Thus, Moscow and Washington’s interests in Europe would seem to be in sharp opposition. But here it is worth considering two things. One is Russian capability to threaten European institutions. The fact is that Russia’s challenges are heavily overshadowed by threats from within. Moscow is not the cause of populism in Europe or the United States: it is not responsible for Brexit, the Front National, or the candidacy of Donald Trump. However much Russia may want to make such forces more viable, none of them would go away if Moscow’s support (and capacity to hack into servers) dried up. Moreover, Russian actions in Ukraine appear to have strengthened trans-Atlantic unity far more than they divided it. This suggests that the survival of European institutions and U.S. internationalism depends most not on responding to Russian meddling, but on bolstering the viability of the values and systems under threat. Those who seek to preserve these must therefore strengthen, adapt, and rebuild them, so that they more effectively respond to today’s requirements. Doing so will ensure that no amount of Russian or other effort can overturn them. Failing to do so will guarantee their destruction, whatever the Kremlin does.
A hard rethink of the European order also stands the chance of meeting Russia’s needs. After all, Russia, the United States, and the latter’s European allies actually have common cause in bolstering and improving European security, even if they have traditionally approached it from different directions. This is not to say that revisions and responses should be driven by Moscow and that Ukraine, for example, should lose its voice. However, Russia, as a European power itself, should have its own seat at this table. It is possible, of course, that Moscow would reject such outreach, driven by its desire to be on par with the United States and the United States only. But Washington can leverage Moscow’s desire for influence because it will, of necessity, be part of that discussion itself.
What about Russian interference in the U.S. election? If proven, this is an unacceptable provocation. Without a doubt, it calls for a response. But, as already noted, it is not likely to make a critical difference to the election itself—any direct impact is not independent, but an exacerbation of problems indigenous to the United States. The solutions to these problems therefore begin at home, not in Moscow. The real threat Russian interference poses is that at the core of this essay—the danger that the United States will be dragged into a bipolar standoff that could undermine U.S. policy globally. Like other provocations, it underlines the need for a Russia policy that explicitly recognizes that danger, and works to avert it.
Olga Oliker is Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program and a Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.