WITH THE Cold War’s demise, the menacing Russia that long loomed over Europe seemed to vanish. The Russia of 1992 was just a fragment of its historic self in military punch and economic weight. Not even Russia’s still-formidable nuclear arsenal deflected perceptions of decline. It was inevitable, then, that Western policy makers would feel that this shrunken Russia was more to be ignored than feared. They were wrong.
Now, memories of the bad old days are storming back, especially of Moscow’s capacity to stir up trouble with its military power. While President Vladimir Putin’s “covert” war in Ukraine continues to inflame tensions, he also torments his Baltic neighbors and threatens Europe with provocative military flights and nuclear rhetoric. Western alarms are heightened by Putin’s seeming unpredictability and his apparently unlimited internal power. The West can’t reckon how far he will take his muscle flexing—or how to stop him.
NATO has no strategy to counter mounting Russian pressures. Economic sanctions, the West’s spear point, have seriously harmed the Russian economy, enough to squeeze from Putin some dubious cease-fire agreements on Ukraine, but not nearly enough to make him back down. Europeans are reluctant to expand sanctions for fear of prompting a Russian military response and for fear of further complicating their dependence on Russian oil and gas. On the military side, NATO has deployed mostly American fighter jets eastward and stepped up joint exercises and arms deliveries. Unsurprisingly, European NATO allies do the minimum militarily, and instead press ahead with a weak diplomatic hand. This diplomatic impotence is so pronounced that President Barack Obama has distanced himself from it, preferring to let the Germans take charge.
The reason for the West’s limp hand is painfully evident to all: Russia’s military superiority over NATO on its western borders. If NATO ups the military ante, Moscow can readily trump it. Moscow has significant advantages in conventional forces—backed by potent tactical nuclear weapons and a stated willingness to use them to sustain advantages or avoid defeat. The last thing NATO wants is to look weak or lose a confrontation.
NATO’s military and civilian officials have worried about this situation for several years now—without receiving much productive guidance from their capitals. Predictably, a growing chorus in America (and not just the usual hawks) is championing sending weapons to Ukraine. Just as predictably, these advocates say nothing about what they would do if Moscow’s response were to escalate.
Thus, NATO’s options have narrowed: more arms aid to beleaguered friends, but no answers to Russian escalatory responses; more sanctions that hurt but don’t humble Russia’s economy; calls for a major NATO military buildup in Eastern Europe with no prospect of realization; and more diplomacy without leverage.
What, then, can the West do that has some chance of success? The only sensible path is to develop a diplomatic strategy with real leverage. This strategy would retain the sanctions regime and credible prospects for a greater NATO presence until its benefits materialize. It is now quite evident, however, that these punitive and defensive measures alone won’t produce the requisite power over Russia, a conclusion shared by a number of former American ambassadors to Moscow, including Jack Matlock, Thomas Pickering and James Collins.
An effective diplomatic strategy has to be rooted in what matters most to Russian leaders—their historical sense of self and their passion to be treated as a great power. Moscow deserves no less, given the troubles it can cause and the problems it can help resolve. The West need not silence its complaints about the Kremlin’s brutality, nor concede vital interests. It is totally unrealistic, however, to think that the West can gain desired Russian restraint and cooperation without dealing with Moscow as a great power that possesses real and legitimate interests, especially in its border areas.
The strategy proposed here should be thought of as Détente Plus. It would pick up from the détente diplomacy of the past and go well beyond it. The old détente was about managing serious conflicts of interests and values with a mostly implacable foe. Détente Plus would not treat Russia as an enemy, but as a combination of adversary and partner. Détente Plus would exceed the arms-control focus of the past and address first-rank political matters in Europe and worldwide. It would recognize a wide range of common and overlapping interests, solving both Russian and American problems.
This cooperation has to be visible, filled with optics. Call it mountaintop diplomacy. The world would be watching as the two powers devised common solutions to common problems.
American and Western leverage would stem from the visibility and the results generated. Being seen at the mountaintop with the United States would go far toward satisfying Russia’s yearning for status. To maintain this status, Kremlin leaders would understand their need to bend, but status is not enough. Moscow would have to benefit tangibly as well, mainly in improved economic prospects and assuaged political concerns.
