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With Elections, A Look At U.S.-Russian Relations


Three years ago this month, President Obama said he would hit the reset button on the strained relationship between the United States and Russia. One of the aims of the reboot was a more open relationship between the two countries. Whether it worked is still in question.

This Sunday, Russia will hold presidential elections. Prime Minister Putin is expected to be elected president again. Mr. Putin's recently accused the United States of supporting his opponents and trying to weaken Russia. Yesterday, we spoke with the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, from Moscow. He said the United States supports nonpartisan groups that promote fair elections but not parties or campaigns that are aligned with Mr. Putin's opposition.

AMBASSADOR MICHAEL MCFAUL: We do not support opposition groups here. That's just completely false. Whatever you read in the Russian press, it's not true. We don't support individual candidates. And we avoid taking positions in elections. This is for the Russians to decide. It's not for us to decide. We're just interested in a free and fair and transparent process.

SIMON: Mr. Ambassador, how do you see this reset strategy? You were, in fact, at the White House while it was being developed.

MCFAUL: I was. I was there from the very beginning, day one, after inauguration. You know, we look at the reset as having achieved some very important American strategic and economic objectives. That's always what the reset was about, by the way.

The idea was: let's engage with the Russian government in a way that was not happening before we came to office. And I think that's important to remember. You have to judge the reset by where we started from.

And we believe it's been, you know, successful. We have opened new supply lines to Afghanistan. We signed a new START Treaty. We signed a one, two, three agreement on civilian cooperation. We've worked closely on nonproliferation issues, most recently on North Korea but also on Iran. And Russia's about to join the WTO, which we think will serve our economic interests well.

So we look at this, you know, very pragmatically and kind of what's in our interests. We see a lot of achievement here.

SIMON: Where has it fallen short?

MCFAUL: Well, most certainly right now we do not see the kind of cooperation we had in the past in the U.N. on Syria. And that's a big disappointment. We have a fundamental difference there in terms of approach to how to deal with the humanitarian crisis that's ongoing in Syria. And that's disappointing.

We're not done working it. I want to emphasize, though. We're not done trying to seek cooperation with Russia in the Security Council and other ways to work that. But I would say more than any other issue, this impasse right now has been the most disappointing so far.

SIMON: Where do you see any ground for mutual agreement there in the Syria question?

MCFAUL: Well, we have had a serious disagreement about the language in earlier resolutions and drafts about what should be done in terms of a political transition. And we still need to work that.

Where I think we have more agreement is on trying to find ways to simply provide humanitarian assistance to what we all agree is a tragic situation. And that is, you know, where we should focus our efforts in the next hours and days. The bigger issue has to be there as well. But we have to stop the violence and we have to provide assistance to those who are suffering.

SIMON: So you're thinking in terms of maybe trying to cobble something together that the Russians wouldn't veto having to do with humanitarian assistance, but leaving aside the whole question of what we used to call regime change?

MCFAUL: Well, you know, whether one leaves Assad or not - and we most certainly don't use the word regime change, because that's not what we're seeking to do there - but...

SIMON: Well, you do...

MCFAUL: ...I'll leave that - I think we should leave this to the negotiators. I don't want to get ahead of my skis here. They're working literally today and hopefully in a more positive direction.

SIMON: But as I understand U.S. policy, it is certainly not for President Assad to stay.

MCFAUL: Correct. But he's not - regime is a big word. Assad is one leader. And what the negotiations are, how it happens, that's really for others who are negotiating. And that's not my role here as ambassador to Russia.

SIMON: Ambassador McFaul, do you know Vladimir Putin?

MCFAUL: Yes, I've met him a few times. I actually worked with him in the summer, no, spring of 1991, I think is when I first met him.

SIMON: Can you tell us something about him that maybe we haven't heard?

MCFAUL: Well, I'm sure you've heard everything.


MCFAUL: I don't know if I have anything to add. I guess the one thing I think I would remind everybody about the prime minister, especially given all the attention there's been to anti-Americanism out here in the campaign, which, you know, for me personally and for our government was quite surprising. And it's surprising because, let's remember, Prime Minister Putin has been a part of the government for the last three years. He's been a part of the negotiations over the START Treaty, over sanctions against Iran in the WTO negotiations.

And so that is something I think is a big confused right now given the rhetoric of the campaign. And no matter who is the president, we're going to stick to our policy. We think it's been successful. And we plan to stick to our guns. And we look forward to having a partner on the other side that sees the value in continuing as well.

SIMON: Let me ask you finally. Ambassador McFaul, do you hold out a chance that the ultimate result of the Russian elections could surprise anyone?

MCFAUL: You know, before I was an ambassador I was a social scientist at Stanford University for many, many years. And the one thing I can tell you from that is we are terrible at predicting surprises and those kinds of things. So I wouldn't want to do that.

What I would want to say, though, that is refreshing is that there's real politics in Russia now. It's exciting to be here. People are paying attention. People are assembling in ways that haven't happened for a long time. And I think it's a kind of renaissance or rebirth or renewal of politics again in Russia.

So irrespective of surprises or not, that in and of itself may have been a surprise six months ago. And that will not end come Sunday. That is a process that has begun. And I think it's going to be a very exciting time to be out here as ambassador. I'm very excited to be here.

SIMON: Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Moscow.

Thank you very much for being with us, sir.

MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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