The Policy World Meets Academia: Designing U.S. Policy toward Russia

Chapter 4: Assessing the Russian Challenge to U.S. Policy

Back to table of contents
Timothy J. Colton, Timothy Frye, and Robert Legvold
U.S. Policy Toward Russia

Thomas Graham

In the first two decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, U.S.-Russia relations suffered two cycles in which great expectations for cooperation were followed by profound disappointment in the results. Both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations left relations with Russia in worse shape than they found them and in arguably the worst condition relations had been since the late 1980s. The Obama administration hopes to avoid this fate as it seeks to “reset” relations with Russia. But progress has come slowly and with great difficulty—best illustrated by the prolonged negotiations for a START follow-on treaty that the administration initially regarded as low-hanging fruit—which underscores the challenge confronting President Obama.

The obstacles impeding constructive U.S.-Russia relations have changed over time, and President Obama almost certainly faces the most daunting challenge thus far. During the Clinton and Bush administrations, Russia policy failed primarily because of disparities between American assumptions and the reality in Russia. The Clinton administration assumed that Russia would make rapid progress in building a free-market democracy, even if it understood that success would require a generation or more. Instead, in the 1990s, Russia endured a socioeconomic and political crisis of a scale unknown to any great power that had not been defeated in a great war. The Bush administration assumed that an increasingly weak Russia would welcome the opportunity to follow the United States’ lead in building a new world order based on American values. Instead, in the 2000s, Russia engineered a remarkable recovery. It reasserted itself as a major power pursuing an independent foreign policy that was often at odds with American objectives.

Whether the Obama administration has made similarly unreliable assumptions about Russia is less consequential than the challenges posed by the current global geopolitical context. The two previous administrations envisioned a post–Cold War world marked by the advance of democracy and free markets under the leadership of the United States, deemed the “sole remaining superpower” or “indispensable nation” in contemporary rhetoric. This triumphalism reached its apogee under President Bush, who believed that the United States could use its military might unilaterally to reshape the world in its image. President Obama, however, does not find himself in this post–Cold War world. Rather, as a consequence of the failed policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations and, more important, of deeper-lying trends, the post–Cold War world as envisaged by American leaders has ended. The world has entered a period of great flux and uncertainty that will endure until a new global equilibrium is established.

This new world is unlike any the United States has encountered since it emerged as a great power a century ago. It is multipolar; it is global; it is globalized. The new global equilibrium will be built on a number of regional equilibriums in Europe, East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas. Isolationism is not an option for the United States as it was in the decades that preceded World War II. America’s security and well-being are too enmeshed in places and events beyond its borders to withdraw from the global stage.

Moreover, this new world is unlike any the United States has faced since it became permanently engaged in global affairs on the eve of its entry into World War II. There is no strategic foe (a Nazi Germany, an Imperial Japan, or a Soviet Union) to provide a central focus for U.S. foreign policy; there is no overarching goal (“unconditional surrender” or “containment”) to guide thinking on specific issues. Rather, the United States is facing a number of great powers and lesser regional ones with which it has—and will continue to have—varying relations of cooperation and competition. This situation is a familiar one to most other powers; it is a novelty for the United States.

Finally, the new world presents challenges to all states that are qualitatively different from those of the past. These challenges are produced by the very character of the international system, or more precisely, the dark side of globalization: proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism, pandemic diseases, climate change, and massive, unregulated transnational financial flows. No one state can master these challenges on its own; most international organizations, including the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, are inadequate. The need to cooperate on global issues only sharpens the contradictions in an international system in which states still operate—and compete with one another—on the basis of parochial assessments of national interest.

Thus the Obama administration will have to pursue a much more subtle and complex diplomacy than previous administrations have followed. The United States is—and will likely remain—the preeminent world power by any measure. But its margin of superiority is narrowing, and its mounting national debt will only further constrict its room for maneuver. The United States must establish its priorities and pursue them in a disciplined fashion.

This new world will necessitate a change in the institutional mindset of the American national security apparatus, which was profoundly shaped by the Cold War. The National Security Act of 1947 created the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Defense Department (as part of a reorganization of the military) just as the State Department was rapidly growing to deal with permanent global responsibilities. The core of these agencies’ worldview grew out of the global geopolitical, zero-sum, ideological contest with their Soviet counterparts. This worldview not only survived the Cold War, but thrived in the years thereafter. The sole consequential change was the loss of the other superpower as a restraining influence, which eventually led to the excesses of the second Bush administration.

