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In a press conference Friday, President Barack Obama defended his decision to hit pause on the U.S.-Russian relationship. Over the last several months, differences have emerged over Syria and human rights. The president said NSA leaker Edward Snowden was not the only reason for cancelling a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Putin’s return to power has brought an increase in Cold War-type anti-America rhetoric. Also on Friday, the U.S. Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense met with their Russian counterparts over areas where interests overlap and conflicts divide. A panel joins Diane to discuss tensions between the U.S. and Russia and possibilities for future collaboration.
- Andrew Weiss Vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and he served on the National Security Council staff as a Russian expert under President Bill Clinton.
- Miriam Elder Foreign editor at BuzzFeed and reported from Russia for seven years, most recently for The Guardian.
- Stephen F. Cohen Professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University and Princeton University, and author of "Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War."
- Stephen Sestanovich Professor at Columbia University, senior fellow at Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. ambassador-at-large from 1997 to 2001 to newly-independent Soviet states, and author of the upcoming book, "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Mounting tensions between the U.S. and Russia led President Obama to cancel an upcoming summit meeting in Moscow. Joining me to talk about the chilly turn in U.S.-Russia relations, Andrew Weiss, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Stephen Sestanovich, a professor at Columbia University. He's also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
MS. DIANE REHMWith us from the NPR New York studio, Miriam Elder, foreign editor at BuzzFeed, and by phone, Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at New York and Princeton universities. I invite you to be part of the conversation, weigh in with your thoughts, your comments, 800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Welcome to all of you.
MR. ANDREW WEISSThanks.
PROF. STEPHEN SESTANOVICHGreat to be here.
REHMGood to have you with us. Miriam, I'll start with you. You spent seven years reporting from Russia. How would you describe the current sentiment of the Russian people toward the U.S.?
MS. MIRIAM ELDERWell, I think it's important to distinguish between the Russian people and the Russian government. So while we've seen increasing anti-Americanism from the Russian government for the past year and a half, say, when Putin decided to return to the presidency and really made anti-Americanism a platform of his re-election. We've seen just anti-Americanism grow from the government.
MS. MIRIAM ELDERThe Russian people, it's a bit more diverse. You have a sort of middle class in Moscow who wants to see better relations with the West, but then you have also a majority that is confronted quite often with government propaganda and has sort of relics of the Cold War, this idea of anti-Americanism in their heads that they then will accept this government drive to push up anti-Americanism quite readily.
REHMAndrew Weiss, do you believe the president made the right decision in calling off his summit meeting with Putin?
WEISSNo, I think he did. I think this was a summit without much purpose. And so when the White House did a tally of the issues that were teed up and the way they wanted to make progress, you use presidential meetings to basically push an issue which couldn't be decided anyone else. The problem was, since April, the U.S. sketched an ambitious agenda to carry us through the end of the president's second term. And at every step of the way, the Russians basically stonewalled.
REHMStonewalled, so you think it would not have been either useful or productive.
WEISSThat's right. So on the substance, it wasn't productive, and then you had this accelerant materialize in the form of Edward Snowden. And the way the Russians played that basically demonstrated to the U.S. that this was not a Russian government that's prepared to make serious progress. It's a government that's focused on scoring cheap P.R. points and propaganda points.
REHMStephen Sestanovich, do you agree?
SESTANOVICHWell, I think that without the Snowden factor, the meeting will almost surely have gone ahead. It wouldn't have been a successful meeting. The American side at least would have been holding their nose in going through it because they wouldn't have felt there was much promise for the reasons that Andrew has mentioned. Snowden was the precipitating factor, but what he precipitated was a review of the relationship that turned out just the way Andrew says. They looked at this meeting and thought this was a loser.
REHMStephen Cohen, a loser?
MR. STEPHEN F. COHENI think the United States is the loser. I think the world is the loser. The national security issues involved in the meeting whether we focus on Syria, Iran, how the United States is going to get out of Afghanistan without Russian help, nuclear proliferation, counterterrorism, it's a very full national security agenda.
