Ambassador Thomas Pickering, Career Ambassador with the U.S. Foreign Service, visited the School of International Service (SIS) on March 1 for a discussion with Dean James Goldgeier about U.S. relations with Russia.
U.S.-Russian Relationship: The Bigger Picture
To start the discussion, Pickering drew from Polish economist Adam Michnik, who believed in “free trade and fair sharing.” “In this case,” said Pickering, “there is plenty of blame to go around [for the current negative relations].” Pickering explained that the current Russian mindset revolves largely around the idea that NATO poses an existential threat to Russia. “That thinking was developed in Soviet days but still remains today,” he said, adding that, “President Putin inherited the point of view that U.S. interests were not aligned with Russia.” The sentiment prevails that Russia was “dissed” by the West, and by NATO.
That thinking has given rise to the deep underlying currents between the two countries that exist today. The Ambassador noted that President Bill Clinton saw it as a necessity to build good relations with Russia, as indicated by his move in 1997 to invite Russia to join the Group of Seven (G7) advanced economies, thereby creating a G8, even though Russia’s economy was quite small at the time. Despite that, he added: “Bad vibes would be an optimistic description of the Putin-Obama relationship.”
Pickering asserted that Russia’s current economic woes further complicate the United States’ relationship with them: “Putin is in no way trained in the subject of economics, and is therefore not equipped to solve the country’s current economic struggles.” The Ambassador argued that the failure of the Russian economy results more from current oil prices and a failure to diversify than from the sanctions the U.S. has imposed.
On the subject of Ukraine, Pickering said that a stronger U.S. commitment to the solution of the problem could be made through economic aid: “Ukraine is a disastrous problem caused by a lot of economic disparities. We are now at the point where [our efforts] could not only stop making the situation worse, but could actually start making it better.”
To wrap up the discussion, Dean Goldgeier asked the Ambassador what he believed to be the most promising avenue for collaboration with Russia. Pickering responded with caution: “We need to look for win-wins. But win-wins are not going to come easily.” The Ambassador listed areas of common interest between the U.S. and Russia: Iran, space, climate change, terrorism, and scientific development. The areas where we still need to build? “The cease-fire in Syria,” Pickering commented.
The Ambassador pointed to the increased presence of John Kerry in talks with the Russian leadership as an alternative method of connection: “If the Presidential chemistry stinks, then you should try to find other [points of synergy].”
“Putin is the picador and we are the bull,” Pickering concluded. “So, we need to be a good bull and get those horns down.”
Four Thomas Pickering Fellows attended the event and were invited to stand to be recognized.
Pickering will return to SIS on March 25 for a discussion titled “Confronting Challenges Across a Turbulent Middle East” and on April 13 for a talk “Envisioning the Future of the United Nations.”