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Russia Has Abandoned Pacts It Helped To Negotiate, Vershbow Says


Russia has loomed large in the presidential election, not to mention looming large in international affairs in recent years, so we're going to talk with a man who knows Russia well. Alexander Vershbow once served as U.S. ambassador to Russia and until earlier this week was NATO's deputy secretary general. He held that post for almost five years. His departing tweet was, quote, "as I leave NATO, I hope Russia will return to the rules-based European security system." That is where we began our discussion.

So what did you mean by that? What is Russia not doing?

ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: Well, we saw, particularly in the last two years, that Russia seems to have abandoned a lot of the agreements that it helped to negotiate involving respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity; don't change borders by force - very basic rules of international system like that. It violated all of them in its aggression against Ukraine, and its continuing to violate them with its support for this illegal insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by Russia helped to negotiate the rules in the first place?

VERSHBOW: Well, of course Russia was part of the whole post-World War II negotiation that established the United Nations, the U.N. Charter. But perhaps more importantly, Russia was a co-founder of the whole Helsinki system which enshrined principles like sovereignty and territorial integrity and respect for each nation's right to choose its own relationships. All of those principles have now been trashed by President Putin.

INSKEEP: Do you feel that you know why Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, would challenge the established order?

VERSHBOW: Well, it's clear from what he says and what other Russian leaders say that they feel that Russia was taken advantage of in the 1990s. They tend to blame others for their own mistakes. But I think they are trying to go back to a kind of world that was founded under the Yalta agreements at the end of World War II where spheres of influence were accepted as part of the game. So they have very much a revisionist agenda, trying to roll back some of the changes that happened in the last 25, 30 years.

INSKEEP: President Putin has been described sometimes as an opportunist. Sometimes he's been described as a gambler. If you had to sum him up or his approach up in one word, what would the word be?

VERSHBOW: (Laughter) Well, I think that the - you know, there's a lot of what I would say is an old Soviet in President Putin - reflects his KGB background and the fact that he has surrounded himself with like-minded people who, you know, share what I would call a very skewed view of the world.

But we have to deal with the Russia that we face, and NATO I think sets itself as the mature adult in this relationship, and we're trying to bring the Russians back to the rules-based system to become more predictable, to start complying with some of the arms control agreements that they've violated or even suspended. Partnership may be a long way off, but at least we should stabilize what is now very, very dangerous relationship.

INSKEEP: You said there's an old Soviet in President Putin. Does that mean you're one word for him might be nostalgic?

VERSHBOW: That fits I think to some degree, and I think there's been a certain growing nostalgia for the Soviet period even among people who were born after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

I lived in Brezhnev's Russia my first assignment in the U.S. Foreign Service back in the late '70s. It was a pretty bleak time. That's when they were throwing dissidents into psychiatric hospitals. So I get a little bit worried when Russians are getting nostalgic for that time in history.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Vershbow, thanks very much.

VERSHBOW: You're very welcome.

INSKEEP: Alexander Vershbow's a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and the outgoing deputy secretary general of NATO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 21, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous headline misspelled Alexander Vershbow's name as Vershowbow. Also, an earlier Web summary stated incorrectly that Vershbow had resigned. In fact, his term with NATO came to an end.