RD Interview: Stanford University’s Kathryn Stoner offers her views on what needs to be done next to fix U.S.-Russian relations. One long-term opportunity, she says, is the promotion of peer-to-peer programs that engage young Russians and Americans.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walk together before their meeting in Moscow Tuesday, Dec. 15. Photo: AP

Russia Direct sat down with Stanford University’s Kathryn Stoner to discuss the recent visit of U.S. Secretary John Kerry to Moscow, the challenges facing U.S.-Russia relations and the nature and the roots of mutual misunderstanding between the U.S. and Russia. In addition, Stoner analyzes the potential of peer-to-peer programs in bringing the two countries together.

Russia Direct: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow this week after the Russian and American presidents had several meetings on the sidelines of the G20 Summit and the UN Climate Change Summit in Paris. Is it a good sign?

Kathryn Stoner: I think it is significant, yes. However, I would not interpret the these meetings as a definitive thaw in relations. Although the U.S. wants to get some sort of ceasefire and possible peace agreement in Syria, I don’t think we should expect a close partnership over other issues any time soon. The U.S. will not do anything substantive with Russia until Russian forces pull out of Eastern Ukraine. Mr. Putin has evidently acknowledged this in his most recent annual press conference with the Russian people.

RD: The Kremlin denies its involvement in Eastern Ukraine.

K.S.: What Russia says they are doing there is different than what we think they are doing. That [Russia’s pullback of its support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine] would be a very good first step in terms of building up goodwill with the United States. Until that’s done, it is very unlikely it is going to be any kind of strong or close relationship, which is frankly bad for both countries.         

Kathryn Stoner, senior fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Photo: Russia Direct

RD: Some experts who participated in the 2015 ASEEES convention argue that the Kremlin is seeking to break the international rules, but cannot come up with new ones. In contrast, Russia believes that the West is not committed to international norms and repeatedly accusing it of double standards.  Amidst this background, it is almost impossible to find common ground between Putin and Obama and future American presidents. What is your take?

K.S.:  It’s too late for Russia to re-establish relations with Mr. Obama, but Mr. Putin has to adjust to the possibility that the next president of the United States will be Hillary Clinton, who will peruse effectively the same policy with Russia as Mr. Obama has in last two or three years.

That is, that policy is not going to be softened at all. In the recent Republican presidential candidate debate, several of the candidates expressed even tougher stances toward Russia, and Mr. Putin personally, but much of this is just posturing for their constituents here in the U.S.

I think the big issue is that Russia has grievances with a post-Cold war settlement and some of those are legitimate, including to some degree, NATO expansion, but U.S. policy makers see this very differently from Russia. They don’t see NATO expansion as being purposely aggressive, nor do they consider NATO expansion aimed at containing Russia – at least not until recently.

Also read: "Obama vs. Putin: Mutual finger-pointing deepens ideological clash"

They see it as sovereign nations in Eastern Europe asking to join NATO and declaring themselves, more generally, closer to Europe than to Russia.

And I think Putin and his team should understand that this is the choice coming from sovereign nations, not from countries that are still under the sphere of Russia’s historical influence. And that’s just a fundamental disagreement; it is not going to be easy to re-negotiate with any subsequent American leader.

RD: If so, the Kremlin would better understand what exactly it gets wrong about the United States in general and about the American president specifically. So, what are the major flaws in Russia’s approaches toward the U.S.?  

K.S.:  Actually, it is difficult to understand the American process for anybody who is not American. For any leader of Russia it is likely very difficult to understand that the President of the United States does not have the same kind of decision-making flexibility as the President of Russia has.

Here in the United States we have a lot of interests to take into account and the U.S. is an increasingly divided country. The elections are very meaningful and the process is protracted, the length of the primary season is very protracted. And an American president has to bring any decision-making on most of the very important foreign policy issues to the Congress and the Senate.

With a divided government now (that is, the Democrats holding the White House and the Republicans having a majority in Congress), it is hard to get agreement on new initiatives. The other issue is that the Republican party itself is very divided, making decision making and governance even more of a challenge in Congress in particular.

In addition, just as Russia feels it has responsibility to Russian speakers in different parts of the world, the U.S. leadership feels it has responsibility for protecting human rights and this is not a new thing. This is not something that is likely to change between administrations, but we actually believe in democracy and we believe we want to fight for democracies.

It’s as much a security argument as it is a normative argument: historically, democracies since the end of the Second World War have not fought each other, so we have an interest in promoting democracy in order to promote more peaceful international relations.

Russia's foreign policy in 2015, as seen by experts. Video by Pavel Koshkin and Ilaria Kantorova

So, the view of the world is very different. Mr. Putin seems to attribute a lot to the power of the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States, but the CIA is not the driver of American policy. It is also just not capable of fomenting Maidan or something like that, there is just no reliable evidence that Maidan was a foreign plot. It was unhappy Ukrainians protesting a corrupt President.

RD: The Kremlin’s foreign policy has been a big surprise for the West in 2015. In your view, what has driven Russia when it kept supporting rebels in Donbas and launched a military gambit in Syria? 

K.S.: The major drivers of the Russian foreign policy this year would be Mr. Putin’s desire to re-establish Russia in international relations and what the Russian leadership sees as the rightful place in the international system, that Russia is a great power that has the right to reassert itself.