MR. STEPHEN F. COHENThe idea, which seems to be absolutely consensual in Washington and in the media, that Obama should not have gone to Moscow because there were too many disagreements between the United States and Russia seems to me to be -- it leads to the opposite conclusion. That's why you go. If you only go to talk to people with whom you already agree, we don't need the State Department.
MR. STEPHEN F. COHENIn fact, if you think back when Obama first ran for the presidency five, six years ago, one of his arguments about foreign policy was is that he would, because the United States should talk to our opponents, even our enemies, because that was the only way we were going to make it a safer world. And that remains, I think, the correct perspective today, and I deeply regret that he did not go. Though I understand that Snowden was a complicating factor to which I would just add this footnote. The White House itself made the Snowden affair an even bigger obstacle.
REHMMiriam Elder, would you agree with that?
ELDERI tend to think that Obama was right in canceling his visit. There's been an understanding inside the administration for a while that the Russians just aren't going to budge. Obama visited Russia during his first term. He's going to be there for the G-20 anyway. This extra bilateral meeting was a way to show the importance of the U.S.-Russia relationship. And the fact is he's just following lower down on the agenda.
ELDERI don't think a lot would have been achieved, and Obama's time could probably be better spent elsewhere rather than just giving really propaganda points to the Russian government. We would have seen pictures of Obama and Putin just all over state-run television, and it would have played really well for the Russian side.
REHMMiriam, explain how Snowden ended up in Russia.
ELDERWell, he had flown to Hong Kong before he released his leaks on the NSA to The Guardian and The Washington Post, and then it was made clear that he had to flee Hong Kong. So the story that has been represented is that he landed in Moscow on route to Latin America, and they got kind of stuck there because he lacked the proper travel documents.
REHMAnd Julian Assange helped with that move?
ELDERPrecisely. And there's been a WikiLeaks minder, Sarah Harrison, who has been accompanying Snowden the entire time and is believed to still be with him.
REHMWhat was Putin's original reaction when Snowden landed there in Russia?
ELDERI think it was authentic surprise and not quite knowing what to do. Putin has, like, a complicated relationship with this whole Snowden affair. It seems to me on the one hand he does appreciate kind of sticking it to the Americans and presenting Russia as, you know, a place where leakers and anybody who tells the truth about the West is -- will be accepted with open arms.
ELDEROn the other hand, he's a spy himself, not that Snowden was, but he's a spy. And he has a lot of allegiance to secrecy and that sort of thing. So I think in the beginning he probably saw him a bit as a turncoat and viewed him with a bit of suspicion and then saw the advantages that he could bring and now has clearly welcomed him.
REHMAndrew, you disagree?
WEISSWell, I agree that the Russians will never pass up an opportunity to portray what they love to call U.S. double standards where we stand for something and act differently. But in this particular instance, it was I think abundantly clear that this was a very big hot potato that the Chinese basically wanted off their plate and passed it to the Russians. And the Russians very eagerly welcomed him.
WEISSThey've now since tried to say, oh, well, we didn't really want him, or we didn't really want him to stay. But the reality is they wanted this propaganda benefit, and there does seem to be some modus vivendi between Russia and WikiLeaks. Julian Assange has a talk show on a state-sponsored television network. So the Russians like having WikiLeaks focused on the U.S. They don't want the focus on themselves. They seemed to have worked out a way to do that.
SESTANOVICHYeah. At first, this seemed like a winner to Putin. He had the opportunity to download everything from Mr. Snowden's computers. He had the opportunity to say -- these are words that actually passed his lips -- I will continue my struggle for human rights, showing himself as a great sympathizer with Snowden.
SESTANOVICHBut there has been a kind of briar patch effect in this. He got all the benefits at first and then had to really figure out how to get rid of Snowden, and he couldn't solve that problem. Now, I think it's almost entirely negative for him. He has had to accept a kind of mini crisis in Russian-American relations, and he's still stuck with Snowden. If they can get rid of him, I'm sure they would.
REHMSo, Stephen Cohen, why do you suppose that Putin repeated again and again that the only way he would grant asylum to Snowden was if Snowden promised not to release anymore anti-American secrets?
