The Right Approach to Russia Relations

President Trump’s recent meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has caused a great deal of criticism from both the right and the left. This criticism is well warranted, and the President should follow an alternative and vastly different path.

Throughout history, the relationship between Moscow and Washington has varied massively based on current events. Our countries were allies during World War II, yet immediately after the war, American-Soviet tensions were at an all time high, with disputes over Europe, the Marshall Plan, Korea, and China (among others) ushering in the Cold War. By the start of the 1950's, the USA and the USSR were fierce rivals on the world stage.

The history of post-war relations with Russia shows us that the leaders who took a firm stand towards Russia ultimately had the most success in improving relations. On the flip side, leaders in America that were conciliatory towards Moscow from the very beginning were frequently taken advantage of.

After becoming president in 1977, Jimmy Carter sought to improve relations with the Soviet Union. In several areas he sought to diffuse tension, and had some success, signing an important arms control treaty with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. However, the Soviet leadership engaged in one of it’s most consequential and aggressive acts—invading Afghanistan to support a pro-Soviet government that had struggled to hold on to power since taking control in 1978. The Soviet military and their Afghan Communist allies engaged in violent suppression of political opponents and the country collapsed into a civil war that it still has not recovered from.

Carter was appalled by the Soviet action and took a firm stand against it. But it is undoubtedly true that the Soviet leadership took advantage of Carter’s intentions. Carter had worked towards an arms control treaty. A relatively common belief among advocates of detente argued that if these treaties were advanced, the Soviets would cease aggressive activity elsewhere. Had this held true, the Carter administration’s policies would have been effective, but the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan dashed these hopes.

When George W. Bush became president in 2001, he sought to move beyond Cold War tensions and forge a constructive relationship with Russia. Bush famously remarked that he could ‘get a sense of [Putin’s] soul.’ However, in the closing years of the Bush presidency, Putin’s government invaded its tiny and largely powerless neighbor Georgia, with whom tensions had been building for some time. In 2003 Georgia had ousted Eduard Shevardnadze – a former Soviet foreign minister who had been the pro-Moscow leader of Georgia for a decade. When a pro-Western leader emerged in his place, Moscow took a hard-line stance against Georgia’s nascent new regime and encouraged separatist movements there. Ultimately, the 2008 invasion did not lead to a prolonged war, but it was another example of Russia taking advantage of Western amiability.

When tensions erupted between Georgia and Russia in 2008, American secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and her German counterparts offered a mediation process that allowed for one of Moscow’s main demands and declined to demand the reassertion of Georgian authority over the separatist regions. Despite a generous offer of resolution, Putin used force to invade Georgia soon after.

Finally, Barack Obama promised a “reset” with Russia. In 2012, he ridiculed Mitt Romney’s statement that Russia was a foe of the United States. And yet, during Obama’s second term, the Putin regime in Russia engaged in what is arguably it’s most aggressive act to date. After protests in Ukraine toppled the pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych, Russia assisted pro-Russian separatists in Crimea (without any international recognition) secede from Ukraine and join Russia. It sponsored separatists in Eastern Ukraine, was connected to the shoot down of a civilian passenger airliner, and ultimately used hacking and misinformation to disrupt the United States presidential election. Additional allegations claim that Russia has intervened or attempted to intervene in elections in France.

Time and again it is shown that when America gives ground to Russia, they are happy to take it.

Richard Nixon had long been a strong anti-communist. He won election to Congress by attacking his opponent as soft on communism and had played a major role in the investigation into supposed communist espionage in the US Government. He promised a hard line against communism as president. And yet, Nixon was able to effectively engage in negotiations with the USSR to great effect. In 1972, he signed with Brezhnev both the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and an anti-ballistic missile agreement. His Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was able to reach an agreement that ended (for a time) the fighting in Vietnam by negotiating with the pro-Soviet North Vietnamese government. And Nixon’s inroads with the Communist bloc also extended to Moscow’s rival in China: his opening of Communist China to America and to the world remains one of his key legacies.

A decade later, Ronald Reagan came to office promising a tough stand against the Soviet Union. He boldly called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” noted that they would commit any crime to accomplish their goals, and worked to counteract Soviet backed aggression around the world. Reagan was able to form a productive and highly friendly relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The two made great progress on arms control and were able to conduct important negotiations at both the Geneva and Reykjavik Summits. Ultimately, Reagan succeeded in turning the tide against the Soviet Union, while at the same time improving relations with Moscow.

Trump’s desire to improve relations with Russia would not only be a positive development in the world, but is also a laudable goal. But at the Helsinki Summit, Trump declined to acknowledge Putin’s involvement in election meddling and Russia’s destabilizing role in the world. Trump may feel that this is the way to diffuse tension. History tells us this is not the case. Russia respects strength and resolve from America – and with our allies in NATO and around the world – will not only project American strength, but will reassure our allies and will ultimately lead Russia to the negotiating table with the United States. This is the correct path towards a strong America, a more peaceful world, and better US-Russian relations.