U.S.- Russian relations should move away from politics and move towards diplomacy

By Daniel DePetris

President Donald Trump's two-and-a-half-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week was going to make headlines in Washington and across Europe regardless of what came of it. It comes as little surprise that many Russia hawks in Congress from both parties were not happy with Trump and Putin smiling and shaking hands in such a friendly manner. Indeed if Russia hawks had their way, contacts with Russian officials would be minimized, the U.S. would double down instead of deescalate, and Putin would be reminded daily that the U.S. is the much stronger world power that can get by even without the Kremlin's help.

With all of the Russia-related news stories swirling around Washington—most having to do with some aspect of Moscow's negative behavior—it is often difficult to resist the temptation of writing off Russia altogether. The experiences of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in their attempt to reset the U.S.-Russia relationship or improve it to some degree has persuaded many inside the foreign policy community that as long as the Kremlin is under the thumb of Putin, the Russians will never be a friend. At best, the U.S. and Russia are "frenemies." Depending on the issue, Moscow can range from being a partner, to being a stubborn adversary. It is certainly not the most ideal of relationships, but at least both countries retain an understanding of where the other one stands.

Nobody is arguing that Putin is a great guy or that many of his foreign policies —for instance, supporting and bankrolling a separatist proto-state in Eastern Ukraine and leasing out Russia's Air Force on behalf of the Assad regime —have been central impediments to a decent working partnership. But the U.S.-Russia relationship, or what remains of it, is far bigger than a single issue or a single policy disagreement. The men and women who run U.S. foreign policy can either protest Russian policies until they are blue in the face, hoping that Putin eventually wakes up one morning and turns over a new leaf. Or the U.S. can start seeing the bigger picture by refusing to let one, two, or even three disputes prevent a dialogue with Moscow on areas where interests align.

And there are mutual interests on the table. 

While Washington and Moscow continue to have different perspectives on Bashar-Assad's staying power, both rightly view finishing off the Islamic State as the immediate national security priority. In fact, by virtue of Russia's military aid to the Assad regime, its partnering with Iran, and the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Russians who emigrated to Syria to join ISIS over the last three years, Putin has an even greater urgency to pound the terrorist group into the sand.  

The Trump administration faces two alternatives in Syria. The first choice is to work in opposition to the Russians, pouring more resources into whatever is left of the moderate opposition, with a hope that the Assad regime would feel enough pressure to negotiate its own departure. The second choice is to take a good, hard look at the battlefield geometry and recognize that Assad will remain in Damascus for the time being —a morally repugnant assessment but also a strategic reality. The first option would guarantee yet another fissure with the Russians for a goal that is unattainable at this stage in the war. The second would leave Syrian politics to the Syrians and remove the one major irritant (Assad's future) to a possible counterterrorism partnership against the remnants of ISIS.  

On nuclear non-proliferation issues, Putin has already shown his cards. This February, in a phone call with President Trump, the Russian leader expressed his openness to extending the strategic nuclear weapons treaty known as the New Start for another five years. That accord, which caps the number of strategic deployable nuclear weapons that the U.S. and Russia can field, was a small step towards decreasing the importance of nuclear weapons in the national security strategies of both nations. Russians, like Americans, don't have any desire to get blown up by nukes anytime soon. Finding and locking up loose nuclear material, making steady declines in nuclear stockpiles, and ensuring that other states do not cross the nuclear threshold are wins for everybody.

North Korea is yet another area where both nations can team up, whether the cooperation occurs through the U.N. Security Council or through bilateral channels. Moscow's policy toward Pyongyang is nearly identical to Washington's —a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula by peaceful means, and the use of military force as the absolute last resort in dealing with the problem. The fact that the Russian and American delegations frequently scream at one another in the Security Council chamber does not at all mean that Moscow is any less interested than the United States in ridding the Kim dynasty of its nuclear weapons stockpile. It should be noted that none of the Security Council resolutions against North Korea over the past decade would have passed without Russia's cooperation.  

Simply put, refusing to engage with Moscow even during times of stress does nothing to make the world safer. We don't have to like the Russians to work with them.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on July 21, 2017. Read more HERE