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On the eve of a new presidential administration, U.S. policy toward Russia has shifted from reset to isolation over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. As the 25th anniversary of the bilateral relationship approaches, what direction should the next American president take concerning Russia? Should the White House maintain the current policy of pressure through sanctions, attempt a new reset on new terms, or try something different altogether?
On April 14, the Center on Global Interests held a discussion with Thomas Graham of Kissinger Associates, Andrew Kuchins of Georgetown University, and CGI President Nikolai Zlobin to debate how the next U.S. president should approach Russia.
Thomas Graham: ‘calculate U.S. interests and don’t compartmentalize’
Thomas Graham observed that 25 years ago, as the Cold War ended, many Americans had great expectations for U.S.-Russia relations. There were talks of a “strategic alliance” or at least a “strategic partnership.” Today, the relationship is at its lowest point since the late 1980s. But U.S. policy toward Russia hasn’t “failed” to the extent that many believe. Each U.S. administration witnessed its own successes in relations with Russia — including the peaceful end of the Soviet Union during George H. W. Bush’s presidency, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Eastern Europe and de-nuclearization of Ukraine and Belarus during Bill Clinton’s presidency, close cooperation on nonproliferation under George W. Bush, and securing the new START treaty and the Iran nuclear agreement under President Obama. Overall, Graham said, American administrations have enhanced the security and prosperity of the Euro-Atlantic community during the last 25 years. Furthermore, none of the problems the United States faces today, with the exception of the Ukrainian crisis, are the direct consequences of a failed Russia policy.
Then why is our assessment of U.S. policy on Russia so bleak? According to Graham, the problem is the failure of our “grand strategy” to integrate Russia into the Euro-Atlantic community. This failure was due in part to America’s negligible impact on Russia’s democratic evolution, as well as the triumphalism at the end of the Cold War that led us to believe that Russian characteristics and its authoritarian past would inevitably give way to the advance of free-market democracy. In this way, the United States effectively put the success of its “grand strategy” into the hands of another country — Russia — whose interests were not congruent to our own and whose leaders were determined to govern their country as they saw fit.
The tension between U.S. national security and Russian domestic politics explains the cyclical nature of U.S.-Russian relations over the past 25 years.
Another flaw was the U.S. approach of linking cooperation on national security issues to the advancement of democracy in Russia. Each time the gap between U.S. expectations for Russian democracy and the realities on the ground became too large to ignore, the United States had to halt a cooperation that was in fact advancing its national interests. This tension between U.S. national security and Russian domestic politics explains the cyclical nature of U.S.-Russian relations over the past 25 years.
The failure of U.S. grand strategy was also compounded by an “arrogant dismissal” of Russian power. According to Graham, the mantra that “Russia has no veto” over EU or NATO decisions was proven wrong during the 2008 war in Georgia and the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, when Russia showed that it has a veto through the use of force. Today, Graham said, Russia has a first-class diplomatic corps and an increasingly capable military, and it has the will to use both to advance its interests.
A debate of extremes
What the United States needs now is a new grand strategy for Russia. To formulate one, Graham said, we need to see Russia clearly. Yet today’s debate is dominated by extremes: by those who either see Russia as geopolitical enemy number one, or who believe that Russia doesn’t matter at all. The former argue that we need to aggressively push back to counter Russia, while the latter appear annoyed that we have to spend time working with Russia on issues like Ukraine and Syria. Clearly, Graham said, Russia does matter — it has one of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, a world-class scientific community, the most abundant natural resources in the world, and a geographic location that borders on all of the regions of utmost importance to the United States. What’s more, even though Russia has reduced opportunities at this point, it still has the habits and the mindset of a “great power.”
Russia’s domestic and international predicaments
That said, Russia faces foreign and domestic challenges that will limit the reach of its aspirations. In the geopolitical sphere, Russia is surrounded by regions that are more dynamic than it is (including Europe, China, and farther on, the United States). This geopolitical predicament sets the contours of Russia’s grand strategy. Russia is trying to restore its primacy in the former Soviet space, the geopolitical zone that has provided its heft throughout history. It is reaching out to China strategically and to the European Union commercially in an attempt to off-set their relationships with the United States. It is also trying to compel the United States to act like a “normal great power” — that is, to take into account the interests of the other “great powers” in order to advance its own.
Whether Russia can succeed in these geopolitical tasks is a question, Graham said. Russia will be hard-pressed to maintain its former position in the former Soviet space unless it can regain its historical dynamism. Today the Russian state is very capable of mobilizing the society for its purposes, but the structure of power prevents the society’s creative energy and economic potential from being unleashed. At the same time, reforming that structure is fraught with great danger in the minds of the Russian elite, who remember the Gorbachev period and what it ultimately led to — the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Domestic problems and geopolitical threats fuel a sense of vulnerability in the Russian leadership.
This geopolitical situation coupled with the domestic conundrum fuels a sense of vulnerability in the Russian leadership. According to Graham, the Kremlin is taking visible steps in the run-up to the September elections to prevent the type of unrest that erupted after the Duma elections of 2011. At the same time, the leadership is quick to remind the West of its nuclear arsenal and its military capabilities, as shown in the recent Russian reconnaissance flights over Europe. This sense of vulnerability may only be deepened by the sense that Russia has entered a prolonged stagnation. Arguably, Russia is acting assertively today because this is its moment of maximal power — the time for Russia to force the issue of the “new world order” and to secure a place for Russia as a great power well into the 21st century.
A new grand strategy for a new era
Overall, according to Graham, Russia is a country of “great possibilities but also with tremendous problems.” What, then, should be the guiding principles of Russia police for the next U.S. administration? The starting point, Graham said, is to accept that the relationship has moved to a new era, with no possibility of a “reset,” a “strategic partnership,” or a return to “business as usual.” The United States will have to forge a new grand strategy for a new era. The new approach should be based on:
- a hard calculation of U.S. national interests
- a non-sentimental, non-ideological assessment of what Russia can realistically do to advance or to thwart U.S. national interests
- a focus on Russia’s external behavior rather than its internal politics
The result, Graham said, will be a policy that combines competition and cooperation — in other words, the type of relationship that is normal between two major world powers. In this broad framework, the United States should shape a policy that reflects the differing roles that Russia plays from the standpoint of American national interests across various regions and issues. In Europe, the United States will have to push back against Russia, because Moscow has undermined U.S. interests by violating the norms of international conduct. In Asia, by contrast, Russia could be a partner in building a flexible balance of power, which the United States could use to channel China’s rise in ways that won’t detract from U.S. national interests. In the Middle East, Russia has forced its way to the high table of the region’s geopolitical reckoning, and the United States will need to take Russia’s interests into account in order to build a durable equilibrium among the major regional powers. Finally, the Arctic remains a zone of cooperation where the United States and Russia can work together to protect a fragile ecosystem, exploit abundant resources, and develop commercial maritime routes.
On the issue front, there is tremendous potential for U.S.-Russian cooperation on nonproliferation, international terrorism, energy security, climate change, and pandemic diseases — as long as we don’t exaggerate the extent to which Russian and American interests overlap. The conflict in Syria shows how the United States and Russia see the issue of terrorism in different ways, and analogous divergences in interpretation, response and priority exist across the broader range of transnational issues.
The result will be a set of varying approaches to Russia that will need to be crafted into one coherent policy. The next U.S. administration will need to confront such questions as how to structure Russian sanctions over Ukraine in a way that doesn’t drive a weakened Russia into the hands of China; and how to work with Russia in the Middle East in a way that doesn’t jeopardize U.S. national interests but helps diffuse tensions in Europe.
We can’t compartmentalize relations with Russia, because for Russians trust is not divisible.
A lot of people in Washington would reject that approach, Graham said, and would like to compartmentalize each issue on its own merits. The problem is, you can’t compartmentalize relations with Russia, because for the Russians everything is linked. For them, trust is not divisible, and what you do on one issue colors their attitude towards the United States on other issues. Moreover, compartmentalization is impossible today due to the tremendous disparity in power between the United States and Russia. Because of that disparity, the Russian leadership looks for asymmetrical and unorthodox ways of responding to the challenges and threats they believe the United States poses to them.
The United States will need a senior official to oversee the Russia policy, who will have the authority and ability to craft our very different approaches to Russia on specific issues into a coherent Russia policy. Crafting that type of strategy — one that takes into account differences within and across issues, and makes concessions and tradeoffs — will not be an easy task for any U.S. administration. But the only way to create a successful Russia policy, Graham argued, is to make certain tradeoffs and to put together an approach that focuses on an optimal outcome for U.S.-Russia relations overall, rather than on optimal outcomes for the United States on individual issues.
Andrew Kuchins: the 3 ‘donts’ of Russia policy
The next U.S. president will inherit the worst U.S.-Russia relationship of his/her three predecessors. On that sobering observation, Andrew Kuchins said the next U.S. administration will have to take particular care to manage the relationship.
To that end he outlined several “donts” to avoid in the future U.S. approach toward Russia:
- don’t overestimate the capacity of the United States to influence domestic affairs in Russia. According to Kuchins, this has been a consistent problem for every U.S. administration over the last 25 years, and it has always backfired. The result has been an increased Russian sensitivity to any American presence in the country.
- don’t underestimate the skills and public support of Vladimir Putin. Within the United States there is a tendency to underestimate the political skills of authoritarian leaders, Kuchins said. Putin has led Russia for 16 years — which is no small feat — and has been an adept actor on the international stage. He will be encountering his fourth U.S. president next year, which gives him a sense of seniority.
- lose the “Russia is weak” paradigm. While Russia is a declining power, it is not helpful to U.S. policy making or to its public relations to dismiss Russia’s strength. Russia has an ability to act decisively and without warning. In the future, U.S. officials should be more careful in their public statements about Russia, and refrain from insulting Putin — because the Russian people perceive it as an insult to themselves.
Kuchins warned against calling the current state of relations a “new Cold War.” During the Cold War, the structure of the international system was bipolar, the conflict was global, and the conflict was heavily ideologized. None of those three core factors apply to the current situation, he said.
This brought Kuchins to three operational assumptions when crafting the next U.S.-Russia policy:
1) Foreign-policy success has become relatively much more important to Putin’s domestic legitimacy than ever before. Previously, Putin’s popularity was mainly based on domestic economic growth and prosperity. That is no longer the case. Today, despite the country’s economic downturn, we can expect Russia to be active and challenging on the international stage.
2) Our fundamental disagreement with Russia is about European security — this is what the Ukrainian crisis represents. The cause of the disagreement was the collective failure of the United States, its European allies and Russia to develop a European security framework in which all participants — including Russia — feel like their interests are adequately addressed. Russia’s dissatisfaction with the current European security structure doesn’t mean Russia is a global revisionist power; in fact, Russia views the United States as the revisionist power. In other theaters beyond the European one, Kuchins said, the United States and Russia appear to have more common interests than divergent ones.
3) Isolation of Russia is a really bad idea. First, it isn’t possible for the United States to isolate Russia completely, especially when Washington itself continues to work with Russia on individual issues (like the Iran nuclear deal and the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons). The major beneficiary of an isolationist policy is China. And despite the fact that China is not pursuing a formal alliance with Russia, the two countries can do much below the alliance level that would counter U.S. national interests. In that regard, the United States should support Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic outreach to Russia.
Kuchins concluded with several recommendations for U.S. policy in the short term. First, the United States should elevate the discussion on Ukraine to the highest diplomatic level. The current approach has been to limit talks with Russia to the Assistant Secretary of State level, and to a large extent the conversation has been outsourced to the Europeans. Ukraine’s aspirations to NATO membership should also be reassessed, as NATO cannot make a credible security commitment to Ukraine. A new approach must be taken toward the Ukrainian crisis before wider U.S. policy toward Russia can move forward.
The United States should also raise its level of engagement with Russia on counterterrorism cooperation and nuclear nonproliferation. The Russian predilection for cooperation in the latter area has not fundamentally changed, Kuchins said, despite Russia’s boycott of the latest Nuclear Security Summit. Lastly, the protracted conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh must be solved with the inclusion of more neighboring powers, such as Iran, that have a stake in the outcome of the conflict.
About the Speakers:
Nikolai Zlobin is the founder and president of the Center on Global Interests. Prior to founding CGI in 2012, Dr. Zlobin served as director of Russian and Asian programs at the World Security Institute in Washington, D.C. as well as director of Russian and Asian Programs at the Center for Defense Information. In the early 1990s, he was a political adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor, Boris Yeltsin. Since moving to the United States in 1993, he has held teaching positions at Georgetown, Stanford, and Harvard universities, and was a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.