America’s Russia Policy Has Failed

Here are seven things the next U.S. president should do to put Washington back in the driver’s seat.

By any number of measures, Washington’s Russia policy has failed. While ostensibly suffering from diplomatic and economic isolation under a U.S.-led international sanctions regime, Moscow has succeeded in challenging a wide range of American interests, most notably in Ukraine, Syria, and cyberspace. Coming up with a new approach on Russia should therefore be a top priority for either President Hillary Clinton or President Donald Trump soon after Jan. 20, 2017. So far, however, neither candidate has offered a vision that goes beyond the failed tropes of the past, with Clinton painting Russian President Vladimir Putin as a cartoonish villain and Trump viewing Moscow as an ally in-waiting.

The most common U.S. policy responses to Russia — from both Republican and Democratic administrations across three decades — have depended either on the hope that Moscow can be fully defeated or that it can become a friend and fellow democracy. But Russia is not a democracy, nor is it democratizing, and although Russia may be in secular decline, it is a major power on the world stage. The next president needs to accept that Moscow cannot simply be defeated or contained in the emerging multipolar, globalized world order. It must be engaged through a comprehensive balance of cooperation and competition.

The next president will have to persuade Moscow to cooperate where cooperation is needed on things like preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) while limiting room for Russia to maneuver where its interests largely oppose American ones, such as in Syria. And this new U.S. policy must also recognize that tensions with Russia do not divide neatly along the lines of geography or individual issues, and that even shared interests will seldom overlap entirely. The goal should involve constructing a web of interactions, both cooperative and competitive, that yields the most beneficial balance for our national interests. But above all, rather than setting out to defeat or transform Russia, a new U.S. approach should deal with Russia as it really is.

President Vladimir Putin enters a hall before a meeting of the Victory Organizing Committee at the Kremlin in Moscow on Mar. 17, 2015. (Photo by SERGEI ILNITSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

1) Understand That It’s Not Just About Putin

The next president must begin by abandoning the two axioms that have plagued Washington’s Russia policymaking for the last 25 years: The first, that Moscow opposes the United States because of the Kremlin’s undemocratic politics. And, secondly, that areas of agreement between the two countries can be walled off from areas of conflict.

It’s also essential to recognize that America’s problems with Russia aren’t solely because of Putin: They’re geopolitical. Neither Putin’s departure nor broader regime change in Russia will resolve this challenge. Putin stands squarely within centuries of tradition in Russian strategic thinking, and his foreign policy enjoys overwhelming elite support while resonating with the public. Geopolitical competition of some dimension is inevitable among major powers with strategic interests stretching across the globe, regardless of what politics they practice at home.

 The next administration needs to break with its predecessors and realize that relations with Moscow can’t simply be compartmentalized into areas of cooperation and disagreement. American actions on one issue will influence Russia’s assessment of U.S. approaches on other issues. The George W. Bush administration, for example, unsuccessfully sought to insulate counterterrorism cooperation following 9/11 from competition with Moscow in the former Soviet space. Barack Obama’s administration hoped to continue cooperation on nuclear security even as overall relations deteriorated sharply. But that, too, failed, evidenced by Russia’s skipping the U.S.-sponsored nuclear security summit in April and suspending the Plutonium Disposition Agreement because of “hostile” American actions last week.

After 1991, successive U.S. administrations attempted to integrate Russia into the West by encouraging its transformation from a totalitarian Communist state into a free-market democracy. At a time of Russian weakness following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington also reshaped the structure of Europe by enlarging NATO and supporting the expansion of the European Union. But as Moscow regained its geopolitical strength and expanded its ambitions under Putin, Russia pushed back against U.S. efforts, first in the former Soviet Union, then in Europe, and more recently in the broader Middle East. After 25 years of U.S. and European efforts, Russia has made it clear that it is not interested in integrating into the West and that it is prepared to challenge the United States along a broad front, even by interfering in domestic U.S. politics.

