USA Foreign Policy

For US, Russia, challenge of deep chill is to keep cool and take small steps

path to progress

Tillerson and Lavrov meet this weekend in Manila, and the climate could hardly be icier. But by dusting off cold war diplomatic skill sets, some analysts say, areas of cooperation can be found.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (r.) talks to the media next to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before their meeting at the State Department in Washington on May 10.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters
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President Trump came into office hoping to launch a warming in US-Russia relations. Instead, over the last six months, things have gone from cool to icy cold.

If in January Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that the United States and Russia “are not likely ever to be friends,” Congress this month approved veto-proof sanctions legislation that baldly labels Russia America’s “adversary.”

Relations, Mr. Trump says, have deteriorated to where they are now “dangerous.”

It’s at this rock-bottom point in relations that Mr. Tillerson will meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Manila this weekend to gauge the prospects of maintaining some level of cooperation in areas of mutual interest. They include Syria, counterterrorism, avoiding a military confrontation in the Baltic Sea, and space.

But even though the two chief diplomats will meet in tropical Manila, heavy coats may be in order to ward off the chill of the deep freeze relations are in – and likely to stay in indefinitely, analysts of US-Russia relations say.

“We are looking at a serious rift in US-Russia relations [where] we have gone back to a tit-for-tat mode of bilateral interaction where each side feels compelled to retaliate for perceived or actual attacks from the other,” says Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute for US-Russia studies in Washington.

Nevertheless, there is precedent for fruitful engagement between Washington and Moscow on bilateral and multilateral matters even in times of such stress, say some analysts, pointing to the cold war era that at times in recent months has seemed not so distant.

Late last month Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a steep reduction in US Embassy staff in Moscow and the seizure of two small US diplomatic properties shortly after Congress approved the new US economic sanctions bill. The measures, which Trump reluctantly signed into law Wednesday, aim to punish Russia for its belligerent actions against US allies and partners in Central and Eastern Europe, and for what US intelligence agencies assert was Russian interference in last year’s presidential election.

“It’s a mess,” Mr. Rojansky adds, “and the president is right to say that it is dangerous – the risk of further escalation, even direct military confrontation, is more acute than it has been in a long time.”

Perhaps snuffed out for good, others say, is the aspiration of anchoring Russia in the community of Western nations promoting values and global economic norms constructed by the US-led international community.

Areas of possible cooperation

In this environment, the two countries are likely to revert to where relations were during the cold war, when cooperation was limited to a few areas of interest to both sides, such as arms control, some experts say.

“The focus now will have to be on how to prevent an adversarial relationship from turning into an outright confrontation,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies specializing in Russia at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “And to do that, we’ll have to return to some cold war models to figure out how adversarial countries can still work together where they have common interests.”

US officials will have to dust off the “skill sets” that diplomats honed in the 1980s for dealing with what was then the Soviet Union, Dr. Gvosdev says. “It’s a mindset that accepts that outcomes aren’t going to be optimal, so you begin to disaggregate problems into much smaller steps.”

Areas of potential cooperation are likely to be reduced to a very few, perhaps only Syria and space, Gvosdev says. Both countries have an interest in avoiding confrontation in Syria and in maintaining the different cease-fires that are more or less holding there, he says, while both countries also benefit from the cooperative relationship developed around the International Space Station and other space exploits.

Going a bit farther, Mr. Rojansky says there are areas where the two will “have to cooperate” – for example with “military to military dialogue” to “limit the possibility of unintended escalation of conventional or even nuclear conflict” – and then areas “where we might make progress if our interests align.” Those could potentially include counterterrorism and reining in North Korea, he says.

But others caution that with the US and Russia locked in adversarial stances toward each other – and focused when they are communicating on avoiding unintended confrontations – the space for cooperation on other issues is likely to remain limited.

“Lavrov is going to arrive at this meeting [with Tillerson] with a very long laundry list of Russia’s complaints about [US] actions, and they’ll spend some time going through the list,” says Paul Stronski, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Once that’s over I’m sure they’ll talk about the Middle East and North Korea, but there aren’t going to be any breakthroughs.”

US public is cool, too

With the two countries’ top diplomats limited to going over grievances, Dr. Stronksi adds, “the relationship will continue to play along, but without much chance of getting better any time soon.”

Indeed any progress Tillerson and Lavrov are able to eke out is likely to be set back by looming bumps in the path ahead.

The Pentagon is expected to announce in the coming weeks its recommendations on providing heavy weaponry to Ukraine. “That’s the next crisis,” Gvosdev says. He adds that the campaign leading up to Russia’s presidential election next March is likely to stoke anti-American sentiments that will further dampen the prospects for a bilateral defrost.

Not that the US public is exactly clamoring for a US-Russia repair operation – on the contrary. In a new survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, nearly 8 of 10 Americans polled said they support either maintaining or increasing sanctions against Russia.

Moreover, the council president, Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO, notes that a majority of Americans – 53 percent – now think the US should work to limit Russia’s international influence, as opposed to 43 percent who favor bilateral cooperation.

That’s a reversal from last year’ survey, Mr. Daalder underlines, when 58 percent favored cooperation and 39 percent wanted the US to work to contain Russia.

All of these different forces are likely to accelerate the rift that has been building between the US and Russia, and more broadly between the West and Russia, since the rise of Mr. Putin and the collision between his revanchist vision of a reconstituted greater Russia and NATO’s eastward expansion.

'World without the West'

The coming year is likely to bear witness to redoubled Russian efforts to not just prosper under US financial sanctions, Gvosdev says, but to build an alternative to the US-based international system that has put it in a straitjacket.

“The Russians are going to test their ability to route around the United States,” Gvosdev says. That will start with an effort to raise capital in international markets that do not touch US financial institutions. But the end goal will be fashioning “a world without the West,” he adds.

That effort, broadly supported by the Chinese, will further buttress the alignment of the world’s two major non-Western powers, says Stronski, who served as director for Russia and Central Asia in President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.

“There are a lot if things bringing the Russians and Chinese together, but underneath it all is this common desire to challenge the global order that was constructed by the West under US leadership,” he says, “and designed to make the West and Western values prosper.”

Yet while both powers may be envisioning a global alternative to the West, Stronski says it is Putin’s Russia that is being the most aggressive about it – and it’s that aggressive challenging that he says will put off any improvement in US-Russia relations.

And if the recent past is any indication, he adds, the downward spiral may not be over. “When I was at the White House,” Stronski says, “I was always saying that right when I didn’t think things could get worse between us, they always did.”