Can Washington and Moscow Agree to Limit Political Interference?
After his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia had proposed a mutual non-interference pledge. He recalled the exchange of letters between U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov in 1933 in which, in return for U.S. diplomatic recognition, Moscow made pledges not to interfere in U.S. domestic politics and Washington made similar commitments. While this perhaps was an unfortunate analogy, since both sides in the Cold War attempted to meddle extensively in each other’s domestic affairs, the concept of elaborating norms of non-interference on a mutual basis might be the best way to stabilize U.S.-Russian relations and prevent the damaging episodes of recent years from happening again.
This article is written by an American and a Russian, so the judgments, characterizations and suggested options are likely to be less than satisfying to those on both sides who seek idealized victories over the other and eschew negotiated solutions. However, the approach we offer could point to a way forward in addressing this issue without doing further damage to a relationship that is already nearing the breaking point.
We do not seek to outline an agreed narrative of what happened in the past. We do not expect to convince our respective fellow citizens to change their minds on these matters. Frankly, we do not consider a common understanding of what happened to be a necessary first step. We begin from the premise that regardless of what has happened, the 2016 election episode created a dangerous new dynamic in the overall relationship.
The situation is becoming increasingly unstable. Bilateral communication is shrinking. Cooperation, even on clearly shared interests, is almost nonexistent. Retaliation is increasingly the dominant framework in both capitals. Both sides are preparing for confrontation in earnest. The risk of misinterpretation and, consequently, the likelihood of potentially catastrophic mistakes is growing, which is quite a disturbing prospect for two countries that control over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Relations between the two countries resemble a runaway train in danger of derailment. A direct conflict with all the ensuing consequences seems like an uncomfortably realistic prospect.
Neither side appears prepared to address the consequences of the 2016 events. Many Russian officials routinely shrug off the problem, saying that the meddling did not take place, nor could it have taken place. They explain what they see as an upsurge in “Russophobia” as a result of partisan conflict in U.S. politics. In Washington, however, the meddling episode is a serious, enduring, and bipartisan obstacle to improving U.S.-Russian relations.
Washington has been consumed by the Mueller investigation and the bitter political struggle that surrounds it. Policy considerations relating to U.S.-Russian relations are at best treated as a matter of secondary importance. Further, prominent voices in the U.S. debate do not take Russian concerns about U.S. interference in Russia’s domestic processes seriously, or they view them as an attempt to draw a false moral equivalence.
Additionally, the current environment leads many to view the other side as a unitary actor where decision-making is strictly regulated, planned, and centralized, thus falling into one of the classic misperception pitfalls identified by Robert Jervis. Prominent voices in Washington routinely point the finger at the “Kremlin” for every action taken by Russians. Meanwhile, in Moscow some portray everything Americans do as part of a coordinated plan to undermine Russia’s interests. Behind the governmental façades, there are multiple interests, agencies, formal and informal groups, and specific individuals — from leaders to mere foot soldiers — with their own agendas. While they might sometimes operate as a unitary actor, just as often they can freelance, demonstrate zeal, compete or simply fight for power and funding. We should not assume that all actions taken by the other side are part of a tightly coordinated strategy.
When it comes to what to do to address the interference problem, the discussions in the United States have been largely focused on unilateral steps to respond to the alleged Russian behavior, particularly: retaliation, increasing cyber defenses, raising costs of future actions, and deterrence. However, it is highly unlikely that retaliation, hardening of defenses, or threatened costs could prevent the kind of behavior described in the Mueller report from occurring again. It is the nature of the information age that major cyber powers will always have the capability to influence domestic politics in other countries. The United States will remain vulnerable — perhaps even more vulnerable than Russia, given the increased openness and fragmentation of the U.S. media space. In short, both sides will likely have to exercise self-restraint in order truly to “fix” this problem. Such mutual self-restraint could be achieved through a negotiation between the two countries.
