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Angela Stent on Russia: Insights and Recommendations

October 12, 2017
RM Staff

This evolving compilation of observations and policy ideas about Russia by eminent Russia expert and Georgetown professor Angela Stent is part of Russia Matters’ “Competing Views” rubric, where we share prominent American thinkers’ alternative takes on U.S.-Russian relations, Russia itself and America’s policies toward this country.

Dr. Stent has had an impressive career in both government service and academia, cementing herself as one of the West's foremost Russia experts. She currently directs the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, where she also teaches in the department of government, which she joined in 1979. Dr. Stent has served as the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council and, most recently, she was an advisor to NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. She has written for nearly four decades on Russia, the U.S. and Germany and is a regular commentator both on television and in major news publications. Her most recent book, “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century” (2014), explores the history of modern U.S.-Russia relations with rigorous research and deep but dispassionate insight.

This compilation of Dr. Stent’s thoughts is just a sampling from her prolific career. The quotes below are divided into categories similar to those in Russia Matters’ news and analysis digests, reflecting the most pertinent topic areas for U.S.-Russian relations broadly and for drivers of the two countries’ policies toward one another.

Bulleted text that is not italicized, bracketed or in parentheses is a direct quote from Dr. Stent. All sections may be updated with new or past statements.

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Nuclear security:

  • To be updated.

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • It "is complicated for Russia" to balance between a desire to end the standoff between Iran and the West and a fear of Iranian oil flooding the market: (New York Times, 11.03.14)

New and original Cold Wars:

  • Yet this is not the start of Cold War II, and Russia is not America’s antagonist. But nor is it an ally. The two sides disagree on a wide range of questions. Yet there are critical international issues—such as Iran and Syria—on which progress is not likely without some cooperation. The challenge is not to try again to “reset” bilateral relations, but rather to find—once the Ukrainian crisis abates—a basis on which the two sides can collaborate where their interests overlap. (Project Syndicate, 03.26.14)
  • Rhetoric about the possibility of nuclear war emanates from Moscow. While this is not the Cold War that existed prior to the Soviet collapse, the harsh, adversarial rhetoric and military posturing certainly feel like the Cold War without the channels of communication that operated then. (Carnegie Moscow Center, 10.31.16)
  • As the world’s two major nuclear powers, the United States and Russia continue to operate partly within a Cold War framework where nuclear and security issues dominate the relationship, and these inevitably involve a limited number of players. The United States and Russia are not natural economic partners. (Survival, 11.30.12)
  • The ideological antagonism of the Cold War may be gone, but Russia now defines itself as an alternative civilizational and social model. Pointedly, Russia claims that it is a status quo power, contrasting itself with the U.S., which it calls a “revisionist” power seeking to destabilize the world by promoting regime change, especially in the Arab world. The Kremlin also views the U.S. as a source of instability in the former Soviet space and blames the West for the Ukrainian unrest. (Project Syndicate, 03.26.14)
  • Relations between Russia and the West are worse than at any time since before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. (Carnegie Moscow Center, 10.31.16)

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • On Russia’s opposition to NATO’s expansion: The Russian argument is: “We are a great power. This is our sphere of influence. Just because the Soviet Union collapsed does not mean that NATO can expand on our border.” (The Los Angeles Times, 08.13.08)
  • On bilateral tensions ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election: This is the most dangerous time since I don't know when. … Russia understands they have another couple of months until January where nothing much is going to happen, and why not take advantage of that. (CNN, 10.18.16)
  • Russia remains resentful that the United States never took seriously the need to redesign Euro-Atlantic security structures after the Georgia War and largely ignored President Dmitry Medvedev’s 2009 proposal to create a new, legally binding Euro-Atlantic super-treaty, one that American and European officials believe would have restricted NATO’s ability to operate effectively. (Survival, 11.30.12)
  • On Russian supply routes to U.S. troops in Afghanistan: We need more from them than they need from us at the moment. (New York Times, 06.13.12)

Missile defense:

  • Moscow believes, however, that there are limits to perezagruzka if the United States insists on implementing its missile defense program, refuses to consider a new European Security treaty and supports regime change in the Arab world. (From Stent’s book “The Limits of Partnership,” 2014)

Nuclear arms control:

  • With New START set to expire in 2021 and the INF treaty in doubt, restarting arms control negotiations should be a priority. (The National Interest, 11.28.16)


