U.S., Russians Try Track Two Diplomacy As Relations Hit A New Low

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U.S. and Russian experts recently met on neutral territory, on an island in Finland, to try to work through issues that have been building up ever since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Elsewhere on the program this morning, we'll hear the latest from our colleague, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She is in Eastern Ukraine reporting on the Russian military, which appears to be moving equipment across the border into Ukraine to help pro-Russian separatists.

This has the Obama administration sounding alarms, accusing Russia of orchestrating a new military offensive, deploying tanks and rocket launchers.

The situation in Ukraine has U.S.-Russian relations at a new low and that was the backdrop when a group of experts from both countries sat down together. They were trying to come up with a blueprint to both resolve the Ukraine crisis and repair relations between Washington and Moscow.

Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: It sounds like something straight out of the Cold War. U.S. and Russian experts meet on neutral territory - in this case, an island in Finland - to try to work through issues that have been building up ever since Putin returned to the Kremlin.

THOMAS GRAHAM: The Ukraine crisis, I think, has tipped the entire relationship over the edge.

KELEMEN: Thomas Graham, who was an advisor to President Bush on Russia, says he's been worried about the breakdown in communications and saw the Finnish island retreat as a way to look ahead.

GRAHAM: It was important for us to be, in a sense, insulated from the political pressures in either capital.

KELEMEN: But they couldn't escape one problem, he says - that both sides can look at the same event and see radically different things. The U.S. accuses Putin of fueling the crisis in Ukraine, arming the separatists, even after a Malaysian airliner was brought down over a separatist-held region this summer. Russian analyst Alexander Dynkin, who runs the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, blames the U.S. for supporting Ukraine's military offensive. And while the West doesn't want to see any more frozen conflicts in the region, Dynkin says, why not?

ALEXANDER DYNKIN: Well, you know, it's better to have a frozen conflict than constant losses of life, in my perception.

KELEMEN: He says the debate on that Finnish island wasn't always friendly.

DYNKIN: It was tense, professional. It was a sharp debate, but both sides trying to find some compromises.

KELEMEN: Their 24 point plan calls for a cease-fire monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and a possible UN peacekeeping mission. No Ukrainians took part in the meeting, but Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment says they weren't trying to cut a deal without them.

ANDREW WEISS: Any diplomatic effort aimed at solving this crisis is going to be a long slog. You know, there's no magic formula, there are no magic bullets.

KELEMEN: His Russian colleague, Alexei Arbatov of the Moscow Carnegie Center, thinks these ideas will be acceptable to Putin, but he's not sure what the Obama administration has in mind.

ALEXEI ARBATOV: If the goals of Washington are only to humiliate Putin and undercut his position inside Russia, then our plan certainly would lie in a different plane; it would not in any way correspond with that goal.

KELEMEN: But the goal is to have peace and to encourage Ukraine to move ahead with reforms, then the U.S. should encourage a cease-fire along the lines the experts are proposing, he says.

As for the issue of Crimea, which Russia annexed earlier this year, Arbatov thinks that will fade.

ARBATOV: In 10, 20 years, I could easily imagine the Crimea question becoming no longer important, just like Alsace and Lorraine is no longer important in relations between France and Germany.

KELEMEN: But does that mean appeasing an aggressive Putin?

Thomas Graham, now with Kissinger Associates, says no.

GRAHAM: The best way that we deal with an aggressive Russia and its region is by helping to build, to the extent that we can - consolidated, unified states along Russia's border. And that's the real challenge in Ukraine.

KELEMEN: Graham says the U.S. and Europe should focus more on the challenges of repairing the Ukrainian economy. A goal he acknowledges will be a big and a long-term investment.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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