U.S. policy must adapt to new challenges, and Washington may need to give ground on other, lesser priorities. For example, if forced to choose between securing cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation and supporting pro-Western political change in Russia’s neighborhood, a tactical withdrawal on the latter may be necessary to preserve a larger victory on arms control. In other cases, Moscow’s actions that directly threaten vital U.S. interests will demand that Washington impose costs in proportion to the threat, such as supporting NATO allies when Russia deploys its forces or conducts provocative military exercises along their borders.

Ukrainian soldiers drive tanks along the road leading out of Debaltseve on Feb. 19, 2015 in eastern Ukraine. (Photo by BRENDAN HOFFMAN/Getty Images)

2) Stop Ukraine From Becoming a Frozen Conflict

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was the tipping point for the tensions and mistrust that define the U.S.-Russia relationship today. Washington used the pressure of international sanctions and diplomatic isolation to compel Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine. But the Russians responded with countermeasures of their own, and the resulting reciprocal sanctions and warring narratives now combine to block even basic diplomatic engagement.

Making any sort of diplomatic progress with the Kremlin will first hinge on how the next U.S. president interprets Moscow’s motivations in Ukraine: Is Russia primarily holding Ukraine hostage because of its fear of Western encirclement and regime change? Or is Putin exploiting Ukraine’s vulnerability for his government’s political and territorial aggrandizement? The answer is most likely a combination of both, but from a policy perspective it makes sense to operate on the basis of the more positive interpretation, while hedging against the chance of being wrong.

In many respects, the hedge is already in place. NATO has decided to rotate new forces through the Baltic States and stepped up planning for various contingencies involving conflict with Russia. The West’s support for political and economic reform in Ukraine — to help build a competent democratic state and raise standards of living — is another important part of the strategy. But a solution to the crisis in Ukraine will need more than preparing for the worst-case scenario.

A voluntary Russian withdrawal from Ukraine depends for now on the highly flawed Minsk II peace deal signed in February 2015 by France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. Despite Minsk’s obvious imperfection, it has two key features that cannot be abandoned: a legal and political commitment undertaken by major European powers and Russia and military de-escalation on the ground linked to a sustainable political process for ending the conflict. Abandoning either element would practically guarantee that eastern Ukraine will become yet another frozen conflict. Although Washington is not a signatory to the deal, the United States can help incentivize Minsk for Moscow by linking specific sanctions relief to concrete Russian steps it can implement to sustain a cease-fire, withdraw heavy military equipment from the zone of conflict, and return control of Ukraine’s side of the border with Russia to Kiev.

U.S. army soldiers stand in formation during a joint military tactical training exercise with Bulgarian military on Apr. 11. (Photo by NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images)

3) Have an Honest Talk About Europe

For better or worse, Moscow retains sufficient power to shape the security environment in Europe. In this realm, the task for the next president in shaping U.S. policy will be to insulate European allies against Russian action in the short term while laying the groundwork for a more durable European security framework, with Russian participation, in the long term.

The next administration’s most urgent and immediate goal should be to maintain the integrity of NATO as the guarantor of European security. In light of Russia’s threatening behavior, many of its neighbors look to the transatlantic alliance, and the United States in particular, for the necessary commitment of manpower, hardware, and political will. Washington must also bolster NATO’s collective defense capabilities, not simply by spending more, but by coordinating efforts and expenditures far better. U.S. leadership in this arena is essential, and American credibility in Europe will be judged not just by what is said and done on the continent, but by Washington’s performance in managing security commitments globally, such as in East Asia and the greater Middle East.

Enhancing the forums in which Russia and the West participate, like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the NATO-Russia Council, even if they can’t resolve or even manage disagreements, is a necessary step toward preventing conflict. The OSCE, still the only fully inclusive security organization for North America, Europe, and the entire former Soviet space, has an important role to play. Washington should seek to re-launch talks with Moscow and its place in the European security architecture through the body in an unofficial, second track format.

Where these discussions will end up is an open question. But the next administration will have better chances of reducing tensions and building a stable security order in Europe by allowing Russia’s legitimate security interests in the region to be heard.

