What Does Russia Want? What Does America Need?

Editor's Note: You can find a video of the event described below here.

On April 17, the Center for the National Interest hosted a panel discussion entitled “What Does Russia Want? What Does America Need?” Speakers included Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Initiative and a senior fellow for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Center on the Unites States and Europe at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President Obama, Paul J. Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest and a former State Department Senior Advisor during the George W. Bush administration, Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russia and East European Studies and a professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and Michael Kofman, a Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and expert on Russia’s military. Center President Dimitri K. Simes moderated. A summary of the event can be found below.

What Does Russia Want? What Does America Need?

Four prominent Russia experts agreed that while a rapprochement with Russia is still possible, it will be very difficult to achieve.

Angela Stent, a former National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia and a former member of the State Department’s prestigious Policy Planning staff, said that if she had to boil down the question of what Russia wants into a Tweet, she would say that Russia would like the United States to treat it as if it were the Soviet Union. In other words, it wants to be treated as a great power with global reach, a country with a right to a seat at the table in all important global decisions, a nuclear superpower, a country that is respected and feared by the rest of the world, and one that the United States treats as an equal. This has been a theme throughout the last 25 years, according to Stent; the Kremlin has long felt that the U.S. has not treated its interests as legitimate.

In explaining Russian objectives and what Moscow expects the U.S. to regard as its interests, Stent stressed that Russia defines its security perimeter not as the borders of the Russian Federation, but as the outer borders of the former Soviet space. When asked why Russia has intervened in Ukraine rather than focusing on improving the quality of life in Russia, Stent referenced Russia’s history of vulnerability along its western frontier and its impact on Moscow’s priorities. In this context, she said, Moscow believes that Ukraine’s decision to align more closely with the west is interpreted as a direct threat to the Russian heartland.

With regards to whether Russia will be able to fulfill its objectives and achieve the recognition it has been seeking under the Trump administration, Stent referenced Trump’s explicit eschewing of democracy promotion efforts in his inaugural address—this has gone a long way in assuaging Russian concerns about future U.S. interests in regime change in Moscow, she said. However, whether the Trump administration will be more willing to accept Russia’s interests in the post-Soviet space is much less clear, she said. Indeed, given what President Trump has said abut Russia in the past two weeks following the chemical attack in Syria, as well as his cabinet’s publicly-stated positions, this may be unlikely, according to Stent.

In terms of American objectives vis-à-vis Russia, Stent asserted that the Trump administration would like to have meaningful cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State and in bringing the Syrian civil war to an end. The U.S. would also like to work towards a viable solution in Ukraine and garner Russian support in confronting North Korea, she said. More generally, she added, the U.S. would like to have Russia as a constructive player rather than a spoiler. These are all aspirational, according to Stent, given the differing world views of Washington and Moscow. Washington must be very realistic about the limited range of common interests that it has with Russia, while also trying to do the best it can to work with Moscow on those specific issues, she said.

Steven Pifer—a career diplomat who has served as Ambassador to Ukraine and Special Assistant to the President for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia on the National Security Council staff—discussed Russian objectives in Europe. He defined Russia’s stance as much more active and belligerent compared to four or five years ago, as seen with Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Pifer also cited a growth in provocative activities by Russia’s air force, which have led to an increasing number of close encounters with Western aircraft. This is taking place against the backdrop of Russia’s military modernization effort and loose talk in the Kremlin about nuclear weapons, Pifer stated. He also said the Kremlin, having watched the post-Cold War security order develop and decided it is significantly disadvantageous to Russian interests, is now actively challenging that order.