U.S.-Russian relations are not only in bad shape—very bad shape—but destructively and dangerously so. As each side sinks into deeper and wider alarm over the threat the other is believed to pose, something larger is being missed. The ignored price they and the rest of the world will eventually pay for their escalating Cold War is immense. At the top of the list, unnoticed, a nuclear world is slowly slipping out of control. No longer two, but five countries—China, India, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States—now hold the key to nuclear war or peace. Each is bent on creating or modernizing a triad of nuclear forces in the air, on land, and at sea; each is crossing technological frontiers weakening the firebreak between conventional and nuclear war; each, in embracing ballistic missile defense, is adding to a cascade of offense-defense races; each is tilting toward doctrines favoring the limited use of nuclear weapons; and each is in a fraught relationship with one or in some cases two other nuclear powers . Without U.S-Russian leadership, the two countries with 92 percent of the weapons, and eventually Chinese cooperation, the chance of heading off nuclear disaster rapidly shrinks. Instead, consumed by their new Cold War, Russia and the United States are dismantling the last pieces of the arms control framework they laboriously negotiated over a half-century.
Europe, the region that was to be a pillar of post-Cold War global stability, the region U.S., Russia, and fifty other national leaders as late as 2010 pledged to transform into an inclusive Euro-Atlantic security community, has, because of Russian actions in Ukraine, sailed off the cliff and into a new military confrontation. Rather than capitalize on the historic opportunity created when at the end of the Cold War the decades-long NATO-Warsaw Pact military standoff was dismantled, the two sides are now rapidly re-militarizing a new central front that cuts through Europe’s potentially least stable regions. Putting the brakes on this trend and finding ways to send it in a safer direction will only happen, if the United States and Russia together make it happen. If not, the unimaginable again becomes imaginable.
Zbigniew Brzezinski in his last essay before his death argued that the single most important long-term objective of U.S. policy should be a “solution . . . in which the three militarily dominant powers—the United States, China and Russia—work together to support global stability.” If, as appears increasingly the case, the alternative is growing strategic rivalry, military competition, and the potential for confrontation, with Russia and China on one side and the United States on the other, the future that lies ahead will be far grimmer and subject to far grander upheaval than the troubled reality of our day. How well the United States and China manage their relationship will be decisive in shaping the outcome, but whether the United States and Russia deal cooperatively with the rise of China or as rivals will also be critical.
That future will also depend heavily on whether the change yet to come in the Eurasian core—in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and other parts on its European periphery—occurs peacefully or radiates instability beyond. How the United States and Russia respond to trouble when it occurs—whether cooperatively as in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 or fractiously as in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014—will determine whether these strategic interstices add to global turmoil or Moscow and Washington do their part to minimize the damage they do.
With today’s headlines in mind, it scarcely needs saying that, unless the United States and Russia lead in finding ways to limit and regulate the damage that they, exploiting advances in cyber and related technology, can do to one another’s political, including electoral, systems and critical infrastructure, unimagined trouble awaits. Not simply interstate tension, but war and peace itself will be at stake. Russia, at the moment, represents the conspicuous embodiment of the challenge, but scarcely its entirety. The United States too is pursuing what during the Obama administration was reported to be cyber “bombs” that could be planted in advance and triggered when chosen—what in the jargon of cyberwarfare is called Computer Network Exploitation (CNE). They are not the only two countries entering this world, but whether they in particular manage together its dangers or decide instead to leave their hands free will do much to determine the shape this world takes.
It is obvious that, given the hardening animosity each country harbors toward the other, neither will any time soon look beyond its current preoccupations and reflect on the large perils that loom down the road. The wreckage is too deep. The mindsets too congealed. The politics of the issue in each country too impacted. And the path to the present moment too long and overgrown with accumulated grievances. The two countries did not get here overnight or even only since and because of the Ukrainian crisis. Although leaders and elites in both countries did not know it at the time, the fork in the road came almost immediately, even before the debris from the Soviet Union’s collapse had settled. The choice they hid from themselves at the time was between the inertia of hope—counting on the momentum of historic change to smooth over the jagged moments—versus prudent attention to the irritants that arose early and grew into increasingly destructive factors dominating the relationship. As a result the road taken was one of ups and downs, of moments of progress and hope followed by disappointment and tension, until, in the Ukrainian crisis, it all collapsed into confrontation.
