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What The U.S. Needs From Russia


We are going to turn now to another retired U.S. diplomat to address some other big questions. How should we assess Russia's strength? And is it necessary for the U.S. president to have a good relationship with Russia's leader? President Trump thinks it is. He called Russia a competitor. President Obama called it a regional power that attacks its neighbors out of weakness. We asked former ambassador and Russia expert Stephen Sestanovich what words he would use to describe Putin's Russia.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Certainly, competitor is a good one. Adversary is not inappropriate. Russia has always had a kind of mix of personalities. Economically, it's not a particularly formidable player internationally. GDP is a tenth of ours. Here, one shouldn't ignore some strengths. They are one of the true superpowers in the energy field. They're the world's leading grain exporter.

The real source of Russian power has traditionally been its military, and Putin has paid a lot of attention to increasing those capabilities. The Russian military budget has gone up more than 100 percent in the past 10 years. They've retained a very large force of nuclear weapons. They have very extensive, you know, intelligence services. The legacies of the Soviet Union in the military and intelligence field are still very strong.

MARTIN: So what is the benefit of getting along as the president suggests? I mean, the president, as we know, tends to personalize world affairs. So could a good personal relationship have some benefit to U.S. interests or to international interest - for example, getting Russia to curb cyberwarfare, aggression in Ukraine or limiting Iran's influence in Syria, where it's also militarily engaged?

SESTANOVICH: You know, I read an interesting interview this week by a former interpreter for former Soviet President Gorbachev, who was talking about this question of personal relations. And he said, the personal relations themselves don't do very much. Very few countries are prepared to do something that is really different from what they've been doing just as a favor. He said what creates a trust between leaders and governments is the experience of having solved problems. And then they see, OK. I can count on that guy, that government, to act the way they said they're going to, to take steps that are constructive from our point of view.

So that on all the subjects that you're talking about, I think President Trump is not right to imagine that just because he feels a certain political or personal rapport with President Putin that that will produce a good outcome.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I think there are still many people in the United States who remember duck and cover drills. They remember a time when the then-Soviet Union was seen as an active threat - something that was even on the minds of, you know, school kids, right? How would you characterize relationships at the moment in sort of an historical context? And could they be better?

SESTANOVICH: Well, they, of course, could be better. I don't think it is worth comparing them to the days in the Cold War when people felt both sides were on a nuclear air trigger. Nor is it good to ascribe superhuman powers and influence to Vladimir Putin himself. But we shouldn't underrate them. Anybody who analyzes cyber issues would class the U.S. and China and Russia as the big three superpowers in cyber issues. And we probably shouldn't underestimate the extent to which the Russian government and Putin himself are prepared to make decisions about the use of that power to advance Russian interests.

MARTIN: Stephen Sestanovich - he served as ambassador at large to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration. He is now a professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

Ambassador, professor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SESTANOVICH: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.