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Moscow shouldn’t misjudge the Mueller moment

March 30, 2019

Russian claims last week that they’ve been exonerated by Robert Mueller’s final report make my skin crawl. But they highlight the critical question of how the U.S. and Russia can begin to move back toward a saner relationship.

Frankly speaking (as Russians like to say), the first step is for Russia to stop pretending that it didn’t meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Kremlin got caught red-handed, one could say, and if it keeps claiming otherwise, the Russians obstruct the dialogue they say they want.

Moscow shouldn’t misjudge the moment. The special counsel’s report affirmed the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia meddled in the 2016 race. Mueller’s strongest cases, in fact, were the indictments that detailed how 13 operatives from Russia’s Internet Research Agency manipulated social media and 12 GRU officers hacked Democratic Party information and passed stolen emails to WikiLeaks.

Russian commentators were nearly as jubilant as the White House after Attorney General William Barr released his summary of Mueller’s findings. “Significant taxpayer resources went into disproving an obvious fake,” crowed a Foreign Ministry statement. “The agents of conspiracy have been discredited,” tweeted Alexey Pushkov, a foreign-policy expert in Russia’s parliament.

President Donald Trump may enjoy the Kremlin fist pumps. But they’re the wrong way to restart a serious dialogue between Moscow and Washington.

Andrey Krutskikh, the Kremlin’s leading cyber expert, dropped a hankie in an article last week in the Moscow newspaper Kommersant. He proposed that the two nations resume “depoliticized expert dialogue” about cybersecurity, like the quiet conversations that took place during the Obama administration.

“Russia has nothing to fear — nor do we have anything to conceal,” Krutskikh said. He said the U.S. should agree to disclose the secret pre-election contacts between the U.S. and Russia in 2016 about U.S. “concerns over the intrusion into its electronic infrastructure.”

This sounds dubious; Russia was conducting a covert action against the U.S., which means that it was deniable. Moscow’s statements in 2016 would reinforce its claim that it didn’t do what U.S. intelligence and Mueller’s indictments say it did.

Chris Painter, who was the Obama administration’s top cyber diplomat, told me Wednesday that a resumption of working-level contacts about cyber would be fine. But he cautioned against any top-rank contacts about cyber issues now, because they might allow Russia to pretend the 2016 cyberattacks didn’t happen.

“If you resume high-level dialogue, that says everything’s OK — no harm, no foul,” Painter explains. This would be a mistake, he argues, because it would allow Moscow “to whitewash what has happened.”

What about a broader conversation between the U.S. and Russia — dealing with big, potentially explosive problems like Ukraine, Syria and nuclear arms control? As with cyber issues, the answer is that the two sides need to talk, but they need to build a solid foundation.

“We should begin in a modest way, not with a full-up arms-control negotiation, but by starting an ongoing dialogue about strategic stability,” argues Stephen Hadley, who was national security adviser for President George W. Bush. He suggests a range of confidence-building measures that might seek to avoid confrontations in outer space and cyberspace.

A warier view comes from Tom Donilon, who was national security adviser under Barack Obama. He thinks the U.S. shouldn’t engage Russia until its own house is in better order — with full disclosure of the Mueller report on what the Russians did in 2016, better protection for U.S. election security, and repair of America’s damaged alliances in Europe.

Trump administration officials argue that their Russia policy is based on U.S. interest. They’ve imposed sanctions when necessary but also tried to keep open channels between Trump and Putin. If officials have plans for any major post-Mueller opening, they don’t say so.

If Russia wants lasting improvement in its relations with America, it should stop its Trumpian gloating about the Mueller report and start rebuilding the basics of trust. Mueller’s apparent affirmation that there was “no collusion” creates some space for better relations, but if Trump supporters are Moscow’s only champions, any reset with Russia will blow a fuse.