Monday, May 30, 2016

US-Russian citizens’ diplomacy, with a side of skeet-shooting

Linda Feldmann,; via ML on Facebook

image from article

At a historic Russian resort, where Leonid Brezhnev once shot a wild boar for Henry Kissinger, Americans and Russians address deepening tensions.

ZAVIDOVO, RUSSIA — Consider the poor wild boar. He had grown quite large, an inviting target for Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

The year was 1973, and Mr. Brezhnev was hosting Henry Kissinger at a government retreat known as Zavidovo, a two hours' drive from Moscow. If the hunting-averse Dr. Kissinger had had his way, the boar would have lived. But alas, Brezhnev was eager to show off for President Nixon’s top foreign policy adviser, and the Soviet leader felled the creature with a single shot. Or so the story goes.

Before then, no Western leader had ever been invited to Zavidovo. But it was the era of detente, and Soviet-American relations were “unusually free of tension,” Kissinger writes in his memoirs.

Today, official tensions run deep, and Zavidovo is no longer the hyper-exclusive haunt of Russian leaders (though Vladimir Putin has been known to hold a meeting or two there).

Last week, the Russians welcomed a group of Americans at Zavidovo for a different sort of diplomacy – the informal, “Track Two” kind. The only weapons wielded were shotguns at the skeet-shooting range, but inside, around a big table, American and Russian “citizen diplomats” tackled the toughest issues of today’s fraught bilateral relationship.

Syria, Ukraine, and arms control were on the agenda. And while the two sides often didn’t see eye to eye, they agreed on a core point: that dialogue is valuable, especially at a time of deepening and dangerous tensions.

Officially, Americans and Russians aren’t talking much. Contacts are limited to essential business, while the more-routine discussions on a host of issues under the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission – from civil society to nuclear security – remain suspended. The US halted its participation in 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

That’s where citizen diplomats have stepped in, with the 2014 revival of the Dartmouth Conference, an exercise in sustained dialogue between distinguished Americans and Russians launched in 1960 at the height of the cold war.

“Our job is to imagine what might make it possible for there to be solutions where there are none,” said David Mathews, president of the Ohio-based Kettering Foundation, which underwrites the US team’s participation in Dartmouth.

During two days of dialogue, one of the overarching issues that emerged was the lack of structure to US-Russian relations.

“This is not nearly as coherent as the ideological conflict of the cold war; rather it is somewhat incoherent and amorphous,” said James Collins, former US ambassador to Russia and co-chair of the American delegation. “It is bound up with issues of self-identity, national sovereignty, and how we see our future and positions in the world vis-à-vis each other.”

To the Russian delegation, the issue of national self-perception is central to US-Russian clashes today.

“It is hard for the US to understand our position, because the bulk of Americans believe Russia lost the cold war and should behave as the losing side, a premise not accepted by any Russians,” said one Russian delegate, a professor of international relations, to the plenary session. “We do not see ourselves as having lost.”

On concrete matters, Crimea was effectively off the table. The Russians see that territory, for decades part of Ukraine, as theirs forever. The Russians also didn’t want to discuss the war in eastern Ukraine, where Russia backs separatist rebels, but as a central source of conflict between Russia and the West, it was impossible to ignore.

Participants discussed the dangerous dynamic of action-reaction between the Russian and NATO militaries across NATO’s eastern borders, and supported full implementation of the Minsk II accord to end the conflict in Ukraine.

On a broader level, the delegations also agreed that US-Russian relations would benefit from a revival of routine topic-specific dialogue under the Bilateral Presidential Commission, without which, “loudspeaker diplomacy prevails.”

Breakout groups on arms control and the Middle East allowed for an airing of differences, but also affirmed a common desire for stability. Participants came up with a list of joint recommendations, to be shared with policymakers.

Then there was the elephant in the room: Donald Trump. Could he actually win the US election? Russians asked. (Yes, they were told.) The Russians already know they don’t like Hillary Clinton, from her time as secretary of State and the failed “reset” in relations. As for Mr. Trump, who has expressed admiration for President Vladimir Putin, the Russians were intrigued.

“Mrs. Clinton is well-known in Russia, and we understand what will happen if she is elected,” a top Russian delegate told the conference, without elaborating. “Mr. Trump is known less, and this led my colleagues to say we’d like him more.”

Later, this Russian, a businessman, expressed appreciation for Trump’s background, and announced: “Were I to vote in American elections, I’d vote for Mr. Trump.”

Other Russian delegates, speaking privately, shared a range of views. “He’s a clown,” said one, a Middle East expert. Another joked that he’d vote for Trump, because of his three marriages. “I’m on my third marriage, too,” he said.

The next Dartmouth plenary will take place next spring, after the new US president is installed. In the meantime, there is plenty to chew on from Zavidovo.

Matthew Rojansky, a leader of the US delegation, offers three takeaways. On Ukraine, he sees little hope for implementation of Minsk II.

“I think we need to pivot from that to a modus vivendi, given that Ukraine is now the next big post-Soviet frozen conflict, and it will be for the foreseeable future,” Mr. Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute in Washington, said in an interview.

His second takeaway is more hopeful: If “we can bottle up the battle of egos” that has shut down routine, “Track One” dialogue, then dialogue on areas with little disagreement – such as counter-terrorism and drug trafficking – becomes easy.

“I think Dartmouth reveals how ready we are to move forward,” he says.

Rojansky’s third observation centers on generational change, and what that means for arms control. He sees older Dartmouth delegates – in particular, retired senior military officials – and imagines a future without those who fought the cold war and understand the logic of “mutually assured destruction.”

“These guys have a deeply held conviction that if we don’t reorient our fundamental posture toward one another, then we’ll be back in a cold war,” says Rojansky.

Does the Dartmouth Conference, founded in 1960 by Saturday Review editor and peace activist Norman Cousins, really accomplish anything? “Sustained dialogue” can seem laborious, progress incremental. Last year, Harold Saunders, a longtime Dartmouth co-chair and pioneer in sustained dialogue who died in March, described to me the value of the institution this way: In times of tension between the US and Russia (and before that, the Soviet Union), Dartmouth “keeps the sinew healthy.”

Dartmouth participants have also found the dialogues helpful in their professional endeavors. In March, Russian co-chair Vitaly Naumkin was named as a consultant to the UN mediation team brokering Syrian peace talks in Geneva. In an interview, Mr. Naumkin told me that his long Dartmouth experience “in building bridges with Americans and trying to help each other” has helped him understand the US mindset during the talks.

Dartmouth – named for the college in New Hampshire where the first conference took place -- isn’t all dialogue. Part of the value is in informal contact – over coffee, during meals, at receptions. At Zavidovo, the final dinner took place in Brezhnev’s old hunting lodge, situated at the confluence of the Shosha and Volga rivers.

During the conference, there was also time for long walks, bike rides, and visits with the goats on the resort’s grounds. Some Americans went to the Russian baths and tried their hand at knife-throwing and skeet-shooting. (This reporter took five shots and hit three clay “plates,” as they are called in Russian.) Boar-hunting is also still on offer, though it wasn’t in season.

As for the wild pig shot by Brezhnev in 1973, his mounted head was donated by Kissinger to the Kennan Institute. “Boris the boar” hangs on the wall there, a testament to a time of detente in a usually tense relationship.

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