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Getting Somewhere With Russia: A Q&A With Angela Stent

May 01, 2019
RM Staff

Angela StentGeorgetown University professor Angela Stent is one of the West’s foremost Russia experts, with an impressive career in both academia and government service. She currently directs the university’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies and also teaches in the department of government, which she joined in 1979. Stent has served as the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council and was an advisor to NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Her most recent book, “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest” (2019), has won praise for its “coherent, compelling analysis of contemporary Russian behavior” and for “expertly walk[ing] readers through Moscow’s relations with every region in the world, avoiding the hysteria that warps discussion of the country.” Her previous book, “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century” (2014), succeeded in explaining what many others had tried but failed to—why repeated attempts at resets with post-Soviet Russia have fizzled.

RM: What should be, in your view, the main pillars of U.S. policy toward Russia? In what areas should the U.S. seek to deter Russia and in what areas, if any, should it pursue cooperation?

AS: The first pillar of U.S. policy is to accept and deal with the Russia that is and not try to create a Russia that isn’t and has never been; that’s been part of the problem since the Soviet collapse. The relationship will always be a mixture of cooperation and competition, and sometimes adversarial relations like we’re seeing right now. On competition, you can certainly see it if you look at the Middle East, and the most obvious example today is Venezuela. Increasingly Russia and the U.S. see each other as competitors in parts of the world where they haven’t been competitors since 1991. There also has to be a strong attempt to deter Russia from further interference in U.S. domestic electoral systems. The interference will continue, and the U.S. has to be better about shoring up its own defenses, in terms of both social media and cyber. The U.S. should deter further Russian military actions, whether in Ukraine or other neighboring countries. But we also do have to cooperate. The most obvious area is arms control. We face a dangerous situation now where both countries have pulled out of the agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces [a.k.a. the INF Treaty], and the New START treaty that regulates strategic weapons will expire in 2021. And unless there is an attempt by both sides at least to prolong it for five years we will be, for the first time since 1972, without any bilateral nuclear arms control agreements. This is dangerous since, obviously, its implications for proliferation are quite negative too. Beyond that, we are cooperating in the Arctic for instance; we’ve been cooperating in space. The goal is to find those areas where we have mutual interests and can work together. It’s just that it’s particularly difficult at the moment.

RM: So, with New START expiring and the INF dead, where are we headed? Is this the end of arms control as we know it? Will we have to come up with a new concept or is it just going to be chaos essentially?

AS: It probably is the end of arms control as we know it, in terms of bilateral U.S.-Russian treaties. I wouldn’t write off the possibility of prolonging New START yet, but I think everybody understands we’re in a different world. And both Russia and the U.S. have said China needs to be part of this. China is building up its nuclear arsenal, its intermediate-range weapons, and part of the U.S. pull-out of the INF Treaty is a response to China. The Chinese have said categorically they are not interested in joining arms control negotiations with the U.S. and Russia, but that the U.S. and Russia should prolong New START. We have nine nuclear powers now. The dangers of proliferation are there. We’ve just seen another India-Pakistan crisis that was defused. And you don’t know whether one day something might get out of hand. So probably you do need a more multilateral approach to this and you need to include other countries. I still think that if the U.S. and Russia could sign an agreement, that could be a preliminary part of that and an example to others. But it won’t be what it was before because the world has changed.

RM: What about expanding the approach of arms control to the sphere of cyber? How realistic is that?

AS: It should be something the U.S. and Russia and China talk about. The U.S. has a commercial cyber agreement with China, which is very limited, but apparently works. Right now it’s very hard to imagine that the U.S. and Russia could sit down and work out a cyber agreement. The Russians have proposed this, but in this very frenzied political atmosphere in the United States I think it would be difficult. In the end you probably have to attempt some sort of discussion like that though. Otherwise, we can only imagine the kinds of very dangerous actions that different countries could take in the cyber sphere.

RM: You mentioned the “frenzied political atmosphere” and that immediately brings to mind the Mueller investigation, which has been described as a dark cloud hanging over Donald Trump’s presidency. Based on what we know so far about the Mueller report, what impact, if any, will it have on U.S. policies toward Russia and on U.S.  Russian relations?

AS: The Mueller report details Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election campaign. It appears not to prove any collusion between President Trump and the Russians. Nevertheless, I still don’t think its publication is going to make that much of a difference, because Russia has become such a toxic subject domestically in the United States; for people who oppose President Trump, Trump and Russia are often synonymous. You can see already that the Democrats in Congress will keep pushing to find out about other links. We also know that there’ll be more indictments coming out of the Mueller investigation, for instance in New York, having to do with financial improprieties, money laundering and contact between different members of the Trump organization, and even his family, and different Russian entities—banks, oligarchs. We know some of that; there may be more. And that would just reinforce the narrative that President Trump and people around him were engaged in improper activities with Russia.

