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The U.S.-Russian Relationship

May 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: The elaborate Red Square ceremonies today celebrating 60 years since the end of World War II evoked memories of the bygone communist era. But the assemblage of world leaders joining Russian President Vladimir Putin brought back memories of the wartime alliance against Hitler.

Still, the presidents of several countries, including neighboring Estonia and Lithuania, stayed home; they were angry that Putin had refused to acknowledge that the defeat of the Nazis was followed by their being swallowed up by the Soviet Union. President Bush took a seat of honor beside the Russian president at the festivities.

And last night all appeared friendly as Bush took the wheel of Putin’s vintage car after one-on-one talks at the Russian leader’s country house.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I’m having so much we’re going for another lap.

SPENCER MICHELS: No joint press conference was held. The camaraderie came after the two traded barbs over the weekend. Before going to Moscow, President Bush visited the once Soviet-occupied Latvia, where he appeared to side with the Baltic states’ view that the Soviets were occupiers after World War II. He also said that the U.S. was partly to blame for the division of Europe after the war.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: When powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable of its own contradictions. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.

SPENCER MICHELS: But the president warned Putin against meddling in the former Soviet republics.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: All the nations that border Russia will benefit from the spread of democratic values and so will Russia itself. Stable, prosperous democracies are good neighbors trading in freedom and posing no threat to anyone.

SPENCER MICHELS: And President Bush advised Putin against squelching democracy in Russia.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In the long run, it is the strength of Russian democracy that will determine the greatness of Russia.

SPENCER MICHELS: During an interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes last night, Putin pointed out that President Bush shouldn’t lecture him about democracy when the 2000 election was decided by the Supreme Court.

VLADIMIR PUTIN (Translated): Four years ago, your presidential election was decided by the court. But we’re not going to poke our nose into your democratic system because that’s up to the American people.

SPENCER MICHELS: Today, President Bush became the first U.S. President to visit the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia where he met newly elected President Mikhail Saakashvili. Georgia is another country that refused to attend today’s celebrations in Moscow.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: What did President Bush’s presence in Moscow today and his contentious words on the way there tell us about the state of the U.S.-Russia relationship? To explore that, we turn to two seasoned Russia-watchers. Stephen Cohen is a professor of Russian studies and history at New York University and Michael McFaul is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate professor at Stanford University. Welcome back to the broadcast, both of you.

Professor Cohen, I’ll begin with you. As we know, President Putin really pressed many foreign heads of state to come to that ceremony today. And more than 50 obliged. Why was that so important to him?

STEPHEN COHEN: I think you begin by asking why it was so important to Russians in general. For most of the Russians I know — and I’m sure those that Michael knows — and the Russians who are polled, the Soviet-Russian victory over Nazi Germany in World War II is about the only positive page of modern history that most Russians have left. And, therefore, they want us to not only recognize it, but pay homage to it. So this event and all these foreign leaders coming was important to Russians.

For Putin in particular though, I think there were other things. He wanted to show through this event that Russia could be a unifier in world affairs. And, secondly, he wanted to show through remembrance of the great Soviet-Russian victory over Nazi Germany that Russia today is a legitimate state. And the irony is he didn’t get either, I think. The event turned out to be, as we all know, highly divisive and many of the historical polemics that preceded the events today on Red Square challenged Russia’s political legitimacy. On balance then, I think in terms of Putin’s expectations, he took a hit.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think he took a hit?

MICHAEL McFAUL: Yes, he did. I mean, he wanted this to be a big celebration. Professor Cohen is exactly right. This is a major, major historical event that the Russians want to capture for their own history. And yet because of the different interpretations and the gross interpretations, I would say, that both Mr. Putin and some other Russian commentators speculated in terms of World War II, it forced everybody else to offer their own interpretations and, therefore, by the time these world leaders got to Moscow, it wasn’t this great celebration; it was who’s writing history for whom and some had to be left out of that history in those celebrations as a result of all that acrimony.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Steve Cohen, of course as we know also it was a little bit controversial that President Bush was going. I don’t know if many viewers remember but when President Clinton was in Moscow for the same event ten years ago he pointedly stayed inside the hotel and did not go to the military parade to protest Chechnya. How hard was it — how delicate a line, a balancing act, did President Bush have to walk to oblige President Putin and come?

STEPHEN COHEN: Is that to me, Margaret?


STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I mean, Michael raised the fundamental issue. What you have here — and this is what made the whole thing so difficult — is that each country that participated in World War II has its own historical truth about World War II. And the problem is in significant measure those truths are true.

I mean it’s true, for example, — this is what we’re discussing — that the Soviet-Russian army, though I wasn’t taught this when I was growing up in Kentucky, it was the Soviet-Russia Army that destroyed the Nazi military machine from Russia to Berlin. And along the way it liberated Eastern Europe, but then it became an occupying force. So Russia wants to remember that one historical truth, not the other.

The Baltic countries on the other hand want to remind us that after the war the Russians occupied them, so poor President Bush is caught in this grip of historical truths. And what he did was try to try to balance it. You all know what happened. He went to Latvia and he embraced the Latvian version of history. Then he went to Moscow and he embraced the Russian version of history. And now today I guess he’s in Georgia embracing the Georgian version of history. And the problem is and to some degree all these versions are significantly — at least for the people of those countries, nobody is lying — sincerely true.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think he threaded the needle successfully, Professor McFaul, or do you think he sent a mixed message.

MICHAEL McFAUL: He tried very hard, and I applaud him for doing so. I think it was absolutely right to go to Latvia before Moscow, and I think it sends a terrific message to the region that President Bush is now in Georgia. This is really the big event of this entire trip.

