Hopes Are High In Russia For Improved Relations With U.S. 'Pragmatic Partners'

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"We're not expecting a road covered with roses in our bilateral relations, though clearly there's a window of opportunity," Konstantin Kosachyov told a group of academics and former diplomats in Moscow this week.
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Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the foreign relations committee in the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, is in a hurry to get U.S.-Russian relations back on track.

The morning after Rex Tillerson was sworn in as secretary of state, Kosachyov invited two dozen experts on the United States to the Federation Council in downtown Moscow.

"We're not expecting a road covered with roses in our bilateral relations, though clearly there's a window of opportunity," Kosachyov told the academics and former diplomats who packed a seventh-floor conference room. "Mr. Trump has said repeatedly that he's ready to build ties with Russia on a new, pragmatic basis."

Relations between the world's two biggest nuclear powers are at their lowest point since the Cold War ended 25 years ago. The Obama administration imposed sanctions after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 – and more recently accused the Kremlin of interfering in the U.S. presidential election. Moscow claims the U.S. and its European allies have been motivated by "russophobia" and a desire to remove Russia as an independent actor from the world stage.

Kosachyov emerged from his two-hour brainstorming session with a list of recommendations on how to approach the Trump administration.

Russians largely welcomed the election victory of Donald Trump, who has often spoken of improving relations with Russia. Tillerson's confirmation came as even more positive news, as the former ExxonMobil CEO built close ties to Russia's state oil company, Rosneft, and was awarded the country's Order of Friendship in 2012.

"I definitely do not consider Mr. Tillerson as a pro-Russian American politician," Kosachyov told NPR. "He will not be an easy partner for Russia. But we do not seek easy partners, we seek pragmatic partners, and I believe that we have a chance."

Russian experts view Trump's victory not as a fluke but as a "systemic change," according to Kosachyov. They expect domestic politics also to dominate over foreign policy in western European countries, following elections later this year.

Russia should seize the initiative in pushing cooperation in the most promising areas, such as nuclear arms control and fighting international terrorism, Kosachyov said. Increased trade is another priority, though that will be difficult without a loosening of the sanctions regime.

On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced it would allow some companies to do limited business with the FSB, Russia's Federal Security Service, which fell under sanctions imposed by then-President Obama in December. The Trump administration says the move was a technical adjustment and does not signify a lifting of sanctions.

"A crisis of confidence is the main aggravating factor in Russian-American relations," Kosachyov said.

While he is well aware of bipartisan opposition in Washington to a rapprochement with Russia, Kosachyov said he would reach out to friendly members of Congress during the annual Munich Security Conference in two weeks.

Like many Russians, Kosachyov believes the world could have slid into war had Hillary Clinton become president. Many people feared she would have pursued an aggressive policy toward Russia and the Middle East. At least that risk has been eliminated with Trump's election, he said, and now a summit meeting between Trump and President Vladimir Putin should be organized as soon as possible.

"If we start to work well together with the U.S., we'll be able to hold back the Americans from possible mistakes," Kosachyov said.

After all, he said, President Trump may not fully realize the consequences of his proposed actions – like moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv or recognizing Taiwan as an equal to China.

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