10 October 2017
Gorana Grgic and R. Craig Nation go head to head over whether Russia is a threat or a distraction to the United States.
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The US foreign policy agenda has no shortage of competing security priorities – from those that are more immediate (such as the North Korean nuclear threat) to those that are more chronic (such as the instability in the greater Middle East and the rise of China). Adding Russia to the list would seem to some as a misplacement of sorts: it does not pose an acute existential threat to the United States, it does not experience persistent breakdowns in governance that spill over to its neighbours, nor does it have the economic power that challenges the United States in the same vein as some of the aforementioned do. However, the history of the US-Russia relations, as well as President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy – which increasingly challenges US interests around the world – demonstrate that it would be folly to think about Russia as a mere distraction.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Since the early 1990s, US-Russia relations have been fluctuating between periods of functional partnership and breakdowns, some of which triggered characterisations of a return of the Cold War.[^1] Beginning with the Clinton administration, all US presidents have started their presidencies with high hopes for better relations with Russia followed by disappointment. The Bill and Boris duo,[^2] as Clinton and Yeltsin were often referred, saw their relationship sour as a result of US interventions in the Balkans, the expansion of NATO to former communist European states and Yeltsin’s increasing militarism in Chechnya.
Not long after George W. Bush assumed the office, he famously looked President Putin in the eyes – claiming to have seen his soul – and believed they could build a relationship of mutual respect.[^3] Yet, after a brief period of cooperation following the September 11 attacks, the US and Russia grew apart. This was in no small measure due to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Putin’s crackdown on domestic opposition, US support for colour revolutions in the former Soviet states and the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.
Barack Obama’s presidency commenced with a call for a reset of relations with Russia, so much so that there was an actual reset button made to symbolically mark the new beginning – although the mistranslation on the button ominously foreshadowed the developments in the following years.[^4] The US response to the Arab Spring revolutions, particularly the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya, would be the cracks that would eventually lead the relationship to its post-Cold War nadir.[^5] A further strain was Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012, accompanied with the largest protests to ever take place in the post-Soviet era and which President Putin ascribed to US support for Russian opposition. This is said to have been the motivating force behind the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election.[^6]
The downward spiral accelerated in the aftermath of Euromaidan protests, when Russia annexed Crimea and escalated the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Strained US-Russia relations were further damaged after Russia stepped up its military support of the Syrian government in October 2015. Each passing month during Obama’s final year in office provided additional proof that both sides had little appetite to work on mending the relationship, particularly as it became clear that hackers connected with Russian government were working hard to compromise the integrity of US elections.[^7]
L'État – c’est Vlad!
So just how is it that Russia was able to catch the Obama administration off guard – both internationally and domestically? US triumphalism following the Soviet collapse is often blamed for creating a mindset within the foreign policy establishment which perceived Russia as a defeated party and a declining power.[^8] The orthodox view is that despite its vast landmass, having the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, a permanent seat at the UN Security Council and being a major energy exporter, Russia remains a pale comparison to the USSR. Its economy is dependent on hydrocarbons, it faces significant structural issues and its population growth has been stagnant.[^9] This sort of thinking informed the now infamous moment of dismissal of Russia as a threat to the United States when President Obama characterised it as a mere “regional power” in 2014.[^10] Granted, Obama said this to minimise the impact that Russia’s seizure of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine had. Yet this was exactly the image President Putin has been adamant to shake off.