As a result of altered circumstances, today and well into the future, the United States must do well what it has done poorly in the past: engage inmultipolar, not simply multilateral, diplomacy. To advance its own interests, the United States will have to cooperate with other major powers. Cooperation will require that it pay greater heed to the interests of other powers and accommodate those interests to some degree to advance its own, for no effective cooperation will endure unless each major power believes its own interests have been sufficiently satisfied. As much as American leaders would like to set and lead the international agenda, that agenda will emerge from the welter of competing national interests, and leadership will be shared or else contested.


One of the most difficult relationships in this new world will be between the United States and Russia. The residual distrust and suspicion left by the bitter Cold War struggle have been exacerbated by the disappointments and reversals of the past twenty years. Yet Russia remains critical to the achievement of many American priorities. With its large nuclear arsenal and experience in nuclear matters, Russia is indispensable to any effort to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and, more specifically, to President Obama’s signature goal of moving toward a world without nuclear weapons. As the largest exporter of hydrocarbons in the world, and as a major consumer of them, Russia is critical to global energy security and to managing climate change. By reason of its geographical location, vast resources, and political and economic ties, it has a central role to play in the construction of durable security structures in East Asia, the broader Middle East, and Europe. With one of the world’s largest economies, Russia has an impact—though not as large as that of China or India—on global economic developments. In short, across this broad range of issues, the United States will always be better off if it can work with Russia rather than at cross-purposes.

Fostering cooperation with Russia will require the United States to make tough trade-offs and demonstrate a willingness to accommodate Russia’s interests, at least to the extent that it does not jeopardize its own. Such an approach meets considerable resistance within the American foreign policy establishment and specifically within the government. “Trade-offs” are construed as “compromises of principles”; “accommodation” is taken to mean “appeasement.” American officials would much prefer to deal with each discrete issue on its own merits, even if they understand that the overall atmosphere can help or hinder reaching agreement on specific matters. They have a fundamental belief that the United States can cooperate with Russia on shared interests while vigorously resisting Russia in other areas, a belief encapsulated in the Bush administration’s short description of its approach to Russia: cooperate where we can; push back where we must.

For Russia, however, everything is linked; it believes in trade-offs. In Russia’s view, if the United States wants cooperation on its high priorities, it must be willing to cooperate on Russia’s. At a minimum, it must not actively seek to thwart Russia’s efforts to advance key interests. In other words, there will be no progress on the American agenda without progress on Russia’s. As a result, in developing an effective policy toward Russia, one that persuades Russia to help advance key American interests, the United States faces myriad challenges. Of particular import are the challenges of clashing interests, different priorities, and policy coherence.


Two related issues stand out because they lie at the core of Russia’s self-identification as a great power: the former Soviet space and Russia’s role in Europe.

The former Soviet space is also the former Imperial Russia space. Primacy in this region, if not outright domination, has historically given Russia geopolitical heft and formed an essential bulwark against external threats. In President Medvedev’s formulation, Russia has a zone of “privileged interests” in this region. (He might have been tempted to declare a “sphere of influence” but likely realized that defending such a claim is beyond Russia’s current capabilities.) At the same time, the United States is not prepared to recognize a Russian zone of any kind in the former Soviet space because it, too, has interests there—geopolitical and commercial, among others. Moreover, at least in the current era, the United States believes as a matter of world order that sovereign states have a right to determine a foreign-policy orientation consistent with their own national interests and priorities.

Stiff, at times behind-the-scenes, competition in this region poisoned the U.S.-Russia relationship during the Bush administration. Thus far, regional competition has not been a problem for the Obama administration. Its decision to mute any talk of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, together with developments in these two countries, has tempered U.S.-Russia geopolitical competition in the former Soviet space. But tensions remain, particularly in the Caucasus and Central Asia, because of the continuing struggle over energy resources. These tensions persist despite growing cooperation on Afghanistan, including the increased shipment of war matériel across Russia and Central Asia by land and air to U.S. and NATO forces. Moreover, the easing of tensions that has occurred has come not from bilateral discussions on how to manage conflicting interests, but from unilateral decisions to hold back on controversial moves. As a result, the current calm is fragile. It takes little imagination to write scenarios that could quickly pit U.S. interests against Russia’s (instability in Georgia or in the Fergana Valley in Central Asia, for example) and that could reverse the current positive trend in relations.

