The Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs (BCFA) hosted Robert O. Freedman, a visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and formerly of Baltimore Hebrew University, for a talk on U.S.-Russia relations on May 16. In his remarks, Freedman was skeptical of the benefit of Russian cooperation in conflicts and the United States’ ability to trust Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The talk was held at the World Trade Center Baltimore and was introduced by BCFA president Frank Burd. Freedman has spoken numerous times at the BCFA, an organization that regularly hosts foreign relations speakers.
“Nearly everyone recognizes that the world’s two major nuclear powers cannot remain at odds indefinitely,” Burd said before welcoming Freedman back as “a longtime friend of the council.”
At the time of his talk, Russia had been playing a major role in U.S. news thanks to the ongoing investigation of possible collusion between Russian officials and the Donald Trump campaign. President Trump had also only recently fired former FBI director James Comey, who had been heading up that investigation.
“We meet at an absolutely fascinating time in U.S.-Russia relations, as anyone reading the news knows,” Freedman said to chuckles and sighs of recognition in the audience.
The Trump administration has said it wants more cooperation with Russia, especially in major conflicts around the globe. Freedman, in his talk, explored whether Russian interests would align with those of the U.S. in a way that would be helpful.
For an example, Freedman pointed to the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians. Putin, he said, wants Russia to be included in the peace talks because it would signify Russia as a major international player. However, he said, Russia is also stoking the conflict by selling arms to certain terrorist groups — essentially trying to have it both ways.
“So, how is Russia going to be helpful?” he said.
Freedman also pointed to Russia’s backing of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the ongoing, and bloody, civil war. The U.S., on the other hand, has provided material support to the Syrian rebel groups. From Freedman’s perspective, Russia, and especially Putin, has been using Syria as a way to show Russian power and influence and has no real incentive to establish a peace process.
“The only bright spot — and it’s not a big one — is Libya,” Freedman said, adding that it would likely benefit both the U.S. and Russia — and the world — if Libya’s civil war could end and a stable, coalition government was put in place.
After his talk, Freedman took a few audience questions, which had him expand on issues like counteracting Russian influence in the Middle East and Russia’s plans and relationships with India and China.
The audience was more engaged, and generally more receptive, to Freedman’s talk than to the last BCFA event, which featured Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Yasser Reda. Reda was more evasive and reticent than Freedman.
“It was very enjoyable,” said Jane Talbot, an attendee from Annapolis. “I’ve been to Russia several times with my husband.” Talbot said they loved their time in Russia and had very good experiences but weren’t immune to Russian control. “Mind you, we were quite aware we were being followed. We had to be very careful. We were warned what not to discuss.”
Talbot’s companion for the talk, Suzy Larson, said it was definitely worth coming.
“The frankness and ability to give truthful information — so refreshing,” she said. “This is just a gift, this whole council.”
The next BCFA talk, “The Future of American Foreign Policy in a Disordered World” on May 31, will be given by Thomas Wright, director of the project on international order and strategy at the Brookings Institution, For more information go to bcfausa.org.