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Is Rapprochement with Russia Still Possible?

U.S.-Russian relations are at one of their lowest points since the end of the Cold War—and there seems to be little appetite for improvement on the part of the Trump administration and Congress.

Egged on by anti-Russia hysteria in many parts of the American media, Congress has imposed new sanctions to penalize Moscow over its alleged meddling in the 2016 election. The sanctions legislation was written in such a way that the president cannot waive its requirements, which all but guarantees that they will remain the law—and an impediment to better relations—for a very long time to come.

Thanks to the many questionable contacts between some members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials, the administration has been unable to pursue any constructive engagement with Moscow without triggering accusations of doing Russia’s bidding. The administration’s response to this predicament has usually been to echo the most conventional hawkish views on disputed issues and make no concerted effort to repair frayed ties with the Russian government.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently delivered a speech [1] at the Wilson Center in which he described Russia primarily in terms of the threat that it posed to Europe. Even as he stated that the U.S. desires a “productive new relationship” with Moscow, he framed previous breakdowns in relations as being purely the result of Russian “aggression.” In Tillerson’s oversimplified telling, “both attempts by the prior administration to reset the Russia and U.S.-Europe relationships have been followed by Russia invading its neighbor.” But that is not quite how things unfolded.

The 2008 war to which Tillerson refers was a product of the Georgian government’s recklessness, its overconfidence in Western promises, and the profoundly misguided allied pledge at the Bucharest NATO summit that Ukraine and Georgia would one day become members of the alliance. Whatever “reset” George W. Bush attempted early in his first term had long since given way to repeatedly antagonizing Moscow by withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, launching the Iraq war, promoting missile defense in central Europe, NATO expansion in eastern Europe, and U.S. support for the so-called “color” revolutions in the former Soviet Union.

The Obama-era “reset” achieved some initial successes, but this soon stalled out and was replaced by resentment over the passage of the Magnitsky Act and the bait-and-switch intervention for regime change in Libya that Russia had been persuaded not to oppose. Confrontation over the civil war in Syria also contributed significantly to the souring of U.S.-Russian relations. By the time the political crisis in Ukraine erupted in 2014, the hopeful atmosphere created by the “reset” was long gone, and the U.S. and allied response to that crisis contributed to further deterioration. If our government officials fail to recognize the U.S. role in creating bad relations between Washington and Moscow, they are bound to keep repeating the mistakes that their predecessors made.

All of this raises a question: Is a normal, productive relationship with Russia possible for the U.S.? Despite the significant obstacles outlined above, the answer is still yes.

As bad as relations have become over the last few years, they are still nowhere near as toxic and dangerous as they were at various points during the Cold War. That should show us that the U.S. and Russia have far fewer reasons to be at odds than in the past, and that our disagreements are much more manageable. Present-day Russia also has fewer ambitious goals for its foreign policy than the USSR did and poses much less of a threat to the U.S. and our allies. Nothing compels the U.S. to compete with Russia in its own backyard, and no U.S. interests are threatened by Russia’s maintenance of its handful of clients. In short, the U.S. and Russia do not have to be rivals in most cases, and the U.S. has no need to counter Russia wherever it has influence.

It is important for European stability and international security more generally that the U.S. and Russia fashion a cooperative relationship that will allow both to secure mutual interests and manage their disagreements. When the two powers have been on reasonably good terms, tensions between Russia and its neighbors have also declined, which is in the interests of all concerned.

The benefits of an improved relationship aren’t limited only to Europe. A constructive relationship with Russia is very much needed to address many international problems, including but not limited to terrorism, securing nuclear materials, and resolving long-running conflicts. We have seen hints of what that cooperation can achieve in recent years with the Iran nuclear deal and the new arms reduction treaty with Russia, both of which required sustained diplomatic engagement. In order to repair ties with Russia, our government will need to make a similar effort over the long term, with Washington refraining from taking further provocative actions.

A good place for the Trump administration to start would be to reject the plan to send arms to Ukraine. Such a policy would be unwise in itself—and disastrous for any chance at improving America’s relationship with Russia.

