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‘Putin's tactics may be brilliant’ ‘Meduza’ interviews Celeste Wallander, one of Barack Obama's top advisors on Russia

Meduza
Photo: Sgt. Jason Edwards / DoD

Since the beginning of Russia's latest military intervention in the Middle East, Syria has become the new focal point of US-Russian relations. The West accuses Moscow of using the battle against ISIL as a pretext to aide Bashar al-Assad's regime, while Russian officials insist that the airstrikes are focused on eliminating terrorists now threatening to overthrow the country. Meduza's own Konstantin Benyumov recently met with Celeste Wallander, the US National Security Council’s senior director for Russia and Eurasia, to discuss the goals and effectiveness of Russia's actions in Syria, as well as the general state of affairs between the Kremlin and the White House.

Celeste Wallander is an American expert in international relations with a focus on Russia. She is currently Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security Council. From May 2009 until July 2012, she served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia in the US Defense Department. Wallander was also an adviser to Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign.

Let's start with an article that recently appeared in Politico, which said oddly enough that there is a rift within the Obama Administration because of Russia's actions in Syria, claiming that some people within the Administration want a bolder response from the White House to whatever Russia is doing, and the text actually names you as one of the people who would prefer a bolder response.

Whenever there's an issue of the United States' response to any kind of international event or policy challenge, there's always a range of views. We're a democracy, there are different agencies of the US government, we have different ranges of expertise and experience, and so there are always different views. And it's through debate and the diversity of views that we end up—I think—in the end with the most well-grounded, best thought-through, and strongest policy. 

We're not like other countries, where one person from the top simply decides and therefore can blunder into strategic mistakes. We do make mistakes at times, but I think that diversity of views and that give-and-take actually ends up crafting a better policy. So, yes, there are different views among different officials in the US government about exactly how to deal with the challenge of Russia's intervention in Syria—just as there was a variety of views on Russia's intervention in Ukraine. 

I'm not going to talk in public about my advice. That is an internal, private debate. But I certainly expressed my best advice to my bosses, because that's my job. That is my responsibility. And I wouldn't be contributing to a strong US foreign policy, if I didn't. And I really respect and admire our process and the fact that everyone has strong views and brings them to the table. 

So whatever frustrations you may or may not be having, we're not going to hear about them right now.

This is an ongoing crisis, and we're in it for the long run—just like with Ukraine. This is something where, when you agree to serve in the US government, you have to be willing to be part of a team. And that means, on any given day, your advice might not be perfectly followed, but your responsibility and your commitment is to be part of the team and to make the end result better. And so, if on a given day my specific advice isn't followed, that doesn't lessen my responsibility to get up and work the next day, as well. 

There have been reports that "Putin's campaign in Syria has broken any momentum Obama had after sealing the nuclear deal with Iran." Do you think that foreign policy is a fight and a struggle for global influence, and do you worry that Russia is winning somehow, or the US is losing?

I don't think foreign policy is first and foremost a struggle for influence. Influence is based on the foundations of power, on which the United States is very solid. Our economy is strong; the Obama Administration has gotten the fundamentals of the American economy back on track after the horrible crisis of 2008-2009. Power is also a function of the obvious elements of power: military power and hard power. But it is also very much, President Obama believes and the Administration believes, part of our ability to work in partnership with like-minded countries, whether those are allies or partners on different issues. 

And on all those counts, US foreign policy is stronger under President Obama than it has been for a long time. So we're not feeling on our back heels, and we certainly do not define American power in terms of Russian power. We do not see US-Russian relations in zero sum terms. Now, it's a challenge when Russia casts our relationship in zero sum terms, but you don't adopt the views and the interests and the strategic objectives of the other side. That's how you get off track.

So we don't at all see American influence in light of what kind of influence Russia may be pursuing under President Putin. Now, that isn't to say that how President Putin has chosen to execute Russian foreign policy hasn't created enormous challenges for the United States. It has. Especially in Ukraine, because of the challenge to the European security order. But that's different than saying that we compare our influence to Russia's. That's just the wrong frame for understanding how we make decisions. 

It's said that the developments in Syria caught the US Administration completely off guard. There's also a perception that Russia's desire to reinstate its status as a global power is nothing new. Are recent developments just a continuation of something Russia has been doing for the past 25 years? 

What Russia has chosen to begin and execute in Syria did not take us completely by surprise. Uninformed commentators often claim that the United States was taken by surprise. That analysis is wrong. Sometimes you just have to listen very carefully to what President Putin says. He pretty clearly laid out what he was going to do in Syria. He gave a speech in Dushanbe [Tajikistan], and laid it out quite clearly that Russia saw—that he saw—the need for Russia to intervene to save the Assad regime. And that's how he frames the Syria crisis, in terms of saving the Assad regime: stability and preventing color revolution, and preventing regime change. You just need to pay attention sometimes to what he says.

Celeste Wallander (right) and other members of the National Security Council during a telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. March 16, 2014.
Celeste Wallander (right) and other members of the National Security Council during a telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. March 16, 2014.
Photo: Pete Souza / The White House

Does that mean Russia's official line that it's actually fighting ISIL has no grounds at all?

I think that the Russian leadership and the Russian public is genuinely and rightfully concerned about ISIL. We actually do share that concern and we do share interests in ISIL being defeated and for ISIL not to be able to operate and to threaten people in the Middle East and even to spread their ability to work elsewhere. I do think there is evidence that Russian military forces in Syria have occasionally struck targets that belong to ISIL. But the vast bulk of the targets that Russian forces have struck and the vast weight of Russian military operations are not in areas where ISIL is operating or is in control. 

Do you see this getting out of hand and becoming a proxy war between Russia fighting through Assad forces and the United States fighting through the so-called "moderate opposition"?

No, because President Obama made it clear that he rejects the frame of a proxy war. This comes back to my point about not letting someone else define your strategic objectives. That's how you make mistakes. Our strategic objective in Syria is, first, to defeat ISIL, and, second, to help to facilitate a peaceful resolution to the civil war. And with those strategic objectives, somehow turning this into a proxy war with Russia would be absolutely counterproductive. 

Do you think it makes sense to join efforts against ISIL?

As Secretary Kerry has made clear, and as President Obama has also made clear when he has spoken to this issue, the United States would welcome a sincere willingness and effort on the part of the Russian government to join in the counter-ISIL coalition and to coordinate with us, to actually strike ISIL targets. 

But, so far, you're not seeing that sincerity?

So far, we're not seeing that. 

In terms of strategy, there are two widespread views. One is that Vladimir Putin is a cold-hearted strategist who plays a game of chess and is winning. The other view is that he's merely reacting to challenges as they emerge. As someone who's been watching Russia's foreign policy for nearly three decades, which point of view do you support?

I think President Putin has objectives in his foreign policy overall and in specific instances. So those who say he has no strategy misunderstand him, I think. Where I believe you see Russian foreign policy failing repeatedly is that, to have a good strategy, you have to understand your strategic environment. So you can't just know what you want to achieve; you have to have good information about how to achieve it. And in both Ukraine and in Syria, I think what you see is a Russian leadership that is failing to fully understand the strategic environment in which its operating. And therefore it fails to make good choices on its policy. So the tactics may be brilliant, except the tactics aren't getting them to their strategic objectives because they're not understanding. 

Let me give you an example of what I mean: the Russian leadership really seemed to have believed that, by fomenting uprisings and building-takings and the narrative of Novorossiya in the Donbass, that it would be just like Crimea. But they didn't understand that the conditions in Donetsk and Lugansk were not the same. And they also didn't understand that, while the Ukraine military wasn't in the position to be able to defend Crimea (just because of the nature of the terrain, the fact that it's a peninsula, the fact that the Russians have the Black Sea Fleet, and [the Russians] have the advantage of surprise), that the military situation in Donetsk and Lugansk was going to be entirely different. The Russians didn't have the advantage of surprise, they did not have the same level of support in the population, and the military objectives were entirely different than the easy task of taking hold of a peninsula. And it was in that misunderstanding that the Russian leadership made a serious strategic error. 

A Sukhoi Su-30 at Russia's airbase near Latakia, Syria. October 22, 2015.
A Sukhoi Su-30 at Russia's airbase near Latakia, Syria. October 22, 2015.
Photo: Russian Defense Ministry / Reuters / Scanpix

And so you believe that something similar might happen in Syria?

I do think that something similar is happening. I think there is evidence that the Russian military operations are not going as well as expected. That there is stiffer resistance. The Russians may have overestimated the capabilities of their allies on the ground, and thought that all it would take would be a little bit of air power to be able to support ground operations on the part of their local allies. Once again, it looks like they've made an error and they're going to come to regret it. 

It sounds like something the the United States learned the hard way, and the Russians didn't pick up on the lesson? 

I think it's partly that we've learned—certainly the United States has learned through various defense and security operations—how to understand local terrain and local political conditions (who your partners are, who your allies are). But I also think it's more fundamental. I think that it's the advantage of being a democracy over being an authoritarian system. In the United States, we're constantly getting feedback on our choices, and we're constantly getting information that helps. Sometimes it's a little bit frustrating, but actually it's really useful. We do not want to stop the information critiques about what our policies are, because they let us learn from mistakes and learn from past experience. 

In the Russian system, if you stifle dissent, if you make it difficult to bring bad news to the boss, you're going to make strategic errors again and again and again.

So it's not just that we've learned in the United States from past experience; it's also that our system, for all its weaknesses and frustrations, is actually fundamentally stronger. We have that ability to get the kind of information you need to make good choices. 

Konstantin Benyumov

Riga