  • Russia supported the U.S. view that it was entirely appropriate to use military force to defeat terrorism—indeed, the U.S. concept was used to justify Russia’s own campaign in Chechnya. (From Stent’s book “The Limits of Partnership,” 2014)

Conflict in Syria:

  • [I]t will be a continuing challenge for Moscow and Washington to work together in Syria to combat ISIS. But short of more robust and direct U.S. military engagement—for which there is little domestic support after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—Washington has limited options. (Foreign Affairs, 12.14.15
  • Russia's actions [in Syria] are designed to guarantee that Moscow will have a decisive say in who rules Syria, even in a hypothetical post-Assad future. … The Syrian gambit is thus part of a broader move to recoup Russian influence in the Middle East. (Foreign Affairs, 12.14.15)

Cyber security:

  • Resuming talks over a U.S-Russian cyber agreement and restoring high-level military channels might be possible. Western relations with Russia have always been compartmented with elements of cooperation and disagreement coexisting. (Carnegie Moscow Center, 10.31.16)

Elections interference:

  • Putin is still recovering from belittling remarks [that Obama made when he described the country as a regional power]. … It's a way of reasserting Russia. Whatever the truth, Russia is back. (The Washington Post, 09.16.16)

Energy exports:

  • On the sanctions bill passed by the U.S. Congress in 2017: As currently written, it will not only continue to penalize Russia but will also penalize American and European businesses because of its restrictions on energy projects that involve Russian companies. Specifically, the bill seeks to prevent the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would export Russian gas under the Baltic Sea to Europe. Germany supports the pipeline as the most cost-effective way to meet future gas demand, as do most—but certainly not all—of its EU partners. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, has warned that the sanctions bill “could have unintended unilateral effects that impact the EU's energy security interests.” He added that “if our concerns are not taken into account sufficiently, we stand ready to act appropriately within a matter of days.” (The National Interest, 07.28.17)
  • Merkel's challenge is to persuade her European colleagues to engage the Kremlin, while minimizing potential energy disruptions from a Russia quarreling with its neighbors. … While Brussels and Berlin debate how to deal with their large and increasingly self-confident, energy-rich neighbor, there is no consensus within the EU about how other post-Soviet republics should factor into Russia policy. (The National Interest, 03.01.07)
  • Nowhere was the symbiotic relationship between the political and the commercial more evident than in Russia’s rise as an energy power—arguably the most significant aspect of Putin’s foreign policy, combining traditional geopolitics with instruments from the world of globalization to implement them. (Europe-Asia Studies, 07.18.08)
  • Russians did not use all the economic benefits of the growth era. It's still very much a petro-state. (The Wall Street Journal, 02.02.09)

Bilateral economic ties and sanctions:

  • Why Putin fights against sanctions, instead of changing behavior: He has to appear tough, to look as if he’s done the patriotic thing in striking back against U.S. sanctions. (The Los Angeles Times, 08.03.17)
  • On the sanctions passed by Congress against Russia in 2017: This kind of legislation is a blunt instrument. Once passed, as the history of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment shows (it remained in place for thirty-eight years), it will probably stay on the books for longer than necessary and remove the flexibility and leverage that a president could have in dealing with Russia. (The National Interest, 07.28.17)
  • [The presidential administration] should focus on creating more U.S. stakeholders by promoting more bilateral trade and investment [with Russia]. (From Stent’s book “The Limits of Partnership,” 2014)

Other bilateral issues, including key issues for negotiation:

