Why U.S. Policy on Russia Is Stuck in Neutral

Vladimir Putin at a meeting with President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Kremlin.ru

The next president will need to chart out the areas where Russia can be accommodated, where it must be deterred and what price the U.S. is willing to pay to achieve compellence.

At the Center for the National Interest last week, discussants debated the question, “Is Russia Preparing for War?”  During the discussion portion of the event however, the tenor of the questions shifted from anticipating Vladimir Putin's next moves to why the United States seems to have such difficulty in dealing with Russia.

Admiral James Stavridis, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, has laid out his "six tips" for negotiating with the Kremlin. But these tactical guidelines cannot substitute for strategic objectives.

The United States faces in Russia a resurging power that does not accept the post-Cold War settlement, especially in East Europe and the Eurasian space, as definitive or normative. It also must confront a country that no longer believes that it will be given a substantive position within the Euro-Atlantic world, and, therefore, is more prepared to dispute U.S. global and regional leadership and to offer a competing vision at odds with the accepted "Washington consensus." Moscow seeks modifications and would prefer to do so via negotiation, but has also shown a willingness to risk using force to change the strategic landscape. The Kremlin is not prepared to accept the situation of the 1990s as an acceptable status quo: thus, the extent and scope of the changes that are demanded becomes the subject for analysis.

U.S. policymakers need to be able to give definitive answers to several questions that Russia's resurgence poses. First, do Moscow's requests and demands pose a threat to the security and prosperity of the United States and its treaty allies? Do they challenge American priorities for the international system, or just its preferences? The second question is whether Russia is currently or could be induced in the future to offer substantive assistance to the United States in dealing with other pressing threats to U.S. interests.

But without clear answers, U.S. policy remains stuck in neutral. On the one hand, there is little appetite for accommodating Russia, perhaps because that sounds too close to the dreaded "A-word" (appeasement). If the government in Moscow is widely viewed to be both illegitimate (because of its assessed democracy deficits) and fragile (if one assumes that Russia is repeating the pattern of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s), then making anything that looks like concessions will be interpreted as a sign of American weakness.

On the other hand, very few in Washington seem interested in paying the real costs that a more active approach for containing and hemming Russian power would entail. Containment, as a strategy, is quite expensive. It is not simply a matter of moving a few units or increasing rotations of modest amounts of military equipment. It cannot be done on the cheap with a few loan guarantees for post-Soviet states. It requires a sustained commitment of time, energy and resources to reinvigorate the NATO alliance and to build up capacities in the frontline states around Russia, while at the same time accepting the risks of confrontation with Russia.

Getting clarity on U.S. policy towards Russia, however, requires accepting three benchmarks to guide our strategic thinking.

First, it is time to stop basing policy on expectations of Russia's imminent collapse. It is true that the Russian Federation has a number of deep structural problems in its economy and faces unattractive demographic prospects. There is also the routine invocation of the "long arc of history" to suggest that Russia's government and political values will not survive the twenty-first century. This belief, however, is a poor basis for creating policy. For the last two hundred years, every country that has developed policy on the basis of expecting an imminent collapse of the Eurasian power centered at Moscow has been sorely disappointed. Moreover, there are plenty of other indicators that suggest Russia can "muddle through" and continue to function in the international system, certainly as a spoiler, or even continuing as one of the great powers for the foreseeable future. Just as it would have been ludicrous for the United States to base its policy towards the Soviet Union in 1979 on the expectation of a Soviet collapse in 1991, talking about how Russian economic and demographic trends will play out in 2050 to Moscow's detriment is no basis for constructing policy towards a Russia, which, in 2016 has clear and demonstrated capabilities.

The second is to develop a clear set of compromises that can be offered to Russia (whether on Ukraine, Syria, or other issues) and for the United States to commit to enforcing a set of consequences in the event of Russian non-compliance or violations after the accord is reached. What we have at present is the worst of all possible worlds: one where we are reluctant to offer up-front compromises but also one where we have proven reluctant to enforce consequences because of our unwillingness to incur costs. It leads to a situation where the Kremlin believes that there is no purpose in seeking accommodation with the United States but also discounts the likelihood of serious action on the part of the United States.

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