The Trump administration should take up Putin’s offer to talk

At the conclusion of every year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has a tradition of sending warm, congratulatory letters to heads-of-state around the world. In most cases, the letters are standard holiday missives wishing his colleagues a wonderful New Year or thanking them for their friendship. However, in others, Putin uses the end-of-year letters to open a door towards future dialogue.

According to Moscow, this was the message Putin delivered to U.S. President Donald Trump on Dec. 30. A Kremlin statement briefly described the content of the letter, in which the Russian president “emphasized that Russian-American relations are an essential factor in ensuring strategic stability and international security, and confirmed that Russia is open to dialogue with the United States on the widest possible agenda.”

The next move, of course, is Trump’s.

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Politically, the easiest thing for the White House to do would be to ignore Putin’s letter and continue a hardline policy of economic sanctions and conditions-based dialogue. President TrumpDonald John TrumpDC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' DC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' Mexico's immigration chief resigns amid US pressure over migrants MORE seemed to have backed himself into such a policy last November, when he cancelled a bilateral meeting with his Russian colleague on the sidelines of the G-20 summit and suggested that a face-to-face would not be possible for as long as Ukrainian vessels are impounded by the Russian Navy and Ukrainian sailors are in Russian custody. If that is indeed the Trump administration’s view, 2019 could very well be a year when tensions between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine, nuclear proliferation, missile research and development, sanctions, and election meddling are not only unresolved but made worse by a complete lack of communication at the senior-most level.

The U.S. will have a lot of foreign policy issues on its plate in the new year, but the Trump administration can’t afford to lose sight of the big items that can have direct repercussions of America’s security and prosperity. Ensuring that U.S.-Russia relations are as stable as they can possibly be is one of those big items. The fact the two countries account for 92 percent of the world’s total nuclear weapons stockpile lends the question of whether a U.S. policy of minimal dialogue makes any sense at all. Indeed, this statistic alone is proof that it most certainly does not.

In Washington, even simple communication with an adversary is often mindlessly derided as a concession. Cutting off diplomatic relations, downgrading embassy staff, or kicking out the diplomats of foreign nations are some of the most immediate retaliatory measures U.S. administration’s of both parties take in order to register disapproval. In some cases, these moves are perfectly appropriate. Yet even if the retaliation is justified, moves such as these also condition Washington into thinking of normal diplomatic give-and-take as a reward to be earned rather than a peaceful means to an end. Such a frame-of-mind dumbs down diplomacy as a punitive stick instead of the normal business of statecraft it really is.

The current U.S.-Russia relationship is as frosty as the early 1980’s, when both countries were developing ever more powerful arms and deploying long-range missiles in Europe. Fortunately, that period eventually subsided when U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev both concluded that a de-escalation was necessary before competition over strategic arms graduated to a far more sinister level.

Reagan was no Soviet peacenik, yet he still recognized that dialogue with your enemy is a foreign policy tool that simply can’t be avoided when the geopolitical situation required it. The result, after nearly two years of intense negotiations — and one, big breakdown at Reykjavik in October 1986 — was the most significant arms control accord signed during the Cold War.

Rather than listening to the blather coming out of the Washington echo chamber for more confrontation and less engagement with Moscow, President Trump should listen to his inner Ronald Reagan. He can be firm but amenable to talking, while probing for opportunities at pragmatic cooperation at the same time. To engage in diplomacy with a foe is not to pilfer in weakness as conventional wisdom states, but rather to be confident enough in America’s ability to be both strong and reasonable.

Vladimir Putin has provided the Trump administration with a slim opening. Given Putin’s mercurial nature, his letter may very well be a ploy designed to make Russia look like the adult in the room. Either way, the White House ought to pick up the phone and find out.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a D.C.-based foreign policy organization focused on a strong military to ensure security, stability and peace.