Russia has loomed large in public discussion of Donald Trump's administration in its first two months, but not, unfortunately, because the president has articulated any distinctive new approach to relations with that huge (and hugely important) nation.
Rather, Russia has owed its prominence to suspicions about illicit involvement in Trump's 2016 campaign and the broader issue of whether the president is too close to Russia. Or, as Hillary Clinton memorably put it in one of her debates with Trump, whether the 45th president of the United States is Vladimir Putin's puppet.
Congress and the FBI will eventually complete their investigations of alleged Russian interference in last year's election and whether anyone in the Trump campaign was complicit in that activity. (On Monday, FBI Director James B. Comey confirmed for the first time that the bureau is investigating "whether there was any coordination" between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government.)
However that question is resolved, this nation will still have much to do to clarify significant issues in its relationship with Russia.
Under Putin's increasingly autocratic rule, a country humbled by the collapse of the Soviet Union has rebuilt and streamlined its military, annexed part of a neighboring nation, Ukraine, and intervened to preserve the hold on power of its client, Syrian President Bashar Assad. Russian military forces have intimidated the Baltic states that are now members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Russian intelligence agencies have engaged in a disinformation campaign in Europe that mirrors their dissemination of "fake news" about the U.S. presidential campaign. The United States has alleged that Russia has deployed a land-based cruise missile in violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. And Russia has been accused of harassing — and even killing — political dissidents.
Some in the U.S. Congress seem to be agitating for a return to the Cold War, with a policy designed to contain the influence of Russia in the same way the United States and its allies contained the Soviet Union. Such a containment policy might involve a further expansion of NATO — perhaps even to include Ukraine. There have been suggestions that the United States needs to break out of the constraints imposed by nuclear arms agreements with Russia. That view was echoed, oddly enough, by President Trump, who recently complained that the 2010 New START treaty capping the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads was a "one-sided deal."
Russia has its defenders — or at least its explainers. They note that it has legitimate concerns about the expansion of Western influence into areas in which it historically has exercised influence — including Ukraine. After all, Russia has fought devastating wars on its borders — with the French in the 19th century and Hitler's Germany in the 20th, among others. They also argue that the United States should be willing to explore the possibility of cooperation with Russia on matters such as the defeat of Islamic State, controlling nuclear proliferation and promoting a political settlement in Syria. In exchange for such cooperation, they add, the United States should be willing to forgo criticism of Russia's domestic policies. As a candidate, Trump sometimes seemed to endorse that view.
As they decide how to deal with Russia, the president and his advisors — who include seasoned students of the U.S.-Russia relationship such as national security advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis — should aim for a balanced policy. It should be one that protects the interests of the United States and its allies, but also recognizes that Russia has legitimate geopolitical interests that must be considered.
The United States should keep lines of communication open, and that starting point for any dialogue between the United States and Russia is the solidarity of the NATO alliance. Ordinarily that wouldn't have to be noted, but Trump gave Russia false hope during the campaign by calling the alliance "obsolete."
Since he took office, Trump and his Cabinet officials have reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to the principle of collective defense and have made it clear that it applies equally to states that joined the alliance after the breakup of the Soviet Union — including the former Soviet states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Likewise, the United States and its allies must continue to impose sanctions on Russia to punish it for interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. But that doesn't rule out exploring new diplomatic approaches to resolving tensions in that country between pro-Western nationalists and Russian-speaking separatists — possibly including assurances that Ukraine wouldn't soon seek membership in NATO.
Reducing nuclear weapons and preventing their proliferation also must remain a cornerstone of relations with Russia. Trump has no reason to repudiate — in fact, he should consider negotiating an extension of — the New START treaty, while insisting on Russian compliance with that agreement and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Finally, the Trump administration, like its predecessors, must decide whether it is the role of the United States to promote democracy within Russia — and to what extent. The United States obviously should call attention to violations of civil and human rights wherever they occur, as the State Department does in its annual human rights reports. Members of Congress, likewise, are free to denounce Putin (as GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona did) as a "murderer and a thug." But it may be counterproductive for the president of the United States to use such language or for the U.S. government to involve itself in opposition political movements in Russia.
In an essay for the Center for the National Interest, Thomas Graham, a Russian expert, has called for "a new equilibrium, that is, a balance of cooperation and competition with Russia that reduces the risk of great-power conflict, manages geopolitical rivalry and constrains transnational threats." Under such an approach, the United States might address Russian concerns — about Ukraine joining NATO, for example — while reassuring U.S. allies.
One obstacle to such a policy, of course, is that Russia might not be interested in any measure of cooperation. The other is that the perception that Trump is "Putin's puppet" might make it difficult for the president to pursue common policies that might be in both countries' interest. How persistent that perception will be will depend on the outcome of the current investigations — and, of course, Trump's own words and actions.