The true nature of the relationship between the Russians and President-elect Donald Trump may never be fully known. What is clear is that the framework for a new relationship is more complicated for the Trump team than it has been for any of their predecessors in the past quarter century. This is in part because of Donald Trump's particularly positive comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin at a time when there is heightened tension between the United States and Russia on a number of fronts.
Making deals is Trump's trademark. Deals have helped define US-Russian relations in everything from the Nunn-Lugar program to secure the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal to the P5+1 deal with Iran, which included Russia. Deals will likely continue to be part of a Trump approach to Russia, since dealing with Russia is not an option, but a necessity. There are three areas that require immediate attention--Syria, Ukraine and cyber issues. If they are dealt with firmly, they could steer US-Russian relations in a productive direction. Nonetheless, accommodating Russia at the expense of US interests is not a viable strategy for the US or its allies.
The first deal to be made is on Syria. Pursuing a limited goal may be a good place to start, by focusing on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The US should tell the Russians that its immediate concern in Syria, beyond eliminating ISIS and getting a political agreement, is the humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo and elsewhere. The new Administration should let the Russians know it will support efforts to guarantee the delivery of supplies to innocent civilians in Syria, militarily if necessary. The US should go to the UN to get a resolution that will support the use of force as needed to get humanitarian assistance delivered.
At the same time, the US should explore the possibility of working with Russia to set up humanitarian zones in Syria in which neither the Syrian army nor the rebels will be allowed to operate. The neutrality and security of these zones would be guaranteed by the UN with US and Russian support. If the Russians refuse all of these suggestions, which may be the case, the US has two options: working with the Europeans to impose Syria-related sanctions against Russia, and if sanctions do not get the Russians to support the effort, using NATO to protect the delivery of humanitarian aid.
A second big issue to be considered is what to do about Ukraine. Flawed as it is, implementing the Minsk II agreement, which lays out a road map for dealing with the fighting in Ukraine, is a start. An OSCE police mission to keep the warring parties in eastern Ukraine apart should also be supported by all concerned parties. Russia must agree to help implement a cease-fire, which is part of Minsk II, and the US must be willing to put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to make sure he lives up to his commitment. If he does not, increasing military assistance to Ukraine, in addition to increasing sanctions, has to be seriously considered. At the same time, the illegal annexation of Crimea cannot stand, and getting Russia to reverse this act has to be part of broader discussions between Ukraine, supported by the US and EU, and Russia. The status quo on Crimea does not work either legally or politically.
A third problem that has to be addressed is Russian cyber interference in the US political process. This is a concern for all Americans regardless of political affiliation, and has to be dealt with by whatever means available, clandestine or otherwise. The new Administration should let the Russians know this will not be tolerated. Vice President Biden has suggested there may be a covert response to Russia's actions. At a minimum, the new Administration should follow through on whatever plans have already been made--covert or overt-- by the Obama Administration. In addition, the Administration must develop a strategy to deal with Russian disinformation efforts, working closely with European allies to counter Russian propaganda and fake news.
There should also be a thorough investigation by Congress of what the Russians did with respect to hacking and disinformation during the election, supported by the new Administration, and what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again. It would send a strong signal coming from the Trump team, since they were the beneficiaries of Russian interference.
If deals are about negotiating on issues of common concern, there is no better place to begin that process for the new Administration than with Russia on Syria, Ukraine and cyber interference. This means there needs to be a willingness to master the details of each issue, establish a bottom line, and let the other side know there will be consequences for not moving forward on negotiations, including walking away from discussions and responding as forcefully as the situation demands.