Two conditions are clear as the U.S. and Russian Presidents prepare meet in Helsinki. First, U.S.-Russian relations are arguably at their lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. To make matters worse, it is possible that relations have not hit rock bottom. Mutual trust between the two countries is gone at all levels- as is mutual respect and a willingness to hear one another out. The hard-won basis of strategic stability that was achieved over decades of arms control negotiations during the Cold War is now coming apart at the seams.
The Russians regard U.S. development of Ballistic Missile Defense as a strategic threat to Russia. The U.S. regards Russian countermoves as a violation of the terms of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Two decades of NATO expansion closer to Russian borders has provoked the Russians to invade Ukraine and annex Crimea back into the Russian fold. Differences have thwarted cooperation, even in areas of clear common interest, such as counterterrorism, resolving the Syrian conflict, and working together on broader issues affecting regional and global security.
Second, both presidents have domestic realities that constrain their flexibility to achieve compromise in the many areas that have caused relations to falter. Donald Trump is dogged by the perception that he is smitten with Putin, too eager to deal with a Russian leader that has shown very little restraint in targeting the heart of U.S. democracy and in challenging the U.S. globally. The Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential campaign also will provoke inevitable questions about any flexibility the U.S. president might be inclined to offer in a bid to jump start relations. Whether by design, or as a consequence of his aggressive projection of Russian power, Vladimir Putin is playing a zero sum game in which any U.S. success is perceived as a setback for Russia, and any Russian success is seen as a setback for the U.S.. This mutual pattern of tit-for-tat behavior will be hard to reverse, but especially for Putin; being tough has enhanced his popularity at home and restored Russia’s stature abroad.
Having set the stage for the summit with this bleak analysis of current bilateral relations, what hope is there for significant progress being made to improve U.S.-Russian relations? It would be unrealistic, and in fact counterproductive to expect immediate results. In the past, U.S.-Russian negotiations were never spontaneous or impulsive. Cooperation was built step-by-step on the basis of personal and professional relationships, tedious process, and inexhaustible patience. Based on the history of summit meetings, success this time around will be defined not by what happens during the meeting, but in terms of defining a rigorous, patient, creative process as a foundation to implement presidential decisions and intentions.
What key factors will determine the ultimate success of the Trump-Putin summit?
Both sides must recognize the need to improve relations. At present, there seems to be no sense of urgency to address this dangerous low in working-level bilateral relations. The U.S. and Russia seem to have forgotten that they share a responsibility to manage the existential threat of nuclear weapons that the two superpowers ushered into the world. Channels of communication have been eliminated or substantially reduced. High level contacts have been cut back, increasing the risks of miscalculation and misunderstanding. Sanctions and Congressional legislation have restricted necessary dialogue to reduce sources of conflict on a military to military plane and between special services (Russian term for intelligence agencies).
Serious efforts must also be made to address the lack of mutual trust. In the current toxic environment, no official of rank or stature is going to go out on a limb in an effort to cooperate with the other side. What percentage is there in taking such a risk? Even the most experienced, “old” U.S. and Russia hands, to the extent they exist anymore, would find it hard to build a case to justify taking risks on behalf of this dysfunctional relationship. It is a basic fact of how governments work that no meaningful cooperation, whether it concern the strategic balance, cyber threats, Ukraine and NATO, Syria or counterterrorism, is possible without making a serious investment in people and resources.
This raises the quintessential question: Who will underwrite the risks of U.S.-Russian cooperation? History has demonstrated that only the authority of the president is sufficient to drive cooperation between these two reluctant partners: Top-down driven leadership is a must. Any review of the outcome of the summit process during the Reagan-Gorbachev years would buttress the argument that written, specific, detailed presidential decisions represent the only mechanism capable of stimulating a process of cooperation sufficiently strong to weather the trust deficit, risk aversion, and the inevitable ups and downs that characterize the U.S.-Russian relationship. This is especially true in bureaucracies charged with the mission of defending our respective national security interests, which on many issues, painfully diverge.
Once clear and decisive decisions have been made at the highest level, organizations bearing responsibilities to implement these directives, e.g., the State Department, Defense Department, and Intelligence Community, must be tasked to work effectively with their Russian counterparts, and vice versa. Progress must be continuously monitored. Success must be rewarded. Setting aside whether either party has the courage to commit to such close cooperation today, even if pressured from on high, it is questionable whether U.S. and Russian national security possess the dedicated capabilities, capacity and experience necessary to succeed.
Frankly, it has been a very long time since presidents intervened to shake up recalcitrant and moribund liaison relationships. Ironically, some of the most impressive stories of successful bilateral cooperation occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, at a time when both sides sensed history’s call to narrow long and bitter differences. U.S. and Russian nuclear security cooperation was a stunning exemplar of success in this regard. In addition, two successive Directors of Central Intelligence, Robert Gates and James Woolsey, traveled to Moscow in the two years following the fall of the Soviet Empire. Both emissaries carried letters from the President containing bold specific actions that the U.S. requested of the Russians. The CIA and KGB saluted and carried out their instructions with determination and professionalism.
In the intervening decades, however, there have been fewer such success stories and rare best practices to draw upon for inspiration. A generation of Cold Warriors has departed the scene. These hardliners who understood the boundaries of confrontation and cooperation were not replaced. Today’s diplomats, military and intelligence officers have turned to new pursuits. Resources devoted to US-Russian relations have been diverted to new priorities.
Consequently, the rules of the game, the tradecraft, processes and infrastructure that the U.S. and Russia relied upon in the Cold War to pursue cooperation and smooth over differences must be rebuilt to meet the requirements of our new world. The restoration of relations will take time, require patience, and demand a commitment to the painstaking process of building a capacity for cooperation. Most of all, any improvement in relations will require top-down driven decision-making in order to sustain dialogue and promote the courage needed at all levels to take uncommon risks on behalf of a common cause.