Thomas Graham, managing director, Kissinger Associates, and senior fellow, Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University, was senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush Administration. Special for Rethinking Russia.
Beware of rapid improvement in US-Russian relations. It cannot be sustained, and it always ends in sorrow for both countries. That at least is the history of relations since the end of the Cold War, to which each American president – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama – can attest.
This is not to say that there is not an urgent need to improve relations, or at least to defuse tensions. Strains over Syria, Ukraine, and broader issues of European security, in a period of near total disengagement, have raised to dangerous levels the risk of inadvertent conflict, which could prove catastrophic given that each sides have large nuclear arsenals, advanced conventional forces, and burgeoning cyber capabilities. There is a need to normalize relations, to restore the full panoply of channels of communication, to avert such an outcome. Beyond that step, however, lies a long, difficult path to more constructive, and mutually beneficial, relations.
The reasons for caution are two-fold: the nature of the differences between the two countries and the current atmosphere in Washington.
Since the demise of the Soviet Union until the eruption of the Ukraine crisis, the conceit in the United States was that Russia was slowly integrating itself in the Euro-Atlantic Community of values. It is obvious now that is not true, even if Russia remains, as it has been for the last 300 years or more, an integral part of Europe and its security system. Instead of deluding ourselves about possible shared purposes, we need to acknowledge first of all the profound differences that divide us, if not on the principles of world order per se, then on their interpretation. We understand the rights and obligations of sovereignty in different ways. We disagree on the norms of territorial integrity and self-determination and on the legitimate use of force. We diverge on the legitimacy of spheres of influence. Those differences lie at the center of the Ukraine crisis, as all now agree, and of American interest in the crisis. And Russians would argue that they were visible in the 1990’s and 2000’s as the West dealt with Balkan crises and expanded NATO and the European Union, when Russia was too weak to defend its national interests (or its interpretations of the principles).
We need to discuss these contrary views forthrightly, and we may eventually come to agree on a common core to each of these fundamental principles that we are both prepared to honor in practice. But the agreements will not come easily, given the disappointments of the past and the grievances of the present. Building a new world order, or reinterpreting an existing one, is not a walk in the park.
The situation is similar when it comes to geopolitical rivalries, most notably the two major crises – in Ukraine and Syria – that now bear heavily on European security. There is certainly a resolution to the Ukraine crisis, involving a combination of neutrality, minority rights, territorial integrity, sovereign rights, and non-interference. But reaching it will require compromises on all sides, including Washington and Moscow. And each of those capitals will be required to swallow some of the untruths that they have loudly proclaimed concerning, for example, America’s role in the overthrow of Yanukovych and Russia’s intervention in support of the Donbas separatists. That will not come easy since those falsehoods have provided much of the justification of each side’s current policy.
Cooperation in Syria appears to be a more promising endeavor because the United States and Russia claim to see defeating ISIS as a top national-security priority. But a closer look uncovers the pitfalls. For the past several years, we have not been able to agree on who the terrorists are. Washington has unsuccessfully sought to separate terrorists from the moderate opposition, which it insists has legitimate reasons for taking up arms against Assad’s brutal regime. Moscow identifies almost anyone challenging Assad as a terrorist, and sees Assad’s regime as the indispensable bulwark against terrorism. Washington has objected strenuously to what it sees as Moscow’s flagrant disregard for civilian lives in the conduct of harsh anti-terrorist operations. Moreover, given the plethora of forces engaged on the ground in Syria and their outside patrons, the anti-terrorist campaign is inextricably embedded in the broader question of the balance of power in the Middle East, which is now in great flux. That adds another layer of complexity to US-Russia interaction in the Syria crisis.
The world order and geopolitical obstacles alone would caution against any illusions about a radical near-term improvement in US-Russian relations, even if Washington were convinced of the need to improve relations. That, however, is decidedly not the case. With the exception of President Trump’s small entourage, Washington is deeply skeptical of Russia and its ambitions. President Putin is seen as a determined anti-American authoritarian leader with imperialist designs. The continuing outrage about Russian interference in the American presidential campaign feeds the anti-Russian animus, and the promised investigation of Russian hacking will only keep a malevolent image of Russia in the headlines. Any effort by Trump to reach out to Putin will run into formidable resistance in his own national-security apparatus, in the Congress from Republicans and Democrats, and in the national media.
Under these circumstances a grand bargain is impossible. But truth be told, it is not even desirable for it would not be sustainable, and its inevitable collapse would only sink relations to ever greater depths of animosity and danger. Rather, what is needed now is a commitment to engage across a wide range of issues critical to the security and well-being of both countries in search of a stable equilibrium of cooperation and competition that reduces the risk of armed conflict to the lowest level possible in current circumstances. Over time, the equilibrium might shift in favor of cooperation, as each country reassesses its interests and goals in a rapidly changing world. One day Russia and the United States might even find themselves in a strategic partnership. But that is not the task for today.
 ISIS is a terrorist group forbidden in Russia.