Graham Allison is Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Dimitri K. Simes is president of The Center for the National Interest and publisher & CEO of The National Interest
The two Chinese characters that make up the word “crisis” can be interpreted as meaning both “danger” and “opportunity.” Russia today offers your administration not only a serious challenge but a significant opportunity.
Russia is no longer the Evil Empire the United States confronted over decades of Cold War. Nonetheless, Russia remains a player whose choices affect vital U.S. interests profoundly across the agenda of global issues. First and foremost, Russia remains the only nation that can erase the United States from the map in thirty minutes. Second, Russia is key to preventing nuclear terrorism as well as proliferation of other weapons of mass destruction and missile-delivery systems. Third, Russia’s decisions on whether to share intelligence, or withhold it, significantly affect odds of preventing attacks by terrorists on U.S. citizens and assets across the world. Fourth, Russia is the largest country on Earth by land area, bordering China to the East, Poland in the West, and the United States across the Arctic. (Thus, claims that it is only a “regional” power miss the fact that it abuts every important region.) Fifth, Russia’s Soviet-era scientific establishment and post-Soviet achievements make it a global leader in science and technology, particularly in high-tech military hardware. These talents allow it to mount formidable cyber capabilities, second only to the United States, and to produce impressive weapons. The only way U.S. astronauts can currently travel to and from the International Space Station is to hitch a ride on Russian rockets. The cofounder of the most advanced digital company in the world, Google, is Russian-born Sergey Brin. Sixth, Russia is prepared to fight: it has demonstrated both the capability and the will to use military force to achieve its objectives, from annexing Crimea to bolstering Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Seventh, Russia’s potential as a spoiler is difficult to exaggerate — from selling advanced systems like S-300 air defenses to Iran to aligning militarily with China.
On their current trajectory, the United States and Russia face a serious risk of stumbling into a war neither side wants and which would be catastrophic for both. You have been elected to change the way Washington does business, and nowhere is that needed more than in dealing with Moscow. While the mainstream press and punditry have panned your campaign pledge to put “America First,” we suggest you remind everyone of the mantra under which both Democratic and Republican presidents fought the Cold War. It affirmed that Americans’ primary purpose in the world was to “preserve the United States as a free nation with our fundamental institutions and values intact.” To that end, they set about building a new world order aimed at advancing the cause of peace, prosperity and freedom for all: for Americans, their allies and other nations, in that order. While some now see that hierarchy as shortsightedly selfish or unworthy of a great power, the brute fact is that the survival and success of the United States is the essential prerequisite for American power to be applied to achieve any other objective in the world. As part of your America First doctrine, we urge you to prioritize America’s most vital interests and, from that foundation, engage Russia on what matters most to American citizens’ survival and well-being.
IN ORDER to understand the way ahead, it may be useful to briefly review how America arrived at the current impasse. Ironically, as we mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the disappearance of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991, U.S. relations with Russia are in their worst state since the high Cold War. All three post–Cold War administrations—Bill Clinton’s, George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s—entered office seeking to improve relations with Moscow. Each left office with the relationship in worse condition than when he arrived. President Obama began by announcing a “reset” in relations with Russia to secure Moscow’s cooperation on a number of priorities, including his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. As his term ends, U.S. and Russian aircraft are operating in close proximity, attacking targets in Syria with minimum communication and no coordination. This risks an unintended collision that could lead to direct conflict. The United States has deployed a “tripwire” force of more than one thousand combat troops between the three frontline Baltic states, and Russia has responded by deploying advanced air defenses and nuclear-capable short-range missiles to its enclave in Kaliningrad. For the first time since the 1980s, military planners on both sides have been reexamining options that include the actual use of nuclear weapons. This outcome serves as a stark reminder that aspirations, however worthy, are not enough. Detached from coherent strategy and sustained operational execution, such aspirations not only predictably fail, but also dash hopes and incite suspicions.
Ukraine and Syria offer similar cautionary tales. Having encouraged Ukrainians to rise up against their corrupt, albeit democratically elected, president, the Obama administration and its European allies proved unwilling to mount a military response to Russia’s military intervention. Today, Ukraine is a flailing, almost failing state with no good news in sight. Syria provides a further bloody reminder that where parties are not willing to kill and die for their objectives, others who are will prevail. After announcing a grand objective—“Assad must go”—Obama was unwilling to commit American military forces to achieve that goal, leaving a vacuum that Vladimir Putin stepped in to fill. The point is not that the Obama administration should have sacrificed American lives to defend Syrians. We share the president’s judgment that American national interests do not justify that level of expenditure of American blood and treasure. Rather, the point is that successful strategy requires aligning ends and means. Where the means one is prepared to commit are inadequate to achieve grander objectives, goals must be adjusted accordingly.
