Three Steps to Set the Tone on Russia

Three Steps to Set the Tone on Russia

The next U.S. administration must see Russia in a global context.


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.

The immediate task for the Trump administration once it takes office is to ensure that the current competition in the Middle East and Europe does not spiral out of control into direct conflict, with unknown consequences, and to prevent the relationship from becoming a strictly adversarial one, in which the primary goal of each side is to thwart the policy and initiatives of the other. Three steps would set the right tone:


• Reopen the channels of communication. This is not a reward to Russia. It is essential to avoiding misunderstandings that could lead to crises spinning out of control, and to gaining the insights we will need to elaborate and conduct policy successfully.

• Ratchet down the rhetoric. Demonizing Putin and other Russian leaders, and demonizing Russia itself, will not make it any easier to achieve our goals abroad. It is not a policy, but an excuse for not developing one.

• Appoint a senior person, who enjoys the president’s trust, to oversee policymaking and implementation and manage relations with Russia. This is the only way to get to both a comprehensive and coherent policy and ensure that Moscow hears a unified message.

But these are far from sufficient. What is needed is a comprehensive policy, a holistic approach; we need to see Russia in a global context to understand how we should structure relations on more specific issues. For the purpose of Russia policy, the Syrian conflict, whether we like it or not, is connected to Ukraine and the larger crisis in Europe. What we do with or to Russia in Europe will have consequences for what Russia does in Asia, particularly with China, and therefore for our interests in East Asia.

To make effective policy, we need to weigh all these interconnections, with a clear understanding of what we absolutely need to have on any given policy issue, be it Syria, Ukraine, Europe, or East Asia; what would be nice to have but is expendable at least in the short term; and what role we would want Russia to play. This will not be easy to do—it will require time and energy and imagination—but it is not beyond our reach.

Thomas Graham is Managing Director at Kissinger Associates, Inc. and Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs of Yale University.

Image: Vladimir Putin meets with members of the Federal Assembly’s Council of Legislators.