In a packed hall in downtown Seattle in late January, the Jackson Foundation and the World Affairs Council hosted a remarkably timely discussion on U.S.-Russian relations in the Trump era. The Foundation had the opportunity to showcase Andrei Kozyrev, the former Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation. In opening comments, I reminded the audience that Kozyrev was a historic figure in modern Russian political life, who with President Boris Yeltsin helped to dismantle the USSR and worked to better relations with both the U.S. and Europe during the early 1990s. Kozyrev had extraordinary hopes for Russia’s democratic evolution in those heady years. In a lively conversation and question and answer session moderated by former CNN Moscow Bureau Chief and veteran Russia-watcher Jill Dougherty, Kozyrev indicated he remains hopeful about the essential spirit of the Russian people, despite having soured on Putin and his policies in the many years (17) Putin has been in control. In response to a question as to whether the Russian people seek a strongman and gravitate to authoritarianism, Kozyrev said “I witnessed the protests of the Russian people at the Russian White House when tanks surrounded us. I saw thousands of ordinary Russians who surrounded the building in a human wall against the tanks. That was the Russian people speaking.” Emphasizing that Russia’s poor relative wealth to the rest of Europe will inevitably take its toll, and stressing that Russians are in essence Europeans, he said that “I tend to believe that sooner or later the Russian people will want more.”
Kozyrev was upfront about what he thought Putin wanted from President Trump: “Putin now has a sense of entitlement, wants President Trump to give him “payback” for his help in the election,” Kozyrev said, citing the champagne celebration in the Duma as reflecting the overall elation that greeted Trump’s victory in Russia. And yet the former Foreign Minister was scathing in his assessment of Putin and his alleged political smarts: “While Putin is perceived as a man of strategy and strength, it is not anywhere shown in his actions,” noting the bombing of Aleppo, which raises the discontent of Sunni Muslims worldwide, and particularly within Russia. “Is that a smart strategy?” he asked rhetorically. He also decried Putin’s policy in Eastern Ukraine, stressing that Russia will be “stuck there” indefinitely, as well as tied into federal subsidies in the Russian-grabbed territory of Crimea from now on. He characterized both as “a total disaster, with no exit in sight in both places” (Ukraine and Syria).
Kozyrev also referred to Russia’s economic situation as very stretched and said that President Trump, in negotiating a new relationship with Russia or considering the lifting of economic sanctions, should take into account that Russia’s economy is 13 times smaller than the U.S. economy – and dwarfed by the economies of the U.S. and European allies taken as a whole. “With an overextended foreign policy, two wars without any prospect of winning,” Putin doesn’t have much to bargain with. Yes, they will find areas to cooperate on – citing Iran as a good example, and the space programs – but the Russians won’t bargain where they don’t see their own self-interest, he predicted.
The Seattle crowd seemed particularly moved by Kozyrev’s answer to a question as to why Boris Yeltsin had chosen Vladimir Putin to succeed him, so many years ago. “Yeltsin was a limited political figure,” Kozyrev explained. “While he used democratic slogans, his understanding of democracy was skin-deep.” When Russia faced major challenges (such as oil prices as low as $10 barrel), Yeltsin fell back on who he was, which was a creature of the Soviet political structure. And fellow democrats, Kozyrev included, could not come up with a younger, viable alternative political figure. In that, “we failed,” Kozyrev concluded. The audience appreciated Kozyrev’s candor on both current U.S.-Russia relations and the historical perspective.
Lara Iglitzin, Executive Director