COHENOh, I think it's perfectly clear, and I think in the case of the Snowden affair, we can take Putin as his word, though, because of the demonization of Putin and the United States for several years that may be hard to do. Putin was very clear and I agree with Stephen Sestanovich's general about this that it was not a good deal for Putin. He referred to it in one meeting as a lousy Christmas present.
COHENBut nobody said when he spelled out the conditions to Snowden you cannot do anything while you're in Russia to damage our partners. He used the word partners. And the Russian leadership constantly uses the word partners to refer to the United States, and that is because they have business they want to conclude with the United States, with Obama. They are not partners with us, but they want to be partners with us. And Snowden is an enormous problem.
COHENI think it's important to explain why it is Putin could not turn Snowden over to the United States. And if Stephen Sestanovich is advising the White House, as I hope in this case he is, I think he would have told the White House don't expose President Obama with a demand that isn't going to be met because Putin could not return him for a very simple reason. Russia has its politics, and it would have made Putin look weak and, I'd say, even unpopular both in Russian society and the Russian political class. He was clear from the beginning he could not return him.
REHMAll right. And I'll have to stop you right there for a short break. Stephen Cohen is professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York and Princeton universities. Short break. Right back.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, we're talking about the current state of relations between the United States and Russia. President Obama announced last week he will not attend the summit meeting with Russian President Putin that was scheduled. He has canceled that for, apparently, many reasons and perhaps the latest being Edward Snowden and the release of NSA secrets. Andrew Weiss is here. He is with the Carnegie Foundation. Stephen Sestanovich is a professor at Columbia University.
REHMHe has a new book coming out. It's titled "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama." And Miriam Elder joins us from the NPR New York bureau. Stephen Cohen is professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York and Princeton Universities. He joins us by phone. Just before the break, Stephen Cohen, you were talking about the whole issue of why and how Edward Snowden got to Russia and what he's going to do.
COHENI would add to that only because I think there's things we don't know about the Snowden affair. But certainly in retrospect, had we not wanted Snowden to end up in Russia and I think Snowden himself did not want to end up in Russia -- he thought in the beginning when he left Hong Kong, he was on his way to Ecuador -- that we would have done two things differently. The United States would not have canceled his passport because that's what stranded him, at least in the first instance, in Moscow.
COHENAnd secondly, to repeat the point I made before, because there was no political chance whatsoever that Putin could or would hand over Snowden, President Obama should have not made that a kind of ultimatum, leading to the kind of hyperbolic rhetoric we're getting in Washington that Snowden's a traitor, that Obama would be weak or an appeaser if he went to Moscow.
REHMSo, Stephen Cohen, what do you think President Obama could have done differently?
COHENWell, I probably am the oldest person on this panel, which means I have a historical memory, and I'm also kind of utopian. But he could have guaranteed Snowden an absolute fair trial if he came home, which would have been because we have a model 30 years ago or so when Daniel Ellsberg took the Pentagon papers, if anybody's old enough to remember, they will remember that Ellsberg was out immediately on bail. He assembled an excellent defense team.
COHENHe had an open trial with subpoena powers. And he was acquitted, which in Snowden's mind is Bradley Manning. Now, I know he's in the criminal justice system, but nonetheless, given the way this country's justice system has changed when it comes to national security crimes, Snowden thought he'd be locked away. And I think he's right. Now we know his father is going to Moscow probably this week with an American lawyer. We know they're in negotiation with the Justice Department about on what conditions of a trial Snowden might get if he came home.
COHENBut from the beginning, that's what could have been done. But just let me remind listeners that instead, the attorney general of the United States said Snowden would not be tortured. That's kind of astonishing thing for an American who grew up thinking we don't torture people. And I don't think that was very encouraging to Snowden or his team. Now whether he would have come home or not on those conditions, I don't know. We may discover that very soon if he's given those guarantees.
COHENBut I don't think he will be because I don't think the administration or any administration in the area of intelligence would allow Snowden to have an open trial with the right to subpoena intelligence officials. So I think he's in Russia to stay for a while. And I think it was Steve perhaps who said that Putin would like to move him on to another country, so I would guess they're working on that, too.
