Even as the special counsel’s office prosecutes 12 Russian military intelligence officers for allegedly interfering in America’s 2016 election, and the U.S. Treasury imposes more sanctions on Russia over human rights abuses and illegal economic activity in Crimea, Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are seeking new opportunities to work together.
In other words, the state of U.S.-Russia relations is decidedly complicated.
That’s why a small group of analysts from the Belfer Center at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and some of their retired U.S. military and intelligence colleagues gather each year with their Russian counterparts to try to work through pressing matters in both countries, like national security, nuclear arms control, conflict in the Middle East, and the expansion of NATO.
Named for the famous 1945 rendezvous of American and Soviet troops over the Elbe River in Germany, the Elbe Group started at HKS as a way to open a quietly serious dialogue between the two countries in the military and intelligence sphere. While members don’t speak on behalf of their governments, these seasoned “Cold Warriors” bring decades of experience to the table and see themselves as “apolitical realists” who aren’t afraid to mix it up on tough issues and through unfiltered conversations, and sometimes get things done. And since they maintain close contacts at the highest levels of their respective governments, their advice and assessments carry weight.
Group members with deep Russia expertise, including Douglas Lute, a former NATO ambassador, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a career CIA intelligence officer and now director of the Intelligence Project, Kevin Ryan, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, and Daniel Hoffman, a former chief of station with the CIA, spoke candidly under the Chatham House Rule during a seminar at the School on Wednesday about the issues that dominated the group’s most recent meeting in Naples, Italy, last March — and about which critical topics are likely to occupy their gathering next March in Reykjavik, Iceland, a city that some intelligence officials have long suspected of being a hub for Russian money laundering.
U.S.-Russia relations have become more fraught in the last couple of years, the panelists said, because of a lingering “zero sum” mentality that leaves no room for compromise, the perception that there are no rules of the road left on issues like arms control and cyberwarfare, and a spike in domestic bilateral challenges coupled with a decrease in high-level official dialogue.
Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, also known as the INF, is a front-burner issue right now, the panel said. The U.S. and Russia have accused each other of violating the 1969 accord, and the claim isn’t off the mark, some participants said. Russia says the U.S. runs a ballistic missile defense site in Romania and has another set to open in Poland within 18 months. The U.S. claims that Russia has developed and fielded ground cruise missiles within the treaty’s prohibited range.
Still, the analysts said the countries could get past that stalemate, and others, if they agreed to on-site inspections, but that remains unlikely given domestic political challenges.
Asked how to make headway when dealing with a clear adversary, one panelist said the key to being effective in intelligence and in diplomacy is empathy — understanding how others view something — which includes communicating in another’s native tongue.
Though the sides certainly doesn’t trust each other, the panelists agreed that the group members’ professional and personal familiarity, developed over a decade of meetings, provides sufficient basis for finding some common ground. Indeed, the group tries to end each formal meeting with a joint statement and recommendations that they bring back to their respective governments.
Russia’s role backing Bashar al-Assad in Syria has made it a player in the Middle East, and it will seek to exploit existing rivalries in the region. It is also likely to try to take advantage of the tension between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia over the savage killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi for its own geopolitical and economic gain, one analyst noted, as well as stoke the current “multimodal dynamism,” and push the notion that the U.S. is no longer a reliable ally.