Cooperate With Russia When We Can, Stand Up To Russia When Necessary

Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin gestures speaking during his interview to French daily Le Figaro in Sochi on Russia's Bl
Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin gestures speaking during his interview to French daily Le Figaro in Sochi on Russia's Black Sea coast, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008. Putin said in an interview published Saturday that he expects the next U.S. administration to improve the two countries' strained relations. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Pool)

Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, America's relations with Russia have reached a post-Cold War low. Russia's interventions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have exacerbated tensions with the U.S. and much of Europe. Distrust and sharp rhetoric have reached new levels.

But Russia is an active player in areas of great strategic importance. For the United States, maintaining effective policies toward Russia will be essential but not easy.

Politically, Russia has moved a long way from its communist past, but it isn't clear what direction the country is heading. What is clear is that Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the shots.

Putin has consolidated power in his own person. He acts as if he believes that he alone stands between order and chaos. His leadership style is autocratic and brooks no serious competition. Civil society in Russia has been decimated. The parliamentary system is a façade.

Russia is a very hard country for Americans to understand and deal with. Despite Putin's apparent ambitions, it is not a global superpower. It has a kind of hollow power. It is not a revolutionary force in the world. It is a declining state, seeking to restore its former influence.

But Russia must be taken seriously, because it has the world's most extensive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium. In a world of many risks, nuclear weapons present the gravest threat to our security and our future.

Economically, Russia is struggling. It has serious institutional and demographic weaknesses, including low fertility rates, grim health issues and a population that is projected to decline. Its GDP equals that of Italy, a country with less than half as many people.

Prices for oil exports, which helped make Putin popular early in his presidency, have fallen. The sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union and other allies in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 have hurt. Living standards continue to fall.

It is hard to determine what Putin is up to with the takeover of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, which he frames as an attempt to support ethnic Russians in the region. It may be that he is trying to distract Russians from the country's economic troubles.

The worry, of course, is that he will intervene further. For now, it seems unlikely that Russia will engage in new, major offensives in Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. But Putin certainly gauged correctly that the U.S. and its allies would not be willing to fight his actions -- that our response would be nonmilitary.

Some in the U.S. government identify Russia as the top security concern for our country today. Certainly the relationship is important and challenging.

But there are areas where we need Russia's cooperation, such as the conflict in Syria, Iran's ambitions and avoiding a disaster with our nuclear arsenals getting loose and ending up in the wrong hands. Afghanistan is another area where both the U.S. and Russia want greater stability.

We have worked with Russia to resist terrorism and stem the spread of narcotics. It is not in our interest to have chaos in Russia or to see Russia cease to function effectively as a state.

However, we should not be complacent. We should maintain economic sanctions as a powerful nonmilitary tool to influence Russia's behavior and continue to exclude Russia from the world banking system. Its economy is quite dependent on Western trade and investment, and it doesn't have any effective means to counter the sanctions.

We should also strengthen our ties with NATO. The countries of Eastern Europe, especially, need reassurance that they will not be left vulnerable. But NATO should make clear it does not intend to expand to Ukraine and Georgia, actions that Russia would see as a severe provocation.

We must keep open and, if possible, deepen the lines of communication with Russia, but we should not set aside our differences. We should cooperate where we can but stand up to Russia where necessary.

For example, we should stand behind the Ukrainian government in Kiev, providing it with bilateral and multinational aid. And we need to sustain international opposition to any effort by Russia to weaken or break off Europe. We should strongly object to any violation of international law.

We certainly should not have any illusions about Russia - or its wily and calculating leader.

Addressing the security concerns presented by Russia is one of America's most difficult foreign policy challenges. Even our best efforts will not produce quick results. It's going to take a lot of skill and patience.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Senior Advisor, IU Center on Representative Government. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.