To compensate for its policy failures, the Obama White House crafted two narratives. On the one hand, it claims that Russia is a loser who “doesn’t matter anymore,” so to speak. No longer a global player, it is a power in terminal decline: its economy collapsing, its population shrinking and its last-century industrial base no longer making anything the world wants to buy. On the other hand, as a high-level member of the administration confided with some embarrassment, in its final years, when facing intractable international problems, Obama’s instinct has been to “blame Russia first.” In the president’s own words,
[Putin’s] got to make a decision: Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to recreate the glories of the Soviet empire, or does he recognize that Russia’s greatness does not depend on violating the territorial integrity of other countries?
As Henry Kissinger has explained most clearly, what Obama’s “or” really means is that Putin’s Russia should repent, reverse course, and follow in the footsteps of Germany and Japan in accepting its place in a unipolar, American-led international order. In Kissinger’s words, “The U.S. has put forward no concept of its own except that Russia will one day join the world community by some automatic act of conversion.” But as he notes, this is a fantasy: Russia is too big, too powerful and too committed to maintaining its sovereignty as a great power to become a supplicant in an American-dominated world order. Moreover, while the Soviet Union did lose the Cold War and its borders were rolled back to those resembling Catherine the Great’s, unlike Germany and Japan, it was not defeated in a hot war, not occupied and thus not shaped by the United States in the way states whose constitutions were written by the victor were.
Kissinger’s alternative—with which we strongly agree—is to seek to integrate Russia into an international order that takes into account Moscow’s minimum essential interests. That would begin with recognition that Russia remains a great power with sovereign interests and from there explore “whether their concerns can be reconciled with our necessities.” Critically, this would mean treating Putin personally as the strong leader of a major power he clearly is, and is recognized by his fellow citizens to be. It would also mean avoiding gratuitous disrespect.
THE OBJECTIVE of American policy is not to placate Russia or please Putin. Rather, it is to advance vital U.S. national interests. As seen during Obama’s second term, when treated primarily as a “foe,” Russia can undermine important American objectives. If it can be persuaded to act more as a partner, within the framework of a sustainable, if difficult, working relationship, Moscow can help advance U.S. foreign-policy objectives in a number of ways.
First, productive relations between Russia and the United States are essential to avoiding war, including nuclear war. As Washington discovered in the Cold War after the Soviet Union acquired a superpower nuclear arsenal, technology has imposed on the two countries an inescapable partnership and absolute requirement for sufficient cooperation to avoid the nuclear war of which both would be the first victims. Technology has made America and Russia, in effect, Siamese twins. However angry or even disgusted either is at the other, neither can strangle the other without simultaneously committing suicide. This ugly but inescapable fact serves as the starting point in this relationship.
While the possibility of an all-out nuclear war remains highly remote, it is no longer as unthinkable as it was when President Obama entered office. Hard as it is to imagine from Washington, Russia’s national-security establishment has become seriously alarmed about what it sees as American developments and plans to undermine its nuclear deterrent. U.S. planners know that America long ago gave up trying to develop a first-strike capability against Russia—because it was unattainable. Nonetheless, even serious Russians now interpret the extraordinary advances in modern warfare the United States has demonstrated since Desert Storm as evidence of a determined plan to achieve advantages in the strategic balance that will provide leverage to coerce Russia. In fact, the United States has redefined modern warfare with ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) that allows it to target precisely any fixed point on earth and to destroy it by multiple non-nuclear means. U.S. special-operations forces are capable of spectacular initiatives, demonstrated in the unannounced raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden or the nightly attacks and raids in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Advances in ballistic missile defenses, the use of big data in antisubmarine warfare, and in what Russians claim are cyber implants in their nuclear command-and-control system do cause them to worry. No longer is this fear only discussed in classified settings at the Russian national security council. President Putin spoke directly to this point in his December year-end address to the nation: “I would like to emphasize that attempts to break strategic parity are extremely dangerous and can lead to a global catastrophe. This cannot be forgotten for a single second.”
