What Does Russia Want? What Does America Need?

Pifer defined Russia’s three objectives in Europe: a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space; ways to diminish the influence of NATO and the European Union; and a seat at the table in defining what a new European security order might look like. Russia does not want a reemergence of the Soviet Union, Pifer argued, but they want neighbors that defer to Moscow’s interests and are open to Russian business, not only because this is beneficial to the Russian economy, but also because these business interests are instruments for increasing Russian leverage along its periphery. Russia is seeks to prevent events like the so-called “Color Revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, which Putin views as being organized by Western security services, Pifer said. According to Pifer, we know what Russia wants, but they have not been as successful as they might have hoped.

U.S. policy towards Russia is one focused on managing differences, said Pifer. He agreed with Secretary Tillerson’s approach during the latter’s visit to Moscow of opening lines of communication and taking small steps in order to make progress towards a more cooperative relationship with Moscow, though it will undoubtedly take a significant amount of time to achieve normalized relations. While Pifer was pessimistic that the relationship will improve anytime soon, he stated that he is worries less worried about escalation and more about the possibility of a military miscalculation.

Paul J. Saunders, a former State Department Senior Advisor during the George W. Bush administration and author of numerous works on Russia’s foreign policy and U.S.-Russia relations, recently visited Russia and interviewed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. According to Saunders, Russia wants an international system that allows Russia to focus on its internal challenges and problems. It wants a rules-based international system, but with different rules—specifically, rules that constrain the U.S.’ use of force. Saunders stated that Russia would also like to see strong governments capable of controlling their own territory to ensure that terrorism and instability do not spread elsewhere. If he had to fit it into a Tweet, he joked, he would describe Moscow’s objective as a system of strong states in which, “what happens in Syria stays in Syria [or wherever else instability may arise].”

With regard to the EU, Saunders stated that it is not unusual that Russia would prefer to work bilaterally with its individual members rather than with the institution as a whole—a sentiment likely shared by most other countries. Indeed, he said, the U.S. often seeks to do the same. Echoing Stent’s comments, Saunders said that Russia also wants a role in the international system that satisfies its self-image as a major power, as well as a voice in collective security decisions at the international level. What Russia does not want, Saunders stated, is outside actors interfering in its political and economic system.

The U.S., meanwhile, wants a stable international system that continues to reflect its values and interests, said Saunders. Washington must ask itself if Russia, on its own, is the greatest threat to the international system. Saunders believes it is not, as the greater threat comes from China. The largest threat, he argued, would be cooperation between Russia and China that undermines the system as a whole. U.S. policy, he said, should seek to avoid this.

Michael Kofman, a Research Scientist at CNA and an expert on the Russian military, focused on how Moscow employs its military to secure its objectives and the implications for U.S. policy. Kofman stressed that the Russian military is a critical instrument of national power for the Kremlin, one that often makes up for Russia’s inability to achieve what it wants in the international system due to its weak economic position.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons were a guarantor of Russia’s sovereignty, a principal deterrent against the U.S., and a key component of its self-image as a global power, Kofman stated. Russia was overly dependent on its nuclear arsenal during the early post-Cold War period and its military was both dysfunctional and not a predictable instrument of national power, he argued. Between 2008 and 2011, however, Russia launched significant military reforms and a modernization program, allowing it to reemerge as the preeminent military power in the post-Soviet space and become the region’s “agenda-setter,” he said. Russia has also narrowed the technological gap with the United States in its use of conventional military power.

As a result, Kofman stated, Russia can use its military as a tool to try to impose its will on its neighbors, likely prevail in any local conflict, and be an important tool of coercion. The main purpose of the military, he said, is its role in coercive diplomacy. Russia wants to focus on time-limited, indirect uses of force and wants to reserve the bulk of its military power for compellence purposes, said Kofman. He notes that the Russian military still lacks the capacity to occupy significant territory due to its relatively small force and lack of reserves; instead, Russia focuses on occupying the smallest amount of real estate necessary in order to affect the target country’s strategic decisions. The military is not positioned for maximalist territorial acquisition and Moscow does not seem to be investing in weapons systems that could facilitate that type of strategy, argued Kofman. Russian force posture is still very much focused on contingencies in its near abroad, he said; indeed, despite its campaign in Syria, the Russian armed forces are still in “terrible shape” when it comes to their power projection capabilities. Nevertheless, he concluded, Moscow has succeeded in banishing earlier views that Russia was a declining power that Western governments could safely ignore.