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President Putin Responds to Cheney Critique

May 10, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: In his seventh national address since taking office, Russian President Vladimir Putin today responded to new U.S. criticism and defended Russian strength.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, President of Russia (through translator): In absolute figures, Russia’s defense spending is half of those countries, and there is no comparison whatsoever to that of the United States of America, whose military budget, in absolute figures, is almost 25 times as high as that of Russia.

This is what is described in the defense sphere as “Their home is their fortress.” Good for them. Good for them. This also means that we should be making our own home stronger and more reliable because we see what is happening around the world.

GWEN IFILL: Vice President Cheney offered the Bush administration’s sharpest criticism of Russia last week, accusing Putin of backsliding on democratic ideals within and outside its borders.

RICHARD CHENEY, Vice President of the United States: Other actions by the Russian government have been counterproductive and could begin to affect relations with other countries.

No legitimate interests is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation or blackmail, either by supply manipulation or attempts to monopolize transportation. And no one can justify actions that undermine the territorial integrity of a neighbor.

GWEN IFILL: In his speech today, Putin did not respond to the vice president by name, but he did suggest that the escalating U.S. Criticism is driven by its own self-interest.

VLADIMIR PUTIN (through translator): Comrade Wolf, so to speak, knows whom to eat. It eats without listening and is clearly not going to listen to anyone.

GWEN IFILL: Russian media criticized Cheney for faulting Putin on democracy while using the same trip to visit oil-rich Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic.

RICHARD CHENEY: And America has tremendous confidence in your future as a successful, independent, sovereign and prosperous nation.

GWEN IFILL: Kazakhstan’s president was overwhelmingly elected last December in a vote the State Department later said fell short of a number of international standards.

Putin’s address today was the latest in a series of events that have rattled U.S.-Russia relations. They’ve eroded since 2001, when Mr. Bush said he could get a sense of Mr. Putin’s soul.

In April, the Kremlin cracked down on private groups advocating human rights and democracy. In the midst of one of Europe’s coldest winters, the Russian energy company Gazprom cut supplies running through Ukraine to the West.

Russian leaders opposed the U.S. by defending the recent reelection of the dictatorial leader of Belarus. And this week at the United Nations, Russia has joined with China to resist efforts to chide Iran for enriching uranium.

Now on the horizon, a meeting of the group of eight industrial nations planned for July in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Turning a cold sholder

Stephen Sestanovich
Council on Foreign Relations
Russia doesn't have the kind of status that it did in the immediate aftermath of September 11th.

GWEN IFILL: And so it could be a tense few months between now and the St. Petersburg meeting. To help explain why, we turn to Stephen Sestanovich, a member of the National Security Council during the Reagan administration. He also served as ambassador at-large for the former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration. He's now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And Anna Vassilieva, head of the Russian studies program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She is a native of Russia and now an American citizen.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. Sestanovich, first Vice President Cheney, then President Putin today. What is all this back-and-forth about?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, it's not about the Cold War coming back. I do think, you know, it was inevitable that Putin would have somewhat a jab or two in response to Cheney's criticisms. But what Cheney is talking about is not making Russia an enemy, more about ceasing to view Russia as, you know, a clear ally, clear friend, clear partner.

There has been a lot of disappointment about the internal evolution of Russia and about the ability to cooperate with Russia on crucial international issues. Russia doesn't have the kind of status that it did in the immediate aftermath of September 11th.

But, as the vice president said last week, they don't think Russia is fated to be an enemy, and they don't want Russia to be an enemy.

GWEN IFILL: But the vice president's comments were calibrated very carefully to send a message to Russia?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Well, I think the view is that, if President Bush is going to go to the G-8 in St. Petersburg, under the chairmanship of President Putin, he can't look as though he's treating President Putin as just another member of the club. He's got to be -- the administration wants to be telling the truth about what's going on in Russia.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Vassilieva, what do you make of, first, the vice president's speech last week and Mr. Putin's response today?

ANNA VASSILIEVA, Monterey Institute of International Studies: Well, I can only relay the opinions of the Russian analysts. And I can add my own opinion.

And, certainly, the uniform opinion in Russia in regards to Mr. Cheney's remarks was not just the feeling of outrage of some sort, but also amazement, because watching the more intensifying anti-Russian rhetoric in the United States, Russians keep thinking, and saying it out loud now: Do Americans really want to look at the objective information and data? Do they want to understand what's happening in Russia?

And the ultimate question is: Do they want Russia to be their friend and partner or do they want Russia to be their enemy?

And the conclusion that they keep coming to recently is that there is a goal that is set by the administration and some other circles in the United States to turn Russia into an enemy.

Building a partnership

Anna Vassilieva
Monterey Institute
Russians keep thinking, and saying it out loud now: Do Americans really want to look at the objective information and data? And the ultimate question is: Do they want Russia to be their friend and partner or do they want Russia to be their enemy?