SESTANOVICHYeah. There's no doubt that the Manning case added some complications in Snowden's mind. I think Steve Cohen doesn't put all the fact out here, though. The Russians did raise a question about the death penalty, and the American assurance was immediate that they would not seek the death penalty...
REHMYou're saying the question came before the response.
SESTANOVICHAnd the Americans said they would not seek the death penalty for Snowden. I don't think there is a question about a fair trial, but there is no doubt that the Obama administration has been seeking Snowden as a real criminal and did not want to give him any options that he might have to escape to a country where he would get asylum. And from that point of view, revoking his passport was a completely standard if now, we might think, maybe slightly counterproductive measure.
SESTANOVICHThey were not hoping he would end up in Ecuador. They were hoping he would be turned over to them for prosecution. Also, I think at the beginning, the American rhetoric is not quite the way Steve Cohen has described it. There was no ultimatum to Putin. They were saying, yes, they would like to have Snowden turned over to him.
SESTANOVICHBut the more vigorous rhetoric has come more recently where President Obama has talked about Cold War thinking and he's described Putin as a bored kid in the back of the class. That kind of lively talk that, you know, you get on "The Tonight Show" is a more recent part of this. I don't think it actually produced the Russian response.
ELDERWell, I think two things. First, I think the Obama administration's rhetoric from the beginning was pretty tough and they did create sort of ultimatums for the Russian government, and that's something the Russian government just doesn't respond to. If you demand that they do something, you can be sure they will do the exact opposite. But second, I think Stephen Cohen's comments were quite telling. You asked, what could the Obama administration have done to get Snowden back?
ELDERAnd his reply completely centered on what the U.S. should've done and granted they should've done a lot of things differently. However, not included in his reply was how could the U.S. have related to the Russians so that the Russians would've turned Snowden over? I don't think there's anything the U.S. could have done. The way that the U.S. and Russia relationship is right now is that Russia is just opposing itself to the U.S. in almost every situation that we could think of. I don't think that there was anything they could have done to have the Russians hand Snowden over to the U.S.
WEISSWell, if I could just jump in, I think that I'd sort of disagree with both Miriam and Professor Cohen. There's two points here. One is I think Steve Cohen's not totally being fair to describe the Russian view. Putin's not sitting around worrying about his domestic protocol constituency. This is a person who has approval ratings above 60 percent.
WEISSThe fact of the matter is is in the espionage world that he comes from, the big guarantee you can offer someone who works for you -- in this case, we don't want to assert that -- I'm not asserting that Snowden is working for the Russians -- is that you will protect them. And so the idea that the Russians would've, you know, willy-nilly handed someone over to the United States would basically make them a place that folks would not see as a potential sanctuary in the future.
WEISSSo the Russians don't have that to offer Putin -- I'm sorry -- don't have that offer to Snowden. As far as the things the U.S. had to offer the Russians, we have lots of people in the United States in custody right now that you could've traded. And for whatever reason the administration decided, for example, Viktor Bout, who's this great, famous arms dealer, the so-called merchant of death, there are people the Russians want back. But the administration, pretty early on, I think, closed that road off -- route off. And that's why there was no deal to be struck.
REHMSo, you know, we've been talking a great deal about Snowden. But surely, there are many, many more issues which divide the U.S. and Russia, human rights, being one of them. The summit meeting between the two would have taken place just one week before an election in which a leading dissident is running for mayor of Moscow. So how indicative of the human rights situation in Russia is that election, Stephen Sestanovich?
SESTANOVICHWell, it's interesting that the domestic political situation in Russia has kind of leapt to the top of the Russian-American dialogue. Steve Cohen talked about the way in which over the past five years, Russian-American relations have focused on concrete issues and made a lot of progress. And he's absolutely right about that. For the first three years, say, of the Obama administration, there was a focus on the practical national security issues: Afghanistan, Iran, arms control, reductions.
