International Affairs Forum: You were in Russia during President Obama’s recent trip to Moscow. What were your impressions of his highly-anticipated visit? How do people in Russia perceive the U.S.-Russian relationship right now?
Mr. Satter: Well, I think that Russians believe—in part because they’ve been told—that the U.S. has ignored Russia’s interests and it is therefore up to the U.S. to do something about it. In fact, all of the talk about resetting relations plays into this because it seems as if we actually agree with this interpretation. After all, why would we need to reset the relationship if we haven’t done anything wrong? So I think that there’s a sense in Moscow and in the rest of Russia that the United States is acknowledging the validity of the Russian interpretation of events.
Otherwise, my general impression was that—and this is based only on what was public, of course I don’t have access to what was private—the U.S. went too far, really, in showing a willingness to compromise. In general, being willing to compromise is probably a good thing, but the demands that the Russians have made and the positions that they are advancing are not reasonable. There’s no reason why we should encourage them to make unreasonable demands, nor is there any reason why we should give the impression that we are ready to think about those demands.
For example, Obama said that he will inform the Russians about the results of a feasibility study of the proposed anti-missile shield for Eastern Europe. In the Russian media, this was already depicted as preparing for the cancellation of plans for the deployment. This is a good example of why it’s important to be very clear with the Russian side and not to make unnecessary statements. Why should they be the first to know? The feasibility study is undertaken by us to determine whether the system will work. It has nothing to do with them, and in fact, if the system isn’t going to work, we’re not going to deploy it whether they’re in favor of it or whether they are opposed to it. But what we do is we give them the impression that they can somehow take part in the decision, which they can’t and shouldn’t. I think that this was unwise and I think that the references to the system of justice in Russia, which in fact is nonexistent, were unwise. And the praise for Putin for having done a remarkable job as president of Russia when what he really did was construct an authoritarian system also shows a level of naïveté and lack of professionalism that would have been better for us to avoid.
IA-Forum: One of the main things on the agenda was coming up with a replacement for the START I treaty…
Mr. Satter: Here again we’re dealing with something that is basically a concession to the Russian side. We don’t need a replacement for that treaty. We’re not adversaries, theoretically. What’s the point? The United States is not under pressure to reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal and we shouldn’t be doing it if the real purpose is to please the Russians or to give them something that makes them feel like a superpower, which they aren’t. But this is seen as something we can do for the Russian side that will not have adverse consequences for us, so therefore we are hoping to win goodwill. I don’t know why we should be trying to win goodwill with them.
IA-Forum: Can the agreement even be considered a significant step in terms of arms control? After all, the proposed goal of the new treaty—for both countries to reach a level of 1,500-1,675 warheads— does not seem very far below the 1,700-2,200 warheads allowed by the 2002 Treaty of Moscow.
Mr. Satter: Well, now they’re talking about even lower ceilings… I’m not an expert on these things, but I do feel that whatever decisions they make ought to be based not on the desire to reach an agreement with the Russian side, but rather on the real requirements of the defense of the United States. And if as a result of that we are reducing the number of warheads through a natural process (as these weapons become more modern, the number of warheads that are required apparently becomes less), then that’s perfectly fine. But I don’t think it’s something we should be doing simply in order to have an agreement with them.
We don’t need to encourage the impression in Russia that Russia is a superpower, that at least in nuclear weapons it is entitled to parity with the United States, because that mentality is the same type of mentality which will encourage Russia to abuse its power vis-à-vis its neighbors. We need to encourage Russia to think about itself in a completely different way, as a nation among nations, as a part of the democratic and Western community, as a country which has a vested interest in the upholding of civilized values.
IA-Forum: Considering that the new agreement still needs to be finalized and ratified in both countries, can we expect Russia and the United States to “make the deadline” of December before START I expires?
Mr. Satter: I’m doubtful, although there are ways of adopting some sort of interim measure. But I’m doubtful not because of the pace—although the pace would have to be pretty hectic. I’m doubtful because Russia is still trying to leave the strategic arms negotiations with concessions by the United States on the anti-missile defense in Eastern Europe. Now this is what we call real chutzpah. [The Russians] are getting in effect a gift from the United States, and in order to accept the gift they want another gift, which is totally unjustified. They won’t insist on the second gift, I assume, because they might jeopardize the first gift. But who knows - they may feel that their interlocutors are so naïve that they can get away with that.
IA-Forum: In terms of the proposed missile defense system, it seems like the powers essentially agreed to disagree. Is there a possibility of compromise or a mutually satisfying solution when it comes to this issue? Or is it just a matter of time until this conflict of interests comes to a halt?
Mr. Satter: I don’t see room for compromise. The only compromise that the Russians are talking about is cancelling the deployment. The U.S. is not willing to do that, and shouldn’t be. It’s possible that there are some technical arguments against the deployment, but assuming that from a technical point of view it makes sense, then no amount of Russian pressure should make any difference.
IA-Forum: It’s tough, because Russia and the United States have completely different ideas about what the missile defense system is intended for.
Mr. Satter: Well, in fact, the Russians know what it’s intended for. Their own experts have made that clear to them. But they’re using this as a propaganda ploy. It’s one way that they can organize the population against the West and consolidate their own hold by creating this false impression that there is some kind of external threat, which there isn’t. Those missiles pose no threat whatsoever. There are too few of them, they’re not deployed in the right place, they’re too slow. The whole concept is completely different from what would be necessary if we were trying to shoot down Russian ICBMs (which would be launched over the North Pole).
