TWENTY-SIX years ago at a national policy conference in Los Angeles co-hosted by his foundation, Richard M. Nixon observed that one of America’s most fundamental foreign policy objectives was to build a new international order after the collapse of the Soviet Union which included the newly-democratic Russia as a partner. He stated,
In discussing Russia, it is first necessary to dispel a myth. The Russians did not lose the Cold War. The Communists did. The United States and our allies played a crucial role in containing communism and in rolling it back, but it was democratic Russia that gave the knockout blow to communism on December 14th in 1991. So therefore, we should treat Russia today not as a defeated enemy but as an ally and a friend who joined with us in defeating communism in Russia.
Nixon warned that if Russia’s experiment with democracy and association with the West were to fail, Russia could fall victim to, “a more authoritarian, aggressive nationalism, which, shorn of the failed faith of communism, might be an even greater threat to the West than the old Soviet totalitarianism.” Subsequently, in the book Beyond Peace, which served as the last political message of his life, Nixon made a strong case that, while ending the Cold War on American terms was a historic accomplishment, the lasting legacy of this feat would be determined by America’s success in incorporating Russia into the community of democratic free market nations. “It would be contrary to our interests to give Moscow the impression,” Nixon wrote, “that we are prepared to help only as long as Russia remains on its knees. Russia is a great country that deserves to be treated with appropriate respect.” Nixon’s observations were prophetic. They make it clear that the turn that contemporary events have taken was not inevitable even if it was foreseeable. Nixon not only sought reconciliation with Russia, but was also convinced that given sufficient foresight and diplomatic tact Washington could achieve it.
TODAY, IT can be stated with certainty that America has failed at this task. America’s new strategic doctrine views Russia as a major threat to the United States due to its military prowess, hybrid warfare capabilities, and global drive to undermine the American-led liberal world order. As with every divorce, there are contrasting narratives about who bears what responsibility for the dissolution of this once promising relationship. However, it is clear that America’s foreign policy establishment, including members of both Congress and the Trump administration, is currently plagued by the tension between its habitual desire to assume the worst of Russia and its simultaneous reluctance to respond to the magnitude of Moscow’s challenge in a serious fashion.
When I hear media pundits and members of Congress describe Russia as a major adversary and, at the same time, speak and act as though America is immune to the threat posed by the Russian military, I often wonder whether they know something that I do not. The same experts who are terrified of confrontation with North Korea, with its rudimentary nuclear arsenal, or Iran, which has no nuclear arsenal at all, take a remarkably cavalier approach towards the prospect of a clash with Russia. While this view is common among the national security establishment, it reflects a serious misunderstanding of Russia’s military strength, its national character and, above all, the way its history continues to shape its foreign policy decisions. It also runs the risk of inadvertently creating a new danger in the form of providing additional incentives for Moscow and Beijing to cooperate with each other against America. As a recent Pentagon white paper observed, Russian president Vladimir Putin could try to play the “China card” to the detriment of America.
Yet when Donald Trump spoke during his presidential campaign about the prospect of improved relations with Russia, the establishment’s indignation was difficult to overstate. The conventional wisdom was clear: by questioning whether America might be dangerously eroding its relationship with Russia, Trump was by definition undermining America’s alliances with its European partners. Some went so far as to question whether he was an enemy agent controlled by Russian president Vladimir Putin, while more sober-minded analysts argued that Trump was simply a victim of his inexperience in world affairs. How else could one explain why Trump could not see that America’s allies, despite their numerous imperfections and questionable loyalty, were an indispensable source of our strength? How could Trump fail to see this self-evident truth unless he was a traitor, an idiot, or both?
