How the next U.S. president should manage Russia

April 13, 2016
A participant wears a sticker with the word "Obey!" during an opposition protest on Revolution square in central Moscow February 26, 2012. Thousands of Russians joined hands to form a ring around Moscow city centre on Sunday in protest against Vladimir Putin's likely return as president in an election next week.  REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov (RUSSIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST ELECTIONS POLITICS) - RTR2YGW2

A participant wears a sticker with the word “Obey!” during an opposition protest on Revolution square in central Moscow February 26, 2012. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz calls Russian President Vladimir Putin a “bully and a dictator.” Republican senator and former presidential candidate Marco Rubio says he’s a “gangster.” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton jokes “I don’t admire very much about Mr. Putin.” Even President Barack Obama is not immune from the name calling, describing Putin as “looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom” and taunting him by calling Russia merely a “regional power.”

There’s one problem with all these insults: Assuming he is re-elected in 2018, Putin looks likely to remain president of a resurgent Russia until at least 2024. This requires the next U.S. president to depersonalize the relationship and develop a broader policy framework for managing Russian-American relations, just as George Kennan did when he wrote his famous “Long Telegram” in 1946.

What should this broader policy framework entail today? One possibility lies with the acronym “DCC.” This stands for Define, Contain and Cooperate. Here’s what it means.

Define First, Washington’s interactions vis-a-vis Russia must be defined strictly by American national interests. This means understanding that not every Russian action — however much we may disagree with it — requires an American response. For example, when Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria began, Obama’s lack of response made critics howl that by not responding, Obama demonstrated weakness. Others assert that Putin’s victories in Syria threaten American interests.

These arguments overlook a central fact, though — aside from degrading and defeating Islamic State, the United States possesses no core national security interests in Syria. Yes, Putin arguably “won” in Syria — he saved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, forced the United States to renounce its position that “Assad must go,” established four military bases and demonstrated Russia’s modernized military — but so what? Syria was the Soviet Union’s leading ally in the Middle East, and the United States lived perfectly well with this fact for decades. Indeed, Russia’s intervention may yet help the United States, as Russian air-to-ground bombing allowed Assad’s forces to recapture the key city of Palmyra while also killing 400 Islamic State terrorists. The bottom line is that a Russian “win” doesn’t always mean a United States “loss,” especially if that win does not have an impact on important American interests.

Contain While not every Russian “win” need be interpreted as an American “loss,” some situations do require the United States to push back against Russian threats. In particular, Washington must draw a clear red line regarding any attempt by Moscow to use force against any NATO ally. Washington’s NATO allies in Eastern Europe — particularly in the Baltics — fear this possibility.

As Russia’s relationship with the West began to deteriorate at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Moscow stepped up its efforts to undermine its Baltic neighbors both by high-level intelligence penetration of these states, as well as through numerous military violations of the Baltics’ airspace. Some even worry Russia may one day use force against the Baltics to challenge — and ultimately split — the NATO alliance.

While admitting three small and indefensible countries into NATO was arguably inadvisable, now that they are in the club, the United States remains bound by treaty to defend them. To contain this threat, the United States is therefore right to reinforce its military presence in Eastern Europe via additional armored brigades. While it should not seek out confrontation with Russia, the United States must also not shy away from doing so if Moscow threatens the United States or its NATO allies.

Cooperate Finally, the United States should find ways to cooperate with Russia where our interests overlap — something which occurs far more often than many realize. One critical area with numerous overlapping interests is reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism and proliferation. For example, under the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, the United States spent almost two decades helping Russia diminish the threat of “loose nukes.”

The crisis in Ukraine, however, produced a collapse in Russian-American nuclear security cooperation. The threat remains high. One report documented four separate incidents where Moldovan police stopped criminal networks with suspected Russian ties from smuggling nuclear materials — one of which involved a Russian gang trying to sell nuclear material to Islamic State. Likewise, insider threats and corruption within Russian nuclear facilities continues to exist, and Russia possesses the world’s largest nuclear stockpile with more than 200 buildings and bunkers where highly enriched uranium or plutonium is stored. Not surprisingly, in the majority of cases where nuclear smuggling has been discovered, the material originated in Russia. Given the risk that Islamic State could — as a recent NATO report noted — “go nuclear,” the next president must put the resumption of Russian-American cooperation to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism at the top of their inbox.

