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Derek Chollet, former Assistant Secretary of Defense of the Obama Administration. Photo: screengrab from VoA interview

Chollet: there were wrong expectations of Putin’s willingness for more continuity in U.S.-Russian relations

Derek Chollet, former Assistant Secretary of Defense of the Obama Administration says the “Reset” policy was an aberration. He believes at the time Washington miscalculated the extent of Vladimir Putin’s support for President Dmitry Medvedev’s policies and had a false expectation of Putin’s willingness to have some continuity in Russian policy towards America.

Voice of America’s Ia Meurmishvili spoke with Derek Chollet. She anchors Voice of America Georgian Service’s weekly show Washington Today and can be followed on Twitter @iameurmishvili or on Facebook /ia.meurmishvili.

You have been involved in the U.S. Russia relations and have been monitoring the U.S.-Russian relations for a long time. What is your observation of that relations today?

Well, there is no question that tensions are as high today as perhaps at no point since the end of the Cold War, where Russia has launched attacks on American democracy and the democracies of our allies in Europe; where there seems to be very few issues where the United States and Russia can come to an agreement. That said, it is a confusing time because at the highest levels between President Trump and President Putin there is certainly a different atmosphere, which we saw most recently in the Helsinki Summit. But of course, below that surface tensions are very high. The United States in my view – for very good reasons – has been imposing serious sanctions on Russia. Recently, the British government has put forth evidence showing that Russian operatives were directly involved in the poisoning of people on British soil including a UK citizen. So, things are quite difficult right now.

When do you think the relations got derailed? Initially, at least at the beginning of every presidency it seems to be working. You were involved in one of these initial stages during the Obama administration. What happened?

It seems to me that the most recent deterioration started in 2012-2013, when Vladimir Putin came back to presidency. If you think back over the long sweep of U.S. Russian relations, since the end of the Cold War, the moment where there was a large degree of cooperation; in my view there was a confluence of common interests and also leaders that had a more congenial relationship. This was the case during the reset period of the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013, when President Obama and then President Medvedev were able to achieve some accomplishments. They had fundamental disagreements on many issues, but whether on Afghanistan, or Iran, or the reduction of nuclear weapons, the U.S. and Russia were still able to come to an agreement. When Medvedev left office and was replaced by Putin, who returned to power, we saw the deterioration begin. And, it has only gotten worse since then, whether it was the 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the Ukraine war or the 2015 escalation of the Russian role in Syria. We are just seeing a steady deterioration of relations and an escalation of tensions.

But, Putin really never left.

That is one of the puzzles of the last decade because the reset period happened and there was cooperation. One of the things that the Obama administration in retrospect misread was the assumption that Putin had supported the efforts of Medvedev as president more than he actually did. In other words, there was an expectation, which turned out to be totally wrong, that when Putin came back to the presidency we could expect more continuity in U.S.-Russian relations because Putin in fact had been in power all along. So, there is a question of what explains the Medvedev period in U.S.-Russian relations, where tensions were much lower. You had a Russian president, who presented a very different face of Russia to the world and who seemed genuinely interested in cooperation.

From a Georgian perspective it looks very different. It looks like the U.S. did not react to Russia’s invasion, did not follow through after the invasion, and there was no continuity of Georgia policy with the Obama Administration. The U.S. did not react not only to Russia’s invasion, but also to the Kremlin’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. It seemed like none of these had any impact on U.S. relations with Russia at the time.

I think from a Georgian perspective, the reaction of the United States in August 2008, was a very different reaction than the one to what occurred in Ukraine in 2014. Of course that is an issue that is still being debated even today. But, yes there is no question that for many parts of Europe, one can argue that Russia has not changed at all, that what we see today is just merely a continuation of what we saw in 2008 and that the reset was an aberration.

I think it is clear that in the broad sweep of the last decade, it is true that the reset has to be seen as an aberration, unfortunately. We are now to the point where I think on both sides of the political aisle in the United States, setting the president aside for the moment, among foreign policy experts, there is a large degree of consensus about Russia’s intent and the potential for Russia to do us harm. There is still a debate about how the U.S. should respond, but I do not think there is much of a debate about what Russia is all about — with the big exception being the president, which seems out of step with his own administration on this issue.

As you said, the president is an outlier of a sort in these relations. However, that aside, what do you think can be done to make it better? We are clearly at a very low point, which is fairly dangerous not only for the two countries, but for the rest of the world.