MUCH OF the domestic criticism surrounding Russia is valid, particularly the accusations that it is autocratic, increasingly assertive in its foreign policy, and that it suffers from endemic corruption reaching high levels of the government, including law enforcement agencies. But Russia is no more autocratic than Saudi Arabia, and Israel has similarly demonstrated a willingness to use force outside its borders, including its alleged assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Nor is it more corrupt than Afghanistan and Ukraine, both of whom receive massive amounts of U.S. aid. Yet friends’ faults are easier to forgive due to their willingness to walk in lockstep with the United States, which we believe ultimately puts them on the “right side of history.” Russia, in positioning itself as an alternative center of global power to the United States, is often considered by definition guilty of violating good international conduct.
Russia also happens to be the only country capable of destroying the United States as a modern, prosperous and democratic society, a reality that much of the discourse surrounding Russia seems to ignore. Many Americans now believe that the threat posed by Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal is no longer relevant, and the United States and its allies, with their economic preponderance and superior conventional forces, can deter Russia as long as they can persuade the Kremlin that their determination is proportional to their overwhelming resources. Even when Russian president Vladimir Putin’s defiant speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference warned that Russia would resist an endless incorporation of former Soviet states into the transatlantic alliance structure, the common reaction of the American and European foreign policy establishments was open disdain. Who would be interested in Putin’s appeals for a new multipolar system when his own government was viewed as so self-evidently inadequate and his military and economic power so pathetically out of touch with his pretense?
Russia’s subsequent military modernization efforts, combined with its 2008 incursion into Georgia, made the Kremlin far more difficult to ignore. However, the message received by most Western elites was not the need for a new dialogue with Moscow, but, rather, that containment was geopolitically necessary and morally justified, now more than ever. Later, after the United States and the European Union aggressively supported a popular uprising against the corrupt and inept, but legally elected Yanukovych regime in Ukraine, Russia responded with a takeover of Crimea, interference in Donbass and intervention in the Syrian war. Again, the West’s reaction was one of righteous indignation with little analysis of the causes of the crisis or any potential solutions.
In hindsight, it is clear that the post-Soviet political order in Eastern Europe was never properly settled by Russia and the West, and that the agreements that emerged after the Cold War were too ambiguous to offer any real clarity. For instance, the 1994 Budapest Agreement, which both Russia and the United States signed, guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but also promised the protection of Ukrainian sovereignty, which Russia perceived as a commitment from the West not to interfere in Ukraine’s internal political affairs. Therefore, when America and its European allies supported the ousting of Yanukovych in 2014, Russia viewed this as illegal Western interference, which provided Moscow with both the opportunity and the right to defend its interests in Crimea and Donbass.
In recent years, Putin has unveiled his Avangard hypersonic ICBM system and new RS-28 Sarmat heavy ballistic missile (both of which are allegedly capable of overcoming any U.S./NATO missile defenses), and warned that, if push comes to shove, Russia is prepared to stand against a military challenge from the West even if doing so meant escalating to nuclear war. These warnings were coupled with the deployment of new brigades to Ukraine’s borders starting in 2014 and major improvements of Russia’s military capabilities near the Baltic region. Yet again, these moves were treated as something requiring a vigorous response, but ultimately not increasing the risk of a military clash. NATO viewed its commitment to restraint as self-evident, so why would the Kremlin fear Western aggression? And if so, why would anybody seriously fear a nuclear confrontation between Russia and the West?
UNFORTUNATELY, THE threat of unintentional conflict escalation is not a hypothetical one. Russian and American troops often operate in the same areas of combat in Syria, and U.S. combat aircraft and personnel were involved in a devastating attack on Russian paramilitaries in 2018. In that particular case, Russia gave no advanced warning that Russian fighters were involved, and later downplayed the incident by noting the fundamental difference between the death of Russian private military contractors and an attack against its regular forces. But many experts on both sides privately acknowledge that this incident was a close call that easily could have resulted in rapid escalation. With more and more NATO ships and planes operating in close proximity to Russian territory and their Russian counterparts boldly challenging them to prove their own determination, the potential for a clash in the air or on the seas is becoming more and more real. Yet Congress has had no meaningful discussions about how the sinking of one ship or downing of one plane could result in accidental nuclear war between Russia and the United States.