What Are Russia's Motives In Syria Negotiations?

Robert Siegel talks to former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott about Russia's plan for Syrian chemical weapons disarmament.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Is the Russian proposal to have Syria's chemical weapons placed under international control sincere? And if so, what's in it for Russia and can the Russians be trusted to help rid Syria of chemical weapons? Joining us, is Strobe Talbott, a Russia hand and former deputy secretary of state. He joins us from the Brookings Institution, of which he is the president. Welcome to the program once again.

STROBE TALBOTT: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Here's something that Vladimir Putin said on television today in Russia. He said that the Russian plan will only work out if the U.S. and those who support the U.S. renounce the use of force because, he said, it is difficult to make Syria or any other country in the world unilaterally disarm if there's military action against it under consideration. What do you make of that?

TALBOTT: That President Putin has the proposition turned upside down. It is precisely because there is a credible threat of force from the United States that there is even the possibility of getting the Syrians to give up their chemical weapons. And it's also kind of bizarre that President Putin would say that it is unfair or unreasonable under international law to ask a country to give up weapons which are banned by international law.

SIEGEL: Well, put us in the mind here of Russia or of President Putin when they look at this conflict and look at the Syrian civil war. What's Russia's interest here?

TALBOTT: Let's look at it in terms not so much of what they want as what they fear. There's no question that they fear instability close to their borders. There's no question that they very much fear the prospect of the United States once again using military force. Now, the real question, I think, is what do they fear the most? If what they fear the most is the U.S. use of force, then they may do what we would regard, I think, as the right thing, which is to put all the pressure they can on Assad to give up his chemical weapons.

And what we're hearing, of course, out of the U.S. administration is that under those circumstances, if, in fact, within a reasonable time limit, the Syrians do give up their chemical weapons, then they may escape the military action that they have been threatened with.

SIEGEL: That would be if, indeed, the Russians saw averting the U.S. use of force to be their primary interest. What if that isn't their foremost interest?

TALBOTT: This, Robert, is one of the few moments that we have seen in this long drama where it actually looks like there could be a best-case outcome. But that would evaporate if it turns out that the Russians are just playing a stalling game here, that what their real purpose is is not to get the chemical weapons out of Syria, it's to stop the United States from using force.

And what they are doing is not putting pressure on Assad and his regime, they are protecting Assad and his regime by trying to buy time, confuse things in the West, and just play this thing out so that any ability on the part of the U.S. to go through with the threat that the president has made is dissipated.

SIEGEL: Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry, in response to a question, said that what could avoid the use of military force against Syria would be if they handed over all of their chemical weapons within a week to international authorities. The Syrian foreign minister is visiting with the Russian foreign minister at that moment and Foreign Minister Lavrov says he takes up Kerry on this idea.

Which seems more likely to you? Lavrov at that moment, says, boy, these guys will look even dumber by the time you take them up on that offer, or here's a real possible opening. We can avoid war here. This is a moment for positive diplomacy.

TALBOTT: Well, I would give some possibility to the latter, more positive view. Lavrov is an absolutely loyal servant of President Putin but he's also a very experienced diplomat. And even Putin wants to avoid a escalation of the war or having American force, once more, demonstrated very dramatically not far from Russia itself.

So this may have been kind of a benevolent spontaneous combustion that turned into a brainstorm and that could actually play out. We just don't know. But what is most important and must be known is whether the Russians are prepared to let the United States go forward unobstructed, including in the Security Council, with hanging that sword of Damocles over Assad's head.

SIEGEL: Strobe Talbott, thank you very much for talking with us today.

TALBOTT: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of State and now the president of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

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