Toward a New Equilibrium in U.S.-Russian Relations

Toward a New Equilibrium in U.S.-Russian Relations

The new administration must understand how Russia relates to American goals.

Third, enhancing European security.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and meddling in Eastern Ukraine have violated key norms of European security, while its provocative reconnaissance patrols along NATO’s borders and loose rhetoric about nuclear weapons have unnerved allies, especially those the Soviet Union once dominated. Russia is also pursuing a multipronged effort to erode European unity by exploiting the fissures that have opened up in recent years as a result of stresses inside Europe.

The challenge is to develop a set of policies that reassure allies and address Russia’s security concerns. On reassurance, the new administration should support the NATO policies now in place to underscore our commitment to the Article 5 collective defense guarantees, including maintaining a visible American presence in the Baltic states. But it should avoid over-militarizing the response. The Russian challenge is best met by actions to address internal problems—growing inequality, the democratic deficit, migration, fiscal deficiencies—that have split the European Union and fueled populist anti-EU movements.

To address Russian concerns, the new administration should be prepared to engage the Russians on a new security architecture for Europe, including discussions of the interpretation of the norms underlying European security, as codified in the Helsinki accords of 1975, and ways to enhance transparency in military matters, in the spirit, if not necessarily the details, of the Conventional Force in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which Russia fully exited in 2015.

The Ukraine crisis will demand urgent attention. The outlines of a solution include an agreement among NATO members, Ukraine and Russia on non-bloc status for Ukraine; decentralization of power in Ukraine; protection of minority rights throughout Ukraine; negotiations on a status for Crimea acceptable to Moscow and Kiev; and an aid package to help rebuild Ukraine’s economy.

Fourth, containing international terrorism

The Syria crisis dominates the headlines, but it is only the most prominent illustration of the broader instability throughout the Middle East that is spawning terrorist organizations—some, such as ISIS, with global reach. Russia is now firmly entrenched in the region, supporting the Assad regime in coordination with Iran and Hezbollah as it seeks to enhance relations with other regional powers, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The urgent task is to come to some understanding with Russia on how to deal with the Syria crisis. In exchange for a Russian commitment to begin serious operations against ISIS, the new administration should drop Obama’s insistence that Assad must go. It should also initiate a broader dialogue with Russia about the future balance in the Middle East. We cannot decide that between ourselves alone—the major regional powers will have a greater say in the end—but we can reduce the intensity of our competition and help ensure that regional rivalries do not spread beyond the Middle East.

Beyond these four strategic priorities, the new administration should resist the considerable domestic pressure it will face to aggressively counter Putin’s authoritarian practices and directly support pro-democracy groups in Russia. Russia is too complex for us to intervene constructively, and Russians will reject what they will rightly see as hectoring. Moreover, since the end of the Cold War, our efforts to promote democracy inside Russia have been counterproductive, leading a wary Kremlin to narrow the space for open, competitive politics. Finally, as a matter of historical record, conditions for democratic advance in Russia are best when U.S.-Russian relations are most constructive, and our success in addressing our own problems feeds a desire among greater numbers of Russians to emulate our system.

It is impossible to forecast with great precision how Russia will react to such an approach. The Kremlin might engage in good faith, but it might also continue to see its deeper interest in eroding American power and influence. The latter possibility should not deter us from seeking a new equilibrium, even if it means that the balance will shift more towards competition. We have little to fear, for the truth remains that we have much the greater capacity to effect our goals in the world, if only we have the will.

Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates, was the senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff 2004-2007.

This paper will appear in the Center for the National Interest’s forthcoming publication, “A New Direction in U.S.-Russia Relations? America’s Challenges and Opportunities in Dealing with Russia.”

Image: Star atop Moscow State University’s main building. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Kirill Tsukanov