It is always important for diplomats and leaders to look for potential opportunities or positive things the two sides can do. It is very difficult in the current context to think of areas of opportunity, particularly with the Russian side. It seems to me that the best way forward is to continue to try to find ways where engagement can be productive. This administration is working to find those areas potentially. That is why the National Security Adviser John Bolton was recently meeting with his counterpart over the summer to try to explore ways that the two sides could work together. But I think we have to be very clear-eyed about the limits of the potential. We need to be prepared, as the United States I believe has been, to push back where our interests are being threatened, particularly when it comes to the most egregious and dangerous move that Russia has made from a U.S. perspective, which has been the efforts to foment dissent and undermine the very fabric of the American democracy.

Georgia has great relations with the U.S. and it has been the case since its independence. During this administration, however, we saw something that has never happened in the past, during the Bush or Obama administrations. U.S. sold some defensive weapons to Georgia. But Georgia’s relations with Europe is not quite as close. What do you think Georgia should be doing to get closer to some of the European countries like Germany and France?

From an American perspective Georgia has been a terrific partner. From a NATO perspective, Georgia has been a terrific partner as well; as a relatively small country that is not a member of the alliance, Georgia is doing more in support of NATO in places like Afghanistan and in the past in Iraq than many NATO members. From a U.S. perspective that does not go unnoticed. In many ways, Georgia is doing a very good job showing the kind of partner that it is and that it can be as a future member of NATO. I think this is where the U.S. leadership needs to play a role and unfortunately, I do not think the United States is currently well-positioned in terms of leadership to help bridge the gap between Georgia and the European countries.

You are saying the U.S. should take a lead in filling this gap. What exactly can the U.S. do?

The U.S. can be more actively engaged in trying to bridge the gaps between Georgia and some of the key European countries – particularly, Germany. There is more diplomatic energy that could be expended on that goal. One hope is that the administration could seize this as an opportunity in the Russian context. It is important to send a message to Russia that despite their illegal annexation of the territory of Georgia, despite their efforts to continue to undermine Georgia’s aspirations, they are not going to have a veto over Georgia’s destiny. I think that is important to do not only in terms of U.S. relationship with Georgia, but also in terms of the future of the European project. I think the U.S. can help bridge those gaps. And, one hopes that the administration – in the next several years – is going to be looking for opportunities to get some ‘wins’ and this might be seen as a ‘win.’

In this context, considering the lack of leadership from Washington on Georgia’s integration into NATO, what do you think the prospects are at this point?

I think in the near term it is going to be difficult. NATO is having an existential crisis that is driven at this point largely – and I am sorry to say it – by questions raised by the president of the United States about the future U.S. commitment to NATO, about the future viability of the alliance. I think NATO has proven itself time and again to be a vital asset to the United States. It is a unique asset that the United States has, but I think as long as those questions are outstanding it is hard to see the next step being taken for Georgia, unfortunately. That said, the alliance, most recently with Montenegro and then presumably soon with Macedonia, is showing that the door is still open and that the countries that are ready and willing to join the alliance are welcome. My hope would be that Georgia’s aspirations, since it is a country contributing more than many alliance members, could be fulfilled.

Is there anything else Georgia could be doing to make this distance smaller?

In terms of defense spending or in terms of willingness to contribute to NATO missions, it is hard to see. I think it is just continuing to do the good work that Georgia has been doing. I remember serving in the Obama administration, being at NATO defense ministerials in Brussels, and at that time one of the big questions was European troop contributions to NATO mission in Afghanistan. Of course, Georgia would always be part of those meetings, because Georgia was a contributor of significant amount of forces to the ISAF mission and it was always one of the first countries to raise hand and say it would contribute several hundred troops to the mission, and it would come before many of our NATO allies would be willing to tell us the number of troops they were ready to commit. I think for Georgia to continue to show the kind of partnership that you are willing to perform would be the best I could offer.

There is sort of a fatigue in Georgia about that. Some Russia sympathizer groups or NATO and West sceptics are fueling a narrative that Georgia has done everything, has done it for a long time, and the “door is open,” but nobody is asking them to go in. How do you think these concerns could be allayed? In this day and age of disinformation, is it even possible?

I think, this is exactly why it is incumbent upon the United States and other NATO partners to continue to stress the point that the door remains open and that we are committed to having other countries walk through it. I think the fact that the U.S. has helped lead the effort to bring Montenegro into NATO, and hopefully after the referendum – Macedonia, help show that the door remains open. Circumstances need to be right. There is the division between Georgia and some of the European partners about the future of Georgia within NATO. This will need to be sorted out. The U.S., however, will continue being a committed backer of this [aspiration].

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