  • Trump said in his inaugural speech that we will not get involved in other countries’ domestic affairs, suggesting that we are backing off from regime change and democracy promotion. That is music to Putin’s ears. … The hints … suggest that Trump acknowledges Russia’s “sphere of privileged interests” in the post-Soviet space, as Putin likes to call it, and that the U.S. won’t interfere there. (Financial Times, 02.09.17)
  • On the decline in Russia expertise in the U.S.: When we've all retired, 10, 20 years down the road, I don't know how many people will be left with this area of expertise. (New York Times, 03.06.14)
  • There are conservatives here [in America] who maybe read into Russia things they wish were true in the United States. … And they imagine Russia and Putin as the kind of strong, traditional conservative leader whom they wish they had in the United States. … [To these conservatives] Russia is the true defender of Christian values. We are decadent. (New York Times, 07.14.17)
  • I think he [Donald Trump] genuinely admires Putin as a strongman who gets things done. … Everybody pays attention to him [Putin]. (New York Times, 09.08.16)
  • Since the Soviet collapse, Russia has been an issue in every U.S. presidential election campaign. (Survival, 11.30.12)
  • On President Obama considering canceling a 2013 trip to Russia: If you look at the major issues—Syria, nuclear arms, missile defense—it doesn't look like there would be anything to sign. … The question is, what would they do? (New York Times, 08.01.13)
  • The United States should continue negotiating with Russia over both Syria and Ukraine, but it should only open an intensified dialogue with the Kremlin if and when the Russian leadership is genuinely interested in offering constructive proposals. The gap between U.S. and Russian interests in both cases is significant. (The Washington Post, 08.18.16)
  • The experience of the past sixteen years suggests that Putin is a pragmatic leader willing to make deals if he believes they are in Russia’s interest. (Carnegie Moscow Center, 10.31.16)
  • On how President Trump should approach Russia: Perhaps a more fruitful way would be to begin with smaller steps instead of pursuing a Grand Bargain. The demonization of the United States is woven into the current fabric of the Russian body politic and will not easily be removed. But with pragmatic leaders in the White House and the Kremlin, better ties might gradually be restored. (The National Interest, 11.28.16)
  • Nonetheless, the U.S.-Russia relationship has always been compartmentalized, and there are pressing multilateral issues on which the U.S. must work with Russia, particularly Syria, Iran and Afghanistan (where the U.S. will withdraw its troops this year). Whereas the U.S. and Russia disagree about how to end the Syrian civil war, they have cooperated in disarming Syria of its chemical weapons. Similarly, neither side wants to see Iran develop a nuclear-weapons capability. (Project Syndicate, 03.26.14)
  • Though even after two decades the tone of the Cold War is often invoked, Russia no longer represents the bilateral foreign-policy preoccupation for U.S. policymakers that the USSR once did. Nevertheless, Russia’s geo-strategic position as the world’s largest continental power, its nuclear-weapons arsenal and its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council will ensure that it remains a key partner for the United States. (Survival, 11.30.12)
  • Continuing to isolate Russia is not likely to work. Instead, the next U.S. administration should clearly communicate to the Kremlin what American interests and values are and join with U.S. allies in resisting further Russian attempts to unravel the post-Cold War order. (Foreign Affairs, 12.14.15)
  • It’s Iran, it’s the U.N., it’s all the counterterrorism and counternarcotics programs, Syria, Venezuela, Hamas—there are any number of issues over which they [Russia] can be less cooperative than they’ve been. … And of course, energy. (New York Times, 08.21.08)
  • Things are unlikely to look so different under a Trump administration from the way they did under the Obama administration, barring some major new revelation about Russian activities during the election campaign last year. That should not be surprising, since the basic issues that confront the United States and Russia have not really changed that much over the past decade. (The National Interest, 08.17.17)
  • I was skeptical from the beginning that it would be possible for the United States and Russia, after all that happened in the last few years, to engage in a successful reset. … What's surprising is how quickly we returned to the status quo ante we had at the end of the Obama administration. (New York Times, 04.12.17)

II. Russia’s domestic developments

Politics, economy and energy:

  • On the evolution of Russian politics: For the U.S., this means recognizing Russia for what it is: a large, still-important country with a hybrid political system and serious domestic economic, demographic and political challenges. Russia’s post-Soviet evolution is a matter of many decades and will not occur in a linear fashion. Its worldview is sharply at odds with that of the U.S. and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But a cold peace is preferable to a cold war. (Project Syndicate, 03.26.14)
  • Russia’s economic situation has deteriorated because of economic mismanagement, falling oil prices and Western sanctions imposed after the Crimean annexation. But the Kremlin has skillfully played a weak hand by appealing to patriotism. It blamed the United States for Russia’s economic problems and launched an air campaign in Syria last September that forced the United States to negotiate and recognize its enhanced international role. (The Washington Post, 08.18.16)
  • [W]e need to understand the domestic motivations for Russia’s actions. Recent shakeups in top leadership—most notably the firing of Vladimir Putin’s longtime aide Sergei Ivanov and the creation of Putin’s own Praetorian Guard to protect him both from a “color” revolution and a palace coup—suggest that the president remains focused on ensuring that the September elections to the Russian Duma and his own re-election in 2018 are carefully managed to prevent a repetition of 2011, when tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest what people believed were falsified elections results. Putin blamed Hillary Clinton for the demonstrations. (The Washington Post, 08.18.16)
  • On Putin and Russia's 2018 presidential election: You'd think “why is he worried,” but there's clearly concern on some level … and this [pushing back against the West] shores up his popularity. (CNN, 10.18.16)
  • It helps to have an enemy if people are feeling the economic pinch. … If people think we're going to be at war with the U.S., they forget about the cost of food. (CNN, 10.18.16)
  • Anti-Americanism became a central theme of Putin’s campaign in reaction to the rise of an unexpected opposition protest movement after the contested December 2011 Duma election … It [the Putin team] blamed the United States for financing the protests, an accusation that found resonance with Putin’s provincial working-class base. (Survival, 11.30.12)