SESTANOVICHBut that was in a period where Russian politics was calmer. That's changed. With Putin's return, there is now an atmosphere of protest. There was, last year, a wave of demonstrations against his return to office. And you now are on the verge of a new election in Moscow in which the best known challenger to Putin is running for mayor.
SESTANOVICHThat will come a week after the G20 or the visit that President Obama would've made to Moscow and would again have emphasized how prominent domestic politics has become in the way we think about Russia. The Obama administration, at beginning, thought of Russia as a practical partner. Now, they think of them as a problem case where human rights and democracy are under challenge.
REHMIs Stephen Cohen correct when he says you are advising the White House?
SESTANOVICHOh, I talk to my friends in the administration when they call or email, and we exchange ideas. But I'm not an adviser to the administration.
REHMAll right. And, Stephen Cohen, how important do you believe this mayoral election to be?
COHENVery important. It's a long story, and we'll cut it to the quick. Navalny -- Alexei Navalny, the blogger who's become a kind of folk hero for the protestors in the street though he's become more controversial among them in recent weeks because he holds strong nationalist views and many of the protestors are liberals, in the American sense of the word, that they don't like radical nationalism because it focuses on ethnic questions, Russia, too, has a migration problem and Navalny has taken what you might call non-liberal positions.
COHENBut here's the issue: Navalny has been allowed to run for mayor of Moscow. There's no question that the regime permitted him to leave prison and come and do it because they want to give legitimacy to the current mayor of Moscow, Sobyanin, who, in all likelihood, will win. He has all the advantages. But Russia needs an opposition electoral politics.
COHENThe opposition needs to use whatever wiggle room there is in the Russian electoral system, and there is wiggle room not only in Moscow, but in the provinces, to run strong, compelling candidates against the regime's candidate. Navalny will not win, but if he gets, let us say -- he's now running at about 11 percent in the surveys. If he could get, let us just say, 20 percent, the opposition leaders, not the crazy ones who want the United States to bring democracy to Russia but the ones who understand that democracy is won at home alone, it will persuade them to focus on elections.
COHENAnd there are a lot of elections coming up in Russia, all across the country, for mayor, for local councils, for governorships. It will persuade them to do to turn to what is Russia's only hope for democratization and that is, is to enter the political system to the extent that the system permits. So Navalny has a chance to do something historic, and I hope he runs a good campaign, and I hope he gets 20 percent or even more because I think it'll be a turning point in Russian politics.
REHMStephen Cohen, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850, first to Vincent in Detroit, Mich. You're on the air.
VINCENTI love you -- I talked to you -- I listen to you so many times, so many days, Ms. Rehm...
REHMThank you. Thank you.
VINCENT...and to your guests. And I'm in tuned with Mr. Stephen Cohen. You know, I think our government has required Afghanistan leader Karzai to talk to the Taliban, al-Qaida. And yet, we can't talk to who we know -- consider Russia to be enemy like toward us. That doesn't seem quite so right. These are people who've had members killed in their families. And they are supposed to go out and talk to the children of their family members.
REHMAll right. Miriam Elder.
ELDEROh, I think it's important to note that it's not like the relationship has stalled entirely. It's not like the U.S. and Russia aren't talking. They've called off a meeting, the day after that the meeting or the day of the call off, you know, you had the defense and foreign ministers of Russia in D.C. speaking with their American counterpart. So the relationship isn't dead. It's just a symbolic meeting has been called off.
REHMSo what is that meeting? What was that meeting between Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel with their Russian counterparts expected to accomplish, Andrew?
WEISSWell, I think at the original game plan going back to April, first, you had President Obama's national security adviser then Tom Donilon going to Moscow with this letter from the president. And the letter sketched out a vision of issues where the two sides could cooperate through the balance of President Obama's second term.
WEISSThere were a series of meetings after that. And the capstone basically was supposed to be this meeting of the foreign and defense ministers. There are very big disputes on the table especially on the question of missile defense. The other big one is whether there should be a new arms control treaty for strategic nuclear weapons. And...
REHMAnd what about Syria?
