A Blueprint for Donald Trump to Fix Relations with Russia

A Blueprint for Donald Trump to Fix Relations with Russia

A policy memo to the president-elect. Priority: high.

Fifth, though you have previously expressed skepticism about greater U.S. involvement in resolution of the Ukraine conflict, we believe you should join the efforts of European powers to find a solution, if only because this conflict also risks military confrontation with Moscow. While the cease-fire between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists is mostly holding, it is dangerous to leave the conflict not-quite-frozen. As in Syria, there are forces on the ground not entirely under the control of either Kiev or Moscow that have their own agendas and welcome occasional skirmishes. These battles can easily escalate beyond their control. There are no good military solutions. Neither the United States nor its European allies are prepared to challenge Russia militarily so close to its borders.

If the United States is not in a position to defeat Russia and its allies in Ukraine militarily, it is imperative to offer Moscow a solution that Russian leaders would consider at least minimally acceptable. As Kissinger told the editor of this magazine in 2015, this will require that you recognize that “the relationship between Ukraine and Russia will always have a special character in the Russian mind,” and therefore Ukraine “cannot be put into a simple formula of applying principles that worked in Western Europe, not that close to Stalingrad and Moscow.” But Kissinger remained optimistic about “the possibility of some cooperation between the West and Russia in a militarily nonaligned Ukraine.” We share his optimism, and believe a suitable formula would include: implementation of the Minsk agreements with concessions by both sides, reestablishing Kiev’s control over Donetsk and Luhansk but providing these two regions with genuine autonomy, and assurances that Ukraine would not join NATO for as far as the eye can see. This latter commitment should not be difficult to honor, because the United States and most major European powers do not want Ukraine in NATO in any foreseeable future.

A genuinely different approach toward the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts should incorporate credible strength and creative diplomacy to produce outcomes favorable to the United States. To demonstrate its strength, America should use military deployments and private warnings (so as to avoid publicly cornering Putin) to communicate to Moscow that unilateral solutions will not work in either Syria or Ukraine. The key is to show that the United States and its allies will be able to provide enough support to the rebels in Syria and to the government in Kiev to make sure that both conflicts are unsolvable on Moscow’s terms without prohibitive costs to Russia. This also means showing that whoever the United States chooses to support will gain strength over time, which encourages serious negotiations sooner rather than later.

Sixth, you should strengthen U.S. military capabilities in ways that simultaneously dissuade Russia from aggression (both overt and covert) against NATO allies in Europe and respect Russia’s legitimate interest in ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet Union. It is almost impossible for the United States to have too big a stick. But by far the most likely paths to military conflict with Russia begin not with a premeditated Russian attack, but with an unintended event, for example, an incident between nationals and ethnic Russians in one of the Baltics that creates a crisis in which Putin concludes he must intervene. NATO is the greatest alliance in history and played an essential role in America’s Cold War victory. But today, it stands in need of substantial reform. Europe is presently itself in crisis. The failure of the EU economies to grow since the Great Recession, Brexit, uncertainties about who may be Nexit, an unending stream of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, and an inability to control its own borders—all these raise fundamental questions about the viability of the European project. Given these challenges, the United States should not allow itself to become a lightning rod—or scapegoat. Thus we urge you to reiterate America’s commitment to NATO, including Article Five security guarantees, at the outset. But Washington should also propose that NATO members undertake a zero-based reassessment of the alliance. In his inaugural address, JFK urged Americans not to ask what their government could do for them but to “ask what you can do for your country.” European leaders should ask less what America can do for them and more what they can do for European security.

Your effort will be aided by an overall increase in U.S. military capabilities, much as President Ronald Reagan’s diplomatic outreach to the Soviet Union benefited from a perception in Moscow that the United States was changing the balance of power in its favor after a period of decline. This is especially important at a time when Russia’s defense production is poised to grow by 10 percent this year, despite economic pressure. Combining investment in U.S. capabilities with calculated use of your reputation for unpredictability could be particularly useful, much as Nixon cultivated the image of a “madman” to enhance his leverage in Southeast Asia. An early demonstration of your resolve might also be necessary—when suitable circumstances arise—to change Russian perceptions of the costs of ignoring U.S. preferences.

At the same time, we urge you to follow through on your campaign pledge to persuade Europe to contribute more to the alliance. Since European NATO members are the principal beneficiaries of the security guarantee, and they collectively exceed the United States in population and rival it in gross domestic product, they should pay a significantly larger share of the costs. We should put an end to the illusion that, as the Financial Times put it, “the U.S. commitment to defend even the newest and smallest NATO members must remain unconditional.” Like all alliances, NATO is valuable to the extent that it advances and defends other American national interests—it is an instrument, not the icon that some in Europe (and particularly Central Europe) would understandably like it to be.

Accordingly, the United States should reiterate its commitment to defend the Baltic states from naked aggression, in concert with other allies, but insist that the Baltic governments themselves attempt to normalize relations with Moscow and meet the highest international standards in ensuring the rights of ethnic Russians. The goal must be to prevent incidents that could provide a temptation—or excuse—for Russian intervention. There should be no illusions that America accepts responsibility for allies who provoke conflict and then request assistance and reassurance to deal with the consequences.

Seventh, the United States should never apologize for its values, for its belief that basic human rights are the endowment of all human beings and its conviction that democracy is the best form of government. This is who America is. Nonetheless, we recommend communicating to Putin that regime change is not America’s objective. As a recent superpower still nostalgic for its past glory, Russia is particularly sensitive to efforts to shape its domestic processes. We suggest treating Russia the way the United States treats other undemocratic nations with whom it is friendly, such as Saudi Arabia.

Eighth, we encourage your administration to give greater consideration to Russia’s possible and likely responses in making policy decisions. Today, Russia is almost an afterthought in U.S. national security decisionmaking. In selecting individuals for key positions dealing with Russia, it will be important to appoint those both willing and able to implement your policy.

Ninth, you should seek ways to expand the economic foundation of the bilateral relationship. Though Russia has the sixth-largest economy in the world (measured in terms of purchasing parity), it ranks thirty-seventh among buyers of American products. With more than thirty years of experience in dealing with Russia as a businessman, you can bring unprecedented insights into ways to address this issue.

Last but not least, you should recognize that any meaningful attempt to pursue a new beginning with Moscow will face fierce opposition from some in Congress, many in the media and more of the bureaucracy than you imagine. Having a strong national-security team—and explaining that in reaching out to Russia you will not abandon important U.S. interests—should be sufficient to assure those who are willing to wait and see. Still, there will be vigorous opposition to any realistic engagement with Russia. Some are irreconcilably hostile to Russia. Thus, for your sharp turn in policy to succeed, you will need to make your case directly to the American people—something you have done many times during the campaign. If Americans clearly understand that the current path leads inexorably to a crossroad at which the U.S. and Russian presidents will have to choose between humiliation and nuclear confrontation, they too will move beyond the wishful thinking that has thus far prevented the United States from effectively pursuing its real national interests.

Graham T. Allison is director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans. He is the author of the forthcoming book Destined for War: America, China and Thucydides’s Trap.

Dimitri K. Simes, publisher and CEO of the National Interest, is president of the Center for the National Interest.