While the possibility of an all-out nuclear war remains highly remote, it is no longer as unthinkable as it was when President Obama entered office. Hard as it is to imagine from Washington, Russia’s national-security establishment has become seriously alarmed about what it sees as American developments and plans to undermine its nuclear deterrent. U.S. planners know that America long ago gave up trying to develop a first-strike capability against Russia—because it was unattainable. Nonetheless, even serious Russians now interpret the extraordinary advances in modern warfare the United States has demonstrated since Desert Storm as evidence of a determined plan to achieve advantages in the strategic balance that will provide leverage to coerce Russia. In fact, the United States has redefined modern warfare with ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) that allows it to target precisely any fixed point on earth and to destroy it by multiple non-nuclear means. U.S. special-operations forces are capable of spectacular initiatives, demonstrated in the unannounced raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden or the nightly attacks and raids in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Advances in ballistic missile defenses, the use of big data in antisubmarine warfare, and in what Russians claim are cyber implants in their nuclear command-and-control system do cause them to worry. No longer is this fear only discussed in classified settings at the Russian national security council. President Putin spoke directly to this point in his December year-end address to the nation: “I would like to emphasize that attempts to break strategic parity are extremely dangerous and can lead to a global catastrophe. This cannot be forgotten for a single second.”
Russian planners’ response to this fear has been to lower the threshold for their own use of nuclear weapons, organically integrating nuclear attacks earlier in the escalation ladder in what they call hybrid warfare. Moreover, they have developed a dangerous doctrine of “escalatory deescalation”: if they were losing a conventional conflict in, for example, Ukraine or the Baltics, they would conduct a limited nuclear attack aimed at “deescalating” the war. Unfortunately, the United States has contributed further to this paranoia, and to misperceptions and misunderstandings that could lead to unintended conflict by essentially cutting off all official conversations among both military and defense counterparts.
Second, U.S.-Russia cooperation can advance both nations’ counterterrorism goals, including the wars against ISIS and Al Qaeda. As you said during the campaign, “I think it would be great if we got along with Russia because we could fight ISIS together.” Most Americans agree. According to a recent poll by the University of Maryland, 67 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of Democrats want the United States to cooperate with Russia to fight ISIS in Syria. Russia’s help in the war on radical Islamic terrorism could go well beyond the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. The difference between a relationship in which the Americans and Russians are sharing intelligence and one in which they are withholding it directly impacts Washington's ability to prevent terrorist attacks on the homeland. This was illustrated vividly by the Boston Marathon bombings, where the after-action review found that Russian security services had previously tipped off their American counterparts about the Tsarnaev brothers—but that the information had been discounted because of the distrust among the parties.
Third, Russia is also uniquely suited to help prevent both terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda and state actors from acquiring nuclear weapons. As the Soviet Union was coming apart a quarter of a century ago, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney offered a fatalistic prediction about that country’s nuclear arsenal. “If the Soviets do an excellent job at retaining control over their stockpile of nuclear weapons,” Cheney said, “and they are 99 percent successful, that would mean you could still have as many as 250 that they were not able to control.” And yet, twenty-five years on, not a single loose nuclear weapon has been discovered. Moscow’s decision on whether to sell or withhold sensitive technologies can be the difference between failure and success in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, which you have rightly called “the biggest problem [in] the world.”
Fourth, U.S. strategic interests require preventing an alliance or even alignment between Moscow and Beijing. Short of a formal alliance, which neither seems to seek at this point, Russia’s backing will embolden China to take tougher positions in confronting the United States. Just as Richard Nixon’s opening to China during the Cold War expanded America’s leverage with the Soviet Union, closer relations with Russia can help counterbalance a more powerful and assertive China.
EVERYONE KNOWS that Russia is a dangerous, difficult, often disappointing state with which to try to do business. Putin is a KGB man. His view of the world, and Russia’s place in it, was shaped by formative experiences as an intelligence operative. He carries with him deep scars from the collapse of the Soviet Union—which he believes was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. A fierce patriot, he is determined to assert Russia’s role as a great power of which his fellow citizens can be proud. He is prepared to play rough and has built formidable military capabilities he is not reluctant to use. And Putin is especially sensitive to any signs of disrespect. Nonetheless, in pursuit of his goals, he has shown himself to be a strong, strategic, pragmatic leader who has played a weak hand more effectively than many who had more advantages. No one can overlook the Russian government’s offenses, including its nuclear saber-rattling, intervention in Ukraine, indiscriminate bombing in Syria and many human-rights abuses at home. But Russia is too powerful to be “wished” away. The challenge is thus to advance U.S. interests in areas where they converge with Russia’s and manage differences in areas where they diverge.
As the first step in crafting of such a policy, we recommend that your administration develop a clear hierarchy of American priorities. Unless you define the difference between the vivid and the vital—distinguishing between the bright new shiny object of the day, on the one hand, and what is essential to America, on the other—your administration will find itself following its predecessors in engaging in optional pursuits at the expense of what is absolutely necessary. We recommend beginning with President John F. Kennedy’s number one lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis: “Above all, while defending our vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.”
Second, in this spirit you should prepare carefully for an early one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin to change the dynamics in the relationship. Relations between nations involve much more than their leaders’ personal relationship. But poisonous disrespect at the top seeps down through the layers of interactions between the governments. Alternatively, where the leaders signal mutual respect, establish a working relationship and demonstrate a determination to do business where mutual interests allow, others at successive layers in their governments can find productive opportunities. Reestablishing a relationship of minimal trust requires clarity about areas of disagreement as well as agreement and red lines that cannot be crossed.
Third, your meeting with Putin should be followed by revival of government-to-government dialogue with Russia, beginning with ways to prevent an accidental war between the United States and Russia, including nuclear war. Overturning President Obama’s ban on communication at every level from president-to-president to secretaries of defense, military chiefs and regional commanders; more rigorous deconflicting in Syria; revitalization of U.S.-Russia agreements on preventing military incidents and other confidence-building measures in the military-to-military domain; and establishing rules of the game for cyber operations—these and many similar initiatives can help reduce the risk of an unintended war with Russia. This should also include working to preserve cornerstones of the bilateral strategic nuclear balance, including the New Start Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Fourth, you should change the overall U.S. approach toward the Syrian conflict. Business as usual would do the United States no good. As you quipped at one point in the campaign, “If our presidents would have gone away and gone to the beach, the Middle East would be a far better place than it is right now.” In Syria, the current approach not only risks an accidental confrontation with Russia; it distracts from the U.S. campaign to destroy terrorist forces there and alienates regional allies. American military commanders have concluded that the United States has no credible military option to prevail. Russia’s military deployments in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean have made no-fly zones unrealistic, and further arming the rebels is more likely to lead to escalation than to Moscow’s retreat. Alternatively, to switch sides and act in concert with Russia and Assad would run a major risk of angering U.S. allies and further strengthening Iran. As one of your first foreign-policy steps, we recommend that you order a review of the Syrian crisis with a view to developing a fundamentally new policy. That policy would be more open to cooperation with Russia in defeating ISIS and Al Qaeda, and less focused on removing Assad, but would also demonstrate that America will not allow Moscow and/or Tehran to impose a solution in Syria.