Renewed dialogue with Russia will strengthen U.S. national security

By Daniel DePetris

Even in today’s hyper-partisan political environment, most can agree that relations between the United States and the Russian Federation have  been better. Washington and Moscow have found themselves on the opposite side of several disputes, from the not-so-frozen conflict in Ukraine, to the mutual allegations of interference in one another’s internal affairs. This week, President Donald Trump added another difference to the list by stating his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty—a landmark Cold War-era arms control agreement that prohibited the production, stockpile, and deployment of ground-launched missiles between the ranges of 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

President Trump and Vladimir Putin will meet face-to-face in Paris on November 11. Hopefully, the world leaders will walk away from the meeting with clearly defined interests that serve both nations. Until then, one U.S. lawmaker is trying to use his power as a senator (and his influence with the White House) to thaw what has been a deep freeze in the U.S.-Russia relationship since 2012. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) has spent the past several months explaning to Trump administration officials, Russian politicians, and his own colleagues on Capitol Hill why it is necessary to begin addressing an adversarial competition between two states that hold approximately 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.

Over the summer, Sen. Paul traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian parliamentarians, including former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and foreign relations chairman Konstantin Kosachev. The next day, he discussed the importance of strategic nuclear stability with Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan’s former partner in the closing stages of the Cold War. During the course of his meetings, Paul invited his Russian colleagues to Washington in order to meet with U.S. lawmakers. He introduced an amendment that would lift travel restrictions on members of the Russian Duma (similar to our Senate) if Moscow did the same for members of Congress. Paul has talked with U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, encouraging the State Department to brief senators on the value of renewed dialogue between the two Cold War foes.

Despite Paul’s attempts at solidifying a small détente to address critical nuclear security issues between the United States and Russia,  lawmakers on Capitol Hill remain wary of approaching the Kremlin in any capacity. Members of Congress—particularly in an election year—view outreach to the Kremlin as political kryptonite. While it may be a wholly reasonable course of action to pursue, it is also seen as a treacherous political move—particularly when Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign is never far from the forefront.

The politics of getting tough on Russia continue to outweigh the strategic benefits of maintaining open channels of communication and exploiting opportunities for diplomacy. Indeed, when Paul’s modest Russia amendment was tabled, the entire Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to kill it. This is regrettable, for while politics is an inevitable fact of life in Washington, it negatively impacts the business of statecraft far too often.

In a world that is increasingly transitioning into multipolarity and visceral competition among nation-states, the United States does not have the luxury of permanently ignoring governments it disagrees with or relying on the stick of economic sanctions alone. Foreclosing opportunities for mutual accommodation in order to demonstrate ‘toughness’ and ‘resoluteness’—two of the foreign policy establishment’s favorite buzzwords—is the geopolitical equivalent of tying one’s hands. Russia is there, whether the U.S. likes it or not.

In a way, Sen. Paul is simply following Ronald Reagan’s playbook. While it is true that Reagan had no love for the Soviet Union, was a passionate anti-communist, and coined the phrase “evil empire” to describe Russia under Soviet domination, he was also open to working with Moscow when U.S. national security interests required it.

It would have been very easy for Reagan to dismiss Gorbachev when he rose to the top of Russia’s political system as just another despot from the Soviet Politburo. However, Reagan and his national security advisers did just the opposite; they kept their options open, assessed Gorbachev in his first year, and saw a man who could be reasoned with, especially on missile reductions. Sometimes successful diplomacy in pursuit of America’s national interest is the product of knowing when to seize the opportunity.

If a detente in the U.S.-Russia relationship is to be realized, it will occur sometime next year when the politics of the midterm election dissipate. No one should be naive enough to believe that a full rapprochement is in the offing or that the Russians will one day wake up and choose to accede to Washington’s demands on any number of problems currently roiling the relationship. Putin is a wily and smart individual and a proud Russian nationalist with a big chip on his shoulder. There will continue to be times when Moscow undermines the U.S. and directly challenge Washington as a peer competitor—a challenge that in many cases will require a strong, but prudent, response in return.

But just because the U.S. and Russia are bound for some degree of state rivalry does not mean shutting the door to communication or punting exploratory diplomacy aside. Doing so may make us feel morally superior to the other side and satisfy our emotional desires to punch Putin in the nose, but it does next to nothing to contribute to America’s security.  

Washington should work with Russia when we can and challenge Russia when we must. Promoting personal exchanges between lawmakers in Washington and Moscow—as Sen. Paul proposes—seems like a small, but potentially worthwhile step in the right direction.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Federalist on November 1, 2018. Read more HERE.