U.S.-Russian relations are worse than they have been at any point since the end of the Cold War, and both governments have defined their interests in Syria and Ukraine in such a way that it is difficult to see how they will improve in the near future unless one of them changes its positions. We can’t control how Moscow interprets its interests in these places, but we can reassess and modify how we think about ours.
Great powers always have some competing and conflicting interests, and so the task of wise political leaders is to distinguish between disputes over what are ultimately tangential interests and those that genuinely touch on matters of vital importance and then to find ways to manage disputes over the latter without stumbling into armed conflict.
Our relationship with Russia has suffered from repeated disappointments and setbacks in part because successive administrations have failed to make that distinction, and instead Washington has sought to compete with Moscow in places that matter greatly to them but which matter very little to us. We have seen that with attempted NATO expansion deeper into the former Soviet Union, and we’re seeing it again today in Syria. Failing to distinguish between tangential and vital interests not only exposes the U.S. and Europe to unnecessary risks, but practically guarantees that the U.S. will be and be seen as the loser in these competitions.
If that’s right, we need to scale back our ambitions and restrain the ambitions of our allies and clients as much as possible to minimize the frequency and intensity of disputes with Russia. The conventional wisdom in Washington often seems to be that the U.S. must counter Russia whenever it does something undesirable, but that is rarely accompanied by an explanation of how that actually makes the U.S. or our allies more secure, and the proposed method of countering them often involves exposing us and our allies to greater risks for little apparent gain.
We see this most clearly in debates over what to do in Syria, where repeated demands from hawks to create “no-fly” and safe zones would very likely put us on a collision course with Russia in a war in which the U.S. has no need to participate. More aggressive policies toward the Syrian government and Russia lost one of their most vocal supporters when Clinton was defeated last week, but we shouldn’t assume that the danger has completely passed. As long as Washington takes for granted that the U.S. has both the right and obligation to take sides in these conflicts, the danger of an avoidable clash with another great power is always present.
It is possible that the new administration may be more willing to find a modus vivendi with Moscow, but I’m not sure that we should expect that much change in practice. There have been hints that the new administration is less inclined to support rebel forces in Syria, and it appears less likely to send weapons to Ukraine than Clinton would have been, but a lot of that may depend on the extent of Vice President Pence’s influence on policy.
During the vice presidential debate, he said that “provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength” and insisted that the U.S. should strike at the Syrian government if Russia continued to be involved in aiding the government there. Unfortunately, it’s not just the next vice president we have to worry about. The incoming administration’s Cabinet and National Security Council appear likely to be filled by hard-liners such as Newt Gingrich, Michael Flynn, and Rudy Giuliani. John Bolton is another well-known hawk who has been mentioned as a possible nominee for Secretary of State. Some of the other names mentioned for major Cabinet posts such as Stephen Hadley and Sen. Bob Corker also suggest far more continuity with prevailing Republican foreign policy than not.
Gen. Flynn has been cited as an example of someone in Trump’s circle who would favor greater security cooperation with Russia on counter-terrorism, but in the book he co-authored with Michael Ledeen he has said that he believes Putin “fully intends to do the same thing as, and in tandem with, the Iranians: pursue the war against us.” He and Ledeen claim to believe that the U.S. is in a global war against an imaginary alliance of states and terrorist groups: “The war is on. We face a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.” They also say that the U.S. is losing its war against this so-called “alliance.”
It would have dangerous implications for our Russia policy in the coming years if Flynn has a significant role in a Trump administration. If a top adviser to the new administration thinks Russia is helping to wage a global war against America, that could spell serious trouble for our relations with Russia and other states as well. We can hope that U.S. policy won’t reflect the alarmist views of Flynn and Ledeen, but the fact that one of Trump’s senior advisers holds such views should make us wary.
For the moment, however, the danger of direct confrontation with Russia appears to be less than it would have been with a Clinton win, but we shouldn’t automatically assume that there will be much effort at engagement with Moscow. There is a possibility of reducing tensions with Russia, but that will depend on whether Moscow is willing to go through another attempt at rapprochement and how much influence conventional Republican hawks have on the shaping of Russia policy.
Of course, the easiest way to keep irritants out of the relationship with Russia is to make sure not to add new ones. Gratuitous moves aimed at poking Moscow in the eye just for the sake of doing it obviously won’t produce the cooperation Washington wants, and they will become part of the litany of complaints about American behavior that Russian leaders and diplomats recite. Reviving old missile defense schemes in Europe serves no good purpose. Continuing to treat further NATO expansion as if it were desirable creates unnecessary tension and gives false encouragement to prospective members. Further sanctions on Russia would achieve no more than existing sanctions have and should not be imposed.
Whenever there is a temptation to “punch the Russians in the nose” (as John Kasich put it), we need to consider carefully what we are trying to achieve, what the likely reaction will be, and whether it is really necessary. We should also bear in mind that forcing another great power into a humiliating climbdown runs the risk of producing a more volatile crisis down the road, so even if a proposed measure will “work” as intended we ought to consider the long-term consequences of our policies. Our relationship with Russia has become as bad as it is in no small part because our policymakers have failed to consider all of those things, and have pressed ahead with questionable policies without thinking through what could go wrong.
The U.S. and Russia—and Russia’s neighbors—would benefit from a constructive relationship between our governments, and despite the deterioration over the last four or five years it should still be possible to improve relations and minimize the chance of great power conflict in this century. First, it will require an acknowledgment that attempts to punish and isolate Russia have completely failed to alter Moscow’s behavior, and therefore a different approach needs to be tried.
Second, it requires that the U.S. and Russia not put off discussing their significant disagreements as they have in previous attempts to repair relations, which has only allowed those problems to go unaddressed. As Matthew Rojansky wrote in The New York Times earlier this year: “One way not to solve the problem is to continue our focus on cooperation as a search for good conversations with Russia about areas of ostensible agreement, while putting off hard but necessary conversations about our persistent disagreements. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’s “reset” succumbed to exactly this pattern.”
To have those hard but necessary conversations will require more and more consistent diplomatic engagement, and doing that will mean ditching the idea that engagement with another great power represents a concession to or reward for them. The U.S. should do this because this is how it can advance its interests with fewer costs than by trying to compel changes in other states’ behavior.
That process won’t produce immediate results, but it will begin the work of restoring a normal, functional diplomatic relationship that Washington has largely stopped trying to cultivate except for crisis management. It also can’t fix everything we don’t like about Russian foreign policy, but then that isn’t within our power to fix. But it will lay the foundation for a more productive and cooperative relationship in the future. It should also keep the chances of great power conflict at a minimum, and that is in the interests of all concerned. We should also remember that an improved U.S.-Russian relationship would tend to benefit the countries that have been caught up in our rivalry and which suffer considerably from the competition between our governments.