US and Russia Re-Re-Reset

July 15, 2018 Updated: July 16, 2018

Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Winston Churchill

The classic Churchill maxim remains as true in 2018 as it was in October 1939.  In almost 80 years, Russia has changed but not evolved.  It passed through the caldron of World War II with civilian and military casualties over 25 million.  By the 1970s, it had achieved “superpower” status with nuclear weapons capable of incinerating the globe—and then it imploded politically with the USSR disintegrating into shard states in 1989-91.

Moscow flirted with semi-democracy, but then apparently has settled back comfortably into authoritarian control under Vladimir Putin—a leader who has said that the collapse of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

It is obvious from his rule that Putin seeks to reassemble as much of the old USSR as is possible, if not physically reincorporating now-independent states, putting them under implicit Russian domination.

Without specifically saying so, Putin’s implicit motto is “Make Russia Great Again.”  The question becomes how far and where Putin will push toward achieving his goal.  Does he have a time table or are his actions extempore and opportunistic?

And with this backdrop, President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in Helsinki on 16 July.

While most agree that a Trump-Putin meeting will be worthwhile, it has been almost as much a surprise as was the surprise meeting between Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-Un.

For some Western observers, however, the question is less what Putin will do than what Trump will do.  Concern is high that a mercurial Trump will be indifferently prepared for inter alia one-on-one with Putin.  They mutter darkly about another “Yalta” when President Roosevelt confused smoke with substance and de facto conceded Eastern Europe to Soviet domination.

Today’s concern is reinforced by Trump’s ambivalent response to intelligence studies that Moscow attempted to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election—to damage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and, implicitly at least, benefit then-Republican candidate Donald Trump.  For his part, Trump says he has twice broached the interference issue with Putin who predictably denied it.  Indeed, to expect a former KGB colonel to admit such would be to bet on Satan ice skating in Hades.

Nevertheless, despite repeated failures to reach agreements with Moscow on neuralgic topics ranging from its incorporation of Crimea and attempts to destabilize Ukraine to coddling Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, there are a wide variety of issues on which Washington can seek meaningful Moscow cooperation.  After all, U.S. astronauts have flown to the space station on Russian rockets since 2011.  And Moscow did nothing to interfere with U.S. equipment withdrawals from Afghanistan through central Asia.

Consequently, there are areas for possible cooperation/problem management.

Ukraine/Crimea.  Despite continuing economic sanctions, Moscow is not going to divest itself of Crimea.  Reportedly, the State Department is constructing a 2018 edition of the 1940 Welles Declaration stipulating that Washington would never accept Soviet annexation of the Baltic states.  It took over 50 years, but Baltic freedom eventuated.  Russia could rejoin the G-7 if it stopped supporting antigovernment forces in Ukraine.  Moscow has carefully maintained (albeit risible) deniability regarding its military presence that it could sacrifice for returning to the G-7.

Syria.  Assad has won the civil war and, with Russian assistance, is crushing the last remnants of opposition.  It was feckless to think Moscow would abandon Assad; Syria was a key Russian ally throughout the Cold War, and since 1971 Moscow’s naval base in Tartus has been its key support facility in the Mediterranean.  The best we can hope is Moscow’s assistance in crushing residual Islamic State remnants and be a foil to Iranian influence.  Europeans should take ownership of restoring/stabilizing Syria.

And there are other secondary/tertiary confidence building areas for potential agreement:  rebuilding our decimated diplomatic staffs, respectively in Washington/Moscow; joint observers for military exercises (or even reducing exercise personnel/equipment slightly); reviewing the point-counterpoint claims of violations of arms control agreements, particularly the INF Treaty which appears to be on increasingly shaky ground; and expanding information sharing on terrorist threats.

None of these moves would shatter the earth; rather simply provide management options to improve marginally a currently fraught bilateral relationship.  We should not fear that Trump will “sell the farm” (plus farm house and subterranean mineral rights).  More likely it will be a session for taking each other’s “measure” to determine the limits of the possible.

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as an adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.