WEISSSyria, I think, is an issue which is an irritant and which has caused a big source of problems. But the real issue is that the U.S. is basically not going to intervene in Syria, and there's a vacuum and so a variety of outside players to fill that vacuum. If the Americans were forceful and the U.S. policy were more forceful, I don't think you'd see Russia be the big stumbling block there is.
SESTANOVICHYeah. On Syria in May, Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov agreed on a conference that was supposed to bring the sides together. That's another example of the difficulty that the Russians and Americans have had in taking sort of vague agreement in principle and actually making it anything real. Since May, there has been really no progress in convening this meeting, and the sides remain pretty far apart. The United States still sees Russia as the biggest backer of the Assad regime in Syria.
REHMAll right. We'll take a short break here from our discussion about U.S.-Russia relations. When we come back, more of your calls, your email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the current state of U.S.-Russia relations which seem to be at a rather fragile point even though we've had President Obama saying he will not hold a summit meeting with President Putin after the G20. Nevertheless, you've had meetings between Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel with their counterparts trying to go over some of the more difficult issues. And there are many.
REHMHere is one from Catherine, who writes, "Would it be possible to address the crackdown on LGBT propaganda and the recent agitation against Russia by certain pop culture icons?" Stephen Sestanovich.
SESTANOVICHYeah, this is an issue that's going to make the Russians wish they could go back to the Snowden problem as the heart of Russian-American relations. In June, the Russians passed a law on what they called banning homosexual propaganda. The focus of it was any activities that they thought tried to make gay lifestyles attractive to children.
SESTANOVICHAnd this has been a source of concern in the gay community in Russia and now worldwide because it's seen as very vague and allowing lots of opportunities for persecution and discrimination. There are calls for boycotts of the Russian Olympics at Sochi in 2014.
REHMWhat has President Putin said about that?
SESTANOVICHPresident Putin has said, you know, there's no problem for gay adults who want to pursue their own lifestyles. They just have to avoid propaganda, which hasn't really clarified the issue very much. One of his senior deputies, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, last week said, absolutely no problem for gay and lesbian athletes coming to the Olympics as long as they don't mess with children.
SESTANOVICHThe Russians keep putting their foot in this one. They have now got the International Olympic Committee calling for clarification. European governments are up in arms. The German justice minister has called for a boycott of the Olympics. And, in fact, in Europe, in general, there is a kind of renewed suspicion and hostility toward Russia on the basis of human rights issues in general that is, in some ways, deeper than it is in the United States.
SESTANOVICHWe've talked a lot about Cold War rhetoric and so forth. But in Europe, there's a lot of reexamination of relations with Russia. Germany, in particular, used to be a solid partner of Russia. That has changed. And the gay legislation has contributed to it.
REHMMiriam Elder, speak to that gay issue, please.
ELDERWell, I think it's just sort of the most outlandish example of what's been happening in Russia more widely for the past year and a half since Putin returned to the presidency where you've had a crackdown on all sorts of groups of people. But what this does -- what it's important to note also is that there's this law. It's very vague. Russia has a lot of vague laws.
ELDERAnd you can already foresee some of the criticism of the criticism which is, well, it hasn't been applied that widely. Maybe it won't be applied. That's one issue. The second issue is that it creates an atmosphere of violence, of hate against gays all over the country, and we've seen an increase in violence. And I think that that even is more disturbing than the law itself.
COHENLordy, lordy. And I think Stephen Sestanovich is right. Putin would like to go back to Snowden. It's an odious law. But, first, gay folks in Russia will have to achieve full rights on their own. No outside country or power can do this for them. In fact, Western intervention on this will make the problem for gays in Russia worse because it'll fuse it with nationalism, which is already the main rising force in Russia to which I would add the following.
COHENAgain, I regret referring to my age, but I grew up in an America when there were much more repressing laws against gay people. The struggle was won by gays themselves, not by Germany or France or Russia. The struggle was here as with democracy. It's also the case that I once lived in England where they had very repressive anti-gay laws, which meant that gays were beaten, blackmailed, excluded unless they lived a closeted life from public life.
