Russia is a dangerous adversary. But treating it as an outright enemy could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, triggering mortal threats to its neighbors which otherwise may not be in the cards.
By Dmitri Simes
TWENTY-SIX years ago at a national policy conference in Los Angeles co-hosted by his foundation, Richard M. Nixon observed that one of America’s most fundamental foreign policy objectives was to build a new international order after the collapse of the Soviet Union which included the newly-democratic Russia as a partner. He stated,
In discussing Russia, it is first necessary to dispel a myth. The Russians did not lose the Cold War. The Communists did. The United States and our allies played a crucial role in containing communism and in rolling it back, but it was democratic Russia that gave the knockout blow to communism on December 14th in 1991. So therefore, we should treat Russia today not as a defeated enemy but as an ally and a friend who joined with us in defeating communism in Russia.
Nixon warned that if Russia’s experiment with democracy and association with the West were to fail, Russia could fall victim to, “a more authoritarian, aggressive nationalism, which, shorn of the failed faith of communism, might be an even greater threat to the West than the old Soviet totalitarianism.” Subsequently, in the book Beyond Peace, which served as the last political message of his life, Nixon made a strong case that, while ending the Cold War on American terms was a historic accomplishment, the lasting legacy of this feat would be determined by America’s success in incorporating Russia into the community of democratic free market nations. “It would be contrary to our interests to give Moscow the impression,” Nixon wrote, “that we are prepared to help only as long as Russia remains on its knees. Russia is a great country that deserves to be treated with appropriate respect.” Nixon’s observations were prophetic. They make it clear that the turn that contemporary events have taken was not inevitable even if it was foreseeable. Nixon not only sought reconciliation with Russia, but was also convinced that given sufficient foresight and diplomatic tact Washington could achieve it.
TODAY, IT can be stated with certainty that America has failed at this task. America’s new strategic doctrine views Russia as a major threat to the United States due to its military prowess, hybrid warfare capabilities, and global drive to undermine the American-led liberal world order. As with every divorce, there are contrasting narratives about who bears what responsibility for the dissolution of this once promising relationship. However, it is clear that America’s foreign policy establishment, including members of both Congress and the Trump administration, is currently plagued by the tension between its habitual desire to assume the worst of Russia and its simultaneous reluctance to respond to the magnitude of Moscow’s challenge in a serious fashion.
When I hear media pundits and members of Congress describe Russia as a major adversary and, at the same time, speak and act as though America is immune to the threat posed by the Russian military, I often wonder whether they know something that I do not. The same experts who are terrified of confrontation with North Korea, with its rudimentary nuclear arsenal, or Iran, which has no nuclear arsenal at all, take a remarkably cavalier approach towards the prospect of a clash with Russia. While this view is common among the national security establishment, it reflects a serious misunderstanding of Russia’s military strength, its national character and, above all, the way its history continues to shape its foreign policy decisions. It also runs the risk of inadvertently creating a new danger in the form of providing additional incentives for Moscow and Beijing to cooperate with each other against America. As a recent Pentagon white paper observed, Russian president Vladimir Putin could try to play the “China card” to the detriment of America.
Yet when Donald Trump spoke during his presidential campaign about the prospect of improved relations with Russia, the establishment’s indignation was difficult to overstate. The conventional wisdom was clear: by questioning whether America might be dangerously eroding its relationship with Russia, Trump was by definition undermining America’s alliances with its European partners. Some went so far as to question whether he was an enemy agent controlled by Russian president Vladimir Putin, while more sober-minded analysts argued that Trump was simply a victim of his inexperience in world affairs. How else could one explain why Trump could not see that America’s allies, despite their numerous imperfections and questionable loyalty, were an indispensable source of our strength? How could Trump fail to see this self-evident truth unless he was a traitor, an idiot, or both?
MUCH OF the domestic criticism surrounding Russia is valid, particularly the accusations that it is autocratic, increasingly assertive in its foreign policy, and that it suffers from endemic corruption reaching high levels of the government, including law enforcement agencies. But Russia is no more autocratic than Saudi Arabia, and Israel has similarly demonstrated a willingness to use force outside its borders, including its alleged assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Nor is it more corrupt than Afghanistan and Ukraine, both of whom receive massive amounts of U.S. aid. Yet friends’ faults are easier to forgive due to their willingness to walk in lockstep with the United States, which we believe ultimately puts them on the “right side of history.” Russia, in positioning itself as an alternative center of global power to the United States, is often considered by definition guilty of violating good international conduct.
