At a recent meeting of Russia’s new Economic Council, chaired by Vladimir Putin, former finance minister and Putin-appointed Council vice chair Alexei Kudrin called for reducing geopolitical tensions in order to attract foreign investment that would allow the stagnant Russian economy to grow. Putin’s response was noncommittal, blaming others while promising to protect Russian national interests. This fueled public discord among Putin’s advisers about which direction to take.
The United States should explore whether a new beginning is possible. If there is a chance, it will not require one-sided concessions from the United States. What it will require is a first-ever serious discussion about post–Cold War U.S. interests and priorities around the world and a sober evaluation of how Russia fits into them.
In Ukraine, for example, Moscow clearly wants to interpret the Minsk agreements in a way that not only provides the Donbass with meaningful autonomy, but also allows regional governments in eastern Ukraine to prevent the country from joining NATO. Many in Ukraine and their supporters in the West consider this an unacceptable concession. But why? Does the United States, or Western Europe, really want Ukraine in NATO? Does America even intend to permit Ukraine to join NATO? If not, why create the impression in Russia that this may be Washington’s long-term objective?
Many say that without Ukraine Russia cannot be an empire. This is true, to a point. Conversely, however, Russia’s elite and much of its public believes that Russia can never be secure if Ukraine becomes a hostile nation and particularly if it joins a hostile alliance. Russian leaders have already seen how NATO’s new members have changed the character of the alliance in its dealings with Moscow. A NATO influenced by not only Poland and the Baltic states, but also Ukraine, may form an existential threat for Moscow. This in turn would place both Ukraine’s and NATO’s security in terrible jeopardy—a development that America should seek to avoid.
Relations between the two sides have deteriorated to dangerous levels. It’s in the U.S. national interest to explore better relations with Russia from a position of strength, something that will require both patience and realism in acknowledging that the effort may not succeed. If Moscow refuses to oblige, Washington should do whatever is necessary to protect its interests. Since this is likely to be risky and costly, it should not be America’s first choice.
Dimitri K. Simes, publisher and CEO of the National Interest, is president of the Center for the National Interest.
Image: RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Kremlin photo, Creative Commons license