COHENYou might say, but I don't like to condescend Russia, the Russia, culturally, in terms of this sort of issue, is 30 years behind the Unites States. Those who think -- excuse me -- we've made great progress need to be reminded that of the 50 states, only eight permit gays to be married. The struggle goes on here. Gays here don't look to Europe or Russia to help them.
COHENThey know it's their struggle, and I would generalize that by saying that that's true of democracy. The more we intervene in Russia on civil liberties issues, the worse we make the situation. That has always been true. It remains true. So I regret this has happened, but I also wish they hadn't passed the law.
ELDERI think it's very easy as a white male to sit there and say, this is, you know, a close struggle. But through the history of the women's rights movement, through the history of the gay rights movement, this is a global struggle, especially in 2013. And there are, again, two issues. So, one, the Russian government's reaction to the Western attention but also, equally important, is, how do gays and lesbians inside Russia -- how do they feel when they know they're not alone?
ELDERWhen they know that they have a global community -- excuse me -- you know, putting their attention on them and standing there for them, they don't feel alone anymore. That's important.
COHENI need a senatorial courtesy here. I am a white male, but I grew up in a deeply segregated South in Kentucky. I lived under Jim Crow laws. I actually witnessed, when I was a very little boy, a lynching. I know for a fact that black folks in this country won their struggle for themselves with help of well-intentioned white people, but there is a history in the world, globalization apart, of how people win their rights.
COHENAnd by the way, when democracy began to come to Russia, which was under Gorbachev, in 1988, '89 and '90, it wasn't because of anything the United States did. It was because a leadership came to power, influenced its crew by developments in the West that opened the door, and that's the way it's going to happen in Russia.
SESTANOVICHYeah, I disagree with Steve Cohen a little bit about this. I think the history of the past 40 years is one in which human rights become an international issue, and there is a -- there are movements and groups all over the world interested in the protection of human rights in other countries. The Helsinki Final Act was about the defense of human rights and the obligations of governments to protect them. And for Soviet dissidents, that was a powerful agreement to hold their government to.
SESTANOVICHAleksandr Solzhenitsyn said once upon a time, you know, the Soviet leadership says don't interfere in our country. He said, my message to the West is come and interfere. Interfere as much as you possibly can. It made a big difference for Gorbachev that there was a history of dissident movement in the Soviet Union. And while there is no doubt about the kind of backlash that Steve Cohen describes, I think it's now kind of unrealistic to talk about these issues as though they happen only in individual countries.
WEISSWell, I just think it's important to remember, these issues are not coming up in a vacuum. And you see the anti-gay campaign, the anti-American campaign. They're wedge issues in the Russian culture wars and in the Russian domestic political context. They're winners for Putin for the most part domestically. So you've seen him use issues like this, where he can portray his opponents as un-Russian or unnatural or alien forces. And he's there -- you know, he's there out, you know, basically defending Ivan Sixpack. And this is effective and been very successful so far.
COHENWell, Andrew says that as though politicians in all countries don't campaign for John Ivan Sixpack. He reinforces my point that this is a struggle for Russia to fight. There are lot of good people in Russia, and they need to fight it. I'm sort of surprised about what Steve Sestanovich said because he and I both remember that civil liberties were a major issue during the last Cold War, a major issue. But I lived among Soviet dissidents from 1976 until they took away my visa in 1982.
COHENI never met any Soviet dissidents that thought our rhetorical interventions helped. And it's also the case that Gorbachev was inspired by people like Sakharov, a Russian. And it needs to be said that Solzhenitsyn changed his mind very quickly. He called for an end to Western intervention in Russia, and that was his view when he died a couple years ago at '89.
REHMAll right. Let me move on to another subject, and that is the Geneva conference. Will it make any progress on Syria, Stephen Sestanovich?
SESTANOVICHI think you'd have to say the odds are that it won't because right now the key factor is, what kind of pressure does the Assad regime feel under? Are its international backers telling it that it has to reach an accommodation, some sort of reconciliation with the opposition? And I don't think the Russians or the Iranians are saying that. It is not likely that the West is going to be intervening in a way that Russia or the Assad regime feels they've got to fend off. So a Geneva conference is likely to be a kind of diplomatic minuet. Let's hope it's better than that. So far, one can't be (word?).
