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Towards a New Russia Policy

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | February 2008

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East-West relations have noticeably deteriorated, and Russia?s behavior has become commensurately more self-assertive. Key arms control achievements are in jeopardy, and Russia claims to be facing an array of growing threats, most prominently from America. In fact, Russia demands more respect from and equality with Washington and a free hand in world politics. In key respects, Moscow?s new foreign policy grows out of the logic of its ever more autocratic and neo-imperial political structure. As analyzed in the monograph, this structure reinforces the long-standing Russian tendency to view other states as being inherently adversarial, i.e., it has a disposition to see world politics in terms of a presupposition of a priori enemies. Thus it views arms control issues from the standpoint of deterring enemies not working with strategic partners.

The danger of a foreign policy that relies on truculent rhetoric, inflated and aggressive threat assessments, and an autocratic and neo-imperial political structure based on the ideology of Russia?s desire for a free hand in world politics and ingrained belief that others are inherently the same is that it will stimulate precisely the adversarial behavior in Washington that it claims to see. There are already growing signs that certain sectors of the policymaking community are increasingly inclined to view Russia as a question mark, if not a rival of American policy. This is particularly the case regarding issues of arms control and nuclear policy. Thus the current rhetorical belligerence seen in Russian policy and the increasing amount of interest in higher defense spending and inflated threat assessments could bring about exactly what Russian elites already claim to observe. Accordingly, it is necessary for the United States to understand the scope of the challenge posed by Russia and to take steps towards reformulating its policies so that they are more coherent and unified, more deeply engaged with Russia across a wide spectrum of issues, and also more coordinated with our European allies. This means that we must forego the idea that good relations between presidents suffice, or that we have no leverage on Russia, or that human rights should not be a major part of our concern. While Russian interests and concerns must be engaged with seriousness and respect, they cannot be allowed to overshadow our own interests and concerns. The need for permanent ongoing bureaucratic engagement with Russia remains a challenge for Washington, but it is one that can and must be met by means of a long-term strategically conceived policy. And that policy must engage Moscow across all the issues of topical concern to Washington.


We urgently need to rethink many of our policies, especially as they are linked to one another. To get Iran to renounce nuclear weapons, we must deal with Russia?s plan for becoming a global center for nuclear power and spent fuel.301 One could easily multiply such examples. But this very interconnectedness, plus the fact that the problems Russia poses are essentially nonmilitary and must not be allowed to reach that stage where they become military, call for a coordinated multidimensional strategy using all the instruments of power across a global backdrop. We cannot impose our favored form of regime upon Russia nor should we try, but we cannot passively allow it to flout international agreements and embark upon a course of autocracy, empire, and adventurism, that has repeatedly proven to be ruinous for its people and its neighbors.

Moreover, we cannot be either complacent or despairing. The oft-cited and even widely accepted ideas that we have little or no leverage, or its analogue that we need Moscow more than it needs us, are ridiculous.302 Unfortunately those notions are tied to a belief that complex political issues can be solved in the blink of an eye, not by what Henry Kissinger called the ?patient accumulation of nuance.? Thus, some fallaciously argue that if we cannot fix the problem at once by Russia?s capitulation to our pressure, it is supposedly hopeless to try. Yet it is clear that the agenda of issues with Russia goes far beyond strict bilateral U.S.-Russian relations in both geographical scope and complexity, and requires precisely a combination of patience and superior insight.

Neither can we yield to the opposing complacency that other issues are too urgent, or that we can wait for another time to tackle the Russian agenda, or that we can simply browbeat Russia because of our superior power and virtue. Conditions in Eurasia are already and rapidly becoming ever more crisis-prone. Russian analysts admit that Russia remains ?a risk factor,? not a reliable or autonomous pole of world politics.303 The North Caucasus, as noted above, remains out of control, with some 250,000 Russian security personnel from the armed forces and Ministry of Interior, as well as the so-called multiple militaries being stationed there.304 Russia?s relations with Georgia could very easily spill over into active violent conflict over Georgia?s breakaway province, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, and its ties to Moldova are a permanent violation of the treaties it has signed with the West. In fact, at least some governments and militaries reject this complacency even if they defend against their anxieties sotto voce.

Although never voiced publicly by elected European officials, there is concern about Russia. It is rarely announced as policy, but the force structure of the Bundeswehr ? still, all these years after the end of the Cold War, organized to defend the homeland against tanks coming from the east?makes it obvious. In a way that frustrates and confounds its NATO partners, Germany still de facto prioritizes conventional territorial defense even if it pledges allegiance to the Petersberg tasks which presume force projection capabilities.305

Moreover, as former Secretary of State Colin Powell stated, in the current threat environment,

This means we must do something statesmen have been reluctant to do since the birth of the modern state system. We have to understand and try to influence not just what states do outside their borders, but in some cases what goes on inside their borders. This marks a strategic rebalancing made necessary by circumstances.306 (Italics in the original.)

Perhaps even more urgently, the current crisis in Ukraine which has brought the country to the brink of ungovernability, owes much to continuing Russian subversion and intervention there. If it is allowed to continue unchecked and the Ukrainian government is not strengthened to the point of being able to put its house in order, its democratization and Westernization processes will be set back for years. That not only means another quasi or virtual democracy as was the case before, but also a new satellite for Russia. Here we should always remember that Russia without Ukraine cannot threaten the peace of Europe because it is not an empire, just an aspirant to it. But with a Ukrainian satellite, Russia will be emboldened to carry further its efforts to destabilize neighboring regimes in Europe, only this time they will be NATO and EU members, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, the Baltic states, and especially Poland. Finally, the condition of too many Central Asian states once their rulers depart the scene is too perilously close to violence or to failed state status to be complacent about trends in Central Asia. All these challenges, if not crises, are critical points in the East-West relationship because ultimately ?The main reason why the West cannot remain complacent about Russia?s actions is the fact that Russia?s ?near abroad? is, in many cases, also democratic Europe?s near abroad.?307

In other words, time will not wait upon us. To quote David Ben-Gurion, ?time works for us or against us depending on what we do with it.? Neither will other states wait passively for us or let us off the hook of our responsibility, i.e., developing a coherent policy, the means to carry it out, and harmonizing it with our allies. Iraq cannot be the only issue in our foreign policy for it already bids fair to suck up all the oxygen needed to conduct a global security policy. In any case, neither Russia, its interlocutors, nor other states or issues will let us merely act in an ad hoc tactical fashion with no thought for long-term consequences or strategy. Like it or not America, for better or worse, is in Colin Gray?s term ?the sheriff? of world order.308 We, as Lincoln said, ?hold the responsibility and bear the burden.? Therefore it is incumbent upon us to exercise this responsibility for and to the world judiciously, but we cannot let it evaporate due to inattention, fecklessness, or the lack of a strategic approach to our interests and those responsibilities.


301. Baker, ?U.S. and Russia to Enter Civilian Nuclear Pact.?

302. See, for example, Lynch, p. 166.

303. Timofei Bordachev, ?Russia?s Europe Dilemma: Democratic Partner vs. Authoritarian Satellite,? Andrew Kuchins and Dmitri Trenin, eds., Russia: The Next Ten Years, A Collection of Essays to Mark Ten Years of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Moscow: Carnegie Center, 2004, p. 120.

304. John B. Dunlop and Rajan Menon, ?Chaos in the North Caucasus and Russia?s Future, Survival, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, Summer 2006, p. 110.

305.Mary Elise Sarotte, ?Transatlantic Tension and Threat Perception,? Naval War College Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 4, Autumn 2005, p. 32.

306.Colin L. Powell, ?Understanding and Strategy,? SAIS Review, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Winter-Spring 2005, p. 170.

307. John Roper and Peter Van Ham, ?Redefining Russia?s Role in Europe,? Vladimir Baranovsky, ed., Russia and Europe: The Emerging Security Agenda, Oxford, UK: Oxford University press for SIPRI, 1997, p. 517.

308. Colin S. Gray, The Sheriff: America?s Defense of the New World Order, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.