With this leverage, Washington can do two things: first, tame Russian assertiveness and secure Russia’s restraint on its western border; second, and often overlooked, step up joint action based on common interests on other critical fronts such as terrorism, Syria, Iran and nuclear proliferation. Today’s pervasive atmosphere of hostility and mistrust obscures these promising possibilities. Given the dangers ahead and the poor alternatives for dealing with them, the Détente Plus strategy deserves a trial.
JUST IMAGINE if the United States had lost the Cold War. For some comparative measure, think about the American trauma after losing the Vietnam War and after the inconclusive battles over many years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet most Americans won’t give an inch when it comes to recognizing the far greater trauma for Russians after their utter defeat in the Cold War and NATO’s almost immediate march eastward to their borders. Those profound shocks are central to fathoming recent Russian provocations and key to combating them. That’s why it is essential to consider Russian history since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, not to justify Putin’s course, but to comprehend it.
Across Eastern Europe, Communist dictatorships collapsed in short order and were swiftly replaced by democratically elected governments that looked west for their future. As Czech statesman Vaclav Havel remarked, “We have had literally no time even to be astonished.” Germany reunified and became a leading member of the Western club virtually overnight. Mikhail Gorbachev exercised considerable restraint as the outer empire collapsed around him, but the experience could hardly have been more distressing for his nation. Soviet troops were compelled to withdraw haphazardly from Eastern Europe and surrender, without a shot fired, the very territories that millions of Soviet soldiers had died to secure and dominate just decades earlier.
Conservative critics in the Communist Party and in the military understood the perilous course upon which Gorbachev’s reforms had set the Soviet Union, but remained divided on what to do about it. In August 1991, a faction of the conservatives attempted to oust the premier in a coup, but it was too little, too late. Soviet patriots like Chief of the General Staff Sergei F. Akhromeyev and Interior Minister Boris K. Pugo committed suicide rather than face the death of their country.
Within months of the coup, the Soviet Union collapsed, breaking into fifteen weak republics. As a rump state, Russia lost a quarter of its territory, half of its population and much of its wealth. Russians especially lamented the loss of territories like Ukraine that were integral to Russia’s history and identity. The formerly colossal Soviet military was devastated as the post-Soviet republics began nationalizing the forces and materiel stationed within their borders. In 1991, the USSR had nearly four million men on active duty and could mobilize up to ten million. The system designed to win World War III was too weak to save itself.
Compounding Russia’s sense of crisis, the peripheral republics of the Soviet Union erupted with terrible ethnic, nationalist and religious violence as the Communist edifice crumbled from the center. Intense fighting gripped Central Asia, the Caucasus and Moldova. Even the Baltic republics succumbed to violence in their struggle to secede from the USSR. While the Soviet Union lasted, its forces were sent in to try to restore order and stymie budding independence movements, often counterproductively.
Even after 1991, Russian troops remained engaged in battles along the country’s southern frontier. Moscow’s concern was that these nationalist, religious and ethnic convulsions could prove contagious. If unchecked, they would threaten a multiethnic and multiconfessional Russia. This fear proved well founded in Chechnya, where the Russian army was humiliated by guerrilla fighters between 1994 and 1996.
Given the chaos gripping Russia, it was hardly surprising that Western leaders began to write off Moscow’s interests in ways unimaginable just a few years before. When Chancellor Helmut Kohl suggested to President George H. W. Bush in 1990 that Moscow should get something in return for its acquiescence to the reunification of Germany, the president responded, “To hell with that! We prevailed, they didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.” The Russians felt this disdain acutely, and their frustration mounted as the West pressed its advantages over the next two decades in what appeared to be an attempt to encircle Russia.
At the start of their administrations, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made more of an effort to include Russia in European diplomacy and economic development. Through the Partnership for Peace program and later the NATO -Russia Council (presently suspended), both presidents attempted to reduce Russia’s suspicions of the new Atlantic order. Sensing Russia’s wounded pride over its exclusion from the G-7 economic club, Clinton and Tony Blair arranged to include Russia as a full member in 1998, where it remained until its suspension last year.