Russia was also very helpful in bringing the Iran nuclear deal to fruition last year, according to Western officials, particularly in finding a solution to Iran’s desire for domestic nuclear power. By offering to both build nuclear plants for Iran as well as supply Tehran with all the necessary fuel, Russia creatively eliminated Iran’s rationale for needing a large domestic enrichment capability. Once the deal was signed, even Obama went out of his way to thank Putin for his role in the negotiations.

Moscow also plays a key role implementing the Iran deal. In December, after the deal was signed, Russia took possession of 8.5 tons of Iran’s enriched uranium — including the fuel closest to nuclear bomb-grade quality — leaving Iran without enough enriched uranium to make a bomb even if it wanted to. Since Russia is a member of both the United Nations Security Council and the P5+1, the United States needs to cooperate with Russia to ensure Iran continues to comply with the agreement.

Finally, Washington and Moscow also negotiated New START, the latest nuclear weapons reduction treaty between the two powers. The treaty requires both sides to reduce their deployed offensive nuclear weapons to under 1,550 by February 5, 2018, and includes numerous mutual compliance measures, including on-site visits. The good news is that despite the tensions over Ukraine, the Russian military continues to uphold its end of the bargain. New START remains in force until Feb. 5, 2021, after which a new agreement must be reached. Reaching this follow-on deal should be a top priority for the next president.

They key factor driving all aspects of U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation are the two sides’ shared interests. Both Washington and Moscow want to lower the risk of nuclear terrorism. Neither wishes to see Iran obtain nuclear weapons. And both benefit from reducing their nuclear arsenals. The next administration should promote American interests by cooperating with Russia in other areas such as combatting global warming, fighting narcotics trafficking and stabilizing Afghanistan.

While demonizing Putin makes for good rhetoric, a real policy that seeks to further American interests is a better way to manage the relationship with Russia.

8 comments

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The rotten tomatoes hurled at Putin by Cruz, Rubio and Obama are spot on, but ill-considered, as Cohen writes. But just as importantly, the column highlights one among many compelling reasons why the indiscriminate wave of populist calls for America to retreat behind her sea borders is misguided, potentially tragically misguided. Listen up Sanders and Trump enthusiasts!

Posted by WROZ | Report as abusive

Iran in light of Pakistan, is just a distraction.

Clinton did the most dis-service to the nation by aiding Pakistan to the tune of aiding $3B to $7B per year during Afghanistan war that went mostly to acquire Chinese missiles and building about 100 nuclear bombs to-date and continuing.

This will come-around to bite us – just like the ones we have aided and trained surely, came around to hurt and haunt us. Regrettable reality.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

@mottjr: “Clinton did the most dis-service to the nation by aiding Pakistan to the tune of aiding $3B to $7B per year during Afghanistan war”

You mean Bush, not Clinton. “Afghanistan war” began in late 2001, under George W. Bush.

Posted by Calvin2k | Report as abusive

Russia is on a path to third world status and Putin is relatively unimportant. Greedy fascist dictators will always fail eventually. Russia’s influence and importance is only due to their oil and gas reserves and that will fade as those commodities become less important. The GOP only keeps them in the conversation because they have an old base who still remembers the cold war and are incapable of moving into modern times.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The last President though the Russians loved him. So he ignored Putin. That was a mistake.

The next President, like the last one, should learn how how to deal with Putin. For this time there is no honeymoon – the last one blew that.

Obama is ‘gone’ and Putin is still there, like he was before the ‘changemaster’ showed up.

Posted by Charlesequine | Report as abusive

@Calvin2K: I did mean Clinton as the spike in aid happened in the past 7 years as can be seen at – www.cgdev.org/page/aid-pakistan-numbers

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

‘Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton jokes “I don’t admire very much about Mr. Putin.” Even President Barack Obama is not immune from the name calling, describing Putin as “looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom” and taunting him by calling Russia merely a “regional power.”’
This is exactly how we’re treating Russia and Putin and how we should continue to treat them, like the joke that they are. Russia’s economy is in the toilet along with any respect he may have once had around the world. They are in the process of fading and drying on the vine of relevance.
The GOP seems to want to build up Russia’s relevance, don’t put these fools in office.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

Mottjr complains about the aid given to Pakistan. Maybe the aid ticked up under Clinton, but they only have nukes because of Ronnie the senile actor Reagan. This is why political point scoring doesn’t work on an issue that the parties agree on.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive