US-Russia relationes under Donald Trump

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Clifford Kupchan, Valdai Club.- Donald Trump’s unexpected victory does little to change the structural challenges facing US-Russian relations. Trump and President Vladimir Putin seem likely to have a solid personal relationship, and that’s important. But the sides must make every effort to successfully make progress on the core issues – where agreement has been elusive.

The key to stabilizing and then hopefully improving bilateral ties lies in three arenas: arms control, terrorism, and cyber space. Regarding arms control, the two nations retain roughly 4,000 warheads deployed and 9,000 including in stockpile. The sides can and should reduce those numbers. At the very least, the US and Russia should prepare to renew New Start – which will lapse in 2021. Progress on arms control will entail very difficult talks, agreements, and compromises on advanced conventional weapons, militarization of space, and missile defense.

Turning to terrorism, reaching a higher level of cooperation should be attainable. Both nations have suffered very painful terrorist attacks, and robust cooperation is a truly shared interest. The first step is restoring a higher level of bilateral trust, so that more intelligence sharing occurs. Nations need not be “allies” to effectively cooperate and share information against terrorism, now arguably the world’s greatest security threat. While the US and Russia need to come to a better common understanding of “terrorism,” cooperation need not wait. In Syria for example, there is full agreement that both ISIS and al Nusra fully fit on the terrorist list. Under President-elect Trump, there’s a reasonable chance the two sides will undertake coordinated strikes against both groups – while taking extreme measures to avoid collateral damage and protect innocent civilians.

Cyber space is a new frontier. Both sides must work harder to develop common norms in the cyber arena, and to ensure that potentially escalating cyber intrusions do not occur. The political and economic systems of Russia, the US, and all leading economies of the world are vulnerable, and the Trump Administration must work with Russia and other nations to preempt this threat.

These structural issues are ultimately more important than personalities, so neither side should believe that a change of leaders will necessarily produce better relations. Beyond that fact, much will depend on who Trump appoints to key foreign policy and defense positions. His advisors include both centrist Republicans and very hard line members of the party. Who has the president’s ear will very much matter. Finally, public opinion in both countries is relevant. Currently, citizens of both nations are quite suspicious. US and Russian leaders will have more leeway to improve relations if the citizens warm to the idea of closer relations.

Clifford Kupchan is Chairman and Practice Head, Eurasia Group

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