Developing Relations with Russia
Thomas R. Pickering, Former U.S. Ambassador, Co-chair of the International Crisis Group
October 18, 2007
Following are excerpts of an interview conducted by Mary B. Warlick of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, April 26, 2007
It was an interesting time because by May of 1993, when I went, we had been through the collapse of Communism, we had been through President Yeltsin on a tank, we had begun to develop relations both with President Yeltsin and his administration, people like Yegor Gaidar, and they were embarked on an effort to try to change things internally.
The three benchmark items were, first, the confrontation at the Russian White House in October of 1993, the second was the first Chechen war, the decline in Yeltsin's popularity, and the amazing acrobatic rescue of the 1996 elections, helped by Anatoly Chubais, the oligarchs, and others.
What the Gore-Chernomyrdin process did was to begin to create and establish a framework in which we could, working with the Russians, to take them ministry-to-ministry, set up a group of projects, everything from aviation safety to environmental concerns through health, through an effort to try to help the Defense Ministry, never very successful, adapt itself to a more peaceful era, and to move itself from military construction to private construction. In many cases, they were quite successful, in many cases, they fell flat on their face, and we learned from each occasion.
Non-proliferation was very important. So too was the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction picking up the pieces after Cold War disintegration, and particularly with respect to nuclear weapons, but also with serious attention paid on chemical and biological weapons.
The full experience we had in the Cold War of working with non-communist states, and with some communist states, was put to work, and we began to develop exchange programs heavily focused on youth, but also on people in the business area, but on the judiciary as well, a whole series-Duma members-a whole series of significant contributing constituencies inside Russia that could make a real difference in the long-term future of the country, and some of these were U.S. government-supported, some of them came along that were privately supported and some were opportunities for public-private cooperation in making them work. But there wasn't too much of the give-and-take. There should have been a great deal more.
I think there are lots of opportunities, but they are harder to grasp. Some of those opportunities, I think, are in commercial cooperation. I think that the work you all are trying to do with the Russians on nuclear cooperation, to fit into the non-proliferation context, and probably into a next effort on the part of the international community to look into nuclear power as a constructive way, and to provide for issues of safety and security in that regard, are very important. I think more broadly, and I've advocated this publicly, we need an opportunity to sit with the Russians in a very high-level dialogue on a continuing basis to talk about the Near Abroad.
It's a question of finding a way to take this relationship, which like China, like India, like Western Europe, like Japan, is very important to the U.S., and to put it on a basis where, in fact, rather than relying on episodical problems and basically allowing what I would call the bow wave to roll over us, rather than to use it, maybe something like this, maybe some better institutional relationship and arrangement would work there. And it needs to be looked at, in my view, because otherwise we're kind of condemned to let the worst aspects of the relationship dominate it rather than the better ones. We have this unique history that, while we never fought each other directly, and that contributes to the relationship, we also get along pretty well when it comes to dealing with practical problems and talking to each other about issues.