U.S. and Russia relations are very strained. Here’s what’s at stake

The latest reports on repeated contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials have strained the potential for improved ties between Moscow and Washington. Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner reports, then Judy Woodruff gets views on what’s at stake from Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest.

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    This week brought more reports of repeated contacts between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials.

    Margaret Warner begins with the latest details.


    Attorney General Jeff Sessions returned to work today, after recusing himself from any investigation into Moscow's election meddling. His recusal came after conceding he'd met twice with the Russian ambassador during the campaign.

    Earlier, he told a Senate committee he had not.

    But, today, Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed his faith in Sessions.


    The president and I have full confidence in the attorney general. He is a man of integrity.


    Reports also emerged that campaign advisers J.D. Gordon and Carter Page met Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, as did Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and adviser.

    That belied Page's own words to the NewsHour last month.


    Did you have any meetings last year with Russian officials in Russia, outside Russia, anywhere?

  • CARTER PAGE, Former Trump Campaign Foreign Policy Adviser:

    I had no meetings. No meetings.


    In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the ongoing furor.

  • SERGEI LAVROV, Russian Foreign Minister (through interpreter):

    I can only refer to a quote that was circulated today in the mass media. This strongly resembles a witch-hunt or the times of McCarthyism, which we thought were long over in the United States as a civilized country.


    Mr. Trump also called it a witch-hunt. And, today, he tweeted a photo of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2003. Mr. Trump said: "We should start an immediate investigation into Senator Schumer and his ties to Russia and Putin. A total hypocrite."

    Schumer tweeted back that he'd happily talk about his contact with Putin, asking, "Would you and your team?"

    Later, the president also demanded a probe of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for having said she never met with the Russian ambassador. Politico published a photo today showing he was part of a larger meeting with Pelosi in 2010.

    The political storm has overshadowed any concrete steps toward improving ties with Russia, as Mr. Trump has advocated.


    If we have a good relationship with Russia, believe me, that's a good thing.


    Relations turned icy at the end of Obama administration, over Russian aggression in Ukraine, and its military backing for Damascus in the Syrian civil war. Since Mr. Trump took office, diplomacy between the two sides, at least publicly, has been limited. The president spoke with Putin by phone after the inauguration.

    And his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, met with Lavrov at a G20 summit in Germany. Meanwhile, uncertainty over Mr. Trump's intentions toward Russia is rattling American allies in Europe. Vice President Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis tried last month to reassure NATO partners of Washington's alliance solidarity.

    One NATO partner, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, now plans to visit Washington on March 14.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Margaret Warner.


    A broader look now at the state of U.S.-Russia relations and what is at stake for these two countries.

    We get two views.

    Andrew Weiss worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations as a staffer on the National Security Council in the State and Defense Departments. He's now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    And Paul Saunders, he focused on Russia at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. He's now the executive director of the Center for the National Interest. It's a foreign policy think tank.

    And we welcome both of you back to the program.

    Andrew Weiss, to you first.

    What is the sense of the state of U.S.-Russia relations right now?

    ANDREW WEISS, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: The relationship between the United States and Russia is broken.

    We are at a low point that goes back to the darkest days of the Cold War. President Trump has been promising that there's going to be some kind of dramatic resurgence. He's talked about doing a grand bargain with Vladimir Putin, presumably focused on the war in Syria, the fight against ISIS. He hopes to contain China and deal with more a meddlesome Iran by somehow breaking ground with Russians.

    I think that's setting expectations way too high. The reasons for the relationship being in the doghouse are profound and really go to the heart of who we are as a nation.


    Paul Saunders, how do you see the state of relations right now?

    PAUL SAUNDERS, Center for the National Interest: Well, I agree with Andrew that the relationship is really at its worst state today since probably the 1980s.

    I think there is no question about that. Where I would differ with Andrew is, I think there are opportunities to improve the relationship. I do think there are some possibilities in Syria on some other issues, arms control perhaps, some other areas, too.

    And, you know, the president seems determined to try that. If he does, I think Moscow would be receptive. I think it's appropriate to keep our expectations in check. But I do believe there are some possibilities.


    Why do you say they're broken, Andrew Weiss?


    Well, it comes back to the sort of core question of, how does the U.S. formulate its national security policy?

    Our view is that there is a liberal international order out there. It's been sort of the guiding structure of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II to build alliances, institutions like NATO alliance, support for the E.U. and key alliances in East Asia.