In other important respects, however, Clinton and Bush were less sensitive to Russian interests. Over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, NATO conferred membership upon much of Eastern Europe. In many cases, this was a sound strategy for the West, Russian resentment notwithstanding. The alliance, however, pushed its advantage provocatively far. It extended its protective wing up to Russia’s borders in the Baltic states. Stating a view shared by many policy analysts, George F. Kennan predicted in February 1997 that the policy of NATO enlargement to Russia’s border could be expected “to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”
Kennan’s sound counsel was flouted and his prophecy fulfilled. George W. Bush, who had initially sought good relations with Putin, gave them up in favor of a prodemocracy, human-rights-first agenda. The Bush team administered the ultimate slap in the face, proposing to NATOize Ukraine and Georgia, where the “color revolutions” had installed governments friendly to the West. Here, Western Europe jumped in and said “no.” Though the democratic uprisings in Tbilisi and Kiev were indigenous, Moscow inevitably suspected a secret American hand. Moscow also noted an irony. Even as it asserted its presence on Russia’s borders, NATO was slowly but unmistakably allowing the military strength of the alliance to erode.
The new Obama team hinted at greater sensitivity to Russian feelings when it proclaimed the policy of “resetting” ties with Russia. At that time, Robert Legvold, a highly respected Russia expert, tried to push for a wide-ranging agenda that would engage Russia on a number of broad concerns. He was right about what was needed, but it didn’t take long for the Obama White House to revert to a more Bush-like approach. For a while, Obama’s relations with President Dmitri Medvedev seemed to be on the right track, and together the United States and Russia concluded deals on nuclear weapons and much-needed cooperation on Afghanistan. Obama also moved to bring Russia into the World Trade Organization, but soon undermined its own effort by endorsing the Magnitsky Act, which established a targeted-sanctions mechanism in response to Russian human-rights abuses. This measure was intended to undercut positive ties with Moscow, and it did. The openly anti-Russian activities of several Obama appointees further enraged the Kremlin.
For its part, Moscow has tried to make the post-Soviet states toe the line through a number of bilateral and multilateral mechanisms. Russia became the “impartial” mediator for lingering territorial disputes, played warring states like Armenia and Azerbaijan off against one another, and wielded its energy power, especially against Ukraine. Russia also made futile attempts to corral the post-Soviet states by proposing Moscow-led international institutions, including the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Eurasian Economic Community, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and, most recently, the Eurasian Economic Union. By and large, Russia lacked the attractiveness and the clout to make these efforts successful.
When some neighbors rejected Russia in favor of the West, Moscow chose force. In Georgia, Russia solidified control over the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A democratic uprising in Ukraine triggered Russian support for revolts in Ukraine’s eastern provinces and the annexation of Crimea.
At some point over the last quarter century, Washington might have realized that the Kremlin was not going to sit around and wait for the West to determine Russia’s fate. Russia’s leaders countered with what came naturally to them—military power—to ensure they would shape their own future.
THE STRATEGIC choices made by other modern major powers following profound losses had zero appeal to post–Cold War Russia. The British lost their empire after World War II, but figured out how to punch above their weight through a “special relationship” with the United States. France, after being humbled by the Nazis and losing its empire, settled for obvious second-tier status. Defeated Japan opted to forgo military power and yet still count by becoming a major economic power. To restore its great-power status, Russia went for military might.
True, some Russian leaders also wanted to take a hard look at an economically focused strategy. Vladimir Putin was once such a man. When he took office in 1999, he was considered something of a liberal reformer, and many in and outside Russia hoped he would succeed in growing and diversifying the economy. Culture, politics, and the practices of the old and new elite alike, however, made the task impossible. In the meantime, oil and gas revenues revived the moribund Russian economy, making it the eighth largest in the world, but still leaving it far behind the top nations. Furthermore, this spurt retarded impetus for reform and diversification. Kleptocracy set in as the state’s guiding economic principle, while a good portion of the leftover energy proceeds went to defense.
