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Amid growing tensions with Russia, a push for meaningful dialogue

As US-Russian relations reach new lows, “citizen diplomats” are stepping into the breach. The Monitor’s Linda Feldmann joined a group of former ambassadors and others in an effort to advance bilateral dialogue on key issues.

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John Beyrle (l.), former US ambassador to Russia, speaks with Yuri Shafranik, co-chair of Russian delegation to the Dartmouth Conference, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington June 12, 2018.

Courtesy of Philip Stewart

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Ask Yuri Shafranik about US-Russian relations, and his brow furrows.

“They haven’t improved,” says the former Russian energy minister and businessman, whose foundation underwrites Russian participation in a longstanding effort to boost bilateral relations through unofficial, “Track II” diplomacy.

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In fact, US-Russian relations have only sunk into deeper distress since September, the last time the two citizens’ delegations of the Dartmouth Conference met: more sanctions, more diplomatic expulsions, more military clashes in Syria, and a growing sense that the entire US-Russian arms-control regime is at risk.

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But the oilman from Siberia is undaunted. “I invest my time, energy, money,” says Dr. Shafranik, co-chair of the Dartmouth dialogues. “We’re doing what we can.”

So are other Track II initiatives, including the Elbe Group at Harvard University and dialogues of US and Russian defense experts organized by a Washington think tank. The Pentagon has funding for more such efforts, which aim to build unofficial channels of communication at a time when formal dialogue is fraught with tension and misunderstanding.

Critics say efforts like the Dartmouth Conference are just talk. But at this point, there’s no alternative, says John Beyrle, former US ambassador to Russia and a new Dartmouth delegate. 

“This is one of those times where we do want, and need, dialogue for dialogue’s sake, given the hostility and lack of official contact between our governments,” Ambassador Beyrle says.

As it happens, the Russians arrived in Washington at a signal moment in the Trump presidency. While the Dartmouth delegates met at the Mayflower Hotel, just blocks from the White House, President Trump was in Singapore for a historic, if controversial, summit with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un. And news spread that Mr. Trump was pushing for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin – the kind of incautious, and politically risky, move that has made the Trump presidency riveting across the globe.

For the Russian and American delegates here – retired diplomats, politicians, academics, clergy, doctors, and media, including this reporter – the prospect of a Trump-Putin summit gave the dialogue some extra juice. Perhaps, the thinking went, the group’s recommendations, later shared with a relevant senior government official, could help inform the summit’s agenda. Security measures topped the list, starting with an extension of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty. Preserving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – currently at risk of unraveling – is also key. Ditto setting up regular bilateral scientific and military dialogues.

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The uncertainty factor

Infusing the discussion was a sense of unpredictability. The Trump-Kim summit, as well as Trump’s comments around the G7 meeting of world economic powers – including his out-of-the-blue proposal that Russia be readmitted into the group – served as reminders that the American president is foremost a disruptor.  

Also of note: the recent visit to Washington by the US ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, to plan for a Trump-Putin summit; and word of a congressional delegation heading to Russia.

“All of these things are reminders to us, being sort of establishment creatures – both the Americans and the Russians – that the establishment isn’t necessarily running the agenda here,” says Matt Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute and a Dartmouth Conference organizer. “That means we should anticipate the unexpected, and things we think are impossible might actually be possible, I think in a good way.”

Some visiting Russians feared being unwelcome in America. At the last minute, some delegation members opted not to come; one delegate literally walked off the plane in Moscow. Daily headlines about the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia loom over all things Russian in Washington. What’s more, by coming here, Russian delegates risk being seen as “pro-American” back home, some said.  

A meeting with lawmakers

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough of the week was an off-the-record meeting on Capitol Hill between Russian co-chair Vitaly Naumkin and members of the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats.

“It was constructive,” says a smiling Dr. Naumkin, a Middle East expert who advises the UN special representative for Syria. Last year, during the last Dartmouth gathering in Washington, nearly all the Russians’ outside meetings with American dignitaries were canceled, including with members of Congress.

This year, besides Naumkin’s meeting, Dartmouth participants forged other connections. The first day of the conference coincided with Russia Day, the national holiday of the Russian Federation. Members of the US delegation were invited by Russian delegates to a party at the Russian Embassy, and chatted with the new ambassador, Anatoly Antonov.

In years past, before US-Russian relations took a nosedive, plenty of Americans would attend this party, including Capitol Hill staff and State Department officials. Now, it’s mostly Russians. (Alas, Russian hockey star Alex Ovechkin, captain of the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, was not sighted. But we thanked the Russians for his service.)

Another moment of connection came in a group visit to Washington’s new Museum of the Bible. Each delegation has clergy – Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Russian Orthodox – who are planning an interfaith dialogue in Kazan, Russia, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims live together harmoniously. Non-Christian members of the Russian delegation, including a professed agnostic, also visited the museum.

‘The one thing we had to do’

Mr. Rojansky says there’s “something spiritual” about the Dartmouth Conference, so named because the then-Soviet-American dialogues first convened at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., in 1960.

“It comes out of the realization that in the darkest days of the cold war, the one thing we had to do was talk to each other,” says Rojansky. Also, he adds, this museum “says something about Americans, that we would have such a museum in the center of Washington, D.C.”

Integral, too, to the Dartmouth initiative are exchanges between Russian and American doctors and librarians, who acknowledge that it’s easier to keep the geopolitical stresses of US-Russian relations out of their collaborations than it is in the working groups on arms control and regional conflicts. Undergirding these efforts is the support of the Ohio-based Kettering Foundation, which studies nongovernmental diplomacy.

Former Rep. Dan Glickman (D) of Kansas, a first-time Dartmouth participant and executive director of the Aspen Institute Congressional Program, noted the absence of legislative dialogue.

“Historically, dialogues between the US Congress and Russian Duma have been extremely important in building relationships,” especially on nuclear matters, Mr. Glickman told the conference. “Why not now?”

Perhaps it’s because of US sanctions on Russia, or “worries about perceived intervention in elections, which have created an attitude of distrust,” Glickman continues. “But without engaging the US Congress in an aggressive, effective way, it will be very difficult in our era to move a lot of the security agenda.”

Congress, in fact, has become the driving force behind sanctions. Last year, both houses overwhelmingly approved legislation that added sanctions and codified existing ones over Russian meddling in the 2016 election and military aggression in Eastern Europe. Trump signed it grudgingly.

Shafranik, the Russian co-chair, agrees that dialogue between Russian and American legislators is essential – and suggests there may be hope for US-Russian relations. “The challenge isn’t the president, the challenge is the Congress,” he says.

Trump himself certainly furthered that view Friday morning, during an extraordinary, impromptu gaggle with reporters on the North Lawn of the White House. He blamed his predecessor for the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, saying “Putin didn’t respect President Obama.”

It was the Crimea annexation that led to Russia’s expulsion from the G8. But Trump appears ready to move on. “I think it's better to have Russia in than to have Russia out,” he said, “because just like North Korea, just like somebody else, it's much better if we get along with them than if we don’t.”