Better Late than Never: U.S. Engagement with Russia
Earlier this week Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Sochi, Russia. It was the first high-level visit of an American official since the Ukraine crisis began. Both sides reported that the meetings were “positive” and useful. According to Kerry, the investment of time helped him better understand Russia’s views. It makes you wonder, then, why it has taken so long for the two nuclear superpowers to engage one another.
As I said in a panel discussion at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference on April 29*, the conflict in Ukraine is not just a regional concern. The crisis has rapidly become a serious national security issue for the United States. Heightened tensions have developed between Moscow and Washington since the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February 2014, but the escalation was not hard to predict. Nor is it difficult to imagine the dangers for the United States in a scenario characterized by mistrust. The potential for military – even nuclear – miscalculation on either side is real.
During the Cold War, with nuclear capabilities in play, intensified high-level engagement was the chief tool for lessening tensions and preventing war. For instance, the objective of the Eisenhower Administration in engaging Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Berlin ultimatum and the U-2 crisis was to avert what Ike called “paranoid uncertainty.” At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, during the Kennedy Administration, high-level engagement was also constantly underway. Since the end of the Cold War, we have forgotten that the nuclear dimension still undergirds the U.S.-Russian relationship.
Until now, the Obama Administration has chosen to be a behind-the-scenes player, outsourcing the Ukrainian peace process to Germany and France. This approach has brought some symptomatic relief, but it has not addressed the heart of issue, which is the longer-range question of Ukraine and Russia’s place in the global system and their security within it.
In the Milken panel discussion, I emphasized that the United States and its allies desperately need a long-term strategy for the former Soviet republics. There appears to be only a few people in our nation’s capital who have given much thought to what it is we are trying to achieve in this current crisis, beyond the cessation of bloodshed. Do we have long-range goals that offer a road map that could lead, ultimately, to stability and the growth of an empowered middle class in all of the countries in question? Can we develop a strategy that will address each country’s deepest concerns about their own national security, while enhancing our own? The last thing the world needs is the collapse of Ukraine, a strategically located state. At the same time, it is not in the United States’ interest to help produce a failed nuclear superpower, or even one riddled with neighborhood conflicts and potential internal chaos.
Finally, without a long-term strategy, Ukraine, and to a lesser degree the other countries that trade with Russia, will continue to pay a price. More than six thousand people have already died in Ukraine. And ordinary citizens in this region have felt, directly or indirectly, the dislocation and pain of the sanctions. European companies, as well as some American ones, have also experienced significant set backs. There should be clear, unwavering benchmarks that must be met in order to lift the sanctions on Russia, and also, throughout the region, for receiving Western assistance.
In my remarks at the conference, I urged the Obama Administration to appoint a special envoy. If John Kerry is willing to commit the time it will take to fully engage the Ukrainians and the Russians to assure the success of the ceasefire—this will be a positive step. But even more importantly he should lead an effort to craft a sustainable security and economic strategy for the region, including Russia. If he cannot invest the time, a special envoy should be appointed at once, to follow up on the constructive meeting that apparently just occurred.
Many of us have been calling for some kind of high-level engagement with Russia on this issue for a long time. The Russians, in recent weeks, were publically suggesting such a meeting. Secretary Kerry deserves credit for taking them up on their offer.
Sometimes people forget that both the United States and Russia still have their nuclear weapons on “hair-trigger alert.” The time is now to give this dangerous situation the continuing high-level attention it deserves.
*Also on the panel were David Bonderman, Founding Partner of TPG; former German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg; and Ruben Vardanyan, Founder and Chairman of the RVVZ Foundation.
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