Dimitri K. Simes
August 13, 2017
Note: this article is part of a symposium on U.S.-Russia relations included in the September/October 2017 issue of the National Interest.
Improving the dangerously unstable U.S.-Russia relationship will be very difficult, but it is important for U.S. national security. Current mutual hostility threatens an explosive confrontation that could destroy American (and Russian) civilization as we know it. Short of that, Russia can do much more than it is today to damage U.S. interests and values without taking extreme risks. Accordingly, the United States should explore normalizing its interaction with Russia. Washington should do so without illusions, and from a position of strength.
Today, America and Russia are adversaries with different approaches to key international issues, different systems of government and, in many respects, different values. Each confronts domestic obstacles to efforts to establish better relations. These obstacles are particularly challenging in the United States, where Congress, the mainstream media and much of the American public view Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a vicious enemy akin to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, if not Hitler’s Germany. Unlike China, Russia has only limited economic interaction with America—and therefore few Americans see a practical positive side to contacts with Russia.
President Putin has much greater latitude in shaping his country’s foreign policy, including exploring a new beginning with Washington. Yet in a period of economic difficulty before Russia’s 2018 presidential election, Putin is loath to appear weak under foreign pressure.
At the same time, Washington and Moscow continually calculate how their relationship affects their close partners. Thus, for example, Russia cannot disregard how China and Iran might react if they perceive Russia as accommodating the United States on North Korea, Syria or other issues—especially if Moscow’s flexibility compromises their interests.