Russia also happens to be the only country capable of destroying the United States as a modern, prosperous and democratic society, a reality that much of the discourse surrounding Russia seems to ignore. Many Americans now believe that the threat posed by Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal is no longer relevant, and the United States and its allies, with their economic preponderance and superior conventional forces, can deter Russia as long as they can persuade the Kremlin that their determination is proportional to their overwhelming resources. Even when Russian president Vladimir Putin’s defiant speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference warned that Russia would resist an endless incorporation of former Soviet states into the transatlantic alliance structure, the common reaction of the American and European foreign policy establishments was open disdain. Who would be interested in Putin’s appeals for a new multipolar system when his own government was viewed as so self-evidently inadequate and his military and economic power so pathetically out of touch with his pretense?
Russia’s subsequent military modernization efforts, combined with its 2008 incursion into Georgia, made the Kremlin far more difficult to ignore. However, the message received by most Western elites was not the need for a new dialogue with Moscow, but, rather, that containment was geopolitically necessary and morally justified, now more than ever. Later, after the United States and the European Union aggressively supported a popular uprising against the corrupt and inept, but legally elected Yanukovych regime in Ukraine, Russia responded with a takeover of Crimea, interference in Donbass and intervention in the Syrian war. Again, the West’s reaction was one of righteous indignation with little analysis of the causes of the crisis or any potential solutions.
In hindsight, it is clear that the post-Soviet political order in Eastern Europe was never properly settled by Russia and the West, and that the agreements that emerged after the Cold War were too ambiguous to offer any real clarity. For instance, the 1994 Budapest Agreement, which both Russia and the United States signed, guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but also promised the protection of Ukrainian sovereignty, which Russia perceived as a commitment from the West not to interfere in Ukraine’s internal political affairs. Therefore, when America and its European allies supported the ousting of Yanukovych in 2014, Russia viewed this as illegal Western interference, which provided Moscow with both the opportunity and the right to defend its interests in Crimea and Donbass.
In recent years, Putin has unveiled his Avangard hypersonic ICBM system and new RS-28 Sarmat heavy ballistic missile (both of which are allegedly capable of overcoming any U.S./NATO missile defenses), and warned that, if push comes to shove, Russia is prepared to stand against a military challenge from the West even if doing so meant escalating to nuclear war. These warnings were coupled with the deployment of new brigades to Ukraine’s borders starting in 2014 and major improvements of Russia’s military capabilities near the Baltic region. Yet again, these moves were treated as something requiring a vigorous response, but ultimately not increasing the risk of a military clash. NATO viewed its commitment to restraint as self-evident, so why would the Kremlin fear Western aggression? And if so, why would anybody seriously fear a nuclear confrontation between Russia and the West?
UNFORTUNATELY, THE threat of unintentional conflict escalation is not a hypothetical one. Russian and American troops often operate in the same areas of combat in Syria, and U.S. combat aircraft and personnel were involved in a devastating attack on Russian paramilitaries in 2018. In that particular case, Russia gave no advanced warning that Russian fighters were involved, and later downplayed the incident by noting the fundamental difference between the death of Russian private military contractors and an attack against its regular forces. But many experts on both sides privately acknowledge that this incident was a close call that easily could have resulted in rapid escalation. With more and more NATO ships and planes operating in close proximity to Russian territory and their Russian counterparts boldly challenging them to prove their own determination, the potential for a clash in the air or on the seas is becoming more and more real. Yet Congress has had no meaningful discussions about how the sinking of one ship or downing of one plane could result in accidental nuclear war between Russia and the United States.
Top Russian commanders are becoming increasingly outspoken about how Russia might respond in the event of a confrontation with the United States or NATO. The Russian news agency TASS reported that Lt. General Viktor Poznikhir, First Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operations Department, “warned the states, which now host or will host element of the U.S. missile shield, that these facilities will become priority targets for destruction.” Even more ominous was the message from former Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov, who claimed that the United States was working to develop a first-strike capability which might force Russia to make a “decision about a preemptive use of force…in a period of heightened tension.”
Russia’s new military might, combined with its growing boldness, should be taken seriously. Russia’s posture reflects more than a confidence in its new hardware or a willingness to issue intimidating high-level warnings, but rather speaks to a major change in the Russian mindset. Russia has developed a new mode of nationalism accompanied by a genuine evolution not just in its attitude towards the West and the utility of military force as a policy instrument, but also about what Russia views as its core strategic interests.