A similar situation arises with respect to Europe. Europe is the arena in which Russia has historically exercised its clout and revealed itself as a great power in contests with other European states. President Medvedev’s call for revising European security architecture—to make security on the continent indivisible, or create equal security for all—is an effort to reinsert Russia into European affairs as NATO and EU actions push it to the margins. But the logic of European integration and NATO enlargement, particularly once the Balkans are brought fully into these processes, means that much of what happens in Europe (beyond the former Soviet space) is rightfully “internal” EU (or European) and NATO affairs, in which Russia’s involvement should be minimal. In other words, the United States and the EU are working, by design or not, to keep Russia out of Europe proper while encouraging it to engage constructively with Europe on common challenges. Russia, for its part, intends to operate inside Europe while pursuing an independent policy as a great power.

Efforts to bring Russia constructively into European security arrangements have begun. NATO, for example, made an explicit attempt to engage Russia in its new strategic concept by sending a high-level group of experts to Moscow to listen to Russian concerns in early 2010. Successful management of conflicting interests entails redirecting Russia’s great-power aspirations and demonstrations of influence away from Europe to Asia. It requires building U.S.-EU-Russia cooperation on security challenges that emanate from outside Europe, such as the rise of China and India as major economic and geopolitical players; nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction; counternarcotics, particularly with regard to Afghanistan; and instability in the broader Middle East. Addressing these issues will take considerable time, given Russia’s views of its role in the world and the EU’s aversion to developing the hard-power capabilities to operate effectively beyond Europe. Success is far from certain.


The Obama administration has identified a number of shared interests to provide the basis for cooperation with Russia, including Iran and Afghanistan. But shared interests are not sufficient grounds for cooperation, particularly when those shared interests are embedded in different contexts and are assigned dramatically varied levels of priority.

As the Obama administration—and the Bush administration before it— has stated, Russia shares our interests in preventing Iran from developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon. The problem is that Iran’s nuclear program ranks at the top of the United States’ priorities, not Russia’s. (Russia’s new military doctrine, adopted in February 2010, puts nonproliferation sixth in a list of concerns, after NATO, strategic missile defense, and related matters.) Moreover, the two countries fix Iran’s nuclear program in radically different assessments of Iran. The United States sees a hostile Iran that supports international terrorism (Hamas and Hezbollah), destabilizes the Persian Gulf, and oppresses its own people. Russia, by contrast, sees a constructive Iran that, as an important regional power, has played a positive role in Central Asia and the Caucasus (by not supporting the Chechen rebels as the West did) and that provides a market for Russian arms and civil nuclear projects (the Bushehr reactor). In addition, Iran holds large gas reserves, which, if developed, could compete for European gas markets now dominated by Russia. Since gas revenue provides a considerable share of Russia’s federal budget, tension between Iran and the United States that effectively blocks Iran from European markets also serves Russia’s interests.

These differences complicate any effort to cooperate on the shared interest of nuclear weapons, as current discussions of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran have underscored. The United States wants to cripple a hostile regime; Russia does not want to antagonize gratuitously an important—and largely friendly—neighbor.

Similarly, U.S. and Russian policies on Afghanistan are in broad agreement on preventing Afghanistan from becoming, once again, a haven for terrorists with global reach. But the United States and Russia understand the terrorist threat in different ways. For the United States, the key terrorist threat is al-Qaeda, the militant Islamic fundamentalist group that attacked on 9/11; it is prepared to make compromises with some Taliban factions on the condition that they refuse to provide sanctuary for al-Qaeda. For Russia, by contrast, it is precisely the Taliban that poses a threat to the region extending from Central Asia to Russia proper. Significantly, the Taliban fostered the insurgent Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and officially recognized and supported the Chechen separatists.

