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What Effect Will Spy Charges Have on ‘Reset’ of U.S.-Russia Relations?

June 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: What might this new twist mean for relations between Russia and the United States?

For that, we get two views. David Kramer is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. He served as a State Department official during the George W. Bush administration, where he focused on Russia and Eastern Europe. And Anna Vassilieva is head of the Russian Studies Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Born in Siberia, she’s an American citizen.

David Kramer, I will start with you.

What’s your reaction to these arrests, particularly the timing, in the midst of this larger picture?

DAVID KRAMER, senior fellow, German Marshall Fund: There is no good timing for this kind of event. But, certainly, the juxtaposition of the pictures of President Obama and President Medvedev having hamburgers together, and then seeing pictures of these arrests, this isn’t what the White House wanted.

I — I think the indications from both Moscow and Washington are they don’t want this to upset relations. Prime Minister Putin’s comments, I think, were indicating that he didn’t want to see this upset the relationship.

And I think, from the White House as well, they don’t want to see this upset the relationship. There’s never a good time for this kind of thing. And law enforcement officials have to carry out their duties. And the timing wasn’t great, but there isn’t much one can do about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anna Vassilieva, your reaction to the arrest and the timing?

ANNA VASSILIEVA, Russian Studies program, Monterey Institute of International Studies: Well, the timing is very peculiar.

And, as we all know, it comes right after what was deemed to be a very successful visit of Mr. Medvedev to this country. And when I read the record of the press conference between Mr. Obama and Medvedev, you know, I could think and smile that the — the biggest issue between the U.S. and Russia at the moment seemed to be the issue of poultry sales.

And I thought, well, wonderful times, when that seems to be on the top of the agenda. So, finally, Russians will be buying American poultry. So, today’s news certainly comes — yesterday news, it comes as a wakeup call. And it can be interpreted in several ways. Again, the timing is very peculiar.

I looked through a number of Russian sources, and Russian analysts are very concerned. And they’re particularly concerned by what seems to be an attempt to diminish the positive effect of the reset policy of Obama’s administration. And that seems to be the universal concern among the Russians, although, as any news of espionage, always very disconcerting and alarming.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think of that, David Kramer, this notion of the timing? There was some talk about this, of whether it undermined what had been positive movement.

DAVID KRAMER: There are pretty firm walls between law enforcement activities and investigations that are being conducted and the political side of an administration, so that there can’t be political influence on investigations. And that includes on the timing of announcements of arrests.

And I think that’s what we have seen here. There are a lot of questions about what — what was going on here, including what these people were doing, why, for example, they were trying to influence or find out about policy in places like Yonkers and Montclair.

And so I think there are a lot of questions that still remain. I don’t see a grand conspiracy here by hawks or hard-liners in the U.S. administration trying to upset what President Obama is trying to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, Anna Vassilieva, you raised the question — the issue. Last week, they’re talking about economic ties. This week, we get this news.

So, moving to the substance of the larger picture here, it continues this question that a lot of people have of what is — which is the real Russia, and what is the relationship between the two countries now? What’s your response?

ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, it is very difficult to respond to this question. I’m not a policy-maker. I’m — I teach. And I have to put a number of perspectives into my response here.

And I have been — I visited Russia in March. And it’s a very different country from what it was five, 10, 15, 20 and certainly 30 years ago. It has nothing to do — the mentality of the people has nothing to do with Cold War. These are people who are looking forward to the 21st century and dealing with the issues of 21st century together with the West.

There wasn’t one Russian — and I met a number working around the clock — who would say that we want bad relations, tense relations with the United States. Everyone, the scholars, academics, military whom I interviewed, students, they want to be one with the West, and it’s about time for us to understand that we are in the 21st century, that references to the Cold War are tempting and alluring, but they’re not moving us forward. There are too many issues we have to deal with together.

And Russia — at least Russian people, again — Russian people are very prepared to deal with those issues together with the United States of America, American people.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, David — so, David Kramer, can you see them both side by side, the economic ties, the sharing the burger, the visit to Silicon Valley, and then Cold War spying?

DAVID KRAMER: Well, let’s remember that the Russian prime minister came up through the ranks of the KGB.

So, we have leadership in Moscow that still does have a past that goes back to the Cold War days, when the U.S. and Soviet Union, and then even Russia, were competing against each other and spying on each other. And some of those habits die hard.

I think there is certainly a genuine interest in the Obama administration to improve relations. They don’t want to see this incident upset the progress they claim has been made with the reset policy. But let’s also remember that, while there may be hard-liners in Washington, as some Russians suspect, there are certainly plenty of hard-liners in Moscow, too, including in the foreign intelligence service, the FSB, which is the domestic agency, successor to the KGB, there are people in Moscow who depend on the need to perpetuate the myth or the sense that the United States is a threat to Russia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in old days, there would be a retaliation. Do you expect that now?

DAVID KRAMER: I do, even though we have heard some rather calm comments, compared to previous instances in the past.

I do think that there will be another shoe to drop. It didn’t happen today, but it could happen in the next few days or even in a couple of weeks. And I think that will be telling of how the Russian government is really going to respond to this.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see, Anna Vassilieva, in terms of retaliation from the Russian side, and what would you like to see President Obama do?

ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, let me first mention that, just to add to David’s comment — and I agree with what he says here, but let me just add that we shouldn’t forget that the Russian president now is not Vladimir Putin.

Russian president is a representative of a younger generation, who is a son of professors, who is a lawyer by training, and a person who not once mentioned his commitment to democratic values. So, that’s — that’s very important for us not to forget, as much as Putin influences policy.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, what do you think will happen next?

ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, I — again, I don’t want to speculate. I hope Russian authorities will look at the way the case unfolds.

You know, nobody knows much at this point. And, aside from political declarations, you know, there are very, very few facts. So, we will know — by the end of the week, we will know more. And I just hope that both governments would be dignified about it.

It’s difficult to do, but anyone who is informed knows that spying has been going on, not just between enemies, but, you know, it’s one of the oldest professions. So, I just hope that the leaderships of two countries will see that the agenda that should strengthen the national security interests of both countries will move us forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

Anna Vassilieva and David Kramer, thank you both very much.

DAVID KRAMER: Thank you.

ANNA VASSILIEVA: Thank you.