Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a ceremony at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 24, 2016. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a ceremony at the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 24, 2016.  Sergei Ilnitsky/AP

Breaking Down US-Russian Distrust With Time, Talk, and Meals

A recent session of the long-running Dartmouth Conference shows how non-governmental dialogue can ease tense relations.

I was a recent participant in the Dartmouth Conference, one of the few remaining Track 2 — that is, non-governmental — dialogues between the U.S. and Russia. Its results may be especially interesting in the wake of the recent victory of President-elect Donald Trump and for those paying close attention to the difficult relations between our two countries.

The oldest dialogue of its kind, the Conference has for 56 years enabled senior American and Russian citizens to seek mutual solutions to our shared political and geostrategic challenges. The three-day symposium I attended in late October was the 146th meeting under the Conference’s auspices. (The Washington Post took note in a Nov. 5 article, “U.S-Russia relations are at a real low. Here’s the diplomacy that is working.”)

One of a series of events on the Middle East, the meeting convened 10 bipartisan Americans and 10 Russians, included former ambassadors and diplomats, academicians, and business people, all with a wide range of experiences involving the overall U.S.-Russian relationship and the Middle East. While the main focus was on Syria, the overall Middle East, and Afghanistan, we also talked about greater global challenges facing the U.S. and Russia.

The discussions were frank and direct, with many disagreements. It was troubling, though not unexpected, to see how imperfectly these well-informed participants understood each other’s world views, priorities, and vital interests. The perception chasm between us was wide.

If this had been a transactional meeting of only a few hours, the chances of progress would have been slim. From my experience as a military diplomat, such meetings — especially between officials meeting each other for the first time and tied to official talking points — rarely produce much open dialogue.

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But over the three days of our conference, during which we shared time and meals, discussions eventually turned toward the kind of frank problem-solving that can only transpire over a sustained period of contact. We ultimately hammered out several modest recommendations, a rare occurrence in the tense relations between our nations.

The recommendations looked for both major parties to find mutually acceptable "contact points” to explore working together, especially in the humanitarian realm in Syria. While not perfect, they are at least a starting point. From this, if there is progress, any nascent cooperation could possibly deepen into other sectors. 

Several major strategic points became evident during these discussions and articulated by delegation heads in the final meeting.

First, neither the U.S. nor Russia has a vital, existential-threat-level interest in the complicated situation in or around Syria. Second, an accident or incident involving our militaries in or around Syria could inadvertently escalate into a dangerous existential threat risk involving our two nuclear-tipped countries. Third, sectarian allies and proxies including Iran and Saudi Arabia, will attempt to involve the U.S. and Russia in pursuit of their own parochial regional interests, without regard for overall strategic U.S and Russian interests. Finally, the group agreed on the need for continued support of the difficult mission to ensure a stable Afghanistan.

The findings and recommendations of the group were presented to senior officials in the U.S. State Department and counterparts in Moscow. 

This example of sustained U.S.-Russia dialogue should be readopted – across key political and defense entities of both nations – by U.S. and Russian policy-makers as the new Trump administration comes into office. Such a sustained relationship-building, problem-solving approach coupling direct, frank dialog to actions, could reduce serious misperceptions and the high level of paralyzing distrust between our nations that has become so dangerous during these volatile times.