Looking Ahead To 2017 And The Role Russia Will Play

David Greene talks to New York Times correspondent Steven Lee Myer about what the coming year might hold for parts of the world, especially Russia, that have been on America’s mind a lot.


As we reach the end of this year – and what a year it has really been – we are spending this week looking ahead. And let’s begin with a relationship that seems to be headed for change. It’s the relationship between the United States and Russia. I’m joined in the studio by Steven Lee Myers. He’s diplomatic correspondent with The New York Times. Good morning.

STEVEN LEE MYERS: Good morning.

GREENE: I hope you had a good holiday.

MYERS: It was lovely. Thank you.

GREENE: Fair to call you, I think, an old Russia hand. You spent many times at the New York Times – in the New York Times Moscow bureau. You’ve written a biography of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. So this is a subject you follow very closely.

MYERS: It is indeed.

GREENE: I – Russia’s UN ambassador told one of your colleagues at The Times that the relationship between the United States and Russia might be at the worst they have been since 1973. I mean, this is a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were both putting their nuclear forces on high alert. Are – have we reached a moment of tension that great?

MYERS: You know, I think, certainly from Russia’s perspective we have. And that’s been true, really, since 2014, when Russia intervened in Ukraine, annexed Crimea and began a war in the East. And that led to a collapse – a complete collapse of relations with the United States in particular, but also with Europe.

GREENE: You say that’s the way Russia would see it. What do you mean by that? Let’s start with what Russia would want because a lot of people in Western countries like the U.S. would say that, you know, Vladimir Putin went into Crimea and created this situation. So do they want tension?

MYERS: I don’t think they see it that way. They see the United States throwing its weight around in the world and particularly in Ukraine. I think that the United States takes a much broader view of the world. And that’s part of what frustrates Russia, is that Russia isn’t at the center of attention in the United States, in this administration in particular. And when the events happened in in Ukraine, there was a misunderstanding of what the issue was. I think for – the United States wasn’t that interested, to be honest, about what was going on with Ukraine at the time. And certainly the White House wasn’t that interested. And they saw the upheaval, the protests, if you remember, that were happening over the president there. Russia saw that as – as a U.S. intervention or at least a Western intervention, which wasn’t true. But the fact that they saw it that way is partly what led to the conflict.

GREENE: So could some describe Vladimir Putin as, you know, some might say, concerned about U.S. influence and U.S. expansion of its role? But might some say paranoid? I mean, if this was an event that – that many in the West saw as important but not huge but Vladimir Putin took it as, my God, this this is happening in Ukraine; I need to react here.

MYERS: Well, you know, as they say about paranoia, there’s always a grain of truth in it. And the – you know, the United States’ role, they obviously promote a stable, free Ukraine. And in Russia’s view, that is a threat to Russia’s influence over Ukraine, a country which has long, obvious connection to Russia. And so, you know, I think he has concerns about what the United States’ role in the world is generally. And he’s been televising – or telegraphing that for years now.

GREENE: So what does Vladimir Putin want? I mean, he got involved in Ukraine, you know, and Crimea. And you say that to kind of control U.S. influence, he’s involved in Syria now. Russia seems to be playing a huge role in that conflict. There are these accusations that Russia was involved in trying to determine the outcome of a U.S. presidential election. What is in Putin’s mind right now?

MYERS: I think that he – I mean, the short answer, going back to what the ambassador said, is that relations are at a level that we haven’t really seen since the Cold War. And I think that’s because Vladimir Putin very much sees the world in a Cold War conflict. At least he sees the relationship with the United States as returning to this great power conflict that we had at that time. It’s not ideological as much anymore. You know, the Cold War between capitalism and communism, that’s been decided. But – but nonetheless, he sees Russia having a sphere of influence, having a part of the world where it should be able to dictate terms. And that’s obviously in conflict with the way the United States sees the world.

GREENE: In conflict with the way the United States has seen the world under President Obama. How will that change under president – a President Donald Trump, who seems to be open to a cozier relationship with Vladimir Putin so far?

MYERS: You know, the fact is, since the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, the administrations from both parties have sought a new relationship with Russia, the – you know, the heir of the Soviet Union. And each presidency has begun with an effort to restart relations.

GREENE: So you’ve heard this before, is what you’re saying.

MYERS: Exactly. And then the Obama administration, they called it a reset. And for a while, it worked. There was a marked improvement of relations at the time that Dmitry Medvedev was president and Putin was serving as prime minister. And so I’m sure Donald Trump will not use the word reset, but he’s clearly telegraphed a willingness to restart relations with Russia on a different footing, and Vladimir Putin has responded to that positively. There was a letter that he sent just last week talking about a pragmatic and constructive relationship. I think, as much as Vladimir Putin wants to vilify the West, he does need to or at least wants to have an improvement in relations. And he sees an opportunity there with Donald Trump.

GREENE: A lot of people who are worried about Donald Trump and the relationship with Russia, who have seen Donald Trump as unpredictable, who have been sort of alarmed by the positive comments he has made about Vladimir Putin, who don’t know much about Donald Trump’s foreign policy, they seem incredibly nervous right now, including across – across Europe. Are you saying that maybe people are overreacting?

MYERS: Well, I don’t think people are overreacting as much as there’s a great deal of uncertainty about what Donald Trump will do as president in regards to Russia, but other parts of the world as well – what the foreign policy will be. I mean, what he’s said concretely on policy issues regarding Russia is that it would be great if we could cooperate better with them in the war against the Islamic State. And, you know, it remains to be seen. Can he negotiate something like that? You know, it probably will be progress if there is at least an effort to try to improve relations from this low level that we’re at now. I mean, you could argue we could only go up. But at the same time, it remains to be seen what kind of agreement they could make, what kind of deal Donald Trump, as president, will be able to negotiate with Vladimir Putin.

GREENE: Is this a new Cold War, as some people are calling it?

MYERS: You know, some people don’t like to use the phrase Cold War because of the ideological differences today. But, you know, in terms of the military confrontation, in terms of the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Russia not just by the United States but also by Europe and other countries, I think it’s fair to say that it is a Cold-War-like conflict right now.

GREENE: OK, chatting in the studio with New York Times correspondent Steven Lee Myers, who is also the author of “The New Tsar: The Rise And Reign Of Vladimir Putin.” Steven, thanks so much for coming in this morning. We appreciate it.

MYERS: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.