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you, and follow up on that, because there are three major issues which are being discussed. There's access to oil and gas has been curtailed by the Russian government to the West, to Western Europe; that there has been backsliding on democracy; and that Russia has been less than cooperative with U.N. efforts to work up to sanctioning Iran.

Are those being blown out of proportion, in your opinion?

ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, they're not really blown out of proportion, but they're based on a lot of information that often is misrepresented or twisted. And Russia, as well as the United States, does not want Iran to have nuclear weapons.

It's obvious that the goals of the two countries are the same and the difference is in the means of how to get to this goal. So Russia continues to insist that there should be diplomatic means and that Iran needs to be worked with. That's your third point.

As to the energy supply, well, the United States was the country that instructed Russian government in the '90s to act towards market practices, according to market practices.

And Russia did not stop supplying gas to Europe. It stopped supplying gas to Ukraine, and Ukraine admitted that it was taking the gas that was actually directed towards Europe to use it for its own needs. So the question is very complex, and I also wouldn't oversimplify it, as it's done in the media.

And, you know, in general, I should say that there is a lot of decision-making that is happening too quickly. And the people forget about the goal of U.S.-Russian relations. And the goal is not to bring the situation to another Cold War, and the goal is to sit and look: What can we do to turn Russia into our partner? And the rhetoric that we've been hearing and reading recently does not help.

Big brother in Europe?

Stephen Sestanovich
Council on Foreign Relations

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Mr. Sestanovich about energy security, oil, and Iran, in particular. Does Ms. Vassilieva have a point in that the United States is basically overreacting?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Well, I think, you know, the most affected countries by the use of Russian energy as a political lever or potential political lever were the Europeans. And the United States, actually, is not immediately affected.

Their reaction has been one of horror, great shock that, you know, the idea of reliable commercial relations in energy would be subordinated to a Russian desire to put pressure on its neighbor. And I think that shock is actually not gone away.

For the Europeans, energy security is a big, big issue. And it's, of course, become more of an issue for the United States as our dependence grows and as prices grow.

The issue of Iran has been a disappointing one for the administration, because it hoped that they could get the major powers to agree to put pressure on Iran. And what's happened is that the Russians and the Chinese have basically tried to slow this down.

It's not absolutely clear yet that the Russians will say they will not cooperate. But, so far, they have been the dissenters and have been trying to ease pressure on Iran, and that's been frustrating to the administration.

Interference vs. mixed signals

GWEN IFILL: Let me read a quote to you, first to you, Mr. Sestanovich, and then to you, Ms. Vassilieva, from two important world leaders. For you, I ask you to respond something that was said by Mikhail Gorbachev, who said of Cheney's speech, of Vice President Cheney's speech, that "it looked like provocation and interference in Russia's internal affairs." Was it?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Well, I think it was an attempt to catch up with, in American political official rhetoric, with a broad perception that, over the past several years, Putin has rolled back democracy, sort of stamped out pluralism, set Russia on a different, more authoritarian political course.

An American president can't treat a country that is going in that direction as just another member of the club. And any American president would react to that in a negative way. And what the administration was trying to do was to reflect concerns that are virtually unanimous among, you know, outside governmental circles.

GWEN IFILL: And, Ms. Vassilieva, I would like you to respond to something that President Bush said to a German newspaper, in which he said that Russia is sending "mixed signals that cause us to question their commitment to whether or not they intend to become a true democracy." Your response?

ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, it is very upsetting to me to hear these constant references to true democracy. And in order to respond, I will take a few seconds to bring our viewers here back into the end of the Cold War and the story that Cold War was won by the United States of America.

Russia was on its knees in the '90s as a result of it. Russian statehood was destroyed. Russian nationhood was destroyed. The majority of the people had an extraordinary difficult circumstances, having lost their system of values, their savings, material savings, education, medical health, everything that they had for them before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So what happened in the early -- when Mr. Putin came to power, he had to put that state together. And putting the state together and the nation together does require some changes.

Obviously, those changes were not pleasant to a very tiny minority of Russian population. Obviously, there is an enormous amount of problems that Putin is facing now, and he doesn't handle them as well or the way I would like them to be handled.

But, again, let me tell you: The ultimate goal for the United States is to figure out how Russia can be a partner, because this is in the U.S. national interest. And all this negative misrepresentation rhetoric is not in the U.S. National interest.

The government can react to it, certainly, but they must be experts who would look at the data, who would look at the data, the polling that is collected in Russia, look at the opinions of Russian citizens, and try to understand what is really happening in Russia, and how can the United States really help to have Russia on its side, so that we can deal with the vital issues that the world has to deal with now together.

GWEN IFILL: We will have to leave it there for tonight. I'm sure we will revisit it. Anna Vassilieva and Stephen Sestanovich, thank you both very much.