As Russia’s stock market continues to plummet, so too has Russia’s stock among the American people. Polling from earlier this year indicates a majority of Americans view Russia “as unfriendly or an enemy,” the highest unfavorable rating since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Some in Congress are capitalizing on this discontent by inserting a section into an upcoming defense bill that suspends “contact or cooperation” between the Pentagon and its Russian counterparts. This break in relations would continue until Moscow left Ukraine alone and fulfilled its obligations under two military treaties.
Slashing military ties with Russia after its Crimean land grab might feel emotionally satisfying in the short term, but it’s ultimately counterproductive in the long term. After all, unilaterally halting the Pentagon’s contacts in Russia would undermine our ability to collaborate on shared interests, confront shared threats and manage global crises.
It should go without saying that America better pursues its own self-interest when we talk to our real and perceived adversaries. Despite our lone superpower status, we still need other countries to achieve our own goals — and whether we like it or not, Russia is a critical partner in meeting them. This includes stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, negotiating a deal with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, removing Syria’s chemical weapons, or even transporting our combat troops and gear from Afghanistan. Without Moscow’s help or at least tacit approval, American security interests will surely suffer.
Despite the rancorous public rhetoric, serious policymakers in both capitals know this. Since 2010, retired American and Russian intelligence and military officials have been quietly meeting to provide a backchannel dialogue on issues of mutual interest. Called the Elbe Group, after the river where American and Soviet troops met in World War II, these former top decisionmakers argue current tensions should not interrupt critical bilateral security cooperation. Members of this group have already personally briefed chief policymakers in Moscow and Washington D.C., including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, as well as top American foreign policy, intelligence and defense officials.
Furthermore, slashing military-to-military relations can have severe unintended consequences. For instance, after the Bush administration in 1990 refused to certify Pakistan was not developing a covert nuclear weapons program, we suspended our military ties with that nation. Beforehand, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was generally close due to our Cold War cooperation battling the Soviets in neighboring Afghanistan. As a result, America lost its tight relationship with Pakistan’s military until shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Even today, senior Pakistani officers remain distrustful of America because we unilaterally severed ties for almost a dozen years.
This trust can be built only if the two sides talk to each other, and it especially matters during times of crisis. For instance, President John Kennedy established the famous “hotline” with Premier Nikita Khrushchev after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, lowering the risk that small political miscalculations could turn into tragic mistakes. With our NATO allies Estonia and Poland currently on high alert, the chances of a minor crisis in Eastern Europe turning into a larger conflagration are now higher than ever.
Finally, we benefit from knowing how the Russians train and how they approach strategic military challenges. As recently as 2012, the U.S. and Russian militaries participated in more than 50 joint exercises, providing invaluable insight into the Russian armed forces. Eliminating military interaction would degrade America’s first-hand understanding of Russian military tactics, techniques and procedures.
Let’s be clear: We think Russia should cease bullying its neighbors and acting with needless intransigence toward the United States. And while the Pentagon has already suspended military cooperation with Moscow over the Ukraine crisis, Congress should not pass seemingly far-reaching legislation to satisfy a short-term political goal.
Pursuing a smart foreign policy requires many tiers of engagement, from closely working with allies like Japan and Great Britain, to carefully negotiating with rogue states like North Korea and Iran. America’s relationship with Russia falls somewhere in the vast gray area between these two extremes.
Engaging our adversaries doesn’t mean encouraging them, and Congress would be wise to not conflate the two.