The Washington Post

Keeping the peace with Russia

Paul Saunders is executive director of the nonpartisan Center for the National Interest.

Why the hysteria about Russia? From the tone of what passes for policy discourse in Washington, one would think that Russian troops were massing on the country’s western border and that opposition activists were being executed by the hundreds. Some realities in Russia are indeed disturbing, but a sense of perspective is needed. If Moscow were really the capital of a brutally authoritarian anti-American state, things could be far worse — and profoundly damaging to U.S. national interests. But demonizing Russia doesn’t change conditions there and only undermines our ability to get what we want and need.

Domestically, Russia is a corrupt and semi-authoritarian country where citizens lack many of the protections in the Bill of Rights and elections are not fair. That said, it is no longer the Russia where dissidents were routinely sent to psychiatric hospitals (as happened in the 1970s), shipped en masse to Siberian labor camps (the 1960s) or shot after show trials — real show trials, in which the accused confessed after torture and threats to their families (the 1930s).

Likewise, Moscow’s foreign policy is not what it was in the 1980s, when Soviet forces occupied Afghanistan; or the 1960s, when the Soviets supported revolutionary movements around the globe; or the 1930s, when Stalin and Hitler eyed and then carved up Poland. Anyone tempted to call Syria’s civil war a “proxy war” should remember the proxy wars of the past, when Soviet and American “advisers” were providing vastly greater military assistance to their clients and were in combat, as during the U.S. war in Vietnam and the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Russia is trying to prevent a very nasty regime from collapsing in a conflict with more than a few pretty nasty people on the other side — some of whom are receiving arms from U.S. allies. Bashar al-Assad must go, but ending the conflict in Syria requires persuading Russia to halt its support rather than encouraging all sides to escalate.

The United States and Russia have significantly different interests, priorities and perspectives on many major international problems. They could not be considered friends by any reasonable standard. But neither could they be considered enemies — and the sooner we recognize this and act accordingly, the more effectively we will advance our goals in Russia and in the wider world. Polemical rhetoric that blurs this distinction and obscures opportunities makes policy worse, not better.

Those who want to “stand up” to Russia rarely, if ever, acknowledge the potential outcomes of such a course. The first is that Moscow might decide to stand up to the United States. Think Vladimir Putin is already doing this? Think again: A hostile Russia could behave in profoundly different ways. Russia may be providing Syria with anti-ship missiles to deter outside military intervention, but by historical standards it is giving relatively little military or economic help to the Assad regime. Moscow is not sending combat troops or advisers, it is not offering grants or subsidies, and it does not appear to be sharing intelligence to shut down arms shipments to the rebels. Its naval deployment to the region is largely symbolic — Russian ships couldn’t and wouldn’t defend Syria from U.S. military action, which seems quite unlikely anyway.

On other issues, while Russia has blocked stronger U.N. sanctions on Iran, it has also supported several sanctions resolutions and refrained from delivering S-300 surface-to-air missiles or more modern S-400 missiles. Moscow is not supporting al-Qaeda terrorists in their attacks on the United States and its allies, and Russian authorities warned the CIA about the growing extremism of Tamerlan Tsarnaev well before the Boston Marathon bombings, even if they hoped to thwart an attack on their territory rather than ours. Russia is not aiding U.S. opponents in Afghanistan and has been a critical link in U.S. efforts to supply our forces and now in withdrawing them. Although the Russian route is long and expensive, it helps Washington avoid total dependence on Pakistan, where access has been unreliable and convoys have been attacked. Perhaps most important, Moscow is not an active participant in China’s massive military modernization. If Russia reversed some or all of these policies, it could be very damaging to U.S. interests.

Russia probably deserves much of the criticism from activists and others who don’t like its domestic practices or foreign policy. Activists can get away with ignoring the consequences of what they propose; thinking about overall U.S. national interests isn’t their job. But the purpose of U.S. foreign policy isn’t to give others what we think they deserve — it is to “provide for the common defense,” as stated in the Constitution, something U.S. officials should keep foremost while crafting policy. Making a real enemy of Russia won’t help the United States.

Finally, for those who must decide what to do, the highest moral standard is the standard of results rather than intentions, hopes or statements. Shortsighted efforts to satisfy emotional impulses at the expense of fundamental U.S. security interests, or of Syrians or others who live on the world’s battlefields, would be a grave and costly mistake.

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