Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Walk And Chew Gum: Common U.S. Approach To Russia Not Clearly Followed By Trump


For all the talk about President Trump and Russia, he's yet to lay out a grand plan for dealing with Moscow. He's called for better relations, yet no major moves appear to be in the works. He's expressed reluctance to take tough action, though Congress is nudging him in that direction. Here's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Most all U.S. presidents pursue a two-track policy with Russia - confrontation on some fronts, cooperation on others. President Kennedy waged a showdown with the Soviet Union during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and he signed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with Moscow just a year later. Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviets the evil empire, and he reached a major arms control deal with them. Barack Obama got Russia to join a sanctions campaign against Iran, and he also imposed sanctions against Moscow.

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think it's important that the United States be able to walk and chew gum in its relations with Russia.

MYRE: James Dobbins worked on Russia issues at the State Department for decades and is now with the RAND Corporation.

DOBBINS: We need a policy that confronts them where we need to and cooperates with them where we can.

MYRE: Yet, according to Dobbins and others, Trump has not moved decisively in either direction. The Russia investigation makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Trump to launch any big joint ventures, and he's resisted taking tough actions despite Russian interference in last year's election. Longtime Russia hands point to several things Trump should do to address the downward spiral in relations. First, choose your battles carefully.

ANGELA STENT: We must work together in areas where we have common interests that are fairly narrowly defined.

MYRE: Georgetown professor Angela Stent has met Russian leader Vladimir Putin every year for the past 13 years as part of a small group of American experts on Russia. She's set to see him again in October. She urges engagement with Russia on several key fronts, including cyberattacks.

STENT: The cyber area, for instance, is one where we have to try and sit down with the Russians and talk about rules of the road.

MYRE: On other issues, like Russia's military involvement in Ukraine, she's pessimistic.

STENT: You have to have realistic expectations about where cooperation is possible. We may have a common interest that we would like to see the situation resolved, but I think we have rather different ideas about what a satisfactory resolution of that crisis would be.

MYRE: A second important goal is restoring stability to this multifaceted relationship. Putin's actions and some of Trump's statements have created a highly unpredictable environment.

JIM TOWNSEND: This is something we learned during the Cold War days. Predictability helps to bring about stability.

MYRE: Jim Townsend dealt with Russian matters for more than two decades at the Pentagon. He's now at the Center for a New American Security and offers this advice.

TOWNSEND: On the one hand, we've got to be able to work with Russia in Syria.

MYRE: The U.S. and Russia have agreed to a ceasefire in the southwest corner of Syria, though it's only a small part of a much larger conflict. On the other hand, Townsend says, Russia is trying to intimidate NATO members in Eastern Europe, and this includes a major military exercise planned for next month.

TOWNSEND: And so we, the United States as well as NATO, have put troops up in the Baltics and in Poland to deter the Russians up there.

MYRE: Which brings us to point number three. The president may have to stand up to Russia in several places if he wants to work constructively elsewhere. Here's James Dobbins again.

DOBBINS: I think as long as he fails to pursue the confrontation aspect of the policy, his ability to pursue the cooperation part of it will be hampered.

MYRE: Congress forced Trump's hand recently by sending him a bill with new sanctions against Russia. Trump grudgingly signed. He said it would make it harder for him to strike good deals without saying what he had in mind. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.