Most U.S. presidents pursue a two-track policy with Russia: confrontation on some fronts, cooperation on others.
President John F. Kennedy waged a showdown with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 — and signed a nuclear test ban treaty with Moscow the following year.
Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviets “the evil empire” — and reached a major arms control deal with them.
Barack Obama got Russia to join a sanctions campaign against Iran — and also imposed sanctions against Moscow.
“I think it’s important that the U.S. be able to walk and chew gum in its relations with Russia,” said James Dobbins, who worked on Russia issues at the State Department for decades and is now with the Rand Corp.
“We need a policy that confronts them where we need to and cooperates with them where we can,” he added.
Managing the U.S.-Russia relationship is one of the most important jobs for any president. Yet for all the talk about President Trump and Russia, here’s the irony: He has yet to lay out a grand plan for dealing with Moscow.
The Russia investigation makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Trump to launch any big joint ventures. And he has resisted taking tough actions of his own despite Russian interference in last year’s election.
Even relatively routine moves, like putting an ambassador in place, are going slowly. Trump nominated an ambassador, Jon Huntsman, just last month. But Huntsman still needs Senate confirmation before he can pack his bags for Moscow.
Analysts cite several things Trump needs to do to address the downward spiral of relations with Russia.
First, choose your battles carefully.
“We must work together where we have common interests that are fairly narrowly defined,” said Georgetown professor Angela Stent.
She 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 is set to see him again in October. She urges engagement with Russia on several key fronts — including cyberattacks.
“The cyber area for instance, is one where we at least have to try to sit down with the Russians and talk about rules of the road,” she said.
On other issues, like Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine, she is pessimistic.
“You have to have realistic expectations about where cooperation is possible,” noted Stent, the author of the 2014 book The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.
“We may have a common interest that we would like to see the situation resolved [in Ukraine], but I think we have rather different ideas about what a satisfactory resolution of that crisis would be,” she said.
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.
“This is something we learned in the Cold War days, predictability helps to bring about stability,” said Jim Townsend, who dealt with Russia matters for more than two decades at the Pentagon. He is now at the Center for a New American Security, and offered this advice:
The Syrian war, he said, will never be settled unless the U.S. and Russia can forge a working relationship there. The U.S. and Russia have agreed to a cease-fire in the southwest corner Syria, though that is only a small part of a much larger conflict.
On the other hand, Townsend added, Russia is trying to intimidate NATO members in Eastern Europe, and this includes a major military exercise planned for next month.
“So we, the United States as well as NATO, have put troops up the Baltics and in Poland, to deter the Russians up there.” he said.
Which brings us to point No. 3: The president may have to stand up to Russia in several places if he wants to work constructively elsewhere.
“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,” said Dobbins.
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. But he didn’t say what he had in mind.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.