What Susan Rice’s promotion to National Security Adviser means for U.S.-Russian relations.


Photo source: AP

From now on, the White House’s national security team has a new bold, professional and outspoken player in its lineup. Susan Rice, who has been the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations since 2009, is leaving New York for Washington, DC, to become a key foreign policy official in Barack Obama’s administration. With such a tough negotiator and a hawkish proponent of humanitarian interventions as national security adviser, U.S.-Russian relations may face new challenges.

It was right in the middle of the Syrian crisis that Susan Rice not-so-diplomatically asserted that Russia, along with China, bears full responsibility for the ongoing massacre in Syria. Moreover, according to Rice, Washington was not only “disgusted” by Moscow and Beijing’s stance in the UN Security Council regarding Syria, but these countries also have “any future bloodshed on their hands.”

Hypocrisy aside, for Russians it was really somewhat stunning to hear such a statement from the representative of a country with a well-known and not-so-encouraging record in Iraq and Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of people died over the past 10 years.

Current National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, 58, is stepping down next month, after serving an impressive term in the White House. Six weeks ago, it was none other than Donilon who traveled to Moscow and brought a personal letter from Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Last month, the Secretary of Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev took a trip to Washington to deliver an envelope with a reply from president Putin. In DC, Patrushev reportedly received a warm welcome from Donilon, who had been working hard to if not salvage the well-known “reset” policy, then at least to prevent further deterioration in the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Although the details of unusual, 19th-century-like president-to-president written communications were kept secret, it was clear that both Obama and Putin were intentionally using their close confidants to convey a very simple message: “Let’s melt the ice and get to work together.”

With looming meetings between the U.S. and Russian presidents later this month on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland and the upcoming G20 gathering in St. Petersburg in September, there is little doubt that communication between the national security adviser and Russia’s Security Council secretary is going to be a crucial part of the high-level dialogue.

However, it remains far from clear whether career diplomat Susan Rice, 48, is going to bury the hatchet of oral war with Russia after moving to the White House. Moreover, it is most likely that Patrushev, 62, who is the former head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) will have less personal chemistry with her than with Donilon.

Victor Kremenyuk of Moscow’s Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies thinks that Susan Rice has harder views on Russia than other members of the Obama administration.

“She doesn’t like Russia and believes that it is possible to talk to Russia in a tougher manner,” he said, adding that Rice’s promotion to national security adviser marks a certain adjustment of U.S. policy toward Moscow, and that “may be felt during the upcoming meeting of both countries’ leaders during the G8 summit.”

But American experts disagree. Matthew Rojansky, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “This promotion it is not representative of a policy change, and represents continuity.” He expects that “Susan Rice will continue to be involved in negotiations with Russia over Syria and other issues that she dealt with at the UN Security Council.”

According to Rojansky, “One major benefit for U.S.-Russian relations is that although she is known as a tough negotiator, Rice has a longstanding working relationship with her Russian counterparts.”

Indeed, a Russian official who works with the Russian mission to the UN confirmed that although Susan Rice and Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin often trade very heated rhetoric during their official and private meetings in New York, sometimes almost “shouting at each other,” Russian diplomats consider Rice a “pragmatist.”

Meanwhile, Paul Saunders of the Center for The National Interest believes that “with respect to Russia, in her public comments ambassador Rice often appears to view Russia primarily as an obstacle, rather than a potential partner.”

“Still, president Obama is the one who sets the administration’s policy toward Moscow, and thus far, he has generally tried to improve relations,” he said.