Paradoxically, while Russia displays the characteristics of a declining power, its current leadership cultivates a revisionist global agenda. Putin publicly professed he views the demise of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century for the economic and social instability that ensued, as well as leaving millions of Russian ethnic kin in the newly independent former Soviet states.[^11] The Russian regime has used the latter as a justification for foreign policy incursions in Russia’s “Near Abroad”, from Georgia to Ukraine.[^12] The pursuit of such foreign policy has proven to be effective as it has managed to deflect focus from domestic problems, and with the help of the state-controlled media, unite the majority of the Russian public behind President Putin.[^13]
This brings us to perhaps the most important constant in understanding the dysfunctionality of the US-Russia relationship – Vladimir Putin himself. The outcome of next year’s Russian presidential election is almost certain; President Putin is set to return for his fourth term in the Kremlin. There is no reason to believe that his tried and tested formula of gaining incremental wins abroad will change. Moreover, Donald Trump is the fourth US president Putin has dealt with and the third one to attempt some form of relationship reset. This has become the epitome of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Diverging objectives abroad and US domestic weaknesses
Given this history of relationship breakdowns and mutual distrust, there is little to be optimistic about going forward. A wide range of friction points from Europe to Asia pose challenges to US interests. First, it is hard to see any prospect of reversal of the status of Crimea and the frozen conflict in east Ukraine is all but a guarantee that the country will remain in limbo.[^14] Beyond maintaining dominance in the post-Soviet sphere, Russia’s main objective is to thwart the further enlargement of NATO, which has added new members under all post-Cold War US presidents.[^15] From Paris[^16] to Podgorica,[^17] Putin has been using opportunities to demonstrate that Moscow’s interests are antithetical to Euro-Atlantic integration.[^18] This goes precisely against the United States’ long-standing vision of Europe as whole, free and at peace.
Russia has expended vast resources in preventing the Assad regime from collapsing and any discussion of Syria’s future and stability in the region will see it as a key stakeholder.[^19] Russia has also begun playing a more active and obstructive role in Afghanistan, particularly as it legitimises the Taliban at the expense of US and NATO efforts.[^20] Russia has also been pivoting to the Asia-Pacific (albeit with meagre results so far),[^21] and strengthening its military presence in the next frontier of global competition – the Arctic.[^22]
Competition between the United States and Russia has spilled over to a more worrying sphere – US domestic politics. The hacking of the Democratic National Committee and state electoral rolls, which have been ascribed to groups associated with the Russian regime, exposes some of the US vulnerability to cyberattacks.[^23] These will perhaps be easier to resolve than a more pervasive and chronic problem the US faces – political and social divisions that render it receptive to disinformation and propaganda.
It now goes without saying that America is more polarised and partisan than perhaps at any point in modern US history.[^24] Trust in institutions is at an all-time low since polling on the issue began while democratic norms that have been taken for granted for so long have now been brought into question.[^25] These are precisely the conditions which have enabled Russia to sow seeds of doubt in voters’ minds, thus making it all the more threatening to the United States. Information warfare is not new, but 2016 has proven to be an inflection point given that Russia has exploited the internal divisions within the US polity, likely affecting the presidential election. In that manner, Russia’s modus operandi was not much different from what it has been employing from the post-Soviet sphere to the European Union.
Where to next?
Clearly, matters are more complicated under President Trump, who is facing a lengthy and growing probe over the alleged connections between his campaign and Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 election. President Trump has tended to be nonchalant about Russia’s policies that undermine US interests and has yet to say anything negative about President Putin. Moreover, his mixed signals about the value of US alliances and commitment to the liberal international order have played into the Kremlin’s objectives.
However, other domestic actors involved in US foreign policymaking are more than aware of the threat Russia poses. The sanctions bill against Russia was a rare show of bipartisanship in the US Congress.[^26] Furthermore, the recent State Department decision to order the closure of some of the Russian consular facilities in the United States show the president will face considerable legislative and bureaucratic constraints should he try to pursue an autonomous Russia policy.[^27]
The coming years could prove to be the most challenging for the US-Russia relationship since the Cold War, as it has become clear that the lack of trust between the two is beginning to spill over to cooperation over functional areas. Russia’s strategic objectives are at odds with those of the United States and there is no indication this will change in the near to medium term, or more simply, as long as President Putin remains in power. President Putin’s penchant for assertiveness, disregard for the liberal international order and spoiler tactics pose a threat to US global interests.
More pressingly, Russia has now proven it has the capacity to act against the United States on its home front. One should not underestimate the potential further damage it can cause, given it has discovered US vulnerabilities. Deep political and social rifts within the United States, as well as the inconsistencies in the US government’s response, continue to be an attractive target for Russia to exploit.
Ultimately, Russia does not pose nearly the level of threat to the United States that the Soviet Union once did, yet its engagements in Europe, Syria, Afghanistan, and cyberspace prove that it nonetheless is far more of a threat than a distraction to the United States.
R. Craig Nation
Relations between the United States and Russia have always been volatile, with phases of hostility succeeded by rapprochement. The confrontational nature of the relationship today, however, is historically unprecedented. The phrase “New Cold War” does not do it justice. The Cold War was a controlled rivalry, where the superpowers maintained channels of communication and sought to prevent local challenges from escalating. Mutual respect tempered strategic competition. Such constraints do not apply to contemporary US-Russian interaction. In the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, the relationship has fallen into an abyss from which it will be difficult to emerge. There are many dangers inherent in this state of affairs, but they may be managed by more prudent policy choices. Preoccupation with an exaggerated Russian threat has become an unnecessary distraction that turns attention away from issues of greater substance for US national security.
Contrasting interpretations of Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution have provided a secure foundation for expanding hostility between the United States and Russia. All parties bear some responsibility for the tragic denouement of popular protests on Kyiv’s Maidan Square. Underpinned by frustration with Ukraine’s mismanaged post-communist transition, the Association Agreement proposed to Ukraine by the European Union seemed to offer an alternative, but it required a binary choice between economic and political engagement with Europe or the Russian Federation, a choice that president Viktor Yanukovich sought to avoid. The United States made its support for the pro-European and anti-Russian thrust of the Maidan demonstrations quite clear. When protests culminated in the violent overthrow of the government, Washington and Moscow were aligned on opposite sides of the barricades.
For Washington, Maidan was a popular uprising against corrupt governance, a democratic revolution bringing a legitimate successor regime to power. For Moscow, Maidan culminated in a coup d’état abetted by the US security services. The United States has drawn the conclusion that egregious Russian intervention in the affairs of its neighbours must be challenged. Russia asserts the need to thwart American encroachment into areas of vital national interest. These opposing interpretations are a recipe for confrontation, enhanced by a loss of trust and confidence on both sides.
Russia’s reaction to the Maidan events may be explained on the basis of hard national interests. By occupying Crimea, Moscow assured control over the naval facilities in Sevastopol harbour, the base for its Black Sea fleet maintained under lease by Russia following Ukrainian independence in 1991 and a major strategic asset. Given the emotional resonance of the Crimea region in Russian national consciousness (it was for centuries part of Russia and has a majority Russian population), the annexation was popular and served to expand President Vladimir Putin’s already high levels of domestic support. The frozen conflict in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, where Russia has supported secessionist movements in the industrial provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, gives Moscow leverage over a hostile government in Kyiv and impedes Ukrainian aspirations to accede to the NATO alliance. However, Moscow has paid and will continue to pay a high price for its actions. US counter measures have been assertive, multi-dimensional, and damaging. They risk becoming irreversible.
US policy toward Russia seeks to reconstruct a version of the ideological rivalry that once characterised the Cold War. The dominant US narrative characterises Russia as an authoritarian policy and enemy of the West, and mocks its elected president. Hostile rhetoric builds on age-old atavisms concerning the “bleakness” of Russian civilisation. Russophobia has become pervasive in policy circles, academia, and the mainstream media. Given the marginalisation of alternative perspectives, it effectively shapes public opinion as well. Efforts to demonstrate Russian involvement in US elections build on the assumption of hostility. It is a textbook example of manufactured consensus, and the enemy image that has been imposed will be difficult to eradicate. Washington has successfully brought key European allies on board in support of a punitive sanction regime that exacts real economic costs. Russian Premier Dmitry Medvedev described the latest round of sanctions, promulgated by the US Congress in December 2016, as the declaration of “a full scale trade war”.[^28] Military initiatives have of course not been lacking. In Europe, the reestablishment of something resembling the Cold War policy of forward deployment and military containment is well underway. In Syria, US and Russian forces align with contending forces in an ongoing civil war.
