Breaking the US-Russia Impasse: Keeping the Door Open to Dialogue

By Hall Gardner

4 September 2017

This article was first published by The Russian International Affairs Council on 28 June 2017—see here for the original—and is republished with the kind permission of the author.

Relations between the US and Russia appear to be almost at the point of no return. Whether justified or not, each side has accused the other of interfering in their respective election processes. Moscow has accused the United States of backing protests that opposed the results of Russia's parliamentary elections in 2011, and of directly interfering in the Russian presidential elections in March 2012 that brought Vladimir Putin to power. Washington has also accused Moscow of interfering in the November 2016 presidential elections that brought Donald Trump to power.

These are serious issues that directly impact domestic politics and popular attitudes. Accusations of interference in the electoral systems raise questions about the legitimacy of the electoral process and about the leaders that are chosen.(2) Such issues can make it even more difficult for the respective administrations to reconcile complex issues and disputes.

A number of key issues and disputes are already proving difficult to resolve, not even considering the added problem caused by accusations of mutual election interference. These include security concerns and disputes revolving around NATO and European Union enlargement, Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, as well as the nature of the conventional and nuclear arms race that has been escalating at least since the turn of the 21st century.

In June 2017, Moscow cancelled talks with Washington in protest against the new political and economic sanctions placed on Moscow for its annexation of Crimea and its political military interference in eastern Ukraine. In the struggle against violent extremism, the US, Europeans and Russia generally agree on the need to control the Islamic State. However, there has been a significant lack of coordination that has been further antagonizing relations.

First, NATO-member Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft in November 2015 — an action that tested the NATO-Russia relationship, even if Turkey and Russia eventually came to terms in the aftermath. Then, in early April 2017, the US fired 59 cruise missiles at Syrian airbase on grounds that the Syrian military had allegedly used chemical weaponry.(3) The US likewise refused to participate in a conference involving 11 regional actors on the conflict in Afghanistan, which had been sponsored by Moscow on April 14. In June 2017, the US military downed a Syrian aircraft that was purportedly threatening US-backed Syrian Democratic Force militias, which Washington says were fighting the Islamic State. For its part, Damascus claims that its fighter jet was likewise attacking Islamic State forces.

The latter incident led Russian Ministry of Defense to announce that it would suspend the de-escalation discussions with the US and that any Coalition aircraft flying west of the Euphrates River would be tracked and "considered air targets”. By contrast, the US chief of staff of the Air Force claimed that the de-confliction line "remains open… So our hope of course is that we return to a little bit sense of normalcy and we continue to keep the dialogue open”. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson likewise affirmed that the US remains committed to future discussions about eastern Ukraine and Crimea, as well as Afghanistan.

But given increasingly bitter imprecations, and question remains: For how long will the possibility of dialogue remain open? And how profound will that dialogue prove to be?

This essay will propose some questions for a more profound discussion that is intended to provoke thought about the future of US-European-Russian relationship. These questions seek to keep the door open to a discussion of realistic options that could help lead to the eventual resolution of a number of disputes.

Read the full essay in the attached PDF

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