Rumblings of U.S.-Russia rapprochement hit like a bolt out of the blue.
In addition to a rare joint statement issued a couple weeks ago, U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin connected numerous times over the past several weeks according to public reports. These developments stand out — not because any non-coronavirus news feels like a rarity, but because ties between Moscow and Washington have long been frozen in place. It is even more surprising given the Kremlin’s continued actions in places like Syria and Ukraine. The dual challenge of the oil market crash and the COVID-19 crisis, however, seem to have momentarily altered the equation in U.S.-Russia relations.
It’s worth reiterating that a clear U.S. policy toward Russia has been virtually nonexistent in recent years. Since the start of the Trump administration, the president has tended to flatter his Russian counterpart, while the rest of his bureaucracy pursues a harder line toward Moscow. This dissonance, which obfuscates an overarching strategy, has grown more puzzling over the past weeks. And the tension it produces in U.S. policy was evident even in decisions like the statement issued on the "Spirit of the Elbe.”
A path to more constructive relations with Russia is certainly important for U.S. national security, but it cannot neglect what Russia has done in places like Georgia, Ukraine and Syria. Here, the gap between President Trump’s words and actual U.S. policy are a cause for concern. The president remains out of step with many parts of his own government (or vice versa), in turn giving Putin the space to exploit his personal connection with Trump.
Cooperation is imperative during the present moment of dislocation and danger across the international community. But using current crises as a pretext to fundamentally reset relations is short-sighted; it also won’t likely work.
There has been no alteration in Russia’s foreign policy behavior. Even if Moscow’s shipment of medical materials to the U.S. was a symbol of goodwill and not just a propaganda play, it at least represented a “misguided attempt to use the crisis as some kind of a factor that allows you to clean the slate in the relationship,” as a senior analyst in Russia characterized it.
We need to find ways to build confidence in the relationship, but they need to be embedded in a broader strategy. And rather than resets, any goodwill accumulated through the current crises should be channeled into discreet, achievable policy goals. Considering Putin’s interest in nuclear policy issues and U.S. concerns about Russia’s threat to allies in Europe, arms control is a natural starting point for such a rapprochement. However, three main challenges hinder any headway and must be somehow addressed if progress is to be made.
First, the Trump administration is demanding that any future agreement on strategic arms control (or even intermediate forces) include China. This is because the U.S. does not want to be hamstrung by an agreement that could be detrimental to its strategy in Asia. Beijing has repeatedly rejected such invitations, effectively stalling serious arms control discussions between Moscow and Washington as well. Moreover, Moscow does not want to push Beijing on the topic either. As the expiration of New START looms, this key agreement fostering transparency and limiting the number of strategic nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russia is likely to end, absent new life in the discussion.
Second, the U.S. is broadly exhibiting a healthy dose of skepticism about these types of agreements with Moscow, catalyzed by a lack of trust that Russia will comply. Moscow’s consistent disregard for the existing agreements that underpin Euro-Atlantic security (e.g., the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, the Budapest Memorandum and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) makes it seem unlikely that Russia will abide by a new agreement.
Lastly, as U.S.-Russia relations further deteriorate, the nuclear domain has become yet another area for confrontation. Rather than strategic stability being a point of convergence — as it once was — it is increasingly becoming a space for saber-rattling and conflict. Moscow’s vibrato around hypersonics is a good example. And the U.S. is aggressively pushing back. The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review outlined plans to develop and deploy tactical nuclear weapon capabilities to counter Russian capabilities, and reiterated the option of using nuclear weapons in a non-nuclear scenario. This — alongside other technological developments — signals a significant departure from any common view of strategic stability, with detrimental implications for European security, as a colleague and I recently analyzed at length.
Since 2000, several administrations failed to find a way to create a lasting change in U.S.-Russia relations — one that delivers a constructive agenda while keeping Putin’s more aggressive and exploitative efforts in check. But understanding that the relationship is defined by competition, not cooperation, may at least provide an avenue for limited successes of mutual interest. Successful confidence-building measures during the Cold War were in the context of extremely tense relations; it is possible.
In the present crises, any political progress in relations should be directed to energize specific policy goals, like arms control. Achievements won’t “clean the slate” or create a pretext for a broad reset, but it may provide a path to greater confidence-building measures in the future to tackle more difficult issues. This ultimately may result in a less ambitions U.S.-Russia agenda, but it is likely to be the most successful. Most importantly, it will be a strategy based in current realities, not wishful thinking.
Steven Keil is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, where he specializes in security and defense policy, as well as the future of geopolitics.