Forget grand bargains
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.