Russia and the U.S.: Time to Look for Compromises

The recent Democratic and Republican national conventions did not offer any particular surprises. They merely confirmed the current balance of power in both parties before the November presidential elections. As expected, the Republicans rallied behind the incumbent President Donald Trump, while the Democrats put their faith in former Vice President Joe Biden.

Just like the rest of the world, Moscow has been following the policy statements presented by the candidates on foreign policy and international security particularly closely. No revelations were forthcoming there either. The two candidates, each in his own distinctive style, set out their positions, which boil down to affirming America’s global leadership. But we have known this for a long time. Essentially, the heated debates within the U.S. political establishment focus on the specific methods for achieving this fundamental goal.

As for U.S. relations with Russia, the candidates made standard statements on the matter. Standard is the key word here, as the two candidates merely repeated what they had said many times before. But neither attempted to put forward any arguments to further their position, much less analyse possible options for interacting with Moscow in the rapidly changing global situation.

Some may say that expanded statements on key issues are usually made after the president-elect has been sworn in. That is true. However, the parties did outline their preliminary standing on some specific issues for the American and international public. We should, for example, note the response of both the Trump administration and the opposition to the recent events in Belarus and the incident with Alexey Navalny. This response was extremely harsh, which already suggests that, instead of constructive proposals on resuming dialogue, the two candidates have “punitive” measures in mind for Russia.

Naturally, we cannot say that there are no sober-minded politicians left in the United States. There are quite a few of them. This is evidenced, in particular, by the recent open letter signed by 103 prominent experts, including former high ranking diplomats, officials and military personnel. The signatories are highly critical of Washington’s current approach to Russia, as it is based solely on fruitless attempts to corner the country and force it to capitulate, and also call on Washington to immediately resume full-fledged diplomatic dialogue with Russia. Sadly, the voices of the realists within the U.S. political elite are not yet as loud as we might like.

One the other hand, we should note that Russia, too, is determined to steer a harsh course in its relations with the United States. Moscow may not be as direct about it as Washington is, but the point still stands. Both capitals are apparently set for a long-term confrontation.

Political and diplomatic subtleties aside, the stances of both sides are ultimately determined by the same logic. It is assumed that any initiative to restore dialogue between the two countries will be seen by the other side as a forced concession, a show of weakness, and any such initiative will therefore only provoke greater pressure. It is thus better to wait, to not change anything, to out-stubborn the opponent—let the other side lose its nerve first, let it take the first step. We have been waiting for such a “first step” for years now, and all we have to show for it is U.S.-Russia relations being at their worst ebb ever. And it will be very difficult to emerge from this crisis.

We all know very well that there are no unsolvable problems in politics and diplomacy. Sooner or later, a solution is always found. Either one side loses, or they both lose. Or, a third option, they manage to take stock of the emerging threats to them in time and come to a compromise that promises a win for both sides.

Finding a compromise on vital issues is always challenging, and since U.S.-Russia relations have been deteriorating for many years and the two countries lack any semblance of mutual confidence, these difficulties are particularly great. However, without such a compromise, the political risks for the United States, Russia and the rest of the world are growing—not even from year to year, but from month to month. This is abundantly clear to experienced international experts, including those who were around during the Cold War. Painstaking consultations are currently taking place at a number of expert platforms, all of which aim to develop recommendations that would make it possible to launch the process of reducing international tensions. The overwhelming majority of experts agree that a positive shift in U.S.-Russia relations could jump-start the process of advancing a healthier global atmosphere.

Admittedly, very few concrete ideas have actually been put forward so far, and for obvious reasons. But ideas and suggestions are out there, and they appear to be quite realistic, taking the interests of both sides into account. We witnessed a statement just like this one from Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan when they said that there could be no winner in a nuclear war. However, confirmation from the Kremlin and the White House in today’s far more complicated and dangerous international situation would certainly have a positive significance. Another proposal involves prolonging the New START immediately and without any pre-conditions, while simultaneously launching intensive consultations on a broad range of strategic stability issues. There are other proposals that are brought to the notice of the political leadership in both countries through various channels.

Based on my own experience, I would like to make the following proposal, which I have already happened to discuss with my American counterparts and which, in my opinion, is still relevant today. Given today’s geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the United States, the two sides focus primarily on security issues, and for obvious reasons. At the same time, an objective analysis of real threats shows that most challenges faced by Russia and the United States today do not come directly from either of the countries, but from third parties. It would thus be wise to hold high-level U.S.-Russia consultations, for example, between the Security Council of Russia and the U.S. National Security Council to assess the perceptions of the two sides of the hierarchy of international threats and challenges. It is possible that such an analysis would not make it possible to arrive at an agreement immediately. Nonetheless, it could open up the prospect of achieving a better understanding of the situation and the operational logic of the other side and, in the future, the prospect of bilateral cooperation, at least in those areas where the parties’ interests coincide.

I would like to cite an example from history. In 1999, at the end of Bill Clinton’s second term in office, Washington was seriously considering withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. Diplomats had arrived at an impasse in their discussions. Russia, then, spearheaded an expanded discussion involving military experts from the two countries. This meeting was held at the Pentagon, and the Russian and U.S. delegations were led by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and the U.S. Secretary of State. As a result of the discussion, the Clinton administration decided to postpone the country’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. Unfortunately, the attempts to salvage the Treaty ultimately failed, as the George W. Bush administration unilaterally pulled out of the agreement in 2002. However, the atmosphere of constructive political dialogue was preserved, which allowed the presidents of Russia and the United States to sign the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Strategic Offensive Reductions (SORT) as early as May 2002.

Attempts to give advice, let alone provide blueprints on handling a particular issue, always run the risk of being criticized. This is clear and understandable. Yet, sometimes, even a negative response to an idea could prove an important incentive for moving forward. While searching for arguments, the critics themselves are forced to take a new look at the problem and highlight nuances that had previously slipped under their radars.

From our partner RIAC

Igor Ivanov
Igor Ivanov
President of the Russian International Affairs Council. Professor of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs (RF MFA). Russian Academy of Sciences Corresponding Member. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation.