The breakdown in relationship between the United States and Russia is not new and it cannot be fixed quickly, or easily. This unending discord is a product of long-standing disagreements on the fundamentals of each country’s national security interests and policies. Although improved personal ties between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin may be useful, yet they are not enough. Better US-Russia relations are impossible sans a major course correction by either or both sides. It is unlikely that Putin will compromise on core Russian interests. So, the Trump administration must come out of the fancies of having breakthroughs or grand bargains with Moscow; instead, the principal focus should be on managing a volatile relationship with an increasingly emboldened and unpredictable Russian leadership.
Turbulent events over the past year have compounded the already difficult problem of fashioning a sustainable long-term US policy toward Russia. The unprecedented presidential campaign in the United States, the British vote to leave the European Union (EU), and the rise of nationalist, populist, and anti-globalization forces elsewhere in Europe have formed a very different strategic landscape. The new US administration will confront an exceedingly complex set of challenges. These include a global re-balancing of economic, political and military power; a vast region in turmoil from North Africa to China’s western border; and uncertainty about the most important US relationships with allies and partners in Europe and Asia.
Russia looms especially large on this landscape, and the task of formulating a sustainable policy toward Russia has risen to the top of the national security agenda for the new US administration.
In redefining the terms of US-Russia engagement and balancing a relationship that will continue to be based on a fragile and uneasy mix of competition, adversity and occasional cooperation, the Trump administration needs to be careful in its dealings with Kremlin on the outstanding issues. It should avoid putting all issues on the table immediately in an effort to achieve some grand bargain or a breakthrough in the relationship, and instead should try to make incremental progress on specific topics. It will also need to set, and stick to, priorities, accurately gauge the leverage it has to influence Moscow’s behaviour in a positive direction, and consider the consequences of how Russia and even more importantly US allies, in Europe and the Asia Pacific, will respond to Trump administration’s efforts to put relations with Russia on a better footing.
For the past three years, the West, including the United States, and Russia have been drifting toward a state of affairs resembling Cold War II. The confrontation may lack the geopolitical and ideological scope of Cold War I, but the risk of a conflict has increased significantly, notwithstanding the positive tone struck by Presidents Trump and Putin. The US and its allies, as well as all the countries in the zone of competition between the West and Russia, would benefit if this downward spiral could be reversed. The prospects for doing so will hinge on two factors. First, Moscow will have to decide whether it is ready to improve relations with the West instead of relying on foreign policy adventures and anti-Western propaganda to divert attention from domestic challenges. The second, and more important, factor has to do with the terms of the deal that can be struck between Russia and the West. In setting these terms, the Trump administration should adhere to the following four principles for US and Western policy toward Russia and its neighbours.
- The commitment by the United States to defend its NATO allies will remain unconditional and ironclad. America’s top near-term goal should be to bolster deterrence with a series of defence improvements and reassurance measures for the alliance’s eastern flank.
- The United States and its allies will defend the norms that underpin European security and, more broadly, the international order. These include the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris, which have been aggressively challenged by Russian actions.
- The United States will continue its strong support for Ukraine. The fate of Ukrainian reform is of critical importance to Europe. Halting the conflict in Donbas, deterring further Russian aggression, and supporting Ukraine’s far-ranging domestic reforms will be top priorities for US-EU diplomacy.
- Engagement with Russia will not come at the expense of the rights and interests of Russia’s neighbours. At the same time, the United States must recognize that the long-term challenge of promoting democracy in Russia and Eurasia will be a demand-driven rather than supply-driven process. In applying these principles to the specific issues at hand, the US needs to remain mindful about the risks of overreaching and creating unrealistic expectations, especially given the boom-and-bust cycle of its relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War.
What Is Essential?
The US-Russian dialogue has been greatly diminished over the past two years. The Obama administration suspended most routine channels of communication and cooperation with the Russian government and encouraged US allies to follow suit. As the crisis has dragged on, it has become harder to address differences, avoid misunderstandings, and identify points of cooperation in the absence of regular interactions at various levels. The Trump administration should entertain the possibility of resuming a wide-ranging dialogue, even though the Russians prove unwilling to engage in a serious give-and-take, or they may choose to use the talks solely to score political points. But even if Kremlin is not ready to engage forthrightly, four priorities should dominate the US agenda and shape the direction of early discussions with Russian government.
First, the Trump administration should respond to Russian meddling in the US presidential election in ways that get the Russians’ attention. As a parting shot, Obama imposed sanctions on Russian entities involved in the hacking and ejected thirty-five Russian diplomats from the United States. Yet much more needs to be done. A carefully calibrated covert response in cyberspace would send the message that the United States is prepared to pay back the Kremlin and its proxies for their unacceptable actions. Trump should also work to protect the large swaths of government and private-sector networks and infrastructure in the United States that remain highly vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Second, the Trump administration should ensure that military-to-military channels are open and productive. Washington should prioritize getting Russia to respect previously agreed-on codes of conduct for peacetime military operations, however difficult that might be. The situation is especially dangerous in the skies over Syria, where Russian pilots frequently flout a set of procedures agreed to in 2015 to avoid in-air collisions with US and other jets.
Third, in Ukraine, Washington should focus on using diplomatic tools to de-escalate the military side of the conflict and breathe new life into the Minsk accords, a loose framework of security and political steps that both sides have refused to fully embrace. The existing package of US and EU sanctions represents an important source of leverage over Moscow, and so it should not be reversed or scaled back in the absence of a major change in Russian behaviour in Ukraine. At the same time, the United States and its EU allies must work to keep Ukraine on a reformist path by imposing strict conditions on future aid disbursements to encourage its government to fight high-level corruption and respond to the people’s needs.
Fourth, the Trump administration should remain realistic about the prospects of promoting transformational change in Russia.
What Is Desirable?
In this basket should go issues where there has been a reasonably good track record of US-Russian cooperation, and where US, Western and Russian interests overlap; even if they are not identical. These include resuming talks on nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear security, arms control, and the future of the Arctic. Much of the content of these discussions is technical. Because progress can be made at lower levels until major agreements are ready to be signed, their negotiations do not need to take up the time and attention of senior officials. One immediate priority in this basket should be adoption of confidence-building measures to increase transparency, predictability and mutual trust related to the movement of military forces in and around Europe and the strategic force modernization and missile defence plans and programmes on both sides.
On more ambitious arms control efforts, however, progress will require high-level decisions that neither side is eager to make. Such is the case with resolving the impasse over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the United States claims Russia has violated, and securing further reductions in the size of both countries’ strategic and tactical nuclear arsenals. Even so, the Trump administration should keep the door open to further progress on arms control. The US-Russian arms control edifice is in danger of collapsing: the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe are no longer in force, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty may soon fall apart, and New START is due to expire in 2021. Neither Russia nor the United States is ready for a new arms control agreement, primarily because of conflicting agendas. Moscow wants to constrain US deployments of missile defence systems and high-tech conventional weapons, while Washington wants to further reduce the number of Russian strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. But neither would be served by abandoning arms control completely. At a minimum, both would benefit from more conversations about their force structures and nuclear doctrines, with an eye toward ensuring stability, especially during crises.
What Is Realistic?
The United States needs to temper its ambitions and expectations about grand bargains in the US-Russian relationship. Mutual mistrust and differences in interests and values are so great that overcoming them will take considerable time. With that in mind, the Trump administration should focus on managing the relationship and containing and mitigating problems so they do not get worse.
The record of US-Russian interactions over the past twenty-five years suggests that engagement at the highest level is essential to managing the bilateral relationship. Putin’s unique role in the Russian system further makes it necessary for President Trump to engage with him in order to make productive contacts possible at other levels.
Improving relations with Russia can be useful for making progress on many of the United States’ and the West’s highest security, political and economic priorities. Standing up for the West’s principles is not incompatible with a less volatile relationship with Russia. The Richard Nixon administration laid mines in Haiphong harbor in Vietnam, a Soviet ally during the Vietnam War, while pursuing détente. The Ronald Reagan administration demonstrated how defending human rights and universal values in the Soviet Union and its satellites could be pursued at the same time as détente and arms control. Russian leaders express their preference for realpolitik – they will or are more likely to understand and respect a country that stays true to its principles, knows its interests, and understands power.
Extracted from report “ILLUSIONS VS REALITY”
by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.