Note: this article is part of a symposium on U.S.-Russia relations included in the September/October 2017 issue of the National Interest .
Trump and his people, and Putin and his, say the same thing: the two countries are in a deep hole and need to stop digging. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it in remarks before a Senate appropriations subcommittee last month,
Our relationship is at the lowest level it’s been at since the Cold War and it’s spiraling down. The two greatest nuclear powers in the world cannot have this kind of a relationship. We have to stabilize it and we have to start finding a way back.
Three problems stand in the way: Congress won’t let them. The Russian side seems unready to do its part. And there’s one other massive obstacle—namely, Russian meddling in the past election and those to come. Worse, the three problems have merged into a massive tangle that no one on either side knows how to untie, or wishes to attempt.
The issue of Russia and American elections now blocks a relationship already in ruins, and stymies the prospect of progress on any of the other hard issues crippling it: Ukraine, Syria, an INF treaty in jeopardy. Until the two sides face up to it, their Cold War will only worsen, always with the risk of exploding into something still more dangerous. Worse, and too little noticed, so will the large-scale historic costs from the confrontation mount, including a renewed military confrontation in a divided Europe, rivalry rather than cooperation in dealing with the rise of China, the Arctic as a new arena of military competition and the collapse of nuclear-arms control—at a time when a multipolar nuclear world threatens to spin out of control. Averting the worst in all instances requires a common effort by Russia and the United States, a possibility that now lies buried in the rubble of the Ukrainian crISIS and thoroughly crushed by the controversy over Russian interference in the U.S. election.
Maybe it’s a bit over the top to call Russian meddling “the crime of the century,” or to claim that Russia is “the greatest threat to American democracy,” or to assume that Russia is bent on subverting the very foundations of the American political system. But this is how most congressional Democrats, their hard-line Republican counterparts, senior intelligence officials and much of the media see the issue. Obduracy on the other side adds to the tangle. Even if Putin knows, while never confessing, what his government, its agents or their surrogates did during the U.S. election, almost certainly he and those around him see the uproar as strangely out of proportion, a curious artifact of American politics and a cudgel used to bash the Trump administration. Until they understand that the issue is not simply an idiosyncrasy of U.S. politics, but both in Congress and across the country’s foreign-policy establishment a matter of urgent national security—and, therefore, a factor central to the relationship—little can be done to reduce its destructive influence.
On the American side, the U.S. Congress, seconded by much of the media, looms as a further obstacle. The reflexive resort to yet more sanctions, particularly the indiscriminate and poorly conceived sanctions in recently discussed legislation, will indeed punish Russia for what it did, but is unlikely to deter it from what intelligence reports suggest it continues to do. At the moment, Russians are under sanctions for the judicial murder of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, for annexing Crimea, for abetting the crISIS in eastern Ukraine, for harassing U.S. diplomats in Moscow and for interfering in the U.S. election. SeNATOrs and representatives are, variously, prepared to pass far more extensive sanctions for election interference, proposing sanctions for Russia’s alleged violation of the INF treaty and intermittently considering sanctions for Russian actions in Syria. To date, no one has been punished for Magnitsky’s murder—and, indeed, those responsible have been rewarded; no one believes Crimea will be returned now, or any time soon; Russia has not and probably cannot assure the full implementation of the Minsk II agreement in Ukraine; Kremlin officials have drastically cut the U.S. legation in Russia, imitating the expulsion that the Obama administration ordered last December; and Putin and his foreign minister continue to stonewall on the issue of electoral interference.
So, what then? Russia’s capacity and readiness to interfere in U.S. elections to a degree once unimaginable obviously constitute a critical new factor in the relationship and, unless addressed, will keep U.S.-Russian relations at a dead end far into the future. But the way Congress and the nation’s punditry are framing the problem, and the way the Russians are refusing to frame it, guarantee that that is where matters will remain.
When the two sides, as at the recent Hamburg G-20 meeting, in Tillerson’s words, agreed to “set up” a working group that would explore a “framework agreement” limiting cyber and other forms of interference in elections, the idea scarcely deserved the derision with which it was greeted. “It’s not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham on NBC’s Meet the Press , “but it’s pretty close.” The mockery had it its equivalent among doubters when, in 1969, the United States began talks leading to the first SALT agreement. They too thought that the idea of negotiating on nuclear arms with the Soviets, our enemy, was madness. Sharing sensitive information with the Soviets, or trusting them to honor any deal America made with them, was naïveté on stilts.
The parallels run deeper. This June, the Washington Post reported that, before leaving office, Obama had signed off on a covert plan to plant cyber weapons in key Russian networks, “the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow.” Two weeks later, we learned that “Russian government hackers” had breached the business and administrative—although not the operational—systems of U.S. nuclear power plants and other energy companies. The prospect that further Russian cyber intrusions in U.S. elections could lead to an escalating interaction approaching an act of war ought to underscore the urgency of the two sides sitting down and working out red lines and how they are to be enforced.
Neither country’s leadership is there yet. Nor is the scoffing of critics much help. Putin has raised the possibility of the United States and Russia collaborating on cybersecurity, but its target would be terrorism, not electronic meddling. Indeed, his purpose may be to divert efforts away from dealing with this core issue. The Trump administration—with the important exception of the president—appears ready to explore, with the Russian side, ways of controlling interference in elections. But from their vague formulations, they do not yet seem to know how to focus a negotiation.
As when negotiating any key security issue, including in arms control, the criteria should be fourfold: first, to compose an agenda that allows each side to raise its relevant concerns; second, to select a focus that avoids amorphous and largely insoluble dimensions of the problem; third, to pursue an objective that is both feasible and a significant remedy for the problem; and fourth, because of the level of mistrust between the parties, to identify means by which the agreement’s implementation can be verified.