There's Too Much to Lose from U.S.-Russia Conflict

T-90A main battle tank. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin

Russia must come to believe that it is safe from an imminent invasion, and that all sides have too much to lose in a war.

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.

You are coming into office at a moment when U.S.-Russia relations are at their worst in over fifty years. The fact that you are not associated with President Obama’s Russia team and their policies means you have an opportunity to restart the bilateral relationship. Although some of our tensions have been both personal and personalized, beneath poor U.S.-Russia relations lie sharp differences in our nations’ interests.

Given his desire to assert Russia’s position on the world stage, Putin is likely to test you in the first year of your administration, in order to gauge your resolve. Do not be blinded by personalizing harmony or discord.

You have made it clear that you are a deal maker. The bilateral relationship can be framed as an ongoing negotiation that could generate productive deals. What do we want out of negotiations with Russia? We want cooperation on issues that are important to our national interests: issues like fighting terrorism, managing nuclear risk and coordinating the response to global epidemics. We don’t want Russia to encourage countries that pose a serious risk to us (e.g., Iran or North Korea). What does Russia want from us? That we respect and acknowledge its perceived interests as legitimate—even when they differ from ours. We can reestablish our bilateral relationship by taking Russia’s role on the world stage seriously, and by making it clear that we will work with Russia as a partner. To build a positive relationship, it is critical that we not treat Russia condescendingly, as we often have.

Russian history is one of repeated invasions. Our fortuitous geography often prevents us from appreciating Russia’s desire for geographic buffer zones. The Russian population has been persuaded that the country is again surrounded by enemies. NATO’s expansion into the Baltics and efforts by Ukraine and Georgia to become part of Europe have raised Russian hackles—and the military threat to Europe. We cannot afford a military conflict with Russia, yet rearmament of the European-Russian border has made miscalculation and accident more likely. Reestablishing military-military contacts, and reopening other channels of communication in both countries, must be a top priority. Another must be to more tightly knit Russia into the global economy through trade and economic ties. Russia must come to believe that it is safe from an imminent invasion, and that all sides have too much to lose in a war.

Alexandra Vacroux is Executive Director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

Image: T-90A main battle tank. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin