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.
Applied to the indictment of each side against the other’s interference in its domestic politics, these criteria would require something like the following. First, Putin, when confronted by both Obama and Trump on Russian interference in the U.S. election, has not only denied it, but countered by insisting that it is the United States that has interfered in his country’s elections and domestic politics. Russian negotiators, in a quiet and calm diplomatic setting, should be allowed to make their case—with evidence, just as the U.S. case will have to be made with evidence. Second, the interference to be proscribed must be refined. Attempting to end everything the Russians did in the last election—from the propaganda of RT and Sputnik, to bot attacks in social media, to the dumps of material hacked from the DNC—is both too unwieldy and beyond verifiable control, and a reach too far, because it includes the tools of information warfare that neither side will forego as long as they are waging their current cold war.
Rather, third, the objective, at least on the U.S. side, should be to preclude the use of cyber resources to harm the U.S. voting system. This is the red line, representing a qualitatively different level of threat, that prompted Obama to use the “red phone” on October 31 as an emphatic warning to stop. Tampering with voter-registration lists or corrupting electronic poll books, techniques that Russian cyber agents tested against 122 officials in twenty-one states in last fall’s election, is the line that must not be crossed. (Indeed, some evidence suggests that Russian authorities recognized this and heeded Obama’s October warning.)
In this domain, the United States has the ability to track perpetrators’ country of origin and activity, if not their precise identity. In any agreement, it would be the Russian government’s responsibility to prevent or cut short any Russian activity—official or not—encroaching on the U.S. voting process. Anything that resembles what took place last fall, or that goes even further, would be a violation of the agreement. The response, Moscow should understand, could be anything from retaliatory cyberattacks to further stiff sanctions by Congress. (Sanctions decoupled from negotiation, unlike a mutual agreement, rarely work. Previous applications of sanctions have not successfully forced Russia to desist from what it had not agreed to stop doing.)
The United States can and should pursue a second objective as part of the effort to protect the integrity of its electoral system. Besides the release of hacked information, slanted news coverage and indiscriminate injection of fake news, Russian cyber agents evidently had American collaborators who helped them target voters in key electoral districts. The two sides need to agree to prevent this in the future, with each side assuming responsibility for clamping down on partners in its country.
These two key U.S. objectives would largely eliminate election interference as a national-security threat. Russia would need to decide what vital domestic interest it wishes to protect against what it sees as illicit U.S. activity, or, failing that, whether removing this barrier to progress in U.S.-Russian relations is not reason enough to agree to these red lines.
Thus Putin and his entourage, the Trump administration, and the U.S. Congress have a large choice to make: either recognize how paralyzing the problem of Russian interference in the U.S. election is, assess the price both countries are paying for the deadlock and reframe the problem in a fashion admitting some hope of solution; or change nothing, each carrying on as now and all eventually paying the price.
Robert Legvold is the Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University.