Reappraising the West’s Approach Toward Russia
The West’s 25-year effort to pull Russia into the circle of politically liberal, economically developed countries has failed. Moscow’s disregard for the territorial integrity of its neighbors has exposed the failure of Western strategy while highlighting the vulnerabilities of Western interests. The time has come for a reassessment of the West’s strategy toward Russia, which ultimately must eschew cooperative tools in favor of a more competitive approach.
The strategy toward Russia over the last quarter century has been driven by a consensus in the West, certainly within Western Europe, that economic interdependence and other forms of interconnectedness enmesh states in a web of relationships that ameliorate insecurity, disincentivize armed conflict, and lead to peaceful settlement of disputes. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s essentially the rapprochement model employed by the West vis-à-vis Germany, Italy, and Japan in the years and decades after World War II. The logic of security and peace through interdependence rests at least in part on the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats – in other words, a positive-sum game, in which benefits for one country lead to benefits for all.
Given the West’s success in using the interdependence approach, it made sense to apply this model to Russia in the wake of the Cold War. After decades of ideological competition with the Soviet Union – punctuated by periodic armed conflict with and through proxies in places like Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan – the West sought to pull the USSR’s dominant successor state, Russia, into the fold. This included membership in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 1992, extensive economic assistance from the West, establishment of a NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council in 1997, an invitation to join the G7 group of advanced industrialized economies in 1998, the promotion of Western investment in Russia, the founding of a special NATO-Russia Council in 2002, and membership in the World Trade Organization in 2012. All of these efforts were designed to give Russia more of a stake in the international system, to build a prosperous and stable middle class within Russia, and ultimately to foster a constructive, positive working relationship.
In return for these efforts though, the West has achieved mixed results at best, often gaining little in terms of practical cooperation from Moscow in solving some of the most difficult security challenges of the last quarter century. Examples of Russia’s obstructionism are easy to enumerate. In the face of clear ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in the late 1990s, Moscow seemed indifferent, preferring instead to stand with Serbia. More recently, Russia was largely unhelpful in Libya, maintaining its support for the Gaddafi regime well into the conflict that resulted in his demise. Moscow has almost singlehandedly prevented the international community from taking stronger, concerted diplomatic, economic, and military action against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Russia played a key role in pressuring Kyrgyzstan to end U.S. access to the Manas airbase, which had become a critical logistical hub for resupplying allied forces in Afghanistan. Regarding U.S. efforts to augment NATO’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, even after the Obama administration cancelled the fourth and final phase of its European BMD program for technical reasons – which, from Moscow’s perspective, was the most strategically destabilizing element of the U.S. program – Moscow continues to thwart Western efforts to cooperate on BMD. And it’s easy to forget that Moscow has worked hard to maintain frozen conflicts in the Transnistria region of Moldova, the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.
Admittedly, there have been some exceptions to this trend. For instance, Russia agreed to allow NATO to ship nonlethal supplies from Europe through Russia and into Afghanistan – provided the allies used Russian carriers of course. Additionally, Russia has played an important role in negotiations over the future of Iran’s nuclear program. Some also credit Russia with helping to defuse the crisis over Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
All of these examples – the few of cooperation and the several of obstruction – remind us that even with an office at NATO’s headquarters, a seat at the WTO’s table, and an increasingly prosperous and growing middle class, Russia is unlikely to always see eye to eye with the West. It has been clear for years, for instance, that Moscow objected to an expanding NATO – perhaps only because Russia perceived its sphere of influence contracting. Moscow evidently viewed the EU’s efforts to draw Ukraine closer in the same light, precipitating the current crisis. In reality, to expect completely parallel interests between Moscow and the West is simply to ask too much – in international relations, states usually pursue their national interests, which converge and diverge according to circumstance and an array of other variables.
However, it’s not too much to ask that Russia at least play by the rules of the international order. In invading Ukraine and seizing part of its territory – similar in some ways to what Russia did in Georgia in 2008 – Russia has shown again and again it remains interested only in playing a zero-sum game, where every gain for Moscow is necessarily a loss for the West. It appears that from Moscow’s perspective, Western norms and values are only as useful as the material gains they might lead to, and interdependence and interconnectedness represent, at best, short-term expediencies in the pursuit of those gains. As it has for many decades, Moscow remains willing (and able) to violate both formal rules of behavior as defined in treaties to which it is a signatory and more informal but no less important norms of behavior well-established in Europe.
If a 25-year-old Western strategy of engagement, cooperation, and interdependence has not succeeded in curbing Moscow’s willingness and/or ability to threaten vital Western interests through the violation of basic tenets of state behavior, then clearly the West needs a new strategy. Indeed, it seems that such a reassessment may be underway within the U.S. government, but to date there is no such effort going on within NATO. Instead, the alliance is pursuing a wait-and-see approach for now, hoping that the sanctions imposed to date will be sufficient to compel Moscow to reverse course in Ukraine.
There are several obvious options for a revised Western strategy toward Russia, some more feasible than others. At one extreme, the West could just ignore Russia or simply not engage it, but that seems unrealistic. Russia is too large, it is the only country on Earth with the potential to pose an existential threat to the United States and NATO, and it has the ability (and evidently the willingness) to threaten vital Western interests in three geopolitical theaters. Additionally, it is a major player in one of the most significant security challenges facing the West today – that is, managing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Russia is hence an important international actor and must be dealt with as such by the West.
Another option could be to return to the strategy of containment, which was pursued by the West during the Cold War and which proved particularly effective at managing expansionist elements of Moscow’s foreign policy. However, containment is not a particularly efficient tool for dealing with Russia today, as it would impose unsustainable costs on the West, which China and other developing countries would take advantage of.
A third possibility is simply regurgitating some version of the latest incarnation of Western strategy and policy toward Russia – a willingness to work with Moscow where interests converge while standing up to the Kremlin when necessary in other issues areas. However, this would represent an epic failure on the part of the West to think strategically vis-à-vis Russia, and to leverage Western sources of strategic advantage.
Whatever its ultimate formulation, the West’s new strategy toward Russia must begin by recognizing that Moscow – with or without Putin – is likely to continue to play a zero-sum game for at least the next quarter century and perhaps beyond. Therefore, Western strategies that rely on policies that include incentives are unlikely to sufficiently safeguard Western interests. Instead, a more competitive strategy seems necessary, one that exploits but does not exhaust Western leverage in curbing Russia’s behavior, minimizes Russian leverage against the West, and ultimately diminishes Russia’s ability to hold Western interests at risk.
A revised Western strategy toward Russia will not be easily achieved politically, diplomatically, or perhaps even economically. Nonetheless, a reappraisal is obviously necessary, and the sooner it begins, the sooner the West will see its interests safeguarded once again.
Dr. John R. Deni is a Research Professor of Security Studies at the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, where he is working on a monograph regarding Western strategy toward Russia. You can follow him at @JohnRDeni.
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