Russian planners’ response to this fear has been to lower the threshold for their own use of nuclear weapons, organically integrating nuclear attacks earlier in the escalation ladder in what they call hybrid warfare. Moreover, they have developed a dangerous doctrine of “escalatory deescalation”: if they were losing a conventional conflict in, for example, Ukraine or the Baltics, they would conduct a limited nuclear attack aimed at “deescalating” the war. Unfortunately, the United States has contributed further to this paranoia, and to misperceptions and misunderstandings that could lead to unintended conflict by essentially cutting off all official conversations among both military and defense counterparts.
Second, U.S.-Russia cooperation can advance both nations’ counterterrorism goals, including the wars against ISIS and Al Qaeda. As you said during the campaign, “I think it would be great if we got along with Russia because we could fight ISIS together.” Most Americans agree. According to a recent poll by the University of Maryland, 67 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of Democrats want the United States to cooperate with Russia to fight ISIS in Syria. Russia’s help in the war on radical Islamic terrorism could go well beyond the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. The difference between a relationship in which the Americans and Russians are sharing intelligence and one in which they are withholding it directly impacts Washington's ability to prevent terrorist attacks on the homeland. This was illustrated vividly by the Boston Marathon bombings, where the after-action review found that Russian security services had previously tipped off their American counterparts about the Tsarnaev brothers—but that the information had been discounted because of the distrust among the parties.
Third, Russia is also uniquely suited to help prevent both terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda and state actors from acquiring nuclear weapons. As the Soviet Union was coming apart a quarter of a century ago, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney offered a fatalistic prediction about that country’s nuclear arsenal. “If the Soviets do an excellent job at retaining control over their stockpile of nuclear weapons,” Cheney said, “and they are 99 percent successful, that would mean you could still have as many as 250 that they were not able to control.” And yet, twenty-five years on, not a single loose nuclear weapon has been discovered. Moscow’s decision on whether to sell or withhold sensitive technologies can be the difference between failure and success in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, which you have rightly called “the biggest problem [in] the world.”
Fourth, U.S. strategic interests require preventing an alliance or even alignment between Moscow and Beijing. Short of a formal alliance, which neither seems to seek at this point, Russia’s backing will embolden China to take tougher positions in confronting the United States. Just as Richard Nixon’s opening to China during the Cold War expanded America’s leverage with the Soviet Union, closer relations with Russia can help counterbalance a more powerful and assertive China.
EVERYONE KNOWS that Russia is a dangerous, difficult, often disappointing state with which to try to do business. Putin is a KGB man. His view of the world, and Russia’s place in it, was shaped by formative experiences as an intelligence operative. He carries with him deep scars from the collapse of the Soviet Union—which he believes was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. A fierce patriot, he is determined to assert Russia’s role as a great power of which his fellow citizens can be proud. He is prepared to play rough and has built formidable military capabilities he is not reluctant to use. And Putin is especially sensitive to any signs of disrespect. Nonetheless, in pursuit of his goals, he has shown himself to be a strong, strategic, pragmatic leader who has played a weak hand more effectively than many who had more advantages. No one can overlook the Russian government’s offenses, including its nuclear saber-rattling, intervention in Ukraine, indiscriminate bombing in Syria and many human-rights abuses at home. But Russia is too powerful to be “wished” away. The challenge is thus to advance U.S. interests in areas where they converge with Russia’s and manage differences in areas where they diverge.
As the first step in crafting of such a policy, we recommend that your administration develop a clear hierarchy of American priorities. Unless you define the difference between the vivid and the vital—distinguishing between the bright new shiny object of the day, on the one hand, and what is essential to America, on the other—your administration will find itself following its predecessors in engaging in optional pursuits at the expense of what is absolutely necessary. We recommend beginning with President John F. Kennedy’s number one lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis: “Above all, while defending our vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.”
Second, in this spirit you should prepare carefully for an early one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin to change the dynamics in the relationship. Relations between nations involve much more than their leaders’ personal relationship. But poisonous disrespect at the top seeps down through the layers of interactions between the governments. Alternatively, where the leaders signal mutual respect, establish a working relationship and demonstrate a determination to do business where mutual interests allow, others at successive layers in their governments can find productive opportunities. Reestablishing a relationship of minimal trust requires clarity about areas of disagreement as well as agreement and red lines that cannot be crossed.
