The Kremlin’s calling cards are easy enough to spot: The seizure of Crimea and the war in southeastern Ukraine. The shootdown of a passenger jet. A brazen attack on a former Soviet intelligence officer in a provincial English city. The killing of an opposition politician just outside President Vladimir Putin’s office. Military interventions in Syria and Libya. The spilling of kompromat to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Cyber penetrations of COVID-19 vaccine developers. The stonewalling after Russia’s leading anticorruption campaigner was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent. The veiled threat to invade a friendly neighboring country after a stolen election.

These are not the hallmarks of a great power. They are telltale signs of an insecure elite that is as anxious about its place on the world stage as it is about its hold on Russia itself.

The small circle of men who rule Russia demand to be recognized as leaders of a great power—mostly on the strength of its past, not its present. Russia’s rebuilt military tools have been on display in Syria, Ukraine, Libya, and even farther afield. But this muscle flexing is more indicative of the Kremlin’s propensity to take risks than of its international stature. Moreover, the risks appear to have been carefully calculated. In each of these interventions, Russia took on a much weaker opponent, while making sure to minimize both its own costs and the chances of running into a more powerful adversary. The Kremlin’s image-makers must have been delighted when U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration elevated Russia alongside China to the ranks of the United States’ great power competitors.

A New Landscape in Europe

The Kremlin’s undeclared war in Ukraine shattered U.S. and European post–Cold War delusions that war could be banished from the continent forever. Yet Moscow was thrown off balance when it met with a unified and firm Western response. Against all expectations, the United States and the European Union (EU) came together to impose sweeping economic sanctions and bolster Ukraine’s statehood. Even more surprising, the sanctions regime has held together for more than six years despite constant pressure from Moscow and fears that the EU consensus might fracture.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has also awoken from its doldrums to resume its mission of deterrence and defense, dispensing with post–Cold War hopes of cooperation with Russia. This mission is a far cry from teaching civil-military relations to new members from the former Soviet bloc or contributing troops to ill-advised, far away U.S. adventures. NATO still has a long way to go to rebuild its military capabilities, but its biggest challenge is Moscow’s never-ending attempts to undermine the alliance from within and to corrode the West’s confidence in its own resolve.

Unfortunately, the United States—NATO’s linchpin—is no longer as invested in its allies on the other side of the Atlantic as it was during the Cold War and for years afterward. While rebalancing to Asia and asking Europe to shoulder more of its own defense costs are far from novel ideas, the Trump administration has gleefully and inexplicably weakened the nation’s transatlantic ties. It undercuts the EU and insults key allies like Germany, while coddling the continent’s aspiring autocrats and currying favor with strongmen like Putin. The damage to the United States’ credibility and image will not be soon forgotten.

A Persistent Challenge

The old adage that Russia is never as strong or as weak as it seems to be remains true today. The challenge of dealing with a more assertive Russia cannot be wished away, ignored, or resolved through a grand bargain. Nor will the strain of economic hardship constrain Russian activism. On-again, off-again economic hardship since 2008 has done little to tame Russia’s external posture or diminish the difficulties it poses to the United States and U.S. allies.

The old adage that Russia is never as strong or as weak as it seems to be remains true today.

Even Trump appears to have learned that it’s a mistake to think the Russia problem could be fixed in a matter of months. Doing so would require too many concessions on fundamental security questions that neither side is prepared to make, especially after decades of accumulated mutual grievances. Instead, the United States is left with the less rewarding task of managing a largely competitive, even outright adversarial, relationship.

Success will depend in part on avoiding the magical thinking that followed the Cold War—which assumed the Kremlin might redress its long-standing democracy deficit and seek permanent accommodation with the West—as well as more recent speculation that the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic will force Russia to recalibrate its growing appetite for adventurism. Foreign policy principles that date to the emergence of the modern Russian state in the 1600s are not going to vanish now. Since the rise of the Romanov dynasty, the Kremlin has fixated on controlling the space between Moscow and Berlin. Yet the West assumed the end of its Cold War confrontation with Moscow was a final victory. As Russia regained a measure of its former strength, however, its leaders made clear that foreign policy cannot be powered by ideas alone, and certainly not by someone else’s ideas. Hard power matters too. Today, Russia throws its weight around in ways that belie the size of its economy.

Playing to Strengths and Upholding Responsibilities

Among its many assets, the United States’ alliances are its single most important. But they cannot be taken for granted. Putting an end, once and for all, to the Trump administration’s petty sniping about NATO and the EU would be an easy first step. Reestablishing unity of purpose with European allies and recommitting to their security would be the necessary second step that would energize them to take on a greater share of responsibility in meeting the threat from Russia. It would also free up U.S. resources to contend with other complex challenges such as the global impact of a rising China.

U.S. leadership on the world stage carries responsibilities that have sometimes been abdicated by its presidents, whether deliberately or unknowingly. For example, Bill Clinton seemed to believe that reforms would reshape Russia and didn’t develop a backup plan. George W. Bush and his team looked at Russia as a washed-up, has-been power—an estimation belied by moves like Russia’s 2008 war of choice against Georgia. Barack Obama engaged deeply on Russia policy early in his tenure but largely threw up his hands in frustration after Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012.

The United States and Europe in effect sleepwalked into a dangerous confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.

The United States and Europe in effect sleepwalked into a dangerous confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. That conflict has permanently harmed Russia’s relationship with the West and torpedoed the post–Cold War hope of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. Dealing proactively and realistically with the inevitable flashpoints and conflicts that may erupt elsewhere in the post-Soviet space will require informed and nimble diplomacy and a clear-eyed ability to identify and protect U.S. interests.

Improving on Flawed Analysis

For decades, Western policymakers and analysts largely focused on the Soviet Union’s military power, while underplaying its brittle economic and multiethnic foundation. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. defense establishment agonized over the “missile gap.” In the 1970s, the Committee on the Present Danger’s Team B grossly exaggerated Moscow’s capabilities and misinterpreted its intentions.

The West overlooked Putin’s investments in hard power capabilities and the vision behind them.

After the Cold War, many observers of Russia and Eurasia expected a shift toward vibrant free markets and pluralistic societies. When Russia did not deliver, they turned their resources and attention to more pressing challenges, especially in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Thus, the West overlooked Putin’s investments in hard power capabilities and the vision behind them, while also neglecting to think through their implications. By the time those investments began to pay dividends for Russia—and to change facts on the ground—the United States and Europe were already on the back foot.

Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has amassed and deployed a wide range of nonmilitary tools that compensate for its military inferiority relative to the United States and its allies. The West has struggled to counter these tools, since the task requires resisting the temptation to portray the Russians as ten feet tall and Putin as a master strategist. Rather, the West must largely focus on its own political, economic, and societal weaknesses, as well as the fault lines among allies and partners. With an economy roughly on par with South Korea’s—and just one-thirteenth that of the United States—Russia is neither a peer competitor nor the source of these vulnerabilities. Rather, it has mastered the art of exploiting them.

Dealing With the Driving Forces

Anger and annoyance about Russian behavior must not cloud the United States’ ability to discern—and, even more importantly, grapple with—the Kremlin’s core motivations. Over the ages, Russia’s rulers have been gripped by an almost boundless sense of insecurity. It is born of the enormous challenge of maintaining their often shaky hold over a vast country and the absence of natural geographical barriers against foreign adversaries. The response from tsars and commissars alike to these challenges has not varied. They have sought to concentrate power in their hands, to create strategic depth, and to assert that Russia is a great power with special privileges. The latter claim now poses an unpleasant headache for the United States—it lies at the heart of the dispute over Ukraine—but none of these challenges is beyond the reach of capable policymaking.

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Aside from Trump, it is hard to imagine a leader who would accede to Moscow’s reasserting control over independent states that were once part of the Russian and Soviet empires. Still, the United States would do well to heed Obama’s admonition that the Ukraine crisis “is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for.” It does not serve U.S. interests to make commitments that cannot be fulfilled. Rather, the overriding goal must be to buy time and breathing room for countries like Ukraine to consolidate their independence and reduce their vulnerabilities to a stronger neighbor.

Setting Priorities

The track record of U.S. leaders on prioritizing and identifying national interests does not give rise to unbounded optimism. From wooing African dictators away from the Soviet orbit to funneling vast amounts of weapons into Afghanistan to support the struggle of freedom-loving mujahideen, that record is testimony to U.S. policymakers’ frequently clouded judgment and lack of restraint.

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Today, Russia’s agile and enterprising foreign policy may come as a surprise, but it should not be seen as a latter-day manifestation of the Soviet Union’s global ambitions. The Kremlin has been seizing opportunities and filling vacuums—in Libya, Syria, Venezuela, and elsewhere—where it has capitalized on a combination of confusion, other players’ mistakes, and little U.S. involvement. Russia’s appetite for risk is not correlated to the size of its bank account or other short-term economic indicators like the fluctuating price of oil. The tools it relies on are cheap, sustainable, and, in some cases, deniable. Moreover, Russian involvement in these trouble spots is likely to be guided by a mix of the Kremlin’s hunger for recognition as a global power and sheer profit rather than by any altruistic commitment to peace, stability, or well-being of the locals. With Putin now poised to stay in power until as late as 2036, he should not be expected to shift course, much less forgo the occasional opportunity to cut the United States down to size.

With Putin now poised to stay in power until as late as 2036, he should not be expected to shift course.

The challenge for the United States, therefore, is to focus on countering the Russian adventurism that most imperils U.S. interests. Otherwise, the United States is misdirecting its power to second-order priorities like chasing ragtag groups of Russian mercenaries across continents and mistaking second-rate fake news outlets for global information operation powerhouses.

A far more consequential challenge lies in the realm of strategic stability, where technological progress holds out the prospect of a major disruption. Against the backdrop of unraveling Cold War–era arms control agreements, which focused primarily on nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia are developing and deploying new cyber, space, and advanced conventional capabilities. They are certain to be highly destabilizing to the U.S.-Russia strategic balance. By their very nature, they will not be subject to traditional approaches to arms control and verification. How does one verify the presence or absence of cyber weapons that could disable command and control and blind early warning systems? The energies and creativity of the U.S. national security establishment have not yet been unleashed to address these looming challenges.

The Long Haul

It is all too easy to blame Russia for the troubles that have befallen the American republic in recent years. But the reality is that the Kremlin did not create Donald Trump or the toxic strain of nationalism he espouses. Rather, the United States’ biggest problems—most notably the ravages of the pandemic and economic dislocation, centuries-old racial injustices and violence, and intense polarization—are largely homegrown.

The anger toward Russia felt across the U.S. national security establishment will not dissipate anytime soon.

Yet the anger toward Russia felt across the U.S. national security establishment will not dissipate anytime soon. That inherently narrows the political space for any administration that entertains the idea of deviating from familiar lines of effort such as deterring military conflict with Russia, contending with opportunistic Russian moves in regional hotspots, reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, and advocating on behalf of human rights and core U.S. values.

All of that work remains necessary, but none of it will be transformative. Managing U.S.-Russia tensions will continue to be a largely thankless task. But avoiding worst-case outcomes, while dispensing with inflated threat assessments and unrealistic expectations, would be a worthy first step.

By:
  • Andrew S. Weiss
  • Eugene Rumer