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Better Late than Never: U.S. Engagement with Russia

May 14, 2015

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.


Other reading:

Russia and America: Stumbling to War

By Dimitri Simes and Graham Allison

“With 580 U.S. boots on the ground in Ukraine, what’s Vladimir Putin’s next move?”

By Josh Cohen

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Susanne E. Vandenbosch permalink
    May 14, 2015 4:35 pm

    We should stop trying to align the Ukraine with NATO.

  2. charles.clarkson permalink
    May 14, 2015 6:00 pm

    As usual, very important post and very well said. Good for John Kerry.

  3. Ernest Kolowrat permalink
    May 15, 2015 11:09 am

    Right on concerning that special envoy — and who is as qualified as Susan Eisenhower to take on that task? Beyond her obvious expertise and previous personal involvement in Soviet/Russian life, I believe her family pedigree would enable Putin to rationalize at home the concessions he may have to make abroad. That family pedigree would also help justify the concessions that will be necessary on our side. In short, Susan Eisenhower may well be the one person in a position to successfully mediate the nasty Ukrainian stand-off and establish a long term framework for U.S.-Russian amity before the situation spirals out of control.

  4. Tony DuPuis permalink
    May 15, 2015 6:07 pm

    I Love this article Susan…Your responses in the video are so well said… I’ll bet you are absolutely correct with the statement that so many are “CLUELESS”. Indeed… Who better than you to point out these important facts… Great commentary here! Thanks, in appreciation as always.🙂

  5. Jacob Kipp permalink
    February 25, 2016 5:35 pm

    Profoundly agree with the need for official Washington to tackle the question of the role of UKraine and Russia in a viable international order. Russia is critical because it, by its Geography, has a key role in a range of regional security systems – the Baltic, Central European, Balkan, Caucasian, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Far Eastern, and Arctic. Russia is not a super power, whatever that term means, but it is a great power and the solutions to problems in any of these regions require some element of Russian engagement. The Whig vision of driving Russia out of Europe has not worked and will not work. Confrontation is very appealing to many, but it is not a long-term solution. Hard negotiations will be required. We need leadership from people who know Russia and the Russians, and who can see a course to a future of promise and not perpetual conflict.

  6. November 11, 2016 7:05 am

    I cannot believe that we continue to have an outdated Electoral College. As you know, this is not the first time in American history that this has happened, e.g., Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, Rutherford Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden, Al Gore and George W. Bush, and now Donald Trump and Mrs. Clinton. Just as the progressives amended the constitution concerning the election of US Senators a century ago, we must abolish the Electoral College. Direct election of the president should be the constitutional rule. If we elected our presidents by popular vote, Secretary Clinton would be our president. This represents the will of the majority of Americans. I hope you feel the same way, Ms. Eisenhower.

    Your friend,

    Charles E. Miller, Jr., BA, Old Dominion University; MAR, Liberty University School of Divinity

  7. November 13, 2016 12:04 pm

    I believe it is terrible the way our nation’s people are reacting concerning the presidential election. It is true that I am a Nixonian Independent who supported Hillary Clinton for president; however, I feel it is terrible that some Clinton supporters are doing harm to supporters of Donald Trump. Something has to stop this madness. I hope that there are Democrats and Republicans who support me here.

  8. November 30, 2016 2:01 pm

    Dear Ms. Eisenhower,
    I would like to propose another amendment to the US Constitution. This is in relation to the offices of Vice President of the US and Secretary of State. I would like to see the vice president removed as president de facto of the Senate and merged with the office of Secretary of State. As President Hoover said in the 1950’s, the Senate can elect its own president. By making the vice president and Secretary of State the same office, this will give the vice president experience to use should he have to become president.

    Your friend,

    Charles Edward Miller

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