Washington should take a different path. Top American leaders should sit down with Russian policymakers and look for compromises that both sides can live with. Admittedly, as Australian Member of the House of Representatives Dave Sharma observed, “the statecraft required is not easy, and the realpolitik underpinning it might be hard to stomach.”
Nevertheless, support for the idea is growing. Henry Kissinger, architect of the breakthrough with China, reportedly urged Trump administration officials to do the same with Moscow today. When asked about the possibility Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, hardly a diplomat’s diplomat, responded: “I do think there’s that opportunity.” Elbridge Colby, a principal at the Marathon Initiative and former Pentagon official, opined: “Our goal should be to ensure a lot of space between China and Russia.”
Moreover, a group of distinguished foreign policy analysts recently used Politico as an outlet to call for a renewed effort to negotiate with Russia, writing that “Our strategic posture should be that which served us well during the Cold War: a balanced commitment to deterrence and détente. Thus, while maintaining our defense, we should also engage Russia in a serious and sustained strategic dialogue that addresses the deeper sources of mistrust and hostility and at the same time focuses on the large and urgent security challenges facing both countries.”
What kind of compromise would be acceptable? There are many possibilities. For instance, America could announce the end of NATO expansion, which increases America’s obligations far more than its resources, and military assistance to Kiev. In return, Russia could halt support for ethnic Russian separatists in the Donbass and guarantee free Ukrainian maritime access. Ukraine could follow through on the Minsk Protocol, approving constitutional guarantees for greater regional autonomy.
On Crimea, the United States and Europe could accept annexation de facto but not jure. If Russia wants official recognition, then it could hold an internationally monitored referendum. Indeed, Washington’s demand that Crimea be returned without a vote would be unfair to Crimeans. America should not barter its future as if it were a commodity. Irrespective of the past, their consent should determine their future.
Washington and Moscow should agree to mutual disarmament when it comes to electoral interference, including partisan involvement packaged as “democracy promotion,” an American favorite. The West could drop complaints over South Ossetia and Abkhazia—in which indigenous nationalism goes back centuries—and the United States could stop augmenting its financial contributions and troop deployments to Europe if Moscow dropped threatening and hostile actions, from cyberattacks against America and Europe to military maneuvers. Russia could end support of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and intervention in Libya if Washington stopped trying to push Russia out of Syria and overthrow the Assad government.
On other issues of disagreement, the two governments could either engage in traditional horse-trading or agree to disagree. Washington’s determination to stand on dubious, and often hypocritical, principle guarantees prolonged, and perhaps eternal, Russian hostility. America’s only benefit is the satisfaction of infusing U.S. foreign policy with an abnormally noxious concentration of sanctimony.
Unfortunately, perennial hawks seem horrified by the idea of revived détente. They prefer permanent confrontation, forever growing military outlays, an ever-expanding NATO alliance, and constantly increasing sanctions. Yet their inflated threat claims inadvertently demonstrate the need for a dramatic change in policy. For instance, John Rood, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, argued: “in many ways, Russia’s the larger near term threat [compared to China] because of the overwhelming lethality of its nuclear arsenal and also because of some of the behavior that the Russian government has exhibited.” His claim is exaggerated—Moscow would fight the United States only if forced to—but, if true, it illustrates why Washington should engage Moscow and seek to moderate its behavior.
Matthew Kroenig of the Atlantic Council contended that “Putin cannot be trusted to abide by arms control agreements or cease-fires in eastern Ukraine.” The Russian leader doesn’t need to be trusted when his actions can be monitored. Anyway, lack of trustworthiness is not a problem just for Russia: U.S. officials misled—and possibly lied to—the Soviet and Russian governments about expanding NATO after the collapse of the Soviet empire. Washington did not live up to its implicit commitments to Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi. Donald Trump trashed the Obama administration’s agreement with Iran. The president’s critics were agog that he removed American troops stationed with Syrian Kurds.
Perhaps reflecting such behavior, Vasily Kashin at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics wrote: “First, there is no trust between Moscow and Washington and, second, Russia believes U.S domestic politics is too chaotic and extremist to make any deal-making or subtle maneuvers very likely.” However, little subtlety would be necessary to propose broad reciprocal actions, especially if tied to rolling back of one or more sanctions. Moscow could decide whether to accept the invitation.
