Do the US and Russia need clearer rules of engagement?

Trump and Putin's recent attempt at rapprochement already appears to be falling apart. And even as relations seethe, Washington and Moscow lack shared understanding of what is permissible in the diplomacy, cyber, and political spheres.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7, 2017.

Barely a week after Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin sat down in a bid to iron out their differences, the effort appears to be in tatters.

The scandal engulfing Mr. Trump's administration, over his campaign's alleged collusion with Russia, has grown so intense that leading Russian foreign-policy specialists say they fear the very principle of US-Russia rapprochement is in danger of being thrown out with the Trump bathwater. Three key deals that seemed to be struck at the meeting – to work out joint rules for security in cyberspace, a ceasefire in southern Syria, and a new US push to support the Minsk accords in Ukraine – are already floundering.

Russian cold war veterans say that efforts to maintain positive diplomatic dialogue have always been hostage to daily headlines and adverse geopolitical events. But today, they say, channels of communication appear woefully inadequate and there is no preexisting set of rules to fall back on – straining basic, practical communication between the US and Russia.

“You might think that the development of relations between the US and Russia depends upon an objective assessment of security threats, but you’d be wrong,” says Pavel Zolotaryov, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. “Subjective factors, such as propaganda and enemy imagery, play a huge role. We don't have any basic ideological differences as we did in the cold war, but the security threats are different.”

The need to speak with each other

In a clear sign that the Kremlin’s brief honeymoon with Trump is ending, the Russians are now threatening to expel 30 US diplomats – delayed retaliation for President Obama’s purge of Russian emissaries and seizure of two diplomatic dachas in December. That move was punishment for Moscow’s alleged interference in the US elections.

A Foreign Ministry source quoted in major Moscow newspaper Izvestia suggested that the belated return to cold war-style tit-for-tat diplomacy may be imminent. That would effectively roll things back to the dire state they were in before Trump took office.

“This diplomatic scandal is still raging. The US expelled 35 Russian diplomats and seized our property half a year ago. That can’t be left unanswered,” says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Russian Senate’s international affairs commission. But “Russia’s position is that the two nuclear superpowers need to speak with each other. We are ready to go as far as our partners are ready to go.”

Russia also put forward the need for dialogue regarding cyber-issues during Putin’s meeting with Trump, suggesting the formation of a committee to work out a set of joint rules to manage competition in cyberspace, and perhaps prevent future cyber-intrusions. But in subsequent statements about the proposal, Trump incorrectly described it as a joint enforcement body, rather than a rule-making one – leading it to be howled down by critics in Washington. Trump backed off the plan, leaving it dead in the water, even though many experts say it would be feasible if the political will to do it existed.

“In a previous generation our countries worked out rules to monitor and control nuclear weapons, and it was mutually beneficial,” says Alexei Rayevsky, director of Zecurion, a leading Russian cybersecurity company. “Of course it’s not the same, there are no physical objects in cyberspace to keep track of. There would be a lot of specific technical challenges, not to be underestimated. But if both parties were determined, it is a perfectly feasible idea.”

A US-Russian backed ceasefire in southern Syria, which is still holding, was agreed on by Trump and Putin. But without consistent follow-up, few experts think it can last. “The ceasefire is a positive step, but whether it will survive or be effective is still very uncertain,” says Mr. Klimov.

The Russians have also cautiously welcomed the Trump administration’s appointment of Kurt Volker to be the US special representative to negotiations on Ukraine, which addresses long-standing US disengagement from the Minsk peace process. But the Russians also complain that Mr. Volker is an anti-Moscow hard-liner who seems more likely to solidify differences than find ways around them.

Cold war defaults

Pavel Palazhchenko, who was Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s personal interpreter during the late 1980s, when the US and the USSR were actively dismantling the cold war, says he is “surprised and perplexed that the summit did not establish some kind of a mechanism for ongoing review of the entire US-Russian agenda, such as joint working groups that would consider all issues and suggest solutions for leaders to consider.”

“When US-Soviet dialogue resumed in 1985, working groups were created to deal with key issues like human rights and arms control,” he says. “Those groups met regularly, before, during and after summits and ministerial meetings, it was a continuous process. That was an excellent way to start a durable dialogue that would go on regardless of the scandals, accusations, and unexpected events that tend to blow up all the time. That way things can be done even when the atmosphere is bad and the news cycle brings unpleasantness. Those things were happening then as well....”

“I don't understand why this obvious step isn't being taken now.”

The mood in Moscow appears to be in favor of hunkering down and waiting till the Trump-Russia storm subsides in Washington, even if that means returning to some cold war defaults – like tit-for-tat expulsions – in the meantime.

“Even if Trump wants to do something, it’s becoming clear that he can’t realize much in practice,” says Klimov. “It seems that bureaucrats of his own government, the mass media, and even congressmen from his own party have no sympathy for him and are constantly blocking him. We see that their attacks are skillful and effective, and he has to reckon with that before he can get anything done.”

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