If anything positive can be said to emerge from the alarming revelations of Russian meddling in our presidential election, it is that the blowback seems to have forced President Donald Trump to back away from the cozy relationship he was trying to develop with Vladimir Putin. Yet we also need to avoid a dangerous slide toward confrontation. Having negotiated with Russians during my diplomatic career, I know we must deal with Russia, and we need a set of guiding principles to move us forward.
First, we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that the problems we face with Russia are the result of blunders by past U.S. administrations. The Russia we see today is a result of what Russians have done, and it is the Russia we will be dealing with for some time to come.
Second, we should stop telling Russians what their interests should be and understand better how Russians see their interests, and deal with that reality. Winston Churchill famously said that “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” but we tend to forget the line that followed: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
Russian interests are not that hard to fathom. Russians want to be free of outside interference in their internal affairs. They want to exercise de facto control over the “near abroad,” especially Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union, and they want to extend their influence to Eastern Europe. They want to divide Europe and to divide Europe from the United States, and they want to be treated as a great power. This is the short list of Russian interests to which virtually every Russian leader would subscribe.
Americans do not agree with many of those interests, nor should we. Some of them we should vigorously oppose. But we can take them as a starting point for a more realistic dialogue with Russia, focusing particularly on flash points.
For example, we could ratchet back some of our support for domestic opposition groups inside Russia – a flash point for Russians. In return, Putin must cease his cyberwar against the U.S. and its allies – a flash point for us.
Next, we could signal our acknowledgment (even if not our endorsement) of Russia’s interests in its immediate neighborhood, but we would make it clear that the Baltic states and other countries of Eastern Europe, as NATO allies, are in a different category. Russia must keep hands off if it wishes to avoid a military collision with the West.
We maintained manageable relations with Russia, and before that with the Soviet Union, for years. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the U.S.-Soviet intermediate nuclear forces treaty. It is a reminder that deals can be struck even with adversaries, and that the two nuclear superpowers, despite their differences, can manage their relationship to avoid a potentially devastating conflict.
But Russia crossed a threshold in 2014, with the annexation of Crimea and a campaign, still ongoing, to destabilize Ukraine. The aim of U.S. policy should be to restore the status quo ante: to return to the U.S.-Russian relationship that existed before 2014, rather than see it continue to plummet downward.
The aim should be not a strategic partnership but a strategic understanding with the one country on the planet that could pose an existential threat to the U.S. Our interests diverge in many ways, but they converge in some, such as avoiding nuclear proliferation, combatting terrorism and maintaining a balance of power in Europe and Asia.
This means that we need to play the long game, as Russians do. It also means that we must forge the closest possible relations with our European and Asian allies, so that we speak and act with one accord, and that we must maintain stable and predictable relations with the other major world power, China.
It is unlikely that the Trump administration can pull off such as patient strategy, but we can at least hope that the backlash in Congress will prevent the administration from taking us down a naïve and dangerous road. This is a relationship that calls for a combination of toughness and skillful diplomacy, not impulsive amateurism.
Robert Hutchings is the Walt and Elspeth Rostow Chair in National Security at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin and was dean of the school from 2010 to 2015. He is a former U.S. ambassador and a former chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council.
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