U.S.-Russia policy must be guided by interests, not reactionary opposition

By Daniel R. DePetris

Vladimir Putin basked in the glory of an electoral triumph this weekend, winning his fourth presidential term in office with more than 75% of the vote. The presidential election was over before it really began; Putin did not need to campaign, and neither did he have to concern himself with losing to one of his seven competitors. Because the election was essentially preordained, the bigger question on the minds of Russians was whether Putin would change the constitution and run for a fifth term in 2030—assuming, of course, that Russian voters were interested in the race at all.

For the United States, another six years of Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin is certainly not the optimal outcome. Bilateral U.S.-Russia relations are bottoming out, with both countries on opposing sides of many international disputes, from the civil war in Syria and the violence in Eastern Ukraine to the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Whenever Washington and Moscow appear to make minor movement toward consensus, the relationship is dealt yet another setback.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that the U.S. does not have the luxury of wishing Russia away.

The anti-Russia sentiment in Washington is at a fever pitch in large part to Moscow’s information warfare campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Putin’s obsession with restoring his country to great power status. The feeling is mutual in Moscow, where U.S.-imposed regime change and democratization campaigns in the Middle East over the past 16 years—in addition to the enlargement of NATO to include countries on Russia’s doorstep during the previous two decades—have convinced Putin’s court that the U.S. is hardwired to humiliate and weaken Russia.

Putin’s re-election, however, can coincidentally serve as an opening for the Trump administration to explore whether there is any room for a negotiation with the Russians on issues of mutual concern.

As difficult as it is in today’s climate to picture Washington and Moscow working together, both nations have legitimate, shared national security interests on which to collaborate. Although sitting down with the Russians for difficult conversations in search of points of agreement has become political poison inside the Beltway, good politics does not correlate to good statecraft and strategy.

While there is no doubt whatsoever that relations between the U.S. and Russia are intensely adversarial at the moment, there are only two options: improve relations between the world’s only nuclear superpowers or make them worse. The fact that it would hard to repair them even slightly or would be treacherous in terms of domestic politics are not sufficient enough reasons for the foreign policy establishment in Washington to avoid trying. If the U.S. opposed dialogue with every adversarial nation throughout American history, conflicts would have lasted longer, more people would have died, and U.S. presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan would not have been able to split the communist bloc or strike an agreement with Moscow to abolish an entire class of ballistic missiles.

Our foreign policy leaders today appear incapable of breaking through the false, political rhetoric warning of a renewed Cold War. According to that narrative, Washington and Moscow are inherently due for a great power clash in the future, so the only option available to the U.S. is to beat the Russians down before they do the same to us. The reality of the situation, however, is more complicated than the “Cold War 2.0” headlines would suggest. For while Russia is still a formidable nuclear weapons power, the country is more of an instigator and a spoiler than the menacing superpower Beltway-based Russia hawks believe. The hysteria about all things Russia and Putin blinds us to how demographically vulnerable and economically fragile Moscow really is.

Challenges aside, Russia is not a peripheral country either. Unlike the 1990s, when the Russian Federation was in the throes of domestic insecurity, financial bankruptcy, and economic destitution, the country in the year 2018 cannot be perpetually ignored as unimportant bystanders to world history. Russia is increasingly stretching its wings and demonstrating to adversaries and allies alike that it will deploy military assets in defense of its perceived national security interests. By virtue of Russia’s veto power on the U.N. Security Council and its geostrategic location next to Europe, the Korean Peninsula, and the Middle East, attempts by the West to confront international security challenges are more difficult to resolve without Russian buy-in or support. Reflexively calling Russia a rogue actor or a purveyor of international instability and lawlessness is hardly conducive to improving the environment.

This is not to say that the United States should be overly cautious or conciliatory. When Moscow oversteps in ways that negatively affect core U.S. national security interests, Washington should react strongly, swiftly, and unapologetically. The Kremlin’s apparent poisoning of a Russian double agent on the streets of Britain with one of the most fatal chemical substances on the planet is one of those missteps, an unconscionable act that should be treated as such. No U.S. administration can accept aggressive Russian meddling in America’s political system, nor should there be any question on what the U.S. response would be were Vladimir Putin to launch a Crimea-style military operation against a NATO member state.

Yet when an opening for dialogue arises, the United States should not dismiss it out of hand. We must live with the Russians, whether we like it or not. As much as the U.S. and our European partners may despise Putin personally, the West has very little choice but to decide whether to work with him—or oppose him—based on a clear-eyed assessment of core interests.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by CNBC.com on March 20, 2018. Read more HERE.