From this divergence in security concerns, other differences emerge. Russia, for example, wants to see a major poppy eradication program in Afghanistan because drug flows from Afghanistan feed an immense narcotics problem in Russia. The United States, however, has been reluctant to launch such a campaign, fearing negative consequences for its counterterrorist operations against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Finally, whereas the United States hopes to sufficiently stabilize the situation in Afghanistan so that it can withdraw in a year or two, Russia is not opposed to the United States’ becoming mired there. U.S. commitments in Afghanistan diminish the United States’ ability to challenge Russia elsewhere while it helps contain the instability to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Given the sharp contrasts in these perspectives, it is hardly surprising that shared interests at one level have engendered uneven and halfhearted cooperation by Russia on Iran and Afghanistan. However displeasing it may be to the United States, Russia’s position is not irrational given its own national interests. If the United States hopes to persuade Russia to be more helpful in addressing U.S. concerns, it has to satisfy Russia’s needs to some extent. To create incentives for Russia to cooperate on Iran and Afghanistan, the United States can seek to alter Russia’s priorities by providing offsetting benefits in the case of Iran; it can help Russia deal with its top challenges in Afghanistan, even if that detracts some resources from the United States’ top priorities; or it can work to accommodate Russia’s interests in the former Soviet space and Europe. The issue is quite simply whether the benefits of partnership with Russia outweigh the costs of obtaining it.


Given the multitude of bureaucratic players and interested parties in Washington, policy coherence is a challenge on any issue. Bureaucratic stovepipes are the bane of good policy on complex issues. During the Cold War, the challenge of creating a unified policy toward the Soviet Union was attenuated because the Soviet Union lay at the center of all U.S. foreign policy. The United States looked at the world through the prism of its relations with its Soviet rival. Policies toward other countries or on most international questions were subordinate to the strategic goal of containment. In other words, there was an organizing principle for U.S. foreign policy as a whole, and specifically with regard to the Soviet Union.

Twenty-first-century Russia, while still important, is not at the center of U.S. foreign policy. The United States does not look at the rest of the world through the prism of its relations with Russia. Rather, the United States views Russia through the prisms of its relations with other countries or of other issues. For instance, Russia might have a predominant role in U.S. nonproliferation policy, but it is not the only major factor. Moreover, it is a relatively minor actor in U.S. policy on global economic governance, compared to Europe, Japan, China, and India. The same is true of counterterrorism, energy security, regional conflicts, climate change, and space exploration: Russia is a factor, but not the sole nor generally the most important one. The situation is exacerbated at the working level inside the U.S. government: While there may be an official responsible for policy toward Russia, that official does not have the lead responsibility for the vast majority of issues that affect Russia. The National Security Council staff, for example, has different directorates with lead responsibility for nonproliferation, energy, counterterrorism, Europe, and Asia, among other issues. Similar divisions of responsibility exist at the Departments of State and Defense. In this environment, the integration of policy toward Russia is nearly impossible.

Integration must begin at a higher level. The lowest-level possibility is most likely the under secretary level, where an official might have responsibility for the full range of political, economic, or arms control issues. Further integration can be achieved at the higher levels of deputy secretary and secretary. But full integration is only possible at the level of the president, as only the president can resolve differences between the secretaries of state and defense, for example.

In short, for the United States to produce a coherent Russia policy, the president must be engaged. But the president, particularly President Obama, has other pressing matters to address, both domestic and foreign. That he has devoted considerable attention to Russia thus far is indeed surprising. But it defies logic to believe that he will continue to do so unless relations with Russia provide some tangible, significant benefits in the near term and offer prospects for major benefits in the future. The negotiation of a new START agreement in Spring 2010 was an important achievement that perhaps justified President Obama’s intensive engagement during his first year in office. Nonetheless, the administration has yet to articulate a strategy going forward that would continue to justify a considerable commitment of the president’s time and energy. Indeed, it may be looking for a justification to reduce its commitment: Progress on a current administration priority—building up U.S.-Russian commercial relations—would shift a considerable share of the burden of maintaining the relationship to the private sector.

For the United States, the Russia question boils down to a simple one, even if the answer lies in a web of contradictions, complexities, and unknowns. The price the United States should be willing to pay to gain Russia’s cooperation depends on Russia’s future. Is the United States facing a Russia in secular decline, a country enjoying a brief moment of resurgence in a downward trajectory? Or is it facing a Russia on the long-term rise after a decade or two of profound crisis and national humiliation? In other words, should the United States seek cooperation with Russia now for tactical advantage, while Russia’s resurgence lasts, or should it seek strategic cooperation for the long term as Russia rebuilds? That, in a nutshell, is the Russian challenge to U.S. policy and the analytical community.