This month President Trump nominated Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan to be the next ambassador to Russia. With a long and distinguished career in public service, including serving as acting secretary of state, Mr. Sullivan is an outstanding choice for one of the most complex and challenging of our senior diplomatic assignments.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its intervention in eastern Ukraine, the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, the alliance with Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar Assad, and the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election have all escalated bilateral distrust and rancor to levels not seen since the Cold War.
Russia has long considered the U.S. as its “glavniy protivnik” — “main enemy.”
President Vladimir Putin’s strategic goals are to destabilize the U.S. internally, drive a wedge between the Washington and our NATO allies, and strengthen control over Russia’s regional sphere of influence.
Characterizing the U.S., NATO, and aspiring NATO members such as Ukraine as Russia’s enemies, Mr. Putin can by extension attack within his own borders what threatens him most — liberty, freedom and democracy.
Mr. Putin had two key formative experiences in his life. First, as a KGB officer during the Cold War, he deployed to East Germany in the 1980s to support undercover operatives. Mr. Putin rose to become the director of Russia’s ruthless Federal Security Police during the Boris Yeltsin regime. Mr. Putin is a sophisticated practitioner of espionage as a relatively inexpensive form of asymmetric warfare.
Second, Mr. Putin holds a black belt in judo, a martial art that famously tries to use an opponent’s strength against them. That means America’s core values and principles are in the Russian leader’s crosshairs.
President Reagan masterfully delivered an effective strategic vision for U.S.-Soviet relations. He rightly called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” eloquently appealed to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall, and countered Soviet expansion worldwide. But Reagan also negotiated comprehensive nuclear arms reductions with his Soviet adversaries.
U.S.-Russian relations resemble a Venn diagram, with shaded space of shared interests, unshaded space where our interests will never intersect, and a gray area where diplomacy can produce bilateral agreements. While defending ourselves from the Kremlin’s relentless attacks, we should never neglect opportunities to find common ground when it serves our interests.
In my view, three potential strategic openings await Mr. Sullivan in Moscow:
• Russia shares with the U.S. an interest in preventing further escalation of tensions in the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Putin does not believe sanctions will induce North Korea to give up nuclear weapons, but he is concerned about North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites, some of which are only a few hundred kilometers from Russian territory. Russia’s economic leverage and relationship with North Korea’s leadership might be needed to restrain Kim Jong-un, especially if U.S. talks with Pyongyang fail to produce a deal.
• Russia has been providing material assistance to the Taliban for years with an eye toward countering the U.S. Russia does share an interest in combating Islamic State and al Qaeda, as well as cutting off the flood of opium from Afghanistan into Russia’s shadow economy. Cutting the opium flow would weaken the Taliban, a key U.S. goal in anticipation of transferring responsibility for security to Kabul. Cooperation with Russia would be challenging since many of the Afghan drug traffickers are also Russian Taliban proxies. This internal contradiction in Russia’s relationship with the Taliban is a potential opening for Mr. Sullivan to explore the possibility of a deal.
• On nuclear weapons, we should seek to limit the number of Russia’s arsenal, while enhancing transparency and predictability in order to minimize the risk of a first-use scenario. Russia’s violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is a contentious issue, but discussing an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty beyond its February 2021 expiration has value. Arms control is a key element of U.S. security — and arguably most important when bilateral relations are so contentious.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.
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