Russia Direct sat down with retired American diplomat John Evans to discuss recent achievements of the Vienna-2 talks on Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s position in the 2015 Forbes ranking and the lessons from 2015 for U.S.-Russia bilateral relations.


Secretary of State John Kerry listens during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. Photo: AP

Amidst numerous warnings about a looming U.S.-Russia proxy war over Syria, diplomats have been doing their best to prevent a worst case scenario or at least start a process of political settlement of the Syrian crisis, as indicated by a recent Vienna-2 summit that took place in late October.

That effort brought to the negotiation table 19 countries, including Russia, the U.S. and the Middle East's perennial rivals: Saudi Arabia and Iran. All this seems to be a light at the end tunnel amidst the highly charged political rhetoric of Russian and American leaders.

The long political process of settling the war in Syria might — at best — be the start of easing the Moscow-Washington confrontation as was the case shortly before perestroika in 1985, the famous reforms undertaken by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the time when the Soviet-American ties were strengthened.

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However, the highly unfavorable geopolitical situation in 1981-1983 and ideological face-off was followed by the perestroika revival of cultural exchanges and renewed dialogue between the Kremlin and the White House in 1985.

In 1981 the Soviet Union was continuing the war in Afghanistan and a new U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, had been elected, with tough rhetoric toward Russia and no sign of reconciliation. In 1983, the Soviet Air Force shot down a South Korean Boeing, Korean Airlines Flight 007, with 269 passengers on board, including a U.S. Congressman, which affected Soviet-American relations very severely: It resulted in American sanctions on the Soviet Union, increased political pressure and stimulated spy hysteria in both countries.

John M. Evans, a retired American diplomat with extensive experience, the former director of the Russian Affairs Office at the U.S. Department of State (2002-2004), had his first tour of duty at the U.S. Embassy to Moscow during these difficult times, from 1981 to 1983.

He knows very well that it was very challenging for Moscow and Washington to see eye-to-eye, but they finally did find common ground during perestroika. There are a lot of parallels with the current state of bilateral relations: the Ukraine crisis, the downing of MH17 Malaysian Boeing over Donbas, Russia’s campaign in Syria. However, Evans remains optimistic about the future of U.S.-Russia relations and believes the decline is cyclical in its nature. 

John M. Evans, a retired American diplomat, the former director of the Russian Affairs Office at the U.S. Department of State (2002-2004). Photo: Russia Direct

Russia Direct sat recently down with Evans to discuss the latest international events, including the Vienna-2 talks on Syria, as well as the new rating of Forbes magazine which for the third time ranked Russian President Vladimir Putin the world's most influential man in 2016.

Russia Direct: How do you assess the Vienna-2 talks over the Syrian crisis: To what extent will these negotiations contribute to resolving the Syrian standoff?

John Evans: Clearly the recent talks in Vienna represented only the start of a diplomatic process that is long overdue, but the simple fact that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were able to bring all the major external actors to the table was an extraordinary achievement in and of itself.  

It is too early to talk about concrete achievements on the ground, but the fact that the parties were able to agree on some basic principles, for example, that Syria should be a home to people of all faiths, was impressive. It remains to be seen whether the process will live up to its early promise. The same might have been said of the Congress of Vienna when it began.

RD: Forbes recognized Putin as the world’s most influential man for the third time. How can you account for this: Was it his positive or negative contribution that helped him to maintain the leading positions in the ranking? 

J.E.: From 1994 to 1997, I served as U.S. Consul General in St. Petersburg. There I got to know the future Russian president when he was first deputy mayor. I have been saying for years, at least since 2000, that people in Washington were making a mistake to underestimate Mr. Putin, so the Forbes ranking does not come as a surprise to me. Clearly his leadership in bringing Russia back from the disasters of the 1990s, and the support Russian voters have given him since then, are the basic building blocks of his power and influence. Even Forbes admits that its rankings are somewhat subjective, but in this case, I do not think they are wrong.

RD: What would you recommend to the next U.S. presidential administration to do with Russia?

J.E.: I am an unapologetic advocate of working with Russia. I think the United States and Russia have many common interests, although we went through very difficult days in the Cold War, and still view the world in different ways.  

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Let’s remember that we got through the Cold War without actually going to war. So, rather than a war, it was a long period of tense peace, you might call it, as [American foreign policy analyst] Strobe Talbott has, a "nuclear peace," because it was a peace enforced by the fact that we knew we had the possibility of ending life on earth. Fortunately, we had the wisdom not to do that.

The fact that we finally got through the Cold War is our common inheritance. And I think that we can get through other things too. I do not believe that the current tensions truly constitute a new Cold War

The evidence of that is the fact that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov are still in close communication; they are able to work together and share some common goals, although, as former hockey players, they know they will occasionally collide on the ice.

RD: 2015 is coming to an end. What lessons should Russia and the U.S. draw from this turbulent year?

J.E.: One of the first things we should have learned one hundred years ago after World War I is that our own pre-conceived ideas and our own internal processes can lead to unforeseen circumstances and great tragedies. It is very dangerous to make facile judgments about what the other side is thinking.

And this implies we should keep the channels of communication open. We should talk when possible. Our leaders should not assume the worst motives in everything the other side does. But, most importantly, we should learn to really listen to each other. 

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President Putin has consistently expressed his ideas and thinking in his public appearances and speeches, yet there are some Washington politicians and journalists who do not really want to know what he has actually said, and, worse, probably do not care.

It is common for people in the United States to ask "What does Putin want?" but if they had been listening to what he has been saying starting with his 2007 Munich speech, they would have a much clearer idea of what he and the group around him are thinking.  We have to listen to each other more closely, and it is important to show respect to one's international partners.