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New Friends: U.S. and Russia Relations

November 15, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN (Translated): We in Russia have known for a long time that Texas is the most important state in the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: After meeting for three days, Presidents Bush and Putin had clearly developed a more informal relationship, and, they told high school students near Mr. Bush’s Texas ranch, a deeper one as well.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: When I was in high school, Russia was an enemy. Now the high school students can know Russia as a friend, that we’re working together to break the old ties, to establish a new spirit.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN (Translated): Yesterday we tasted steak and listened to music, and all of this with a single purpose and objective to increase the level of confidence between the leaders and the peoples.

MARGARET WARNER: Their meetings opened Tuesday in Washington against the backdrop of America’s war on terrorism; a war President Putin has solidly supported.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN (Translated): We consider this threat as a global threat indeed, and the terrorists and those who will help them should know that the justice is inescapable, and it will reach them wherever they try to hide.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Russia and America share the same threat and the same resolve. We will fight and defeat terrorist networks wherever they exist.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Bush also pledged Tuesday to slash U.S. nuclear warheads by two-thirds, a promise Mr. Putin would match later that night.

Yesterday the talks moved to Mr. Bush’s ranch, a day capped off with a barbecue and country music.

But at their final joint appearance today, it was clear the two men hadn’t resolved their thorniest disagreement, that’s over Mr. Bush’s plan to build an anti-missile shield, which would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, that Mr. Putin wants to preserve.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We have a difference of opinion, but the great thing about our relationship is, our relationship is strong enough to endure this difference of opinion.

And that’s the positive development– that we’ve found many areas in which we can cooperate, and we’ve found some areas where we disagree; but nevertheless, our disagreements will not divide us as nations that need to combine to make the world more peaceful.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Putin said he and Mr. Bush shared the same security goals, even if they don’t see eye to eye on how to achieve them.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN (Translated): And given the nature of the relationship between the United States and Russia, one can rest assured that whatever final solution is found, it will not threaten or put to threat the interests of both our countries and of the world, and we shall continue our discussions.

MARGARET WARNER: To assess the Bush-Putin meetings and just how much the U.S.-Russia relationship has changed, we’re joined by James Schlesinger, who was Secretary of Defense for Presidents Nixon and Ford; and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser for President Carter. Welcome, gentlemen.

Well, just how new a relationship is this, Mr. Schlesinger, now that these two presidents have found a common enemy?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: Well, the developments in Afghanistan are more spectacular but this is more significant in the long run.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean this relationship?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: This relationship. We’ve passed a watershed. What is clear is that President Putin has decided to cast his lot in with the West and with the United States.

He’s bucking or leading public opinion in Russia, and he will probably need some goodies to carry off the support of the Russian people. But the net effect of this will be to lead to an end to some of the residue of the Cold War.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it, Mr. Brzezinski?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think it’s part of a process of change that has been taking place in Russia since 1990.

You know, five years ago, President Clinton and President Yeltsin talked about the new mature, strategic partnership between America and Russia. And this trend has continued with ups and downs.

It hasn’t been precipitated just by Sept. 11. It’s been going on. And it’s been going on because the Russian elite is gradually shedding its imperial nostalgia, it’s realizing it really doesn’t have a choice.

It’s in a very bad geopolitical situation — China to the East, Muslims to the South. And last but not least, because we have pursued policies which have consolidated American presence in Europe and enlarged NATO but held open the door to Russia.

And I think President Bush is handling it very intelligently. He’s being very friendly, very accommodating, very constructive but not making concessions that would reawaken some of the old aspirations. So I think it’s moving in the right direction.

MARGARET WARNER: But you feel, Mr. Schlesinger, that Sept. 11 provided an opening for Putin to do what he’s… to accelerate perhaps this process that Mr. Brzezinski’s talking about.

JAMES SCHLESINGER: I think that’s right, not only for Russia, but there’s been some rapprochement between China and the United States. The Europeans have rallied around us. That has been a dramatic event. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. These were tragic developments on Sept. 11, but nonetheless they have helped American foreign policy.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s hard to underestimate, isn’t it, Mr. Brzezinski, how much Russia’s support has meant for the Bush Administration in the early days of this war on terrorists.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It’s been important, and the Russians have given us help in intelligence, and that was very good. And they initially were quite hesitant in fact about our access to Central Asia, even four days after Sept. 11, the Russian defense minister was objecting to it, but they…

MARGARET WARNER: In their former states?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: In the former area. But the Presidents of the Central Asian states came to us and said, “please come in.” And Mr. Putin accommodated.

I think their presence in Tajikistan, the Russian presence in Tajikistan was a factor which led Tajikistan to be helpful to us and now we’ll have airfields in Tajikistan, and that’s important.

But most important of all, it created a sense of global solidarity with us. And that is important.

But as I said earlier, we shouldn’t see this as something that developed in the last eight weeks. It’s the consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of an entire historical era in Russia’s past, the imperial age, and it’s a process of adjustment to Russia being a normal state, eventually a European state.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Schlesinger, what do you think President Putin expects, can expect, should expect from the Bush Administration on terrorism in terms of, say, political cover for Chechnya and for their conflict in Chechnya?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: Well, I think it’s plain that the administration has eased American rhetoric with regard to Chechnya.

The reality is that the Chech — the Chechen regime is the only regime in the world now that recognizes the Taliban. There has been a flow of money and arms into Chechnya from those states, and we have a greater understanding, not necessarily of sympathy for Russian tactics, but a greater understanding of the threat that exists in the country.

MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, this situation in a way has persuaded Americans or the American Administration that the Russians were right at least when they said that this was… Chechnya was partly fueled at least by sort of global terrorists, Islamic terrorists network.

JAMES SCHLESINGER: There is no question that has been supported from abroad, from the Islamic world and, also, that there were buildings in Moscow that were bombed, and we now have a greater empathy for the Russians — for the Muscovites since they were bombed.

MARGARET WARNER: Turning, Mr. Brzezinski, to nukes and missile defense, the other big topic that was on the table. Before this meeting, President Putin seemed to signal in interviews and so on that he was willing to compromise on missile defense, that the U.S. might be able to proceed with tests, and neither side would sort of say, “this causes a rupture in the ABM Treaty,” but how do you read, after looking at what happened these three days, where do you think that stands now?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, first of all, Margaret, can I express a somewhat different view on Chechnya, if I may?

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, please do.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It’s a much more complicated issue than just support for terrorism. And even the question of the bombing in Moscow, it’s much more ambiguous. Recently, a book has been published in Russia, very detailed book, which casts an altogether different light on the sources of that bombing, suggesting it may have been even a provocation.

The problem with Chechnya is that one element in the Chechen movement has in fact been associated with Islamists and has a terrorist connection. But there is another segment, a much larger segment under President Musharraf, which has been relatively moderate, and basically wants some independent status for people who are not Russians, the Chechen Russians.

The U.S. Administration has moderated, as Jim correctly said, its rhetoric, but it’s at the same time urging Mr. Putin to seek a political solution. And I think we’ll probably move towards it. On the nukes…

MARGARET WARNER: And missile defense.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: …And missile defense, I think the Administration was hoping to couple the unilateral reduction with some accommodation on missile defense. It did the former, but without coupling it because Putin wasn’t willing to go along.

But I sense from the rhetoric that we have just heard that the Administration in effect is saying, “All right, so we agree to disagree. We’ll keep talking about it, but basically we’ll do our thing.” And that’s my sense.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that how you read it?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: We are going to go ahead with testing. It will not be regarded by the Russians as in violation of the ABM Treaty.

There is a changed atmosphere, and President Bush may have misspoken when he said that we are going to be able to determine whether or not we can deploy an effective defense. That has not been the position of the administration to this point. The prior position was, “We will deploy.”

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying you think there was a sort of… That they’ll be able to thread this needle and that the administration will go ahead and start doing more tests of the kind they thought would violate the treaty and the Russians won’t say anything?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: I think that they may make a mild protest, but I think it will be a mild protest.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Yeah, I think I basically agree with Jim.

MARGARET WARNER: And why? Why would Putin do that?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, perhaps even a little historical background is useful here.

Remember the great summit in Yalta almost 50 years ago. President Yeltsin wand help from Japan and he accommodated for tactical reasons to a major, major Soviet expansion and influence.

This is not like Yalta. This is like Malta in 1989 where the earlier President Bush got Gorbachev to realize that he has to accommodate to the unification of Germany and to a new situation in Europe.

I think President Bush is in the process of convincing Russia, as Jim said earlier, that Russia’s only destiny is with a Europe that’s tied to us with a Euro-Atlantic system that’s tied to us and that there are strategic consequences attached to that. And I think they will accommodate to some sort of arrangement on missile defense and reductions along the lines of what we are seeking.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that the way you see Putin?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: Indeed, Russia does not want to be allied with China. It does not want to be left with the Islamic countries to the South. There is really no alternative, as Putin I think sees very clearly, to going with the West. And in the course of that, he is going to be obliged to accept certain changes in reality with regard to ballistic missile defense.

MARGARET WARNER: Even if they wouldn’t stand up and say it in front of everybody today?


MARGARET WARNER: So how long… Going back to the alliance against terrorism– do you think it can last? I mean first of all, can it last through this assault on the al-Qaida network in Afghanistan?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: Oh, I think it will last. The real question will be whether or not President Bush decides to go after other countries, and that may place a strain on the relationship.

But ultimately, I don’t think that the Russians have any alternative that they consider to be a viable one, other than to go with the West.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I agree with that. I think the Russians really have the choice of one alternative, either to be isolated and beleaguered with the Chinese and the Muslims or to join us on the terms that we have, in effect, set because the Euro-Atlantic community is a smashing success.

On terrorism, we may have some disagreement how to run post-Taliban Afghanistan, and as Jim has hinted, there may be some future disagreements about Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Because of course Iraq certainly was not a Soviet client, a client of the Soviet Union, certainly there was a real alliance there and leading into the Gulf War, as we all remember, the then Soviets tried very hard to deflect the United States.

JAMES SCHLESINGER: And Russia has vetoed American suggestions in the past as to how to deal with Iraq.

But it’s not clear which direction we’re going to go in, but nonetheless, it’s plain I think from the administration’s rhetoric that they will route out terrorists wherever they are harbored, that more action after Afghanistan is under consideration.

MARGARET WARNER: Bottom line: Do you think that President Putin buys or accepts President Bush’s assessment of the threat that global terrorism poses and feels that Russia is really just as vulnerable, or do you think it’s more just a political calculation, he wants other things, as you both have been saying, and that this is just a convenient opening for him?

JAMES SCHLESINGER: I think he thinks that Russia is vulnerable; they’re close to the Islamic world. They have seen threats from the Islamic world. They do not want to see the Islamic world armed with nuclear weapons that could be used at short range. But no, it is not as vulnerable as the United States. The United States is the preeminent nation and, thus, is the target for attack by terrorists.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think it’s both. I think they want of course us to help them against terrorism, and they would like to entangle us, if they could, in a prolonged conflict in Afghanistan. And I think they’re surprised how fast and well we’re doing.

But secondly, if they can, sure, they want to extract some concessions. But I think we’re conscious of that, and we may yield on some issues, but not on the large strategic issues.

JAMES SCHLESINGER: I think we were surprised, as well.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Yes, that’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, gentlemen. We’ll leave it there.