IA-Forum: Let me ask you about one of the other big issues, Georgia. Is Russia—or has Russia been—planning an invasion of Georgia for this summer? If so, did Obama’s visit to Moscow reduce the likelihood of a renewed conflict?
Mr. Satter: This is all speculation. There were signs that they were preparing for something, possibly. But were they really preparing for something or were they only trying to intimidate? That’s something that we don’t know.
Did Obama’s visit make a difference? We can’t read their minds. We also don’t know everything that Obama said to them in closed session. Was he strong and resolute about defending Georgia and Georgia’s sovereignty? Some people said yes. I hope so. Possibly it did have an effect; when I was there people told me that whether there would be a second invasion depended on the results of the visit.
The other thing that I heard, and that I think is credible, is that they need time to prepare a kind of pretext. It’s not a simple direct invasion of Georgia without any pretext like the one that Saakashvili so generously provided them for the first invasion. That would be difficult because not only would it cast doubt on the legitimacy of the second invasion, it would raise questions about the first one. Now, to prepare a real pretext for invading Georgia, you need to put some work in. For the first invasion, the preparations began months before the actual crossing of the border. It might be the same in this case. I think for the moment they don’t have the pretext that they need and I think that, more than anything else, is what is restraining them.
But who knows? A trap has been set. Obama at the end of the day will probably not cancel the deployment in Eastern Europe. The Russians will claim that this is an aggressive action and that all of Obama’s talk about a reset and his friendly gestures were just hot air and that it just shows the duplicity of the United States. And the population, which has limited access now to free information because of the control over TV and everything else, will buy it. So we could be setting the stage for an unpleasant confrontation. In that context, it would be much easier for them to invade Georgia. Much easier to say, ‘we have to act in our own defense because the West is turning against us’. So it’s too early to be sanguine about the direction in which they are going.
All of this poses a threat not so much to the rest of the world as to Russia itself. Russia has very deep problems, and to solve those problems it really needs decent values and democratic practices. What it has now is not going to do that. They have a leadership which comes from the KGB which is totally corrupt. So we can only hope that the Russian country, the Russian state, the Russian society will somehow find a way to act in its own interest.
IA-Forum: Russian political scientist Sergei A. Karaganov insisted that the real winner of Russia’s August 2008 war with Georgia was Iran, because the conflict caused such a rift in U.S.-Russian relations. Now that the “reset button” has been pressed, do you foresee Russia and the United States actually taking any joint action to discourage Iran’s nuclear program?
Mr. Satter: I don’t believe so. The much more serious issue is whether Russia will supply Iran with the S-300 missiles. I don’t expect anything good coming from Russia, but I’m hoping that they won’t do something so destabilizing as to provide these missiles. These missiles are really a big leap ahead of the Tor M-1 missile, which is what they already have given Iran, and they can shoot down targets over a range of 120 miles. They’ve never said that sale has been cancelled by the way. On the contrary, the last public statement on that was that it was still valid. If it goes through, that could provoke an Israeli attack, because the Israelis would not want to have to deal with that. And then what we have is a Mideast war with unpredictable consequences for everybody, which nobody particularly wants.
IA-Forum: What do you think of Obama’s attempt to collaborate with the Russian leadership on common interests while still criticizing Russia’s problems with human rights, rule of law, etc.? Was Obama effective on both fronts?
Mr. Satter: It was very mild criticism. It was the gentlest of hints, and there is no reason for that. There was no mention of specific cases. If you’re not going to mention specific cases, you create the impression that you’re not mentioning them because you don’t have the will to mention them. If you don’t have the will to mention them, you may not have the will to stand up to them in other respects. Even in his discussions with the opposition, [Obama] was rather measured and didn’t mention specific cases. Once you restrict yourself to generalities, you greatly reduce the impact of what you’re saying. So I think he was too conciliatory. But we’ll see.
IA-Forum: On that note, would you please comment on the recent murder of Natalia Estemirova?
Mr. Satter: This is part of a whole string: Stanislav Markelov, Anna Politkovskaya… One of the signs of the cruelty or the lack of morality of the Putin regime is the fact that their protégé, Kadyrov, is really absolutely free to murder anyone he wants to, to torture, to kidnap with complete impunity; whether it’s in Chechnya, whether it’s in Russia, whether it’s in Vienna; as long as he keeps the situation under control for the leadership in Chechnya. This was a woman who was monitoring the human rights situation in Chechnya. She was a colleague of Markelov, who was a colleague of Politkovskaya. So who’s behind it? We know that Kadyrov said the people who are disappearing are being murdered. These are people who are his opponents and enemies.
And don’t expect any serious effort to investigate. When Markelov was killed along with Anastasia Barburova—in broad daylight near the Christ the Savior church on a crowded street—no one thought it worthy of comment until nine days later when Medvedev did an interview with Novaya Gazeta and said something. This shows the character of the regime. Bearing that in mind, an American president should not bend over backwards to praise Putin and to praise the Russian leaders. They are not deserving of that.
IA-Forum: That said, do you think that improving the relationship between the two countries could lead to change on some of the issues we talked about?
Mr. Satter: Well, I think it’s more the other way. I think that changing [Russia’s] behavior will improve the relationship. Let’s say you have a neighbor. This neighbor piles up garbage in front of your front door, his kids beat up your kids, and his pet pit bull bites and attacks your wife. Now, what do you want from this neighbor? Do you want good relations or do you want good behavior? I think you want good behavior! If he continues to behave the way he’s behaving, good relations should not be your objective. Because if he can get good relations and the benefits of good relations at the same time as he’s doing all these things, then what’s the point?
David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of "Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State" (Yale 2003).
All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2002 - 2023