Beginning in the 1990s, Russian leaders came to the consensus that military might was the key to accomplishing what mattered to them most: maintaining internal control, preventing the disintegration of Russia and one day reasserting Russia’s global status. Slowly, haltingly and inefficiently, Moscow regenerated its military might, but not its greatness.
The outline for developing the desired military clout was fairly consistent and included four crucial elements: maintaining nuclear parity with the United States, streamlining Russia’s fighting forces, maintaining and modernizing military hardware, and demonstrating superiority on its borders.
Maintaining nuclear parity with the United States was the first and last priority of the plan. It was also relatively easy because Moscow had the nuclear missiles and technology in hand. To compensate for weakened conventional capabilities, in 1993, Moscow revoked the Soviet Union’s long-standing promise of no first use. During this time, however, Russian leaders continued to work with the West on mitigating the risk of nuclear accidents, on securing so-called loose nukes, and especially on consolidating the nuclear weapons that were spread around former Soviet republics into Russia’s hands. Significantly, Moscow and Washington continued to coordinate closely to prevent nuclear proliferation.
Differences on nuclear matters between the two big nuclear powers have mounted in recent years. Putin does not share Obama’s oft-expressed passion for a “nuclear-free world,” and he did not hide his thinking in a 2012 statement: “We will not under any circumstances turn our back on the potential for strategic deterrence, and we will reinforce it. It was precisely this which allowed us to maintain state sovereignty during the most difficult period of the 1990s.”
With this last line of defense in place, Russia undertook the more challenging task of recapturing its conventional military power. After the Soviet collapse, Russian forces were still potent, yet the kind of power they wielded was ill suited to the challenges they faced. It was difficult to mobilize Russian men for what appeared to be remote ethnic battles between foreign peoples, but the day-to-day manning levels of most units were insufficient for deployment. Russia needed to reform its fighting forces.
The Russians knew they needed smaller, fully manned, equipped and trained units maintained in a state of constant readiness. They wanted to build a usable army within the army. While Russia’s fears of a scheming NATO and a dangerous China remained, Moscow’s military planners saw no need to re-create a force of ten million men. The reforms were good enough to reestablish control of Chechnya in 2000.
The next major challenge for Russia’s forces came in the 2008 campaign against Georgia. Though they won in five days, they felt that further reforms were still needed, and the Kremlin launched another series of even more sweeping changes, known as the “New Look.”
The New Look’s chief elements included a reduction of Russia’s authorized strength to one million men, severe cuts in the officer corps, drastic consolidation of military units, centralization of the six existing military districts into four regional Joint Strategic Commands, and replacement of the regimental structure of the army with smaller, more versatile brigades. The program’s chief aim was to develop an armed service that could function at or near full strength all the time by relying on professional “contract” soldiers rather than largely useless conscripts.
Conscription has been retained in Russia, though the term of service has been reduced to one year. Conscripts are deployed to most units, but these troops are considered practically worthless in combat. They are poorly trained and motivated, and useful mostly for logistics within Russia. Nevertheless, conscription is still seen as the best means of training future reservists should sudden mobilization be required.
More recently, Russia has given priority to improving its military hardware. Thus, it now has quality missile-defense systems, first-rate aircraft and substantial artillery. Putin has insisted upon massive investment in new high-tech equipment as a hallmark of his third term. The federal budget sent to the State Duma last September called for defense spending to increase from 3.4 percent of GDP in 2014 to 4.2 percent in 2015, with the bulk going to procurement.
The aim of this triumvirate of the nuclear backstop, more agile forces and more modern equipment is to enable Russia to assert military superiority on its western and southern borders, to establish a plausible defensive line in the east and to develop a capability to manage crises, particularly in the volatile Caucasus region.
HERE IS what these reforms have produced.
On the strategic nuclear level, Russia maintains effective parity with the United States. The two sides have roughly equivalent numbers of ICBM launchers, ballistic-missile submarines and nuclear-capable bombers. While Russian bombers are inferior to American aircraft, this does not affect overall strategic-weapons parity or Russia’s capacity to absorb a first blow and retain retaliatory effectiveness.
