SPRING TIME IN MOSCOW

By Harlan Ullman

Moscow: Given the chilly if not frozen relations between America and Russia these days, the annual Moscow International Security Conference (MISC) is a good place to take stock of where, how or if a thaw is even remotely possible. With the decisions to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF); New START in jeopardy; continued increases in NATO and U.S. defense spending; and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of super weapons to challenge the West, the outlook for favorable change is not promising.

Further, while the Mueller investigation has ended and the redacted version just released, a constitutional crisis could be lurking. The raison d’être for the probe was Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections. Every American intelligence agency agreed that this intervention took place authorized at the highest levels of the Kremlin. Several Russian military intelligence officers in the GRU were indicted in absentia.

Donald Trump however prefers to believe Mr. Putin that the Russian government was not complicit despite the contrary intelligence. As with the leaders of North Korea and China, Mr. Trump seems to have reached a modus vivendi with the Russian president. Good personal relations between leaders of competitive and even rival states can be positive provided national interests trump friendship. Regardless, Democrats will press hard to see the full Mueller Report dismissing the president’s excusal of Moscow and his denial of collusion and conspiracy.

Putin continues to play a weak hand with skill. Following the Crimea grab, Putin’s intervention into Middle East politics meeting with regional leaders on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict; the sale of S-400 surface to air missiles to Turkey; engagement in Syria; and efforts to sow disruption in NATO are advancing Moscow’s influence and prestige. Nor was placing a handful of troops in Venezuela missed by many observers.

A seeming detente with China including a large oil deal and Russian arms sales suggests that the Moscow-Beijing axis is strengthening. Putin has also cut defense spending in order to boost public sector accounts and mitigate the negative effects of increasing retirement age. This may keep Putin’s opinion polls well into the high 60 percent range. Although well below his once astronomical ratings, they are still more than 20 points higher than Donald Trump’s scores in America.

While Trump may wish to seek better relations with Russia, China and North Korea, Congress sees each as an adversary if not outright enemy. Russia is held in particularly harsh light especially after the assassination attempts in England against a former GRU officer and his daughter. Thus, should the president move in a more positive direction towards Moscow, he would be opposed on a bipartisan basis.

Under these rather grim circumstances, what if anything can be done? As this column has long held, both presidents ought to convene a lengthy summit lasting days not hours to see where progress might be made between both nuclear superpowers. Placing a moratorium or freeze on INF might be a good start allowing both sides to attempt to resolve the violations alleged by Moscow and Washington. Extending military to military talks is always a useful confidence building measure. While the Minsk II process over Ukraine may be dead in the water, are there alternative courses of action available to de-escalate the conflict?

Perhaps both sides might commit to a mutual draw down of forces beginning in Kaliningrad and the Baltic states as first step. Preparations to continue New Start should be reinforced. And more Duma and Congressional exchange visits should be undertaken.

None of these efforts alone will improve relations. However, it is foolish for NATO and the U.S. and Russia to engage in an unnecessary arms race or aggravate an already tense situation if both can be avoided. It is also unhelpful that for at least half a decade, Moscow viewed NATO as the enemy and both the Obama and Trump administrations have directed the Pentagon to deter and if war should come defeat a number of potential adversaries with Russia and China atop the list.

War would be catastrophic and even limited war, if possible, would be very destructive. Yet, too many wars began for no good reason or reasons that turned out just to be no good. While neither side has any intention of starting a war, neither is prepared to act on that assumption or take steps to defuse the many differences.

Unlike the Cold War, one of the most difficult problem areas is the ability to use social media and active measures to interfere in domestic politics. Putin finds this irresistible. But resist he must if we are to find a way out of this geostrategic cul d’sac.