On December 8, the American Security Project hosted a panel to discuss U.S.-Russia policy for the next administration. The Panelists were Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, Dr. James Lewis, SVP and Director of Strategic Technologies Program at CSIS, Marc Schleifer, Regional Director for Eurasia and South Asia at CIPE, moderated by ASP Fellow for Public Diplomacy Matthew Wallin. The discussion hinged on the uncertainty surrounding the new administration and the current adversarial relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
Mr. Rojansky briefly opened discussion what the U.S. election means in Russia. The line in the Russian media was that Trump as an outsider had no chance of victory in the corrupt U.S. election system. After his win, many in Russia, even those who are not pro-West, are reexamining what democratic pluralism means. Rojansky emphasized that the changing of an administration in the U.S. political system offers the opportunity to change U.S. policy with limited cost (he noted that Trump already paid costs for closer ties with Russia during the election). Rojansky sees two main streams of policy from the Obama administration, one which should be kept and one which should not.
- Isolation: The Obama administration has kept Russia isolated, rarely talking, and only then about major problems such as Syria. Rojansky believes this is a mistake. Dialogue is necessary to manage risk. Without continuous dialogue the potential for risky actions, such as military confrontation in the Baltics, to spiral out of control is greater. The Trump administration should engage in frequent dialogue with Russia. High level dialogue will not be possible as long as Syria remains an issue of contention, but if some sort of resolution is found a summit meeting could take place. Ukraine must not be avoided in conversation and the U.S. needs to remain committed to Minsk. Additionally, the U.S. needs to provide a clear off-ramp for sanctions against Russia. Only after this is achieved can dialogue on other issues move forward.
- Sanctions: While an off-ramp for sanctions must be given, they should not be lifted without reason. The sanctions were put in place for a reason and lifting them without any change in behavior would be detrimental to U.S. interests. The Trump administration should continue Obama’s sanctions policy.
Rojansky also noted how effective deterrence against Russia must work. It needs to be crystal clear in what is being deterred and what is being threatened. If deterrence is not clear, it will not work. On the subject of ideological similarity between Trump and Putin he says that while they are both anti-Washington establishment, they have very different ideas of what the world’s problems are and how they should be solved. Therefore, they are not as ideologically similar as they might appear. He concludes by reiterating the opportunity presented by a new administration, couched by with the recognition that nobody really knows what the Trump administration’s policies will be.
Dr. Lewis discusses Russia’s confrontational attitude towards the United States. Russia sees the U.S. as an aggressive threat with the expansion of NATO and must respond accordingly. Additionally, there is the conflict between what is viewed in the West as universal values and what is viewed in Russia as Western values. Russia has been waging war on these values and they have been rolled back in recent years. Russia’s final goal is to rebuild Russia’s status as a world power, which it has mostly done at the expense of the U.S.
Russia’s dominant challenge to the U.S. is in its new generation, or hybrid, warfare capabilities. After the Gulf War in 1991, the NATO interventions in the Yugoslav Wars, and the Iraq invasion, American adversaries realized that they could not confront the U.S. directly. Therefore, Russia began to devise methods of conflict that would circumvent conventional U.S. power. Russia views the information space as critically important. They use it to undermine Western values through the use of RT, internet trolls, hacking, and belligerent rhetoric. Critically, Russia sees the U.S. as circumventing its conventional military as well, with the development of drones, precision weapons, and other new military hardware so that the U.S. can confront Russia without having to resort to nuclear weapons.
Russia has been very overtly attempting to undermine NATO, and the U.S. has done nothing to counter it. Clearly the current strategy does not work, so the new administration must do something. The biggest Risk the Dr. Lewis sees is being too conciliatory towards Russia, therefore undermining American interests. He is skeptical about how long Trump and Putin’s good relationship can last. They are both very proud individuals and a clash between their interests seems inevitable.
Mr. Schleifer focused on the economic aspects of Russia. For years the West has believed that economic issues are the Achilles heel of Putin’s Russia. At some point the economic issues would become too great, and Russia would have to face significant policy changes. This has not happened. Despite economic troubles, Putin is more popular than ever. Major Russian businessmen do not want to engage the Kremlin on business issues. For its part, the Kremlin is okay with small businesses leaving Russia for countries with better economic climates. Putin has been able to ride volatile energy prices as well. The West has less ability to influence Russia than it thinks.
On the economic front, Mr. Schleifer only briefly mentioned what potential policies the Trump administration might have. The Obama administration has been very willing to hold Russia to task on corruption. It will be interesting to see to what extent the Trump administration will do so. Additionally, Mr. Schleifer noted Trump’s reputation as someone who is willing to make deals. To what extent will Trump’s deal making reputation effect sanctions negotiations? Finally, when asked whether the U.S. should offer the carrot of economic cooperation with Russia, he said that doing so could have unintended consequences. It is not clear what Russia would give in exchange for these increased economic ties. It is very likely that they would see this as a victory, not a reason for reform.
All panelists made a point to say that nobody knows exactly what a Trump administration will look like, so any talk is speculation at best. We will only begin to know what direction the U.S.-Russia relationship will take once the new administration is in place.