The U.S. relationship with Russia has deteriorated to its worst levels since the Cold War – and in some respects may today be worse, according to Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to President George W. Bush.
Though extraordinarily strained, the relationship itself is not irreparable, Hadley said, though three crucial factors need to be addressed before rebuilding the relationship can begin.
"We've had, for 40, 50 years, a formula for dealing with competitive or even adversarial powers," Hadley said, describing it as a framework within which two competitors managed their respective disagreements while finding ways to cooperate on common interests. "That's been the framework we've had with Russia," he said, but added, "I would say we are out of that framework right now."
In an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, Hadley, who earlier in his career specialized in negotiations involving NATO and ballistic missile defense with the then-Soviet Union and Russia, elaborated on three factors whose resolution he said was essential to improving the relationship.
"One, we get through our election in November and it is clear that the Russians have not tried to manipulate that election in 2018 the way they did," Hadley said.
Top U.S. national security officials have repeatedly warned thatand exploit fractures in American society have continued since 2016, though at this point, no activities targeting voting infrastructure have been detected. Last week, President Trump issued an executive order – including, but not specific to, Russia's activity – that would prompt sanctions against entities that engaged in illegal activities intended to influence U.S. elections.
Hadley said the second factor was closely tied to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into connections between Russia and members of the Trump campaign. Once "the results of his investigation are known," Hadley said, "and that whole issue gets through our political process," both the White House and the American electorate can "close the door," he told Morell.
Mueller's investigation has, to date, resulted in more than 30 indictments, sixand two sentences. Though President Trump's legal team has argued that the probe should conclude well before the November midterm elections, there's no indication that its resolution is forthcoming.
The third major obstacle to restoring U.S.-Russia relations, Hadley said, lies overseas. "I think we need to begin to make progress on one issue in particular, and that is Ukraine," Hadley said, "which is the reason for the sanctions on Russia that has so accelerated the deterioration in the relationship."
"That means finding a way where Russia will allow Ukraine to reassert sovereignty over the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine," Hadley said, "and agree that we'll continue to fight over Crimea, which Russia has annexed, and which the United States cannot and should not acknowledge."
The U.S., at the direction of then-president Barack Obama, first imposed sanctions on Russia in the immediate aftermath of its 2014 military intervention in Ukraine. The Trump administration issued its own set of sanctions on more than thirty Russian individuals and organizations in June of 2017, and authorized the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine later that year.
Though strict sanctions on Russia have remained in place, President Trump has offered unclear and occasionally conflicting statements on U.S. policy with regard to Moscow's Crimea annexation. He said at a press conference, of recognizing Crimea's status in July, that it was "an interesting question."
"Long before I got here, President Obama allowed that to happen. That was on his watch, not on my watch," Trump said, adding that he would not have permitted the annexation to happen. "What will happen with Crimea from this point on, that I can't tell you," he said.
Hadley said opportunities for the U.S. and Russia to cooperate remain – especially in areas of mutual interest including counterterrorism and nuclear arms control – but told Morell progress was likely to be challenging unless and until the thorniest aspects of the relationship were addressed.
"I think until those three things happen," he said, "it's going to be very difficult to get the relationship back on track."