Argument

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Yes, the United States Should Weaken Russia

The old approach of outreach and inclusion has failed. In the wake of Russia’s latest invasion, Washington must seek to erode Moscow’s power.

By , a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) and General Mark Milley (R), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee April 7 in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) and General Mark Milley (R), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee April 7 in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) and General Mark Milley (R), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee April 7 in Washington. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Following a recent visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States wanted “to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Later, U.S. officials made clear that this didn’t reflect a policy shift.

Perhaps it should. Given Russia’s zero-sum approach to international security, reducing its power—defined more broadly than Austin probably intended—to threaten vital U.S. and Western interests on a whim ought to be at the core of a new U.S. strategy toward Russia.

The old strategy has clearly failed. For the roughly 25-year period from the end of the Cold War until Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine and its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Washington’s approach to Moscow was characterized by outreach, inclusion, and assistance. An array of diplomatic, military, and economic policies supported this strategy.

Following a recent visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States wanted “to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Later, U.S. officials made clear that this didn’t reflect a policy shift.

Perhaps it should. Given Russia’s zero-sum approach to international security, reducing its power—defined more broadly than Austin probably intended—to threaten vital U.S. and Western interests on a whim ought to be at the core of a new U.S. strategy toward Russia.

The old strategy has clearly failed. For the roughly 25-year period from the end of the Cold War until Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine and its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Washington’s approach to Moscow was characterized by outreach, inclusion, and assistance. An array of diplomatic, military, and economic policies supported this strategy.

In terms of diplomacy, these included invitations to join the G-7, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, and a seat (but not a vote) at NATO’s table. Militarily, hundreds of thousands of American, British, and Canadian troops left the continent and returned home, while the United States provided several billions of dollars to help Russia destroy thousands of weapon of mass destruction warheads and delivery systems in the 1990s. And, economically, the United States provided tens of billions of dollars in assistance and other credits to stabilize Russia’s economy and bolster its middle class.

Over the centuries, Russia has experienced military invasions across every frontier—which has had a major impact on Russian domestic politics.

These policies were designed to fulfill the post-Cold War, pre-Crimea strategy of integrating Russia and reducing its willingness to threaten the West. It hasn’t worked.

Although some elements of the Russian economy became far more integrated with the West than was the case during the Cold War, the result of U.S. policy was not a broader integration or a reduction in Moscow’s willingness to threaten vital Western interests.

Did U.S. policy and strategy during this 25-year period from Cold War to Crimea somehow go wrong? Is the West to blame for the inability to turn Russia from an adversary into a partner? Some experts in both the West and the East blame the United States and its allies, citing the expansion of NATO, the invasions of Iraq and Libya, a crusading commitment to democracy promotion, or a conspiratorial anti-Russia lobby as the chief source of tension.

What most of these observers fail to acknowledge, though, is the role that history and geography have played in Russian domestic politics, which has in turn shaped Moscow’s foreign policy. Over the centuries, and due mostly to the porousness and continental expanse of its borders, Russia has experienced military invasions across every frontier—Western and Central Europeans from the west, Muslims from the south, and Mongols, Chinese, and Japanese from the east and southeast. This has led to an unremitting sense of insecurity, which has had a major impact on Russian domestic politics. The result is the Kremlin—whether led by tsars, politburo chairmen, or presidents—is strongly incentivized to view Russian interests in zero-sum terms and demonize the West. The notion of a more collaborative approach—of a rising tide lifting all boats—has no place in the lexicon of Russian leaders when they speak of the West.

As a result, and with a brief exception during the mid-1990s, Russia leaders have regularly characterized NATO as the enemy, sometimes implicitly but more often explicitly. This has happened despite the fact that, starting in 1990, most NATO allies began gutting their defense budgets, reducing manpower, and eliminating the ability to conduct offensive, large-scale warfare.


Since 2014, NATO allies have concluded that these changes were misguided, and they have slowly begun to reembrace collective defense in Europe. The question now confronting U.S. and other Western leaders is how to respond to Russia not simply in the context of the Ukraine war but beyond it as well.

One option may be to keep the Kremlin as isolated as possible while empowering European allies to bear the brunt of managing Russia. Such a strategy would allow the United States to remain focused on the threat from China. However, this strategy underestimates European capability and capacity challenges despite the recent turnaround, it downplays the still-vital interests the U.S. government has in a stable and secure Europe, and it overlooks the fact that Russia would likely remain very capable of impulsively threatening those vital interests over the next decade or more.

