Paula Dobriansky’s way of staying out of the headlines seems to be sticking to what’s in them.
A foremost expert on Russia at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, she relied heavily on published reports as she walked a fine line in Atlanta discussing the U.S. relationship with the country without jeopardizing her potential appointment as deputy secretary of state.
Ms. Dobriansky, who spoke Wednesday at a World Affairs Council of Atlanta luncheon in Buckhead, is reportedly being considered for the State Department’s No. 2 position in the new administration of President Donald Trump.
Curiously absent from the discussion at all was the man who could be her boss, former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, whom the Senate confirmed as secretary of state just hours after her talk.
Mr. Tillerson was grilled during his confirmation hearings on his business dealings with Russia and his close ties with President Vladimir Putin, who decorated the executive with the country’s order of friendship honor after the oil giant’s heavy investments there.
Mr. Tillerson called reports of Russian hacking the Democratic National Committee “troubling.” He also said Russia saw the U.S. response to its invasion of Crimea “weak.” But he wouldn’t commit to advising the president to keep retaliatory sanctions in place.
Asked to elaborate on the state of the relations, Ms. Dobriansky pointed to failures of the so-called “resets” with Russia during the past two administrations as lessons for Mr. Trump: “As we saw, these did not pan out in the way that each administration had intended.”
But she volunteered little on the character of the Russian leader and wouldn’t speculate on how she might advise the president on how to deal with him. She declined to be interviewed by Global Atlanta after the event.
Ms. Dobriansky also praised Mr. Trump’s new stance of openness toward Russia without outlining how it might be different than his predecessors, though she did highlight the president’s acknowledgement that sanctions imposed on Russia in the aftermath of the Crimea incursion would remain in place for now. Sen. John McCain and others have said they would introduce legislation to codify the sanctions if Mr. Trump decides to lift them.
Mostly, instead of guessing what she would bring up in the event of her return to the State Department, the veteran diplomat and former undersecretary of state for democracy under George W. Bush pointed to bilateral issues already on the table. She largely skirted in-depth discussion of the new president’s more controversial stances.
Two vital points of discussion for the relationship now are Russia’s involvement in Syria, where its air strikes in support of the Assad regime have taken many lives and contributed to a major humanitarian crisis — and the conflict in Ukraine, which was touched off by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Just today, a fragile ceasefire in the country’s eastern region was reportedly broken.
Ms. Dobriansky said it’s no secret that Mr. Putin has designs on disrupting the U.S.-led international order in place since the World War II and enhanced after conclusion of the Cold War.
And she said concerns about him expressed by British Prime Minister Theresa May during her recent U.S. visit were “well founded,” especially in light of Russian campaigns of “disinformation” around the world, which Ms. Dobriansky said are nothing new, especially for Europeans.
“Russia has invested heavily in information, or, some would say, disinformation,” she said, noting that Russian interference often presents itself in the form of support for certain political parties.
The U.S., she suggested, should upgrade its cyber security capabilities in response.
“We’re I think really inadequate in that sector when it comes to national security tools,” she said.
Views on NATO
On the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, she pointed to positive overtures in the headlines from the NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg after the election of Mr. Trump, who blasted the alliance on the campaign trail and called out European allies for not paying their “fair share” for their own protection.
Not commenting on the manor in which they were raised, Ms. Dobrianksy said the president had brought up longstanding, important issues about “burden-sharing” in the trans-Atlantic alliance. Mr. Trump has rattled European allies with tough talk about NATO and suggestions that he’s indifferent about the fate of the European Union.
“I think we’re at a juncture where there will be a discussion about where the alliance is and needs to go,” Ms. Dobriansky said.
During the recent visit, Ms. May, the United Kingdom prime minister, said at a press conference that Mr. Trump assured her he was “100 percent behind NATO.”
He responded with a nod.
Thoughts on ‘Muslim ban’?
Ms. Dobriansky also briefly weighed in on Mr. Trump’s executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, noting that a common thread was the fragility of the states selected — minus Iran — and their weak screening procedures for potential extremists.
She underscored that it is a “temporary ban” and said it was reasonable for the administration to evaluate entry procedures. Mr. Trump, after all, had promised a stern posture on security and counterterrorism, she said, conceding nonetheless that the rollout “could have been more clearly stated.”
For more on Ms. Dobriansky’s views on Europe, see this Global Atlanta story on her visit to Atlanta for Europe Day in 2012: Atlanta Celebrates Europe Ties During a ‘Time of Transition’