“Having lived and worked in Berlin before and after German unification, I am painfully aware of how problematic, and at times exasperating, Russian policy and actions can be…”
It has been nearly three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the USSR, and the emergence of Russia as an independent state. Moscow (and what was the USSR) is no longer a strategic rival, as it was in the days of the Cold War. While the US is no longer in a hostile Cold War confrontation with Russia, relations continue to follow a tempestuous course.
Moscow is no longer the “perceived” enemy, but the relationship in the ensuing decades hasn’t blossomed into a friendship either, and sustainable cooperative relations based on the concept of a balance of interests have been elusive. Forging an improved bilateral relationship is in America’s national interest, especially given the re-emergence of Russia’s nationalism under President Putin and Russia’s growing power on the world stage.
Putin’s rhetoric vis-à-vis the US remains tough. Under the circumstances, relations with Russia must be a top priority for the US, because Russia’s conduct can and does have an immense impact on the vital interests of the US.
There are clearly areas where our national interests, priorities, and perspectives diverge significantly. Some believe cooperation is all but impractical and will not achieve substantial results, and that US and Russian values are so far apart that cooperation will ultimately sacrifice our values and principles. Others acknowledge that Russia’s conduct in both foreign and domestic arenas prevent effective collaboration.
The ideological conflict has been a determining factor in US-Russian relations since the emergence of the Soviet state. The fact that our political systems are so different should not prevent future cooperation. Vital national interests for both the US and Russia, particularly in areas of nuclear weapons, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and geopolitics (China, Iran, Syria, and North Korea) suggest there is an opportunity for the White House and policymakers to refocus efforts.
Both the US and Russia share a desire to avoid nuclear war, proliferation, and terrorism. Geopolitically, a more proactive US approach to potential trouble spots with the Russians could lay some groundwork for improved relations, even in the areas of disagreement. Indeed, the US government’s primary concern must always be the safety, security, and prosperity of the American people. Most of the world is governed differently, and because of that, the US must work with other countries—many of them undemocratic—to advance our national interests.
Having lived and worked in Berlin before and after German unification, I am painfully aware of how problematic, and at times exasperating, Russian policy and actions can be. For some of my colleagues, there was a predisposition to focus either on Russia’s strengths or its weaknesses. The problem with that “either-or” predisposition was that it didn’t advance an integrated understanding of Russia (it was still the USSR, in their view), which led to some assumptions about motives, conduct, and future relationships.
Specifically, for those who focused solely on strengths, the predisposition was one of belligerence and a dangerous rival, which all but ignored the fact that during that time of transition from the USSR to the independent state of Russia, there was profound insecurity. Conversely, those whose focus and predisposition was on weakness saw a defeated power, particularly after the breakup of the USSR and the emergence of nation-states, which assumed a weakness to resist pressure from the US and thereby give the US advantage.
So what is the way forward?
My analysis of the US-Russian relationship has less to do with our specific differences and more to do with the fact that there is mutual suspicion and mistrust of one another’s motives—which is a more significant obstacle to cooperation than our divergent interests and values. Putin’s actions, less than transparent governance, and unapologetic skepticism of the West pose a challenge for building trust and developing policy solutions. US and Russian interests and values more often are not aligned, which drives a further wedge in promoting a dialogue that makes progress.
Our relationship is stalled, and that is problematic. The consequences of failure in our relationship with Russia will only engender further deterioration, which could prove quite costly for the US. The stakes are high. Lack of mutual confidence and a failure to manage our challenges and differences with Russia cause doubt in our abilities to address the difficult issues. Sharp partisan political differences have fueled disillusionment and frustration that only weakens our ability to develop a sustainable policy that will serve the national interests of the US.
Strong-minded leadership, from both the executive and legislative branches of government (particularly the president) must take necessary steps to build a foundation for sustainable US-Russian relations. The US should pursue a cooperative and resilient relationship with Russia to advance our vital national interests. But we must do so without illusions as to the costs and benefits of failing to keep in mind the neo-imperialistic ambitions of Putin and his desires to rebuild Russia as a global superpower.
The US should explore a strategic concept based on interests that we are no longer enemies prepared to destroy each other, but potential partners. However, a purposeful US policy is insufficient in the absence of Russian efforts to make a cooperative relationship succeed.
The developing proxy wars of old (think Vietnam) are re-emerging with Putin’s support of Afghanistan’s Taliban and Syria’s Assad. These are both enemies of the US and the focus of intense political and military commitment. In the shadows, Putin’s Russia is guiding and supporting the other side.
In Afghanistan, Putin’s Russia is thought to be arming the Taliban in direct conflict with US interests and efforts. Putin has arranged and held repeated summits and meetings with Pakistan, factions in Afghanistan, and China to forward his interests in the Afghanistan region. It cannot be forgotten that the Soviet Union, where Putin learned his trade, invaded Afghanistan.
It is apparent that Putin, in his quiet rebuilding of the former Soviet Union, desires to complete the invasion of Afghanistan, although this time without military force but rather through political means. It must also be noted that all of Putin’s sponsored meetings about Afghanistan have very purposely excluded the US, the Afghanistan government, and US allies. Putin is pulling strings from behind the proverbial curtain.
In Syria, it is well-known that Putin is supporting the Assad regime politically, economically, and militarily. In fact, subsequent to President Trump’s strike on Syria, Putin vowed to strengthen Assad’s air defenses. These actions in Syria are in direct opposition to US efforts and interests in the fight against ISIS and the projected goal of removing Assad from power.
What must be realized—which is painfully evident by actions in the United Nations—is that the old enemies and allies of the Cold War are still in their respective corners. Iran, China, Pakistan, Syria, and Russia are on one side. The US and its allies are on the other. If one were to remove the last 30 years of history post-Soviet Union, countries have returned to the same strategic and political alignments of the Cold War. Putin is a Cold War warrior and is realigning Russia into the new Soviet Union, even to the point of including and controlling the border regions between Russia and Europe.
A model of US-Russian relations based on cooperation should pursue more far-reaching goals. A model of relations based on cooperation is a necessary condition for the creation of an international system of security, peace, and stability. This is an integral component of the way forward. This requires a sober assessment of one’s own capabilities and interests and a reasonable approach to foreign policy.
The truth is that the US and Russia can only effectively realize their own interests by realistically appraising the interests and intentions of each other and taking them into account. It is necessary to master the complex art of not only coexisting with each other but also building bridges of mutually beneficial cooperation.