Breaking the Spiral in U.S.-Russian Relations

In ways not seen since the 1980s, the U.S.-Russia relationship dominates today’s headlines. Amid allegations of election interference and concerns over Russian business ties to incoming administration officials, both President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have prompted considerable speculation about a possible U.S.-Russia rapprochement. Trump hinted as much in his post-election interview with the editorial board of The New York Times. Putin, in a speech to Russian officials earlier this month, said that it was “important to normalize ties and begin to develop a bilateral relationship” with the United States.

As Trump and Putin consider how to shape the contours of the future U.S.-Russian relationship (no easy task considering the long list of serious disputes over Syria, Ukraine, cyberspace, and other issues), reducing the rising nuclear dangers facing their people and the rest of the world must be a top priority. After all, although the Cold War is long over, the United States and Russia still possess thousands of nuclear weapons – each with the destructive capacity to destroy hundreds of thousands of lives and leave an indelible impact on humanity.

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Just in the last couple of years, NTI and our partner organization, the European Leadership Network, have 
documented multiple “near-misses” between NATO and Russian aircraft and ships. With political tensions high and channels of communication cut, nearly any close encounter between NATO and Russian military assets carries an unacceptable risk of escalation. 

In a report last year, we described 
a combination of factors that contribute to the growing likelihood of a dangerous military confrontation between Russia and the West, particularly as a result of an accident or miscalculation. These include a severe deficit of trust, irreconcilable narratives and threat perceptions, broken channels of communication, and eroding nuclear expertise.

One year later, these factors have either persisted or have gotten worse.

To address these dangers, we’ve proposed nine practical and urgent confidence-building measures in a 
new NTI report released this week. Endorsed by statesmen Des Browne, Wolfgang Ischinger, Igor Ivanov, and Sam Nunn, these recommendations aim to prevent military accidents, enhance predictability, and build confidence between Russia and the West.

The report calls on U.S., NATO, and Russian officials to require all military aircraft to fly with transponders turned on, agree on a safe distance limitation for aircraft and ships, and restore military-to-military channels of communication. It also calls on the governments to address concerns about deployments of missile defense and ballistic missile systems, reduce notification and observation thresholds for all military exercises (thus reducing the chance of surprise or misunderstandings), and refrain from incorporating nuclear or nuclear-capable forces into military exercises.

Perhaps most importantly, the report calls on U.S. and Russian leaders to reaffirm that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” avoid reckless nuclear rhetoric, and launch a high-level dialogue on reducing nuclear dangers.

The United States and Russia likely will continue to have enormous differences on a range of issues. Some may be insurmountable. But our leaders must begin to repair the breach when it comes to nuclear dangers. The consequences of inaction are simply too great.

December 15, 2016
Robert E. Berls, Jr., PhD
Robert E. Berls, Jr., PhD

Senior Advisor for Russia and Eurasia

Leon Ratz
Leon Ratz

Program Officer, Materials Risk Management

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