To succeed, it might be best that such talks focus on interference in domestic affairs, not just the domain — cyber — in which most of the current activity is taking place. If hard copies of the Democratic National Committee emails had been stolen from a safe and provided to WikiLeaks, the problem would have been essentially the same. Moreover, cyber touches on issues not directly related to interference, such as cyber crime, computer network exploitation, protection of critical infrastructure, internet governance, etc. And some current concerns about interference — for example, the activities of state-funded media — extend beyond the cyber domain.
But the combination of long-standing concerns about interference with the ubiquity of the internet has proven particularly combustible. One could make an analogy to the Cuban Missile Crisis. As that crisis demonstrated, a new technology deployed without rules to govern behavior can create new forms of instability. In the early 1960s, it was nuclear weapons. Now, it is the internet and social networks. Today, both sides appear not to know how far to go in their actions, nor do they know how to react to the other side’s behavior to signal “red lines.” Moscow and Washington also lack a common language for understanding the problem and its consequences.
So, talks would seem an appropriate step to consider. Long before Lavrov’s comments, Moscow signaled openness to such a negotiation; Washington, much less so. But Russia’s preferred framework of the 1933 Litvinov declaration is likely not an appropriate starting point. What options could be on the table in potential talks?
A first step for any potential U.S.-Russia discussions on the issue could be to define terms and concepts clearly. At the very least the sides could seek to determine what is and what is not germane to their discussions. Today, that is not particularly clear and this makes the problem quite hard for diplomats to tackle.
This step could entail breaking down the interference problem to a number of more specific dimensions or “baskets.” For example, the hacking/leaking issue could be differentiated from concerns about state-funded foreign media broadcasting or political activities on social networks. Each of these issues may be best dealt with in parallel lanes. If everything is discussed in the same negotiation, it could be difficult for the sides to make any progress.
A second important step could be to determine the relevant modality to address each issue. A formal bilateral treaty on the issue of interference could be impossible given the current climate in the relationship. Politicians and decision-makers would be unlikely to invest their political capital in a formal treaty, particularly since they would not trust the other side to comply. Moreover, it would likely be impossible to verify such a treaty.
Rather than a formal treaty, a politically binding code of conduct might be the appropriate format. It could reiterate existing mutual commitments to non-interference, such as U.N. General Assembly resolution 2131 (“Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States”) or the Helsinki Final Act’s Article VI commitment to non-intervention in internal affairs. Such a code could elaborate the rules of the game as agreed by both sides, ideally identifying the forms of interference that both sides consider illegitimate. This might not guarantee the end of behaviors to which one or the other side objects. And it may not require or create a consensus between the U.S. and Russian governments on issues where they have fundamental disagreements. However, such a code could create standards by which future behavior can be judged, reduce uncertainty, and potentially provide reassurance to the public in both countries. By making public commitments, states could incur a higher cost for violating them.
Such a document could include specific commitments to undertake or not to undertake certain actions in the future. One such commitment could be for the governments not to make public information of political significance obtained by state agencies. Without requiring any party to “confess” to having taken such actions in the past, this commitment could preclude the behavior alleged in the Mueller indictments. A second potential commitment could be not to authorize state, state-funded or parastate entities to purchase political advertisements on social media or conduct political campaigns via information resources. Finally, a third could be to refrain from public assessments of the quality of elections before international observation missions issue their reports. Moscow has been highly sensitive to U.S. assessments of the legitimacy of its elections. Without giving up its right to express its views, Washington could commit to do so only after the reports of observer missions have been made public.
This is not a comprehensive list. But it is a start, and, if agreed, could be an important signal.
Finally, it seems likely that such a document could not be agreed on the official level at this time, given the tensions in the relationship. The traditional approach for U.S.-Russia agreements, when the main driving force is a meeting of the presidents, is clearly not appropriate in this case. The work on the code of conduct might best begin at the level of a “track 1.5” working group with nongovernmental experts and former officials along with a small number of acting officials. This could be a group of people who already know each other, trust each other and who are ready to work with each other. Fortunately, the United States and Russia still have a critical mass of such people, as we hope this article has demonstrated.
Samuel Charap is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Ivan Timofeev is Director of Programs at the nonprofit, nongovernmental Russian International Affairs Council.