Third, your meeting with Putin should be followed by revival of government-to-government dialogue with Russia, beginning with ways to prevent an accidental war between the United States and Russia, including nuclear war. Overturning President Obama’s ban on communication at every level from president-to-president to secretaries of defense, military chiefs and regional commanders; more rigorous deconflicting in Syria; revitalization of U.S.-Russia agreements on preventing military incidents and other confidence-building measures in the military-to-military domain; and establishing rules of the game for cyber operations—these and many similar initiatives can help reduce the risk of an unintended war with Russia. This should also include working to preserve cornerstones of the bilateral strategic nuclear balance, including the New Start Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Fourth, you should change the overall U.S. approach toward the Syrian conflict. Business as usual would do the United States no good. As you quipped at one point in the campaign, “If our presidents would have gone away and gone to the beach, the Middle East would be a far better place than it is right now.” In Syria, the current approach not only risks an accidental confrontation with Russia; it distracts from the U.S. campaign to destroy terrorist forces there and alienates regional allies. American military commanders have concluded that the United States has no credible military option to prevail. Russia’s military deployments in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean have made no-fly zones unrealistic, and further arming the rebels is more likely to lead to escalation than to Moscow’s retreat. Alternatively, to switch sides and act in concert with Russia and Assad would run a major risk of angering U.S. allies and further strengthening Iran. As one of your first foreign-policy steps, we recommend that you order a review of the Syrian crisis with a view to developing a fundamentally new policy. That policy would be more open to cooperation with Russia in defeating ISIS and Al Qaeda, and less focused on removing Assad, but would also demonstrate that America will not allow Moscow and/or Tehran to impose a solution in Syria.
Fifth, though you have previously expressed skepticism about greater U.S. involvement in resolution of the Ukraine conflict, we believe you should join the efforts of European powers to find a solution, if only because this conflict also risks military confrontation with Moscow. While the cease-fire between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists is mostly holding, it is dangerous to leave the conflict not-quite-frozen. As in Syria, there are forces on the ground not entirely under the control of either Kiev or Moscow that have their own agendas and welcome occasional skirmishes. These battles can easily escalate beyond their control. There are no good military solutions. Neither the United States nor its European allies are prepared to challenge Russia militarily so close to its borders.
If the United States is not in a position to defeat Russia and its allies in Ukraine militarily, it is imperative to offer Moscow a solution that Russian leaders would consider at least minimally acceptable. As Kissinger told the editor of this magazine in 2015, this will require that you recognize that “the relationship between Ukraine and Russia will always have a special character in the Russian mind,” and therefore Ukraine “cannot be put into a simple formula of applying principles that worked in Western Europe, not that close to Stalingrad and Moscow.” But Kissinger remained optimistic about “the possibility of some cooperation between the West and Russia in a militarily nonaligned Ukraine.” We share his optimism, and believe a suitable formula would include: implementation of the Minsk agreements with concessions by both sides, reestablishing Kiev’s control over Donetsk and Luhansk but providing these two regions with genuine autonomy, and assurances that Ukraine would not join NATO for as far as the eye can see. This latter commitment should not be difficult to honor, because the United States and most major European powers do not want Ukraine in NATO in any foreseeable future.
A genuinely different approach toward the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts should incorporate credible strength and creative diplomacy to produce outcomes favorable to the United States. To demonstrate its strength, America should use military deployments and private warnings (so as to avoid publicly cornering Putin) to communicate to Moscow that unilateral solutions will not work in either Syria or Ukraine. The key is to show that the United States and its allies will be able to provide enough support to the rebels in Syria and to the government in Kiev to make sure that both conflicts are unsolvable on Moscow’s terms without prohibitive costs to Russia. This also means showing that whoever the United States chooses to support will gain strength over time, which encourages serious negotiations sooner rather than later.
