With Russia Policy, Everything Is Connected

Vladimir Putin at a meeting with media representatives. Kremlin.ru

A better relationship is not enough by itself.

Editor’s Note: The following is part of a multi-part symposium commissioned by the National Interest and Carnegie Corporation of New York. We asked some of the world’s leading experts about the future of U.S.-Russia relations under President-elect Donald Trump. You can find all of their answers here.

The United States’ relations with Russia are never easy. Even at the best of times, some tension remains, driven in part by the lopsided nature of the relationship. For Russia, its drive to be recognized as a great power combines with its zero-sum view of the world to create constant (if sometimes one-sided) competition with the United States, as Moscow seeks to demonstrate that Russia can do what the United States does, and that the United States cannot get everything it wants.

For Washington, this results in the perception that the Kremlin is simply a spoiler, lacking real policy goals. While Russia thinks that the United States works to undermine Russian power, Washington rarely thinks of Russian interests when defining its goals.

This does not mean the relationship is doomed. Both countries have historically been restrained by the immeasurably high costs of confrontation, and both have recognized that they have much to gain from at least some cooperation. But if the United States wants an improved relationship with Russia, it must balance that desire with other global goals, and determine just what it wants that improved relationship to deliver. For example, security in Europe would be undermined if the United States and Russia sought to make deals about Europe’s future that ignored the interests of others. It would also be devastated by a U.S. withdrawal from the continent. The negative repercussions would be far greater than those of disagreement with Russia. Thus, while Russia must be part of any future European security arrangements, these cannot be decided by Moscow and Washington alone.

Similar dynamics are in play around the world. But perhaps most importantly, even as it seeks cooperation, the White House must remain aware that Russia views global security as a zero-sum game, and Washington as its primary adversary. This means that when the United States takes a step back, Russia sees weakness. When it takes a step forward, Moscow sees threat. It would be naïve to think that a change in the U.S. president will fundamentally alter this calculus. Thus, any deals struck with Russia must include clear gains for the United States—ones that are evident not just to the White House, but also to the Kremlin.

Progress in arms control and nonproliferation, serious engagement on Europe’s future, and a way forward in Syria that includes sustainable reconstruction could all be pursued to enhance U.S. (and global) security. A better relationship on its own is not enough.

Olga Oliker is Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @olyaoliker.

Image: Vladimir Putin at a meeting with media representatives. Kremlin.ru