After years of mutual sanctions, diplomatic expulsions, and cyberattacks, it is difficult to imagine U.S.-Russia relations getting any worse than they are today. But if the next U.S. president doesn’t change Washington’s overall approach to Moscow and adopt a policy more realistic in its objectives, then the relationship between the countries will further deteriorate.
It is tempting to look at the last decade and conclude that Washington and Moscow are trapped in a permanent state of animosity. Russia’s interference in the U.S. election process has turned Moscow into a pariah in the Beltway, souring even standard diplomatic conversations. Russian support to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus’s besieged president, has led many U.S. policymakers to write off Russia as a lost cause. The feeling is mutual in Moscow, where there is a sense that the bilateral relationship will remain bogged down regardless of who is in the White House.
The question going forward is less about whether the United States and Russia can become friends and more about how the two nations can come to a basic understanding of one another’s core security interests. At the bottom, the relationship is suffering from a zero-sum outlook in both capitals, where an adversarial contest for power is viewed as the only acceptable path. The result has been a “dangerous dead-end” between two powers that possess roughly 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.
As much as the U.S. foreign-policy establishment may not like it, there are certain issues Washington can’t change. This is especially the case with events occurring near Russia’s borders. Belarus is one example. While the United States and its European allies would love to see the autocratic Belarus turn into a pro-Western democracy, Moscow will not tolerate such a shift given the extensive interests it has at stake. The United States has little power to alter the status-quo in Minsk—and what power it does possess is dwarfed by the billions of dollars in loans and fuel subsidies Russia provides to the Belarusian government. If anything, active U.S. involvement on behalf of the demonstrations in Minsk is more likely to elicit deeper Russian involvement in the country.
As Ukraine has shown, Moscow is willing and able to expend military resources and deal with the economic consequences of its decisions when intervention serves its own national interest. More than six years after the pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych was deposed by a popular rebellion, Ukraine remains in a state of internal conflict due in large measure to Russia’s military and financial support to separatist units in the east of the country. The enactment of numerous U.S. sanctions and the export of anti-tank weapons to Kyiv have done nothing to change the situation on the ground or persuade Moscow to soften its position. After all, Ukraine is far more important to Moscow than it is to Washington—and thus Russia is willing to invest more than the United States ever could.
The next U.S. administration should keep these examples in mind as it formulates its policy on Russia. Washington must separate what it really needs from Moscow and what it wants; it must be cognizant about how little influence it has in Russia’s neighborhood; and it must understand how an activist U.S. stance in Russia’s near-abroad very often makes the situation more dire. U.S. officials must also be crystal clear to their Russian counterparts about what Russian actions they won’t tolerate—blatant inference in the U.S. system of government being at the top of the list.
U.S. policy should keep in mind that Russia is hardly the one-hundred-foot giant it is often made out to be. In fact, modern-day Russia remains a shell of its former Soviet glory. At $21.3 trillion, the U.S. economy is more than twelve times the size of Russia’s. The United States spends more on missile defense, maritime capabilities and munitions than Russia spends on its entire military. Moscow simply doesn’t have the capacity or financial resources to sustain a large-scale military operation, let alone an occupation of a NATO member state.
While Russia can’t compete with the United States, it can’t be ignored either. The country remains the world’s largest nuclear power with a proud history and a joint force capable of projecting military power. Whether it was Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 or Syria in 2015, Russia will deploy military force if doing so is required to preserve its geopolitical position.
The next U.S. administration will likely be tempted to tighten the sanctions regime against and make diplomacy with the Russians conditional. This temptation, while popular in the U.S. foreign policy community, should be avoided in favor of selective engagement on issues Washington and Moscow can cooperate on—arms control, public health, military de-escalation, stable trade relations, and non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs to name a few.
A substantive, cool-headed dialogue with Russia can be as tedious as pulling teeth. This, however, doesn’t mean such a dialogue is any less necessary. America should engage with Russia when it can and confront the country when it must because that is the most effective way to stabilize one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.