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Russian-U.S. Relations: Lots of Questions, Not Many Answers


How did Vladimir Putin go from being a pragmatic leader the West could work when he was president of Russia the first time to one whose nationalist tendencies have driven Russian/West relations to their lowest point in decades?

Will sanctions against Putin’s inner circle succeed in provoking regime change? And if so, will Putin’s replacement be any better?

A lively panel discussion on Monday, Sept. 22 at Fordham’s School of Law, laid bare the bind that the U.S. and its allies face when it comes to how to deal with Russia in the years ahead.

“Back to the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations,” featured Stephen Sestanovich, Ph.D., professor at Columbia University, Kimberly Marten, Ph.D., professor at Barnard College, and Mark Galeotti, Ph.D., professor at New York University. Stephen Holmes, Ph.D., professor at New York University School of Law, served as moderator.

Panelists spent a great deal of time debating the best way to counter the sway that Putin exerts on the Russian elite. His decision to annex Crimea and send troops into Eastern Ukraine, are clearly meant to be challenges to international institutions such as the United Nations, which Galeotti noted he despises for being too dominated by Western interests.

“From Putin’s point of view, he’s happy to see Russians sacrifice their day-to-day quality of life, if in the process they regain some sort of Russian-ness,” he said.

“He wants to ensure that Europe is not in a position to flout Russian interests within what he regards as Russian’s sphere of interest.”

The biggest disagreement revolved around sanctions that the United States and Europe have recently imposed on Russian businesses and leaders.

Martin argued that it’s not clear what Russia would have to do to get them lifted, it’s not clear whether any of the things we would like Russia to do are possible, and for them to be successful, they have to be as severe as those that are currently being imposed on Iran.

“In terms of what the goal is in Russia, it’s not clear either. Is it to separate Putin from his networks so that they’ll put pressure on him? Who would provide for their needs better than Putin is providing for them?” she said.

“It’s just cementing a really ugly form of anti-west nationalism, that now the west is once again picking on us, so let’s all get together on this.”

Sestanovich said if there’s something wrong with sanctions, it’s that there haven’t been enough of them.

“It seems to me that we should also establish the precedent that serious cooperation is possible. We shouldn’t write that off,” he said.

Martin cautioned that a replacement for Putin might be no better than he is; a point that Galeotti took issue with. He noted that Nikita Kruschev and Margaret Thatcher are good historical examples of times when countries’ elites judged their leader to be a problem rather than an asset, and forced them to step down.

“I’m not sure the next person is likely to be worse. We’re not talking about Libya. We’re not talking about a place where we bomb the snot out of countries and hope suddenly that democratic leaders rise from the rubble,” he said.

At the same time, all the panelists agreed that Russia’s foray into Eastern Ukraine illustrated a stunning level of over-reach on Putin’s part. Sestanovich said that had Russia only seized Crimea, it probably would have gotten away with it, while
Marten noted that the incursion had re-invigorated the NATO alliance, which isn’t in his interest.

It helps to remember that Putin’s a judo master, not a chess player, she said, because judo masters go into every round as if it’s a new one.

“To be the winner of a judo match, you don’t have to be the stronger person, you have to be the cleverer person. You have to know more about your opponent more than your opponent knows about you, and have to get your opponent to fall from his own weight,” she said.

“I believe that’s how Putin approaches every interaction with the west, and so I don’t think even he knows what how long term strategy is in Ukraine.”

The evening was sponsored by the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and PEN America.


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