January 21st, 2014
05:18 PM ET

Sochi: Terrorists aim to sow fear as Olympics draw closer

By Jill Dougherty

The Sochi Olympics have become the "Holy Grail" for terrorists, experts on Russia say, and they don't even have to attack the Games directly to claim success.

"You don't necessarily have to hit Sochi to spoil the Games," says Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "A series of Volgograd-caliber attacks would virtually terrorize all of Russia."

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December 10th, 2013
08:02 AM ET

A brief but important handshake between Obama, Castro

By Jill Dougherty

Arriving on stage at FNB stadium in Johannesburg to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama shook hands with dozens of other world leaders, pausing briefly to grasp the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro.

It was a moment of high symbolism. More than 50 years after the Cuban Revolution, the United States and Cuba still do not have diplomatic relations.

The President has eased some of the economic embargo and travel restrictions that the administration of President George W. Bush strongly enforced, but relations still are tense. Cuba continues to imprison an American citizen, Alan Gross, who was arrested in 2009 on charges of attempting to destabilize the Cuban government.

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Tiny Moldova to get big boost from U.S.
Secretary of State John Kerry departs Monday night for a trip to Belgium, Moldova, Israel and Ramallah
December 2nd, 2013
08:01 PM ET

Tiny Moldova to get big boost from U.S.

By Jill Dougherty

It’s a short stop – just four hours – on a trip that will take Secretary of State John Kerry to a NATO meeting in Belgium, to Israel and to Ramallah in the West Bank. But his visit to Chisinau, capital of Moldova, is significant.

The Eastern European nation, bordered on the east by Ukraine, stuck to its diplomatic guns late last month and, along with Georgia, signed a key economic and political agreement with the European Union.

That agreement, called the “Eastern Partnership,” is designed to forge closer E.U. ties with Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

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U.S. urges Iran to help free missing retired FBI agent
US Daniel Levinson (L) shows a picture of his father, ex-FBI agent Robert Levinson, holding his grandson Ryan during a press conference with his mother Christine at the Swiss embassy in Tehran, 22 December 2007.
November 26th, 2013
11:55 AM ET

U.S. urges Iran to help free missing retired FBI agent

By CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty

With a breakthrough interim nuclear deal and relations between the United States and Iran improving, the White House on Tuesday "respectfully" asked the Iranian government to help return Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who went missing in Iran more than six years ago.

"We do want to test the regime. The new administration has said that they want to take a different approach toward the West, toward the United States. One way that they could clearly demonstrate that is they could help us find Bob Levinson, help reunite him with his family," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told CNN.

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Ukraine shocks West with EU decision
November 21st, 2013
08:42 PM ET

Ukraine shocks West with EU decision

By CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty

For the past year, Ukraine insisted it was intent on signing an historic political and trade agreement with the European Union, but on Thursday, the government in Kiev made the surprising last-minute decision to suspend talks with the EU, drawing dismayed reaction from Europe and the United States.

Commenting on the news just minutes after it broke, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki that if reports were true "and if the decision is the Ukrainian government's final decision," the Obama administration was "disappointed."

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Caroline Kennedy sworn in as ambassador to Japan
November 12th, 2013
06:34 PM ET

Caroline Kennedy sworn in as ambassador to Japan

By Jill Dougherty

In a private ceremony Tuesday afternoon at the State Department, Caroline Kennedy was sworn in by Secretary of State John Kerry as U.S. ambassador to Japan.

The event was closed to media, but the State Department released a photo showing a smiling Kennedy dressed in a simple black dress, her right hand raised, her left resting on what looked like a Bible held by her husband, Edwin Schlossberg. Nearby, their son John "Jack" Schlossberg looked on, wearing a dark suit, hands in pockets, his shock of dark hair an uncanny reminder of his deceased uncle, John Kennedy Jr., Caroline's brother.

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Russian LGBT activists in U.S. to lobby against anti-gay law
November 8th, 2013
07:46 PM ET

Russian LGBT activists in U.S. to lobby against anti-gay law

By Jill Dougherty

Lyudmila Romodina and Oleg Klyuenkov, LGBT activists from the northern Russian port city of Arkhangelsk, hate Russia's anti-gay "propaganda" law but they don't support the idea of a boycott of the Sochi Olympics in Russia as a way of protesting it.

The two members of the LGBT rights organization "Rakurs," which means "Perspective" in Russian, say they hope the Olympics, which will be held in February in the southern Russian city of Sochi, might help to shine a light on discrimination against gay people in Russia, as well as spur discussion.

