Speech by Andrew Weiss, James Family Chair and Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at the conference of the Luxembourg Forum in Geneva

Thank you, General Dvorkin, and thank you to our chairman Mr. Kantor for convening this important session of the Luxembourg Forum. On behalf of the Carnegie Endowment and a lot of my fellow American participants, I think we all appreciate both how unique this gathering is, but also how well-timed it is. And just listening to the perspectives of my former boss, Secretary Perry, and others, and the ability to tackle hard issues gives one a sense of optimism about what might be possible to restore some sense of direction and possibly momentum to the U.S.–Russian relations, which are obviously in very difficult condition these days.

The disruptive effects of Donald Trump’s America First policy are hard to overstate, and anyone who’s been watching TV in the last 48 hours probably has a pretty good sense of that. But at the same time, the talks that are beginning in Singapore today are a good reminder of how there’re many urgent real-world security challenges that are too important to ignore, and we should all be hoping for success and progress in the days ahead.

That leaves me with a basic question. Can the United States and Russia do something similar? The optimist in me, and the former policy practitioner, says, “Sure, we’ve been through hard times, and we have worked through them with good faith and with creative ideas.” The realist in me, though, says, “I’m not so sure.” And I think we should be focusing perhaps more on managing the fallout and the dangerous possible implications of an increasingly competitive and adversarial relationship between the United States and Russia.

In assessing and looking over the state of that relationship, there’s no disputing that the bilateral relationship between the United States and Russia is in tatters. There is a near total breakdown across the relationship in all spheres. An incident in Syria on February 7th, between United States and Russian military forces, broke through a key barrier that was respected throughout the worst days of the Cold War, that the United States and Russia should not be shooting at each other. I very much hope that that incident is teaching various people a hard lesson, and that there will be no repeat.

Likewise, there is a lack of reliable channels between the two governments right now; apart from an important deconfliction mechanism that has been set up to prevent dangerous military incidents in Syria, it is very hard to see how this relationship is going to be managed at a time of increased pressure on both sides to show who’s tough and to show that there’s no backing down.

Likewise, economic sanctions and pressure have become the main tool for the United States to show its displeasure with Russian actions.

All of this contributes to a corrosive lack of trust on both sides, especially in the national security establishment. The political climate, I probably don’t need to mention, in both capitals is simply toxic.

And then finally, there are divergent views about the international environment, global security challenges and what constitutes an agenda for the two sides to work on going forward. That’s the reality, and as much as I wish it weren’t the case, we can’t wish it away.

So what can Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump do to change all of that? Well, there’s no doubt that Donald Trump loves grand gestures, being disruptive and shaking things up. And through as both a presidential candidate and now as president, he has remained really fixated on trying to change things with Russia, at times for reasons that are a little bit hard to explain.

For his part, Vladimir Putin is a consummate realist who seems ready to get into discussions and start wheeling and dealing at a moment’s notice. He is an experienced figure on the international scene, who has been doing this now for the better part of 18 years.

But the actual agenda for the United States and Russia is not obvious. And the tensions, which in many ways are evocative of the worst days of the Cold War, are obvious. So, if we look at what’s in front of the two sides, there’s a tremendous overhang from the events of 2014, 2015 and 2016. It would be hard to overstate how dangerous that period has been and how corrosive it has been for U.S.–Russian relations.

The strategic and security issues which are at the heart of our discussions here in Geneva today are obviously very complex, and I’m grateful to see so many important American practitioners around the table, who can help sort of frame and think creatively about the path ahead.

Regional issues, whether it’s in East Asia, or the Middle East, remain extremely complicated and worrying; economic ties between our two countries are negligible at best.

And finally, and, I think, perhaps most tragically, people-to-people ties, many of which are sort of exemplified by the comments by professor Sagdeev and others, about cooperation between the United States and Russia in various spheres, including in the science, technological sphere, are at this point fading amid hysteria in both countries.

All that makes our work today and tomorrow all the more important. And I hope that we will look at the issues in front of us with the spirit of cooperation, creativity and a desire to cooperate out of cold-blooded necessity.

I’m grateful and honored to be here today, and ready to get to work. Thank you so much.