Defense and aerospace:

  • To be updated.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • To be updated.

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • For President Putin, whose mission has been to restore Russia’s role on the world stage and negate what he sees as the disastrous legacy of the 1990s, the fundamental goal is to have the United States treat Russia as though it were the Soviet Union. That means recognizing it as a fully sovereign great power whose smaller neighbors enjoy only limited sovereignty, and America’s equal whose legitimate interests must be respected. The goal would be to create a new tripartite Yalta system, where the United States, Russia and China agree to divide the world into spheres of influence. (The National Interest, 08.17.17)
  • The eternal question of whether Russia really belongs to Europe complicates the EU-Russia relationship. Putin has said "Russia is a natural member of the 'European family' in spirit, history and culture," though he has made it clear that Russia does not seek to join the EU. But Russians have become disillusioned with Europe's lecturing of them and remain divided over whether to join Europe or pursue a Eurasian path. Despite this mutual ambivalence, and though Russia is a challenging partner, the EU as a whole remains committed to encouraging the Kremlin to become more European. The alternative is a more obstructionist Russia isolated from the West. (The National Interest, 03.01.07)
  • Countless times … Russia has vowed to replace what it sees as a coercive U.S.-led global order with one in which the West respects Russia's interests. In retrospect, Russia's war with Georgia in August 2008 signaled Moscow's willingness to use force to prevent its neighbors from drifting toward the West and to reassert its influence in areas that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. But the United States and its allies have repeatedly underestimated Russia's determination to revise the global order that Moscow feels the West has imposed on Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. (Foreign Affairs, 12.14.15)
  • One of Putin's greatest goals is to assure Russia is treated as if it was still the Soviet Union, a nuclear power that has to be respected and feared … and he thought he might get that from Trump. (New York Times, 07.31.17)
  • Putin fears that chaos in the Middle East will strengthen Islamic extremism on Russia’s borders, in the neighboring states of the former Soviet Union, and potentially in Russia itself. (Foreign Affairs, 12.14.15)


  • Perhaps because relations between Russia and China were so antagonistic for much of the Soviet period, the contrast between normalized Moscow-Beijing ties and what preceded them (armed conflict in 1969, for instance) has led some analysts to overestimate the current relationship. (Europe-Asia Studies, 07.18.08)


  • As long as Russia supports the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has already claimed 10,000 lives, U.S. sanctions should remain in place. The United States should consider enhancing its own military presence in Europe and needs to deter any further attempts by Russia to destabilize its neighboring countries. The Russia challenge is long-term and will likely outlast both the next U.S. president’s term and Putin’s time in office. (The Washington Post, 08.18.16)

  • Ukraine remains another major stumbling block to improved ties. The appointment of Ambassador Kurt Volker as special envoy for Ukraine is a welcome development. But the prospects for the Minsk agreement being fulfilled are not good. Secretary Tillerson has hinted that there may be a way forward outside of Minsk, but that will require imagination and determination on all sides to resolve the conflict. (The National Interest, 08.17.17)

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • U.S. protestations over Russia's incursion into Georgia probably would strike Russians as hypocritical, coming from a nation that invaded Iraq—a country not even on its borders. (The Los Angeles Times, 08.13.08)
  • The Putin legacy in the Commonwealth of Independent States is mixed; with gains in Central Asia and losses in the Western newly independent states and the South Caucasus. (Europe-Asia Studies, 07.18.08)

IV. Quoteworthy

  • On Trump and the 2017 Munich Conference: You come [to the Munich Conference] and you realize that the biggest source of instability in the world right now is not Russia. It's the United States. (The Washington Post, 02.18.17)

Photo credit: Photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, shared via Flickr. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.