U.S.-Russian relations are worse today than at any time since the end of the Cold War — worse, indeed, than at any time since the dangerous years of the early 1980s. Crises and confrontations have become more the norm than the exception in recent years; the rhetoric in Washington and Moscow alike has become increasingly hostile.
The possibility of some sort of rapprochement seemed to briefly emerge with the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 but vanished just as rapidly in the months after his inauguration. The next few years are thus likely to be a difficult period in U.S.-Russian relations, as American officials seek to grapple with the renewed Kremlin threat to U.S. interests and to the broader international order.
If the future of U.S.-Russian relations is daunting, however, it is hardly terra incognita, not least because the United States now possesses nearly two decades of experience in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the “Putinist” system, and the foreign policy he has constructed. That history provides five key lessons that should inform U.S. policy in the years ahead.
1. The United States needs to recognize what it is up against. The tensions between the United States and Russia today are not rooted in some geopolitical misunderstanding that can easily be corrected, as Donald Trump often implied during his campaign. Rather, U.S.-Russia tensions are rooted primarily in the deep-seated clash between America’s desire to preserve and expand the liberal international order, and the desire of Russian policymakers to resist, revise and undermine that order, both along Russia’s immediate periphery and further afield.
Putin himself has been explicitly telling us this in both his rhetoric and his policies, particularly the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the intervention in Syria in 2015, and the ongoing efforts to undermine NATO and the European Union and meddle in Western political processes. Simply put, Russian leaders view U.S. primacy and the spread of Western institutions and democracy as a major threat to Russian security, influence and political stability, and so as Moscow has regained the ability to push back against the U.S.-led international system, it has done so.
To be sure, the past two decades also show that some recent Russian leaders have been less influenced by this mind-set — Dmitry Medvedev during his term as president between 2008 and 2012, for instance — and there have undoubtedly been ways in which misconceptions, personality quirks and domestic politics have exacerbated U.S.-Russian relations. But fundamentally, what we have today is a clash between two powers with very different political systems and very different views of what makes for a just and desirable international order.
2. There is no grand bargain to be had between the United States and Russia. The lesson of the Obama-era reset, and even of the Bush-era engagement with Putin, is not that we should avoid diplomatic engagement or cooperation with Russia altogether. There was productive transactional cooperation that came out of the reset on issues such as Libya, Iran, Afghanistan, counterterrorism and arms control, just as the imperative of cooperation on certain issues remains today.
But the lesson of these earlier periods is that we should not fall prey to the illusion that, in the near term at least, cooperation with Russia will be anything more than compartmentalized, tactical and transactional — precisely because the core ideological and geopolitical cleavages are so pronounced. President George W. Bush’s efforts to forge a personal relationship with Putin ultimately ran up hard against this reality, as the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 pungently demonstrated. Obama’s reset eventually met the same fate. Discrete diplomatic gains raised hopes of a more thoroughgoing improvement of relations, but those hopes were dashed by Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine two years later.
So for the time being, the United States should keep its expectations limited and its guard up. It should not expect that a breakthrough on one issue — de-escalation zones in Syria, for instance — will prove to be the key that unlocks the entire relationship.
3. Things will get worse before they get better. If the current hostility between the United States and Russia is rooted primarily in divergent worldviews and national objectives, it has frequently been exacerbated by domestic politics. The key historical example here is Putin’s behavior as he plotted and then executed his return to the presidency in 2011-2012. Putin had apparently expected the transition to be smooth, but he found himself facing a surprisingly strong challenge to his rule from liberals and others who objected to the increasingly undisguised authoritarianism of the Russian system. In response, Putin ramped up the anti-American rhetoric and policies — going so far as to blame Hillary Clinton for inciting political protests — in hopes of using Russian nationalism to bolster his own power.
Over the past several years, Putin has continued to rely on anti-Americanism as a source of political legitimacy at home, styling himself as the strong leader uniquely suited to deal with an aggressive West. As we approach the Russian presidential election in March 2018, we should expect to see more of the same from Putin, particularly as he seeks to compensate for his political weakness caused by rampant corruption and persistent low economic growth.
4. Expect the unexpected. Putin’s risk tolerance and his propensity for undertaking daring initiatives have repeatedly proved higher than U.S. and other Western observers have anticipated. We first saw this in Georgia in 2008, when Russia seized an opportunity to provoke and then dismember that country before it could integrate further into the West. We have subsequently seen similar tendencies in Russian actions in Ukraine, Syria and the U.S. elections.
In each of these cases, Putin has demonstrated a willingness to pursue dramatic and risky courses of action — policies that could have exposed, and in some cases did expose, Russia to significant diplomatic and economic costs — when he perceives either an imperative or an opening.
This doesn’t mean that Putin cannot be deterred in the future. It does not even mean that all of these gambles have paid strategic as opposed to tactical dividends for Russia. What it does mean, however, is that Putin is a natural risk-taker, that he is willing to move boldly when he thinks he can catch his adversaries flat-footed, and we underestimate those characteristics at our peril.
5. Diplomacy works far better when conducted from a position of strength. Where the facts on the ground have favored Moscow in recent years — in Ukraine since 2014, for instance, or in Syria since 2015 — diplomatic negotiations with the Kremlin have often proved frustrating and unrewarding. Although the United States does not need to escalate the confrontation with Russia in every scenario to gain the diplomatic upper hand, it would be well advised to use the next three to four years — a time in which any meaningful breakthrough with Russia is unlikely in any event — to arrange the broader geopolitical chessboard in ways that might advance successful diplomacy a few years hence.
If the United States seeks to bring Russia back into compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, for instance, it would be wise to start funding research and development of the intermediate-range delivery systems that might be deployed should Russia refuse. After all, this was essentially the approach that led to the original signing of that treaty in 1987. By deploying accurate and lethal intermediate-range missiles to Europe in the early 1980s, the United States gained the diplomatic advantage necessary to set the stage for the eventual conclusion of a groundbreaking arms control agreement that banned that class of weapons entirely. Just as there would have been no INF Treaty without the Pershing II missile, it is wishful thinking that Russia will see the light on INF issues today absent the threat of some equivalent of the Pershing III.
George Kennan, who knew the history of relations between Washington and Moscow better than anyone, once remarked, “You have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet armed force in the background.” Indeed, diplomacy cannot succeed without leverage. As U.S. policymakers ponder the future of the relationship with Russia, they should keep this timeless lesson in mind.