REHMA diplomatic minuet, Stephen Cohen.
COHENPoliticians who seize an opportunity even, as Steve says, the odds are low against it succeeding are called leaders. Politicians who've been to public opinion to Cold War lobbies, who see -- that want to guarantee a success before they act, are not leaders. I think in this case President Obama has not been a leader. He'd been to the Cold War lobby in the United States, which is powerful.
COHENLet me remind you that during the Cold War, when things like this happened, we had a national debate. Congress was divided. The media was divided. Academics were divided. And there was a real debate. There's no debate today. Maybe it's beginning today on your broadcast, but there is -- it's one hand clapping.
COHENIf you look at Washington and you look at the media, the mainstream newspaper and talk show media, particularly on television, there is no dissent against what Obama did in cancelling the summit. No sense of a lost opportunity. And yet if you think of what's at stake, I mean, Syria is terrible situation, which could make everything worse. And remember one other thing.
COHENAfter the bombings in Boston, there was at last the dim awareness that we need Russia. We need to work with Russia on counterterrorism. And then there was the awareness that maybe the United States and Russia should try to do something about Syria. So those of us who wanted this kind of partnership were a little bit hopeful, and now it seems to be gone. These things go on, but the initiative has to come from the top, from Putin and Obama. That's called leadership.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take a call from Pembroke Pines, Fla. Don, you're on the air.
DONThank you, Diane. And I have a comment and a question for your guests. My comment is of the few remaining legitimate talk hosts left, you are the jewel in the crown.
DONAnd my question is concerned to what I perceive as the double standard of American justice. We have the outing of Valerie Plame some years ago by the former vice president, and this led to the destruction of our intelligence network in Iran and probably the death of many agents. But in contrast to what's happening with Edward Snowden, nothing has been mentioned about this. The former vice president seems to have a free ticket as far as American justice is concerned. I'd like your comments.
REHMAny thoughts, Stephen Sestanovich?
SESTANOVICHWell, I think it's interesting that the Obama administration has been much more vigorous than any previous administration in going after leakers. I know when I worked in government, we tore our hair at the articles that would appear routinely in newspapers disclosing classified information, and nothing ever seemed to happen about it.
SESTANOVICHAnd I guess there are -- there's a debate about what kind of consequences there are when the government gets involved in enforcing secrecy laws. But the -- there is no doubt the Obama administration is pretty serious about it in going after -- so I would predict that the caller is going to have more opportunities to get on this program and complain about exactly what he's talking about.
REHMFinally, to each of you, do you see the U.S. and Russia getting back on better footing over the next year? Andrew.
WEISSI think it's going to be very tough. I think if you look at what's important to the Obama administration, particularly on the strategic arms control and missile defense issues, the two sides are going to remain, I think, pretty far apart. The question is can you reprioritize U.S. foreign policy in a way so that we better connect with the issues that are important to the Russians.
ELDERI also think it's going to be difficult. Russia is just becoming less and less of a priority to the United States while the tension is on the Middle East, the tension is on Afghanistan. They just need Russia less and less, so I don't think it'll get much better.
SESTANOVICHI agree with Steve Cohen that the failure to develop an effective Russian-American partnership is a tragedy. I think Putin and his colleagues also are aware that they sometimes go too far. And I hope there is a discussion going on in the Kremlin now about whether they've overdone the hostility to the United States.
REHMAnd finally, briefly, to you, Stephen Cohen.
COHENI would answer your question with a question. We're 22 years since the end of the Soviet Union, we have no real sustained partnership and very little cooperation with Russia. Why is that 22 years later? And the answer in the United States is only Russia is to blame, Putin is to blame. Every story has another story. We need to look to the nature of American foreign policy toward Russia since the end of the Soviet Union because it still shapes administration policy.
COHENUntil that changes, there won't be anything for better.
REHMWe'll leave it there. Thank you all, Stephen Cohen, Miriam Elder, Stephen Sestanovich and Andrew Weiss for a very interesting and thoughtful discussion. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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