The history of relations between the United States and Russia demonstrates that there is no substitute for personal contacts between the leaders of the two countries…
Presidents Trump and Putin appear set to hold a summit meeting in July. This will be their third in-person meeting even though both leaders have made statements about how they have a positive working relationship and that they have spoken often by phone.
The U.S. domestic political climate on Russia is especially fraught at present. The White House is at odds with the Justice Department “Russia investigation” team led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has reportedly sought to question President Trump. At the same time, momentum is building ahead of November’s midterm elections, with leaders from both parties warning about the risks of further “Russian meddling.”
In Russia there is widespread skepticism about any Trump-Putin meeting. Pundits and opinion-makers raise doubts about whether Trump can deliver on any significant matters important to Moscow. The predominant mood is that the U.S. president remains a hostage to the unanimously anti-Russian Washington establishment and that any agreement with him can be overruled by the U.S. Congress or even by his own administration.
Yet what should be in the forefront of the minds of both presidents is the dangerous state of U.S.-Russia relations, and its consequences for the interests of both countries and for global security.
Since the end of the Cold War, and perhaps even since the early 1980s, Moscow and Washington have never been closer to direct military confrontation, a consequence of increasing deployments, exercises, and operations by air, sea, and ground forces from the Baltic region to the Middle East. In some cases, Russian and NATO forces have nearly come into hostile contact, and escalation has been avoided by only the narrowest of margins.
Both Russia and the United States are set to invest billions in modernizing their nuclear arsenals, which, although positive from a safety and reliability standpoint, create the impression of a new “arms race,” as the presidents acknowledged in a March phone call. An especially worrying new dimension to the nuclear risk is the possibility that cyber attacks by states or non-state actors could lead either party to raise its nuclear alert level, thus triggering a matching response from the other side, and possibly touching off a dangerous escalatory cycle.
The forthcoming Trump-Putin meeting cannot resolve fundamental problems between Washington and Moscow. Neither leader would or should make unilateral concessions on matters he views as critical to his country’s national security. However, the meeting might open a path toward stabilizing the relationship, which under the circumstances, would be an important accomplishment in itself.
A simple but vital step toward such de-escalation could be for the two presidents to reiterate the joint view of Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev from their 1986 Reykjavik summit, that “a nuclear war cannot be won, and so should never be fought.” In fact, thirty-two years ago the U.S. and Soviet leaders discussed the possibility of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether, a goal which then Presidents Obama and Medvedev confirmed and supported in 2009.