RM: Before, you mentioned the need to deter Russia. Layers of sanctions have been introduced by the U.S. and EU for that specific purpose; others were meant to actually punish Russia for past behavior. Would you say they are working or not, and in what ways?

AS: As far as we know the sanctions have imposed economic costs on Russia. Some people say it’s maybe 1 percent of GDP growth; there are different figures. On the other hand, we know that the Russian countersanctions against European foodstuff imports have actually stimulated the Russian agricultural sector. They’re producing more grain, cheeses, things they didn’t produce before in that quantity. So, it’s had an economic impact certainly, and it will continue to. It doesn’t appear to have changed Russian policies, however. The sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea and the launch of the war in Donbas are tied to specific Russian behaviors. So if Russia were to come to a settlement with the Ukrainians or the Minsk agreement were somehow to be implemented, then those sanctions would begin to be removed. The problem with the U.S. sanctions imposed after 2016 is that they are now enshrined in U.S. congressional legislation, whereas they used to be by executive order, which meant that the president had the freedom to remove them. As we know with Jackson-Vanik, sanctions controlled by Congress can be a very inflexible instrument, and I think the Russians have also understood that these sanctions probably won’t be lifted for a long time. One of the problems with these sanctions is that they’re not actually tied to any Russian quid pro quos: There’s nothing in the legislation that says if Russia stops interfering in U.S. elections then we’ll start lifting the sanctions. And if you look at the sanctions against individuals who are presumed to be close to Putin, they’ve just made them more dependent on Putin. We see the Russian economy becoming more and more nationalized as some of these oligarchs have come back. They’ve brought their money back [to Russia] with them, but they’ve also suffered losses, they’ve become more dependent on the state. Is that what the sanctions are intended to do? Another example: When the sanctions against Rusal were first introduced, those implementing them didn’t realize the global nature of the aluminum industry. They had to walk back those sanctions. Mr. [Oleg] Deripaska [the Russian billionaire who controlled Rusal] is now suing the United States government. I’m not sure he’s going to win there, but I think there are a lot of unintended consequences for the global economy that people haven’t thought through. Sanctions are a very blunt instrument and I’m not sure they’re going to achieve what they’re designed to do.

RM: You’ve written in your latest book that Putin’s Russia is seeking to reverse the consequences of the Soviet collapse and renegotiate the end of the Cold War. To what end and will Putin succeed?

AS: I think Putin and the people around him really believe that Russia does have a right to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, and that means that the West should respect that the European Union and NATO should not move any closer to Russia’s borders. We know that, for instance, Ukraine and Georgia would like at some point to join the European Union and NATO. What Putin is trying to do is to ensure that that never happens. The question is will he succeed. As time goes on, and if the conflict in Ukraine becomes more intractable, for instance, one doesn’t know what the Europeans may decide. There are obviously some European countries now—like Hungary, Slovakia, Italy, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria—that take a different attitude toward Russia sanctions than do Germany, France or the U.K. In the United States we have a president who questions the value of NATO, and also suggested that Crimea did in fact belong to Russia. It’s not going to happen immediately, but, looking down the road, I don’t know how strong Western resolve will be to keep insisting on maintaining the sanctions.

RM: Speaking of Ukraine: One condition for the U.S. to improve relations with Russia, as articulated by senior U.S. officials past and present, is that Russia has to change its behavior there. Do you think Putin will change his behavior in eastern Ukraine and, if so, how and why?

AS: I don’t think Russia’s very likely to do it, because I’m not sure what would be in it for Mr. Putin and the people around him to, say, begin to withdraw from the Donbas region. The only way that could happen is if they were able to present it as a victory and that victory would presumably be a Ukrainian government that would, in fact, pass the special-status law for the Donbas, which would give it a lot of autonomy and could restrict what the Ukrainian government could do in terms of its own foreign policy and movement toward the West. It’s possible that if that happened there could be a deal. The election of a new president, Mr. [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy, could change things. But it’s too early to say what he will do.

RM: We all know Russia has intervened in Ukraine. Now we see another crisis unfolding in a different corner of the world: Do you think Russia will intervene militarily in Venezuela if there is, for instance, a popular uprising against Maduro?

