At the 12th annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, Russia Direct reached out to Timothy Colton of Harvard University to talk about the current dynamics in U.S.-Russia relations, including possible signs that the bullying rhetoric of the past year has been fading.

"Russia is not just going to do what we say or want it to do – it’s too big, too independent and proud," says Timothy Colton. Photo: AP

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov are scheduled to meet on Oct. 23 in Vienna to discuss the situation in Syria with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Whether this discussion will prove productive is yet to be determined, but the development shows that leaders in Washington and Moscow are potentially ready to negotiate a solution to the crisis in the Middle East.

Discussion about the future of the U.S.-Russian relationship, of course, was one of the topics of conversation at the 12th annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club. At the event, Russia Direct reached out to Timothy Colton, chair of the Government department at Harvard University, to talk about the current dynamics in U.S.-Russia relations and the areas where U.S.-Russia cooperation could become stronger over the next year.

Russia Direct: What are your thoughts on the discussion at this year’s Valdai meeting?

Timothy Colton: What this forum shows is how important it is to have people sit down and talk about things without requiring the other person to change his/her point of view immediately. So it’s more of a back and forth process, like we do in everyday life. Unfortunately, governments don’t always deal with one another that way.

Head of the Harvard University's Government Department Timothy Colton during a meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi. Photo: RIA Novosti

Last year, when we met at Valdai the atmosphere was quite tense because the events in Ukraine were so recent and there was still heavy fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk. It wasn’t necessarily personal antagonism or black and white views, but everybody was caught up in the fact that this crisis was really a big one and no one knew when it was going to end.

This year, despite the Syrian events, I think generally the atmosphere is calmer. We see the normal exchange of points of view that don’t often break down along national lines. We come here as individuals and we are free to say what we think, there were never any restrictions or any controls of any kind. I think last year was a bit different because of the high level of agitation because of Ukraine, but this year it’s back to more normal dialogue.

RD: What would you say about the diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S.? Are they as agitated as they were when the crisis in Ukraine started?

T.C.: Speaking about the diplomats, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department, I’m not sure that too much has changed. They both are tightly controlled by their political leaderships, they follow the policy made at the White House and the Kremlin. Russian diplomats are very professional, they perform really well in public and closed settings. The American diplomats are not fundamentally different. The bullying rhetoric that we saw a year ago has cooled down, we don’t see so much of it now, which is good.

RD: How would you characterize the past year for U.S.-Russia relations? Were there any achievements that got lost in the background of tense geopolitical events?

T.C.: Obviously, government-to-government, state-to-state relations are very tense. This situation is hard to ignore, let’s hope that it’s temporary. Are there any positives? I would say there are a few.

Obama and Putin did meet just a few weeks ago so that’s good. The diplomats seem to be talking to one another rather more than a year ago.

One of the examples, that some might be surprised by, is that American-Russian and EU-Russian cooperation in areas like science, education and technology actually remained pretty stable despite all of the trouble and in some ways even improved slightly. Of course there were voices on both sides saying we must stop cooperating with the other country’s scientists. A high official in the Russian government, Mr. Rogozin, proposed that Russia pull out NASA from the International Space Station (ISS).

That has not happened actually, so there have been negotiations, somewhat amazingly actually, between Russian officials and American officials on not only extending the life of the current mission at the ISS  which will be given four more years of life and it depends very heavily on Russia – but actually now they are talking about building a new space station with Chinese participation. But again the lead countries will be Russia and the United States – two great space powers. They are also talking about joint exploration of the far side of the Moon, a mission to Venus, and even a joint mission to Mars.

So even though the government relations are pretty bad, there are some positive developments in other areas. We know from public opinion polls from both sides that popular perception of the other country has gone in a very negative direction. There has always been a fluctuation up and down, but this time the downward trend in both Russia and the U.S. was stronger than ever before.