"We don't want any extra rights" but gay people in Russia do want rights that are equal to those of their fellow Russians, Klyuenkov told CNN in an interview in Washington during a 10-day visit to the United States.

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Russia on Syria – No more ‘nyet’?
September 22nd, 2013
09:45 AM ET

Russia on Syria – No more ‘nyet’?

By CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty

Moscow moved with lightning speed to seize the idea raised unexpectedly by Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria should give up its chemical weapons, and seasoned Kremlin watchers believe that deft maneuver could mark a turning point in Moscow’s broader diplomatic strategy in the Middle East – and beyond.

“It’s the first time in 20 years, since Russia became a new state, that they’ve taken an initiative like that,” says Georgetown University’s Angela Stent, author of a new book “The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.”

“It’s part of a broader Russian goal to re-assert itself as a major player,” she told me at the Valdai Discussion Club, a yearly gathering of leading Russian and international experts.

“I think they really were worried about the impact of the potential U.S. military strike on Syria - what it would do to Syria and the instability it could cause.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, says Stent, also was worried about how it might affect Russia itself and the population in the North Caucasus where Moscow has faced an insurgency, especially in Chechnya - “and they saw an opportunity.”

Since Putin came to power, one of Russia’s major goals has been to have a seat at the table on all important international issues, and Russia’s veto power at the United Nations was the vehicle for that.

Now, Stent says, Russia is “beginning to set an agenda,” after two decades of the United States setting the agenda. “This is the beginning of something where, if there is a strategy behind it, it could lead to a … more influential role globally.”

What does Russia really want?

Up to now, Russia’s international strategy was driven more by what it did not want, than what it did want, says Toby Gati, former Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research. “The only word that every American knows in the Russian language is ‘nyet.’ And that means no.”

Russia’s traditional diplomatic role, she says, “is to be wary of what happens in the international system because they can’t control it.”

“They are used to watching the United States, watching us stumble, or not know what’s going to be the next step, and sitting on the sidelines, saying either ‘We told you so,’ which Putin is very good at doing, or ‘We would have done it differently,” or ‘You Americans have to be constrained because you’re the crazy uncle in the attic.’”

Putin’s proposal to rid Syria of chemical weapons puts Russia back on stage, with the Russian president in the new role of initiator. “It’s a very unusual position for Russia and, I think, one they are very happy having,” Gati says.

“But also a very difficult position for them because it means, for the first time, they actually have to prioritize their interests. Is it getting rid of the chemical weapons? Is it having cooperative relations with the U.S.? Is it keeping Assad in power? Is it, perhaps, having to put boots on the ground? Is it actually come to the point that the Security Council will have to vote, perhaps, on Chapter 7 enforcement?”

Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter leaves open the possibility for the Security Council to consider use of force against Syria.

Russia’s goals in Syria

Russia’s aims in Syria have been consistent and “quite straightforward” for some time, says James Sherr of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and author of “Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad.”

“Russia wants to protect and defend its ally – a very important ally in a very critical state, one of only two now in the Middle East – which affords Russia an enormous amount of influence - in Lebanon, in Israel, in the wider region, in Iran - that it might not otherwise have,” says Sherr.

Russia also, he says, is determined to block any form of Western intervention “because Russia’s experience leads them to believe that even if something starts with non-military intentions, it escalates into a military intervention. And this (chemical weapons) agreement, from their point of view, put an immovable spanner in the works of U.S. military intervention.”

Russia is committed, not just in Syria, but globally, Sherr says, “to diminishing the influence of Western values in the world as a whole and, of course, at home.” Moscow may not approve of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s “bestiality,” but it does believe that authoritarian states “have much the same rights of sovereignty under international law as those states we consider democratic.”

Russia sees the chemical weapons framework agreement as a means of beginning to pursue its wider ambitions about “changing the architecture in the region,” Sherr says. “And that is why they are now publicly putting on the table the issue of Israel’s nuclear stockpile.”

Israel’s nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip

Sherr, Stent and Gati all point to Putin’s comments at the Valdai Discussion Club, in which he said that Syria built up its chemical weapons in order to counter Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons. Two other Russian officials at the conference made similar comments.

“He made it clear that Israel … now has to agree, sign a nonproliferation treaty, and give up its nuclear weapons, and this is going to be a condition for any further progress in this area,” says Stent. “That, of course, is a nonstarter as far as the United States is concerned. But that’s where Russia has put its mark.”

Sherr does not believe Russia’s fundamental aim is to weaken Israel but rather “to promote (Moscow’s) own position; everything else is secondary to that.” Nor does he believe Russia can put Israel’s nuclear weapons on the bargaining table. It can, however, “put Israel in a more defensive position, which in turn makes Israel more reliant on Russia and makes it as important for the Israelis to conduct their diplomacy in Moscow as in Washington,” Sherr says.

