Henrik Liljegren, an Atlantic Council board member, served 42 years in Sweden’s diplomatic corps, including stints as Ambassador to the United States, Turkey, East Germany, and Belgium.  In June 2009, we discussed the Russia “Reset” and the political climate in Turkey. Today, I had the opportunity to revisit these issues with him.

JJ: When we last talked, the Obama administration had just launched a much touted “Reset” with Russia. Now, we’re on the verge of a “Reset-2.” What prospects do you see for success? 

HL: Much has happened since June 2009. Let me first mention some developments with respect to the administration’s partner: 

  • President Putin’s hostility towards the United States has become even more explicit.
  • Internal repression in Russia has reached new heights. (Human Rights Watch says that the Kremlin in 2012 “unleashed the worst political crackdown in Russia’s post-Soviet history.”)
  • Foreign—in particular American—non-governmental organizations are under attack and USAID has been expelled while a new law expands the definition of “treason.”
  • The Kremlin has accused the US administration of not only having instigated the color revolutions but also of trying to encourage internal opposition to the Russian leadership.
  • The so-called Arab Spring revolutions and the fates of Gaddafi and Mubarak seem to have heightened Putin’s suspicions and concern about US engineered regime change in Russia. 

Taken together these developments don’t present a favorable picture of the state of affairs in the land of Obama’s reset partner.

JJ: Was the first Reset a complete failure?

Those who expected that the reset policies somehow would produce a kinder and gentler regime in Moscow are naturally disappointed. Many people now seem to think that the reset policy pursued during Obama’s first term was a failure. Perhaps the reset was oversold in Washington, where hype and optimism sometimes trumps reality? 

Despite the negative developmentswith respect to Russia , three important achievements of the reset should be noted. They are the Northern Distribution Network(NDN), which has made it possible to transport personnel and military equipment to and from Afghanistan over Russian territory, the New START agreement, which limits the number of  nuclear arms on both sides significantly, and Russian cooperation on sanctions on Iran.  There also seems to have been some cooperation on terrorism. How significant this cooperation has been or could be will probably be discussed in the coming days in the wake of the Boston bombings. The NDN especially should be considered a major achievement in view of the administration’s high policy priority on being able to withdraw from Afghanistan. 

As has often been pointed out, the Russian leadership generally perceives it its relations with the US as a zero sum game in while the US generally looks for win-win outcomes. So if the Kremlin is able to block the US anywhere on the global chessboard it usually will. An example is the Russian policy of blocking US action against Bashar al-Assad in the UN Security Council. In this respect the NDN appears to be an exception. The explanation is probably that the US presence in Afghanistan is in Russian interest. 

JJ: There have been news reports indicating that President Putin has been quite cooperative in the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombers, who have Chechen origins. Do you see a potential opening here, or is this likely a one-off? 

If the US and Russia have not cooperated closely before  I doubt that the bombing of the Boston Marathon will provide an opening  for close cooperation in the future.   

JJFour years ago I also asked you whether you thought “that the Kremlin would one day see the advantage of having free, peaceful, and democratic countries on their borders?”You were not optimistic, saying “Russia suffers from post-imperial withdrawal syndrome.” Is that still your view? 

HL: My answer in 2009 was rather pessimistic. I am even more pessimistic today. The Russian leadership is now with increasing determination employing a wide range of tools to try to regain influence over its former empire

Putin once called the demise of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” When Putin proposed the establishment of a Eurasian Union he actually called it a historic milestone “for the broader post-Soviet space.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is quoted as calling it an attempt at “re-Sovietization of the region.” 

The Kremlin tries to persuade the world, without much success, that Russia’s “near abroad” belongs to a Russian “sphere of privileged interests.” The problem is that Putin seems to see democracy as a threat, especially close to his borders. 

That the war against Georgia in 2008 was meant to put a stop to further NATO enlargement was confirmed by Putin not long ago. And Russia tries what it can to encourage division within NATO by cultivating relations with some members and depicting others as being paranoid Russophobes. 

JJ: Since we last talked, the Atlantic Council launched and completed a long project on Nordic-Baltic security. To what extent do you see Russia as an obstacle? 

HL: The Nordic-Baltic project produced a lot of excellent thinking and insights. I am glad you mentioned it. As for Russia  two recent documents —both understated in the typical Nordic way and which should be read with this in mind—throw more light on the issue. 

One is a report from Finland’s National Defense University that underlines that while Russia is beefing up its military capabilities in the Baltic region, the opposite is true for NATO countries and their Nordic partners where operational readiness has “decreased drastically.” The report also quotes a statement by the Director of US National Intelligence, Lt.  Gen. James R. Clapper before the Senate armed services committee last year where he says that “the Russian military modernizations programs will yield improvements that will allow the Russian military to more rapidly defeat its smaller neighbors and remain the dominant military force in the post-Soviet space but they will not—and are not intended to—enable Moscow to conduct sustained offensive operations against NATO collectively.” Hardly encouraging reading for “the smaller neighbors.” 

The other is an open report from the Estonian Internal Security Service Annual Review 2012 where its Director General Raivo Aeg describes how Russia is actively employing both soft power and “influence operations” with the aim of undermining the legitimacy of the Estonian authorities while increasing the influence of Russia. 

These two reports contain much food for thought for those who are concerned about Russia’s role in the region. It would seem that while Washington prepares for a Reset-2 in the Nordic Baltic area the Russian mindset is reverting to Cold War-2.

JJ: Finally, let’s turn to Ankara, where you twice served as Sweden’s ambassador. Four years ago, you noted that “Turkey nowadays conducts a policy which tries to achieve maximum advantage and ‘zero problems’ in the relations with its partners.Has Turkey’s policy changed? 

HL: One of the most important recent changes in Turkey’s foreign policy was its strategic decision shortly after protests started in Tunisia to welcome the revolutionary developments in the wake of the Arab Awakening and side with the peoples rather than the rulers. As for Syria it is difficult to have zero problems with a genocidal dictator. Turkey is, however, on the side of the Syrian people and performing a great humanitarian task assisting the refugees from Assad’s  Syria.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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