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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Opinion | No, Now Is Not the Time for Another Russia Reset


The authors and signers of the open letter calling for a “rethink” of America’s Russia policy that was published in Politico Magazine on August 5 include people we know, like and respect. We agree that U.S.-Russia relations are in a poor state. But we disagree strongly about the reasons why and what should be done in response. Our colleagues’ arguments require forceful response.

We are a bipartisan group of former diplomats, military and intelligence professionals, and experts who have worked on Russia issues for decades. We believe firmly that now is not—as the letter’s authors suggest—the time for another reset with Moscow. Rather, the actions and behavior of Vladimir Putin’s regime pose a threat to American interests and values, requiring strong pushback.

While the United States is not blameless for the current state of U.S.-Russia relations, the authors fail to make clear that the main responsibility lies with the Putin regime. Since President George H.W. Bush, every American administration has tried to establish good relations with Russia. But since Putin came to power, the Russian side has not reciprocated these overtures in a serious, sustained way. Putin is more interested in portraying the United States as Russia’s greatest enemy—to justify his repressive control at home—than he is in improving bilateral relations.

By arguing that it is the United States and not Russia that needs a “change of our current course,” the authors of the open letter get it exactly backward and give Putin too much leeway to continue his dangerous and reckless behavior.

The authors urge the United States to engage with Russia through “a serious and sustained strategic dialogue that addresses the deeper sources of mistrust and hostility and at the same time focuses on the large and urgent security challenges facing both countries.” They also argue in favor of the restoration of normal diplomatic contacts between the two countries to minimize “misperceptions and miscalculations.” But there has been no shortage of U.S.-Russian dialogue, including about nuclear capabilities. And U.S. representatives have regularly engaged their Russian counterparts on Afghanistan, Iran, Ukraine, Syria, nuclear issues and more. We have full diplomatic relations, even if both sides have engaged in tit-for-tat expulsions reducing the size of each other’s embassy staffing.

The lack of results is not for lack of trying. It’s hard to negotiate with the other side when Moscow refuses to admit that its forces invaded Crimea and Donbas and still are present there; is complicit in shooting down a civilian airliner resulting in the deaths of 298 passengers and crew; lies about interfering in America’s 2016 elections; commits human rights abuses in Syria and props up the murderous Assad regime there; and kills Russian critics in Western countries with highly dangerous radioactive and chemical agents. Until Putin is ready to address his complicity in these actions, further dialogue won’t go very far. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to do “normal” diplomacy when the Russians use their diplomatic posts for troublemaking, not for clearing up misperceptions.

The authors also argue for a more flexible, targeted sanctions regime that can be eased “quickly in exchange for Russian steps that advance negotiations toward acceptable resolutions of outstanding conflicts.” But what are “acceptable resolutions” to outstanding conflicts? Ruling out NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia? Consigning Crimea to Russian control? Ignoring the ugly human rights situation inside Russia? Any “rethink” involving such trade-offs is not worth pursuing.

The authors declare it “unwise to think that we have no choice but to stick with current policy.” That, of course, assumes there is a current policy, but under the current administration, there is merely confusion, not a coherent strategy. Some of the current administration’s actions are laudable—providing lethal military assistance to Ukraine, beefing up the American military presence in the Baltics and Poland, maintaining sanctions under congressional pressure—while others, like the recently announced withdrawal of American troops from Germany, play into Putin’s hands. Trump’s posture toward Putin and refusal to confront or even criticize the Russian leader on anything—from election interference to alleged Russian bounties against American soldiers in Afghanistan—undercut any claim that the United States is taking too hard a line against Moscow.

America’s ability to bring about change in Russia might be very limited. But to resign ourselves to dealing with Russia “as it is, not as we wish it to be,” as the authors argue—that is, accepting Russia’s repression, kleptocracy and aggression—would provide no incentive for Putin to change. Instead, it would convey an over-eagerness on the American side for better relations, which Putin would exploit.

Such a stance also runs counter to America’s values, interests and principles, and, just as importantly, fails to keep faith with the Russian people as their patience with the regime runs thin. Putin’s poll numbers have declined over the past year, protests have risen up in the Far East, and the recent nationwide vote needed to be rigged to enable Putin to serve potentially 16 more years. Putin feels he needs to stimulate and exploit nationalist sentiment to maintain his grip on power. But contrary to the letter writers’ claim that “Russia, under Vladimir Putin, operates within a strategic framework deeply rooted in nationalist traditions that resonate with elites and the public alike,” only 3 percent of Russians consider the United States an enemy, according to a Levada Center survey from earlier this year. Putin increasingly is out of touch with the Russian people.