As a result no short cut to a more constructive relationship exists. A labyrinth of obstacles stands in the way. First among them is the false stories each has come to tell itself about the other—false stories that as they have taken hold of peoples’ convictions are creating a new and more intractable reality. On the Russian side, the leadership and most of the political elite have convinced themselves that the United States, whoever is in the White House, sees Russia as a primary obstacle to its international primacy and arrogated right to use force whenever and wherever it chooses, and, therefore, is bent on damaging Russia however it can, including by regime change. On the U.S. side a critical portion of the policymaking community, the Congress, and the media has come to believe that Russia’s aggression is driven not by the give and take of international relations, but by the requirements of its political system: it needs an external enemy—hence, the anti-Americanism; it cannot afford democracy approaching its borders—hence, the assault on Ukraine; and, when economic success fails as a source of popular support, its leadership resorts to crude nationalism, such as krim nash (Crimea is ours). As a result it is out to upend the global order and destroy the rules that sustain it. Neither country is in any mood to question its assumptions. Nor is either willing to consider what part it played in the descent; whether there is any merit to the concerns of the other side; and what would be required of it, if it wished to begin digging out of the deep hole where the two are lodged.
For the United States, the reality, in fact, is that Putin’s Russia does now see the United States as an adversary—indeed, as its principal adversary. It, in fact, does see itself at cross purposes with the United States on a wide range of critical foreign policy issues. It does seek to checkmate or undermine U.S. influence in all those cases. It does mean to create trouble for and with U.S. allies; to exploit the opening that U.S. dissension with other states creates; and to roil the political waters within the United States. This is a far cry from where things stood when Putin first came to power. When he arrived in the United States a month after the 9/11 attack—having been the first foreign leader to rally behind the United States—and before heading to President Bush’s Crawford ranch for what would be a convivial and constructive three-day meeting, he told a New York press conference: “Today we are already prepared to seek solutions in all areas of our joint activities. We are willing to dismantle, once and for all, the legacy of the Cold War and begin fashioning a strategic partnership for the longer-term.” This was two years after the low-point in U.S.-Russian relations during the Yeltsin period at the time of the 1999 Kosovo War and when the two sides were arguing over U.S. plans to abrogate the ABM treaty.
There are, of course, two ways to read the gulf between then and now: One would be to say that he was dissembling, playing his audience, and hiding behind a mask that he would cast aside with the invasion of Georgia in 2008. The other interpretation would have it that in 2001 he was sincere, that he was still weighing the advantages of a cooperative relationship with the West, notwithstanding existing tensions, provided Washington was prepared to give him half a loaf, and that he shifted his calculations as his assessment of U.S. policy darkened and frictions escalated, an escalation that occurred in no small part because of Russia’s own actions. Yet, if in the end, we are where we are, with Russia deeply alienated from the United States, what difference does it make?
In designing U.S. policy toward Russia, it makes a great deal of difference, because of the contrasting assumptions that underlie these competing interpretations. The first interpretation assumes that Russian foreign policy is largely agenda driven. For example, that Putin is determined to rectify what in 2005 he called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe in the twentieth century” by reconstituting as much as possible of the former Soviet Union. Similarly this interpretation assumes that the malice in Russian policy has inevitably caused the deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations. Thus, for example, it could not be otherwise given a Russian determination to undermine the very foundations of the United States’ political system.
The second interpretation assumes that Russian actions are more shaped by events, and less by a set agenda, if by that is meant a clear strategic vision. For example, that Putin’s decision to seize and then annex Crimea did not unfold according to a pre-existing plan—although contingency planning there was—but rather from the threats (and opportunities) that he imagined as he watched events unfold during the February 2014 Ukrainian crisis. Similarly the second interpretation assumes that the deterioration in relations helps to explain the malice in Russian policy. Thus, the trouble that Russia is stirring on the U.S. home front may be less intended to undo the system itself than to disrupt the setting in which U.S. foreign policy, particularly toward Russia, is made. Conceivably were relations less toxic, Russian troublemaking would be less bold or more responsive to U.S. demands to desist.
