Russia and America: Destined for Conflict?

Russia and America: Destined for Conflict?

It's in the U.S. national interest to explore better relations with Russia from a position of strength.

The Yeltsin government was again a reluctant partner if not a willing collaborator in cultivating this sense of impunity. Radical reformers in the Yeltsin government, particularly Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, acted as if winning favor in Washington and Brussels was a paramount Russian national interest. This may have been quite reassuring to NATO elites, but it inexorably led many Russians to view Kozyrev and others as quislings and moved Russian public opinion further in an anti-Western direction—meaning that any reassurance Kozyrev provided was false and short-lived.

Advocates of NATO expansion argued that Russia could not really object to the process. Neither Washington nor anyone else signed an agreement with Gorbachev or Yeltsin to limit NATO to its current membership, they said. And anyway, the central and eastern European countries themselves were asking to join. Beyond that, advocates said, expansion would actually make Russia more secure because new members under NATO’s security umbrella would be less afraid of their former imperial master and would accordingly be better able to set aside their past grievances to begin new relationships with Moscow. Since Yeltsin was instrumental in achieving relatively peaceful independence for the Baltic states by refusing to allow Russian citizens to participate in any military action against them, some expected Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to be especially grateful. Nevertheless, all these arguments were either incomplete, superficial or just plain wrong.

It is true that the George H. W. Bush administration did not provide any formal guarantees that NATO would not expand further east. That was perfectly appropriate since neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin asked for a legally binding agreement. Nevertheless, as their memoirs and other documents make clear, President Bush, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft may not have considered post-Communist Russia to be a superpower, but they did view it as a friendly power. They intended to treat Moscow with respect and dignity and to work to provide it what they saw as an appropriate place in the new European security architecture. This attitude discouraged Gorbachev and Yeltsin from insisting on legally binding guarantees.

With this in mind, the Clinton administration had every legal right to proceed with NATO expansion. What U.S. officials had no right to do was to think that they could move NATO’s borders further and further east without changing Russia’s perception of the West from friend to adversary. The first Bush administration had no plans to expand NATO and was hesitant to involve the United States in the emerging civil wars in the Balkans. Clinton-era NATO interventions in Bosnia (with Russia’s reluctant consent) and Serbia (without Russia’s consent or a United Nations mandate) could not but shape Moscow’s views. The Iraq War and 2011 Libya intervention cemented NATO’s transformation in Russian eyes from a nonthreatening organization to a military alliance prepared to act without a UN endorsement and in disregard of Russian perspectives around the globe.

Irrespective of NATO, Russia remained weak for some time, without real allies or friends, and eager to integrate itself into a world order dominated by the United States and Europe. Dmitri Medvedev’s term as Russia’s president was a last-gasp attempt to realize this goal, but even with Medvedev’s more amiable leadership, NATO continued to dismiss efforts like Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s proposal to negotiate a European security treaty without much debate. Many in the West feared that it could create anxiety among some new members over NATO’s security guarantees.

Yet if Russia was not a threat, as Western leaders insisted it was not, why would avoiding the Baltic states’ anxiety be a higher priority than stabilizing U.S. and European security relations with Russia, a huge country with almost 150 million people and a massive nuclear arsenal? This is especially difficult to answer when the Baltic states themselves could not have felt particularly threatened since only one of them, Estonia, was prepared to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense in line with NATO guidelines. Latvia was spending 1.3 percent and Lithuania 0.8 percent, all while pursuing polarizing anti-Russian polemics.

Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush ignored George Washington’s famous warning in his Farewell Address about the perils of permanent alliances: “Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.” This should be “particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot.”

In the absence of a serious foreign-policy debate, few Americans understood what an ambitious project Washington was undertaking in allowing NATO’s expansion and interventionism to proceed blindly until the alliance had incorporated most of Europe. Yet looking at the last two centuries of Europe’s history, a nation or a group of nations has only attempted to dominate Europe three times. Napoleon Bonaparte, World War I’s victorious allies and the Third Reich each tried and failed. Napoleon and Hitler were defeated by a countercoalition; the World War I allies created an unsustainable security architecture in Europe that contributed to the rise of Nazism and World War II. Moreover, while Westerners may believe that NATO’s eastward expansion has been peaceful and voluntary, Russians see it as inseparable from NATO’s European and global military exploits. How could bringing small new members into NATO and mollifying them outweigh the danger of provoking Russia’s anti-Western militarism?

Even short of catastrophic scenarios like the Napoleonic Wars or World War I and World War II, setting the West and Russia on a collision course comes at a significant price. The most dramatic example is September 11, which might not have happened if the Clinton administration and the George W. Bush administration had worked with Russia as a strategic partner in confronting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Despite Russian disillusionment with the United States during the 1990s, Vladimir Putin approached the Clinton administration with a suggestion for joint action against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in 1999. Russia, with its connections to Central Asia and strong ties with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, could have delivered a devastating blow against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in 2000, possibly disrupting their ability to plan a complex operation like the 9/11 attacks. Despite Al Qaeda already demonstrating its capability and determination by attacking two American embassies and the USS Cole, the Clinton administration refused this overture out of frustration with Russian defiance in the Balkans and perceived interference in Georgia, where Moscow claimed Chechen rebels were hiding. The price was September 11. Only after Al Qaeda killed three thousand Americans was the Bush administration prepared to work with Russia, which helped mobilize the Northern Alliance as an effective ground force against the Taliban.

Later, in 2013, another round of U.S.-Russian animosity damaged cooperation between the two countries’ security services. Again angered by heavy-handed Russian policies in the North Caucasus, the Obama administration was reluctant to exchange information about people from the region settling in the United States. As a result, Washington did not quite ask the right questions and Moscow did not quite volunteer complete answers, enabling the Tsarnaev brothers to carry out the Boston Marathon bombing. These disasters could easily be overshadowed if Russia decides that the United States is a defining threat and begins building its foreign policy around a zero-sum conflict, possibly even involving others, like North Korea.

EVIDENCE OF Russia’s flaws under Putin is abundant and growing. In addition to restrictions on political freedom, there is pervasive corruption. Putin has launched a high-profile campaign against this traditional Russian evil, but so far those at the top remain immune. And as long as those close to the leader are untouchable, using their spouses, children and associates to engage in massive illegal self-enrichment, it is very difficult to persuade others to forswear what they see as their fair share.

A flexible attitude to the truth, natural to people with secret-service backgrounds, exposes Russia to legitimate criticism. Moscow’s denial of military involvement in eastern Ukraine is a case in point. If Russia openly acknowledged—as the United States normally does—that it supports insurgents in the Donbass, it would be easier for the Kremlin to accept that it was a rebel surface-to-air missile that downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in 2014. Moscow could remind the world of other such tragedies, including cases when the United States, Israel and even Ukraine mistakenly attacked civilian airliners. Russian officials could also argue that the fault lies with the Ukrainian side, because Kiev used its air force to attack its own citizens and the insurgents fired on the assumption that the airliner was a combat aircraft. Official denials made Russia’s position nearly impossible to defend and raised questions about the credibility of Moscow’s other foreign-policy pronouncements. The list of Russia’s transgressions is long.

It is difficult to know whether Russia’s hysterical anti-Western campaign and growing militarization have developed unstoppable momentum. But chances are that because of the country’s economic constraints and the absence of credible allies, the Putin government may be open for business after the next U.S. presidential election. Kremlin officials have certainly learned that they cannot count on China to save their economy.