Trump Must Learn from Past Mistakes on Russia

Vladimir Putin.

A future administration should avoid provocation and emphasize shared interests.

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.

A key lesson from Trump’s victory is that dismissing aggrieved sections of American society—the “deplorables” in the establishment’s eyes—was a profound mistake. The new Trump administration should apply this same lesson to Russia, whose sense of grievance and insecurity must finally be heard and addressed by the West. It is time for Americans to stop debating the legitimacy of Russian accusations against the West. As Trump’s victory proves, perceptions and emotions matter, and that holds true for international relations.

Foundations for Engagement:

Trump is well placed to begin the process of reengaging Russia, which should involve all levels of U.S.-Russian relations. Trump and Putin should be able to agree that realists do not have to be zero-sum-game-minded, but should instead work together toward positive-sum outcomes. Since Russian external behavior does not stem solely from its internal nature, its sense of insecurity vis-à-vis the West must be taken seriously if relations are to be improved.

The process of strengthening mutual understandings of international rules could be facilitated by reactivating key discussion forums, such as the Russia-NATO Council, the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission’s relevant working groups, and high-level Track II initiatives that involve officials, specialists and scholars. Trump should reconfirm America’s support for its allies in NATO and the EU. Although Ukraine is a member of neither, the United States should continue to champion Ukrainian sovereignty and the principles incorporated in the Helsinki Accord of 1975, whereby the borders of another country cannot be changed by force. At the same time Americans need to understand that the links of history, geography and ethnicity between Russia and Ukraine cannot simply be disregarded.

Guidelines for Policymaking:

1. Avoid provocation. Formulate and agree on ways to avoid military conflict during military exercises and in crisis theaters, especially Syria. Undertake joint work to prevent cyberterrorism and appeal to Russia’s quest for status and economic benefit by stressing technological partnership with the United States against cyberterrorism.

2. Stress linkage. Easing sanctions (non-Crimea-related) could be linked to Moscow’s positive behavior on Minsk II and other areas. The weakening of Russia’s economy and growing technocratic voices inside Russia pushing for overcoming sanctions strengthen the case for positive linkage.

3. Address Russian complaints of insecurity. NATO could formally pledge to rule out Ukrainian membership for a considerable time in exchange for fulfillment of Minsk II, including having the Ukrainian-Russian border secured by OSCE forces. Transgressions would invalidate NATO’s pledge. The United States should not send lethal weapons to Ukraine. They would dangerously exacerbate Russian feelings of insecurity and increase the danger of conflict.

4. Stress mutual interests. In Syria, reanimate and strengthen Kerry’s mission to make the United States a more credible diplomatic partner for ending war, fighting ISIS and working toward a post-Assad regime, while linking cooperation to Russian respect for humanitarian principles.

Julie Newton is Principal Investigator of the University Consortium, a visiting fellow at St. Antony’s College and associate professor at the American University of Paris.

Image: Vladimir Putin.