Curtailment of professional consultation between US and Russian officials and citizens has been a particularly disturbing aspect of the breakdown in relations. The tit for tat closure of diplomatic facilities, denunciation of national news services as purveyors of propaganda and “fake news”, and reduced cultural exchange undermine the foundations of mutual understanding. Today, public opinion polls in the United States consistently identify Russia as the primary external threat. In Russia, a large majority of citizens see the United States in the same way.[^29]
Justification for the full court press directed against the Russian Federation rests on a standard litany of grievances.[^30] The complaints are often arbitrary and weak empirically, conveying a cultivated anti-Russian bias. Deserving of greater attention is the extent to which adversarial policies work to further vested interests. NATO plays a fundamental role in US national security policy, and the Alliance requires a sense of purpose. Standing up to the Russians fills the bill. The security dependence institutionalised in NATO is an important source of US leadership and influence in Europe. Enhanced forward presence spurs defence spending and gives the armed forces a mission that they are comfortable with and well equipped to manage. And Russia is a convenient enemy. Moscow pursues an autonomous security policy that will on occasion put it at odds with the United States. Evoking the Russians as global rivals provides a rationale for assertive responses hither and yon.
Unremitting hostility is now coded in the DNA of US Russian policy. Of course, the Russian Federation is far from being a model polity, differences will persist, and new sources of conflict will arise. But a policy informed by reflexive Russophobia does not serve US long-term interests. The associated costs and risks are significant, and aggressive initiatives are unlikely to achieve the desired results.
The United States would have much to gain from pragmatic cooperation with its Russian counterpart, and will have much to lose in the absence of such cooperation. Strategic stability is a vital interest for both parties, but it is not being forwarded consistently. The New START arms reduction agreement, due to expire in 2021, has reportedly been described as a “bad deal” by President Donald Trump.[^31] Moscow and Washington express reciprocal concern about their rival’s compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Both sides are modernising their nuclear arsenals in a costly, and potentially destabilising, race for advantage. What should be a shared commitment to non-proliferation has been left in abeyance. Enhanced forward defence in Central Europe assuages the concerns of exposed regional states, but there is little likelihood that Moscow would risk overt military aggression against a NATO member.[^32] Militarising the US-Russian strategic relationship beyond a minimal deterrent posture involves real and unnecessary costs and risks. Economic pressure causes pains on all sides, and is unlikely to affect Russian priorities in cases where vital interests are perceived to be at stake. The stalemate in Ukraine works to no ones long term advantage.[^33] It could perhaps be partially resolved on the basis of the Minsk II ceasefire agreement, but only if Moscow’s interests are taken into account. In the meantime, leaving Russia outside an evolving European and Eurasian security order is not smart politics. Strategic pressure and cultivated enmity encourages reliance on traditional Russian nationalism, reinforces the Eurasian current in Russian strategic thinking, and promotes countervailing Russian-Chinese collaboration.
The Russian Federation confronts major domestic challenges. Positive association with a Western security community that is more prosperous, more stable, and considerably stronger is in its best interests. Accommodation can make this possible. Preoccupation with an exaggerated Russian threat, often manipulated for narrow advantage, distorts US strategic priorities. Truly vital US interests are as a consequence neglected or undervalued. These include managing relations with a rising China, addressing the challenge of climate change, combatting global terrorism, reinforcing the non-proliferation regime, overcoming the economic and social consequences of burgeoning debt and income disparity, promoting development, and adjusting to a new, multipolar and transnational international security environment. The Russian Federation could be a useful partner in all of these regards.
In the larger picture, a ballyhooed Russian threat has become a major, and unnecessary, distraction. It deflects attention, resources, and energy away from initiatives that can contribute more usefully and substantially to augmenting global stability and national wellbeing in the years, and decades, ahead.