Recommended: "What price will Moscow pay for its 2015 foreign policy moves in 2016?"

Mr. Putin is also seeking to end Russia’s isolation in the international community, especially, in respect to some countries of Europe and the United States. And that’s partly what brought Putin into Syria as well, I think. Finally Russia has its own Islamic terrorist worries that are also related to involvement in Syria. I suppose what has surprised American policy makers the most, though, is that Russia would seek to undertake the Syrian intervention at a time when its economy is doing so poorly.  

RD: What do American leaders and politicians get wrong about Russia’s political system, in your view?

K.S.: There is a misunderstanding about how threatening NATO’s expansion looks to Russia, there is a limited understanding of that. We see the expansion as very benign, that we didn’t invite and that Poland and Romania would like to come to NATO rather than being asked to come in.

Also, frankly, we have a very limited interest in Ukraine or in Georgia: It is not like there is a huge Ukrainian or Georgian diaspora that is going to sway elections in the U.S.  But the Russian government is very nervous about NATO on its borders. I think the U.S. underestimates how nervous Russian leaders are about this.

Although Mr. Putin may see American hands in every thing, we just don’t have strategic interest there and right now, any American president is thinking in terms of the Unites States’ strategic interest after, particularly, these two disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is really no interest in putting troops on the ground in Ukraine or in having a big permanent NATO presence in Western Europe. So, this is Russia’s misunderstanding.  

In the U.S., I think there is confusion about what the Russian political system is. It seems to be increasingly authoritarian, where individual rights are being limited and NGOs, for example, are being closed down; however, on the other hand, Mr. Putin’s approval rating seems to be very high. It is hard for American liberal democrats to understand how both things can happen at the same time. 

RD: Yes, despite the economic crisis Russia is currently facing, the support for Putin is not decreasing, but, instead, increasing.  How can you account for it?

K.S.:  Mr. Putin is still popular in Russia despite the economic crisis because there is no real alternative to him in the political sphere. There is no effective opposition that would present an alternative vision for Russia. And also, for a while at least, nationalism and patriotism can help people to get through the economic crisis. In addition, Crimea is viewed as a legitimate part of Russia.

And, finally, the economic crisis has been blamed more on the sanctions by the West as opposed to Russia’s policy and not diversifying the economy. But I think the reasonable question is how long people hang on, you can’t eat nationalism and patriotism. It remains to be seen.

RD: What is your recommendation to the next American president of how to deal with Russia?

K.S.:  There is a kind of neo-containment strategy in terms of political actors unless Russia pulls out of Ukraine. I think [returning] Crimea would be ideal as well, but at least, withdrawing from Donbass would be good.

But I would recommend looking beyond the immediate administration in Russia or in the United States, because Russian society is complex, there are different strains of opinion within Russian society and I think what we‘ll have to do is fostering more person-to-person, peer-to-peer dialogue and all sorts of such programs as we did in the 1980s and the early 1990s.

RD: Given the fact the current Russia-West differences affected educational exchanges, do you think that peer-to-peer programs will be viable and effective in such politically charged atmosphere when even a think tank like Moscow Carnegie Center is accused of being a channel for promoting the Kremlin’s view?

K.S.: That’s why I think they [peer-to-peer programs] will be [effective] in the long-term. And it also has to go to a younger generation of people under 30, who don’t necessarily have memories of the Soviet Union, who don’t’ necessarily care about whether or not Russia owns Crimea as much as they want to do business. And business now is done globally.

One of the most valuable things I’ve seen over last two years while dealing with Russia’s students and academics (which I do regularly) is actually the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF) program: listening to the perspectives of young Russians and Americans, hearing how they argue among one another (Russians with Russians, and Americans with Americans, that is).

To know more about SURF read: "SURFing the new wave in US-Russia relations"

One of things you appreciate when you travel is that when you talk about Russia or the United Sates, there are many aspects of Russia and the United States. As one of my colleagues says: “There is no “Mr. Russia.” I find it eye-opening.

Diplomacy in action: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft, out for a walk along the Old Arbat in Moscow, interacting with everyday Russians. Photo: U.S. Embassy in Moscow

RD: What do you think about the current state of Russian Studies in the United States given the fact that some claim that America lacks good experts on Russia?

K.S.:  Money has been put into the study of Arabic as opposed to the study of the Russian language, because the opinion under the Bush administration was that the Cold War was over and Russia was done.  So, we should put more money in Russia Studies until we start seeing the interest in rejuvenating the study of Russian in American academia.

RD: Could American Studies in Russia and Russian Studies in the U.S. be a sort of academic soft power tool to improve relations between the two?

K.S.: Yes, again, student exchanges can increase [to a certain] extent peer-to-peer dialogue and that’s a generational issue. But putting more money from both sides in these fields to bring together academic and business people from each country would be great.

After all, now we have a national security interest in a stable and prosperous Russia. It means if Russia is liberalized and becomes democratic, this will be better for the U.S. , because a lot of the U.S. foreign policy, regardless of whether it is run by a Democratic or Republican president, is based on the idea of democratic peace and the concept that “democracies don’t fight democracies.”

This is not just the line, but it has penetrated the American foreign policy establishment pretty thoroughly. This is one reason why there is such an interest in democracy promotion, it is not a matter of undermining autocracies all over the world, but to it is a matter of enhancing national security and stability.