From Snowden to Syria: How does Putin look at the world?
Interview with Steven Pifer
QUOTE. “If you flipped the situation around, and we had a Russian version of Snowden stuck at Dulles International airport, we would not turn him over either” – Pifer.
Interview by Sahra-Josephine Hjorth with Steven Pifer, Director of the Brookings Arms Control Initiative. Pifer is senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. A former ambassador to Ukraine, Pifer’s career as a foreign service officer centered on Europe, the former Soviet Union and arms control. Pifer also had postings in London, Moscow, Geneva and Warsaw, as well as on the National Security Council. At Brookings, Pifer focuses on arms control, Ukraine and Russia issues.
TQT: Why did Russia pressure Snowden into canceling his Russian asylum request?
PIFER: In Russia, there are certainly some people who would like to hold on to Snowden, due to what he knows, and there are others who think that keeping him would be a distraction to US-Russian relations. Originally Putin suggested that he was in that second group, when he suggested that it would be good for Snowden to move on from Russia. However, one would think that if the Russians really wanted to get him out of there, they would have done so by now.
TQT: Internally in Russia, Putin always emphasizes that the US has no influence over Russian decisions. Is it a paradox if the US has exerted some sort of influence off the record?
PIFER: I don’t think any of us know what really goes on behind the curtain. The Snowden case has very much become about him being stuck in Moscow due to his not having a valid travel document, but the Russians likely could have produced such a document if they wanted to. It has been a mistake for Washington to raise this issue so publically. I was glad to see that Washington began to back off, at least publicly, because the fact is that the Russians are not going to arrest and return Snowden to the United States. It’s not going to happen, and I am sure that people here understand that. From a Russian perspective, he has broken no Russians laws. If you flipped the situation around, and had a Russian version of Snowden stuck at Dulles International Airport [the international airport servicing Washington DC, ed.], Washington would not turn him over either. Therefore I think it is in the best interest of both nations to let Mr. Snowden move on. Eventually he will be a problem for the US relationship with a nation other than Russia.
TQT: What characterizes the nature of the diplomatic relationship between Russia and the United States, and does the Snowden case signify a change in that relationship?
PIFER: It would be a mistake to read too much into the Snowden case in analyzing the broader diplomatic relationship between Russia and the United States – a relationship which however admittedly does have problems. Washington and Moscow, going back 35 years, have always been able to separate these kinds of situations from the rest of their relationship. I was stationed at the US embassy in Moscow from 1986-1988, and that was arguably a very positive time in Soviet-US relations. It produced the treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear missiles, and yet in 1986 we were busy expelling each other in large numbers. The current relationship between Russia and the US has some positive areas, but also some bumps. It is certainly better off than it was in 2008, where it was at its low point since the collapse of the Soviet Union. If you go back to the time of the Georgian-Russian conflict, the US had zero influence on Moscow; the Russians ignored all US protests and efforts to halt the conflict. Efforts to establish a reset were introduced by the Obama administration in 2009, and they were a success. The reason for the reset, as it was described to me, was that the US needed a better relationship with Russia, because there were key issues on which the Obama administration needed cooperation with Russia – such as arms control, Iran and Afghanistan. If you look at 2009-2010 and the new strategic arms reduction treaty was negotiated, and the Russians helped the US crank up pressure on Iran. The Russians also became more helpful in assisting US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, both with supplies over land routes and allowing the US air force to fly directly over Russia with lethal military equipment. By 2010 US-Russia relations were in a fairly positive place, but a couple of things have happened after that. One was the US and Russian presidential elections of 2012. Unfortunately, campaigns and presidential elections are usually not good for the relations between Moscow and Washington.
TQT: in which way do elections negatively impact the relationship?
