The State of U.S. Relations with Russia

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Feb. 24, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

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RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN (through translator): Russia has made its choice in favor of democracy 14 years ago, independently and without any pressure from outside. It made that decision in the interest of itself, and interest of its people, of its citizens. This is our final choice. And we have no way back.


BRIT HUME, HOST: President Bush happily seized on that comment by Russia President Putin, calling it "the most important of the day." Does that mean Bush got all out of the meeting that he could?

To help us read between the lines, we turn to Steven Sestanovich, a member of the Kremlin, who has served as a Russia specialist in the both the Reagan and Clinton administrations, and is now professor at Columbia.



HUME: So what do you make of that statement and the president’s seemingly excited seizure of it?

SESTANOVICH: Well, Putin saw that you can’t have a press conference today with the president and avoid the issue.

HUME: Did it strike you that — I mean did you expect the press conference to be as almost entirely focused on this issue as it was?

SESTANOVICH: It’s all democracy all the time. And that’s not a surprise really, given the way the American officials had prepared the meeting. They’d been talking about how this was the occasion on which Bush was going to elevate the issue on to the agenda. They probably didn’t expect that it would be the only issue, though.

HUME: And what about the outcome of it?

SESTANOVICH: Well, the president obviously wanted to try to nail Putin’s feet to the floor. He emphasized that having made this commitment, he would count on Putin to follow through. And he emphasized he’s a guy he knows to follow through. I suspect he will regret having seemed to have taken Putin’s commitments at face value.

HUME: Really? Why?

SESTANOVICH: He could have said instead that it isn’t words but deeds that count. He could have emphasized that this is an issue that we’re going to be following permanently. He said to the Europeans in his speech this week, this is an issue we have to put at the heart of our dialogue.

A lot of what he said Thursday could have been read to mean since Putin has assured me there’s no problem, we don’t have to talk about it again.

HUME: How do think this — what affect does him having said what he said have, if any, on Putin?

SESTANOVICH: Well, Putin seemed pretty uncomfortable during the session. He obviously didn’t enjoy having a 100 percent democracy press conference. But when he goes back, he will be able to say they had a full discussion of it with the president. The president understood his point of view and accepted his assurances.

HUME: So he can — do you think he can realistically say the president, in effect, vouched for him?

SESTANOVICH: The president seemed to be vouching not only for his commitment to democracy but his honestly, which some people have doubted. And that’s not a bad result for Putin. The president has some things to show for it, too. And we don’t know yet who is going to end up having his salami sliced.

HUME: Now, they had an agreement on weapons and attempts to find and locate and attempt, and dispose of weapons, and prevent the spread of certain technology and all that. Is this an agreement of any consequence?

SESTANOVICH: Well, the intelligence community, according to a report in The Washington Post this morning, has been worried about, increasingly worried. And the director of the CIA said this week in front of Congress, about the security of nuclear materials in Russia.

The agreement reached by the president’s calls for greater attention to this issue, but it doesn’t commit the Russians to any firm deadline for upgrading their facilities. And actually says their facilities are OK now. Which I believe is not actually what the American government’s judgment is. So the president has kind of aligned himself with Putin.

HUME: So this agreement is — so you think this agreement isn’t worth much?

SESTANOVICH: It’s a pretty loose agreement. The follow-through involves a higher-level meeting of bureaucrats. And it we’ll see whether Russians are prepared to buy the American assessment that there are bigger problems.

HUME: Than they have admitted.

SESTANOVICH: Yes, than they have admitted. The Russian line has been for some weeks now, as they’ve heard the American assessment, we don’t have a problem.

HUME: Hmm.

Now, Iran and the sale of weapons to Iran, the construction of a nuclear reactor in Iran, and obviously, the possibility that Iran might go nuclear. Russia says, Putin says I don’t think Iran is going nuclear. Did the president get anywhere in this issue with Putin, in your judgment?

SESTANOVICH: No. This is a peculiar issue. Privately Russian officials have said — I’ve heard high-level Putin advisors say this just recently. That of course, they understand that Iran wants nuclear weapons. And of course, the Iranians can’t be trusted. But you don’t see the next step taken in their policy. Which is maybe we ought to reconsider our nuclear cooperation with them.

HUME: Well, what is Russian’s long-term strategic interest here? I mean another nuclear power on its border can’t be something that they favor. Or is it?

SESTANOVICH: No. They don’t — they don’t favor it. But they have a policy of wanting good relations with Iran. And they’ve put that goal above the goal of nuclear proliferation. Now, they’ve supported the European efforts to try to come to some accommodations with Iran and to get new restrictions on their nuclear program.

But what the Russians have not been prepared to say is that if there’s not an agreement between Iran and Europe, that they will reconsider their own nuclear cooperation with Iran. They’ve said basically we’re going forward with our cooperation with Iran no matter what.

HUME: And there’s no change there that you can see coming out of this?

SESTANOVICH: I don’t see a change in what was said today about that. But the American policy is obviously to keep pressing the issue. I don’t think they’ve gotten anything more out of it. And what Putin said last week was actually negative.

HUME: Russia also has long-standing relations with Syria, a nation that has popped to the top of the international agenda this week. What about that? And anything that came out of this about that?

SESTANOVICH: Well, they presumably discussed this in their private meeting, but you wouldn’t have known it from the press conference. There was nothing to indicate that the president had gotten any assurances. We’ll presumably be hearing post summit spin on how this was discussed. But there’s nothing from what we saw.

HUME: Good to have you.


HUME: Thanks for coming.

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