AS: On one hand, we’ve seen a hundred Russian troops arrive this month and then an aircraft with food for the troops and military supplies. We know that the Russians were setting up a training center for Venezuelan pilots, and they’re using Russian helicopters. Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov and [senate speaker Valentina] Matviyenko have warned the United States not to intervene militarily. And Russia does have an economic stake there: The Venezuelans owe Russia $17 billion and they have a significant debt to Rosneft. But we do also know that there are contacts between Mr. Guaido and the Russians. He has said that if he does indeed become president, he would respect the economic and political agreements that Venezuela has with Russia. So I don’t think this is going to be Syria, because in the case of Venezuela there is an alternative; the Russians saw no alternative to Assad. In Syria intervention has been relatively cheap for Russia and there were also very strong domestic reasons why Russia intervened, to do with Russians who were fighting for the Islamic State. Those things are absent in Venezuela. And also, Venezuela’s a long way away from Russia. It would be much more expensive to intervene.

RM: You mentioned that Russia is maintaining contacts with both Maduro and Guaido. And in your book you make the point that Russia has an uncanny ability to keep talking simultaneously to sworn enemies across the globe—for example, the Shiite states and the Sunni states and Israel all at once. What is it that makes Russia so agile diplomatically?

AS: Well, unlike the Soviet era, there is no official ideology, right? In fact, I think it’s forbidden in the Russian constitution. And that gives Russia an enormous amount of flexibility. Putin deals with any government that’s in power, whether it is autocratic or democratically elected. And if you look particularly at an area like the Middle East, the United States has clearly chosen sides. Iran is the enemy and everything else derives from that. Russia doesn’t have that baggage anymore, and that’s why many countries or groups, even if they’re opposed to each other, look upon Russia as a fairly neutral arbiter. And that’s a role Mr. Putin has really played quite cleverly.

RM: So far our conversation has been based on the assumption that Vladimir Putin remains in power. But there will come a time when he is no longer in office. What kind of a leader do you see succeeding Putin, and how will the succession affect Russia’s foreign policies?

AS: That depends on how the succession occurs. If there is a managed transition—something like the model of [former President Boris] Yeltsin to Putin, although this would be different—in other words, if Mr. Putin and those around him have some say in identifying the successor, then I think that person would initially follow the same policies as Mr. Putin. Certainly that would be the case in foreign policy and in protecting the interests of the people around Mr. Putin. And that’s particularly true if it’s another Nazarbayev-type scenario,1 which we’ve just seen, where Mr. Putin leaves the presidency but becomes the head of some other body of state and is still on the scene. But, even if not, you wouldn’t see an immediate change. That doesn’t mean that a change wouldn’t come, but it would come much more slowly. If, as some people believe, Mr. Putin isn’t going to do a managed transition, and he’s going to stay much longer in office, then I think you could have greater instability. And then you don’t know: You could have someone pursuing a more hardline policy, if we’re talking about the West, or someone pursuing a more forward-looking policy. A lot of it depends on how the succession occurs.

RM: In an article in 2018 you rightly predicted that Putin is going to focus on building Russia’s relations with China in his fourth presidential term. How would you describe that relationship today? Is it an alliance, a dalliance, something else?

AS: It’s not an alliance, and neither country wants it to be an alliance. The Chinese have made that very clear; they don’t want to be bound by anything that limits their freedom of maneuver. It’s not a dalliance; it’s more serious than that. It’s, I think, a strong partnership that seems to be growing stronger. Both Russia and China believe that the post-Cold War order has neglected their interests, and has been detrimental to their goals, and they both think something has to take its place. Now I don’t think they agree on what that [new] world order looks like, but it’s not the current one. Both of them, of course, support each other domestically—they don’t criticize each other or other countries for what they’re doing domestically—and that’s another important source of mutual support. China certainly feels that Russia supports it on all major foreign policy issues—Taiwan, Tibet, the multipolar world. In the Russian case, the Chinese have acted to support Russia since the annexation of Crimea, but actually the Chinese privately have been more critical of what Russia has done in Ukraine. And when the United Nations General Assembly voted on the annexation question the Chinese abstained; they didn’t support the Russians. However, Russia and China support each other on most issues in the Security Council. So those are all of the things that draw them together. We know that the Chinese military participated for the first time in the Russian Vostok exercises last September. So that all indicates a closer relationship. But I think the Russians, on one hand, are disappointed that the Chinese have not invested more in the Russian Far East, although Russian-Chinese trade has grown now and China is Russia’s number one trading partner. But, on the other hand, there’s still wariness and there’s popular resistance in the Russian Far East to the appearance of the Chinese, to the idea that they may become too prominent in the economy there. In the end, China is obviously a rising economic power, Russia is not. Moscow can project military power certainly, but the relationship is asymmetrical. Some of my Russian colleagues say Russia accepts this role as a junior partner, and then I think you have to question, looking forward, the Belt and Road project. China is obviously much more prominent now in certain Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan and others, with that project. I don’t think there’s much in it for Russia. So you could see future tensions between the two over the Chinese presence in Central Asia, but we’re not there yet.

