For­get grand bar­gains

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - By Thomas Gra­ham ● Thomas Gra­ham, a se­nior fel­low at the Jack­son In­sti­tute for Global Af­fairs, served as the se­nior di­rec­tor for Rus­sia on the U.S. Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil

What’s a grand bar­gain? Since Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion last Novem­ber, there has been much spec­u­la­tion about a U.S.-Rus­sia grand bar­gain, although it has faded dra­mat­i­cally in re­cent weeks amid far­reach­ing U.S. in­ves­ti­ga­tions of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in U.S. elec­tions last year and pos­si­ble col­lu­sion between Mr. Trump’s as­so­ciates and the Krem­lin.

It was never clear, how­ever, what the con­tent of a grand bar­gain would be.

In Rus­sia, the hope ap­peared to be that Wash­ing­ton would ac­cept Moscow’s views on the Syria and

Ukraine crises and lift the Ukraine sanc­tions in ex­change for Moscow’s co­op­er­a­tion against Is­lamic State in Syria and else­where in the Mid­dle East. That was pre­cisely what many in Wash­ing­ton feared.

Such a deal was never re­ally in the cards. Few in Wash­ing­ton be­lieve that Rus­sia is in­tent on fight­ing Is­lamic State. Its mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions ap­pear more fo­cused on sup­port­ing Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad against U.S.-backed mod­er­ate op­po­nents with le­git­i­mate griev­ances against his bru­tal regime. The U.S. mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence ser­vices, deeply dis­trust­ful of their Rus­sian coun­ter­parts, would have pushed back ag­gres­sively against any White House plan to deepen co­op­er­a­tion. Mean­while, the Ukraine cri­sis con­cerns much more than the fate of the Don­bas. At stake are the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of Euro­pean se­cu­rity and world or­der, dis­agree­ments over which can­not be swept away with a pres­i­den­tial hand­shake.

More­over, even a deal on Syria and Ukraine would have left much of great im­port and con­tention un­re­solved in U.S.-Rus­sian re­la­tions. The hard truth is that di­vi­sions between the two coun­tries are deeper now than they have been since the later stages of the Cold War. They in­volve ques­tions of world or­der, strate­gic sta­bil­ity, re­gional con­flicts in Europe, the Mid­dle East and East Asia — and val­ues. The two coun­tries es­pouse sharply dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions of sovereignty and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion, as demon­strated by the U.S. and Rus­sian ap­proaches to Kosovo and Crimea. They di­verge on when the use of force is le­git­i­mate: Look at U.S. con­dem­na­tion of Rus­sian mil­i­tary ac­tion against Ge­or­gia in 2008 and Rus­sian ques­tions about NATO op­er­a­tions in Libya in 2011. Rus­sia claims a sphere of priv­i­leged in­ter­ests in the for­mer Soviet space, which the United States cat­e­gor­i­cally re­jects.

Sim­i­larly, Rus­sia and the United States trade ac­cu­sa­tions over which side has vi­o­lated the In­ter­me­di­ate-range Nu­clear Forces (INF) Treaty and ar­gue over the im­pli­ca­tions of the U.S. mis­sile de­fense sys­tem and con­ven­tional strike forces for strate­gic sta­bil­ity. To Ukraine and Syria, add op­pos­ing po­si­tions on other con­flicts in the Mid­dle East and ap­proaches to Iran’s and North Korea’s nu­clear pro­grams that are out of sync, even if both coun­tries en­dorsed the Iran nu­clear deal and support sanc­tions against North Korea. The ide­o­log­i­cal di­vide might not be as great as dur­ing the Cold War, but the two coun­tries do not share a com­mit­ment to demo­cratic val­ues, and each side in­ter­feres in the do­mes­tic af­fairs of the other, even as it in­sists it does not.

There is no easy res­o­lu­tion to th­ese out­stand­ing prob­lems, and cer­tainly no truly grand bar­gain that would re­solve most, if not all, of them. The best that can be hoped for is a mu­tual com­mit­ment to man­age the dif­fer­ences in a way that avoids fall­ing into a con­fronta­tion that would ben­e­fit nei­ther side and risk cat­a­strophic dam­age given each side’s ar­se­nal of nu­clear, cy­ber and ad­vanced con­ven­tional weapons. At a time of deep ac­ri­mony, what is now called for are small steps. At the top of the list is re­open­ing the chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that were shut down with the erup­tion of the Ukraine cri­sis three years ago. Rus­sia and the United States need to be en­gaged in con­stant dis­cus­sion of the con­tentious is­sues between them to bet­ter un­der­stand each other’s in­ter­ests, per­spec­tives and goals so that they do not mis­read the other side and over­re­act at a time of cri­sis or mis­take an ac­ci­dent for a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt to harm. Even­tu­ally, th­ese dis­cus­sions might lead to deals, to the res­o­lu­tion of one or an­other prob­lem or iden­tify im­por­tant ar­eas for co­op­er­a­tion, but that will take time.

Each side could im­prove the at­mos­phere for such dis­cus­sions by ratch­et­ing down the hos­tile rhetoric about the other side. That would carry ben­e­fits not only for U.S.-Rus­sian re­la­tions but for the do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tion in each coun­try. The de­mo­niza­tion of the other side de­flects at­ten­tion from the hard truth that the main do­mes­tic prob­lems each coun­try con­fronts are largely home-grown and ag­gra­vated by poor pol­icy. They are not the work of some dark con­spir­acy by the other side.

In short, for­get about grand bar­gains. Small steps are the or­der of the day in U.S.-Rus­sian re­la­tions. The sooner the two sides get on with the hard work at hand, the bet­ter off both sides will be.

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