By Ariel Cohen
Now that President Donald J Trump has been sworn in, it is time to clear the air concerning Russia. It will take an effort by Congress and the intelligence community.
What Russia did during the election campaign is likely to be the subject of a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation and an intelligence community probe. The time for lessons learned and counter-measures is now.
Putting America first should mean making the US security a top priority, including in cyber-space. Every country should protect its vital systems from cyber attacks, intelligence collection, and hostile interference into it political process by foreign powers. The hostile actors include China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia.
This is hardly the first time foreign powers attempted to interfere with American politics. The British Empire did it at the dawn of American independence; the Communist International and the USSR relied on communists and sympathizers to spy and to modify US foreign policy; Nazi Germany nurtured German-American Bund before World War II, and the USSR, China, North Korea, and Cuba supported numerous efforts against the Vietnam War.
Presumably, President Trump's overtures to Russia are being driven by two of his priority agenda items -- putting pressure on China, and having an ally in the fight with Islamist terrorism. However, when his administration considers its policies towards Russia, it needs to keep in mind that there is a hierarchy of issues between Washington and Moscow, based on their difficulty.
Some problems may be relatively easy: arms control, both nuclear and conventional, European security, especially the Baltics, and even Syria. In regards to this last, it is worth noting that Russia and Turkey invited the U.S. to attend the Astana peace talks.
Russia and the NATO allies may productively revive the Conventional Forces in Europe talks to reduce the chances of a military clash in Central and Eastern Europe; and nuclear disarmament talks need to take into account the need to modernize the U.S. nuclear triad in view of the fact that Russia has already done so. Moreover, these talks should not be linked to the building of the missile defenses by the U.S. While Moscow will try to do this, but the president should not take the bait.
My recent trip to Moscow and meetings with experts there suggest that Ukraine, which is both historically and geographically close to Russia, will be a tough nut to crack. Suggested solutions include "freezing" the conflict, or moving forward under the flawed Minsk II process, which is supposed to provide a ceasefire and restore Ukrainian control over its Eastern border - but failed so far.
It should be noted that the majority of Ukrainians do not support the Russian occupation of Ukraine or the idea of its subservience to Mother Russia. The Ukraine conflict cannot be resolved behind the backs of the Ukrainians and the Europeans, as their buy-in is absolutely necessary to make it work, especially if the Trump Administration seeks to reduce its foreign engagements. And even if a solution to the Eastern Ukraine conflict is found, it is far from clear what will happen with the future of the Crimea, occupied and annexed by Russia in 2014.
Another area the U.S., NATO allies, especially Turkey, and the moderate Arab states could cooperate with Russia on is the fight against ISIS and other radical Islamist terror organizations. However, Russia is interested in becoming a major power in the Middle East, displacing the U.S. or at least working alongside it. Its priorities go beyond killing ISIS murderers.
Russian objectives is in the Middle East include demonstrating its reliability as a strategic ally for Bashar Assad, working with Iran against the Sunni Arab agenda, securing its naval and air bases in Latakia, Tartus, and Khmeimem in Syria, and showing off its weapons to potential Middle Eastern customers.
Finally, Russia desperately needs an influx of Western investment, technology and management skills. Its economy is shrinking due to low oil prices, and the Western sanctions over Ukraine have targeted Russian oil and gas companies and financial institutions, as well as top officials.
However, Moscow is still a glitzy, Western-style city, and the Russian elites do not feel the rest of the country's pain. The Russian leaders are anxious to get the sanctions waived, but are unwilling to compromise. Bottom line, the Western sanctions over Ukraine have failed to change Russian diplomatic behavior. The Administration needs a comprehensive policy review on Russia, clearly defining its security goals in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and assessing the damage from Russia's violations of European security and international law over Ukraine, including the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.
Washington should realistically assess Russia's interests in economic ties with the West. A country that has less than a $2 trillion GDP cannot be America's equal. The Trump Administration should be fully aware of the power of its policy tools, both carrots and sticks, protect the homeland against cyber attacks, and remember that America is the only power that can check Russian ambitions.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Director, Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security