Missile-defense systems are a sore point. To Moscow’s consternation, Washington withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. The United States also sought to deploy missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe. While Moscow complains that these defenses hamper its retaliatory capability, in private they recognize that their offense can readily overcome this defense. Thus, it’s hard to see how these deployments contribute to Western security; it’s easy to see why they irritate Moscow.
The tactical-nuclear-weapons balance in Europe is overwhelmingly in Russia’s favor. The United States maintains some two hundred gravity bombs on six bases in five NATO countries and is currently modernizing these to give them a limited standoff capability. Russia, on the other hand, has a tactical force of several thousand warheads, of which some two thousand are believed to be active and assigned to naval, ground and air nonstrategic delivery vehicles.
Recently, Washington alleged Russian violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. Under its terms, both countries forswore all land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range between five hundred and 5,500 kilometers. The West is unsure about the seriousness of recent Russian moves in this arena, but it is concerned by Russia’s increasing reliance on nuclear posturing. Talk of first use is of special concern to NATO, particularly in light of the fifteen-year-old Russian doctrine regarding the use of a so-called deescalatory strike. This means nuclear strikes with the aim of restoring the status quo ante when Russia might otherwise lose. NATO is now struggling over whether to regard this as a bluff or a serious policy—and how to respond.
Insofar as Russia retains large armies for conventional war, these armies operate primarily in the Far East. Of the four regional Joint Strategic Commands into which the armed services are organized, only the Eastern Military District contains four army commands. In the event of a conventional invasion from China, two armies would serve as the first line of defense in the east with two more stationed farther west as a second defensive echelon. Air and naval standoff assets, including from the Pacific Fleet, would likely be used to delay hostile advances, while further reinforcements are drawn from the Central Military District.
Interestingly, for all of Russia’s wariness of China, it continues to sell Beijing high-quality weapons. It would not sell China such good equipment—and at very good prices—were it not desperate for money. Most notably, Moscow licenses the production in China of its SU-27 fourth-generation fighter and has done so since the 1990s.
The People’s Liberation Army currently numbers 1.6 million. At the first possible moment in an invasion, China would likely sever the Trans-Siberian and Baikal-Amur rail lines, thereby leaving Siberia isolated. The only strategic question for Russia in this scenario would be when to push the nuclear button.
Russia does not fear an invasion from its former Central Asian republics. The role of the Central Military District, based in Yekaterinburg, is to orchestrate Russian engagement in local conflicts within Central Asia, to manage Russia’s bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and to supply reinforcements from its two armies either to the east or the west in the event of war. There’s little to indicate that these forces are deployed to the central region for the purpose of reconquering lost Central Asian territories. Rather, their purpose is to forestall instability that might spill over into Russia and to remind everyone that Russia’s forces in the region are mightier than China’s.
Based in St. Petersburg, the Western Military District houses two army commands along with the Baltic Fleet, the Northern Fleet, numerous paratrooper brigades, Spetsnaz, air and air-defense units. Their role is to maintain clear military superiority along Russia’s western and northwestern borders, and to play a large part in air defense.
Russia’s air defenses are excellent. Their long-range surface-to-air missiles are among the best anywhere, particularly the S-300 and S-400 varieties. As mobile, truck-based units, they can secure air superiority over bordering regions, despite U.S. advantages in fighter aircraft. NATO reckons that Russian S-400s would have little difficulty taking down even American stealth aircraft within their 250-mile range. This likelihood greatly complicates any NATO strategy for establishing air superiority over the Baltic region. The United States is actively developing countermeasures to confuse or disable parts of Russian air defenses, but, all factors considered, any NATO effort to establish air superiority near Russian borders would be quite costly.
Russian fighter aircraft lack some of the power, precision and stealth of America’s best fighters, but are comparable to the F-15 and are a match for the F-22, according to American analysts and generals. Moscow is developing a fifth-generation stealth fighter, but currently relies upon the SU-27 Flanker and its more modern cousin, the SU-35.
Without the trial of battle, defense systems can be notoriously difficult to compare. Nonetheless, experts must and do make comparisons. In addition to being lighter and stealthier than their Russian counterparts, American F-22 and F-35 fighters may be equipped with the AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile) family of missiles that allow pilots to “fire and forget.” These missiles are thought to be superior to the Russian equivalent active-radar-homing missile, the R-77. Their potency, combined with the F-22’s superior radar, suggests that American planes would have considerable advantages in a fight over neutral territory. Unfortunately for NATO, fights are most likely to take place near Russia’s borders.
Other factors, ones that are even harder to measure, also influence airpower capabilities. American pilots receive more training hours each year and have more experience in coordinating combat operations with other branches of the military. Furthermore, Russia’s drive to develop fifth-generation fighters and bombers has, to some degree, been undertaken at the expense of developing better logistical capabilities such as refueling and troop transport. There is also the possibility that Russia’s new best-of-the-best equipment will prove less impressive in battle than on paper. India, a potential purchaser of the fifth-generation fighter, has complained repeatedly of unexplained technical malfunctions, charges reminiscent of those China has leveled after purchasing aircraft from the Russians.
The territorial remit of the Southern Military District, based in Rostov-on-Don, includes the unstable North Caucasus region, Russian bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the base in Gyumri, Armenia, and now, most likely, Crimea. It is also responsible for operations in Ukraine. Even before that conflict erupted, the Southern district had the highest priority of all districts for new and modernized weapons and well-trained personnel. In addition to its two army commands, it oversees elite airborne troops, Spetsnaz and reconnaissance brigades, the Black Sea Fleet, the Caspian Flotilla and air units.
Southern forces can be quickly mobilized to respond to regional instability and, as was revealed in Ukraine, effectively deployed against Russia’s far weaker neighbors. They can maintain credible superiority along the country’s southwestern borders. Their takeover of Crimea was immediate, and relied heavily on elite formations.
Specialized Russian units performed so well in Crimea that Putin remarked after the annexation, “It was all coordinated so clearly, tightly . . . that I sometimes wondered: Was it really us?” Highly mobile and versatile, these units can be deployed in any of Russia’s strategic theaters.
Of the roughly 771,000-strong Russian military, fewer than a hundred thousand fight in elite formations. Of these, the number on par with NATO’s best is in the tens of thousands. Over the summer of 2014, Russia demonstrated the ability to draw as many as forty thousand troops to the Ukrainian border, including elite units. While this number was sufficient to menace Ukraine, it hardly represented a conventional threat to NATO forces in Eastern and Central Europe.
For the foreseeable future, the principal strategic danger for the United States and the West is on Russia’s western borders. China can take care of itself to the east, and Central Asia doesn’t worry about a Russian invasion, Putin’s occasional glowering at Kazakhstan notwithstanding. Russian armed forces don’t have the numbers, the allies or the logistical stamina needed to mount a credible threat to the former Warsaw Pact nations. It’s Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and the Baltic states where the West needs an effective strategy for deterrence and containment.
It strains credulity to think that Moscow would invade and reconquer these countries. There is no doubt that such actions would result in Russia’s total isolation from the West, where Moscow understands full well its future lies. And NATO needs to reiterate such consequences in blunt language.
The genuine risks revolve around Moscow’s capacity to pull off more “Ukraines.” Once again, it could exploit the sizable Russian-speaking populations in its neighboring countries, and provide covert arms and covert soldiers to pressure the majority populations to make unreasonable concessions. Along with propaganda and other political techniques, these tactics are described collectively as “hybrid warfare.” NATO has no effective military response to this scenario—and no broader strategy to do the job.
NOT LONG ago, the Obama team spoke of “resetting” U.S.-Russian relations, and indeed some significant agreements were reached with former president Medvedev. With the return of Putin, however, Russian policy took a more aggressive turn, in the face of which Obama withdrew from the reset in favor of policies that irritated the Kremlin without checking it. In any event, relations needed much more than resetting; they needed reconceptualizing.
At its root, the Cold War was a story of two goliaths, each attempting to impose its vision of the world and its values on the other. Détente diplomacy in this era essentially strove to keep conflicts within bounds, particularly avoiding nuclear confrontation. The context for twenty-first-century Détente Plus is quite different. There is nothing resembling the old worldwide political and ideological clash. A good case can be made now that these two powers have more shared interests than conflicting ones. Based on this reality, Détente Plus has to make that cooperation possible. It has to create a concept and a procedure for fixing problems together that can’t be managed separately.