RM: You mentioned the post-Cold War world order. How would you characterize the most significant changes in that order so far this century? Are we headed toward another round of competition between great powers? And where do the U.S. and Russia fit in?

AS: Until 2014 the West believed that there was a post-Cold War rules-based international order where different countries accepted the borders of the post-Soviet states and they adhered to certain codes of conduct. I think that’s not true anymore. The Russians keep talking about this post-Cold War era of multilateralism and different rules of the game and no more U.S. hegemony. Now what do the Russians mean? If you read the scholarly community or the think tank people, they talk a lot about the 19th-century concert of powers, when Russia was one of four or five great powers dominating Europe. And then, of course, Mr. Putin has mentioned Yalta several times quite favorably—that it ensured the peace and it was a good system, so one assumes maybe what they’re thinking about is a kind of 21st-century Yalta, with China, Russia and the U.S. having their own spheres of influence and accepting and respecting the spheres of influence of the other powers. Beyond that, I think in a way the Russians agree with the Chinese that there should be a different international financial system not so dominated by the United States. We see de-dollarization going on in Russia, and the Russians receiving payments in other currencies, including the yuan. Again, we’re not there yet, but I think that’s how they would conceive of it. Whatever else it is, it’s a world order where Russia has agency in a way that it feels it hasn’t since the Soviet collapse.

RM: A 2018 Brookings report that you coauthored warns that U.S. “policymakers should be modest in assessing Russia’s internal trajectory over the coming years, let alone trying to shape it directly.” Why is that?

AS: Because if you look at the evidence since 1991, I think that the U.S. and the West in general have not been very successful in affecting what was happening domestically in Russia, both in terms of the development of its economic system and certainly in the development of its political system. And it’s produced a counter-reaction: U.S. NGOs have largely been thrown out, democracy promotion has stopped. Some of the European NGOs are still there, but they’re very careful about what they do. So (a) the Russian leadership really doesn’t want that and (b) it hasn’t been very effective.

RM: What could be done better to make Russia policy more effective, more realistic—especially, to bridge the gap between Russia experts and policymakers?

AS: On one hand, in academia you have to be careful because some of the trends, at least in political science, involve such abstract theories and approaches to studying comparative politics or international relations that it’s very hard to see their relevance for actually understanding and dealing with Russia. Often political scientists are kind of a closed circle; they speak to each other in a jargon that doesn’t necessarily have much relevance. What I also notice, however, in the U.S. government is that there’s a lack of expertise on Russia, and now many policymakers just use the adjective “malign” whenever they talk about Russia, and it devalues the term; it doesn’t really mean anything. There is a real need to have more interaction. My impression is that in the Trump administration there’s been less of an attempt to engage the expert community on Russia than in previous administrations. That needs to start up again, and there needs to be more engagement. There are some programs—the Bridging the Gap program, for example—that are very important initiatives and I think you need to have more of that.

RM: Speaking of Russia expertise, what would be the top five books on post-Soviet Russia you would recommend to our readers?

AS: In terms of the expert academic community, certainly Fiona Hill and Cliff Gaddy’s book “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” is very good. And the other one, if you’re thinking about foreign policy, is William Hill’s ”No Place for Russia” because it describes very well why we’re in a situation where Russia has no stake in the Euro-Atlantic order. And then the other three are by journalists: Arkady Ostrovsky’s “The Invention of Russia” is very good, as is Shaun Walker’s “The Long Hangover” because it really describes the way the contemporary Russian leadership uses history to put forward its political message. And a fun book that explains those aspects of Russia that are hard for a Westerner to grasp is Peter Pomerantsev’s “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.”

RM: One final question before we wrap it up: What would be your advice to future generations of Russia experts?

AS: Well, I encourage them! They should exist, they should study the language, they should travel to the country. We always have to remember that the Kremlin and the White House don’t speak for everyone. You have to maintain contacts between American and Russian citizens to the extent you can, and of course it’s much more difficult now. But just remember there’s a broader Russian society out there, and try to create and foster those links. Ironically, in some ways we had more links in the late Soviet period between Americans and Russians, Soviet citizens, than we do now. So recreate some of those and just continue to pursue the study and don’t abandon it.

Transcribed by student associate Liam McParland.


  1. Nursultan Nazarbayev was the president of Kazakhstan for nearly 30 years before stepping down in 2019 while maintaining authority under the newly created title of “leader of the nation.”

Photo by BohunkaNika shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.