Instead of resetting relations with the Putin regime, here’s what America should do:

• Recognize the Putin regime’s corruption, aggression toward neighboring states, increased muscle-flexing and repression at home as threats.

• Provide the American public with timely, more in-depth information regarding Russia’s actions.

• Work with our allies, especially NATO and the European Union, to contain and confront this threat.

• Differentiate the Russian regime from the Russian people writ large, and prioritize support for civil society and those who, at great risk to themselves, are advocating for their fundamental rights.

• Maintain, even enhance, sanctions unless and until Putin withdraws all his forces from Ukraine, including Crimea; does the same in Georgia; stops Russian cyberattacks and interference in a provable way in our elections and domestic politics; ends arrests of Americans in Russia on spurious charges; and stops human rights abuses against the Russian people.

• Target Russian corruption by keeping dirty Russian money out of the United States, where it pollutes our financial, real estate and other markets.

• Bolster Russia’s neighbors through military, diplomatic and economic support, and back those interested in pursuing a Euro-Atlantic orientation.

• Work with the Russian government on arms control and nonproliferation, but recognize that Moscow has violated a number of agreements on those issues in the past.

America should signal our readiness to work with a Russian government only when it is clear that Moscow doesn’t view the United States as the enemy and is interested in doing its part to change its policies and behavior to advance relations. Until that time, we must avoid pointless, endless dialogue that never resolves problems and instead push back firmly and consistently against Putin’s threatening actions. This entails closer cooperation with our allies in containing Putin, tougher sanctions, greater support for Russia’s neighbors, clear backing for Russian civil society and stronger measures against Russian corruption (which the open letter fails to mention). The letter writers argue that we should “strive to put the relationship on a more constructive path.” If only Putin were interested in the same thing.

Victor Ashe
Former U.S. ambassador to Poland


Anders Aslund
Senior fellow, Atlantic Council


Ian Brzezinski
Former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO policy


Debra Cagan
Distinguished energy fellow, Transatlantic Leadership Network


Ralph Clem
Maj. Gen. USAF (Ret.)
Emeritus professor, Florida International University


Heather Conley
Former deputy assistant secretary of State for European & Eurasian affairs


Susan Corke
Senior fellow, German Marshall Fund and director of Transatlantic Democracy Working Group


Charles Davidson
Publisher, The American Interest


Orest Deychakiwsky
Former senior policy adviser, Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission)


Larry Diamond
Senior fellow, Hoover Institution
Senior fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies


Norm Eisen
Former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic


Evelyn Farkas
Former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia


Jamie Fly
Former president, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty


Jeff Gedmin
Former president, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty


Steven L. Hall
Former member of the Senior Intelligence Service, CIA


Melinda Haring
Deputy director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council


John Herbst
Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council
Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and to Uzbekistan


Mark Hertling
Lt. Gen. (Ret.), former commander, U.S. Army Europe


Ben Hodges
Lt. Gen. (Ret.), former commander, U.S. Army Europe
Pershing chair in strategic studies, Center for European Policy Analysis


Don Jensen


Jonathan Katz
Former deputy assistant administrator, Europe and Eurasia bureau, USAID
Director of Democracy Initiatives, German Marshall Fund of the United States


Richard Kauzlarich
Former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and to Bosnia-Hercegovina


Ian Kelly
Former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and to Georgia


John Kornblum
Former U.S. assistant secretary of State for European & Eurasian affairs
Former U.S. ambassador to Germany


David J. Kramer
Former assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor
Senior fellow, Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, Florida International University


Molly McKew
Writer


David A. Merkel, former deputy assistant secretary of State for European & Eurasian affairs
Former director, National Security Council


Marc Polymeropoulos
Senior Intelligence Service, Directorate of Operations, CIA (retired)


Benjamin L. Schmitt
Harvard postdoctoral fellow
Former European energy security adviser, U.S. Department of State


John Sipher
Former member of the Senior Intelligence Service, CIA


William Taylor
Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine


Kurt Volker
Former U.S. ambassador to NATO and U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations
Distinguished fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis


Brian Whitmore
Senior fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis
Founder and host of Power Vertical podcast


Note: All signers are acting in their personal capacity. Institutional affiliations are listed for purposes of identification only and do not imply institutional support for the content of the letter.


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