PIFER: Putin knew that speaking of the US negatively would improve his domestic prospects. And Russia came up in the American elections as well, where Governor Romney said that Russia was the number one geopolitical threat to the US. Both the White House and Putin were focused on their respective elections, and there were not a lot of hands on-engagement at the top on the bilateral relationship. A couple of other factors are important as well: there are genuine differences between Moscow and Washington, especially over Syria and Putin’s increasingly repressive domestic policies, which make him a less attractive international partner. Yet there is a convergence of US-Russian interests in terms of arms control, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea, and the trick is to work on those issues where cooperation is possible, while managing disagreements on other issues.
TQT: Initially, do you think that the US government believed exerting power over Russia would result in them arresting and turning over Snowden?
PIFER: I think that they were smarter than that from the beginning, and would certainly hope that they did not expect that.
TQT: Then what is the advantage of playing with such open cards, debating the issues so publicly in the international media?
PIFER: From a US perspective, there are no advantages to having this issue debated publicly in the media, and that is why the executive branch of the government was unwise when it staked out such a public position in the first couple of days after Snowden’s arrival in Moscow. After 3 or 4 days they wisely revised their strategy and made it less of a public issue. They understand that the chances of Putin arresting and putting Snowden on a plane to the United States are zero. Now in Congress, you have had a certain amount of political grandstanding on both sides of the aisle, and even some senators suggesting that there should be sanctions, as a result, for Russia. But again, if the situation was turned around, and there was a Russian version of Snowden in Dulles Airport, there is no way that anyone here would argue for us sending him back to Moscow.
TQT: How much does internal crackdowns on civil society in Russia and the imprisonment of opposition leaders such a blogger Alexei Navalny matter to the US-Russian relationship?
PiFER: Although the US government has not been very vocal about it, I think it does matter. The US government would like to see democracy and strong human rights in Russia. But the government realizes that the US tools to impact democratization in Russia are very limited. Democracy won’t develop in Russia until you have a solid proportion of the population there which wants it. And so far we don’t see that. There will be pressures from Congress, the media and NGOs on the American administration not to engage with Russia, out of concerns about democratic repression – but that is not a persuasive argument for not engaging with Russia on questions that can advance US interests. That said, in the longer term, I believe we can have a more positive relationship with Russia, but it is hard to see the US and Russia ever having a truly friendly relationship unless Russia does begin to move in a more democratic way. Until then we will not have full confidence in them as a partner.
TQT: What role does it play that Russia still believe that they are a superpower?
PIFER: Yes, that is a part of the reason for Putin’s anti-Americanism. He deliberately chooses to portray the US as an external threat to Russia, and that is something which he believes motivates the Russian population to support his leadership. Clearly Putin has been very deliberate in choosing the US – a superpower – to portray as the threat, and not France or Italy. It goes to his self-image.
TQT: What is Putin’s dream scenario in Syria and how does it differ from what the US would define as the best outcome?
PIFER: I think there are several points which drive the Russian position on Syria. They attach a lot of importance to the idea of noninterference in other state’s affairs. It does not matter to them that Assad has killed 75-80.000 of his own countrymen, which is an internal matter in their view. There is a paranoid belief among some in Russia that if the principle of noninterference gets weakened, it’ll give other states carte blanche to interfere in Russia. That strikes me as a silly concern. A second point is when you are Russia, and you don’t have a lot of allies, you are very careful about protecting the ones that you do have. A third point behind the Russian position on Syria is a payback for Libya. The Russians did not block the UN Security Council Resolution on Libya in 2011, and Russia now feels that the US and the West stretched that resolution into actions that were not included in the mandate. The final point is that Russia wonders: “If Assad goes, who comes in behind him”? This is an argument I have some sympathy for, because no one in the West has a good answer to that, and the Russians can probably conceive of outcomes that are actually worse than Assad, whereas on the American side there is a view that Assad has crossed a line, and that he is not sustainable as a political leader and therefore has to go.
TQT: What are the Russian military-strategic interests in Syria?
PIFER: Syria has been the location of a Russian naval base for the last 20 years, and the facility has some value, though it is relatively small. But the last few months Russia has been talking about reestablishing their naval presence in the Mediterranean.
