Alexander Vershbow, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, is a former NATO deputy secretary general and a former ambassador to Russia, South Korea and NATO.
President Trump is once again floating the idea of a summit with Vladimir Putin. Trump still seems to believe there’s a grand bargain to be forged with Russia, if he can just get in the room with the Russian president. The grand bargain is a grand illusion.
We all would like to halt the downward spiral in U.S. relations with Moscow. But wishing for a better relationship won’t make it so. Fundamental differences cannot easily be overcome. A durable improvement cannot be achieved by sweeping those differences under the rug or by throwing sovereign countries such as Ukraine under the bus — as Trump apparently did during the recent Group of Seven summit . It is only possible if we stick to our principles and insist on changes in the Russian behavior that led to the breakdown in relations.
By illegally annexing Crimea, waging an undeclared war in eastern Ukraine, and occupying large swaths of Georgia’s and Moldova’s territory, Putin’s Russia has torn up the international rule book and firmly established itself as a revisionist power, undermining the basis for cooperation on European security. In Syria, Putin has not been fighting the Islamic State but propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime and giving a strategic foothold to Iran, increasing the threat to Israel. On arms control, Putin has withdrawn from some agreements and flagrantly violated others, including the 1987 INF Treaty. He has systematically sought to interfere in Western elections and discredit our democratic institutions, along with NATO and the European Union.
In short, Putin defines Russia’s interests in opposition to the West and isn’t interested in compromising on the issues of concern to us. His hostility is driven, first and foremost, by domestic politics. Moscow fears the encroachment of Western ideas and values and their potential to contaminate Russia itself and ultimately undermine the regime. This means Putin and his propaganda machine will continue to promote the narrative of a Russia under siege, a Russia that is standing up to a hostile, Russophobic West that wants to weaken Russia rather than respect it as a great power.
This siege mentality will remain in place for the foreseeable future, since the Putin system can no longer deliver on prosperity or improve living standards without fundamental reforms — reforms that would mean liberalizing the regime more than Putin believes would be safe.
In these circumstances, we should give up on the fantasy of a grand bargain with Putin in favor of strategic patience. The best we may be able to do in the short term is to manage the competition and reduce the risk of direct conflict, both through strong deterrence and by using Cold War tools such as arms control and military transparency.
Strategic patience doesn’t mean being passive. We should continue to stand up for our values and support what’s left of civil society in Russia. We should engage in dialogue with the Russian government and try to cooperate on the few subjects where our interests may overlap, such as North Korea. And we should continue to provide off-ramps on issues such as eastern Ukraine.
On most issues, however, we should expect Russia to be more interested in playing the spoiler — seeking to diminish U.S. influence rather than pursuing win-win solutions. We may need to wait until Putin leaves the scene before there can be a real change for the better in our relations with Moscow.
This doesn’t mean that Trump should not have a summit with Putin in the coming months. But the president should aim for more than a nice photo op. He should tell Putin that our governments should work on preparing realistic deliverables before we set the date for a summit meeting. And he should coordinate with our allies and Congress, whose support and solidarity could strengthen his hand with Moscow.
What sorts of measures could be agreed upon? To lower the risk of accidental military conflict, we could seek an understanding with Moscow to reduce the size of military exercises in Europe and to strengthen existing agreements on advance notification and observation of exercises. We could suggest deepening the military-to-military dialogue between NATO and Russia, and expand information-sharing on terrorist threats. We could propose visits to U.S. and Russian military facilities for on-site inspections that could resolve each side’s concerns about noncompliance with the INF Treaty, before that historic agreement collapses. We could even call for a mutual stand-down in cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and election machinery — though without expecting Russia to admit what it did in interfering in the 2016 elections.
Agreement on such steps won’t transform the relationship. But it could halt the downward spiral and create space for tackling more difficult issues, such as Russian withdrawal from eastern Ukraine. It may go against Trump’s instincts to rigorously prepare for a summit in this way, but the results would be far more substantial than what was achieved in Singapore.