of steps and sequencing of steps that we would take in order to pull back from the escalation of violence in Ukraine.

I think the Geneva agreement, as an outline, is a good first step. The question is how you are going to implement that. How do we get beyond simply the accusations that we have heard up to this point that it's the other side that is not acting in good faith and not undertaking its responsibilities to implement this accord? You're not going to do that through megaphone diplomacy. You're not going to do that through phone calls. You really need some behind-the-scenes, serious work by Russians, Americans, Europeans, and Ukrainians.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I think you'll agree that even as earlier we were bemoaning the lack of a post-Kissinger-Brzezinski-Acheson-Scowcroft generation of people who think seriously about Russia, clearly our speaker is not included in that number. He's the exception.

Tom, thank you so much.


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