Trump is right to reestablish relationship with Russia, but with caution
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December 2016 marked the 25th Anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. There has been no greater failure in American foreign policy in the last quarter-century than shuttering U.S. relations with Russia.

The Unites States and Russia both face three primary threats: Radical Islam, North Korea and China. As an ancient proverb teaches, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. We are already involved in a war with radical Islam, North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons program and China is determined to pursue a strategy of regional supremacy which could threaten American allies; we cannot afford another war; we need Russia as an ally. President Donald Trump is correct to pursue a fresh diplomatic approach to Russia.

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At the end of the Cold War, the new Russia wanted to embrace the United States as a friend and ally. In the early nineties, I visited Russia frequently as the U.S. Co-Chairman of the Subcommittee on Information Exchange of the US-USSR Trade and Economic Counsel. I’ve met with Mikhail Gorbachev, government officials and prominent businessmen. As a former Soviet dissident, I was astonished by the overwhelmingly pro-American sentiment at every level of Russian society.

 

Growing up in Russia, we were all told in school to prepare for the war with America. We laughed at it —  we wanted to wear American jeans and sing American songs. Nobody in Russia wanted a war with America then, and nobody wants it now. The Russian people want peace and prosperity and would like nothing more than cooperation with the U.S. At some point, not-so-long-ago, Boris Yeltsin even talked about Russia joining NATO.

It all too quickly went downhill from there. Friendship has been replaced by a Cold War II and instead of joining NATO Russia is now facing NATO troops at its border with Poland and the Baltics. According to a some analysts we are closer to war with Russia today than we have been since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

When Vladimir Putin first emerged as a new Russian leader, he displayed a pro-Western attitude. Putin, however, grew more and more suspicious of the West and hostile to the U.S. As a Russian patriot, Putin was offended by the U.S. treatment of Russia as a third world country or, at best, a junior partner. The continued expansion of NATO into the former Russian sphere of influence and U.S. supporting of anti-Russian revolts in the former Soviet republics were perceived as threats to Russian sovereignty and security.

While it is encouraging to see President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want NYT in the White House Veterans group backs lawsuits to halt Trump's use of military funding for border wall Schiff punches back after GOP censure resolution fails MORE expressing interest in restoring relations with Russia, he needs to remember, however, Vladimir Putin has an agenda that is significantly different than ours. Our relations with Russia will remain complicated, and our policy must be nuanced.  

During the Cold War, the U.S. had been separated from the Soviet Union by an unbridgeable ideological divide. Today, Russia is, to a large degree, a market economy. While Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian style may not be to our liking, and we have profound differences on several important international issues, we are no longer separated by opposing ideologies or more morbidly, mutually assured destruction.  Notwithstanding our differences, the common threats we face today make us natural allies.

We may have conflicting interests with Russia in the Middle East, but it is in both our interests to see the region stabilized. Russia has deep ties and profitable trade with Iran, we will likely always be on the opposite poles as far as Iran is concerned. Russia has been a loyal supporter of the Assad regime in Syria, where our interests also diverge.

However, deposing Assad should not be our foreign policy goal — fighting the Islamic State should be our only goal—and this is where we can cooperate with Russia. If we agree to back off from trying to change the regime in Damascus, not only will we gain a seat at the negotiating table, but we will regain Russia’s cooperation in fighting ISIL.

As a former Soviet dissident, I experienced first-hand the KGB breathing down my neck. Today, FSB — the successor of KGB — has the same mindset both domestically and abroad. Cozying up to Putin, former KGB officer and later Director of FSB, while letting down our guards can be dangerous. We must stay vigilant. At the same time, Vladimir Putin is the Russian leader. He is very smart and hugely popular in Russia.

Realpolitik and common sense dictate that we collaborate with Russia where our interests coincide and push back where they diverge.

Alexander Poltorak, Ph.D. is Chairman and CEO of General Patent Corp. and former Co-Chairman of the Subcommittee on Information Exchange of the US-USSR Trade and Economic Council


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