Indeed, the situation has rarely been more perilous. The Putin administration claims to be unconcerned by the prospect of a nuclear arms-race with the United States, as it argues that the potency of its new weapons, most notably hypersonic ones, renders any potential American numerical advantage in its nuclear arsenal inconsequential and, more fundamentally, gives Russia the capability to overcome any missile defense system. Instead of confronting these issues, the American national security establishment is acting as though it does not have to even consider the possibility of engaging in meaningful diplomacy and as though Russia poses no imminent threat.
During perestroika and the early Boris Yeltsin years, Russia enthusiastically celebrated democratization, universal human values and its association with the West. No longer. Russia has once again embraced its traditional self-image: that of a national security state, surrounded by hostile nations, that takes pride in being feared rather than loved. Throughout history, Russia, despite its long-held pretense of being the “Third Rome,” has positioned itself not as a shining city on a hill, but rather a lonely, proud fortress prepared to do whatever is necessary to defend itself and its unique position in the world. Indeed, the Russian state’s recent trend of glorifying the Soviet victory in World War II reveals an increasingly prevalent feeling in Russia that the sacrifice of twenty-six million Soviet soldiers was not only necessary for the preservation of Russian civilization, but also demonstrates a genuine Russian exceptionalism in terms of its willingness to absorb a superhuman level of sacrifice. Something of this mindset was once captured by the great Russian poet and World War II veteran Bulat Okudzhava, who wrote with a combination of pride and sorrow about the attitude of Russian troops during the war:
The planet is burning and spinning/
Smoke covers the Motherland/
We will settle for nothing but victory/
One victory for all, and no price is too high
According to Alexander Tsipko, a leading expert on Russian politics who was once considered something of an enlightened nationalist for viewing Moscow’s desire to become part of the West as a delusion, the country has undergone disturbing changes in its national political psyche. This shift was marked by the growing disillusionment with both the West and democracy that became prevalent during the end of the Yeltsin era after the bitter experience of Russia's economic demise and NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia. Tsipko writes, “I agree with those who believe that it is the very national character that is to some extent the cause of the militarization of conscience.” He adds, “It is important to understand that militarization of conscience brings the killing of the instinct of self-preservation. It is not just expecting death, but creating a cult of death, making it sacred.”
AS A caveat to this, whatever you feel about Vladimir Putin and his willingness to break the rules of the international order and habitually deny all accusations of Russian misconduct, he has still acted as a cautious and calculating leader. Putin is not blindly militaristic, but always considers the consequences of his actions, even if he has not always managed to anticipate them correctly (as was the case with Russian interference in U.S. elections). While most Russians remain proud of their country’s takeover of Crimea, opinion polls show that these nationalistic sentiments are no longer a major organizing principle in Russian political thinking. Among both the elites and the Russian people, there is a growing sense of fatigue with the mounting costs of great power ambitions.
Nonetheless, Tsipko’s observations reveal much about how Russia might respond to a confrontation with America and its allies. If the survival of the country, dignity of the Russian civilization and, yes, legitimacy of the regime are at stake, Russia may be prepared to accept much higher risks and absorb much greater losses than would be acceptable to Western democracies.
Russia’s sense of isolation and victimhood are also rooted in an understanding of the collapse of the Soviet Union that differs wildly from the common Western narrative. Many Russians view their country as a modern equivalent of Weimar Germany, dismembered by victorious powers who are responsible for the economic catastrophe, human suffering and great humiliation of the Russian people. Most Russian citizens identify with Putin’s statement that, “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” and believe that, “for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.” While neither Putin nor the majority of Russians view the recreation of the USSR as either feasible or desirable, the wounds of the Soviet collapse clearly remain quite fresh and continue to influence attitudes towards the West.
As toxic as the mindset of victimhood was to the people of Weimar Germany, the dangers posed by its reemergence in Russia may be even greater. While Germany was decisively defeated in World War I, there is a consensus in Russia that the USSR never suffered such a defeat in the Cold War. The Soviet Union never lost a war like the Germans or succumbed to anti-colonialist movements as the British, French and Spanish empires did. Instead, most Russians believe they had, on their own, cast off the bonds of the communist empire.
