Russia expects:

  • The U.S. to remain at the negotiating table through its forceful intervention in the Syria conflict.
  • The U.S. and Russia to work together on a counter-terrorism strategy.
  • A Trump-Putin summit meeting as soon as is practicable after January 20, 2017
     

Q: What is the greatest challenge facing the United States’ relationship with Russia?

A: The US-Russia relationship is undoubtedly among the most critical bilateral relationships for the global system, with uniquely important implications for WMD proliferation, regional conflicts, and peace and security more broadly.  Yet this relationship is in a dangerous drift, one that could easily culminate in the expansion of proxy conflicts or even direct conflict between the world’s two major nuclear powers. 

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula stands as a potent symbol of the increasing dysfunction of the post-Cold War European security system, while its ongoing support for armed separatists in Eastern Ukraine obstructs that country’s ability to rebuild its shattered economy and reorient its development path towards Western institutions.  A US-led international sanctions and diplomatic isolation policy has so far failed to change Russia’s behavior—on the contrary, Moscow has forced Washington to the negotiating table through its forceful intervention in the Syria conflict on the side of the now resurgent Assad regime, while apparently undertaking cyber-attacks on high profile US political targets throughout the sensitive 2016 electoral campaign.

Q: What will the next president need to do to improve or fix these obstacles?

A: Two conflicting narratives on Russia have emerged from the 2016 campaign.  On the one hand, President-elect Trump has promised pragmatic engagement with Moscow, in the hope that the US and Russia could work together, for example on counter-terrorism.  On the other hand, Congress and the US political elite more broadly evinces a strong bipartisan consensus for a “tougher” approach to Russia, with many demonizing Vladimir Putin personally and even embracing confrontational rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War.  With no shortage of pressing domestic political priorities for its first few months (including confirmation of appointments to the Cabinet and Supreme Court), the new Trump administration is unlikely to invest in an early rollback of the Obama Administration’s isolation and pressure on Russia, although informal talks through private channels could begin even during the transition period.

Over the next year and beyond, Trump could seek a return to more pragmatic US-Russia engagement, aimed at securing a wider range of vital US interests that depend on limiting conflict with Moscow, even if deeper cooperation is not forthcoming.  To start, the new Administration should review those vital interests, which range from managing regional conflicts and constraining nuclear proliferation, to preserving free trade and a stable balance of power in East Asia, and determine what balance of new initiatives and concessions is most likely to favor US priorities. 

Second, Washington must reassess the balance between instruments of coercion and those of deterrence in the toolkit it has deployed against Moscow.  While measures to reassure US NATO allies in Eastern Europe have been highly effective in deterring further Russian aggression, punitive sanctions and diplomatic isolation have done little to change Russia’s behavior, but have deepened the isolation of ordinary Russians from the West and played into the Kremlin’s anti-American narrative.  Finally, the new Administration should double down on the promise of US leadership, committing by word, deed and with major new resources to help our European allies and partners realize the benefits of the free market and liberal democracy.

Q: Should Trump seek a summit meeting with Putin?

A: Overdependence on the personalities of leaders in Washington and Moscow, instead of on enduring institutions and common interests, has caused the US-Russia relationship to suffer from repeated cycles of inflated expectations, followed by disappointment and drift.  President-elect Trump has been an exception among US political leaders in his enthusiasm for conducting face-to-face negotiations with Vladimir Putin, and both have indicated some degree of mutual respect, if not actual admiration.  Thus, there is reason to worry that an early Trump-Putin summit meeting would simply follow the pattern of the past two decades, in which a positive personal rapport between US and Russian leaders during a US president’s first year in office has given way to distrust and outright hostility just a few years later. 

Still, a Trump-Putin summit meeting should be arranged as soon as practicable after January 20, 2017.  Without such a top level signal, neither bureaucracy will take seriously the remaining windows for engagement, conflict management and even cooperation.  Moreover, no amount of hostile rhetoric on both sides negates the fact that the US and Russian leaders bear moral and political responsibility for preventing escalation of wars in Syria and Ukraine, containing the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, and ensuring that their own vast arsenals remain subject to limitations and inspections that can prevent unintended conflict.