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We must redefine Russia relations

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One of the most significant challenges the next administration will face is competition with Russia. What is needed now is not another reset, but a fundamental redefinition of American relations with Russia and an honest look at the global power and influence of Moscow.

The last four years have seen an unstable policy toward the Kremlin, after what was an era of continuous failures in the American strategy for Russia. The bizarre treatment of Moscow and Vladimir Putin from President Trump followed a disastrous management of actions under Barack Obama and a very distracted administration under George Bush.

Competition does not necessarily mean confrontation. Conflict between Moscow and Washington is not ensured, but for many, it is almost a given that relations are binary. It is unsurprising this is the case given that most of the policy framework applies outdated understandings of Russia and the Cold War to a decidedly 21st century problem. Russia is not the Soviet Union and great power competition is not the Cold War. Indeed, it is much more complicated than our leaders like to present.

Not engaging is neither a punishment or an incentive. It merely cuts off an avenue of conversation. Discussion and debate do not mean agreement. Even in the Cold War, as Washington objected to Moscow, it continued to engage at multiple and diverse levels. Ronald Reagan was signing arms control deals at the same time his intelligence officers were waging proxy wars against the Soviets. Even the spies on both sides maintained lines of communication despite the hostility toward each other.

There are undoubtedly areas of mutual interest, like such as confronting terrorism or talking about strategic arms control or even nuclear weapons. Such conversations are not naive about Russian policy that does not align with ours. They are about engaging where possible and reducing tensions between the countries. This could even set Putin on the backfoot because conflict with the West and instability creates a domestic distraction. He can point to those tensions as a reason to deal with issues abroad while curbing opposition and democratic advocates at home. Reduce tensions, engage where necessary, and that case loses its luster.

Washington must broaden its coercive diplomatic tools beyond sanctions, which can be effective as part of a concerted strategy. However, sanctions alone are insufficient. If Washington really wants to increase the pressure on Moscow, it should start by closing loopholes in financial markets that allow the kleptocracy to move illicit funds around the world. Shutting off the free flow of such cash would raise the cost of doing business and set oligarchs on the defensive. Providing offroads to remove  sanctions serves as an incentive, while closing loopholes hits the wealth of the inner circle of the Kremlin, a far more nuanced and dynamic strategy.

At the same time, the next administration must strongly engage with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and our European allies, demonstrating our promise to them and their security. Washington must also go back to the espionage of the Cold War. Russia never ended its intelligence efforts against the United States, as seen in the Solar Winds hack, but we shifted from classic espionage toward efforts to combat terrorism. The Central Intelligence Agency should increase its activity to target Russian officials and entities, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation should increase its efforts to track Russian agents and arrest them if warranted.

The greatest obstacle in our policy on Russia has been the inconsistency of strategy and the fixation on Putin. For our policy to be credible, it has to be sustainable and consistent at its core and in its principles. It must look at Russia beyond Putin. What do we want out of Russia? What should our relations be with Moscow? Indeed, now is not the time for a reset but a redefinition of our understanding of the influence of Russia.

Joshua Huminski is director of the National Security Space Program and director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs for the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington.

Tags Business Democracy Economics Finance Government Policy Russia World

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