WHILE IT was Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership who initiated perestroika and eventually oversaw the dismantling of the Soviet economic system, it was Boris Yeltsin and the leadership of what would eventually become the Russian Federation who helped accelerate the Soviet collapse. The Russian Federation first proclaimed its sovereignty from the Soviet Union on June 12, 1990, at a time when only two other states (Lithuania and Latvia) had announced their sovereignty. When hardliners in the Gorbachev government attempted to use military force against separatist Baltic leaders in early 1991, it was Yeltsin who declared his full support for Latvia and Lithuania and called upon all Russian citizens serving in the Soviet military to resist any orders to use force against the separatists.
When those same Soviet hardliners attempted a coup in Moscow in 1991 to remove Gorbachev and his reformers from power, it was also Yeltsin and his supporters who were instrumental in suppressing the rebellion. Meanwhile, with the exception of the Baltic republics and Georgia, who had also proclaimed their own sovereignty, the leaderships of most of the Soviet states sat on the fence waiting to see who would come out on top in Moscow. This was certainly true of the Ukrainian government led by longtime Communist Party functionary Leonid Kravchuk, who had a history of condemning Ukrainian nationalism and defending the communist system. It was Yeltsin’s victory in Moscow which paved the way for a meeting of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian leadership in Brest. There, without consulting the other republics, in violation of Soviet law, and without any serious negotiations about how the newly independent states would govern their relationships in the future, these leaders signed documents that, while vague and lacking in real legal power, clearly implied that the USSR would not disappear altogether, but would become a confederation where internal borders would be of uncertain importance. Accordingly, most in Russia did not view the collapse of the USSR as evidence of their weakness, but rather of their victory, entitling them to respect and even trust from Western governments.
A foretaste of Russian sensitivities was discernible in March 1994, when I traveled with Nixon to Moscow to meet Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his top officials. Our meeting had been cleared in advance with the Clinton administration. But Nixon’s private meetings with opposition leaders such as Alexsandr Rutskoi and Gennady Zyuganov prompted Yeltsin to erupt in fury, declaring that he was “deeply, personally offended” that Nixon would meet with opposition members. Yeltsin complained, “Let him know that Russia is a great country and you cannot play around with her like that.”
Accordingly, most Russians deeply resented being treated as a defeated country by the West. After the Cold War, Russians anticipated that they would be viewed not as a vanquished adversary, but instead as a courageous ally who played an indispensable role in destroying the Soviet bloc to achieve a common victory in the Cold War. By repeatedly siding against Moscow in each of its post-Cold War disputes with its new neighbors, the West treated Russia like a defeated state that had accepted an unconditional surrender and was now trying, in disregard of its legal obligations, to establish hegemony over its neighbors. The Russian political elites, initially strongly pro-Western, felt betrayed and offended. They saw a diktat from the West.
Many Russians also hold that insidious actions by Western powers greatly contributed to the Soviet collapse. There is very little evidence to support this claim; as late as August 1991, President George H.W. Bush argued against Ukraine’s seeking full independence, stating that “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aide those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” Yet the Russian political class has increasingly persuaded itself that its country was intentionally destroyed by Western powers, masquerading as friends of the USSR during perestroika while secretly attempting to sabotage the Soviet state. It is through the prism of those beliefs that one must look to understand how Russia might act in the event of a military confrontation with the West.
The Trump administration is right to insist on a significant increase in America’s military budget, and officials in the administration are also right to insist that alliances are a major source of American strength that need to be reformed rather than discarded. Similarly, when U.S. and Russian interests collide, as was the case with Iran, Syria and the withdrawal from certain arms control agreements, America should be able to vigorously, albeit carefully, defend its interests despite Moscow’s opposition. It would be overly optimistic to expect a real friendship or partnership with Russia in a near future, especially considering the hostility many in the Russian elite feel today towards the United States. Nonetheless, even America’s harshest critics of Russia would not advocate starting a war to overthrow Putin’s government. American and Russian interests overlap on a number of issues, ranging from a concern with China’s rise, to avoiding nuclear proliferation and to maintaining stability systems of international finance and trade. America should not preclude the possibility of cooperation on those issues of mutual interest simply to prevent Putin from scoring political points.
While it is legitimate to view Russia as America’s adversary, it is mistaken to approach the relationship through a zero-sum lens. Quite the contrary. Something that can hurt Russia can also damage the United States; just as we should not encourage global warming in hopes that a rise in temperatures would do slightly more damage to Russia than it would to us, so would it be foolish to hope for a Russian defeat in Syria when such an event could cause an ISIS resurgence which would assuredly harm American interests.
We must also be realistic about our own conduct when considering what we want from Russia.
Russia’s interference in the American political process was serious and real, but it was hardly unexpected or the cause for righteous indignation. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly sided with opposition groups in Russia and expressed sympathy with mass anti-government demonstrations whose organizers made no secret of their objective to remove Putin from power. In March 2011, Vice President Joe Biden told Russian opposition leaders that it would be “bad for the country and for himself” if Putin attempted to run for president the following year, according to the later murdered Putin critic Boris Nemtsov. I have spoken with people who were present at Biden’s meeting with the Russian opposition, and there was no question in their mind that Biden fully intended to pressure Putin not to run again. Biden and Clinton were not acting out of turn; the Obama administration put its money where its mouth was, giving millions of dollars to political opposition groups in Russia. Today, leading Democrats are demanding that Russia refrain from intervening in the 2020 elections, but what implications do such demands have for America's own willingness to take sides in Russian political disputes?
Indeed, what did the architects of this earlier effort to intervene in Russian elections expect Putin to do in response? If they believed he would fold under American pressure, this was a massive failure of judgement that indicated how little the Obama administration understood what made Putin, a former KGB operative, tick. If they did not expect Putin to give up and cry uncle, why did they not expect retaliation? Putin had sufficient resources to strike back at America both covertly and overtly, and it is now clear that these efforts began to take shape as early as 2014, before Trump decided to run.
Last but not least, we must be willing to be clear that we are not beholden to shaping American policy exclusively to align with the whims of our allies. Relationships between former iron curtain states are remarkably complex and fraught with centuries of painful history, making them prone to conflict with one another. It is precisely these parochial European conflicts which George Washington strongly advised against being involved in, stating in his farewell address that America should be wary of entangling, “our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice.”
WASHINGTON ALSO spoke about those, “ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens,” who become so enamored with the causes of their favorite countries that they not only lose perspective of American interests, but are even prepared to accuse those who disagree with them of a lack of patriotism and, in modern times, of being a Putin lackey. One does not need to be a supporter of President Trump to understand that these pseudo-patriots do not serve American interests or American values well. In April 2019, 73 percent of the Ukrainian people rejected President Petro Poroshenko, who ran on a nationalist, anti-Russian platform. While few American and European experts were willing to acknowledge that the Poroshenko government was corrupt, inept, and, according to Ukrainian media, willing to use money to influence the American political process, they were suddenly willing to make such pronouncements as soon as the election results were solidified. America cannot allow the designation of an “ally” to make any states immune from disagreement or criticism. When the stakes are as high as nuclear war, America cannot afford to conduct foreign policy based on the whims of its domestic constituencies or the sentiments of those very "deluded" citizens about whom Washington warned.
Great American presidents of the past knew how to be loyal allies, but to do it in a calibrated and deliberative fashion. President Dwight D. Eisenhower fully understood the importance of the transatlantic alliance, having fought to preserve it in World War II, yet in 1956 he refused to support Britain and France during the Suez Crisis when doing so went against America’s national interest. Similarly, despite being a genuine friend to Israel, Ronald Reagan was willing to condemn it for going overboard in Lebanon in 1982. But today, to suggest that America is not obliged to support with blood and treasure the actions of our allies and friends is considered morally unacceptable. That is why whenever Baltic states, Georgia and Ukraine have any disagreement with Russia, America automatically denounces Russia as the aggressor, regardless of the historical background, geopolitical context, and even, as in the case of Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, who attacked whose troops first.
America and Russia appear unlikely to resolve their hostilities any time soon. America has a long tradition of standing tall and being prepared to be ruthless in the defense of its interests, but also in being careful not to unnecessarily entangle itself in the conflicts of others. If the United States starts treating Putin’s Russia like it is Hitler’s Germany, moves from supporting Ukrainian and Georgian sovereignty to encouraging these states to conduct hostile policies towards Moscow, and strengthens NATO’s military position in the Baltics, Russia may feel confronted by an existential threat. Treating Moscow as an enemy may very well result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, triggering mortal threats to Moscow’s vulnerable neighbors which otherwise would probably not be in the cards. Confrontation with Russia would force America to choose between abandoning its Eastern European client states to their fate and suffering potentially irreparable reputational damages or fighting World War III not to defend Berlin or Warsaw, but rather Mariupol or Gori. History will not forgive U.S. policymakers if they needlessly present the United States with this kind of fateful choice.
Dimitri K. Simes, publisher and CEO of the National Interest, is president of the Center for the National Interest.
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