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The State Of U.S.-Russian Relations


President Obama said he'd reset relations with Russia and once promised the Russian leader he'd have more flexibility. President Trump has called Vladimir Putin smart and strong. On the charges he's a killer, he said you think our country's so innocent? So why is a Russian spy ship loitering off of the U.S. East Coast? Why have Russian jets been buzzing U.S. Navy ships? At the prospect of investigations into contacts between President Trump's campaign and Russia, what's the state of relations between the two countries? We turn now to Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She chaired the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and joins us from Munich where she's at the Munich Security Conference. President Harman, thanks very much for being with us.

JANE HARMAN: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Does Vladimir Putin have the U.S. just where he wants them?

HARMAN: (Laughter) I have no idea exactly where he wants it, but he certainly has many tools in his toolbox, which he seems to use to great effect. And this conference, which is meeting over the weekend and where Mike Pence spoke earlier today and where actually Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke earlier yesterday, is buzzing with not specifically U.S.-Russia but Europe-Russia and what some of the options are.

SIMON: Well, what do you hear in the buzz?

HARMAN: (Laughter) Well, let's start with what the foreign minister said, Lavrov. He said that the post - that the post-Cold War era is over and the post-West era is over, and we're into a world era where all countries have roles. And that was very interesting. He denied, in answer to a specific question, that Russia is interfering with elections in Europe, specifically the French election. He said, where's the proof? And so, you know, there's that. On the other side, members of Congress are here. Senator McCain brings a large delegation each year. This is one of the largest. I was on that delegation for 11 years when I was in Congress.

SIMON: Yeah, I saw pictures of the two of you sitting with each other, I believe.

HARMAN: That's right. Well, he is nearby now, and he gave a very impassioned speech yesterday, which some read as critical of President Trump, but it certainly was about what U.S. interests are, and they are standing up to Russia was one of his points. But at any rate, the members of Congress here are listening carefully, and Congress has tools that it has not yet used to get to the truth that Foreign Minister Lavrov says people don't have. And I would hope that my former employer would be much more aggressive on a bipartisan basis so that we can have the truth.

SIMON: When vice president said the U.S. will continue to hold Russia accountable, is that a way of saying pay no attention to the president behind that curtain and his tweets and whatever he says at a press conference? This is U.S. policy.

HARMAN: Well (laughter) it might be. People - I think the Pence speech went over well, but I certainly heard comments that said can he deliver? But there were also - there was a very clear speech yesterday by our minister of defense, our defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and later Kelly, our homeland security secretary, will speak, and messages from the secretary of state, Tillerson, have been pretty unequivocal. So I think that the - at least the Pence message is being reaffirmed by other members of the Cabinet. And at the moment, anyway, most people think that there will be - and should be - a tougher line on Russia. I certainly think so.

SIMON: Jane Harman, in the half a minute we have left, do you - the way you see it strategically, does President Putin want better relations with the U.S. or something else?

HARMAN: I think - I think the answer is yes but on his terms. And I think we should talk to Russia. I think President Trump is right about that. A thawed relationship is helpful. But I think we should be clear-eyed about the things Russia has done. Destabilizing Ukraine is totally unacceptable to the people here, including Petro Poroshenko, who is the president of Ukraine, and interfering with a variety of information tools in elections in the West is outrageous.

SIMON: Jane Harman of the Wilson Center, thanks so much.

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

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