October 22, 2013
Embassy of Russia, 2650 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington, DC

On October 22, 2013, the Center on Global Interests (CGI) hosted a panel discussion with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, and Ambassador Steven Pifer on the current state of U.S.-Russia relations. Held at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., the panel covered topics including the joint agreement on disposal of chemical weapons in Syria, nuclear nonproliferation and arms reduction, and the next generation of leaders in the bilateral relationship.

The speakers brought together an incredible depth of experience, both as diplomats and policy-makers. Kislyak was appointed Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the United States in September 2008, and has more than 30 years of experience leading diplomatic missions in the United States and Europe. Pickering served more than four decades as a U.S. diplomat, including in posts as Ambassador to the United Nations, the Russian Federation, India, Israel, and Jordan. Pifer is a former Ambassador to Ukraine with extensive experience at the State Department, and currently the Director of the Brookings Arms Control Initiative.

All three panelists welcomed the large presence of young people in the audience as a positive sign for the future of bilateral cooperation and diplomacy. The panelists agreed that the influence of “Cold War thinking” continues to damage the U.S.-Russia relationship, an issue that the next generation of Russia and Eurasia specialists must address. However, debate arose over Russia’s “reactive” foreign policy, the lack of strategic vision in Washington, and the problems caused by domestic politics on both sides.

As the discussion moderator, Dr. Nikolai Zlobin, President of CGI, began by asking the panel to address the role that “drama” has played in U.S.-Russia relations and give their perspective on the reality behind the “games.” All three ambassadors agreed that the U.S.-Russia relationship is healthier than it is portrayed in the American media. Kislyak emphasized in his remarks that although the relationship is not as negative as the media insists, it is still seriously underdeveloped. There are a number of economic and political opportunities for engagement that have not been adequately explored. In general, the relationship is lacking the “normalcy” that is present in other bilateral relationships, something Kislyak attributed to Cold War hold-over attitudes.

Ambassadors Pifer and Pickering supported Kislyak in the idea that good news about Russia “doesn’t sell” in the United States, distorting the public’s conception of the relationship. Discussing areas for optimism, Pickering noted that the cooperation on chemical weapons disposal was bringing the nations together in an unprecedented way, and presents an excellent jumping-off point for further partnership. He also mentioned the new Iranian president’s willingness to discuss nuclear issues could also serve as a mechanism for Russian-American cooperation. However, the trade relationship “leaves much to be desired,” and discussed the lack of economic ties as surprising, given that success is possible. Pickering pointed to Boeing and TNK-BP partnerships as positive models for increased private sector cooperation.

Pifer focused on the role of economic ties as the central problem in the relationship, as strong trade connections that serve as an important “ballast” in relations between the U.S. and China, for example, are simply not present in the U.S.-Russia context. The fact that traditional sources of conflict (Pifer mentioned ideological disputes, territorial disputes, and resource battles) are not present in the relationship would suggest that the lack of trade ties plays a large role in intransigence on both sides. Pifer placed a good deal of blame on Russia for this failure, noting that in the end, “it is up to Russia to decide” what kind of business environment they will provide for international corporations. Kislyak jumped in to contest the negative portrayal of the country’s business climate, describing Russia as a “normal market economy.”

Dr. Zlobin was blunt in his response, expressing great disappointment in the current state of relations, rebutting the speakers’ characterizations, and urging them to be candid about the ongoing problems between the two countries. He specifically questioned Ambassador Kislyak on areas where Russia could lead in the relationship, positing that Russia insists upon the need for equality between the countries, but lets the United States lead in creating the agenda and proposing projects. Kislyak disagreed with the portrayal of Russia as a purely reactive partner, pointing to the Syria agreement and cooperation through the APEC forum as examples of Russian initiatives. In the end, however, he asserted that Russia “has to react” when confronted with security threats such as NATO expansion and other U.S.-supported initiatives.

The American panelists were asked to justify the popular Beltway belief that the Russian government is “too unpredictable” for the U.S. to create a strategic diplomatic vision. Zlobin noted that Russian national interests are “no mystery,” and President Vladimir Putin is very open about his plans for the country. Ambassador Pickering contended that American leaders are frustrated by the constant flow of day-to-day events, problems, and tensions. He then turned the question around: it is no great secret what the U.S. has always wanted for Russia (integration into the world economy, a democratic political system, and cooperation on arms reduction), so why does Russian leadership present the U.S. with so many surprises? Ambassador Pifer also disputed the idea that Russian leadership is predictable, pointing to a number of diplomatic curveballs that have caused tension over the past year, and argued that better communication between the countries is a necessary precondition for improved relations.

The speakers also examined the question of Russia’s recent change in policy towards NGOs, which Picking labeled as a “crackdown,” while Kislyak insisted it was a “pause” intended to monitor foreign influence on Russian politics. During the audience question and answer session, the concept of Russia as a “superpower” was discussed: Kislyak pointed to a recent Congressional Research Service report confirming Russia’s status as a nuclear superpower. Pifer, however, said that it essential to acknowledge that the current American president thinks about Russia far less than did his predecessors.

Several audience members were able to ask questions of the speakers, leading to a productive discussion of the positive role of grassroots cooperation and educational exchange. The evening concluded with agreement over the changed nature global politics, and the need for a new and honest assessment of the multipolar context within which the U.S.-Russia relationship operates.

Click here to watch the entire panel discussion on C-SPAN.