Our media and Democrats, as well as some hard-line Republicans, are painting an adversarial picture of Russia. Demonizing them as an “enemy” or “threat” responsible for election hacking, regional instability and on the wrong side of Syria. To be honest, Russia’s actions and behavior over the last eight years has been abhorrent and could present a credible threat. But to who and at what level? Judging any nation (emphasis on “nation”) on how they govern and more specifically on regional actions or national interests is hypocritical. The U.S. is quick to pass judgment on others without reflecting on their own actions (i.e. Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Nicagurua, Snowden, etc.) and inability to see through other’s lenses — the number of countries the U.S has directly or indirectly influenced through elections or just plain espionage is in the dozens, to include Russia — there are no sacred cows! This does not mean that the U.S. cannot pass judgment nor does it give Russia a pass, but one must look to strategic rationale before they label and worse, shut the door on a critical relationship.
The U.S. is losing ground internationally and if we are to rebound from the last eight years of apologetic foreign policies and diminishing power, the U.S. must revive this key relationship, ignoring it will be a mistake.
Why we must have a relationship with Russia
If the U.S. had taken time over the last eight years to build a rapport with Russia and better understand the last twenty-five years of post-communist chaos, governance, and paranoia, we would be in a much better position to influence Russia’s dangerous behavior. To paint a broad isolationist and demonizing brush on a major global player without looking at the strategic cost is nothing less than short sited and irresponsible. It is one-sided diplomacy at its finest. And in the end, will create more problems for the U.S. Let’s take a look at some important reasons why a U.S. relationship with Russia is so important.
On Jan 1st, 1991 the Soviet Union for all intent and purposes collapsed. Left behind was a new Russia and 14 new and independent former Soviet Union states (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Hungary, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan). Out of these former Soviet states, three (Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan) possessed nuclear weapons. Securing these weapons was of paramount importance to the U.S and Russia. After a series of negotiations, several brokered agreements convinced these former Soviet states to voluntarily give up their nuclear arms. Some were destroyed as part of existing treaties, and others returned to Russia. As a result, Russia was now the only nuclear power in Western and Eastern Europe (outside of Great Britain and France).
Over the next two decades and several Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaties, Russia now possess some 7000 nuclear warheads (down from 45,000 in 1988) compared to the U.S.’s 6800 warheads (down from 31000 in 1988). However, Russia’s nuclear capability is technically superior in devastation, designing multiple warheads per weapon vs. one warhead philosophy for the U.S.; it is quality vs. quantity. However, the U.S. maintains geographically separated launch platforms capable of retaliating anywhere in the world assuring a devastating counterattack (e.g. land, sea, and air-based). Even with such differences, both are lethal and destructive affording parity and the deterrence of “mutually assured destruction (MAD).”
Nuclear capability is a big stick on the world stage. What carries with it is mostly a quiet but persuasive diplomatic edge. It is the ultimate influencer and softly sits back and shapes diplomatic negotiations — specifically, security issues. But not to be lost in its ability to influence is the background shadow it casts on all negotiations, like foreign affairs, technology, economics, trade, and commerce. For example, our NATO alliance depends on both conventional and nuclear deterrence to offset Russian aggression since Russia maintains an advantage on the battlefield (geography, nuclear delivery, and speed), which could push NATO toward a strategic nuclear response? Yet, despite this tactical superiority, Russia is still conventionally paranoid and sees a U.S. led NATO as a direct affront to Russian sovereignty and its western borders, meaning, they understand the Western turn of the former Soviet States and more importantly the neutering of MAD, which makes conventional warfare still predominant. In other words, owning or controlling territory is still king — more on the value of territory later. These dynamics set the stage for instability and distrust, two catalysts for conflict and escalation. A further example of the nuclear card is recent “saber rattling” exchanges between the U.S. and Russia, as stated by Vladimir Putin, “Russia is one of the largest nuclear powers. This is a reality, not just words…thank God, I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia.” Likewise, Donald Trump in Dec 2016 stated, “Let it be an arms race.”
