Time to arrest the downward spiral between the U.S. and Russia

By Daniel DePetris

Late last month, a U.S. Congress that is typically divided amongst itself came together to overwhelmingly pass a new Russia sanctions bill that would not only codify executive branch sanctions into law, but would force President Trump—and any other president in the future—to consult Congress before suspending or terminating economic sanctions on Moscow. The bill passed 419-3 in the House and 98-2 in the Senate, the best metric that Washington has to offer of just how unified Capitol Hill is in holding Russia accountable for Ukraine, Syria, human rights abuses on its own territory, and its active-measures campaign against the American democratic process. The bill had such extensive bipartisan support that President Donald Trump couldn't have vetoed it even if he tried; Trump signed the legislation begrudgingly and with significant reservations, but he didn't have much of a choice.

The tricky thing about foreign policy, however, is that there are very few actions that a country can take against another that won’t merit a response. A foreign government sanctioned or isolated diplomatically is very likely to respond in a similar way. And indeed, this is precisely what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing after Congress passed their latest sanctions bill—less than 24 hours after the legislation was sent to President Trump’s desk, Moscow notified U.S. diplomats stationed on Russian soil that they will need to send hundreds of their staff back to the United States. And, just as President Barack Obama shuttered two Russian diplomatic compounds in Maryland and New York last year in retaliation for Russia’s meddling in the American election, Moscow has announced that it too will declare a compound off limits to American diplomats and their families.

Bilateral U.S.-Russia relations were already suffering from a list of illnesses, but the latest tit-for-tat between Washington and Moscow will only make the gulf between the world’s two largest nuclear weapons powers more treacherous to bridge. The anti-Russia rhetoric in the U.S. and the corresponding anti-American diatribes by Putin’s government are making the job of either country to attempt a mini-reset in relations incredibly risky for the leadership of both—regardless of what issue might be under discussion. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described the U.S.-Russia relationship this past May as reaching "an all-time low point since the end of the Cold War,” his assessment was right on the mark. The problem is that with each action that the other side sees as belligerent, or without justification, that low point will continue to dip lower. The worse relations dip, the more politically fraught it becomes for U.S. and Russian politicians to spend political capital and personal prestige to arrest the decline.

Why should the U.S. prevent more deterioration in a relationship with a country like Russia whose leadership oftentimes seems inherently anti-American in everything it does? There’s a simple reason; because avoiding conflict with a great power should always be a U.S. national security priority. There were many instances during the Cold War when Washington and Moscow were either close to an armed confrontation—the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the 1973 Israel-Arab war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Vietnam War, the arms buildup of the early 1980’s—but in each case cooler heads prevailed and prevented an escalation from occurring. While we are a long way away from the U.S. and Russia reverting back to a Cold War-era confrontation, it all too often seems as if Washington has forgotten the lessons of that period in history.

The Russians have undoubtedly been a destabilizing force in the world. There is little question among the intelligence agencies that Russian intelligence officers tried to impact the U.S. election last year. Besides protests that allege Russia’s non-interference in the affairs of Ukraine, Moscow continues to be the powerhouse behind the separatist movement that has transformed the Donbas into the deadliest European war zone since Kosovo. The Kremlin is notorious for cracking down on political dissent, throwing critics in prison on draconian charges, breaking up opposition demonstrations on the streets, and even killing Russians in Europe who are perceived to be a threat to the survival of Putin’s regime. All of these actions are rightly denounced by the United States as abuses working against rules that have governed the international system for the last seven decades.

Washington too must recognize Russia's perspective of U.S. foreign policy 

to properly interpret and counter their actions. Boris Yeltsin, Dimitri Medvedev, and Putin have all complained about the eastward expansion of NATO since the Soviet Union’s collapse, an enlargement Russian governments in the past and the present consider a national security threat to its own national security. Moscow remains unnerved about U.S. policy in the Middle East, which it categorizes as a region-wide American crusade to push Russia-friendly autocrats like Syria's Bashar al-Assad out of power—only to leave insecurity and the proliferation of jihadist groups behind.  

The point is that the U.S. and Russia have problems with one another, some of which are based on fact and some of which are based on perception. And yet even as our governments are at each other’s throats, it's in both nations' interests to de-escalate or resolve the world’s pressing national security concerns.  Making the U.N. Security Council run smoothly pressing the North Koreans to denuclearize (or, more realistically, freeze their missile program), ensuring Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, avoiding one another in Syria’s airspace, increasing understanding between the Russian and NATO militaries in Eastern Europe, preventing terrorist groups from launching attacks on their homelands, and preserving the nuclear non-proliferation regime all require some degree of constructive cooperation between Washington and the Kremlin.

Smart, pragmatic diplomacy is the only thing that will salvage a bilateral relationship that is too important to blow up. We may not like the Russians, but we still need to find a way to work with each other. The only other alternative is an even more terrible relationship, a more destabilizing global arena, and the prospect that the war of words transitions into a more dangerous phase.   

Sooner rather than later, the Trump administration needs to figure out what its policy towards Russia is.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by U.S. News and World Report on August 14, 2017. Read more HERE