Sixth, you should strengthen U.S. military capabilities in ways that simultaneously dissuade Russia from aggression (both overt and covert) against NATO allies in Europe and respect Russia’s legitimate interest in ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet Union. It is almost impossible for the United States to have too big a stick. But by far the most likely paths to military conflict with Russia begin not with a premeditated Russian attack, but with an unintended event, for example, an incident between nationals and ethnic Russians in one of the Baltics that creates a crisis in which Putin concludes he must intervene. NATO is the greatest alliance in history and played an essential role in America’s Cold War victory. But today, it stands in need of substantial reform. Europe is presently itself in crisis. The failure of the EU economies to grow since the Great Recession, Brexit, uncertainties about who may be Nexit, an unending stream of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, and an inability to control its own borders—all these raise fundamental questions about the viability of the European project. Given these challenges, the United States should not allow itself to become a lightning rod—or scapegoat. Thus we urge you to reiterate America’s commitment to NATO, including Article Five security guarantees, at the outset. But Washington should also propose that NATO members undertake a zero-based reassessment of the alliance. In his inaugural address, JFK urged Americans not to ask what their government could do for them but to “ask what you can do for your country.” European leaders should ask less what America can do for them and more what they can do for European security.
Your effort will be aided by an overall increase in U.S. military capabilities, much as President Ronald Reagan’s diplomatic outreach to the Soviet Union benefited from a perception in Moscow that the United States was changing the balance of power in its favor after a period of decline. This is especially important at a time when Russia’s defense production is poised to grow by 10 percent this year, despite economic pressure. Combining investment in U.S. capabilities with calculated use of your reputation for unpredictability could be particularly useful, much as Nixon cultivated the image of a “madman” to enhance his leverage in Southeast Asia. An early demonstration of your resolve might also be necessary—when suitable circumstances arise—to change Russian perceptions of the costs of ignoring U.S. preferences.
At the same time, we urge you to follow through on your campaign pledge to persuade Europe to contribute more to the alliance. Since European NATO members are the principal beneficiaries of the security guarantee, and they collectively exceed the United States in population and rival it in gross domestic product, they should pay a significantly larger share of the costs. We should put an end to the illusion that, as the Financial Times put it, “the U.S. commitment to defend even the newest and smallest NATO members must remain unconditional.” Like all alliances, NATO is valuable to the extent that it advances and defends other American national interests—it is an instrument, not the icon that some in Europe (and particularly Central Europe) would understandably like it to be.
Accordingly, the United States should reiterate its commitment to defend the Baltic states from naked aggression, in concert with other allies, but insist that the Baltic governments themselves attempt to normalize relations with Moscow and meet the highest international standards in ensuring the rights of ethnic Russians. The goal must be to prevent incidents that could provide a temptation—or excuse—for Russian intervention. There should be no illusions that America accepts responsibility for allies who provoke conflict and then request assistance and reassurance to deal with the consequences.
Seventh, the United States should never apologize for its values, for its belief that basic human rights are the endowment of all human beings and its conviction that democracy is the best form of government. This is who America is. Nonetheless, we recommend communicating to Putin that regime change is not America’s objective. As a recent superpower still nostalgic for its past glory, Russia is particularly sensitive to efforts to shape its domestic processes. We suggest treating Russia the way the United States treats other undemocratic nations with whom it is friendly, such as Saudi Arabia.
Eighth, we encourage your administration to give greater consideration to Russia’s possible and likely responses in making policy decisions. Today, Russia is almost an afterthought in U.S. national security decisionmaking. In selecting individuals for key positions dealing with Russia, it will be important to appoint those both willing and able to implement your policy.
Ninth, you should seek ways to expand the economic foundation of the bilateral relationship. Though Russia has the sixth-largest economy in the world (measured in terms of purchasing parity), it ranks thirty-seventh among buyers of American products. With more than thirty years of experience in dealing with Russia as a businessman, you can bring unprecedented insights into ways to address this issue.
Last but not least, you should recognize that any meaningful attempt to pursue a new beginning with Moscow will face fierce opposition from some in Congress, many in the media and more of the bureaucracy than you imagine. Having a strong national-security team — and explaining that in reaching out to Russia you will not abandon important U.S. interests — should be sufficient to assure those who are willing to wait and see. Still, there will be vigorous opposition to any realistic engagement with Russia. Some are irreconcilably hostile to Russia. Thus, for your sharp turn in policy to succeed, you will need to make your case directly to the American people — something you have done many times during the campaign. If Americans clearly understand that the current path leads inexorably to a crossroad at which the U.S. and Russian presidents will have to choose between humiliation and nuclear confrontation, they too will move beyond the wishful thinking that has thus far prevented the United States from effectively pursuing its real national interests.