Q&A with Thomas Graham

By Hannah Flaum

A noted Russia expert, Thomas Graham is a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He previously served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia on the National Security Staff (NSC) from 2004 to 2007, as well as Director for Russian Affairs from 2002 to 2004. From 2001 until 2002, he was the Associate Director of the Policy Planning Staff.

TYG: Are there common misconceptions or misunderstandings about the state of the relationship between the US and Russia?

The fundamental problem is that there is a lack of expertise in the US about Russia, and you see that within the broader public as well. During the Cold War, the US spent a lot of money in building up expertise about the Soviet Union both within many universities and with federal money. Since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union a generation ago, federal funding and interest in the academic … and think-tank world[s] shifted to understanding issues that would have a greater impact on national security. China, the broader Middle East, terrorism—all of those things have sucked up a lot of resources. Absolutely less went into the study of Russia and the former Soviet space, and that lack of expertise is reflective in some of the trouble we have in understanding what Russia is doing, why it approaches Ukraine in the way it does, why it has certain attitudes toward the US, and so forth.

TYG: Is it a mistake that funding has shifted toward China and the Middle East? Will funding move back toward studying Russia?

There will a bit more focus on Russia now because
 it has become a problem,
but how much more
is an open question because that depends on judgments of what you think Russia’s future is and how important it will be going forward. The money on China will remain there because the widespread perception is that China is going to be a rising power well into the 21st century. There is [also] a tremendous amount of interest now in the Middle East and the Arab World as the region is going through a historic transformation; there is the battle between traditionalism and modernism, Shias and Sunnis, and borders made during the colonial period that did not conform to the actual breakdown of political communities are under threat. There are big questions about where Russia will be as a country in generating power, projecting power, and impacting global affairs. The only thing that can be said with confidence is that the territory is important because of the resources located there. It occupies the heart of Eurasia and borders all the important parts of the world and has vast natural resources that will be critical to economic growth. There will be a lot of attention focused on Russia’s ability to modernize, diversify its economy, and build an effective political organization that can mobilize the resources of Eurasia for national purposes.

TYG: Do you see being able to harness its resources effectively as the biggest challenge Russia faces in its future?

Well, it needs to harness [its resources] and it needs to build a competitive economy. They need to have world-class education [and] health systems, and they need to reform the economy. There has to be some reform in the political system that will encourage the type of entrepreneurial skills, the flexibility, [and] the creativity that a country needs to be competitive economically in the 21st century?

TYG: Do you think that is something that they are capable of achieving in the near future?

In the near future, as in the next few years, no, but societies do change … They have developed a large number of programs that are designed to achieve these goals, but there is always the political issue of how you actually get that done given the distribution of power in any society as complex as Russia. You know how difficult it is to get anything done in the US … because of the nature of our system, the multiplicity of interest groups, and how Washington works. In Russia, the problem is that you have a very small elite and power and wealth are much more concentrated. [It] is that small group of individuals who will have to make sacrifices for the rest of the population to benefit.

TYG: Do you think that Europe should take the lead on the Russia-Ukraine conflict and what role, if any, should the US play?

The US needs to play a role … For the past 60 or 70 years, there has been a division of labor of sorts between the US and its European allies when dealing with the Soviet Union and Russia in which the US deals with broader strategic questions and Europe focuses on the narrower, trade issues. Ukraine, in many ways, is both a strategic question and a trade question. Secondly, the US has a set of interests in the outcome of the Ukraine crisis that do not necessarily overlap with European interests, so it is a mistake to delegate responsibility to resolving the crisis to Europe, and the US should be part of this mix in a significant way. The third point is that Russians believe the US is the driving force behind the authorities in Kiev and that we are calling a lot of the shots and setting policies. However, I do not believe that is true, but you have to deal with perceptions and, based on the conversations I have had and what I have read, Russians genuinely do believe this. If the Russians believe the US is a major factor in this, there must be a US-Russian conversation to ultimately resolve this crisis.

TYG: How do you see an effective communication between the US and Russia arising and being maintained?

Well, there used to be one. One of the things that is striking about the past six months is how rapidly the official contacts broke down. The Secretary of State talks with the Russian Foreign Minister and the presidents talk to one another from time to time, but you can’t manage a relationship unless there is a dense set of communications going on at other levels of the government.

TYG: Is this a perpetual problem that will always face the US and Russia or will it be overcome?

These things can always be overcome. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a period of intense contact and communication, but each side came to the relationship with radically different expectations, which is one of the reasons we have such disappointment with the overall relationship now. We are not condemned to having bad relations, but it will … always be a difficult relationship because of the two countries’ different traditions, political systems, and values. However, that does not preclude cooperation in areas that will advance the interests of both countries and it does not condemn us to strategic competition.

TYG: If you were to give any advice to the current administration on dealing with Russia today and going forward, what would it be?

We’ve reached a different point; this isn’t 2000, and the first decade of the 21st century was a difficult one for the US. We are in a much weaker position now than we were 15 years ago. Russia still faces tremendous problems, but they went through a remarkable period of economic growth in the first decade of this century, so they are in a different place … There is no single overarching principle for our foreign policy and the problem we have in dealing with Russia is that we cannot make Russians the central threat anymore. We don’t have a relationship that is almost totally adversarial, as it was during the Cold War, and there are areas where we have overlapping interests and where we are going to have to cooperate with the Russians to solve problems.

If I were to give a bit of advice to the administration, it would be to open up the channels of communication with the Russians again, because you need to talk about ISIS, Ukraine, China, the Arctic, climate change, energy and so forth. But we also have to rethink what Russia is, what types of challenges and opportunities it presents to the US, and how we want to manage this relationship going forward. It is not so much a challenge solely for the Obama administration as it is for the American political establishment and its foreign policy community to begin the long and difficult process of rethinking America’s role in the world, specifically our relationship with Russia, and coming up with a set of policies that the next president can pursue with Russia to have a better chance of advancing our interest and moving away from dangerous confrontation.

Hannah Flaum ’15 is a Political Science major in Ezra Stiles College. She can be reached at hannah.flaum@yale.edu.