Daniel Larison is senior editor at The American Conservative.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Is Rapprochement with Russia Still Possible?"

#1 Comment By cornel lencar On December 6, 2017 @ 11:18 pm

Daniel,

I am a close follower of your blog and admire your analyses, but I always found that there is an important component that you never address that is core to the strategic interests of the U.S. and that for Russia, or other major powers, have lately recognized explicitly and acting against, explicitly. This is the issue of U.S. dollar, or how some people call it, the petrodollar.

Given how US can and has undermined countries with its ability to control the flow of US dollars, China, Russia, etc are creating the mechanisms to move away from that. With the recent announcements by Trump, concerning Jerusalem and Yemen, Saudi Arabia might be persuaded to use other currencies when selling its oil, beside US dollar.

Such issues are of extreme strategic significance, and you never seem to touch on them.

#2 Comment By Dr. Bill Wedin On December 7, 2017 @ 12:55 am

Cornell (above) is right, of course. If the dollar ceased to be the “reserve currency” in which all oil transactions are settled (and China and Russia are breaking away from that now in terms of bilateral oil and gas contracts), the Fed could no longer just print pieces of paper and have that turn into real money. (It’s actually easier than that.) The other reason one needs Russia as a near-peer “enemy” is to get all the “free” nations of the world, starting with ourselves,to buy all kinds of “protection” in the form of weapon systems. Those are about the only things we manufacture anymore. Those are about the only factories we don’t offshore. We run a protection racket plain and simple.

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 7, 2017 @ 8:36 am

From all reports, the Russians are resigned to worsening relations, even more so than during the Cold War. Never before were they completely banned from the Olympics until now. During the Cold War, progress was made on nuclear arms treaties, now abrogated by the U.S. Nor were their consulates seized, nor were they accused of having interfered to elect a U.S. President. Their reporters were never before having their credentials revoked. Advanced nuclear weaponry is being developed that dwarfs all that came before and is back on hair trigger launch on warning. The U.S. has committed to pre-emptive war and global submission of all other nations, including culturally. It’s a collision course of escalation U.S. policymakers are sure they can win if they simply have the will and apply enough financial sanctions and military force.

#4 Comment By craigsummers On December 7, 2017 @ 10:06 am

Mr. Larison

blockquote>”…….Nothing compels the U.S. to compete with Russia in its own backyard, and no U.S. interests are threatened by Russia’s maintenance of its handful of clients. In short, the U.S. and Russia do not have to be rivals in most cases, and the U.S. has no need to counter Russia wherever it has influence……..”

“Maintenance of….clients” is a really excellent euphemism for “subjugate”. I wonder how our South and Central American neighbors felt about maintenance of them as “clients” in the 60s, 70, and 80s?

There is absolutely nothing in international law that recognizes a sphere of influence, Mr. Larison. A sphere of interest (or influence) clashes with “sovereignty” of a state or the right for a state governing body to govern without external interference. You cannot just give away a section of the world because you think this is a peaceful approach for US and Russia relations. That is exactly the opposite of peaceful – or does the Soviet Union not ring a bell for you?

No one forced Eastern European countries to join the EU and NATO. There is a reason that anti-American left wing governments came to power in our “sphere of influence”. Try to apply the same standard to former Soviet subjugated countries in Eastern Europe. In the case of Ukraine, Russian domination has occurred over at least the last 100 years.

#5 Comment By Michael Kenny On December 7, 2017 @ 10:10 am

Now that Putin has announced that he’s running for a further term, the answer to Mr Larison’s question is no. Putin’s decision makes war more or less inevitable. In addition, General Flynn’s testimony that that it was Trump who approached Putin, not the reverse, is absolutely damning for Trump. It suggests that the claims that Trump is Putin’s “stooge” are substantially correct. Thus, Trump may be too afraid of impeachment to actually capitulate to Putin but he will probably try to avoid standing up to him as long as he can. The problem is that Putin is openly thumbing his nose at the US and has, so far, been let get away with it. Thus, either the US defeats Putin so unequivocally that not even his American supporters can hype into a Putin victory or the whole American house of cards collapses in a Soviet-style implosion. Trump is too scared to stand up to Putin, so the problem will just fester and American credibility will continue to fritter away.

#6 Comment By collin On December 7, 2017 @ 11:27 am

In general, I would agree with you but the reality is Democrats is complete F’ pissed off about the 2016 election. The media obsessed on HRC E-mails and scandals that any possible collusion of Trump & Russia was always down played until after the election. The evidence does indicate the Russians hacked DNC and used the material to support Trump’s election. Period. (Note the DNC e-mails did keep alive HRC emails headlines as well. Note It is believed they hacked RNC but has not used the material.) And whatever the Trump did in 2016 (at this point it appears very minor collusion), it is obvious Trump is not going to protect US citizens from future Russian hacks.

Russia has tried in other elections, especially France, but their endeavors were not successful for a variety of reasons. Mostly because France was ready for it after the US experience.

I tend to agree with you that better relations would improve for every body but the truth of 2016 must come out first.

#7 Comment By VikingLS On December 7, 2017 @ 11:35 am

@Micheal Kenny

Is regime change necessary for you to feel Putin ISN’T getting away with it?

#8 Comment By Paul On December 7, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

Some of the commenters here fall into the habit, popular in the US, of imagining that what is in the U.S.’s interest simply coincides with reason and right as such, and should be so recognized universally. That other nations might have interests that occasionally clash with those of the United States — doesn’t even register.

Actual rationality would lead us to a very different realization: the US’s current course vis-a-vis Russia (and China) will lead to the prisoner’s dilemma outcome that is worst for ALL sides, economically, militarily and in every other respect.

The US, by over-reaching, is shooting itself in the foot. The resulting decline in the US, which may eventually be precipitous, is not in the interests even of its current adversaries. They would prefer to find a compromise. That the US refuses to see this is both ridiculous and tragic.

#9 Comment By Stephen J On December 7, 2017 @ 12:59 pm

“There is absolutely nothing in international law that recognizes a sphere of influence, Mr. Larison.”

Then why does the US gov’t feel compelled to exert its influence anywhere on the globe? How can we complain about Russia’s activity in Ukraine (its own backyard), but justify our own meddling in Ukraine, where we have never had a legitimate interest?

I remain utterly perplexed by the manufactured hatred of Russia and Putin. Russia’s so-called aggression pales next to that of the US. Is it just Freudian projection?

#10 Comment By b. On December 7, 2017 @ 1:02 pm

“Is a normal, productive relationship with Russia possible for the U.S.? Despite the significant obstacles outlined above, the answer is still yes.”

It is not only possible, it is necessary. Russia and China both object principally to the US placing itself above international law, while insisting every other nation be bound by it – all the obligations, none of the privileges whenever they are in conflict with US “national interests”. In a true sense, expressed with Trumpian frankness in the Bush National Security Policy of preventive war, “America First” has been the bipartisan consensus for many decades.

The principal obstacle to an international order underwritten by the US, China and Russia is the US unwillingness to concede that, at best, we can strive to be first among equals.

In the case of Russia, this unwillingness is rooted in the recognition that, in the absence of external pressure to fail and break up the existing Russian territory and way of governance, Russia stands to have sovereign control of the largest contiguous landmass, its resources, and its coast along an Arctic Ocean that will be free of ice within a generation or two.

Regime change is the violent change of the structure of government, to exploit existing divisions, and to soften and modify historical borders. Its inevitable side effect are forced migration and refugees, its objective is to “open markets” to “US interests”.

The fixation of US armchair elites on adversity with Russia results not so much from the unwilling recognition of its potential, but from the size of the prize. This is a bipartisan posture. It is telling that, of all the empty promises of change Trump spouted during the primaries, the deep state considered possible reconciliation and cooperation with Russia the most threatening possibility. The establishment candidate, Clinton, moved early and radically to denounce this possibility out of reasons of ambition of her own, but once the election results were confirmed, the “Dolchstosslegende” of Russian influence more and more became a tool to deny Trump the possibility of policy changes.

#11 Comment By Will Harrington On December 7, 2017 @ 1:49 pm

Craig Summers

The problem with your analysis of spheres of influence is that you are thinking of such a thing as a phenomenon that is created through agreements between great powers that give each other control over lesser powers. Sometimes this is true (western European Colonialism for instance) but far more often, agreements by great powers to recognize spheres of influence are simply diplomatic efforts to avoid conflict. Spheres of influence will happen whether you think they are legal and just or not. They are created through trade and diplomacy, if nothing else. If you, as a nation, have something that another nation wants and they are willing to trade or negotiate to get it, then you have influence. It is as simple as that. Conflict between great powers can happen when they compete to provide the same thing to the same nation. With corporations, this leads to the lowering of prices. With nations it is just as likely to lead to war. Is it better for the dependent state? If they have the potential to be harmed by the war? Yes.

#12 Comment By craigsummers On December 7, 2017 @ 4:11 pm

Will

I’m simply talking about a geographic area near to the great power (in this case Russia), or what Pat Buchanan calls a “near abroad”. In this case, Russia is simply claiming the countries near her border like Ukraine to be in her near abroad. It was the EU (with US support) which attempted to “pull Ukraine out of the (non-existent) Russian orbit”. Russia occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine is meant to undermine the economy and destabilize the new Ukraine government.

#13 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On December 7, 2017 @ 4:35 pm

Trump should publicly ask Putin to give the U.S. information Russia undoubtedly has on Vietnam MIA/POWs, especially those who were relocated from North Vietnam to Siberia. The quid pro quo will be that we’ll then end the Obama sanctions.

If Trump can get that earthshattering info out of Putin despite predictable opposition from Russia’s intelligence agencies, it will be hard to portray Trump as Putin’s pigeon.

#14 Comment By John On December 8, 2017 @ 6:23 am

There were two courses of action that could have been chosen at the end of the Cold War. One would have been to feel some relief, call it a day, and start enjoying the fact the nuclear oblivion seemed less likely for the first time in decades. The other was to continue as though nothing had changed, and press our advantage.

The short-memoried among us forget that there was a chorus loudly bleating for a “Pax Americana” after 1989 that called for America to be the arbiter of what was right and sound in the world, and to enforce a global peace through economic and military force. If you can tolerate thumbing through old issues of National Review, it is well documented there.

The little problem is that some people have no desire to play along. While Saddam Hussein was not a friend to Islamism, he also had funny ideas about not wanting to dance to someone else’s tune, hence 2003. Gaddafi was willing to play ball, but did not realize he was too unreliable and wound up being disposed of like Fredo Corleone.

Now, Russia. Putin has his own ideas about the course of his nation, which do not include building a Wal Mart in Red Square. Russia also is sitting on a demographic time bomb, which is severe enough that I remember the government offering lavish subsidies for having children. Russia does not have a resource problem, unlike many Western nations, and it does not have a space problem, both of which are the prelude to wars of conquest. Maybe Putin would like to kidnap the entire population of Germany, I don’t know.

At the end of the day, we have essentially manufactured a boogeyman in Putin, laughably trying to compare him to a latter day Hitler, in a comical way that no sober Cold War leader in America would have done. We did not behave this way toward Russia when there was a real, credible threat of Soviet tanks rolling through Germany and France. Does anyone remember songs like Sting’s “Russians,” an attempt to humanize our enemy? Or Def Leppard’s “Gods of War,” questioning our military mindset? Very different tune coming from the left these days. Sad and troubling when people on the right dance to it.

When we now look at the hysteria around Russia, we get that it makes no sense, based on what we are told. Some minor shenanigans in a presidential election are nothing, compared to the rich history of Anglo-American meddling in domestic affairs of other nations over the last century. Putin is not Hitler. Russians do not eat babies and make cakes with their blood. And so on. The obvious answer is that this opposition to Russia is serving some interest or faction we are not publically informed about, yer are expected to go along with their plan or we too are suspect. I make no claim or suggestion as to who that is, save maybe an MI complex that needs to keep the dollars rolling in, or perhaps senile fossils like John McCain who want one last shot at Strangelovian glory.