At the same time, I think this is mostly individuals who have a negative opinion about the government of the other country. What I don’t see, as someone who travels back and forth a lot, is a kind of personal antagonism or hatred. It’s not like that – we don’t hate one another. We just think that the other government’s policies are wrong-headed. If the governments can find a way to move some of the things out, we can’t exclude that sooner or later the relations will move in a more natural direction.

The U.S. has interests almost everywhere and it will be very unnatural to have no constructive relations with such a great country like Russia. On Russia’s part, when Putin returned after Medvedev, Russia started to work on this very ambitious program of internationalization of higher education. The Russian universities are hiring Western academics, experts to write for English-language journals and Putin has made it a goal to bring five Russian universities into the top 100 in the world by 2020. They haven’t backed away from these commitments. There are some inconsistencies with other branches of Russian policy, it’s true, like the foreign agents law. But nonetheless, these plans have not been abandoned, which is good.

RD: From your perspective, how long will the sanctions regime persist? Are there any signs that it’s going to be lifted any time soon?

T.C.: We know that in Europe, in particular, there are governments and business groups that would like to see the sanctions lifted as soon as possible or at least reduced. This has not happened yet, but I think that if the situation in Ukraine continues to stabilize there would be more and more pressure from countries like France, the Netherlands and Germany to move towards normalization. I think it’s generally pretty clear that Crimea which was the focus of the first round of sanctions will not be the cause for the extension of sanctions to the indefinite future, at least, as far as the EU is concerned.

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In the U.S. it might be somewhat different because the U.S. Congress has a big role in deciding the U.S. foreign policy. Even if President Obama or, more likely, his successor were to want to move away from sanctions past practice shows that Congress will not let him do this with entirely free hand. So I would expect U.S. sanctions to be withdrawn rather more slowly.

If the leadership of Russia changed tomorrow and Mr. Putin decided to retire, I think a lot of things would change as well. He has been in power for a long time and when leaders are in power for an extended period of time, 15 or 16 years, they accumulate as we say “baggage” and it becomes harder and harder for them to make a fresh start on any thing. So probably the change of governments will make a difference.

The U.S. will have one in January 2017. It was the arrival of Obama in 2009 that opened the door for the reset which was pretty successful, there was move in a good direction for several years before the trouble came.

RD: If you were to give an advice to the next president of the United States what would you recommend him to do when dealing with Russia?

T.C.: Treat Russia like a normal country with its own interests. It’s not just going to do what we say or want it to do – it’s too big, too independent and proud. And you have to accept that you have to make compromises and think in a very long range terms. This country is too large to change overnight. It’s in the interests of the U.S. for Russia to be a normal country. It’s a modern country with, in my view, an arcane political system, but it’s not something we can change. Eventually it will move in a more open direction. But if it doesn’t, the U.S. can’t really prevent that, it’s not American responsibility, and only Russians can decide that.

I think one area that we never really made good things happen is trade. Looking at the next 10 years of U.S.-Russia relations, efforts should be made to create a strong economic basis. In certain markets we are actually rivals – we are both exporters of energy, we compete with one another on that market. But there are other areas where there it is a bit more complementary – in areas of science and technology, Russia is in many ways an unexplored frontier for U.S. multinational corporations, there should be more of their presence here. The Russian government has not done enough to make them feel welcome.

RD: Some experts at Valdai said that the world has been surprised by Russian foreign policy moves this year. Would you agree? What would you say has particularly changed in the perception of the Kremlin abroad and in the U.S.?

T.C.: I was definitely surprised by both the Crimea policy and the intervention in Syria, so there is no doubt about that. Of the two, the more disruptive was what happened in Ukraine. Changing state borders in that fashion in Europe – this kind of thing previously led to wars from which Russia has suffered as much as anybody else.