A Russian Yars RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile system drives during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2015. (Photo by -/AFP/Getty Images)

4) Push for More Arms Control

 Even with reductions in nuclear forces under various arms-control agreements like the new START agreement of 2011, Russia is still the only country that can destroy the United States as a functioning society in 30 minutes. Absurd as it may seem more than 25 years after the Cold War, both sides maintain their nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert. That means the possibility of a crisis escalating to a nuclear exchange is still very real, even if the probability remains low. Stability in U.S.-Russia nuclear relations isn’t just one of the most important issues for the two countries, it is also critical to the stability among the world’s other major powers.

In addition, Russia, like the United States, is one of a handful of countries with the scientific prowess and industrial capacity to weaponize new technologies that can change the global balance of power, including the advanced air-defense systems Russia is deploying in Syria and selling to Iran, or cyber-weapons that could cripple critical infrastructure in the United States and elsewhere. As the second-largest arms seller after the United States, Russia can either hinder or facilitate the spread of advanced conventional weapons. Given the speed, accuracy, and destructive power of Russian weaponry, they could affect regional and global stability by eroding a country’s faith in its deterrent capability. Russian sales to Iran, for example, remain a top concern for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey in the Middle East, while the sale of advanced weaponry to China alarms Japan and South Korea and complicates U.S. efforts to guarantee security in East Asia.

Finally, as the largest non-Western supplier of civilian nuclear technology, Russia can either greatly assist or totally derail international efforts to limit the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. Given the profound distrust between the United States and Russia, a key step, beyond safeguarding the agreements already in place, would be to promote maximum transparency about each side’s strategic objectives and doctrines for nuclear weapons, advanced conventional weapons, cyber-weapons, missile defenses, and other technologies with the potential to erode either side’s confidence in its deterrent capability. The need for this step has grown even more urgent as Russia’s public threats about its possible use of nuclear weapons have increased, it has suspended arms-control agreements, and has hacked into the Democratic National Committee to disrupt the U.S. presidential campaign.

Russia and the United States will rarely join hands as the world’s nuclear and WMD proliferation police force. That means U.S. policy must contemplate the need to counter Russian moves in sharing weapons and technologies with hostile or potentially hostile countries, like Iran. Washington will also need to compete with Russia when it deploys conventional, cyber, or other capabilities designed to neutralize current U.S. advantages in those areas. Success in maintaining strategic stability and preventing weapons proliferation is vital to U.S. national security, but will demand a careful balance among competing concerns in Europe and East Asia, where the Kremlin has been willing to challenge U.S. interests or hold agreements on strategic stability and nonproliferation hostage until its demands are met.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping attend a Bilateral Meeting on Nov. 9, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Photo by HOW HWEE YOUNG - Pool/Getty Images)

5) Work With Russia in Asia

Containing China is an impossible task in today’s world. Instead, the next president should pursue flexible coalitions with other major powers to channel Chinese energies in ways that don’t endanger America’s core interests or, better, work to Washington’s benefit. Russia could be one of those partners if the United States is able to avoid forcing the Kremlin into a position of de facto commercial and strategic dependence on Beijing.

Despite its attempts in the wake of Western sanctions to reduce its dependence on European energy markets by building up ties with China, Russia remains deeply concerned about Beijing’s growing influence along its borders. Moreover, the economic promise of Moscow’s own “pivot to Asia,” particularly in penetrating the Chinese market, has so far failed to unfold as the Kremlin had hoped, with trade and investment slow to materialize. In East Asia, Moscow has sought to diversify its commercial relations, including with South Korea and Japan, two major U.S. allies, to reduce the risks that the development of Russia’s far eastern provinces will become hostage to Chinese markets. South Korea and Japan also view Russia as a potential economic and security partner in managing their concerns about China. This leaves an opening where American and Russian interests can align in forging new coalitions that give each party more leverage in relations with China.