And if Israel’s nuclear weapons are now part of the discussion about Syria, so is Iran. “They’re in a strong position to say that we cannot proceed constructively without Iran being at the table,” Sherr says. “And if you want a wider solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, then you also need our support and you also then need to bring Israel into that equation.”

“Russia wants everyone to understand that there can be no peace, or even substantial improvement of conditions in the Middle East, if Russia is not at the top table in a critical condition,” Sherr says. “Russia is letting everyone know: ‘We are the country in the key role. We are the only country here who can talk to all the parties that matter.’”

“Iran is the big prize,” Gati agrees. “That’s what we keep forgetting.”

Putin’s recent offers to build a second nuclear reactor at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant, as well as supply Iran with S-300 air defense missile systems, are part of Putin’s overall strategy in the region, Gati says. “I think that was a way of saying to the Iranians: ‘Don’t rush to open up to the Americans. We can provide things now and you don’t have to change internally. You don’t have to meet any demands. If you start negotiations with the Americans what’s going to happen is, ‘What are you doing at home? What are your policies toward Israel?’”

Stent heard something new – and concerning – from Russia’s foreign minister, who also spoke at the Valdai conference. “We also heard from Mr. [Sergey] Lavrov that maybe we won’t get all the chemical weapons from Syria, we may get some of them.”

“I’m sure that the U.S. condition on this is that we have to get all of them,” Stent says. “If you only get some of them, then you really haven’t achieved your objective. So there are many ways this can come unstuck.”

All three experts concur: the agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons has set loose an avalanche of diplomatic moves that could have profound implications for Russia and the West.

“This step arose suddenly, says Sherr. “It is, in fact, an improvisation, but it stems from something the Russians are very good at, which is studying the other side, in this case us, very carefully, studying the logic of our positions, studying our mistakes, and seizing an opening when it suddenly appears. And that’s what they have done.”

Russia pounced on a diplomatic opportunity, Gati says, but it could turn out to be a challenge for Moscow, precisely because Russia is not used to making the first move. “And it will be hard for America,” she says, “because we are usually the ones putting out the ideas, leading the parade, and finally, usually getting the solutions. In this case, that hasn’t happened. Inaction hasn’t worked. The American policy hasn’t worked. And now we’re going to see if the Russian one does.”

Syria, she says, could be a unique instance where the Russians take the lead, or it might be a harbinger of things to come. “One thing that will be very interesting to watch,” she says, “ is whether or not it leads to the development of some ideas for some type of new type of relationship with the United States, what I would call ‘Reset a la Russe.’”

Russia’s last-minute move

It’s too early to predict whether the Russian proposal will help bring the war in Syria to an end. But several Russia experts at the Valdai conference criticize Russia for not using its influence at the outset of the conflict to help stop it.

“Before the opposition was militarized, before the influx of foreign fighters, before the dominance of jihadists, before 100,000 people were killed, before there were half a million refugees,” says Sherr, “the country that had the most convincing combination of nonmilitary means of pressure to apply against Assad to produce meaningful changes and compromises, was Russia. And those means were not used.”

“So Russia does have a considerable responsibility for how this conflict has evolved. Whether they recognize that responsibility or not, anyone on the outside assessing the conflict today or in the future will have to come to that conclusion. They are at least as responsible for everything which has gone awry here as the United States and some other significant actors.”

Inside the mind of Vladimir Putin
September 21st, 2013
12:55 PM ET

Inside the mind of Vladimir Putin

By CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty

Sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya is used to getting into people’s heads.

She’s an expert on Russia’s elites and its political system. For 23 years she headed the Department of Elite Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences and now is director general of the research center “Kryshtanovskaya Laboratory.”

When Kryshtanovskaya looks at Russian President Vladimir Putin, she sees an “average Joe” - make that an “average Ivan.”

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Russian roots of American exceptionalism
September 17th, 2013
06:59 PM ET

Russian roots of American exceptionalism

By Jill Dougherty reporting from Valdai, Russia

Even as news was breaking of a shooting at Navy headquarters in Washington, a Russian lawmaker and talk-show host jumped on it to take a swipe at "American exceptionalism."

"A new shootout at Navy headquarters in Washington – a lone gunman and 7 corpses," Alexey Pushkov, head of the International Affairs Committee of the Russian Duma, Tweeted. "Nobody's even surprised anymore. A clear confirmation of American exceptionalism."

President Barack Obama mentioned the concept in his address to the nation on Syria last week.

"When, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional," Obama said.
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