From Rossiiskaya gazeta, Aug. 31, 2020, p. 10. Complete text:
The recent US Democratic and Republican party conventions took place without any bombshells. They merely reaffirmed the lineup of forces that has emerged in both parties ahead of the November presidential election. Predictably, the Republicans unanimously supported incumbent President Donald Trump, and the Democrats threw their support behind former vice-president Joe Biden.
Moscow, as well as the rest of the world, scrutinized the candidates’ statements on foreign policy and international security. There were no revelations there, either. Both candidates, in their own characteristic manner and style, presented long-known positions that boil down to asserting US global leadership. (All heated debate in the US political establishment essentially revolves around nothing more than the most appropriate means of achieving that main objective.)
As for relations with Russia, naturally, the candidates made de rigueur, ritual statements, parroting previous oft-repeated refrains and not even trying to substantiate their stances in any way, let alone analyze possible options for collaborating with Moscow amid the rapidly changing world situation.
Although it is true that positions on key issues are usually fleshed out after a new president is sworn in, both parties nevertheless outlined for the US and world public their views on some specific issues. For example, the response from members of the US administration and opposition leaders to the latest events in Belarus and to the recent incident with [leading Russian opposition figure] Aleksei Navalny is noteworthy [see, respectively, Vol. 72, No. 33, pp. 3‑7 and No. 34‑35, pp. 13‑16]. That reaction was extremely harsh, so we can already conclude that both candidates have prepared punitive measures for Russia, not constructive proposals for resuming dialogue.
Of course, it would be wrong to say there are no sensible politicians in the US. There are plenty. This is evidenced, in particular, by a recent open letter signed by 103 prominent experts, including high-ranking diplomats, government and military officials. The signatories roundly criticized Washington’s current approach toward Russia, since it is based solely on unsuccessful attempts to back Russia into a corner and force it to capitulate. They urged Washington to immediately restore full-fledged diplomatic dialogue with Moscow. Regrettably, the voices of realists among the US political elite are still not as strong as we would like.
On the other hand, it must be said that the current prevailing mindset in Russia is also to play hardball with the US. Maybe this is not as noticeable in Moscow as it is in Washington, but it does not change the fact. From all indications, both capitals are setting themselves up for a long standoff.
Stripped of political and diplomatic subtleties, the parties’ positions are based on the same logic. Each one assumes the other will interpret any initiative to resume dialogue as a forced concession, a sign of weakness, and thus only provoke more intense pressure. So the logic is that it is better to wait, change nothing and toughen one’s position even more to outplay the opponent: Let the other side lose its nerve, run out of patience and take the first step. All these years, we have been waiting for precisely that first step, and this has put Russian-US relations in their deepest crisis yet, which will be very difficult to overcome.
There are no intrinsically insoluble problems in politics or diplomacy. Problems are eventually solved one way or another. Either one side loses or both sides do, or the sides assess their threats in a timely manner and compromise, leading to a win-win.
Compromise on vital issues is always difficult, and it is particularly hard considering the years of deteriorating relations and the complete lack of mutual trust. Without compromise, political risks for the US, Russia and the rest of the world are growing not just with each year, but with each month. This is very clear to seasoned international experts, including those with cold war experience. Intensive consultations are currently under way at several expert platforms to come up with recommendations for launching a process to reduce international tension. The overwhelming majority of participants in these expert dialogues agrees that a positive shift in Russian-US relations could prompt normalization of the international situation in general.
Granted, concrete ideas are rather scarce at the moment, for understandable reasons. Still, it seems that there are some realistic ideas and proposals that take both parties’ interests into account. One such proposal is for the Russian and US presidents to issue a joint statement to the effect that there can be no winners in a nuclear war. Such a statement was already made by [former Soviet president] Mikhail Gorbachev and [former US president] Ronald Reagan, in their day. If the Kremlin and the White House reaffirmed it now, this would undoubtedly improve the current international situation, which is far more complicated and dangerous. Another proposal is to extend the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms [New START] without delay and without any preconditions, while at the same time launching intensive consultations on a broad range of strategic stability issues. There are also other proposals that are being communicated to the two countries’ political leadership through various channels.
Based on my own experience, I would venture to make a proposal that I have already discussed with the US side and that I believe is still relevant. In the current geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the US, the sides are understandably prioritizing security issues. At the same time, an objective analysis of real threats shows that most of the challenges facing our countries stem not from each other, but from third parties. In this context, it would make sense to hold high-level Russian-US consultations – for example, between the Russian Security Council and the US National Security Council – to assess both sides’ perceptions of the hierarchy of international threats and challenges. Such analysis might not lead to immediate reconciliation, but it could facilitate better understanding of the situation and the other side’s logic, as well as open the prospect for future bilateral cooperation – at least in areas where the sides’ interests might overlap.
Let me provide a historical example. In 1999, at the end of [former US president Bill] Clinton’s second term, Washington was seriously considering withdrawing from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty). Discussion of that issue with Russia on a diplomatic level reached an impasse. And then the Russian side proposed an expanded discussion involving military experts from both countries. Such a meeting took place at the Pentagon, with top diplomats leading the Russian and US delegations. As a result of that discussion, the Clinton administration decided to postpone withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. Regrettably, the treaty ultimately could not be saved, and in 2002, the next administration, led by [then US president George W.] Bush, unilaterally pulled out of the treaty [see Vol. 53, No. 50, pp. 1‑2]. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of constructive political dialogue was preserved, which enabled the Russian and US presidents to sign the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty in May 2002.
Attempts to offer problem-solving advice, let alone ready-made solutions, always risk drawing a firestorm of criticism. That is understandable and explicable. But sometimes even a negative reaction to new ideas can serve as an important stimulus. A search for arguments compels critics to take a new look at a problem and see nuances they had not noticed before.