U.S. and Western relations with Russia remain challenged as Russia increasingly reasserts itself on the global stage. Russia remains driven by a worldview based on existential threats—real, perceived, and contrived. As a vast, 11-time zone Eurasian nation with major demographic and economic challenges, Russia faces multiple security dilemmas internally and along its vulnerable and expansive borders. Exhibiting a reactive xenophobia stemming from a long history of destructive war and invasion along most of its borders, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and perceived Western slights, Russia increasingly threatens others and lashes outward. However, time is not on Russia’s side, as it has entered into a debilitating status quo that includes unnecessary confrontation with the West, multiple unresolved military commitments, a sanctions-strained and only partially diversified economy, looming domestic tensions, and a rising China directly along its periphery.
Washington still has an opportunity to carefully improve U.S.-Russia relations and regain a more stable relationship in the near term, but only if activities and initiatives are based on a firm and frank appreciation of each other’s core interests, including those of their allies and partners. In a dual-track approach, the United States and its allies must continue to work closely to deter any destabilizing Russian behavior ranging from corrosive gray zone disinformation activities—including malign cyber efforts to erode Western democracies—up to full and overt military aggression. Simultaneously, rebuilding atrophied conduits between key American and Russian political and military leadership is imperative in order to calm today’s distrustful and increasingly mean-spirited relations, to seek and positively act upon converging interests, and to avert potential incidents or accidents that could potentially lead to dangerous brinksmanship. Notably the July 2018 Trump-Putin summit failed to bring any positive developments to the U.S.-Russia relationship; however, pragmatic efforts to bridge major and increasingly dangerous divides must continue. Perhaps most notable during the summit was the emphasis made by both sides that the weakened arms control regimen and overall strategic stability be addressed to stop a dangerous drift toward renewed nuclear weapons development and competition. Yet in recent months, the relationship has only continued to weaken on multiple fronts too numerous to summarize, including Russian actions against Ukraine in the Sea of Azov and the end of the 31-year Intermediate Nuclear Weapons Treaty signed in 1987 by Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan.