An expert's point of view on a current event.

Bringing Back the Russo-American Axis

It's high time for Obama and Putin to put aside the differences that dog them, and focus on destroying the Islamic State.


Terrorist attacks in France, Lebanon, Mali, and in the skies over Egypt, highlight a common interest among civilized nations to defeat the Islamic State (IS). This global scourge demands an unusual coalition of the willing — one that requires cooperation between Russia and the United States, despite the glaring differences between them.

Indeed, America’s allies are watching Washington’s relationship with Moscow closely. In an address last month, French President François Hollande urged both governments to overcome their “sometimes diverging interests.” He has also engaged in shuttle diplomacy between both nations in hopes of building an anti-IS coalition.

While intense disagreements between the White House and the Kremlin persist, stemming from Russia’s incursions into Ukraine and the focus of its involvement in Syria, neither country should shy away from collaboration when their interests align. As the old adage goes, “there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.”

The challenge for Washington and Moscow will be distinguishing areas where their common interests outweigh their antagonistic disputes. This is no easy task, given the present tensions between them and the simplistic debate occurring in the United States. In lieu of well-planned strategy, U.S. policymakers advocate for rash or ill-defined actions, which are often applauded for their apparent decisiveness in the short term, but frequently serve to worsen the situation.

There is precedent for working together despite fierce contention. During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union recognized that a nuclear war would decimate both countries, and worked together to reduce the threat. By isolating an issue of common interest, the clashing superpowers increased their mutual security through a series of accords, including the nuclear test ban treaty and various nuclear arms control treaties. Both Republican and Democratic presidents had the good sense to negotiate these agreements, recognizing the necessity of working with their adversaries.

Even recently, the United States and Russia have cooperated. The U.S. decision to sanction Russia for its behavior in Ukraine did not stop the nations from working together to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. They currently participate as key players in group meetings to end the Syrian civil war, meetings that have shown that the potential for constructive collaboration remains, despite the evident enmity between them.

The United States should build on this model. Over the last few years, efforts to defeat IS and end the war in Syria have languished, failing for want of political will and the establishment of partnerships. The United States should increase its efforts to work with states when our interests align on critical issues, regardless of other areas of disagreement. As an overture to this approach, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Dec. 14 in Moscow to discuss strategy for combating IS and stabilizing Syria. But to make these conversations productive, both countries must adjust their positions to better meet their strategic interests.

To start, Russia and the United States should step away from their focus on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the past, Washington has tried to sideline dictators like Assad, Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. We have advocated democratic norms and human rights in those countries. The results: increased chaos and destruction, rather than a shift to the norms and aspirations for a democratic revolution.

In Syria, the United States should recognize that there’s no leader waiting in the wings to take over, and that overthrowing Assad could actually lead to more bloodshed. As Les Gelb explained earlier this year, there is merit to leaving Assad in place to create stability in the near term. In the fight against IS, Assad is the lesser of two evils.

This notion seems to have crept into certain quarters of Congress. A bipartisan bill in the House offered by Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Austin Scott (R-Ga.) in November urged the United States to step away from its war on Assad, calling these actions an “illegal war” and “counter-productive” for strengthening the Islamic State’s position. But this view has yet to inform U.S. policy towards Syria.

While a U.N. Security Council resolution urging the international community to take “all necessary measures” to prevent future attacks from IS passed unanimously on November 20, the United States blocked any vote on a Russian resolution that emphasized Assad’s role in ending the conflict in Syria. This is foolish, since working with Assad, at least in the short term, provides a more realistic roadmap for mitigating the conflict in Syria and rooting out IS. While Assad has dedicated more military force towards American backed rebels than IS, a ceasefire with the rebels and a cooperative strategy between Russia and the United States will steer both Assad and Syrian rebels towards combating IS.

Regardless of the fate of the proposed resolution, Russia does appear to be reevaluating its association with Assad. Recently, Russia has emphasized that keeping him in power is not crucial. Analysts speculate that Russia is more interested in keeping its warm water port of Tartus than it is in keeping Assad as an ally. This opens up room for compromise and a transition of leadership.

As Defense Secretary Ash Carter commented on November 7: “We will continue to cooperate when and where our and Russia’s interests align…Russia may play a constructive role in resolving the Syrian Civil war.” If the United States and Russia both focus on their mutual interest in fighting IS, there can be room for coalition-building on a broad international scale.

Collaboration will require restraint and compromise from both Washington and Moscow, including an end to the nuclear blustering that both governments invoke all too frequently. In fact, both countries have an interest in reinvigorating conversations on securing nuclear materials, establishing further nuclear arms control agreements beyond New START, and reducing the threat of nuclear smuggling and terrorism. Unfortunately, cooperation on these issues has largely ceased. This is another sad example where animosity has interfered with mutual interests. A new détente is needed between the United States and Russia to manage the many areas where cooperation is both necessary and difficult to obtain.

Cooperating when interests align does not mean the United States should let Putin off the hook for his incursions into Crimea and Georgia. The United States can and should maintain sanctions against Russia for its interference in Ukraine, and for violating international agreements. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work confirmed as much when he stated last month: “If Russia starts contributing to the counter-[Islamic State] fight in Syria, that doesn’t take the focus away from Minsk, from Crimea, from Russia’s actions in Europe.”

When U.S. interests align with those of other countries, we should be willing to work with them. This does not mean we must collaborate with all nations, but ruling out opportunities for collective action on the basis of unrelated animosities limits our ability to lead on important security issues. Practicality and mutual interests, not idealism, must govern our foreign policy, and this means working with friend and foe alike.

In his usual pungent fashion, Winston Churchill recognized the challenge of unusual coalitions: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” President Obama should do no less.

Photo Credit: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP

Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.