The first set of assumptions argues for a hardline approach, favoring the pillory and the knout. It would keep a rapacious and aggressive Russia at arm’s length, aiming only for limited and isolated agreements. The core strategy would be a version of the Cold War containment strategy. The second set of assumptions would suggest an approach less monochromatic, more in tune with the NATO alliance’s 1967 Harmel Report that, in dealing with an equally challenging Soviet Union, urged a dual-track policy of “deterrence and détente.” Arnold Horelick, a talented Soviet-era National Intelligence Officer once said that, when it came to the Soviet Union, the U.S. policy world divided into “dealers and squeezers,” with one or the other group having the upper hand at any one time. These days, while it is difficult to discern precisely what U.S. Russia policy is, the squeezers dominate.
An alternative approach would begin first and most urgently with Russian election interference, because this issue stands as a barrier to all else. There will be no readiness on Congress’s part or that of key executive agencies to work with Moscow on any major issue as long as the Russian leadership refuses to deal with this concern. But this concern will not be successfully addressed by dealing with everything—from hacking, targeting select voting segments with “fake” news, to corrupting the voting process itself—as a package, and assuming that sanctions will do the job.
Rather the issue should be separated into parts, allowing a differentiated response to each part. In dealing with Russia, the priority should be to cut short any further Russian attempt to de-legitimize an election by hijacking voter registration lists and electronic poll books. This only has a chance if done through diplomacy, treating it as a question of national security—which it is—striving to agree on red lines, and ensuring that adequate verification measures are in place.
Russia’s cyber effort to imperil critical U.S. infrastructure by manipulating the control systems for the power grid, water processing facilities, and the air control system, falls still more squarely in the domain of national security. But rather than bundling it together with Russia’s use of cyber to exploit the dysfunctional aspects of U.S. political life, it should be incorporated into a second element of an enhanced U.S. Russia policy. The “détente” half of a deterrence and détente strategy perforce requires engagement, and the rapidly deteriorating ability of the two countries to manage their security relationship can only be corrected by talking to one another.
Done well, this would have two components. The first is already underway, albeit fitfully and inadequately. Strategic stability talks, proposed during the Obama administration and launched by the Trump administration need to address the immediate security issues that are doing the most to add tension to the relationship and, worse, down the road to risk peace itself. A threat to the U.S. electoral system belongs here, along with the imperiled Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, the collapse of strategic nuclear arms control, and an absence of constraints (Confidence Building Measures [CBMs], monitoring and transparency measures, limitations on exercises) on the military buildup taking place in Central Europe. Rather than the bobbing and weaving currently underway, the two sides need to stare hard at reality and decide whether failure is in either’s interest. Thus, for example, if the INF treaty is lost, so will be the future of strategic nuclear arms control. Renewal of New START in 2021 becomes a fading thought, but, even if not, having for seven years ceased considering what comes after START, when New START, the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement, finally expires that will be the end of nuclear arms control between Russia and the United States (and a door closed to a process that never began among the other nuclear powers).
The other component is harder still, but no less important when relations have veered so far off track. This is a basic, no-holds barred strategic dialogue, freed from the normal bureaucratic diplomatic process, conducted at the highest level by individuals in the name of and with the confidence of the two presidents. Its purpose is not to negotiate the specific issues dividing the two sides, represent existing policy, or craft alternative policy. Its purpose would be to begin peeling away the deeply layered mistrust that now encrusts the relationship and paralyzes the will to seek common ground. This can only be done, if each side lays out its core concerns—all of them, no matter how sensitive—explains its own behavior as frankly as possible, earnestly explores where and how differences can be reduced, and, where not, how the damage done can be contained. To greater and lesser extent strategic dialogue has been tried before—most ambitiously in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when U.S.-Russian relations were rapidly souring.
