A New Direction in U.S.-Russia Relations?


On March 7, the Center for the National Interest hosted a discussion on the outlook for U.S.-Russia relations under the Trump administration as well as the Center’s recently published report “A New Direction in U.S.-Russia Relations?” with Nikolas K. Gvosdev, Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval War College, Michael Kofman, Research Scientist at CNA Corporation, and Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Center Executive Director Paul Saunders moderated. Please find a summary of the event below. Video of the discussion can be accessed here. Mollie Hemingway’s take on the discussion can be read here.

A New Direction in U.S.-Russia Relations?

Three Russia experts agreed on Tuesday that while opportunities still exist for an improvement in U.S.-Russia relations, the window of opportunity may soon be closing and it is up to the Trump administration to articulate a coherent strategy for reengaging Moscow from a position of strength on issues of mutual concern.

What do the Russians think?

Matthew Rojansky recounted his impressions during a recent trip to Moscow, describing “serious Russians” as being “guardedly optimistic” about changes in the trajectory of bilateral relations and dismissing earlier accounts of elation surrounding Trump’s victory. He characterized Russian decision-makers as being in a “defensive crouch,” cautiously observing how the Trump administration and its foreign policy take form since the White House has not yet publicly articulated a Russia policy and many of the Obama-era “isolation” policies are still in effect. Russian decision-makers, according to Rojansky, are aware that President Trump’s apparent pragmatism may be constrained by Congressional legislation and the overall U.S. political environment in instituting a new policy toward Russia. Accordingly, they do not expect the administration to lift U.S. sanctions in the near term.

While Russians are enthusiastic at the prospect of a meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin before May, according to Rojansky, he and the Russian experts with whom he spoke believe it is unlikely. If it were to happen, he argued, it would send important signals to both countries’ bureaucracies regarding the need to improve relations. However, absent a viable path to improving relations (and content with their central role in Syria and growing clout elsewhere in the Middle East), the Russian government is hoping to simply maintain the international status quo, said Rojansky. Rojansky asserted that Russia does not believe it has a partner with whom to negotiate an end to the Ukraine conflict; Moscow sees Ukraine as a failing state where policy is dictated by fascist forces under a president (Petro Poroshenko) whose political capital has evaporated. The Kremlin is concerned that Kiev would not be able to follow through on promises made during negotiations, potentially leading to new Ukrainian military operations if Kiev’s forces gained control of the border in the Donbass, said Rojansky. Moscow is also under no illusion that Trump will orchestrate a grand bargain in which he will “exchange” Ukraine for Syria; rather, according to Rojansky, it is looking for a consolidation of the current ceasefire in Ukraine.

Rojansky asserted that stabilizing Ukraine remains a key American interest, as the risks of escalation in the Donbass leading to a wider war are greater today than they have been over the past few years. Progress on Ukraine would help “clear the air” between the U.S. and Russia—thereby reopening channels of communication and paving the way for cooperation in other areas, he said. Thus, said Rojansky, it is imperative for the U.S. to become formally involved in the peace process, regardless of whether it is based on the Minsk Accords, and to push for a non-zero sum solution for Ukraine having trade and travel connections with both the West and Russia. The U.S. should push for ceasefires—with reservations if necessary to alleviate both sides’ concerns with noncompliance—and the heavy integration of international support for both enforcing any agreement and fostering the structural and economic reconstruction of the Donbass region, said Rojansky. The U.S. would also provide phased relief of certain sanctions to Russia in response to verified completions of goals.

Russia is growing more comfortable with its military power

Michael Kofman argued that military reforms implemented since 2008 and the military modernization program launched in 2011 have transformed the military balance in Europe in Russia’s favor and that the United States should recognize that this state of affairs will last through the 2020s. Russia’s military is “good enough” to defeat any former Soviet state and to inflict sufficient losses on U.S./NATO forces in a short conflict as to make Washington think twice about intervening, said Kofman.

Russia has used its bolstered conventional military capabilities both to deter and to compel NATO and its neighbors with noticeable success thus far, reducing its reliance on its nuclear arsenal. He also said the current size of Russia’s military—regardless of economic and demographic challenges—is sustainable going forward. Kofman described Russia’s force posture in Europe as reflecting the primary contingencies for which its military has been planning. These include another war with Ukraine, which would be a larger and higher-intensity conflict (though limited in duration), a conflict with NATO over Belarus, and intervention in the Caucasus or Central Asia. Moscow has consequently focused on its “Southwest Strategic Direction,” creating and expanding unit formations along the border with Ukraine and restoring Russian military power in Crimea. According to Kofman, Russia’s military posture in the Baltic region and in its Far North will also strengthen over the next two years as a consequence of the ongoing modernization program.

Nevertheless, Kofman emphasized that the Russian leadership understands the limitations of Moscow’s military power and has used it judiciously to secure political ends at the “minimum possible price” and with the smallest possible footprints. Moscow has small land forces relative to Russia’s geography, rendering offensive operations to seize and occupy territory outside Russia difficult and expensive. A large part of the military also remains in an “experimental phase,” said Kofman, as it is still integrating lessons from Syria, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine. Thus, senior military leaders are not yet able to confidently command large-scale forces. Finally, Kofman cited the continuing economic constraints on the military’s modernization drive, driven primarily by structural deficiencies, the drop in oil prices, and Western sanctions.

Going forward, Kofman argued that Washington’s policy establishment needs to become serious about the potential for interstate conflict and learn to negotiate from a position of strength, rather than build strength in a futile effort to avoid negotiation.

The U.S. “cannot dictate the outcome” in Syria

Nikolas Gvosdev—speaking in his private capacity and not on behalf of the U.S Naval War College—asserted that time has come for Washington to face several realities regarding Syria. First, though the American military footprint is on the uptick in Syria and Iraq and the U.S. is an important player that can shape the outcome, Washington does not have the ability to dictate the outcome. Therefore, according to Gvosdev, pursuing dialogue will be key for conflict resolution.

Second, echoing Rojansky’s remarks regarding Ukraine, Gvosdev believes the U.S. needs to make Syria a non-zero-sum issue. The U.S. needs to determine whether it can, and wants to, help manage the Syrian conflict in the short term by becoming part of the current process by which outside powers—especially Russia, Turkey, and Iran—are becoming guarantors of zones of influence within the country. This would create conditions that would facilitate the return of refugees to Syria from its neighbors and Europe and ameliorate their destabilizing influence on those countries.

Third, Gvosdev asserted that Washington should create a framework within which Russia could focus more of its military efforts against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq in conjunction with U.S. offensives. Dialogue between the U.S., Russia, and other external actors regarding post-IS administration in liberated regions is necessary and has to be sustained, said Gvosdev. Gvosdev and Rojansky, though speaking about different conflicts, both emphasized the need to expand bilateral dialogue beyond military-to-military channels, as the issues in question cannot be solved by military means exclusively. They also agreed that cooperation between Moscow and Washington in either Syria or Ukraine could act as test cases that re-institutionalize habits of cooperation and spill over into cooperation on other issues of mutual concern.