On Russia we need diplomacy, not just sanctions

It has become commonplace to observe that relations between the United States and Russia have rarely been worse. Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, its efforts to intervene in American elections and the nerve gas attack in Britain have lead Washington to let relations slide to Cold War lows. Ties between the two countries resemble the dangerous days of the early 1960s and early 1980s. Ambassadors in both capitals are isolated, American senators who travel to Moscow are excoriated back home, and senior level summits are greeted with suspicion bordering on paranoia. Relations are so bad that the imposition of economic sanctions has replaced diplomacy as America’s primary tool for dealing with Moscow.

As is often the case in Washington, policy-makers see relations with Russia through the prism of the origins of World War II, the belief that appeasement led to catastrophe. But an alternative lesson can be derived from the origins of World War I and of the Korean War—that a lack of clear communication can also lead to miscalculation and conflict. In fact, the two previous periods of frozen relations between Moscow and Washington almost ended in catastrophe. The first, in the early 1960s, concluded with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. During the second period of great tension in the early 1980s, the Kremlin, irrationally suspicious of the Reagan administration, shot down a South Korean airliner in the midst of the American deployment of cruise missiles in Europe. Soon after, they perceived the “Able Archer” NATO military exercise in 1983 as the beginning of a pre-emptive American nuclear attack. This led them to put their own strategic forces on a state of alert that, with further miscalculation, might have resulted in a nuclear exchange.

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After both those cases, Presidents Kennedy and Reagan realized that deeper and more regular communications were required to avoid such crises. This summer’s visit to Moscow by Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyTrump signs first 'minibus' spending package for 2019 Congress reaches deal to fund government through Dec. 7, preventing shutdown Senate approves first 2019 spending package MORE’s (R-Ala.) congressional delegation, and a separate trip by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), were both undertaken with that thought in mind. Both raised issues of disagreement – from interference in our elections to Ukraine – but both looked to establish areas of discussion and even cooperation between the two countries. This more “balanced” approach was the one ultimately followed by successive administrations in dealings with Moscow beginning half a century ago.

At President Reagan’s behest, this happened in the mid-1980s, after a series of war scares. That didn't mean that the Reagan administration accepted what it had always found objectionable about the Kremlin’s behavior - many of Reagan’s hard-line policies continued until he left office - but both sides realized that, to avoid possibly disastrous miscalculation, relations had to be kept within certain boundaries. Thus, Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, began a regular dialogue with his Russian counterparts focused on a four-part agenda – arms control, regional issues, economic cooperation, and human rights. This agenda, with some updating, remains relevant today. There have been no meaningful arms control negotiations with the Russians for almost a decade - the longest such period in 50 years. Today’s regional issues such as Syria and Ukraine are important subjects for discussion and resolution. Economic issues are currently addressed only through piling on sanctions. Sadly, human rights remain an issue in Russia, and interference in elections should surely be added to this portion of the agenda.

Pursuing a set of issues for discussion between the two countries’ leaders would require a coherent framework and an energetic diplomatic work plan by both sides. The deliberate policy process to produce such a plan would require discipline and focus within the Trump administration. As several analysts since Helsinki have noted, the administration looks inconsistent and incoherent in its attitude towards Moscow, with the president taking a benign attitude towards Putin while his Cabinet members condemn the Kremlin. Senators such as Shelby and Paul have taken the initiative on seeking greater dialogue because they don't see the administration doing so in a cohesive way. But the Congress is not structured or equipped to design a productive relationship with Moscow. This must be the job of a properly prepared executive branch.

Some will say that dialogue should not be undertaken because of the corrupt and evil nature of the Putin regime and that doing so only extends a certain legitimacy to the Kremlin. It is precisely because of the Putin regime’s nature that dialogue is needed to prevent miscalculation; such dialogue was undertaken by successive American Presidents in dealing with the Soviet Union’s communist governments, which had the avowed intent of tearing down the Western world. Others will say that dialogue is not as necessary as it was during the Cold War because Russia is no longer a peer military competitor.

As we have seen in Ukraine and Syria, however, Russia’s military capabilities are potent and rapidly improving. It also remains the case that Russia, with its strategic nuclear arsenal, is the only country in the world capable of destroying the United States in less than an hour. Finally, some will say that “resets” with Moscow were attempted by the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations, and all failed. That is correct. Those administrations pursued such policies believing that Russia could be integrated into the Western system. We are not advocating a “reset” of relations. We are instead arguing that expanded and balanced dialogue is needed precisely because the Kremlin’s approach to the world is unlikely to change in the near future, and that, in the absence of such dialogue, that makes the kind of miscalculation we saw in 1962 and in the early 1980s more likely.

The policy we have laid out – a middle ground between the current situation of essentially ignoring the one country capable of destroying us, and at the other end simply downplaying and working around Moscow’s transgressions – is that pursued by successive administrations throughout most of the last half of the 20th century. In some cases, administrations came back to such a policy only after misunderstanding and miscalculation brought them near the precipice. We would be wise to start talking to each other before we find ourselves at that point again.

Richard Burt served as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe in the Reagan administration and as chief strategic arms negotiator in George H.W. Bush's administration and is now a managing partner at McLarty Associates. Lorne Craner served as an NSC Asia Director in George H.W. Bush's administration and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in George W. Bush's administration and is currently president of the American Councils for International Education. The views expressed are their own.