Former Soviet Central Asia is another area where Washington’s and Moscow’s interests could actually align on China. Russia is unsettled by the rapidly growing Chinese presence within what the Kremlin considers its own backyard. Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a massive network of roads, railways, and pipelines, has brought billions of dollars’ worth of investment into the region and dwarfed Russia’s projects, like the Eurasian Union. The Kremlin has so far welcomed the emergence of other regional players, such as India and Japan, to counterbalance China. The United States could play a role here if it reversed its policy since the end of the Cold War of seeking to reduce Russian influence in Central Asia. Recognizing that China’s expansion into the region poses more of a long-term challenge to U.S. interests than Russia’s continued presence, Washington should not work against Russian initiatives in the region and promote other regional powers in Central Asia.

Syrian civilians and rescuers gather at site of government forces air strikes in the rebel held neighborhood of Al-Shaar in Aleppo on Sept. 27. (Photo by KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)

6) Recognize That Syria Is About More Than Syria

With the collapse of the U.S.-Russia negotiated cease-fire and the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Aleppo, the Syrian crisis demands urgent attention. Like it or not, the United States has no better option than to keep trying to work with Russia, which inserted itself into the region with a dramatic military intervention in September 2015. Moscow has the wherewithal to maintain its military deployment for a prolonged period, and regional powers like Iran, and perhaps even Turkey, support its continued presence. The more forceful options that some are now advocating — such as a no-fly zone or the destruction of the Syrian air force — carry too large a risk of outright military confrontation with Moscow in the region and elsewhere.

Discussions with Moscow on Syria, however, will have no greater chances of success unless they include a new willingness to discuss the broader relationship with Russia, especially in Europe. In its statements and proposals, Moscow has effectively linked the situation in Syria to the Ukraine crisis and the larger issue of European security, but Washington has so far refused to recognize this linkage. Instead, the Obama administration has followed in the missteps of its predecessors and doubled down on trying to compartmentalize issues from one another. Only by acknowledging that the links among the various regional challenges posed by Russia are real can the next president extract a favorable balance for U.S. interests.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Col. Gen. Oleg Salyukov during the Victory Day military parade on May 9, 2015 in Moscow. (Photo by Host photo agency / RIA Novosti via Getty Images)

7) Show America’s Promise

As in the Cold War, there is an ideological element to U.S.-Russia competition today. However, rather than advocating Communist class struggle, Moscow is focused on diminishing American credibility. Russia will be most effective where U.S.-led economic and political initiatives fail to serve the needs of the American people. This theme has been evident in the disconcerting overlap between damaging cyber-leaks from apparent Russian-related sources to favorable coverage in the Russian press of Trump’s harsh attacks on the U.S. establishment.

How the next U.S. president tackles the well-known domestic and global challenges of wealth inequality, cultural pluralism, migration, resource insecurity, and climate change will determine the degree to which the United States is actually vulnerable to Russia’s political and propaganda broadsides. As George F. Kennan, the U.S. diplomat who mapped out America’s Cold War containment policy toward the Soviet Union, recognized in his famous Long Telegram, if Americans demonstrate vision and resolve to address the United States’ most pressing challenges, the country can have far greater influence on developments in Russia than it ever could through direct confrontation.

The Cold War ended to a great degree because Russians saw the United States as a successful and prosperous society, whose model they hoped to emulate. By contrast, today’s deterioration in relations has been deepened by American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and the still lingering consequences of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, which shattered Russians’ faith in the American model for economic development. An aura of renewed success and growing power will go a long way toward restoring the United States as an attractive partner, and perhaps eventually as a leader by example.

For the moment, America’s priorities must be on putting out the fires of regional conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and preventing the simmering threats of WMD proliferation and a new arms race from igniting. But success on any one of these issues cannot occur in a vacuum and depends on the credibility and effectiveness of the U.S. approach to other regions and issues where Russia holds important cards. By weighing the value of cooperation and competition with Moscow in terms of what matters most to the United States, the next presidential administration has its best chance to come out ahead in dealing with the Kremlin.

Photo Credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas Graham is a managing director at Kissinger Associates and a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. He was previously the senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff from 2004-2007.

Matthew Rojansky is the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. He is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the U.S. executive secretary of the Dartmouth Conference, a track-two U.S.-Russian conflict resolution initiative begun in 1960.