For this new diplomatic partnership to be effective, both parties must enter into it with a realistic mind-set. That is the first step. The United States has to accept the fact that Russia is a great power and treat it that way. Washington has to be sensitive to Moscow’s perspectives and interests, particularly on its borders. The Kremlin has to realize that to receive great-power treatment, it’s got to behave far more responsibly and accept responsibility for joint solutions. Putin can’t go on trying to dominate and intimidate his neighbors, just as the U.S. president can’t be seen as seeking to pull these neighbors out of the Russian orbit.
Second, both sides have to recognize their very real complementary interests. That’s perfectly obvious now when it comes to regional issues, fighting terrorism and nuclear proliferation. There’s no denying that there are serious conflicts on Russia’s western border or that Russia has clear military superiority there. Russia can cause real turmoil for Europe, which is why both parties have got to understand that the solution lies in diplomatic sensitivity and compromise, rather than fighting. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that the present mutual hostility imperils the interests of both sides.
How would Détente Plus work in practice?
First, both sides have to commit to diplomacy at the highest levels. Particularly in the initial years, there would have to be annual presidential summits and semiannual meetings of foreign and defense ministers. Only top-level political leaders can make the decisions required of Détente Plus.
Second, these joint ventures must be given high visibility. Optics are critical both to reestablish Russia’s status as a great power, and for the United States to gain more restrained and cooperative Russian behavior in return. Kremlin leaders are surely realistic enough to see this trade-off and curb themselves. Until this mountaintop diplomacy begins to produce, Western nations are fully justified in sustaining sanctions and continuing to build a more credible military presence eastward.
Third, Détente Plus has to progress on two fronts: maintaining the basic integrity and independence of countries on Russia’s borders while being attentive to Russian interests there; and fashioning joint action on broader issues such as Middle East instability and terrorism.
Securing Russia’s restraint on its western borders requires both political and economic dexterity. The cases of Georgia and Ukraine are a master class in what not to do. As the Maidan protests unfolded in Kiev, the White House should have been in regular top-level conversations with Moscow. Of course, no American president can turn his or her back on democratic movements anywhere. At the same time, it makes no sense to ignore the interests of nearby and historically vested great powers. But that’s precisely what Washington did in Georgia and Ukraine. Their leaders reached out to the United States, which was fine. Yet they ignored history and geography and assumed U.S. security support that did not and could not materialize.
Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili challenged Moscow repeatedly, in large part because private cautions from the George W. Bush administration were contradicted by public encouragements. Saakashvili brought out his meager armed forces, and Russia throttled them, taking over two disputed provinces on their mutual border. Georgia was humbled, and so was the United States. The only way to have avoided this was for Bush to have told the Georgians from the beginning not to count on U.S. intervention.
When a new pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine last year, one of its first acts was to limit the use of Russian as an official language. This and other anti-Russian noises were more than enough pretext for Putin to initiate the present crisis. If anything, the Obama team seemed to be egging Ukrainian nationalists and would-be democrats on, when it should have been encouraging restraint. The White House should have been warning Kiev to take away Moscow’s excuses for intervention, like the ill treatment of Russian minorities.
Washington should have gone out of its way to urge caution and restraint in both Georgia and Ukraine. The United States had to clarify up front what it would and would not do. Most importantly, America should have encouraged these nationalists not to gratuitously poke at Russian sensibilities. And we must not forget Bush’s effort to bring these two nations into NATO; Moscow certainly hadn’t. Russia needs and deserves the requisite assurances about its historical sensibilities now and in the future if it, too, demonstrates real restraint.
To be sensitive to Russian interests and urge caution among its neighboring states is not to condemn them to living under Moscow’s domination. Indeed, the truth is that recognizing Moscow’s interests in the short run is the only way for the neighbor states to acquire more freedom and independence from Russia over time.
