CHUKOTKA, A Russian region marginally larger than Texas, lies some three miles from the Alaskan coast. This startling proximity illustrates a fact of enormous significance for relations between the world’s two major nuclear powers, though one that is practically ignored by Americans from Main Street to Capitol Hill. Besides its largely peaceful borders with Canada and Mexico, the United States has a third neighbor—Russia.
The U.S.-Russian relationship has long been overshadowed by cycles of engagement and confrontation, culminating in the twentieth century with a Cold War that lasted over four decades. At the turn of the millennium, Americans no longer thought of Russia as a serious adversary. Indeed, they no longer thought of Russia much at all. In recent years, Russia has come roaring back into headlines thanks to its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and its intrusion into the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
More recently, Russia has been elevated to the status of a great-power competitor, right alongside China—which it calls a “strategic partner”—in the foreign-policy and national-security outlook now dominant in Washington. And the Russia preoccupation goes well beyond the U.S. government. No cable news debate, no investigative article, no district-level “town hall” meeting, can escape at least some mention of Russia and its role in the world, including right here at home.
Yet for many Americans, Russia itself remains psychologically far away. Russia is uniquely inscrutable. It is too close for comfort, meddling where it does not belong, and at the same time too distant to really matter. U.S.-Russia relations, we are often advised, would best serve the U.S. national interest if Russia could be compelled to back off, to withdraw all influence from Europe and the Middle East—to politely disappear from the future scene after acknowledging its regrettable history of wrongdoing.
Russia will not disappear, of course, and so it is essential to develop a revised approach to U.S.-Russia relations. Instead of friend or foe, it’s time for Russia to be viewed as the third neighbor of the United States. In an interconnected international environment, geography can matter less than psychology. Very often strategy begins in psychology, and what the United States needs in relation to Russia is the psychology of a neighbor.
Neighbors are rarely strangers to the irritations of proximity, which can include bristling resentment at perceived violations as well as hot and cold varieties of conflict. They are prone to complain about one another and to bicker over shared spaces and resources. Neighbors also know one another, and benefit from that knowledge. Although some neighborhoods are conflict zones, all neighbors have a vested interest in having their neighborhood not be a conflict zone—and in having their neighborhood prosper. The obvious mutual advantages of a good neighborhood and of neighborly relations are by no means a guarantee of either. Both require constant attention, work, and no small amount of compromise. Sometimes the best that can be attained is a degree of partnership amid tension.
An American “third neighbor” strategy toward Russia should rest on several pillars. The first requires knowing Russia far better, as well as developing a nuanced awareness of its history, and of the patterns and perceptions that have shaped the U.S.-Russian relationship over time. What matters here is not merely the story of conflict or the story of cooperation, but the story of conflict-and-cooperation, going back to the 1930s. This story furnishes key policy lessons while endowing those who study it with a feel for context and a realistic set of expectations. It shapes communication by honing the essential ability to behave respectfully and to conduct difficult conversations without abandoning one’s own principles.
The second pillar is a keen understanding of what each neighbor wants or believes is its entitled lot. What are the U.S. and Russian national interests at stake within this relationship? They are seldom found in either perfect, clean convergence or in divergence, and managing the U.S.-Russian relationship involves an interplay of common and unlike interests, overlaid with interpretations of international order unique to the United States and unique to Russia. Diplomatic relations between Moscow and Washington are burdened by the antithetical domestic political cultures of Russia and the United States. Even a single historical event—the Second World War, for example—can be interpreted very, very differently in both countries. Centuries of history have left each neighbor similarly ambitious but almost never ambitious about international order in the same way.
Finally, a new U.S.-Russia strategy should balance resilience toward Russian intrusions with an acceptance of, and engagement with, Russia as a near neighbor in world affairs. A formidable military force capable of global power projection, Russia will pursue its interests vigorously in the future. For American foreign policy to succeed in general, a functional, working relationship with Russia is crucial. U.S.-Russian relations are thus integral to American global interests, and to the kind of wider international neighborhood the United States intends to inhabit and to foster.
THE PAST hundred years have witnessed recurring conflict between Russia and the United States. As Americans became increasingly skeptical toward tsarist autocracy in the nineteenth century, high hopes were attached to Russia’s early moves toward liberation, including the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. But the Bolshevik takeover in November 1917, and its unfolding aftermath of civil war, collectivization, class warfare, repression, and famine, were glaring affronts to American values. The United States did not recognize the Soviet government until 1933. Six years later, the Nazi-Soviet Pact put Moscow and Washington at odds, though not precisely at war.
An alliance of necessity during the later war years resulted in a shared victory in 1945 that in turn precipitated renewed conflict. To their pre-existing ideological differences, Washington and Moscow added the impossible challenge of reconciling competing visions for postwar Europe, starting with an occupied and divided Germany. Distrust arose quickly, and neither side was comfortable with the influence wielded by the other. Stalemate in Europe solidified when the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb in 1949, touching off a full-fledged arms race in warheads, aircraft, missiles, and eventually even manned rocket ships.
Circles of tension rippled out in multiple domains—military, political, ideological, and in espionage, the Cold War domain par excellence. In the fall of 1962 and then again in the early 1980s, tensions threatened to spiral into outright war. Though cooler heads and dumb luck prevented direct U.S.-Soviet military confrontation on those terrifying occasions, Moscow and Washington could not be prevented from waging proxy wars, from Korea to Afghanistan, and Vietnam to Central America. These Cold War expeditions into the “third world” reflected the original failure, in 1945, to create a fully and mutually accepted security architecture in Europe, whose stability could be the basis for balancing competing interests elsewhere around the globe.
Nonetheless, running through and beneath these recurring episodes of conflict is a compelling history of U.S.-Russia cooperation. Tsar Alexander II supported the Union in the Civil War, sent a fleet to San Francisco to defend that vital port city from a potential British-French blockade, and even anticipated Lincoln’s emancipation of enslaved African Americans with his own liberation of Russian serfs in 1861. Teddy Roosevelt helped to broker the peace that ended the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, known to history as the Treaty of Portsmouth, New Hampshire—a location Roosevelt chose to escape the summer heat in Washington, DC.
For a few years in the 1930s, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed on the malevolence of Nazi Germany, a precursor of sorts to the World War II alliance, which Stalin betrayed by signing a nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1939. In 1941 and 1942, American food and materiel kept the Soviet Union in the fight, and the U.S. invasion of North Africa in 1942 and then of Europe enabled the Soviets to break the back of the Nazi war machine on the Eastern front.
Cooperation on security and economic issues came more naturally after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991: between Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. The extensive history of U.S.-Russian cooperation shows the potential in this relationship for conflict resolution as well as advancing common interests, not just for establishing the occasional marriage of convenience.
Precisely because the histories of cooperation and conflict run side by side, Washington and Moscow have at times been willing to cooperate even while enmeshed in conflict with one another. This was a key dynamic of the Cold War: the space race gave rise to Apollo-Soyuz and its offspring, the International Space Station; fears of environmental catastrophe spawned the first agreements on limiting nuclear testing; even the Potsdam Conference, which in 1945 ended up frustrating Moscow and Washington alike, held off direct conflict at a moment when Soviet superiority in conventional forces and a U.S. monopoly on nuclear weapons raised tensions to a fever pitch.
What Potsdam left unfinished was later taken up in Helsinki. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 emerged out of grueling diplomatic labor, conducted over several years. Helsinki diplomacy contains ironic lessons. By the early 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union each saw the other as an enduring power that could not be defeated in direct confrontation. Hence, the two countries approached one another as neighbors, and engaged in actual diplomacy.