Russia’s annexation of Crimea, intervention in eastern Ukraine, and meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election have escalated distrust and rancor between the U.S. and Russia to levels unprecedented since the Cold War. For two decades, President Vladimir Putin has driven a resurgent Russia to assert its interests globally, often in conflict with the U.S.
But my 30 years in government, including with the CIA and focused largely on assessing and countering Russia’s threats to U.S. national security, have taught me the possibilities and value of cooperation, however circumscribed, even in times of extreme acrimony.
Certainly the United States must continue to confront Russia whenever necessary to defend its national security interests. Yet President Donald Trump’s Nov. 20 phone call with Putin contained the kernels of substantive engagement in several areas.
While partnership with Russia on Syria has too many pitfalls to justify the strategic risk to the U.S., the Trump administration should consider three areas for collaboration: North Korea; arms control and targeted intelligence exchanges. The U.S. also should recognize that, even inside Russia’s autocracy, there might be power brokers useful to the U.S. who could be spared punitive sanctions in favor of longer-term interests.
First, the area where cooperation with Putin is unlikely to outweigh the pitfalls: Syria. Clearly Putin has sought to impose the very military solution that he accuses the Obama and Trump administrations of seeking to impose. Ever since his military intervention began in 2015 with military strikes against Syrian opposition forces and a Faustian alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, Putin’s goal has not been his declared intent of countering ISIS, but rather ensuring that Assad remains in power and protecting Russia’s strategic position in the Middle East.
The result has transformed Syria into a petri dish for Sunni and Shi’a extremism and produced a humanitarian catastrophe. Last month, Russia cast its 10th veto of United Nations Security Council action on Syria since 2011, blocking a U.S. resolution to renew an international inquiry into chemical weapons attacks in Syria. While maintaining a dialogue with Russia to deconflict military operations has merit, U.S. counterterrorism policy would be aided more by coordinating with the Gulf States and Turkey and by continuing precision targeting of ISIS.
But one area of cooperation that could be more promising for the U.S. is North Korea. Putin rebuilt Moscow’s previously longstanding relationship with North Korea, which had lapsed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin has maintained strategic support and an economic lifeline for Pyongyang, with an eye towards blocking regime change. Financial backing has included the abhorrent policy of paying for North Korean slave labor.
Seeking to counter the U.S. on the Korean Peninsula, Putin has demanded the U.S. freeze military exercises with South Korea in return for a North Korean halt of nuclear tests. But while Russia is concerned about U.S. defense collaboration with South Korea, it also worries about North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites, which are only a few hundred kilometers from Russian territory.
The U.S. push for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula would be a bridge too far for Putin, however much he might deliver perfunctory rhetorical support. But the U.S. could use Russia’s economic leverage and relationship with North Korea’s leadership to achieve some limited de-escalation, such as a halt to North Korea’s nuclear weapons development and long-range missile testing. Likewise, Putin does not believe sanctions will cause North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, but Russia has voted at the U.N. Security Council to support sanctions against North Korea.
Arms control, writ large, is another area of potential cooperation with Russia, despite its well-known violations in recent years. Russia remains the only country in the world capable of destroying the United States. Yet, in a meeting with Secretary of State Tillerson in April 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed Moscow’s interest in resuming “pragmatic” dialogue on arms control.
Washington should press for limits on nuclear weapons, while enhancing transparency and predictability to minimize the risk of a first-use scenario. Contentious issues include Russia’s violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and Russia’s objections to U.S. missile defense in Europe.
The U.S. and Russia also need to decide whether to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years beyond its February 2021 expiration. Arms control is a key element of U.S. security and arguably even more vital when bilateral relations are as contentious as they are now.
A third area of mutual interest for the two nations is their intelligence channel, which has been a valuable conduit for sharing information and resolving differences without risking collateral damage to the bilateral relationship.
In July 2010, for example, CIA Director Leon Panetta and his counterpart at Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Mikhail Fradkov, negotiated a spy swap. It involved the repatriation of 10 Russian deep-cover intelligence officer “illegals” in return for Russia freeing four of its citizens who had been imprisoned in Siberian labor camps. U.S. and Russian intelligence services can derive mutual benefit from intelligence exchanges on counterterrorism, counter-narcotics and counter-proliferation.
Finally, it will be important for the U.S. to sift carefully as it applies sanctions to pressure the Putin regime over its military aggression and espionage.
In February 2018, the Trump administration will produce a list of Russian businessmen who will be sanctioned under the Countering America’s Adversaries Act. A strategy of pinpoint targeting – a kind of Hippocratic oath of doing no harm to those Russians who do not support the Kremlin’s aggressive anti-Western policies – could offer some hope for both sides of restoring a more productive relationship between the U.S. and Russia in the future.