Eagle and bear

Optimism for Improved US-Russian Relations Is Necessary, But Should Remain Cautious

July 03, 2019
Paul Saunders
This op-ed is written in response to "The Osaka Meeting: Is the Tide Turning in US-Russian Relations?" by Thomas Graham.

Thomas Graham’s assessment of U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin is thoughtful and calibrated in setting out the state of the U.S.-Russian relationship and quite cautious in looking into the future. Even so, Graham’s take may be too optimistic.

The first problem is in the continuing politics of Russiagate. Graham is correct that this “has become a less salient issue for the American electorate.” Nevertheless, it is not clear that less attention from voters will contribute to building a more functional U.S.-Russian relationship. The core problem is that when the American public does not engage on policy issues, elites have fewer constraints in shaping outcomes. Much of the American elite—including Democrats, anti-Trump Republicans and much of the media—remains profoundly skeptical toward Trump and fearful of what he might concede to Russia. Accordingly, it seems likely that the greater the effort the administration applies to U.S.-Russia relations, the more elite political resistance will emerge. The fact that voters won’t care, or that some might be tired of hearing about Trump and Russia, likely won’t matter.

Yet Russia’s election interference is not the only reason that elites have been so troubled by Trump’s efforts to engage Putin. They are also disturbed because they do not understand Trump’s objectives in dealing with Moscow. The president has yet to define systematically and persuasively what he thinks he can get from Russia, why he thinks he can get it and why he thinks we should want it. This, rather than “to rebuild a sustained dialogue” after the events of 2014, should be Trump’s “main task.” He should explain the purpose of U.S.-Russia dialogue to elites who do not trust Russia’s president to adhere to his commitments and to a public, among which 78 percent see Russia as more a rival than a partner, according to 2019 polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. In fact, the first reference to Russia in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy is the statement on page two “that China and Russia challenge American power, influence and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”

In his press conference in Osaka, Trump’s first comments about Russia were that he had “a really tremendous discussion” with Putin and that he could “see trade going out to Russia.” Indeed, Trump said, “we could do fantastically well.” Considering that the United States has been the leader in imposing economic sanctions on Russia for the last five years, that Congress is very unlikely to ease sanctions or to stand aside if the administration sought to do so and that Trump might not even be able to unify his own administration behind him on this—much less avoid media leaks and a bruising political fight before even going to Congress—Trump’s apparent aspiration to increase bilateral trade seems surreal. In the last 10 years, among the top U.S. trade partners, Russia has moved from 22nd in 2008 to 28th in 2018. Meanwhile, the U.S. has risen from being Russia’s ninth top trade partner in 2008 to number seven in 2018 (see graphs below).

Few other components of a possible U.S.-Russia agenda provide greater grounds for optimism. U.S. officials might seek more active talks on Ukraine, but there is no visible evidence that either Washington or Moscow is prepared to be more flexible. Even if Ukraine’s July parliamentary elections produce a Rada more open to a negotiated settlement to end Russia’s military support to fighters in eastern Ukraine, to reintegrate conflict areas and to provide them with some form of greater autonomy, it is not difficult to foresee that the U.S. Congress might seek to protect Kiev from itself, much as many in Congress want to protect Germany from Russian gas imports that Germany has already decided to buy. If Congress sees the potential outcome of such talks as a concession to Putin or a “bad deal” for Ukraine, whether because members of Congress lack confidence in Trump, lack trust in Putin or for some other reason, this is even more likely.

Strategic stability is similarly challenging. Graham is accurate in describing the impact of Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and may be right that the shock of this step and its implications will persuade Democrats that Washington needs “closer contacts” with Moscow. But do the Democrats who take this view have confidence in Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton, to pursue talks on strategic stability? More pointedly, if the administration negotiated a treaty, how many Senate Democrats (and Republicans) would be prepared to approve it? If the administration sought some form of executive understanding rather than a treaty—an approach the Russians have accepted only reluctantly in the past—would Congress accept this or conduct hearings and demand State Department notes from the negotiations? Trying to work with Moscow to involve Beijing in such a process seems even more challenging; China has already publicly rejected this approach more than once. Russia would probably welcome talks to extend the New START strategic nuclear arms treaty, which expires in February 2021; nevertheless, Moscow has perennially sought to link strategic arms negotiations to missile defense, where the administration seems unlikely to reverse the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. 

The strongest case for optimism about U.S.-Russian relations may well be less in its details and more in the fact that without optimism, however cautious, it will be much more difficult to build a workable U.S.-Russia relationship that advances and defends U.S. national interests across many global regions and issues, including the familiar litany of the expanding China-Russia relationship, nuclear weapons, non-proliferation, European security, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Afghanistan, to name only a few. In the current climate in U.S.-Russian relations and U.S. politics, there is little basis for hope that Washington and Moscow can reach meaningful agreements. Among other things, mutual pessimism about U.S.-Russia relations will probably make almost any form of cooperation more difficult to pursue. From this perspective, even if the facts may not justify much optimism, the stakes probably do.


Paul Saunders

Paul Saunders is the chairman and president of the Energy Innovation Reform Project and a senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest.

Photo by Carl Chapman shared under a CC BY 2.0 license.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.