Another option may be to selectively choose areas of cooperation and confrontation. For example, the United States may need to cooperate with Russia to reach an agreement on curbing Iran’s nuclear program even as it confronts the Kremlin in cyberspace daily. However, a strategy of cooperating where Washington can while confronting Moscow where it must doesn’t sufficiently protect vital Western interests, because it permits Russia to maintain its ability to hold those interests at risk.

A strategy of competing to erode Russian power doesn’t assume Russia must remain powerful.

To reduce Russia’s ability to threaten vital U.S. interests on a whim, Washington should aim to erode Russian power by competing directly with Moscow and engaging in its zero-sum game. This type of competitive strategy avoids the naivete and ineffectiveness of trying to moderate or change Russian behavior with some magical blend of accommodation, prestige, partnership, and money. It accepts the reality that no combination of carrots or sticks can change Russia’s geopolitical or historical reality and therefore the Kremlin’s behavior. Most importantly, while recognizing that Russia is an important power in Europe and Eurasia, a strategy of competing to erode Russian power doesn’t assume Russia must remain powerful.

To roll back Russia’s power and hence its ability to threaten vital Western interests, the most important policies are in the economic realm, as Russia’s economy—and especially its hydrocarbon sector—forms the foundation of the Kremlin’s capability and capacity. Efforts to wean Europe off Russian energy supplies will, over time, have a significant impact on the Russian economy.

For its part, the United States should help its allies identify and get access to non-Russian sources of energy, including by expanding natural gas exports to Europe, pressuring other hydrocarbon producers to expand deliveries to Europe, and incentivizing greater collaboration on developing and fielding renewable technologies at scale.

The United States should make it easier for educated and tech-savvy young Russians to emigrate to and remain in the West.

In the diplomatic realm, the United States should make it easier for educated and tech-savvy young Russians to emigrate to and remain in the West. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s high approval ratings among average Russians, there is some evidence that emigration from Russia—particularly among urban, middle-class Russians—has increased dramatically in the months since Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine. This appears part of a broader phenomenon since the beginning of Putin’s third term and especially since the onset of Western sanctions in 2014. The United States should accelerate this trend, poaching Russian brainpower and reducing the already limited opportunities Russia will have to broaden its economy beyond resource extraction.

At the same time, Western leaders should agree to forgo future summits with top Kremlin leadership. Putin’s immoral attacks on Ukrainian civilians and evidence of war crimes have already made him radioactive in the eyes of most international leaders. Nonetheless, some Western leaders persist in the belief that dialogue with the Kremlin is necessary at any cost. In fact, these diplomatic photo-ops only strengthen the political capital and soft power of Russia’s leaders. It’s better to leave whatever diplomatic engagement is necessary to lower levels of the bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, the United States should work to ensure applications for NATO membership from Finland and Sweden—which seem likely in the coming weeks—are fast-tracked for ratification across the entire alliance. Washington can do that by clearly but quietly communicating that it will not allow a Russia-friendly regime such as Viktor Orban’s Hungary to slow-roll or block the approval process. Specifically, Washington might hint at a willingness to reexamine its support for NATO infrastructure in Hungary.

Additionally, the United States should lead other G-7 countries in declaring that Russia will not be invited to rejoin and instead that India—a democracy with an economy nearly twice the size of Russia’s, and an important customer for Russian exports—will be asked to become a member. Courting India at Russia’s expense could help to further reduce Moscow’s diplomatic and economic strength by diminishing its international standing, striking a blow at the Kremlin’s soft power, and potentially peeling New Delhi away from its long-standing dependence on the Russian arms industry.

In the military realm, the United States should lead its allies in a dramatic shift in NATO’s posture toward Russia. NATO should go well beyond the tripwire force structure of the last eight years toward a significantly beefed-up, more capable posture of deterrence by denial. A tripwire defense relies on the promise of a counterpunch in the event of a Russian attack. In contrast, deterrence by denial aims to stop a Russian attack at the allies’ doorstep.

This change in approach will necessarily mean more U.S. and allied troops with more advanced capabilities permanently stationed in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland, the Baltics, and Romania. However, with American troops and capabilities forming the centerpiece, European allies—including newcomers Finland and Sweden—can and should shoulder a larger portion of the burden of protecting NATO’s eastern flank.

The West clearly needs a new strategy toward Russia, and Austin’s comment should serve as a blueprint. The United States should seek to go beyond competing with or deterring Russia as suggested in recent strategies and instead seek to erode its power over time in the military, diplomatic, and economic spheres. It’s the only strategy that will roll back Russia’s ability to threaten vital U.S. interests.

John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is the author of NATO and Article 5: The Transatlantic Alliance and the Twenty-First-Century Challenges of Collective Defense. The views expressed are his own. Twitter: @JohnRDeni

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