President Trump with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin in Helsinki last July. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
Columnist

Russian claims this week that they’ve been exonerated by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s final report make my skin crawl. But they highlight the critical question of how the United States and Russia can begin to move back toward a saner relationship.

Frankly speaking (as Russians like to say), the first step is for Russia to stop pretending it didn’t interfere in the 2016 presidential election. The Kremlin got caught red-handed, one could say, and if it keeps claiming otherwise, it obstructs the dialogue it says it wants.

Moscow shouldn’t misjudge the moment. The special counsel’s report affirmed the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered during the 2016 race. Mueller’s strongest cases, in fact, were the indictments that detailed how 13 operatives from Russia’s Internet Research Agency manipulated social media, and how 12 GRU intelligence officers hacked Democratic Party information and passed stolen emails to WikiLeaks.

Russian commentators were nearly as jubilant as the White House, after Attorney General William P. Barr released his summary of the special counsel’s findings. “Significant taxpayer resources went into disproving an obvious fake,” crowed a Foreign Ministry statement. “The agents of conspiracy have been discredited,” tweeted Alexey Pushkov, a foreign policy expert in Russia’s parliament.

President Trump may enjoy the Kremlin fist pumps. But they’re the wrong way to restart a serious dialogue between Moscow and Washington. A restart won’t work unless it is founded on mutual trust between the two nations, as opposed to mutual back-scratching by Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Andrey Krutskikh, the Kremlin’s leading cyber expert, dropped a hankie in an article this week in the Moscow newspaper Kommersant. He said that “some voices” were reemerging in the United States, as opposed to ritual “anti-Russian propaganda.” He proposed that the two nations resume “depoliticized expert dialogue” about cybersecurity, such as the quiet conversations that took place during the Obama administration.

“Russia has nothing to fear — nor do we have anything to conceal,” Krutskikh said. He said the United States should agree to disclose the secret pre-election contacts between the United States and Russia in 2016 about U.S. “concerns over the intrusion into its electronic infrastructure.”

This sounds dubious; Russia was conducting a covert action against the United States, which means that it was deniable. Moscow’s statements in 2016 would reinforce its claim that it didn’t do what both U.S. intelligence and Mueller’s indictments say it did.

Chris Painter, who was the Obama administration’s top cyber diplomat, told me Wednesday that a resumption of working-level contacts about cyber would be fine. But he cautioned against any top-rank contacts about cyber issues now, because they might allow Russia to pretend the 2016 cyberattacks didn’t happen.

“If you resume high-level dialogue, that says everything’s okay — no harm, no foul,” explains Painter. This would be a mistake, he argues, because it would allow Moscow “to whitewash what has happened.” A policymakers’ discussion about cyber and other issues “has to have clearly defined goals and outcomes that advance our interests.”

What about a broader conversation between the United States and Russia — dealing with big, potentially explosive problems such as Ukraine, Syria and nuclear arms control? As with cyber issues, the answer is that the two sides need to talk, but they need to build a solid foundation.

“We should begin in a modest way, not with a full-up arms-control negotiation, but by starting an ongoing dialogue about strategic stability” argues Stephen J. Hadley, who was national security adviser for President George W. Bush. He suggests a range of confidence-building measures that might seek to avoid confrontations in outer space and cyberspace.

Hadley argues the basic rationale for a reset: “The lack of dialogue between the two countries is not in either country’s interest. It is also potentially dangerous.”

A warier view comes from Thomas Donilon, who served as national security adviser under President Barack Obama. He thinks the United States shouldn’t engage Russia until its own house is in better order — with full disclosure of the Mueller report on what the Russians did in 2016, better protection for U.S. election security and repair of the United States’ damaged alliances in Europe.

Trump administration officials argue that their Russia policy is based on U.S. interests. It has imposed sanctions when necessary, but has also tried to keep open channels between Trump and Putin. If officials have plans for any major post-Mueller opening, they don’t say so.

If Russia wants lasting improvement in its relations with the United States, it should stop its Trumpian gloating about the Mueller report and start rebuilding the basics of trust. Mueller’s apparent affirmation that there was “no collusion” creates some space for better relations, but if Trump supporters are Moscow’s only champions, any reset with Russia will blow a fuse.

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