Vladimir Putin’s previous foreign minister and one-time top security adviser has an urgent message for his former boss and President Donald Trump: Ratchet down military tensions to avoid a conflict neither side wants or can afford.
Igor Ivanov, who served as Russian foreign minister from 1998 to 2004, said he is speaking out because he worries that the steady deterioration of relations between Washington and Moscow will spin out of control if Trump and Putin don’t establish a path for new security talks to stabilize the situation.
“We see deterioration in relations of the United States and Russia, and it is very difficult to move ahead about common ideas in the security field,” Ivanov, who also served as secretary of Russia’s security council under Putin, told POLITICO in a telephone interview from Moscow.
His concerns, relayed just before Trump and Putin hold their first face-to-face meeting Friday in Germany, come as the level of distrust between the two sides is at a post-Cold War high. Russian and U.S. military forces are at odds in Syria, Russian fighter jets and bombers regularly harass U.S. and NATO aircraft and warships in international airspace and waters, and a series of investigations is looking into whether Putin’s regime used cyberattacks to try to sway the U.S. presidential election.
But Ivanov, who is now president of the Russian International Affairs Council, is calling on the two leaders to nevertheless open up a new high-level dialogue on security issues with the intention of finding ways to cooperate, including on terrorism and nuclear weapons.
The 71-year-old former diplomat, who joined the Soviet Foreign Ministry in 1973, said he is particularly worried about nuclear weapons, an area in which the two sides have historically worked closely together but where dialogue has also broken down in recent years.
Both nations are also engaged in a full-blown effort to modernize their respective atomic arsenals, and are at loggerheads over the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which Washington has accused Moscow of violating.
“It is necessary to adopt concrete measures in spite of the difficulties that might exist,” Ivanov told POLITICO. “During all crises of the Cold War, we never interrupted our dialogue over security issues because of how dangerous it was.”
Ivanov also recently co-signed an open letter to Trump and Putin contending that “despite significant differences, the United States, Russia, and Europe can and must work together on areas of existential common interest — chief among them reducing nuclear and other military risks, and preventing catastrophic terrorist attacks.”
The letter urged both leaders, among other steps, to jointly declare that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and to “increase military-to-military communication through a new NATO-Russia Military Crisis Management Group.”
The U.S. and Russian militaries consistently communicate with each other to de-conflict their forces operating over Syria, and their top generals have met on several occasions in recent months. But regular security talks at the political or diplomatic level are mostly frozen — a cause for growing alarm among many longtime national security officials.
For example, former Defense Secretary William Perry has personally urged Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to seek ways to communicate regularly with Sergey Shoygu, his Russian counterpart in the Ministry of Defense.
"It is very important to try to get that started," Perry told POLITICO recently, after relaying the message in a meeting with the Pentagon chief.
Ivanov also stressed that he believes Russian leaders are open to new security guarantees despite what suspicious Americans might think — but that more of them need to put pressure on Trump and Putin to act.
Indeed, others in the Russian security establishment are also speaking up.
Vladimir Dvorkin, a retired major general who ran Russia’s nuclear weapons research, recently signed onto a series of recommendations that also called on Trump and Putin to take urgent steps to resume arms control talks and launch military-to-military discussions aimed at reaching “accident-prevention” agreements.