Trump, Russia and a narrow window of opportunity

July 3, 2017

When Presidents Putin and Trump meet in a few days from now in Hamburg, they should use a narrow window of opportunity to stop the freefall of the bilateral relationship and make progress at least in some of the following areas (as I suggested as early as in December 2016, prior to Trump’s inauguration):

First, they should aim to work together against terrorism. The potential for such cooperation emerged 15 years ago after 9/11 – and incidentally, there was also a Republican administration in Washington at the time. That huge potential, however, was left untapped. In fact, it has now been completely sidelined amid squabbling over which parties in Syria should be regarded as terrorists. Trump has both the opportunity and the need to rise above that nonsensical bickering initiated by his predecessor, define the goals America shares with Russia, designate common targets, and start striking those targets together. After all, international terrorism is the enemy at the gate for both our countries. It is in US and Russia’s shared national interests to strike that enemy down – which is entirely possible if Russia and the United States pool their resources.

Second, Putin and Trump should do their utmost to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. A solid foundation has already been laid for efforts in this area. In 1968, despite the confrontation over the deployment of Soviet troops to Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and the United States became the founding fathers of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPT has even been called by some a Soviet-American condominium, even though it now has more than 180 members. We are living in a new century and a new millennium; many milestones have come and gone, but the treaty is still alive and bearing fruit (suffice to recall the recent diplomatic taming of the Iranian nuclear program). Nevertheless, a new Cold War between Russia and the West could well lead to cracks appearing in the treaty’s foundation. Nuclear proliferation is equally dangerous for both our countries. Trump and Putin should pool their efforts to keep the NPT afloat. 

Third, preventing an arms race in cyberspace should become their joint  priority. The Americans are exploring it in exactly the same way they once explored the Wild West. They were the first player to enter that game, and they now believe that might makes right, refusing to accept any rules of engagement whatsoever. Edward Snowden’s revelations, which left everyone somewhat shell-shocked, were merely the tip of the iceberg. Come to think of it, the American whistleblower (who still lives in Russia, and who is still regarded as a criminal in the United States, although that can yet change) blew up Russian-U.S. relations to a no lesser degree than the crisis in Ukraine did. The only difference is that the detonation took place underground and thus remained mostly invisible to a casual observer. It did, however, have some very damaging visible effects, such as President Obama’s decision to cancel his visit to Russia. And lately, Russia itself has been accused of making mischief in U.S. cyberspace. It is important for everyone to stop before we pass the point of no return. The situation in cyberspace is far too close to a war of everyone against everyone else. It is not by accident that the World Economic Forum has already highlighted cybersecurity as one of the key threats facing our planet. Putin and Trump have all the reasons to take a joint lead in producing binding international rules of the game in this area.

Fourth, Russia and the United Stated can work together on putting out the various conflagrations in the Middle East. Donald Trump is free of the baggage of the previous administrations. He can rethink America’s policy on Syria, Libya, and Iraq. He can distance himself from the aggressive and unhinged Saudi Arabia. For its own part, Moscow would surely be prepared to listen to the same people in Israel who now have Donald Trump’s ear. Trump may yet slip on the Middle Eastern problem, just like many Republican and Democrat presidents did before him. It would be very worrying if his current harsh rhetoric on Iran were to begin translating into actual policy. After all, Iran could be a valuable partner for both Russia and the United States in fighting terrorism and reducing the potential for conflict in the Middle East. Otherwise, Russia’s and America’s paths in the region will have to diverge.

Fifth and last (but not least), the two countries should put an end to their puerile exchange of sanctions and countersanctions, and begin revitalizing their trade, economic, and humanitarian cooperation. To remain relevant to each other, and to keep the cord of bilateral strategic cooperation from snapping, Russia and the United States must be closely tied together (but not hidebound, as is the case with America and China) by trade. A bilateral lobby based on mutual economic interest will prevent another acrimonious split between our two countries. Meanwhile, based on the statistics for the first eight months of 2016, Russia sells about as much of its goods and services to America as it does to Kazakhstan or Poland. Its imports twice as much stuff from Germany and three times as much from China as it does from the United States. As for humanitarian cooperation, it should begin from youth and journalistic exchanges. It is important for these exchanges to be bilateral; there has been so much scaremongering on both sides in recent years. 

The above list of five priority areas of cooperation to restore strategic dialogue between Moscow and Washington is not exhaustive. But these are the areas that hold a realistic promise of success – and I have no interest in theorizing about pies in the sky. Real progress, however, will require a political will on both sides – and yes, it will require a Reset. The word has been ridiculed within an inch of its life, and rightly so. Well, no problem here: we can find a new word, or a well-forgotten old one (what about détente?) The point, however, is that we need a genuine – and not merely verbal – reset of our bilateral relations.

A reset will be required on both sides. There can be no unilateral resets, they are nothing but illusion.

Speaking of illusions, I would like to make something very clear. We can reasonably hope for the toning down of our confrontation with the United States. We can lay the ground for future progress in specific individual areas. But let us not forget one thing: Russia and America are bound by their joint responsibility as the two nuclear superpowers for the future of the mankind – but they are also bound to be antagonists on the 21st-century international arena. Our countries’ national interests will continue to diverge more often than not. Our views of the international system, the world order, truth, and justice, are diametrically opposed. Trump or Clinton are mere details in the greater scheme of things, in which Russia and Trumplinton’s America have very different paths.