Donald Trump will take office at the lowest point in Washington’s relations with Moscow since the end of the Cold War. He has consistently talked about the need to establish a better relationship with Mr. Putin. Can he do that in a way that serves American interests?
The key to successful foreign policy is understanding the major challenges and opportunities that await a new Administration. With Russia, the Trump Administration faces a great challenge. President Putin is a revisionist who wants to overturn the post-Cold War order that we helped establish in Eurasia. That order has been essential to the peace and prosperity that we have enjoyed over the past 25 years.
Mr. Putin has gone about this by conducting a war against Georgia in 2008, seizing Crimea in 2014, and running a not-so-covert war against Ukraine in the Donbas. He has also conducted regular provocations against our Baltic allies and has stated that the same principles that he used to justify his aggression in Ukraine – the alleged need to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers – apply elsewhere. Mr. Putin’s aim is to undermine NATO and the EU, which is very much against our interests. Moscow’s hacking operation during our Presidential elections, like its support for radical parties of both the right and left in Europe, underscore its desire to undermine democracy.
President-elect Trump is right to claim that his predecessors in the White House did not respond strongly to the Kremlin’s aggressions in Georgia and Ukraine – and its 2007 massive cyber-attack on Estonia. This has only whetted Mr. Putin’s appetite for additional adventure. At the same time, the Obama Administration belittled Russia as a regional power, a gratuitous slight that was both inaccurate and galling to the Kremlin.
Mr. Trump can set relations with Moscow on a new, sounder basis by publicly acknowledging Russia’s status as a great power, but also as a great challenge to core American interests. He can invite President Putin to an early summit of the two great nuclear powers to discuss security in Europe and Eurasia and the Middle East; but he should take the advice of Rex Tillerson, his nominee as Secretary of State, and take measures to ensure that he can meet with Mr. Putin from a position of strength.
President-elect Trump has begun to do that by talking about increasing defense spending and enhancing our nuclear arsenal. But he needs to let Mr. Putin know that he recognizes and will work to blunt Moscow’s efforts to destabilize Europe. That starts with clear support for recent NATO decisions to enhance NATO’s deterrence capability in Eastern Europe; but the current lynchpin of Kremlin efforts to undermine European security is eastern Ukraine. This is where the U.S. needs to withstand Kremlin expansionism. Without saying a word, Washington can send a clear message to Moscow by clandestinely providing Ukraine with anti-tank and anti-air missiles that would make the Russian military pay a much higher price for further aggression in Ukraine.
In addition, the Trump Administration should quietly extend sanctions on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine when they come up for renewal in March. While those sanctions have not persuaded Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine, they have cost the Russian economy 1 to 1.5% of GDP in 2015 according to Russian and IMF economists. That hit means Russia has less capacity for pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. It would be naïve to give this up for nothing.
With a strong position established, Mr. Trump can have a serious conversation with Mr. Putin about improving bilateral relations. He can talk about an overarching deal to bring peace to Europe by ending Moscow’s war in the Donbas. The outlines of the deal are the withdrawal of Russian troops and military equipment from Ukraine; full Ukrainian control of its side of the border with Russia; local control of the occupied territories on a transparent and democratic basis consistent with Ukrainian law and practice; and an end to Western sanctions on Russia, and Russian sanctions on Ukraine and other European countries.
Mr. Trump can also offer to re-establish a channel for military-to-military communication designed to avert and manage crises. This channel should be used to establish ground rules for encounters between U.S. and Russian warplanes and ships. We should also express our willingness to renew a dialogue on both conventional arms deployments in Europe and nuclear weapons.
Mr. Trump should also test the thus-far unproven proposition that Moscow can help us confront ISIL and, more broadly, radical Islamic terrorism. In Syria, Moscow’s military has been deployed largely against the moderate and weak opposition, whom the West supports, while the U.S. has struck effectively against ISIL. But the President-elect may find it harder to get Russian cooperation on ISIL if he seeks to upend the nuclear deal with Iran. It might be better for him to see if the Kremlin would help negotiate better terms for the deal with Tehran and persuade Iran to cease its support for terrorist activities throughout the region.
Donald Trump claims to be the deal maker par excellence. His first meeting with President Putin will give him a chance to demonstrate that, but only if he understands and advances the core American interests at stake, especially in Europe.