February 6, 2014

On Sochi:

My inclination in 2007 was, for both political and security reasons, to think it was a mistake for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to award the 2014 Winter Games to Russia. However, the political reasons were undermined by the earlier decision to award the 2008 summer games to China, which is a much more repressive country than Russia. The security concerns were still relevant, but they were not insurmountable. One can certainly argue that Sochi was not the best Russian city for the games because of its temperate climate, but in Russia decisions about which city to put forth are made at the center under Vladimir Putin, with scant input from localities. If the IOC bought into it, so be it.

Putin has given extraordinarily high priority to the Olympics and depicted the IOC’s decision to hold the games in Sochi as a triumph for Russia and, implicitly, for himself. Far more than other national leaders in host countries in the post-1945 era, Putin has used the Sochi games as a vehicle to cement a lofty position for himself on the international scene. This dynamic can be seen in the way Putin greeted the arrival of the Olympic flame in Moscow in early November 2013, as recorded by the BBC: ”When the Olympic flame first arrived in Moscow, [Putin] was at the centre of an elaborate ceremony on Red Square. With rousing music playing, he strode out of the Kremlin gates on live television and marched up a long red carpet to receive the flame personally. He then stood there, torch in hand as the national anthem played.”

All the symbolic measures surrounding the Olympics—­­sending an Olympic torch into space for a spacewalk and sending another torch to a Russian icebreaker moving through to the North Pole—have been linked to the glorification of Russia as a world power and, implicitly, to the exaltation of Putin as the supreme leader of this great power. This sort of gloss is distasteful, yet it is important to remember that the Chinese authorities engaged in their own disingenuous manipulations when hosting the games in 2008, depicting them as a tribute to the Communist system in China.

Abhorrent though the Russian government’s campaign against gays and lesbians has been, calls for a boycott of the Olympics over the vicious homophobia in Russia never seemed persuasive. The Summer Games were held in China in 2008 despite much worse human rights problems there than in Russia, and it would have seemed hypocritical to have boycotted the Sochi games. Moreover, despite the IOC’s strictures, some athletes are bound to use the games to criticize the anti-gay campaign—or at least I hope they do. But even if a boycott would have been inappropriate, it is good that numerous Western leaders are staying away from the opening ceremony on February 7th. That will send a message to the Russian authorities—and to other undemocratic regimes—without penalizing athletes who have trained hard for many years.

On U.S.-Russia Relations:

“Why does the U.S.–Russia relationship matter at this time?” This would be a good question to ask Vladimir Putin. From his perspective, it was more important to engage in grandstanding than to seek a constructive relationship with the United States. Putin was evidently hoping that a trade could be arranged for Viktor Bout (a notorious criminal who has caused mayhem and misery in large parts of the world, apparently in collusion with the Russian security services), and when the Obama administration turned down any such exchange, Putin responded with pique. Obama’s decision to cancel his September 2013 meeting with Putin was justified under the circumstances.

For the time being, U.S.–Russia relations will be at their lowest point since the spring of 1999 (during the war with Kosovo).  The much-ballyhooed “reset” may have achieved a few modest results early on, but it has turned out to be a colossal failure. Nonetheless, over time the United States and Russia do have important reasons to try to establish a better relationship. The two sides share an interest in preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for Islamic terrorists. They also share an interest in preserving stability in South Asia and East Asia.  Both countries stand to benefit from cooperation on environmental issues, questions of public health, efforts to combat human trafficking and illegal arms dealing, and counterterrorism.

At the same time it would be wrong to gloss over the major issues that divide the two sides. The internal clampdown in Russia over the past year-and-a-half is bound to cause friction and to inhibit cooperation. The Russian government has been unwilling to take a firm stance on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and seems perfectly willing to accept a nuclear-armed Iran (even if, on balance, the Russian authorities would prefer that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons).  The Russian authorities have done all they can to prop up the Assad regime in Syria and to prevent any effective international action regarding the civil war in that country. Russia continues to behave in a domineering manner toward its neighbors, such as Georgia and the Baltic countries. On all of these issues, if the United States can obtain concrete favorable action by Russia, it will certainly bolster U.S. interests and put relations back on a sounder footing.

After the dismal experience with the reset, the best step will be to avoid such gimmicks in the future. Far too much of the reset was public relations rather than substance. The two sides should candidly acknowledge the many issues on which they disagree as well as those on which they agree.

The steady emergence of the United States as one of the world’s largest energy producers (and eventually one of the largest energy exporters) will give U.S. officials a valuable source of leverage they have not had in the past.  Because the Russian economy remains so heavily dependent on extractive industries, especially oil and natural gas, the United States should begin as soon as possible (which probably will not be before 2017) to export energy to European countries that currently import almost all of their needs from Russia. By edging in on these markets, U.S. officials over the longer term will have greater leeway to push for Russian concessions on a range of issues.

So long as Putin is president of Russia, it is hard to see how the bilateral relationship can change fundamentally. Both sides deserve blame for this dismal situation, but it is too late now to undo past mistakes and to foster amity and close cooperation, at least while Putin is around. Instead, the United States should use what leverage it can wield to seek Russian concessions on issues of importance to U.S. interests.  Over the longer term, there may be an opportunity to forge a genuine partnership and genuine friendship with Russia—something the United States failed to do in the 1990s—but at this point the best that can be done is to minimize damage and preserve the significant areas of cooperation that still exist.

Mark Kramer is Program Director, Project on Cold War Studies, Davis Center for Russia and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University.

This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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February 6, 2014

On Sochi:

It is truly unfortunate that there are a number of American commentators who seem to be almost hoping that Sochi will fail. It is our responsibility as common members of the international community, and as nations who all want our Olympic athletes to succeed, to work together to make the Sochi Olympics a success.

Because the Games are so important to both President Putin and the Russian state, I believe that all possible precautions will be taken to try to ensure that the Olympics are a safe experience for everyone, and that disasters are avoided.

While there are a number of human rights, environmental, and corruption-related problems in Russia right now that are associated with the Games, we need to realize that these are ongoing issues to be resolved over the long run, and that they are not specific only to the Games themselves—nor are they specific only to Russia.

On the U.S.-Russia Relationship:

The U.S.–Russia relationship matters because the interests of the two nations intersect:

  • Both will interact for the foreseeable future in the north as the Arctic ice cap recedes, and in Central Asia as the aftereffects of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan unfold.
  • Both retain veto power in the UN Security Council.
  • Both contend with immense nuclear stockpiles, and the difficulties of crafting sensible plans for nuclear security.
  • Both face economic challenges through the G-20 and the WTO.

Two steps by the United States could help further the achievement of common interests:

  • First, relations with Russia should be depoliticized at home. Exaggerating the importance of problems in the relationship for domestic political gain hinders their resolution.
  • Second, Washington should recognize that the economic interests of competing domestic political factions drive much of Russia’s foreign policy, including in the security sphere. Finding ways to satisfy those export and foreign investment interests may lead to creative problem solving.

Kimberly Marten is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University.

This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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On U.S.-Russia Relations and Sochi:

Finding ways to mend the U.S.–Russia relationship requires a clear understanding of the benefits it can bring to both sides. Moscow and Washington need to rethink their expectations about potential gains from mutual engagement. Unmet expectations have repeatedly led to crises in relations between the United States and Russia. And yet trimming expectations down does not necessarily mean preparing for confrontation.

Significant reassessment of the prospective gains has to occur on the Russian side. Understood as bargaining, pragmatism has repeatedly failed Russia as the foundation for its relationship with the United States. History has shown that, short of a formal alliance, engagement with the United States can only bring two long-term benefits. First, trade with and investment from the United States can foster economic growth and social development in the counterpart country. In order to fully profit from this opportunity, the counterpart country needs to put in place a system that guarantees the safety of U.S. investment and reasonable predictability of legal changes. In the absence of robust institutions and the rule of law, American businesses would seek to minimize payback periods while most of their investments would remain short-term and/or speculative.

The second long-term benefit can be derived from reducing the danger of a direct military confrontation with the United States. As a result, the counterpart country would be able to economize on defense expenditures and often also expand economic ties with the United States. In the U.S.-Russia case, nuclear weapons reductions hold out the promise of substantial budget savings for both sides, should the two governments exercise the necessary political will. (To put this argument on its head, the United States, as the most powerful nation, can also be conveniently cast as an enemy, helping to justify increases in defense spending.)

These opportunities are not hard to identify. What is more difficult to realize is that neither economic interdependence nor mutual security arrangements are likely to give the counterpart country (with the possible exception of China) additional strategic leverage over Washington. The United States is reluctant to engage in great-power bargaining to reward its partner for an agreement on other issues. This largely results from the constraints placed on the executive branch by the Congress in foreign policy. Washington is unlikely to sacrifice its interests in one area for gains in another—this is why Russia’s calls for “respecting mutual interests” (for example, in post-Soviet Eurasia) usually do not go down well among the U.S. policymaking community.

What Russia seeks to achieve through “pragmatic bargaining,” that is, uncritical acceptance by Washington and Moscow of each other’s statements of interests, can often be obtained by showing to the United States why conflict over a certain issue does not serve U.S. interests. It is much easier for both sides to assert their interests and ask for respect than to rationally identify the losses that they (and usually other actors as well) incur from confrontation by default. The U.S.-Russia dialogue needs to be disentangled from unproductive debates on whether the world is better off unipolar or multipolar and focus on what is lost in concrete cases by the sides opposing each other for no good reason.

In a similar vein, the United States should acknowledge that its own interpretation of what actually constitutes Russian interests does not always correspond to the view popular among the Russian public and policymaking community. For example, on many international and global issues Russian diplomacy is by default much more committed to the existing status quo than may seem reasonable to Washington. However, the Russian posture is largely defined by deep-seated fears of “destabilization” and “unpredictability” that are rooted both in recent Russian history and widespread convictions among the country’s political community. Making the benefits of change clear to the Russian side through persuasive arguments can work better than attempts to isolate Moscow or paint it into a corner. The U.S. could also factor in Russia’s concern with maintaining the status quo as a way of gauging how a number of influential players could react to Washington’s proposals for dealing with international issues.

Among other implications, diverging views of the benefits of change translate into a gap between Russian and U.S. policymaking cultures. While Russian policymakers often assume that the mere existence of a shared problem (e.g. transnational terrorist networks or the uncertainty about the future of Afghanistan) creates a firm enough basis for cooperation, their U.S. counterparts usually focus on policy, that is, concrete actions that are required to address the problem. For the U.S. side, a mere statement of commonality of challenges is not enough—cooperation is only possible when it is rooted in shared policy approaches.

With its potential security threats affecting all participating countries, the upcoming Sochi Games present a good opportunity for Russia and the United States to learn more about each other’s policymaking cultures and possibly bridge the gap between them.


The U.S.-Russia relationship remains important to both sides because of its significant unused potential. It would not be difficult to turn it into a positive-sum game in many cases if the bargaining paradigm is dropped and impartial analysis is undertaken of the unnecessary losses from conflict. At the end of the day, the U.S.-Russia relationship is not about status, but about addressing a concrete, even if limited, number of international issues to mutual benefit.

Mikhail Troitskiy is an associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York, in partnership with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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