The 2 Steps to Fix Relations With Russia

Washington needs to establish deterrence with Moscow. But in the long term, it needs to focus on building trust.

U.S. President Donald Trump attends a meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28.
U.S. President Donald Trump attends a meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

There was something very familiar about the way U.S. President Donald Trump cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Tokyo last month. Trump’s joking request that Putin not interfere in America’s 2020 presidential election represented yet another display of obsequiousness toward the Russian leader, akin to the U.S. president’s public acceptance in Helsinki last year of Putin’s word over that of U.S. intelligence agencies.

Global events make clear that Moscow now acts regularly against U.S. interests with impunity. Figuring out how to rebuild deterrence—how to get Putin to start fearing the United States again—will be an important short-term challenge for Trump’s successor, whoever that turns out to be. But the next U.S. president will also face a longer-term challenge in getting Russia to start trusting the United States—or, at least, to trust that Washington is not bent on regime change in Moscow. Putin’s belief that the United States has sought to oust him from power appears deeply entrenched. And however misplaced that perception might be, it is widely shared among Russian elites. So long as Moscow mistakenly views Washington as an existential threat, addressing particular challenges posed by Russia—such as cybercrime, election interference, and overseas adventurism—will be nearly impossible.

Let’s start with the first problem: how to convince Putin that he can’t afford to keep trying to disrupt the global order and undermine the United States, the West, and democracy itself. Over the last decade, Putin has provoked Washington again and again: by invading Georgia, annexing Crimea, attacking Ukraine, assassinating opponents at home and abroad, and interfering in elections throughout the West. In each case, the underwhelming U.S. response helped convince Putin that he could get away with more such behavior.

Putin’s sense that he can make mischief with impunity has been fostered by both Democratic and Republican presidents, but it has been dramatically enhanced by Trump. The U.S. president has repeatedly denied that Russia interfered with America’s 2016 election, ignoring the evidence presented by his own intelligence agencies. And he has refused to implement meaningfully a federal law requiring him to sanction Russians for its wrongdoings—a law he signed only after Congress indicated it would pass the law over his veto. Last month in Japan, when Trump mocked the idea that Russia might interfere in the 2020 election, it could only have confirmed for Putin that he has free rein to do so—and to undermine U.S. interests around the world.

For the United States to change Putin’s mind and deter further aggression will require a complex set of responses: toughening sanctions, strengthening military alliances, and conducting more assertive diplomacy. The key is to get Putin to start respecting the United States again.

Doing so would be hard enough if it were Washington’s only priority with Moscow. But it can’t be; the United States must also get Russians to trust it. These two imperatives—to generate both fear and confidence—may seem in tension with each other, but both are in fact essential. As former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has explained, Putin genuinely believes “that the United States represent[s] a threat to his regime” and looks at Washington’s support for revolutionaries in countries like Ukraine and concludes that it overthrows foreign leaders it dislikes—and it clearly dislikes Putin. That means Russia’s aggressive approach to the United States has been driven not only by a boldness that must be deterred but also by a fear of regime change—and that must be addressed in other ways.

Of course, Putin is mistaken: Washington has never sought to overthrow him. But the reality doesn’t matter—Putin thinks it’s true, and having watched the United States support regime change in Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, and elsewhere, he has at least some reason to.

Putin is unlikely to stop seeking ways to thwart the United States unless it can change his mind on this subject. That’s not going to be easy, given that his belief is shared by a large majority of Russia’s population. According to one recent poll, 76 percent of Russians consider the United States to be “aggressive,” and 86 percent think it interferes in the affairs of other countries. Those numbers indicate that a fear of U.S.-led regime change won’t dissipate even when, someday, Putin is no longer Russia’s leader; instead, it’s likely to persist, contributing to an ongoing challenge in dealing with Moscow.

So, even as the United States must win Putin’s respect, it must also earn the trust of future generations of Russians—at least to the extent that they no longer see U.S. policy as an existential threat to their government. Russians should believe what Americans believe: Countries can disagree while coexisting. That basic notion has underpinned a bipartisan approach to U.S. foreign policy that does not, in fact, seek regime change in every country whose government Washington dislikes. Achieving that will require its own complex set of policies. It begins with better public diplomacy, meaning clearer communication from the United States that remains candid about human rights concerns without suggesting an intention to overthrow Russian leadership. It extends to taking the absence of any statement of U.S. intent to pursue regime change in Russia and turning it into an explicit, affirmative disavowal of such an intent on the part of the United States. It includes greater commitment to educational and other citizen-to-citizen exchanges, which hold the potential to ensure that Russians actually get to know Americans and, in turn, diminish fear and misunderstanding. (Indeed, some scholars, like the former U.S. foreign service officer Yale Richmond, have argued that such cultural exchanges were central—perhaps even pivotal—to the overall successful U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.) And—perhaps toughest for Washington—it demands a real willingness, at least in certain circumstances, to recognize legitimate Russian interests in its “near abroad” where doing so is consistent with its NATO commitments and broader European partnerships. For example, it’s hardly surprising that Moscow would exert diplomatic pressure to protect the millions of Russians who live in former Soviet states when they face discrimination, such as language-based restrictions that make it difficult for such Russians to acquire citizenship or obtain decent jobs in the very countries in which they now live. While this recognition of Russian regional interests does not mean allowing Russia to bully its neighbors, it does mean recognizing that Russia has distinctive interests in having economic and other ties to certain direct neighbors that themselves stand to benefit from those relationships.

Let’s be clear-eyed: Even with Washington pursuing these steps, Putin is not going to depart overnight from his aggressive policies abroad or his repressive approach at home. But the long-term challenge of escaping the current Washington-Moscow dynamic demands an equally long-term effort to clarify U.S. policy, build relationships between the two nations, and ultimately overcome even the intense distortion of American values and actions that Putin currently spreads throughout the Russian public through his stranglehold over much of Russian media. That’s a central mission of the State Department’s relatively new Global Engagement Center, and it demands supporting local news media that can counter Kremlin-backed purveyors of disinformation as well as training civil society to utilize social media to spread the truth in effective, appealing ways that reach an ever wider audience online.

Even as we reestablish deterrence with regard to Putin, the United States must build the foundations for future Russian leaders both to respect us and to trust us. Otherwise, Americans will find themselves staring at more generations of Putins to come.

Joshua A. Geltzer is the executive director and visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and a fellow at New America. He served from to 2015 to 2017 as the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council and, before that, as deputy legal advisor to the NSC.

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