What Would Achieving a Real Reset in U.S.-Russia Relations Take?

Putin and Trump

What Would Achieving a Real Reset in U.S.-Russia Relations Take?

There are abundant reasons for the United States and Russia to restore a cooperative relationship, but that approach means adopting more realistic positions and objectives.


IT IS not an exaggeration to describe the current relationship between Washington and Moscow as a Second Cold War, despite the persistence of denials in some foreign policy circles. The United States and its European allies maintain an array of economic sanctions against Russia, continue to add new member states to NATO, and increase both the scope and pace of NATO military exercises in Russia’s immediate neighborhood. The United States is taking additional hostile measures, including withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and refusing to commit to the renewal of either the Open Skies Treaty or the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

For its part, Russia harasses NATO planes and ships—often in extremely reckless ways—operating near its borders. Moscow also meddles in elections and political controversies in the United States and several European countries. Finally, the Kremlin defies America’s long-standing Monroe Doctrine by establishing close political and military ties with anti-U.S. regimes in the Western Hemisphere.


The U.S.-Russia relationship is increasingly toxic, and that situation creates very serious dangers. Relations have become so tense that both sides apparently are on hair-trigger, “launch on warning” status for their strategic nuclear forces. That situation was incredibly risky during the original Cold War, leading to at least one incident in 1983 when Moscow nearly launched its missiles, mistakenly believing that an attack by U.S. nuclear forces was underway. It was a great relief to humanity when both countries seemed to adopt a more relaxed posture after the Soviet Union’s dissolution. The return to the original version is ominous and profoundly dangerous.

Because of their growing feud, Washington and Moscow are missing opportunities to cooperate on matters of mutual concern. Both countries should collaborate more closely to reduce the threats posed by Islamic terrorist movements. Russia and the United States also have (or at least should have) a common interest in containing China’s expanding influence, especially in mineral-rich Central Asia. Both countries also would benefit from greater cooperation in dealing with North Korea and working toward reducing the problems that that unpredictable nuclear-weapons state poses to East Asian and global stability. In short, there are abundant reasons for the United States and Russia to restore a cooperative relationship. But that approach means adopting more realistic positions and objectives—especially on the part of the United States.

ONE CRUCIAL prerequisite for both countries is to let bygones be bygones as much as possible. Washington has engaged in multiple provocations toward Russia over the past quarter century. It was arrogant and insensitive when U.S. leaders violated the informal assurances that George H.W. Bush’s administration gave to Moscow that it would not seek to expand NATO beyond the eastern border of a united Germany. Even the first wave of expansion—bringing Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into the Alliance—was unwise. Later rounds that admitted not only the remaining countries of the defunct Warsaw Pact, but also the three Baltic republics that had been integral parts of the USSR itself, constituted even worse provocations. The subsequent attempts by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama to gain NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia were especially brazen “in your face” antagonistic initiatives. U.S. and European Union interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs to help demonstrators in the so-called Maidan Revolution unseat the elected pro-Russian president before the end of his term and replace him with a staunchly pro-Western government eliminated the last vestige of Moscow’s tolerance.

Such ill-advised moves were at least partly to blame for the Kremlin’s angry disenchantment with the West and helped trigger Vladimir Putin’s ugly pushback. The Russian response included baiting Georgia into launching a doomed war against Russian “peacekeeping” forces occupying part of the country. An even more destabilizing response was Putin’s annexation of Crimea following the Maidan Revolution. Moscow also launched initiatives to undercut U.S. power in the Western Hemisphere by strengthening the ties to Cuba it inherited from the Soviet era and by making common cause with Washington’s new enemies in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Putin’s regime also took steps to interfere in U.S. elections and conduct a propaganda campaign to exacerbate racial, social, and ideological tensions inside the United States.