Former NATO ambassador Kurt Volker claimed the failure of “multiple attempts by U.S. administrations to work together” with Russia. He complained that “The fundamental fallacy in such an argument is to believe that U.S. policies drive Putin’s actions. They don’t.” For Volker “working together” must mean Moscow subordinating itself to Washington’s demands. His “America as Vestal Virgin” thesis is unsustainable.
As Mark N. Katz of George Mason University pointed out, even before Putin’s rise “Russians became frustrated with how the weak state of the armed forces serve (in their view) to encourage the United States and the West to undertake military actions.” Katz cited NATO expansion, attacks on Serbia, the Iraq War and multiple color revolutions. “It was in response to this U.S. tendency to act unilaterally in ways to which Moscow objected that Putin implemented a military strategy aimed at thwarting U.S. unilateralism as well as building up Russia’s own ability to act unilaterally.”
A long list of the usual hawkish foreign policy suspects wrote in Politico to ask what possible “acceptable resolutions” were possible to resolve U.S.-Russian differences? In horror they cited ideas like leaving Georgia and Russia out of NATO, accepting Russian control of Crimea, and ignoring Moscow’s human-rights violations, and concluded that “any ‘rethink’ involving such trade-offs is not worth pursuing.”
This argument reflects the madness afflicting the bipartisan War Party in Washington. Foreign policy has become a tool for micro-managing the globe, not ensuring the safety of the American people. Adding countries in conflict with Russia to the transatlantic alliance is dangerous and goes against U.S. interests. Moscow will not surrender Crimea absent defeat in a full-scale war, irrespective of America’s demands.
Washington ostentatiously, even cheerfully, ignores grievous human rights violations in many nations—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey, and the Central Asian states, to start. The militaristic policies lauded by the hawkish Greek Chorus, such as providing lethal aid to Ukraine, enhancing U.S. military presence in the Baltics and Poland, and maintaining sanctions, have not acted as an “incentive for Putin to change,” as claimed, but instead have assured Russia’s continuing hostility and determination to retaliate.
Although Kroenig acknowledged that the Russo-Chinese entente “is worrying,” he contended that Russia “does not want to be openly antagonistic” toward the PRC and “does not bring much to the table.” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, observed: “I just don’t see Russia as currently oriented playing a role” in containing the PRC. And although she took an approach from a different direction, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Minister, has assured the public that the United States would not succeed in attempting “to provoke a public clash between Russia and China.”
That said, Washington’s objective should not be to make Russia an American ally, but to prevent it from becoming a Chinese one. As Dal Santo has observed: “balancing China alone is far more realistic than balancing China and Russia together.” Even benevolent neutrality, leavened with a greater willingness to challenge the PRC when Moscow’s interests are at risk, would be good for the West.
Perhaps the most bizarre hyperventilation over proposals to shift U.S. policy came from James Gilmore, a neither memorable nor successful presidential candidate now serving as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe. He called the putative reformers’ article a “shameful document” and said their arguments were “the Russian message that we see here in Vienna.” He insisted: “We have a right to hold Russia up to the proper standards of conduct of international relations and foreign policy.”
Alas, that argument suffers coming from someone officially representing a nation that routinely engages in aggressive wars, attempts to overthrow foreign governments, and supports nations that flagrantly violate international law and human rights. The question is: would a deal with Moscow increase the likelihood that it holds to “the proper standards of conduct of international relations and foreign policy”? The current policy toward Russia manifestly has failed to chasten Moscow. It is time to try a different approach.
Finally, some critics might be inclined to try to outwait Putin. However, his successor is likely to adopt a similar nationalist approach. Unfortunately, liberalism is a dead force in Russia. “Even if Putin’s eventual successor is more democratically inclined, it does not follow that Russia will embrace a worldview more favorable to the United States. The disagreement cuts to the heart of national identity and purpose,” according to Thomas Graham, Jr., and Matthew Rojansky, of the Council on Foreign Relations and Woodrow Wilson Center. The reformers writing for Politico similarly observed: “the reality is that Russia, under Vladimir Putin, operates within a strategic framework deeply rooted in nationalist traditions that resonate with elites and the public alike. An eventual successor, even one more democratically inclined, will likely operate within this same framework.” Indeed, the much-feted Alexei Navalny appears to be a hardline nationalist who opposes Putin’s misrule, not ideology.