Reassess and Reassure

Vladimir Putin during “Direct Line.” Kremlin.ru

A new Trump administration could move Russia away from its anti-Western posture.

Editor’s Note: The following is part of a multi-part symposium commissioned by the National Interest and Carnegie Corporation of New York. We asked some of the world’s leading experts about the future of U.S.-Russia relations under President-elect Donald Trump. You can find all of their answers here.

The first thing President-elect Trump can do is strike a new tone and messaging to Russia that is open, respectful, businesslike and disciplined. He should acknowledge his deep concern at the state of U.S.-Russia relations that many analysts liken to a new Cold War, and express that his administration views Russia as an essential partner in reducing nuclear risks in the bilateral relationship and globally, fighting terrorism and bringing more stability to the greater Middle East, and mitigating our mutual vulnerabilities to cyber attacks. Progress on reducing threats to U.S. and global security is not possible without cooperation with Russia, and President Trump will be personally committed to reopening dialogue and consultations with President Putin and the Russian government on these challenges as first-order priorities. While noting that he understands there is no “quick fix” to the U.S. Russia relationship, President Trump can emphasize that any effort to “isolate,” let alone “weaken,” Russia is contrary to U.S. interests and those of global security.

On Ukraine and European security, the new president will need to take a bit different approach. Here he should acknowledge that the Minsk II agreement has probably outlived its usefulness, and that his administration is prepared to directly engage in diplomatic negotiations either in the Normandy Format or a revised format with Ukraine, Russia and key European allies to find a more comprehensive resolution of Ukraine. He must be wary, however, of promising a “grand bargain,” and insist that Minsk II remain operative until and if a new agreement is reached, and that Russia will remain under economic sanctions as long as it is violating its commitments to Minsk II. A new agreement could include a phased removal of economic sanctions in response to meeting certain criteria, and possibly also an indefinite moratorium on NATO membership for Ukraine.

But before the administration comes forward with a new approach on Ukraine, however, President Trump must travel to Europe for consultations with American allies and hold a meeting with Ukrainian President Poroshenko, likely in Washington. And, most importantly, Trump must reassure NATO allies of his administration’s firm commitment honoring Article V. He can express his desire to vitalizing the NATO-Russia Council and initiate Europe-wide discussions in the OSCE about reducing the risks of military conflict, which could evolve over time into broader discussions of a European security framework including Russia. But at a moment when Russian deployments, hostile actions and rhetoric are increasing concerns of NATO allies and non-NATO European states, this is not the time to create any appearance of less than 100 percent support for the alliance.

President-elect Trump was absolutely correct on the campaign trail stating that a better U.S.-Russia relationship would be beneficial for U.S. interests and global security, but he must not underestimate the difficulties in achieving major breakthroughs. A new tone and openness to more engagement on key issues will be helpful, but longstanding differences over Ukraine, missile defense, and others are not easy to overcome. Syria presents the most promising near-term opportunity, since a Trump administration will likely be more flexible about Bashar al-Assad. More restraint on the U.S. role in regime change around the world in general would be welcome in Moscow, and may help to defuse Putin’s darker fears about U.S. goals in Russia. Perhaps the most significant change with a new Trump administration is that its approach to Russia could help facilitate Putin moving away from an anti-U.S./Western posture as a major plank of his domestic political consolidation.

Andrew Kuchins is a senior fellow at the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies (CERES) at Georgetown University.

Image: Vladimir Putin during “Direct Line.” Kremlin.ru