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‘Unless They Pay a Price for It, They’re Going to Keep Doing It.’

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia says Trump can’t hold Moscow accountable by “winging it.”

Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2001 to 2005 and former deputy secretary-general of NATO, steps up to his chair after addressing delegates in Budapest on May 18, 2015. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)
Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2001 to 2005 and former deputy secretary-general of NATO, steps up to his chair after addressing delegates in Budapest on May 18, 2015. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin has exposed the perils of conducting great-power diplomacy on the fly. Alexander Vershbow, who was President George W. Bush’s envoy to Moscow from 2001 to 2005, extolled the virtues of preparation in confronting one of America’s savviest adversaries in a conversation with Foreign Policy.

Foreign Policy: In Putin’s early years, to what degree were you able to assess just how disruptive he would be to American interests?

Alexander Vershbow: We started off on the right foot because I was there just as [the attacks of] 9/11 happened. And so there was a better atmosphere in place, at least up until the invasion of Iraq. And then it became much more a question of managing disagreements on a number of issues. But I think we were definitely more in that mode.

FP: Give us some example of how you prepared for a big-power meeting, a summit like the one in Helsinki.

AV: Each administration has a different style but there’s always much more systematic preparation and analysis of the Russian position than at Helsinki. Embassies get a sampling of elite opinion to ensure the president understands the context in which Putin is working. You define some very clear objectives and red lines before going into it, which in the case of the Trump administration, I think they did none of the above.

FP: You had to prepare for meetings between Putin and George W. Bush, right? When you did that were there certain things you raised about Putin, areas where the U.S. should have red lines, something about personalities?

AV: Oh yeah. I would give my view, the NSC [National Security Council] would do the formal brief; they would obviously give it kind of a strategic road map for the meeting. You map out your priorities, Putin’s priorities, pitfalls to avoid, areas where we can show flexibility, areas where we must not show flexibility.

FP: Can you give me some examples of areas where you really couldn’t be showing flexibility and needed to have red lines?

AV: It was more a question of persuading President Bush to continue to talk about media freedom and civil society in Russia and urging Putin to ease up on his rollback of individual liberty and human rights.

FP: Which was beginning to slip then?

AV: Things were sort of beginning to go downhill. … They re-established control over the major TV stations in 2002. They began to crack down on some NGOs, they terminated the Peace Corps mandate in Russia. So that is the beginning of things that have now gone into the extreme … the complete manipulation of the media environment.

FP: How do you compare relations in your era to the U.S.-Russia relationship now?

AV: Back then … no single issue poisoned the relationship the way the aggression against Ukraine or the interference in the elections does today. And Russia was still trying to build a cooperative relationship with NATO even after the disagreement over Kosovo, which was during the Clinton administration. … There’s very little of that left. Actually you can trace it to 2012, when Putin came back to the presidency deciding that Russia was going to increasingly disregard the rules in international law. It all came to a head in Crimea. In 2012 was when he began to vilify Hillary Clinton because he claimed that she was responsible for the protests that greeted his return to the presidency.

FP: Where does Helsinki leave the relations between the U.S. and Russia?

AV: For Russia just having this meeting was a political victory, getting back to the top table without having to pay any price on Ukraine or acknowledge anything on the election interference. So the stakes are higher for the U.S. to avoid … the perception that by normalizing the dialogue, we’re normalizing relations in the broader sense. … My view is that the main priority should be how to manage a competitive relationship and avoid the risks of accidental incidents escalating out of control.

FP: So now we’ve been through the season of summits, we had North Korea, we had the G-7, and now the Helsinki summit. What does it say about the United States’ ability to get through these events and use them to further American interests?

AV: I think we’re seeing the limits of winging it. I’m sure that’s the view of the people who’ve been trying to prepare for these meetings but in vain with Trump doing it his own way. … I think Trump left a lot of bruised feelings about the way he conducted the NATO meeting [last week] and the way he hijacked the second day for his reality TV show on burden sharing. Whereas with Putin … he may have been too conciliatory and not firm enough on the need for the Russians to move on these big issues, on Ukraine but also even if they’re not going to directly admit to interfering in the elections, at least knock it off. … Unless they pay a price for it, they’re going to keep doing it.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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