Although in theory it would be optimal for both countries to walk-back their provocations, such an option is not feasible in most cases. For example, the United States is not going to withdraw from NATO in the foreseeable future, nor demand that the memberships of nations added since the end of the Cold War be rescinded. Even if Moscow were to make such a demand, it would be a nonstarter. But expecting Russia to tolerate Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO is equally unrealistic. Both of those countries are not only in what the Kremlin regards as rightfully a Russian sphere of influence, but they are in Russia’s core security zone. Moscow was too weak to prevent NATO from incorporating the Baltic republics in 2004, but the country is now both stronger and more determined to prevent a repetition with Georgia and Ukraine.

Likewise, Washington’s insistence that Russia repeal its annexation of Crimea and return the peninsula to Ukraine is pointless. Maintaining sanctions on Russia until the Kremlin meets that unrealistic demand is doubly pointless. Among other factors, Moscow is determined to retain its crucial naval base at Sevastopol. Having that base end up in a foreign country occurred only because of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Moreover, Russians point out that Crimea was part of Russia from the 1780s until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, for reasons that were never clear, transferred the territory to Ukraine. Since Ukraine and Russia were both part of the Soviet Union, his decision didn’t seem to matter much at the time. But now it does, and Russians consider keeping Crimea a vital national interest. The last thing Putin or his advisers are willing to do is risk having a U.S. or NATO base someday replace Russia’s base. President Donald Trump and other Western leaders need to accept the reality that Russia will not relinquish Crimea. Sticking to the current demand only perpetuates a dangerous impasse in the West’s relations with a major power.

A FEASIBLE modus vivendi regarding Ukraine would require concessions from both the West and Russia. One unconditional U.S. concession should be to terminate all arms sales to Kiev, since those sales are needlessly inflaming an already dangerous situation. By the same token, Moscow’s continued backing of armed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is highly destabilizing. An achievable settlement would entail Russia’s willingness to sever all ties with those forces, provide reasonable monetary compensation to Ukraine for the loss of Crimea, and sign a new treaty with Kiev explicitly recognizing the sanctity of the new borders. In return, the NATO members would need to provide a written pledge that Ukraine would never be eligible for membership in the alliance and lift sanctions imposed on Russia because of the Crimea annexation.

Additional steps would be important to repair relations between the United States and Russia, and between NATO and Russia. One key step would be to end the mutual military provocations. Russia would need to draw back its forces from its western border with NATO members, especially the Baltic republics, and cease its missile buildup in the Kaliningrad enclave. The United States and its allies would have to greatly downgrade the size and frequency of NATO war games near Russia—in the Baltics and eastern Poland, and in the Black Sea region. Washington also would need to end the fiction that its constant rotational deployments of U.S. military forces in Eastern Europe do not constitute a “permanent” presence.

Several bilateral disputes also would have to be addressed and mutual restraint practiced. Washington and Moscow have accused each other of violating provisions of the INF Treaty. The Trump administration cited alleged Russian deployments of new, illicit missiles of such range as a reason the United States formally withdrew from the treaty on August 2, 2019. Although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted that Russia was “solely responsible” for the treaty’s demise, the reality is more complex. In particular, it is not clear whether Russia’s latest generation of ground-launched cruise missiles violate the treaty.

The issue of new missiles needs to be resolved as part of an overall effort to reduce NATO-Russian military tensions throughout Eastern Europe. Neither side benefits from allowing the wholesale deployment of new generation intermediate-range missiles. Indeed, both the United States and Russia should seek to bring another key power, China, into negotiations for a new, more comprehensive INF Treaty. China has resisted calls for its adherence to the existing inf, and Beijing is acquiring a significant capability with such missiles. Neither Russia nor the United States can afford to ignore that development.

The wisdom of Washington’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty was highly questionable. The Trump administration’s stated intention to leave the Open Skies Treaty and Washington’s continued coyness about New START is even worse. Abandoning Open Skies will reduce our own access to information about Russian military activities and breed further suspicions on each side about the other’s intentions and maneuvers. Such a development hardly fosters stability. Abandoning New START would be utterly reckless, paving the way for a revived race to develop and deploy more strategic nuclear missiles. Instead of diplomatic bluffing and gamesmanship, serious, constructive bilateral negotiations need to proceed immediately to prevent the expiration of both treaties.