Meanwhile, the West should think of states like Ukraine and Georgia as buffer or bridge states and resist the urge to absorb them politically or economically. Georgian leaders are already cooling it, and their Ukrainian counterparts have to take a deep breath as well. That means granting more autonomy to eastern Ukraine, which harbors many ethnic Russians.
Dicier still is the security of the Baltic states. The challenge is unique because of NATO’s Article 5 commitment to their defense. While the Balts deserve protection, all parties recognize the uncomfortable realities. Russia can prevail militarily, and NATO will never contemplate forward deploying forces sufficient to stop the Russians. Here, too, the burden has to fall on Détente Plus diplomacy. The Balts hold tightly to their independence, but are trying not to aggravate Moscow. It doesn’t take much to do so, which is all the more reason to develop the Russian-American diplomatic partnership inherent to Détente Plus. Neither side should want to test Article 5.
The economic dimension of Détente Plus is central to driving the whole relationship. It’s got to account for Russian, Western and border states’ interests. Alas, the European Union has demonstrated the wrong way to proceed in the last two years. It essentially proposed to incorporate the Ukrainian economy into Europe’s and leave Russia behind. It pursued a Europe-win/Russia-lose approach rather than the win-win policy argued for here. Obviously Moscow couldn’t accept this and turned the competition to its strength—stirring up Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine and sending in Russian arms and men.
The right way for the West to develop the economic dimension of Détente Plus would be to include Russia in the earliest planning stages as well as in the implementation process. So far Obama has done almost the opposite. He has excluded Moscow from both European and Asian free-trade negotiations, only compounding Russia’s doubts about its ability to compete in a rules-based trade regime. Given Russia’s increasing economic woes, Western leverage will depend heavily on providing Russia with economic opportunities, which must be palpably beneficial to Moscow. In any event, a Russian role would not have to be concocted out of thin air: Russia is still a principal supplier of oil and gas to Europe, Ukraine included.
Over time, this all-inclusive approach to developing the region economically will redound mostly to the coffers of the West. European economies are far more attractive and promising than Russia’s. Kremlin leaders know this full well, which is why it is essential that Moscow be part of the planning process and garner big and visible rewards. The economic move west has to be slow enough for Moscow to feel comfortable with the process and the timing. It goes without saying that Europe has to be involved fully in Détente Plus, but mainly as a key player on the economic front. U.S.-Russian ties have to be central.
Dealing with China is more complicated. The very fact of Détente Plus will unnerve Beijing. Nothing can be done about that; indeed, it might have a salubrious effect on China. Both Russia and the United States worry about Chinese economic and military muscling, and it wouldn’t be bad for Beijing to consider Moscow and Washington as a counterweight. For the foreseeable future, Russia’s and America’s interests coincide more with one another’s than with China’s.
To be sure, all of these calculations about Détente Plus have an abstract quality. No matter the potency of the arguments for cooperation, it will be very difficult for both sides to adopt a Détente Plus strategy. Formidable segments of the policy communities on both sides will not reconcile themselves to such a relationship. The American right wing will never believe the Russians are negotiating in good faith, and vice versa.
Since the early twentieth century, no country has so consistently roiled Americans as has Russia. Apart from Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and the Bolshoi Ballet, almost everything about Russia has inspired revulsion: czarist dictatorship and the secret police, horrid anti-Jewish pogroms, atheist totalitarianism, the Stalinist tyranny over Eastern Europe, and now military force against its weaker, peaceful neighbors by a Dracularized Vladimir Putin. Now, as ever, Americans seek to cure Russia with democracy and fail to understand that societies have their own special roots and must change from within. And most certainly, all these American attitudes and moves drive Russian leaders insane.
Though the benefits of Détente Plus are so tangible, it’s hard to imagine overcoming generations of mutual mistrust. It’s harder still since realists in both capitals seem to be in short supply. But if there is any one move that can relieve the flood of crises worldwide, it is the reality of Washington and Moscow combining their powers. Détente Plus could do this. Mounting Russian bad behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere does not preclude this approach. It makes it essential.
Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former columnist for the New York Times, and a former senior State and Defense Department official. He gives special thanks to John T. Nelson, his research associate, for his excellent research and expertise.