In the third U.S. presidential debate, the candidates traded accusations about who is really a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even allowing for the overheated atmosphere of the U.S. election this cycle, it speaks volumes about the sad state of U.S.-Russian relations that a centerpiece of the most crucial conversation leading up to election day features a bitter argument about Russia without any strategic discussion about how to manage our relationship with a nation that controls a vast nuclear arsenal and harbors expansionist ambitions.
A common Russian proverb is “two bears don’t live in one lair,” and the contentious global relationship of the U.S. and Russia today seems to be bearing that out. We have significant disagreements with Russia about alleged cyber hacking that appears to be an attempt to interfere with the U.S. election; Russian support for the brutal dictator Syrian President Bashar Assad; and, most intractably, deep objections to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
Putin continues to score highly with his most important audience, the people of Russia, with a mix of international bravado and internal messaging that signals his virility, dominance and nationalistic drive to restore Russia to its Soviet-like domination of the so-called “near abroad.” This ring of nations who find themselves unfortunately situated on the Russian borders ― many of whom, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, are NATO Allies ― are deeply concerned about Russian revanchist activities.
Russian strategy seems to center on maintaining Putin’s popularity at home; building a strong military capacity in special forces, nuclear weapons and advanced submarines; pressuring nearby nations to join various defense and customs pacts dominated by Russia; and pushing back on the U.S. wherever convenient. While Putin is a skilled tactical operator, his strategy has several strategic flaws that are likely to keep the U.S. and Russia in conflict for the foreseeable future.
All of this begs the question: how does the U.S. construct a meaningful strategic approach to Russia? Over the decades, we’ve tried containment, confrontation, détente, reset and a number of other approaches ― none of which have been particularly successful.
The U.S. should hear the truth in that old Russian proverb. The good news is that the U.S. is not another bear ― it is an eagle. Our approach should take advantage of our comparative geopolitical advantages to create a transactional relationship that over time can allow the U.S. and Russia to reduce direct confrontation and ease zones of friction.
Putin is encouraged by the centrifugal forces pulling the EU apart, including Brexit, the ongoing Greek financial crisis and the rise of right-wing nationalist parties.
Naturally, there will be differences so profound that we have to confront Russia. The three issues mentioned above ― cyber, Syria and Ukraine ― fall into that category. When there is a clear violation of international law or human rights (especially outside of Russian borders), the U.S. must use the mechanisms of diplomacy and try to convince Russia to change their behavior.
But we should look for areas of cooperation as well. Some of the current or potential zones of cooperation include counter-narcotics (Russia has an immense addiction problem and a strong interest in stopping the flow of narcotics across borders, especially heroin from Afghanistan); counter-piracy off the coast of Africa and elsewhere (much good work has been done here already); counterterrorism (especially against the so-called Islamic State); arms control (particularly of strategic nuclear arsenals); the Arctic (where both nations have common interest in avoiding significant militarization); and the environment (both nations have signed the COP21 treaty to control emissions and reduce global warming). Some of these issues of potential cooperation will wax and wane in terms of relevance and willingness of the parties to agree but all have potential.
Additionally, we should vigorously support so-called “Track 2” initiatives, which can range from academic exchanges (the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where I serve as dean, has two strong partnerships with sister institutions in Moscow) to sports and the arts. While none of these will change tectonic plates, they can be additive over time in the creation of cadres of citizens in both countries who know and understand the other nation more fully.
The area that will be most difficult to create a coherent strategic approach will be Europe, where both long-standing NATO allies in Western Europe and relatively new members of the Alliance in the East (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and others) are nervous about Russian intentions. Putin desperately wants to weaken or break the trans-Atlantic link between the U.S. and its European partners. He is encouraged by the centrifugal forces pulling the European Union apart, including Brexit, the ongoing Greek financial crisis and the rise of right-wing nationalist parties.
The best broad approach in terms of European non-NATO nations and Russia was suggested by Henry Kissinger in a seminal 2014 article titled “To Settle the Ukraine Crisis, Start at the End.” While his piece is about Ukraine specifically, he outlines an approach (e.g. “foreign policy is the art of establishing priorities” and “leaders of all sides should return to examining outcomes, not complete in posturing”), that advocates a balanced and more knowledgeable approach to Russia that has a transactional edge to it.
Finally, on cyber, we need a very strong policy that again is essentially transactional in character, seeking to create a regime of mutual deterrence concerning attacks that rise to a significant level, such as recent forays into the U.S. electoral system. This will require both demonstrating to Russia our own capabilities (e.g. retaliating proportionally) as well as engaging in straightforward negotiations carving out cyber as a special zone, much like nuclear weapons.
The area that will be most difficult to create a coherent strategic approach will be Europe.
Taken together, the basic elements of a transactional strategy would be confront where necessary in the face of severe provocation; cooperate wherever possible, especially in areas of mutual interest; take a balanced approach in Europe that maintains NATO as the centerpiece of U.S. security engagement but recognizes some level of Russian interest in the near abroad; create tactical regimes that will ensure our military forces do not come into accidental conflict, ensure our “hot lines” at all levels are up and ready; and maintain an ongoing conversation both in the United Nations Security Council and bilaterally, despite rising tensions.
It is in no one’s interest to stumble backwards into a new Cold War, and we are not yet embroiled in one. But without a thoughtfully constructed strategic approach ― based on national interests on both sides and a transactional mentality ― we are stepping toward danger. A bear and an eagle can coexist in a relatively small ecosystem, but not if they are repeatedly and deliberately hostile to each other. We need a coherent strategic plan with transactional qualities to make sure we don’t go from international irritation to accidental confrontation to deliberate military action.