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If there is one piece of conventional wisdom that all experts on U.S.-Russian relations agree on, it’s that the relationship between the two countries is at its worst in decades. In Washington and Moscow, officials regularly trade accusations of violating long-standing conventions and agreements. Lawmakers in both capitals devise new legislation to punish each other. The worst stereotypes on both sides are rearing their heads again, including in the media. Wise heads counsel that the relationship will get worse before it gets even worse. Can anything be done to avoid that? To answer that question, it’s worth examining how five major elements of the bilateral U.S.-Russian relationship stack up right now.

The first element is the new coronavirus pandemic, which has eclipsed nuclear weapons as the most pressing facet of U.S.-Russian relations. Developing a vaccine and finding a cure for the disease must be the top priority—in terms of national security, the economy, and society—for both countries. Removing any barriers to meaningful scientific and medical cooperation in this area should be at the top of the list for both Washington and Moscow. That task is complicated considerably by enormous reservoirs of mistrust on both sides and the prevalence of every-man-for-himself thinking in a great many countries, not just the United States and Russia.

The second element is nuclear weapons and strategic stability—an area where the situation has deteriorated in the past few years. The nuclear arms control framework that Moscow and Washington inherited at the end of the Cold War is unraveling. In 2019, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty after uncovering that Russia had violated it—a charge that Russia has denied but the United States insists on, along with its European allies, who have independently corroborated it. In May 2020, the Trump administration announced its intention to pull out of the Open Skies Treaty.

The New START Treaty that limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons is due to expire in early 2021. It can be extended for an additional five-year term, but the current U.S. position that the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control framework should be expanded to include China puts its future in doubt. The possible demise of arms control and a range of new weapons technologies—including hypersonics, precision conventional, low-yield nuclear, cyber, and space weapons—hold out the prospect of a new U.S.-Russian arms race. It promises to be costly, destabilizing, and dangerous, especially since the U.S. and its allies’ and Russia’s militaries are facing each other along the new dividing line in Europe from the Arctic to the Black Sea. Military analysts on both sides of the divide theorize about limited nuclear war and such destabilizing concepts as “escalate to de-escalate.” New START does not deal with these new developments, but, if extended, could serve as the foundation for a new arms control framework. Preserving it would be better than starting from scratch.

Eugene Rumer
Rumer, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, is a senior fellow and the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program.
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That said, the issue of the INF Treaty will have to be addressed eventually. Either the intelligence agencies and policymakers of all NATO member states are wrong, and Russia did not violate the INF Treaty, or it did. If there are other explanations that can resolve this disagreement, they need to be heard—albeit in a much calmer political atmosphere than exists now. Russia has concerns about U.S. actions that—as Russian officials claim—violate the INF Treaty; they should also be addressed. If left unresolved, this issue will undercut the credibility of future discussions about arms control and strategic stability.

The third element is terrorism, which for nearly two decades was the driving concern of U.S. national security policy, and which experts on U.S.-Russian relations have held up as an area where cooperation could serve the interests of both countries. Terrorism remains a threat to U.S. interests abroad, U.S. allies, and the U.S. homeland, but cooperation with Russia in this area is a very, very distant prospect at best. The reasons for it are many: long-standing differences between the United States and Russia on the conduct of counterterrorist campaigns; deeply entrenched mistrust between the two countries’ security establishments; and, most recently, reports that Russian operatives paid Taliban (an organization designated as terrorist in Russia, albeit not in the United States) militants to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Needless to say, if U.S. officials come across a critical piece of information about an impending attack in Russia, it should and no doubt will be shared with Russian authorities. But beyond that, cooperation with Russia on combating terrorism will remain what it has always been—a sensible idea made impossible by real-world actions.

Crew members of the K-549 Borei-A-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine Knyaz Vladimir [Prince Vladimir] line up for a bread-and-salt ceremony to welcome their arrival at Gadzhiyevo naval base of the Russian Northern Fleet. Photo: Lev Fedoseyev/TASS

The fourth element is information wars, which have risen to the top of the U.S.-Russian agenda in the aftermath of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. One consequence has been a series of U.S. sanctions intended to deter and punish Russia. There are lessons here for both sides. For U.S. policymakers and the general public, the lesson is that the main problem is not Russian disinformation, but the intense level of political polarization inside the U.S. body politic and in the widespread embrace of fake news by prominent U.S. political figures, media outlets, and audiences. The experience with the coronavirus shows that Russian propaganda is far less consequential than disinformation distributed by Fox News and the White House. At the same time, for those in Russia who might be interested in better ties with the United States, it may be hard to escape the conclusion that interference in the 2016 campaign has poisoned the image of Russia in the United States, with lasting consequences for the relationship.

The final element is U.S.-Russian trade and economic relations, which can be described as stagnant at best and irrelevant at worst. Bilateral trade in 2019 amounted to less than $30 billion. Yet in the past few weeks and months, U.S. oil producers, investors, and policymakers have discovered that what Russia does in the global oil marketplace can be highly consequential. “Energy independence” is a double-edged sword, and while low oil prices benefit consumers, they now threaten important economic interests in the United States. For Russian energy companies, the near-term blow to U.S. oil producers as a result of the Saudi-Russian oil price war is unlikely to conceal the fact that, aside from questions about U.S. shale oil producers’ resilience, the bigger long-term threat to Russian oil and its economy as a whole is climate change and the world’s major economies’ gradual transition to green energy. The lesson here is that Russia plays a larger role in global trade than the relatively modest size of its economy and bilateral trade with the United States may suggest. With Russia and the United States among the top three oil producers in the world, there may be utility in restarting the energy dialogue begun early in this century in very different circumstances.

There is more on the U.S.-Russian agenda—not least Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, and, more recently, Libya—but the five issues outlined here comprise the bilateral U.S.-Russian agenda and need to be tackled first. The relationship did not get to this low point overnight, and it will not improve quickly. There is little chance of improvement before the 2020 U.S. presidential election. But afterward—regardless of who is elected in November—there will be a window of opportunity to change the course of the relationship. There will be a new team in Washington that seeks to develop a new domestic and foreign policy agenda. The challenge here will be not to attempt a new reset, or to sweep the existing differences aside, but to begin to manage them without false hopes or promises for a quick breakthrough. The key questions for that new team will be what really matters for the United States when it comes to Russia’s role on the global stage, and whether the current policy, which has been reduced to threatening or imposing sanctions to punish Russia, can deliver it. 

The relationship could also gain from Russian policymakers likewise asking what they want from it and whether their chosen course of action has delivered it. A lot will depend on what happens in Moscow. If 2020 becomes a repeat of Russian efforts to meddle in U.S. politics in 2016, the wise heads quoted above will be proven right, and the relationship will get worse before it gets even worse.