As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump asked a good question: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with Russia?” Few Russia watchers -- indeed few Americans -- would disagree. The debate is over how. Would easing economic sanctions on Russia promote agreement on Crimea and eastern Ukraine, or encourage the Kremlin to further weaken Ukraine? Would increasing U.S. military involvement in Syria compel the Kremlin to pressure Bashar al-Assad to negotiate or to add more Russian boots on the ground? Should the U.S. engage President Vladimir Putin more forcefully or bide its time and hope for a more cooperative post-Putin leader to emerge? These are debates on which reasonable people can disagree.
One point on which all parties interested in better U.S.-Russia relations should agree is the need for a thorough, well-resourced, and independent investigation into the role of Russia in the U.S. presidential campaign and the events that followed. Absent such an investigation any improvements in U.S.-Russia relations will be illusory. There are many reasons to support a thorough investigation into the Kremlin’s role in last year's presidential election. Creating the necessary conditions to improve U.S.-Russia relations is one of them.
The allegations to date are sufficiently serious that they cannot be ignored. They have already led to the resignation of the national security adviser, the firing of the FBI director, the failure to disclose contacts with Russian officials on security background checks by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, and the improper sharing of highly sensitive information with the Russian foreign minister by President Trump. Whether one is hawk or dove toward Russia, one would surely like to know why all this happened.
Moreover, there is still much that is unknown. What was the full extent of Russian efforts to influence the presidential election? How much did members of the administration know about these efforts? Why did Michael Flynn stay on as national security adviser even after Trump learned of his financial ties to Russia? Why was Kushner meeting with a representative from a state-owned Russian bank under sanctions? President Trump admitted to NBC News that he fired former FBI Director James Comey because the latter refused to curtail his investigation into Russian interference in the election. What was the president so concerned that Comey might find?
As long as these and other relevant questions remain unanswered, it is hard to see how the United States and Russia can achieve any lasting progress on pressing foreign policy issues. Such an improvement would require a modicum of trust that is sorely lacking at the moment. Any agreement on Syria will require that the U.S. trust Russia’s assertions that its leaders are using their leverage on Assad. Any easing of economic sanctions by the United States will be perceived as a payback for Russian help during the election, and will be seized upon by critics of the White House. Such charges are already in play following Trump’s limp support for NATO on his recent trip to Europe. Without a credible investigation, U.S. relations with Russia will remain a highly politicized and partisan issue, and this lack of agreement will stymie efforts to find on the issues (admittedly few) on which Russian and American interests currently overlap.
As President Trump has put a high priority on improving relations with Russia, his supporters should support -- not impede -- the investigations, wherever they may lead. Trump has spoken of a “grand bargain” involving greater cooperation with Russia in return for sanctions relief and a less assertive NATO, but there is little chance for this to succeed while every concession to Russia is viewed with suspicion.
Trump's critics already welcome such an investigation, but they should also be prepared to accept the possibility that an investigation may not produce the smoking gun they so ardently believe exists. A credible investigation may find that many of the more salacious (and oft-circulated) charges are without merit or at least difficult to prove.
To be sure, an investigation into these questions is a distraction when the country faces many pressing issues. Efforts and resources put into an investigation of Russia’s role in the election are efforts and resources not put into advancing other policy goals. There is also the risk that any investigation will expand in time and scope beyond its usefulness.
Yet for all the costs, a thorough investigation is necessary to restore some basic credibility to the U.S. government when it comes to making Russia policy. It is also needed to build a stronger foundation for U.S.-Russia relations, whatever their specific content. The alternative of ignoring the substantial evidence of Russian interference in the U.S. election and the highly unusual contacts between members of the Trump administration and Russian officials will condemn U.S.-Russia relations to acrimony for years to come.
Under Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, the investigation is reportedly off to a good start. After a more fitful beginning, the Senate Intelligence Committee too is beginning to find its legs. Yet these efforts are still in their early days and can be derailed in many ways. All those wishing for better relations between Russia and the United States should welcome them as a useful first step.