    The Russians, on the other hand, really want to see that international order chipped away at. They believe that that gives the U.S. too much authority in the world. And they have seen that at home the way to build the legitimacy of the Putin regime is on the back of this idea that there is an external threat, and to use the United States as a boogeyman that will mobilize the Russian people in support of the Kremlin.


    If that's the case, Paul Saunders, what gives you any belief that the Russians — you listed Syria, you list arms control as two areas that you felt the Russians would be receptive to some sort of overture from President Trump. What makes you believe that that's the case?


    Well, I think I would disagree, respectfully, with some of the things that Andrew said there.

    First of all, I think Vladimir Putin's legitimacy in Russia rests primarily actually on Russia's economic success. Now, the Russian economy certainly has been stalled for the last several years. There have been some further slowdowns because of the sanctions, but most Russians are living far better than at any time in the history of that country.

    Secondly, as we think about the international system, the real threat to the international system is an alignment between China and Russia. Russia, on its own, its economy is a 10th of ours. They're not going to destabilize the international system.


    So what about that, Andrew Weiss?


    Well, I think what we have seen in the past couple of years is a lot of opportunism and risk-taking. That has now become the sort of bread and butter of Russian foreign policy.

    So, you see spur-of-the-moment, improvised decisions to seize Crimea, to launch a covert war in Eastern Ukraine. You then see this dramatic military intervention in Syria. And then, most obviously, recently, we have seen this brazen interference in our domestic political life.

    So this is a different, much more sort of nimble Russian foreign policy. It's very destabilizing. It's created a lot of apprehension, particularly among our European allies. And the idea that the Russians just want to kind of go back to normal, I think, is misplaced.

    It is in their interest to see a destabilized U.S., to have our political system chaotic and sort of locked in an internal division. That to them is a success.


    That is the picture many Americans are getting, Paul Saunders, isn't it?


    I think many Americans are getting that picture.

    And, look, I mean, there are serious problems in Russia's conduct, and there are serious reasons for Americans to be concerned. I think there are ways to deal with that. The president has talked about dealing with Russia from a position of strength. I think, if we take that approach, we can deal with many of these concerns.


    What's at risk here? What's at stake, Andrew Weiss, if this relationship is in the condition that you describe? What stands to happen?


    The worst thing, which I can see readily happening — we had an incident about two days ago in Syria — is some form of unintentional either accident or direct conflict between our military forces. So, just a couple …


    Between Russian and U.S. forces?



    The risk of that happening is uncomfortably high. The Russians in Syria are operating increasingly close to our forces. We had an incident a couple days where they were bombing Syrian opposition forces supported by the United States, and our special operators were just four or five kilometers away.

    In the air over Syria, we have had a lot of near misses. You see brazen Russian efforts in the airspace over Europe to basically try to get as obnoxious and be in our face, and the idea is, we will put back, that we will be intimidated.


    Paul Saunders, why isn't that a worry?


    I think it's a very considerable worry.

    I view that as a reason to try to engage with Moscow. I think there are a lot of other reasons to try to engage. If this relationship slips from adversarial to truly hostile, and we start to see Russia providing advanced weapons to China, providing more advanced weapons to Iran, there are a lot of other things that could happen that could be much worse for the United States.


    Speaking of which, in less than a minute, nuclear weapons? These are the two countries with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Andrew Weiss, what about that?


    That part of the agenda between the United States and Russia is deadlocked.

    So, we're unlikely — regardless of what Donald Trump's policies are on defense spending, on changes to our nuclear arsenal, the reality is, we have fundamental disagreements with the Russians. They have violated a key arms control treaty, the INF Treaty, which Russia has now fielded new cruise missiles that violate that treaty.

    And they're very concerned about U.S. programs, our missile defenses in Europe, and these new conventional strategic systems which they believe will threaten their strategic deterrent.


    And, finally, Paul Saunders, how do you see the risks there?


    Well, I think the risks are considerable.

    At the same time, our economy is 10 times the size of the Russian economy. They can't afford — they can afford even less than the Soviet Union to get into a nuclear arms race with the United States. I think we hold the cards.

    I think it's an opportunity, again, from a position of strength, to try to pursue that agenda address the concerns we have about Russian conduct and try to lock in some stability in the relationship.


    Paul Saunders, Andrew Weiss, deadly serious subject. Thank you both very much.


    Thank you.



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