Russian-American Relations

Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs

Stephen R. Sestanovich, Former U.S. Ambassador, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor at Columbia University
Videotaped Remarks
Washington, DC
October 18, 2007

Following are excerpts of an interview conducted by Mary B. Warlick of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, May 1, 2007

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Stephen R. Sestanovich, Former U.S. Ambassador, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor at Columbia University. State Dept. photoThe late 90s were a very difficult period in Russian-American relations for a variety of reasons. They're often remembered particularly in Russia these days as a period in which Russia did everything that the United States wanted. You could have fooled us. This was actually a relatively contentious period in Russian-American relations.

The cases where we actually were able to get up from the table and say we had agreed and know that it was the case were increasingly few in this period, and I think that was by and large traceable to the dysfunction of the Russian government in this period.

Well, you know dealing with Russia as one of the Soviet successor states was a particularly large challenge for American policy in this period, and my conviction was that we had to make sure that, to the extent possible, that we were able to develop our cooperation and offer assistance to Russia's neighbors in an effective and transparent way that did not antagonize and was not seen as a challenge to Russia.

We tried to work on making it possible for energy producers among Russia's neighbors to export their production -- gas and oil -- to world markets without having to rely on a Russian pipeline system that was increasingly unable to manage the throughput and that was for many of these states politically problematic. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was a major project that consumed years of effort, recently rewarded by successful operation.

You know the problem of terrorism is one that engaged American and Russian leaders in the late 90s. They didn't find formulas for dealing all that effectively with it. When the United States retaliated for the bombing of our embassies in Africa by launching some cruise missiles attacks in Afghanistan, President Yeltsin called it an attack that was going to lead to World War III. But once we got beyond that rhetoric, there was an awareness that things were going on in Afghanistan that were difficult for both sides, and, in fact, at the very end of the Clinton administration we were able to reach agreement, Russia and the United States, on new sanctions against the Taliban.

In the 90s the idea was that the West could assist or create a favorable environment for Russia's democratic institutions by cooperation. It wasn't going to be possible to have very much influence on Russian domestic developments if we were in an adversarial relationship. But we assumed that we had common interests that would create a positive relationship and within that framework Russian leaders would want to advance the evolution of their own domestic politics toward something more like a Western model. We thought it was useful to maintain the OSCE as an organization that brought countries together in order to talk about such issues. The near collapse of the OSCE as an institution valued by all its members for work that it does in monitoring elections and promoting democracy is a real setback.

Russia has a continued unresolved, conflicted relationship and views of its neighbors, and those relations are going to continue to pose challenges for American policy, because while we want to have good relations with Russia, we have many common interests with those countries.

A second area where we have not yet really found a successful formula for cooperation with Russia involves security issues in international organizations. Russia has become increasingly cooperative in its assessment of what Iran is doing in the area of its nuclear programs, and yet the Russian recognition of this may have come too late in the game. We may be looking at a problem that is no longer really soluble.

You know one thing that strikes me looking back on this period is how often we were trying to make decisions about Russia policy without knowing really what was going on. Some times you, whether it's with Yeltsin being dead or the Kosovo peacekeeping you can solve these problems just by asking a question, but in the interim the entire government can throw itself into turmoil trying to figure out how to deal with this new situation that doesn't exist.

You know governments don't always want to be fully transparent with each other. It's part of the challenge of dealing with it.