The US-Russian relationship is in a downward spiral. President Donald Trump just grudgingly signed a bill imposing additional sanctions on Russia, while Russian President Vladimir Putin angrily ordered 755 US diplomats to leave the country.
The additional sanctions will have two effects: For one thing, they are likely to harm Russia’s economy by chilling the country’s investment climate. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev promptly called them “a declaration of a full-fledged trade war on Russia.”
Perhaps more importantly, it will now become even more difficult for Trump -- unable to remove the sanctions without Congressional approval -- to achieve his oft-stated desire to improve relations between Moscow and Washington.
Nonetheless, Trump is right. Russia and the US should be able to work together. And, in spite of the acrimony over the latest sanctions, there are ways that to get that done.
The difficulty of working with Putin should not be underestimated. But it’s overwhelmingly in American national security interests to try and reboot the relationship with the world’s other major nuclear superpower.
The two sides possess over 14,000 nuclear weapons between them and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently moved its “Doomsday Clock” to two and one half minutes to midnight -- meaning it considers the risk of nuclear war to be at its highest since 1953.
Trump, however, cannot simply rely on his developing rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin to improve the situation. Rather, the US president needs to create an institutional government-to-government structure to support this objective. Luckily for Trump, his predecessors have set him a precedent.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin established the so-called “Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission,” named after Vice President Al Gore and then Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, to promote cooperation between numerous US and Russian agencies. It resulted in numerous achievements, including the disposal of Russian weapons-grade plutonium and uranium as well as an improvement in the safety and security of nuclear weapons stockpiles.
The Bipartisan Presidential Commission launched by Barack Obama and Medvedev in 2009 was even more ambitious. Composed of 18 working groups across a variety of sectors, the Obama-Medvedev commission produced a number of impressive achievements that advanced American interests.
In the area of arms control and non-proliferation, the two sides began implementation of the New START nuclear arms control treaty and also signed an agreement to dispose of enough weapons-grade plutonium to produce 17,000 nuclear weapons.
Obama-Medvedev also furthered Washington’s interest in containing Iran, with Russia announcing in 2010 that it was cancelling an agreement to sell the advanced S-300 air defense system to the Iranians.
Improving ties with Moscow may well be impossible. But the US-Russian relationship is too important for Trump not to try
Beyond these two achievements, the Obama-Medvedev Commission resulted in the two sides jointly combating Pakistani and Afghan drug trafficking; permission from Moscow for US forces to transit Russia on their way to Afghanistan; increased sales of US-produced commercial aircraft to Russian companies and even an increase in cultural and people-to-people exchanges.
The US froze its participation in the commission to protest against Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 -- an important gesture, but against the US’s own national security interests. Still, Trump could propose to Putin that Washington and Moscow restart Russian-American engagement by re-creating a similar co-operative structure modeled on the Gore-Chernomyrdin and Obama-Medvedev Commissions.
While the impetus for reviving cooperation must come from Trump and Putin themselves, the on-going investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Trump’s connections with Russia means the president would be wise to create at least some space between himself and any initiative to create a new institutional structure.
One option is for Trump and Putin to delegate responsibility for managing it to their deputies, Vice President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Medvedev. The “Pence-Medvedev Commission” could then start with a small number of sub-groups aimed at mitigating the greatest threats to US national security.
For example, a nuclear arms control and proliferation sub-group could begin discussions on either extending New START beyond its February, 2021 expiration date or sign a new treaty that would supersede New START.
Another possible working group should include Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, with the goal of restarting the largely-frozen military-to-military communications between NATO and Russia.
Given the numerous mid-air incidents between US and Russian planes in Europe, both sides need some kind of official military-to-military communications channel to avoid an incident which could spiral catastrophically out of control.
A third working group could be tasked with looking for ways to cooperate in Syria and seek opportunities to coordinate in the fight against Islamic State.
In addition, a cyber working group should be established to establish rules for cyber activities. As one analyst noted, this would provide the US a forum to emphasise to Russia that any indications that Moscow is using hackers to meddle in US elections would result in serious consequences for Russia.
These could include either additional sanctions against Russia or perhaps even a US effort to harm the Kremlin by revealing information such as Putin’s relationship with Russia’s oligarchs or embarrassing him by digging-up dirt on corruption in his inner circle.
Finally, both sides would need to agree in advance that the work of Pence-Medvedev Commission would need to be isolated from the broader tensions in the US-Russian relationship.
To be clear, significant impediments to any successful “Pence-Medvedev Commission” exist. First and foremost, Trump would almost certainly face significant domestic political constraints to improving the US-Russian relationship, especially with the rapidly developing investigation of alleged Russian collusion with the Trump campaign continuing to dog the White House. Democrats and even some Republicans are likely to slam Trump for any effort to improve relations with Moscow.
Trump will likely face significant pushback within his own administration as well. Both Mattis and national security adviser HR McMaster favour a tougher line with Moscow, and there is mounting frustration among Trump’s top foreign policy advisers over US policy drift and disorganisation.
On the Russian side meanwhile, Putin seems likely to run for re-election in 2018, and as the campaign ramps up Russian policy makers may be too distracted to pursue comprehensive engagement with Washington.
Moreover, if Putin dumps Medvedev -- the subject of graft allegations that sparked anti-Kremlin street protests earlier this year -- it could further muddy the political environment in Moscow and hinder the Kremlin from undertaking any ambitious rapprochement with Washington.
Improving ties with Moscow may well be impossible. But the US-Russian relationship is too important for Trump not to try.
Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union. This article first appeared on Reuters.