Russian and U.S. sailors honoring military personnel who perished during World War II, Vladivostok, Russia, July 4, 2002
Russian and U.S. sailors honoring military personnel who perished during World War II, Vladivostok, Russia, July 4, 2002.

4 US Ambassadors Offer a Positive Agenda for US-Russian Relations

June 19, 2017
John R. Beyrle, James F. Collins, Jack F. Matlock, Jr. and Alexander R. Vershbow

Last month in Moscow, we gathered with a group of Russian and American policy practitioners and scholars to discuss the current dismal state of U.S.-Russian relations and possible ways forward. The meeting, co-organized by Russia’s Institute of U.S. and Canada Studies and the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center,* provided a chance to discuss possible areas of practical cooperation outside the echo chamber, which unfortunately more and more characterizes public discussion of the bilateral relationship.

We recognized the challenging state of relations between our countries, with a trust level “below zero,” in the words of one American participant, and a style so “unacceptable and aggressive” that it has a serious impact on the content, in the words of one Russian participant. We all agreed the stakes are too high to let the relationship deteriorate further and we proposed several areas of potential cooperation.

First, in the area of arms control, our countries bear a unique responsibility for strategic stability, not just bilaterally but globally. The coming expiration of the New START Treaty provides a timely occasion, and disagreements over compliance with the INF Treaty provide an important impulse, to return to the strategic arms negotiating table. Although we should realize that the world has changed and that our two countries cannot alone define the terms of strategic stability for the rest of the world, in this area we have a unique and essential role to play. Strengthening strategic stability should go hand in hand with efforts to increase predictability and transparency of NATO and Russian conventional military activities and deployments in Europe.

Second, to address the conflict in Ukraine, our countries can start by naming special envoys from Moscow and Washington to restore a structural and sustained element to bilateral discussions and more effectively participate in the existing multilateral process.  At present, the focus is on managing and containing the conflict, but when the time is more opportune for closing a deal, the contours of a solution should be in place. U.S. and Russian special envoys with presidential mandates, in consultation with Ukraine and other stakeholders, could work out a road map of steps in the political and military realms, as the Minsk Agreements do not fully define the sequencing or provide for an international enforcement mechanism. Although Crimea will likely remain a bone of contention for some time to come, resolution of the conflict in Donbas, according to one American participant, could “allow us to turn the page, lift most of the sanctions and begin the process of building a more productive relationship” between Russia and the West.

Third, we agreed that regional problems with global implications like Syria and North Korea offer unrealized potential for joint action, even if U.S. and Russian interests are not fully aligned. Other transnational threats, such as terrorism and international drug trafficking, are likewise areas where joint efforts could bear fruit. U.S.-Russian cooperation alone may not be enough to resolve such issues, but absent our cooperation their resolution will be unlikely.

A fourth realm ripe for collaboration in keeping with the interests and values of both countries can be found in “intrinsically cooperative” areas such as space exploration and scientific partnership more generally. Our joint work in sustaining the world’s only space colony and on the Arctic region, which continues despite the challenging atmosphere of the bilateral relationship provides a compelling example of what is possible. A renewal and intensification of scientific and cultural exchange programs would sustain and expand professional links and people-to-people ties vital to maintaining mutual understanding and capacity to manage differences at a time of U.S.-Russian tensions.

Finally, our group in Moscow reflected on the breakdown of institutionalized ties essential to sustaining productive cooperation between us. The Bilateral Presidential Commission is moribund and other structured channels of communication remain inadequate. Contacts between our militaries are insufficient and must be enhanced to minimize the danger of incidents where we are operating in close proximity to each other. Cooperation on the issues mentioned above is essential but at the same time is not enough to restore an abiding sense of trust in the bilateral relationship. Our own Congress should know that Russian parliamentary participants view the resumption of long dormant legislative contacts as an important priority.

The bilateral relationship has unfortunately been considered by leaders on both sides as a sort of “affordable wreckage,” in the words of one American participant. If we do not exchange the current “crisis of small-mindedness” for a broader perspective, future generations may have occasion to reflect that it was not, after all, affordable.

* The Moscow Conference was also co-sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Gorchakov Foundation.


John R. Beyrle

John R. Beyrle was the United States ambassador to Bulgaria from 2005 to 2008 and to the Russian Federation from 2008 to 2012.


James F. Collins

James F. Collins was the United States ambassador to the Russian Federation from 1997 to 2001.


Jack F. Matlock, Jr.

Jack F. Matlock, Jr. was the United States ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991.


Alexander R. Vershbow

Alexander R. Vershbow was the United States ambassador to NATO from 1998 to 2001, to the Russian Federation from 2001 to 2005, and to South Korea from 2005 to 2008.