Open Letter: A Third Way of Thinking About a Reset With Russia

The following open letter was signed by leaders of civil society organizations active in Russia-U.S. relations, whose names and affiliations appear below.

Politico Magazine has published two open letters on America’s policy towards Russia, one calling for a strategic “rethink” and the other arguing for a “forceful” commitment to the status quo. Both letters represent the opinions of experts and former professionals who are worthy of respect and certainly knowledgeable, but they do not represent the only two ways to think about Russia. Our letter is both a rebuttal and an exposition representing the third way to approach our relationship with Moscow.

We believe that a healthy partnership with our Russian counterparts is not only possible, but it is also in America’s best interest. However, it requires the United States to lead by example and make significant changes to its current policies.

We, like our colleagues, sincerely love the United States and want our country to be a force for good in the world. That starts with prioritizing values and exercising consistency, especially in our policy approach to Russia. American values like democracy and free trade have often been applied arbitrarily for the past two decades, which has undermined our reputation, influence, and ability to foster a partnership with Moscow. On key issues, American foreign policy is dangerously out of touch with American values and that is a driving factor of hostility between our two countries.

Russia, of course, is not blameless. But it is also not fair to argue that the “main responsibility” for the deterioration of Russia-U.S. relations lies with the Putin administration. The truth is that Russian foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin has been for the most part reactionary to the United States, which has sought regime change in several countries that have economic ties to Russia. In 2014, Russia intervened in Crimea in response to American support for a coup that toppled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Russia sent soldiers a year later to Syria after the Obama administration armed jihadist rebels in a bid to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, a long-time Russian ally. And even the Kremlin’s alleged “interference” in the 2016 elections can be seen as a reaction to America’s economic war on Russia vis-à-vis sanctions.

The record shows an aggressive America, not an aggressive Russia as our colleagues arguing for the status quo would have you believe. The main problem with framing Putin as the villain is that it neglects reality and ignores the fact that Russia has national interests and legitimate arguments for its policies. Some of our colleagues ignore this and instead cast Russia as if it was an irredeemable villain in a fictional, Marvel-like universe. It’s time to outgrow this simplistic way of thinking, recognize our faults, and start leading by example.

The problem that both letters have in common is that they both fail to recognize the inconsistencies in the United State’s current foreign policy. The authors of the letter calling for a rethink of our approach towards Russia argue that “the U.S. should remain firm on principles” on issues such as Ukraine and Syria. The defenders of the status quo go a step further, insisting that any resolution on outstanding conflicts, such as “cosigning Crimea” to Russia, would be a trade-off “not worth pursuing.” Unfortunately, both sides are appealing to policies that do not in any way align with American values.

For example, most Americans are unaware of how the U.S. government’s policy towards Crimea is diametrically opposed to Americans’ purported values of democracy and self-determination. There is ample evidence showing that an overwhelming majority of Crimeans supported reunification with Russia before, during, and after the 2014 Crimean Referendum. According to a Pew Research study, more than 88% of Crimeans believe that referendum was free, fair, and “should be recognized.” American policy as it stands today ignores both this reality and the agency of the Crimean people by enforcing an all-out embargo that effectively punishes Crimeans for the crime of exercising democracy.

There is a similar contradiction in the American approach towards Syria, where instead of being a force for good and striving for conflict resolution, the United States’ current policy perpetuates the suffering and instability with sanctions that target the reconstruction process. Nobody contends that Bashar al-Assad is an angel, but it’s undeniable that he has popular support within Syria and that his government represents a secular, more stable alternative to would-be replacements.

Instead of conserving the status quo or embracing a half-hearted reset, here’s what America should do:

  • We should recognize Crimea’s reunification with Russia in the same way we recognized Kosovo’s independence. It will make Americans safer by de-escalating an unnecessary dispute with Moscow. And instead of trying to destabilize Crimea with oppressive sanctions so that the peninsula will miraculously turn its back on Russia and move to re-embrace Ukraine, lifting those sanctions and recognizing the 2014 referendum will endow the region with a permanent resolution that will allow American companies to reenter the Crimean market.

  • We should take responsibility for poor policy decisions that have created chaos and instability. We cannot expect Russia to take responsibility for its misdeeds when we are too proud to do the same. Our policy towards Syria is at least one area where we can lead by example and correct course. The United States could be far more effective in positively influencing Syria if we were to work together with Russia to restore peace and stability, and in turn, spread our soft power with investments and humanitarian assistance.

  • Although our media and political establishment are full of good people with good intentions, what we have when it comes to Russia is a small Overton window of discourse that shows growing shades of groupthink. Russians and Russian perspectives are completely absent from our national dialogue. Even Americans, who have a more positive view of Russia, are often sidelined from the conversations and debates that are being held on mainstream media outlets. This lack of thought diversity does not foster optimal decision-making, causing us to err on the side of policies that haven’t been properly challenged. We need to start inviting Russian voices to the table and let the best ideas win.

  • Our government should work with Russia on arms control and use the New START extension as a springboard to advance other nuclear nonproliferation priorities, such as bringing China and other countries into the fold under such agreements.

  • Instead of entertaining the prospect of expanding NATO eastward, the United States should work on reformulating the Alliance to address real threats to its collective security and look for avenues to partner with Russia in resolving conflicts in and around Europe.

  • It is imperative that we harden our electoral infrastructure, but it’s also important that we stop exaggerating and exercising selective outrage over Russian interference. There is no question of Israeli influence, which, for example, spent 35 million dollars in lobbying-related activities in 2018 or the dozens of other countries that seek to influence American politics. The fact that foreign influence and election meddling is only worthy of ire if it originates from Russia is hypocritical. Foreign influence is a fact of life in a globalized world. What we have to do is strike a balance between rightly opposing disinformation and not sensationalizing legitimate forms of political and informational outreach.

  • Sanctionary warfare as a policy is failing on all fronts. The United States should remove sanctions, allow Russian consulates to reopen, return diplomatic property that has been unjustly seized, and start focusing on constructive dialogue.

The United States and Russia are partners to one of the most important, consequential relationships in global politics. The choice to cooperate or to continue down the path of unbridled antagonism is a decision that, for better or for worse, will impact the lives of billions of people. Our goal should be to act as a force for good in the world, promoting peace and prosperity as much as possible. And we do that best when we exercise our values with consistency and integrity. If we recommit ourselves to a values-based foreign policy, then we can cultivate a strong, healthy relationship with Russia that makes positive strides towards arms control, fighting climate change, and maintaining global economic stability. However, it starts with us.

Signed by:

Hunter Cawood

President of the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC)

Cameron Deitz

Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC)

Sergey Gladysh

Executive Director of the Russian-American Cooperative Initiative

Christian Oliver

President of the American Students’ Association at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO)

Nicholas Rodzianko

President of the Russian-American Cultural Society of Cleveland

Vladimir Rodzianko

President of the Russian-American Cooperative Initiative

Sharon Tennison

President of the Center for Citizen Initiatives

Dennis Voronin

Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC)

Xenia Woyevodsky

President of the International Firebird Arts Foundation