The Importance of Mission Russia

August 24, 2019
The Importance of Mission Russia
AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File
The Importance of Mission Russia
AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File
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Can the United States and Russia stabilize a bilateral relationship at its lowest point since the early 1980s? This is not a hypothetical question, and it is of the utmost importance given the state of relations between the two nuclear giants.

Jon Huntsman’s resignation as the U.S. ambassador to Moscow on August 5 leaves Washington without a permanent, experienced diplomat at the table. Fortunately, reports that Stephen Biegun—the Trump administration’s special representative to North Korea—could be nominated as America’s top diplomat in the Russian capital suggests President Trump recognizes the importance of finding a replacement quickly. A former Russia hand on the National Security Council, Biegun could be a good, pragmatic choice if the administration at large is willing to focus on incremental, confidence-building steps with the Russians that slowly turn the relationship around. 

While this will be unsatisfying to many in the foreign policy establishment who are prewired to view U.S.-Russia relations as a zero-sum contest, probing for areas of cooperation and setting clear rules of the road are the first steps in building some degree of peaceful coexistence.

It is no secret that interactions between Washington and Moscow are at present less than productive. Indeed, they are often adversarial. The United States and Russia find themselves on opposite sides of disputes the world over, from Syria and Venezuela to energy policy in Europe and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Moscow's violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and Washington's withdrawal from the accord this month have given hardliners in both capitals more reason to question any collaboration. The mistrust among U.S. and Russian officials at both personal and institutional levels is high, which makes it difficult for either side to negotiate on any issue in good faith. Legislator-to-legislator meetings between U.S. and Russian lawmakers that were the norm in the past are now becoming rare as both nations engage in tit-for-tat sanctions and travel bans.

The atmosphere for dialogue has been poisoned. Movement in a more positive direction is strained in part due to domestic U.S. and Russian politics.

In Washington, it remains more politically advantageous for policymakers to support a tough approach toward the Kremlin than it is to search for a type of detente. Sanctioning Moscow for any number of offenses has become as much about demonstrating one’s foreign policy bonafides to constituents as it is about real policy objectives, like punishing and/or deterring bad behavior. America’s Russia policy has become dangerously tangled in the web of partisan warfare. 

What is good politics, however, seldom makes for good foreign policy. Slapping symbolic travel restrictions on Russian officials or sending more Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine may be politically popular, but it does nothing to ameliorate tension in the bilateral relationship or prevent a further drift into the turbulent unknown. These actions are highly likely to reinforce the Russian elite's paranoia about U.S. intentions and force an equal or greater response, escalating when the situation could sorely use cooler-heads.

A cool-head is precisely what the next U.S. ambassador to Moscow needs to bring to the table. Huntsman was fundamentally on point when he wrote that no grandstanding “reset or restart is going to help [improve the U.S.-Russia relationship], just a clear understanding of our interests and values—and a practical framework for sustained dialogue.” Whoever the incoming ambassador happens to be, he or she will have a responsibility to depoliticize what is the most consequential relationship the United States holds with any country on the planet.

Success will not be easy, but it is necessary to stave off disastrous great power conflict. Walling off this statecraft from the partisan noise is imperative if Washington aims to prevent further deterioration and perhaps lay a foundation for more constructive dealings in the future.

Huntsman was also correct to say that Washington and Moscow possess some shared interests despite the troubling tenor of the overall relationship, and the next ambassador should heed this point. Nipping in the bud another expensive, dangerous, and pointless arms race is one such action item, made even more urgent after the demise of the INF Treaty and the possible expiration of the New START agreement in 18 months.

Refusing to extend New START for another five years would be the very definition of an own goal, stripping the last bolt out of the U.S.-Russia arms control regime and severely limiting Washington’s knowledge of the shape, size, deployment pattern, and status of Moscow’s deployed nuclear arsenal. Russian President Vladimir Putin has stressed an interest in extending the treaty and a broader conversation about arms control issues; Trump should not waste any more time in delaying that discussion.

Counterterrorism is also a top issue for both powers. Although terrorism is hardly an existential threat to either nation, the problem is real and not going to suddenly go away. The Islamic State is as much of a threat to Russia as it is to the United States; if anything, it may be a greater danger for Moscow as thousands of Russians traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight against ISIS. Both nations thus have an interest in sharing information about the terrorist group's cross-border movements, financing, recruitment, and propaganda activity — the more eyes on the problem, the better.

The bottom line in U.S.-Russia relations is this: Anyone hoping for a magical transformation over the short to medium term should prepare for disappointment. As long as Putin remains in power, the two former Cold War rivals will view one another warily. And Russia will seek dominance in its near abroad long after Putin has left. Hostility will not go away overnight.

The sour feelings, however, can be mitigated if both sides are willing to productively engage. For two countries that possess over 12,600 nuclear weapons between them, refusal to do so would be a dereliction of duty.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

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