Participants emphasized that the two sides can do little at this point to change the overall tenor of a relationship that has taken on an increasingly negative dynamic in recent years. Each side views the other as being in a state of long-term decline, which disincentivizes concessions. Moscow is taking a “wait and see” approach, especially on U.S.-China competition. Both sides think that time is on their side. Any attempted “reset” therefore is unlikely until these views change.
As U.S.-Russia relations will remain competitive and, at times, confrontational for the foreseeable future, the risk of Washington and Moscow stumbling into an unanticipated and unwanted crisis is real. Under the circumstances, the two sides should focus on mechanisms for dealing with specific challenges where both Russia and the United States play a role and where a danger that problems will worsen exists. These challenges are not necessarily the ones that receive the most attention, but those where Washington and Moscow lack clarity about the other’s interests and intentions.
To address these challenges, the two sides should come up with recommendations that both can endorse and that bear some chance of implementation given the political constraints both sides face. Both sides agreed that more bilateral track 1 contact would be ideal, but reality precludes this.
Looming in the background were three questions that, at a minimum, both sides need to consider in formulating any strategy for the future:
- To what extent were negative developments over the last three years unavoidable? That is, are there long-term trends in the U.S.-Russia relationship that cannot be changed, chains of mistakes, or other such factors?
- In the October 2019 Valdai Club meeting, President Putin noted that the United States had already entered an election cycle, so the countries should wait to address issues. Should we really wait until next November to talk about greater collaboration, fixes to bilateral issues, or places where U.S. and Russian interests coincide? How will the U.S. political cycle—and political uncertainty—affect Washington’s ability to pursue a coherent approach to Russia? With the announcement of Russia’s constitutional referendum and questions about the presidential succession looming, a similar question applies to Russia.
- Beyond addressing specific problems, how can the larger bilateral relationship be fixed? What will it take? Would it be regime change in Moscow, or is it directly connected to the U.S. political crisis Should Washington and Moscow seek to “fix” their primarily adversarial relationship, or will the future relationship continue to be primarily competitive, with limited areas of cooperation.