It this within this geopolitical framework that Russia situates transnational threats, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism, transnational crime and even climate change. These threats do not exist in the abstract but only in specific territories, and countering them therefore always carries geopolitical consequences. Moreover, the Kremlin believes nonstate actors are largely instruments of state power wielded for advantage in the global competition for power and prestige. It sees the Iranian nuclear program and ISIS, for example, not simply as cases of proliferation and terrorism, but more importantly as factors manipulated by other powers in an effort to alter the balance in the Middle East. The Kremlin is convinced that the United States sees the situation in the same way, and uses counterterrorism, nonproliferation and democracy promotion as smokescreens for geopolitical advance.
Whether Russia can successfully implement such an ambitious, complex strategy is an open question. At the moment, it is struggling to protect its position in the former Soviet space from Chinese and Western encroachments and radical Islamic threats. But one thing is certain: to succeed, Russia must restore its historical dynamism; it must modernize and diversify its economy to generate the means to back its great-power ambitions. That is the essence of strategy—wedding means to ends. And if the means are not preexisting, they must be created, or the strategy necessarily fails.
In this quest for the means, Russia finds itself once again challenged to catch up with the West. As before, the Kremlin will try to get as many of the benefits of economic modernization as it can while adopting as little of the Western political system as it must, so as to protect the fundamental character of the Russian state. That might seem an easier task now, because the rapid rise of China suggests there is a non-Western path to power in the modern age. But that is almost certainly an illusion that ignores essential differences between Russian and Chinese cultures. Hence Russia’s domestic dilemma today.
As Gorbachev understood, in the modern information age, the quality of human capital is more important than the quantity, and innovation requires incentives, not compulsion. That, in turn, entails a break with the traditional Russian state—a reconceptualization of the state—in which the state serves and empowers the people, economically and politically, so that they can generate the resources to defend the state. Gorbachev’s ultimate vision was the transformation of Soviet communism (an extreme version of the traditional Russian political system) into European social democracy, which would represent a new beginning. But Gorbachev failed to turn his insight into effective policy, and instead of enhancing Russian power, he destroyed the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev’s fate haunts the Kremlin leaders, as they seek to compete with the United States, China, and other existing and emerging powers. Instead of reconceptualizing the Russian state, they are advocating patriotism, loyalty to the state in its traditional guise, as the foundation of the regime’s legitimacy, as they crack down on political opposition and narrow the space for productive debate and new ideas. And, in the face of Western sanctions, they have turned to import substitution as the path to a competitive economy. But this has not, and will not, foster the innovation and creativity that are critical to modernization in the twenty-first century.
Russia’s rulers thus face a dilemma: they can preserve the traditional Russian state or restore Russia as a great power, but they cannot do both (even if a new kind of state does not guarantee great-power status, but only holds that possibility open). They have, however, decided to try to square the circle. That leaves Russia, as it is aware, in a vulnerable position, which it tries to mask through provocative rhetoric and actions to remind the world of Russian power and to convince its own people that Russia is on the rise again. It does not solve the problem.
RUSSIA—IN DECLINE and facing the fateful task of redefining itself—is not the burgeoning menace depicted in much American commentary. Any threat to the United States is limited and, if approached with confidence and calm, manageable. Even the challenge to the U.S.-led world order is an effort not so much to displace the United States as the global leader as to gain our respect. But dealing with threats should not be the only, or even the largest, part of our Russia policy. Despite the challenges it faces, Russia will remain a significant global power for years to come, and it will act alone or together with other states in ways that help advance or harm American interests. On some issue, such as strategic stability and nonproliferation, U.S.-Russian cooperation is essential. On others, such as security in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, Russian cooperation could ease our task.
For these reasons, in today’s turbulent, globalized world, containment cannot describe a productive Russia policy. But nor should a policy based on a search for grounds for cooperation be our goal. Rather, we need a policy that advances American national interests. That necessarily means that our policy will be a shifting mix of competition and cooperation, of resistance and accommodation, based on our interests and Russian actions. That mix will shift along with our interests and Russian actions. Getting the mix right will be critical. And that will entail modifying our traditional approach to the world, which tends to see other countries as partners or foes, describes issues in black-and-white terms, favors the resolution of issues over their management, urges dealing with issues in isolation from one another “on their own merits” rather than weighing the linkages across them, and refuses to set clear priorities in favor of operating against challenges throughout the world. We will need to make these adjustments in our approach to Russia, as well as to other major powers.
In addition, we need to see Russia in a global context. Today, we largely see it through a European prism, which inevitably magnifies the discord between us as we fall back on memories of the Cold War; nevertheless, that is appropriate, many would argue, for a country that is no longer a global power and poses the greatest challenges to us in Europe. But, if Russia is not a true global power, it is a Euro-Pacific power, and the roles it plays at the two ends of the continent carry different challenges and opportunities for the United States. In Northeast and Central Asia, for example, Russia could be a significant actor in forming flexible coalitions that we could use to channel the rise of China in ways that do not harm core American interests. In any event, it makes little sense to pursue policies in Europe that weaken Russia and drive it towards China, without thinking through ways we could mitigate the inevitable downsides in Asia of our policies in Europe. Similarly, we need to avoid allowing tensions in Europe to erode what has been up to this point fruitful cooperation in the Arctic and spark geopolitical competition in a harsh and fragile region that beckons us towards cooperation. In Europe, we cannot of course ignore Russia’s challenge. Much attention has been focused on reassuring our vulnerable NATO allies through raising the alliance’s military profile along Russia’s borders. That is necessary, but we need to avoid over militarizing our response, as we did during the Cold War. The best barrier to Russian expansion, as history shows, is strong, capable, successful states along its borders. In this light, we and our allies need to devote more effort to fixing the multiple political and socioeconomic ills that now plague Europe.
This approach lacks the clarity, moral and otherwise, that has been so prized by the American foreign policy community since the Second World War. But ambiguity is today’s reality, and the challenge before American statecraft is managing that ambiguity confidently to advance American interests. We will need time to grow accustomed to this new era and to develop the skills to master its challenges. Our task is complicated by the fact that we cannot look back to recent American diplomatic practice for guidance. The mentors we need are the great European statesmen of the nineteenth century, who understood the need for balance and limits combined with a sense of purpose and of the possible—as long as we reject their all-too-easy resort to force, which would be devastating given the destructive power of modern weaponry. But their ability to maneuver without losing their way while promoting their country’s interests is surely appropriate for today’s world. That approach should inform our policy to all major countries, and, given its recent behavior and the challenge its poses, there is no better place to start mastering this approach than in our relations with Russia.
Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates, was senior director for Russia on the U.S. National Security Council staff, 2004–07.
Image: A Russian military honor guard. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy