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Russian Relations 'Extremely Tense' As U.S. Sends Armor To Eastern Europe


For more on the state of U.S.-Russian relations, we're joined by Mark Katz. He's a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARK KATZ: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You're someone who has studied this relationship for a long time. Is the tension between the U.S. and Russia being overstated?

KATZ: No. I think that it's become extremely tense. And I haven't seen it this bad since the Brezhnev era or just afterward. I think that it's - you know, it's pretty bad.

MARTIN: Last month, U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, went to Sochi to meet for direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin because the U.S. says it needs Russia on a whole slew of fronts. It needs cooperation from Russia on two big issues in particular - the Iran nuclear deal and the war in Syria. Why?

KATZ: To be honest, I'm not sure that we really do need Russia on either of these things. I think that Secretary Kerry is making this argument, I think, in order to persuade Russia that we have things we could cooperate on. I think with regard to Iran - none of us wants Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. But I think from the Russian point of view, what they see is Iran wants to improve its relations with America and the West, and Russia really isn't in the position to stop that. If the Russians tried, the Iranians, who've never had a very positive image of them, would be furious. On the other hand, there's plenty of opportunity for breakdowns in the negotiations between Iran and the West, and I think that the Russians would take advantage of it.

MARTIN: Does Russia benefit in some way from an isolated Iran?

KATZ: It has. American sanctions on Iran in particular have been a godsend for Russia because had they not been on, the West would obviously be buying lots and lots of Iranian petroleum. Probably, there would have been investment in Iran's huge gas reserves. The Caspian Basin oil and gas would have flowed south via pipelines through Iran. So I think that the Russians, you know, if they could, they would prefer sanctions to continue.

MARTIN: So let's turn our attention to Syria because U.S. officials have said that Russian cooperation in bringing a cease-fire to the civil war there is important. What practically can Russia do to bring that conflict to and end?

KATZ: I don't think they can do very much at all. The real job for American diplomacy is to bring somehow bring some sort of understanding or detente, if not friendship, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but that's going to be very, very difficult.

MARTIN: The U.S. military is floating this plan to build up, as we just heard, to build up military equipment and arms along the Eastern European border with Russia. How is that likely, in your opinion, to affect the overall relationship between U.S. and Russia?

KATZ: Well, the Russians aren't going to be happy. That's for sure. But it seems to me that the clearer it is that crossing a border is going to lead to a larger conflict, the more that Russia's likely to be deterred.

MARTIN: You've outlined the ways that Russia is actually not a useful partner on Iran or Syria. What's the price for the U.S. of just writing Russia off? Why do we need Russia as an important partner in solving these geopolitical conflicts at all?

KATZ: The thing is that up until now, since the end of the Cold War, we haven't been focusing on Russia, and there's a general sense that China is going to be the threat of the future. For the Russians, part of the problem is that they would actually prefer that we see them as a threat than that we ignore them. They like the idea that they have our attention. But the truth of the matter, though, is that, you know, Russia has a weak economy, a shrinking population, an aging population. But in the long run, it's headed toward decline, especially compared to some of its rising neighbors - China and India. And so I think that if in fact China is the concern that we're going to have in the future, it would be good if we cooperate with Russia against that threat than if we don't. But the trouble is that we have to have a government in Russia that understands that, and at the moment, we don't.

MARTIN: Mark Katz - he's a professor in the school of policy, government and international affairs at George Mason University. Thank you so much.

KATZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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