Mistrust is now deep, corrosive, and thickening. While a strategic dialogue might address it directly, something more is required. Mistrust of this depth cannot be undone by a single measure or in a single stroke. It will require slow, small steps that may gradually have a cumulative effect. In this light it is good that the Joint Chiefs chair, General Joseph Dunford and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe General Curtis Scaparrotti are again in contact with their counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov, and Scaparrotti plans to meet him face-to-face. It would also be well were the Congress, if not in a formally renewed interparliamentary exchange, to explore informal contacts with a small select group of thoughtful and constructive Russian parliamentarians. Small steps, however, require one thing more: a willingness to risk cooperation. When in September 2017 diplomats from the two sides agreed to establish a Joint Implementation Center for sharing information in Syria, the Pentagon balked, fearing, with some justification, that it would assist Russian-aided Syrian forces to target opposition groups that the United States supported, but, more than this, that it risked compromising information key to air operations in a future NATO-Russian conflict. The risk was there; so was the chance that the Center would have worked as hoped, and the two sides could have built on its success. Risking cooperation is not much different from Ronald Reagan’s admonition, “trust but verify.”
True, none of what has been suggested to this point has either promise or merit, if the Russian side is unwilling to do its part—unwilling to negotiate red lines when it comes to interference with the voting process itself, unwilling to have an earnest give-and-take in a strategic dialogue, unwilling to reciprocate small steps. Testing Russian willingness, however, requires that the U.S. side try; that the tests are intended to be reciprocal and encourage genuine give and take. Washington should also consider more carefully what it accomplishes by punishing Russia with layer after layer of sanctions versus the leverage in recasting the conditionality for lifting sanctions in ways designed to encourage positive behavior.
Take the case of the nerve agent attack in Salisbury England: If Putin or officials in the Russian government authorized that attack, and British authorities and close allies know that from, say, intercepted communications, not simply from conjecture, the sternest response is warranted. But, if more likely, the evidence establishing provenance as opposed to the specific nerve agent used is clouded, the priority should have been to draw the Russians into the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigation, and to press them to fill in the missing pieces each step of the way. Setting self-incriminating preconditions for their participation, as the British government did, and reflexively expelling Russian diplomats was guaranteed to destroy any chance of getting to the bottom of this deeply troubling story. Better that, in this case, the British and U.S. governments had first weighed by what leverage they could impel Russia cooperation (or, if Moscow refused to cooperate, let that evidence speak for itself), rather than, by the diplomatic expulsions, given their asymmetrical impact, punish themselves more than the Russians, and to no obvious effect.
Finally, although often said to be beyond the ken of governments, more attention should be given to the integration of short-term policy imperatives with long-term goals. Keeping in mind the large and potentially momentous stakes noted at the outset, how might the immediate issues that must be addressed—Ukraine, Syria, INF, cyber security, election interference—be dealt with in a way that ensures progress toward the relationship the United States would want to have with Russia eight or ten years down the road. If by then one would want the United States and Russia working together to strengthen strategic stability in an increasingly complex and dangerous nuclear world, it makes sense to accede to Russian demands that missile defense and advanced conventional strike forces be part of any next step in bilateral U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear arms talks—provided Russia understands that no next steps are likely unless the INF treaty is preserved. If the goal, ten years from now, is to have resumed the effort to build a Europe at peace, with NATO and Russian military forces no longer facing off, and neither the threat or actual use of force an ever present danger, a country as crucial as Ukraine cannot remain a permanent source of tension. Progress in this case, however, requires rethinking the way forward. Rather than an unachievable political settlement that undoes the civil war in Donbas, better that the initial goal be a secure peace in eastern Ukraine and movement toward the normalization of Russian-Ukrainian relations facilitated by an end to Russian patronage of the separatists regimes and control over the Ukrainian-Russian border returned to the Ukrainians.
If this urging seems unwise, risky, or merely unworkable, one might consider where the current policies of the two countries have left them—namely, with the worst of two worlds. The reflexively hardline responses of each has impeded and perhaps destroyed the prospect of a constructive U.S.-Russian relationship long into the future, while in the near term achieving none of the change either wishes to see in the other side’s behavior. For both it is a policy of inertia; the wreckage treated as unavoidable and affordable. Unavoidable? Perhaps. Affordable? Almost certainly not.
Prepared for The Aspen Institute Congressional Program, "U.S.-Russia Relations: Policy Challenges in the New Era," Helsinki, Finland, May 29-June 3, 2018
1. North Korea, of course, is the immediate concern when contemplating the pathway to nuclear conflict, but the five countries listed are the nuclear powers that will be the architects, for good and ill, of the 21st century nuclear order.