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What will it take for U.S. and Russia to have a productive partnership?

February 10, 2014 at 6:44 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As U.S. and Russian athletes compete head to head and skate to skate, so to speak, on snow and ice in Sochi, a new book looks at their broader competition for global influence.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner talked to the author today.

As a proud Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over the opening of the Sochi Olympics Friday night, notably absent were President Obama or Vice President Biden. Putin and Washington are at odds over asylum for NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the unrest in Ukraine, how to handle Syria and Iran, and gay rights in Russia.

In fact, the U.S.-Russia relationship has been on a roller coaster ever since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, despite the efforts of four successive U.S. presidents, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and President Obama, to reset it.

A new book, “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russia Relations in the 21st Century,” seeks to explain why. The author is Angela Stent, who served in the State Department and on the National Intelligence Council under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

Angela Stent, welcome.

Years ago, you had an encounter with Vladimir Putin that revealed why these Games are so important to him.

ANGELA STENT, author, “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russia Relations in the 21st Century”: We certainly did.

So I’m part of a group. And we have met with Mr. Putin for the last 10 years. We have had dinner with him, occasionally lunch. And this time was 2007, just after Russia had won the Olympic Games. And we stood overlooking the beautiful Black Sea on this spectacular terrace in his government mansion there. And he explained to us that this was to show that Russia, you know, had come back, that the 1990s and all the humiliation was over, and that this was going to be a world-class Games and this was going to be a very important moment in the sun for Russia.

MARGARET WARNER: And is that, that passion of his, that desire of his to have Russia recognized that way, is that really at the nub of the theme of this book, why it’s been so hard to forge a productive partnership since the end of the Cold War?

ANGELA STENT: It certainly has.

I think that most Russians look back on the 1990s and they see this as a time of humiliation and chaos, where the U.S. was able to — quote, unquote — “dictate to Russia” what it should do. Putin’s claim to fame, his appeal to his population is that he has brought Russia back, that Russia is now again a great power, and also that Russia really offers a different model to the world.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what do you mean a different model?

ANGELA STENT: Putin has now claimed a turf for Russia, saying that Russia is sort of the leader of a new conservative international system.

He blames the United States and the Europeans for having lost their way, that Russia is now the harbinger of traditional family values. And he also appeals to the Islamic world for that, and that in fact Russia is now the harbinger of true Christian values, and that it respects the absolute sovereignty of other countries. It doesn’t go around the world telling other countries how they should live or what kind of political system they should have.

And he blames the United States and the Europeans for behaving like the Soviet Union and trying to impose their value system and their political system on other countries.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in the four resets or attempts to reset the relationship between American presidents and Russian presidents that you outline in your book, has the U.S. always been laboring under a basic misconception of where Russia wanted to go?

ANGELA STENT: I think that is part of the problem. It’s a very big part of it, that in the ’90s we really thought that Russia wanted to become like the West, wanted to adopt our values, our political system. It became increasingly clear that it didn’t.

And the Russians have always wanted from us an equal partnership of unequals. We haven’t understood that or we haven’t been willing to accept that as a condition of improving the relationship. And that’s been a huge problem for the last 22 years.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let’s take one example.

And this is with George W. Bush right after 9/11, in which Putin suddenly saw the chance for this sort of counterterrorism alliance. Why did that go sour?

ANGELA STENT: I think that went sour because, again, we had very different expectations of the third reset, which I would say was actually Putin’s reset.

Putin, I thought, I believe thought that the U.S. would recognize Russia as an equal, a strategic partner, that it had special rights in its neighborhood, it served privilege interests, the former Soviet states, and that we would cease to sort of tell Russia or suggest to Russia how it should run its domestic system or criticize it for its lack of democracy and human rights.

We, I think, had other expectations. And so, by the end, this whole relationship was in tatters because the Russians looked to NATO enlargement to the Baltic states and they looked at the freedom agenda of the Bush administration, which was also directed towards Russia, and so that their expectations were really mismatched then.

MARGARET WARNER: And let’s look at now the relationship between President Obama and President Putin in his return to office, and take just one example, which was Russia granting asylum to Edward Snowden. Now, how does that fit into what Russia is trying to do?

Well, was it more than just wanting to stick a thumb in the eye of President Obama?

ANGELA STENT: Well, I think, for Putin, this was a golden opportunity, when Edward Snowden landed in Hong Kong and needed somewhere to go and went to Moscow and then stayed there, because Putin was able to say, ah, the United States, you’re criticizing us for lack of democracy. You’re criticizing us for the way we treated protesters against me, against Vladimir Putin, and criticizing us for spying on our citizens. What are you doing? You’re doing just what we are doing or even much more than that.

So, it was a great propaganda opportunity for him.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet Secretary of State Kerry is working very hard right now to work with Russia on certain specific issues, say, Iran’s nuclear program or the conflict in Syria. What will it take to at least have a productive, selective partnership, if not a full one?

ANGELA STENT: Well, the partnership works when we work together on these multilateral issues, where we both have a very important stake in their outcome, so, Syria, Iran, the greater Middle East in general, and actually post-2014 Afghanistan.

And it works because we’re quite realistic there that we have common interests, and we eschew commenting on what is happening domestically in Russia.

MARGARET WARNER: And again looking ahead to the future, to what degree do you think Vladimir Putin actually represents the aspirations of the Russian people, including all those Russians who came out to demonstrate against him? Is he a throwback, or is this really the Russia of the future that we need to get used to?

ANGELA STENT: I think Putin represents the aspirations of about half of the Russian population, who support a strong state, a strong leader and who want to see Russia back on the world scene, and not necessarily accepting, embracing Western values or even interests.

He doesn’t represent the aspirations of the educated urban elites who would like to live in a more modern society with better governance. But even those people, even a lot of the younger urban elites do want to see Russia as a strong international player. They have national pride.

But I would — I don’t think that this represents the Russia of the future. I think that there will be slow evolution in Russia, that Russia will eventually become a more modern and probably a more democratic society on Russian terms. But it’s going to take a very long time.

MARGARET WARNER: Angela Stent, thank you