However, for the average American, this manufactured standoff serve no good and should be consigned to the scrap heap. If we love our children.

#15 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On December 8, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

There is no fatal antagonism between Russians and Americans. There is a significant difference in business ethics and culture and, as a result, annoying errors on both sides.
My deceased parents often said: never borrow money and do not lend if you do not want to make enemies.

The volume of American supplies to Russia in the Second World War amounted to about 11 billion US dollars. The Law on Lend-Lease allowed to pay only for products that survived during the war. The Americans asked to pay a debt of 2.7 billion dollars.
In 1948, during negotiations, the Soviet representatives agreed to pay a small sum.
In 1951, the US government twice reduced the amount of debt to 800 million dollars, but the USSR was willing to pay only $ 300 million. After the collapse of the USSR, the debt under Lend-Lease was re-registered with Boris Yeltsin. Thus, out of the total volume of supplies to the USSR of $ 11 billion, Russia has pledged to pay $ 722 million, or 7% of the $ 11 billion supply. In 1990, under a new agreement, the Soviet side pledged to pay $ 674 million until 2030 (taking into account inflation, $ 100 million from 1946).
The US Lend-Lease debt was finally paid and closed as part of a settlement with the Paris Club on August 21, 2006. And this is just one example …
However, we are not only usurers and debtors, we are still neighbors with a common border. In Russia people sometimes say that one good neighbor is worth two bad relatives. Сontacts between people were not interrupted, they are not interrupted now.
[2]
For obvious reasons the banking and financial circles, disappointed in Russia, are trying to stick a label of “toxic country” to it. But we still do not understand all about toxicity. So, for example, fly agar is dangerous for flies, but it is a delicacy for deer, with the help of which they get rid of their intestinal parasites.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish all Americans who share traditional values successfully meet the approaching Christmas!

#16 Comment By peter On December 8, 2017 @ 4:00 pm

Craig Summers:
Ukraine is a new entity on the map.
Before the Mongol invasion (1200…) there was a Kievan Rus. After that, what is today’s Ukraine was Poland, Russian Empire, Austria…USSR.
Regarding Crimea: it was a vassal of the Ottomans until Catherine the Great conquered it for Russia.
As part of the USSR, Ukraine was set up as a manufacturing region providing may things for the rest of the country. It has some coal but it was tightly integrated with the rest of the USSR.
Its survivability without Russia is work in progress…
This being said, Dr. Diprospan is absolutely right: there is no fatal antagonism between the US and Russia.
Both are very large countries with plenty of resources. This can make them competitors.
And yes – Russia wants respect, lots of it. After the dissolution of the USSR, they did not much of it.
They become irritated when when a small entity from what was their sphere of influence for centuries gets a new government which for some reason (usually money !) wants an alliance (protection) from far away.
What would have been our reaction if Canada wanted to leave NATO and join the Warsaw Treaty?
Spheres of influence – most small countries need and want “protection”.
They try to choose a protector with a less tight embrace!

#17 Comment By Gazza On December 10, 2017 @ 5:43 am

@collin

“The evidence does indicate the Russians hacked DNC and used the material to support Trump’s election. Period.”

No. That is utter rubbish. It seems clear that the DNC emails wee LEAKED by an insider who was likely disgusted with the corruption within the DNC and the deliberate sabotage directed at the Sanders nomination campaign. Its certainly not beyond the pale that Seth Rich was indeed the leaker, and was killed by Deep State as punishment for his “betrayal”. Does anyone REALLY believe he was killed in a bungled robbery without his wallet or watch being stolen? Seriously? How stupid do the establishment think we are?

#18 Comment By Gazza On December 10, 2017 @ 5:58 am

“General Flynn’s testimony that that it was Trump who approached Putin, not the reverse, is absolutely damning for Trump.”

Are you serious? Flynn talking to Russians, as an official of the Trump administration transition is somehow damning for Trump?

Why is the conducting of diplomatic contacts by a Presidential transition team in any way an issue? Would it have been an issue if they talked to Chinese diplomats? What about Germans?

This is nutty Russophobia at its finest…