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US-Russian relations for the 21st century

July 7, 2009: US President Barack Obama and then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shake hands. What will US-Russia relations be like going forward?
July 7, 2009: US President Barack Obama and then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shake hands. What will US-Russia relations be like going forward?
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As part of NPR's series, "A Nation Engaged," AirTalk will look at America's role in the world throughout this week’s programming. On the hustings, one policy issue playing more prominently than anticipated is U.S.-Russia relations.

Characteristically bombastic comments from Republican candidate Donald Trump have raised the profile of America’s strategy towards the Kremlin vis-a-vis the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Last month, Trump told “The New York Times” that as president, he would only fulfill NATO obligations to protect Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia from Russian aggression if the formerly Soviet Baltic states met their financial obligations to NATO. Slashing the sacred cow of NATO was greeted with alarm by many, but some responded with support, questioning whether the alliance has value in a post-Cold War world.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton slammed Trump for abandoning U.S. allies to Putin’s aggression. But flip the script, and Putin’s actions are justified by a NATO that’s reneged on promises not to expand and is now inching towards Russia’s borders.

So is U.S. foreign policy at fault for Russia’s hostility, or is Putin playing this narrative to his advantage? Is NATO obsolete, as Trump claims, or is it as relevant as ever? And where do we go from here?

Here’s what AirTalk’s guests had to say. 

Reaction to Donald Trump’s Comments on NATO

Warsaw office Director at the German Marshall Fund Michał Baranowski:
“Donald Trump is saying that you can’t count on the U.S. as an ally anymore. That comment undermines the policy of building alliances that served the U.S. in the last 70 years.”

Journalist Jeffrey Tayler didn’t agree with Trump’s financial justifications, but he did find NATO, especially its expansion eastward, problematic:
“I don’t think it’s a question of funding, I think it’s a question of mission. There was   talk … all the way back to 1993 that without the Soviet threat, what was the point of NATO? … There really was no reason for it.”

On understanding Putin

Professor of Russian History Anton Fedyashin said certain aspects of Russian President Vladimir Putin are underrepresented in the press:  
“One thing to remember about Vladimir Putin is that when he became Russian  President in 2000, he was a westernizer and an integrationist… He [Putin] made it clear that he doesn’t want to take military steps, but when pushed he will do so.”

Baranowski disagreed with this characterization:
“He [Putin] clearly seeks a sphere of influence in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and potentially the Baltic states...When is it okay for one country to take over the territory of another country? If we enter that world, all bets are off.”

U.S. strategy going forward

“One of the first things the United States could do is … take NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia off the table.”

Fedyashin recommended moving away from NATO:
“A collective security agreement that brings  the Russians into some kind of new organization is the best way to allay their fears while at the same time ensuring the security of their eastern neighbors.”

Baranowski disagreed with this strategy, saying that Russia wasn’t onboard with open dialogue. He warned against giving Russia a sphere of influence:
“To give Russia power over its neighbors… would be very destabilizing and particularly unfair to the people who live in those countries.”
These interviews have been edited for clarity. You can listen to the full segment by clicking the blue play button above.


Michał Baranowski, Warsaw office Director at the German Marshall Fund; he tweets @M_Baranowski

Anton Fedyashin, Professor of Russian History, American University in Washington DC

Jeffrey Tayler, author and journalist, Russia correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly; he tweets from @JeffreyTayler1

Series: A Nation Engaged

NPR and KPCC's coverage of critical issues facing the nation before November's presidential election. The stories seek to build a nationwide conversation around these issues, focusing on a specific question each time.

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