MARGARET WARNER: Even though we should point out the Soviet – I mean, the Russian foreign minister wrote a letter to Condoleezza Rice protesting this.

MICHAEL McFAUL: Yeah, outrageously so as if President Bush has to get travel orders approved by Moscow, and so all the more reason why he should go and not be apologetic for going.

That said he was trying to have this mixed message, and I thought it by the way very important that President Bush went out of his way to say perhaps we made mistakes in our history in Latvia. That opened the door for President Putin to do the same to have a mixed message in this history and he didn’t take it. That was the first thing that he did very well.

What he didn’t do well in my opinion is to go to Moscow and just focus on the past and not the present. The fact of the matter is, as you rightly pointed out, that there is a grotesque war going on in Chechnya today. Ten years ago, I happened to be living in Moscow then, it was a major debate whether President Clinton should show up. And he decided not to, to show some acknowledgment that this other thing is going on. Ten years later, you’re not seeing that kind of demonstrations, if you will.

And I just thought it sent kind of a strange message to be on one day saying, we’re really concerned about democratic rollback in Russia and the next day in the car as if nothing, you know, they’re driving around in this car and they were just a little too chummy to try to get across the message that we are concerned about what’s happening inside Russia today, not the history but today.

MARGARET WARNER: But Professor Cohen, as you pointed out, Putin pushed back on all the points that President Bush had raised in Latvia, which raises the question, how many impact, how much leverage today does Washington really have with Moscow, does President Bush really have with President Putin?

STEPHEN COHEN: Apart from Putin — and let’s don’t reduce Moscow to Putin because Putin has a political class, a political elite and his standing in that political elite is sinking — but apart from Bush’s influence on Putin personally, our influence on Russian politics today if there is such a thing is less than zero. In fact it’s negative.

Michael and I would disagree about this. I believe that our deep intervention into internal Russian affairs and along Russia’s borders and the encirclement of Russia with American and NATO military bases and even the symbolism, I would say, of President Bush in Georgia today embracing Saakashvili, this with understandable cause, is grieving the Russians greatly and driving them ever more away from us. And they do have other places to go. I mean they don’t have to orient their foreign policy on the United States. There is, for example, China, Iran and India.

MARGARET WARNER: And he said you would disagree. Disagree?

MICHAEL McFAUL: Yeah, I do disagree. I don’t believe in the sovereignty of states. I believe in the sovereignty of individuals. I don’t think that there is a Russian view on the west. I think there are many Russian views on the west. Therefore —

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean do you think that Washington still has influence with Moscow or that what President Bush says and does still can influence President Putin on some of the issues that Washington cares about?

MICHAEL McFAUL: Well, we don’t have a lot of leverage. And here we actually I think we would agree that our leverage is very limited given the history of the post Communist experience in Russia. It was much great era decade ago. That said, I think we tend to underestimate our leverage all the time. We did it before the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. We did it before the Rose Revolution. We did it before the Serbian Revolution in 2000 when everybody said we didn’t have a lot of leverage.

But, no, actually speaking the truth about democracy and reaching out to democrats in those societies was in the margins important for democratic renewal there. If we can do it there, I don’t see why we shouldn’t at least attempt to try to do it within Russia as well.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do you think, staying with you for a minute Professor McFaul, that this trip advanced — I mean, the U.S. has a lot of interests with Russia: Proliferation of dangerous weapons being one and terrorism, and as well as democracy within Russia — do you think this trip advanced, retarded or made no difference on that front?

MICHAEL McFAUL: I don’t think it made a big difference. I mean there was no agenda. There were no deliverables, as our State Department colleagues like to say. They didn’t sign any documents. They didn’t talk about that. If anything, it was just a kind of holding pattern, stable but stagnant is the way I would describe it.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Cohen, how would you describe it? What do you think this trip did to advance, if it did, the larger plate of U.S. interests with Russia?

STEPHEN COHEN: I think we have only one common interest with Russia of any significance. And that is the two of us now live because of the collapse of the Soviet-Russian state in a much more dangerous world, much more dangerous because all the controls that the Soviet Union exerted over weapons of mass destruction barely exist. And therefore, what we need from Russia is cooperation in dealing with these problems. President Bush said something very interesting, and it could be the subject of a debate that we’re not going to have this evening, but President Bush said that democracy is more important than stability. And I would guess that Michael agrees.


STEPHEN COHEN: I profoundly disagree.

MICHAEL McFAUL: You’re right.

STEPHEN COHEN: At this moment in our time, at this moment in our time, we are living on a nuclear razor’s edge. And we must have stability in Russia. We must not pursue a policy that destabilizes Russia. And I think that’s what we’re doing.

MARGARET WARNER: But would you agree that Russia or would you agree that Russia has not been 100 percent cooperative on, for instance, on selling, its still selling nuclear technology to Iran, its selling missiles to Syria?

STEPHEN COHEN: It won’t allow our inspectors at their nuclear sites. But, look, Margaret, if you say to somebody you’re a rotter, and you’re an anti-democrat and you have no legitimate interest even among neighboring states and, oh, by the way that oil that used to be yours, we’re going to take it now, but by the way, how would you feel about us coming into your country and looking around and won’t you please let us exert some control over your nuclear arsenals — you’re not going to get cooperation. What you’re going to get is a negative reaction. And it’s spreading all through the Russian political class against us. And, therefore, I think it’s not in our national security interest.

MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Cohen, Michael McFaul, we have to leave it there. Thank you.