The breakdown in relationship between the United States and Russia is not new and it cannot be fixed quickly, or easily. This unending discord is a product of long-standing disagreements on the fundamentals of each country’s national security interests and policies. Although improved personal ties between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin may be useful, yet they are not enough. Better US-Russia relations are impossible sans a major course correction by either or both sides. It is unlikely that Putin will compromise on core Russian interests. So, the Trump administration must come out of the fancies of having breakthroughs or grand bargains with Moscow; instead, the principal focus should be on managing a volatile relationship with an increasingly emboldened and unpredictable Russian leadership.
Turbulent events over the past year have compounded the already difficult problem of fashioning a sustainable long-term US policy toward Russia. The unprecedented presidential campaign in the United States, the British vote to leave the European Union (EU), and the rise of nationalist, populist, and anti-globalization forces elsewhere in Europe have formed a very different strategic landscape. The new US administration will confront an exceedingly complex set of challenges. These include a global re-balancing of economic, political and military power; a vast region in turmoil from North Africa to China’s western border; and uncertainty about the most important US relationships with allies and partners in Europe and Asia.
Russia looms especially large on this landscape, and the task of formulating a sustainable policy toward Russia has risen to the top of the national security agenda for the new US administration.
In redefining the terms of US-Russia engagement and balancing a relationship that will continue to be based on a fragile and uneasy mix of competition, adversity and occasional cooperation, the Trump administration needs to be careful in its dealings with Kremlin on the outstanding issues. It should avoid putting all issues on the table immediately in an effort to achieve some grand bargain or a breakthrough in the relationship, and instead should try to make incremental progress on specific topics. It will also need to set, and stick to, priorities, accurately gauge the leverage it has to influence Moscow’s behaviour in a positive direction, and consider the consequences of how Russia and even more importantly US allies, in Europe and the Asia Pacific, will respond to Trump administration’s efforts to put relations with Russia on a better footing.
For the past three years, the West, including the United States, and Russia have been drifting toward a state of affairs resembling Cold War II. The confrontation may lack the geopolitical and ideological scope of Cold War I, but the risk of a conflict has increased significantly, notwithstanding the positive tone struck by Presidents Trump and Putin. The US and its allies, as well as all the countries in the zone of competition between the West and Russia, would benefit if this downward spiral could be reversed. The prospects for doing so will hinge on two factors. First, Moscow will have to decide whether it is ready to improve relations with the West instead of relying on foreign policy adventures and anti-Western propaganda to divert attention from domestic challenges. The second, and more important, factor has to do with the terms of the deal that can be struck between Russia and the West. In setting these terms, the Trump administration should adhere to the following four principles for US and Western policy toward Russia and its neighbours.
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