US-Russia relations: an interview with American political analyst Leon Aron

No particular complications are expected in Russian-American relations in the foreseeable future, if only because the administration of President-elect Barack Obama won’t regard issues like missile defense deployment in Europe, or NATO expansion, as priorities for a long time to come.

No particular complications are expected in Russian-American relations in the foreseeable future, if only because the administration of President-elect Barack Obama won’t regard issues like missile defense deployment in Europe, or NATO expansion, as priorities for a long time to come. These are the views of Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Question: How will President Dmitri Medvedev’s recent address to parliament influence the new US Administration’s policies?

Leon Aron: Purely from the standpoint of protocol, I got an odd impression from Medvedev’s speech. That’s because when a new administration comes in there is usually a honeymoon period, or at least some period when the leaders take each other’s measure. Even in the Soviet era, the Foreign Ministry would never have made such a statement. They either kept silent or made a few formal gestures, offered congratulations, and so on. But Medvedev concentrated especially on an asymmetric response to the deployment of American missile defense elements in Europe. On the one hand, of course, he wanted to issue a reminder that this topic continues to disappoint Moscow; on the other hand, this was a typical underestimation of the fact that decision-making in the USA is far less dependent on individuals than it is in Russia. A new leader in Russia can sometimes refashion the situation to suit himself to such an extent that although the country formally remains the same, it actually becomes an entirely different regime. The impression is that Moscow thinks it can put some pressure on Barack Obama, send him this alarm signal, and then he’ll change everything immediately. But I think it’s turned out to be just the reverse. The public responded immediately – there was an editorial in The Washington Post, saying: look, the Russians aren’t even giving the new president some breathing space. And I think that this has ended up narrowing the field for maneuver in relations between Russia and the USA.

Question: How will the Obama Administration respond to Medvedev’s proposal to extend the presidential term from four years to six?

Leon Aron: From this standpoint, Medvedev has done everything right. In this crazy race, with Obama having to develop policies and make appointments, Medvedev’s statement hasn’t received the publicity that it would have received if he made it after Obama took office. Then the US State Department would surely have made a response, and the leading media would surely have described it as increased centralization of the political process in Russia.

Question: Barack Obama and his advisors have stated on more than one occasion that the missile defense elements in the Czech Republic and Poland won’t be as effective as President George W. Bush claims, and that the USA shouldn’t be in such a hurry to deploy them. Might the Obama Administration delay this process, or cancel it entirely?

Leon Aron: I think so, yes. There won’t be a 180-degree turnaround – bases won’t be closed, agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic won’t be annulled – but matters will proceed more slowly. In other words, there will be a lot more testing. But matters won’t reach the point of actual deployment – in fact, this is said to be at least three or four years away even now. Not even by the end of the Obama Administration’s first term, I think. And here I see some room for maneuver with Russia. Instead of making threats and saying that we’ll do such-and-such, Moscow needs to understand that the missile defense elements won’t actually be deployed. And over the next few years, it makes sense to talk of serious technical details, with calm discussion of transparency, the degree of monitoring by Russia, and perhaps – as in earlier proposals – having Russian observers present at these bases.

Question: What kind of stance will the Obama Administration take on NATO expansion? Will Georgia and Ukraine be granted Membership Action Plans this December or next April?

Leon Aron: Firstly, nothing at all can happen in December, since the question of admitting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO will be decided in the USA. If the USA really wants to admit Georgia and Ukraine, Europe will have to go along with it. Europe won’t do anything on its own, given the position taken by Germany and France, the leading EU countries. Britain’s stance is closer to that of the USA, but opposition from Germany and France, which don’t want Georgia and Ukraine in NATO, can’t be overcome without the USA. But the new administration has so much to do before April that it simply won’t have time to concentrate and use diplomatic channels to make some progress on this issue.

Question: What kind of lessons will the Obama Administration draw from the war with Georgia?

Leon Aron: Washington believes that Saakashvili made an insane error, and it seems to me that this has been pointed out to him quite plainly behind the scenes. But the lesson to be drawn goes like this: Russia is on its way to reassembling what was lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. No one’s talking about re-establishing the USSR, of course, but Russia does intend to restore certain geostrategic resources and assets. And among those assets is veto power regading the foreign trade orientation, and especially the foreign policy orientation, of post-Soviet states.

Question: Might the Obama Administration acknowledge that the former Soviet countries are Russia’s special influence zone?

Leon Aron: It seems to me that this right for Russia has already been recognized, de facto. But the question lies elsewhere. All great continental powers since Ancient Babylon have acted in the same way. They have established neutral or friendly regimes along their borders. That’s what the USA does in North America and Central America, and what Russia does in the CIS. But it’s the 21st Century now. And the question isn’t whether Russia has this preference, but what kind of methods it uses to reinforce and demonstrate these interests. And here, of course, everyone was shocked by what Russia did to Georgia – as if it were the 19th Century.

Question: Does the USA have any leverage for pressuring Russia to choose some other means of influencing its neighbors?

Leon Aron: In the short term, the USA has no tactical leverage for influencing Russia. In the long term, it does. This doesn’t mean that America will take any conscious action. But it’s undeniable that attitudes to Russia in the West have deteriorated since the conflict in Georgia.

Question: How is this expressed?

Leon Aron: Lack of trust. Capital flight from Russia. That’s not because business doesn’t like the regime in Russia (capitalists don’t care where they make money – they even cooperate with China), but due to unpredictable risks in Russia. Companies fear that if the break between Russia and the West turns serious, investing in Russia would be more risky, and many companies can’t afford that. Russia, like the USSR, fails to consider the force of public opinion. In the 1990s – now described as a time of chaos, prostration, and horror – Russia’s image in the West was quite decent. Russia was perceived as a new democracy with a legacy of problems and corruption, but generally one of us, or much closer to us than the USSR ever was.

Question: Can America solve the Iranian nuclear problem without Russia?

Leon Aron: Without Russia, the only way the USA can solve this problem is by military force. But the USA really doesn’t want to do that, knowing how high the risks would be. So on this issue, Russia has substantial opportunities for progress. Not by making UN Security Council resolutions toothless. Because Russia is hollowing out these documents, they are having practically no effect on Iran.