Syria is different – it’s a terrible conflict in which no one really seems to have the answer. The U.S. was surprised tactically, although the American intelligence knew that Russia was moving its staff there. I don’t think it was a shocking development – Russia was capable of doing this. If you look back at it, you might ask why Russia didn’t do it sooner because it’s getting a little late to save Assad now, after four years of civil war. Now that it’s happened, what difference is it going to make? Is it doomed to fail? So President Obama insists that it cannot succeed, by definition it’s going to fail. But if you look at American newspapers over the past week or so, the TV talk shows on Sunday, you might see a wide range of opinions.

Some condemn it as completely inappropriate, but the fact that Russia was invited there by the government of Syria, it’s not like Russia overthrew that government. The U.S. doesn’t have an ambassador in Damascus but it still recognizes the Assad government and they have an ambassador in Washington. So it’s not really about the right to be there but more about making a bad situation worse.

There are some who say that it may potentially turn out to make things better. The premise here is that the Assad government was about to lose control completely, and then you would have had two or three years of utter massacres on all sides. So Russian intervention may have prevented all that, but stabilization of that kind can only be temporary. But if it works to create an opening for some kind of negotiation I don’t think that we have any objective basis for saying we know that it’s going to fail. If it succeeds and gets some kind of government national unity in which different communities of Syria are represented – the Sunnis, the Shias, the Kurds, the Christians – if that actually happened and the war was reduced, ISIS, I assume, would still remain in control of a large part of eastern Syria, then Putin will probably get a Nobel Peace Prize.

I myself am simply agnostic, I don’t know what to expect. The timing does seem very late and the air power alone rarely really resolves a conflict. I don’t think that a Russian air force of 40 or 50 airplanes can defeat all terrorist groups – they can slow down their advance, that’s for sure, and it has.

Russian Air Forces Mi-24 helicopter flying over the Hmeimim airbase. Photo: RIA

RD: If the negotiation process does start, what might the U.S. role in it be? Will it work with Russia on resolving the crisis in Syria?

T.C.: The U.S. will surely want to be represented at the table. I don’t know whether NATO per se will have a role but the U.S. will want to be there – it’s still involved in Iraq, there is never-ending war there. Despite the angry words they say from time to time, that the United States would refuse to talk to Russia about Syria that is not going to happen.

RD: What are your expectations for Russian foreign policy in 2016?

T.C.: One year of Russian politics is much like the other one: one group is in charge year after year. Russia has a parliamentary election in September 2016. The last election turned out to be quite difficult for the government United Russia won 49 percent of the vote which was 15 points less than in 2007 and there were allegations of falsifications of votes. So the government will want to do a bit better this time around. They have Putin’s massive popularity ratings, but they won’t necessarily rub off on the United Russia party – most Russians have a high opinion of the party and it will probably be the most significant political event.

There is the issue whether Putin is going to dismiss the prime minister and install a new government – it doesn’t look that way. It has already been announced that Medvedev will head the United Russia list.

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The elections will be different in one other regard – the mixed electoral system which has districts as well as national party lists has been restored as of next year. There is a 5 percent threshold for admission to the Duma. It was 7 percent for a decade. This will make the election a more complex event with some degree of competition being restored. It’s worth watching to see what the results will be. And then Putin will have to make a choice whether he wants to remain in power for another 6-year term.

RD: Are you mostly positive about the future of U.S.-Russia relations when a new American president is elected?

T.C.: Russia for a number of years was not a big issue in American election campaigns. In 2008, Russia had a five-day war with Georgia so this led to very heated rhetoric about American assistance to Georgia. A few months later, Obama is elected and one of the first things he does is to move towards a reset of relations with Russia. So I think there are powerful forces that would move the new American president at least to reassess the relationship with Russia. But a lot will depend on who the president is.

We have some candidates that have no foreign policy experience whatsoever, but we also have Hillary Clinton who is the most likely winner. She was Secretary of State during the reset years but she is well known to take generally harder line towards Russia, so it’s not clear whether she will move towards more engagement with Russia or choose to do the opposite. It’s very hard to predict for the reason that American policy itself is hard too predict because of its highly competitive nature. Russian politics since 2000 has been a little bit easier to predict.