TQT: Last year I talked to Luke Harding from The Guardian [link], and he argued that a lot of Russian weapons are being used in Syria. Is that still the case?
PIFER: I think that the Syrian military uses a lot of Russian weapons which they have purchased in the past. What I don’t think we have a good fix on is whether the Russians are providing weapons now. Whether the Russians are going to sell the S-300 air-defense system to Syria is an interesting question. The West and Israel are putting pressure on Russia not to do so. It is not a system that you deliver overnight, as it is very advanced, and it takes quite a while before it is ready to deploy, so there may be some time to work on this issue still.
TQT: In May, Netanyahu rushed to Sochi, to stop Russian weapons trade to Syria. Did he achieve anything?
PIFER: I don’t think we can say what effect it had, because we don’t have a fix on what Russian weapons are going to Syria right now. I feel pretty confident that no S-300 has gone to Syria yet. The Israelis are watching that very closely, and we would have heard about it, if that was the case. The Israelis are concerned because such a missile in Syria could cover the northern part of Israel. Also, the S-300 systems are so large; you can’t just sneak them into the country unnoticed.
TQT: How has the conflict in Syria impacted the relationship between Russia and Israel?
PIFER: The relationship between Russia and Israel is certainly complicated but also very interesting, because something like 1/5 or a 1/6 of the Israeli population are Russian émigrés. The states that Russia has the closest relationships with in the Middle East are probably Syria, Iran and Israel. So clearly there are huge contradictions in the relationships between Russia and Israel and Russia and Iran and Russia and Syria. But so far the Russians seem to be able to manage that.
TQT: As long as there is some kind of support from Putin to the Assad regime, will the relationship to Israel deteriorate?
PIFER: Although the relationship is complex, I think it will be sustained. Again, the Russians are not going to be indifferent to what happens to a million Russians Jews living in Israel now. And I think that the Russians know that the Israelis will work that angle. Moreover, some in Israel likely share the Russian concern that what comes after Assad could be worse. How all this actually translates into specific outcomes we don’t know.
TQT: What is Putin’s attitude towards the Arab Spring?
PIFER: The Russians have been nervous about the Arab Spring from the beginning in Tunisia. Their concern is that the governments will be replaced by governments that are more Islamic, more radical or more anti-Russian. And the Russians will look at this from the perspective that they have a significant proportion of the Russian population which is Muslim. So there is a concern that if radical extremist groups get a hold of governments in the Middle East, how will these groups affect what is going on in Russia?
TQT: So it is no so much a concern that protests and demands for democratization will spread to Russia, and result in an overthrow of the government, but a fear of Islamic radicalization in Russia?
PIFER: Yes, the main concern is how the Arab Spring will influence Muslims in Russia. Looking at the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Tulip Revolution in Tajikistan and the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya and Syria, some Russians incorrectly connect the dots and conclude this is not about populations being unhappy with their governments, but that this is an American masterminded plot which is ultimately targeted at boxing Russia in, and perhaps even testing out means which could be used in Russia. That strikes me as a paranoid way to look at the outside world and the events of the last ten years, but a number of senior Russians seem to believe that.
TQT: What role does fear of domestic terrorism play in the formation of Russia’s attitude?
PIFER: There is a concern that if you get radical Islamic states established in the Middle East, will they then begin to assist the northern Caucasus, where the formation of radical Islamic groups has taken place already.
TQT: This weekend, Putin stated that Egypt is on the brinks of a civil war, resembling Syria. Why is Egypt on Putin’s mind?
PIFER: I think this is Putin’s way of saying “Look what the Arab Spring has produced. It is producing conflict, unrest and the potential rise in extremist groups”. That fits into Putin’s narrative, that the Arab Spring has not been a good thing, especially for Russian interests.
ILLUSTRATION: Putin in 2009 [Shutterstock/Degtyaryov Andrey]