What Obama's Second Term Could Mean for U.S.-Russian Relations

The United States has already said it's prepared to make a political commitment that it would not direct missile defenses against Russian strategic forces. There have already been discussions between the Pentagon and the Russian Ministry of Defense on a jointly manned data-fusion center where you'd exchange data from radars and other sensors, [and] on a planning and operations center where you would talk about how your rules of engagement will operate. There are other things that I think, going beyond that, the United States can do in the way of transparency that would give the Russians the ability to understand American missile-defense developments.

How do you assess the Obama administration's position on the Magnitsky bill, an initiative in Congress that would put targeted sanctions on Russian officials implicated on the death while in custody of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky? (That bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives on November 16 and is currently before the Senate.)

I think the Obama administration would have preferred to impose these kinds of sanctions administratively as opposed to by law. And I can understand that view. I mean, look at the current Jackson-Vanik legislation, which denies Russia permanent normal-trade-relations status. Now the Jackson-Vanik was passed in 1974, and the goal or the objective was to require that the Soviet Union then and later Russia after the Soviet Union broke up to allow free emigration for religious minorities, particularly for Russian Jews. In the early 1990s, the Russians opened the gates and pretty much every Russian Jew who wanted to leave has been allowed to leave. For all of the democracy problems that we have seen in the last 12 years under Putin -- and there have been many -- there is still open emigration. But through all this, even though the Russians clearly in the 1990s met the standards of Jackson-Vanik, here we are in 2012 and Jackson-Vanik still applies to Russia. So, I think, Congress tends to be much quicker at putting sanctions on than they are at taking them off.

So I think the administration would prefer to do the Magnitsky bill administratively. Now I'm also personally sympathetic with what drives the Magnitsky bill, and I disagree with the Russians when they say this is interference in Russian internal affairs. It is not. The United States as a sovereign country has an internationally recognized right to determine who it is going to give a visa into the United States to and who it won't give one to. And so it is perfectly within the U.S. rights to deny individuals the ability to come to the United States. This is not interference -- this is the United States, I think, executing its rights. But I think the administration would prefer to do that administratively as opposed to doing that as a mandate by Congress.

The one last comment that I would make is that I think it is unfortunate that Congress is moving to link passage of a bill that would graduate Russia from Jackson-Vanik with the Magnitsky bill because Congress will completely dilute and cover up the message that it wants to send to Russia. Because if the Russians see those things passed together, they will not see the Magnitsky bill as an expression of outrage over what happened to Mr. Magnitsky -- which was truly outrageous -- but instead it will be read as: 'Well, the Americans want to keep beating us up. The Congress wants to beat us up on something. They had to graduate us from Jackson-Vanik so they just put this in its place.' So, unfortunately, Congress' message will be lost.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add about the future of U.S.-Russian relations?

I just might make one comment about looking forward. I think when you look forward, the agenda gets tougher. Further nuclear reductions, just because the lower the numbers get, the more difficult it gets to find agreement. So that won't be an easy issue. I think finding a solution on Syria, where I think the Russians have a mix of motives, some of which are not the best. But I think they also have a legitimate question, which is: If [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad goes, what comes in behind him? And I'm not sure we in Washington have a good answer for that question.

I also personally think that Washington and Moscow have allowed Syria to become too much of a U.S.-Russia issue. This is not a question that we should be fighting as much about as we seem to have been fighting over the last eight or nine months. I guess the last observation I would make is that I think, both in Washington and Moscow, the sides want this -- they would like to see an expansion of economic, trade, investment relations. Which would be good in terms of creating some economic ballast that would cushion the relationship. In the way that the depth of the economic relations between the United States and China gives both sides a little bit of pause when they may have political differences because they realize there is so much money involved. We don't yet have that with Russia, and it would be good to have a stronger economic component to the relationship. But that's probably going to turn mostly on questions that the Russians decide regarding the kind of business and investment climate they are going to have within Russia, because that will determine how much American business goes into Russia.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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