The world anxiously notices the dynamics of this tension and quietly looks to the U.S. to calm things down. In fact, Europe (specifically the Baltics) frantically sees the strain as a survival issue and looking for U.S. leadership. Demonizing Russia pushes their backs against the wall and is not in our best interest…it is a relationship sitting on a tinderbox.
The bottom line is Russia is a nuclear power capable of wreaking devastation anywhere in the world. The best counter is a relationship. One where continual discussion, trust, mutual respect, and common interests keep their fingers off the nuclear button.
After the fall of communism and the chaos that reigned, many of the former Soviet Union countries became independent. The most important of these were known as the Warsaw Pact countries (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Albania and Romania) which mostly buffered the former Soviet Union’s eastern border. It was created as a counter and territorial buffer to NATO. In addition to this, Yugoslavia (the lower Balkans) disintegrated and spent the entire 90s in war and conflict ending up with six independent nations (Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Bosnia-Herzegovina), which today Russia, the U.S., EU, and NATO still vie for influence.
After 70 years of oppressive communist rule, many of these new countries looked to emulate the West demanding democracy or western governance and ideology. Consequently, in the last twenty years, thirteen of these 26 countries are now in NATO with 11 of them in the European Union (EU). To describe this democratic transformation as nothing but game-changing would be a historical underestimation. It is an incredibly important political change for these regions, not to mention the expansion of free market economies. However, it did little to ease Russian concerns on an expanding West.
In contrast, Russia still clings to old Soviet Union paranoia and 300 years of nostalgic czarist dominance. It views the western alignment of former Soviet states as threatening its very existence. Ukrainian ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev reminded a Yale-sponsored eastern European roundtable audience, “in Russia’s eyes, post-Soviet conflicts were the fault of the West, and that all of Russia’s actions were merely reactions to infringement on its historical sphere of influence.” Annexation of Crimea and involvement in Ukraine (as well as Georgia) are brutal indicators of the degree at which they will intervene to protect its regional interests. In addition, Russian involvement outside of their sphere is another barometer of their desire to be a global leader. Russia’s distrust, misleading communication, and neurotic leadership create an atmosphere of hidden agendas and delusion, which can lead directly to misaligned and unneeded involvement (e.g. Syria).
The U.S. must see the world through a Russian lens if it is to develop a relationship of respect and influence. Remember there are no sacred cows and without a rapport of understanding, friction and eventual conflict will ensue.
Common Interests and Sanctions
Wealth is always a common interest. It goes along with power and influence. And what generates the majority of wealth within countries is consumerism, resources, and trade…two areas that the U.S. can assist. Currently, the U.S. has an estimated GDP of $18 trillion with close to 4% growth and ranked 1st in the world (GDP measuring the size of the economy). Whereas, Russia’s GDP is around $1.2 trillion with 0.6% growth and ranked 12th in the world. The U.S. yields a big economic stick and can carry a heavy-handed way of influencing…it must use this leverage to its advantage…Putin knows this better than anyone in Russia.
Sanctions are a method to influence behavior but not an enduring method. They can get someones attention because they nibble at a countries wealth, the very wealth that command governments depend on to provide services to its people, thus creating public discord…an easy way to eat at power. But taken too far, meaning it is the only way you influence, it can create the opposite effect and that of public discord redirected at the oppressor, creating an ironic shift of blame. In other words, sanctions fo work but should not be the primary means of influence, the age-old method of discussion, persuasion, and agreement work best!
Yet, even with its economic weight and the effect of sanctions, if the U.S. really wants to change Russian behavior, it needs to find common ground. Battering works only so far and with a Rennaissance and KGB trained dictator like Putin, it can create paranoia and aggressive reactions (e.g. Crimea and Ukraine). To ease these tensions, it is imperative when negotiating with other countries to find common interests…and there are many. Technology, science, agriculture, energy, and the arctic as well as combating terrorism are all mutual interests to both the U.S. and Russia. Capitalizing on these shared interests builds trust and with trust builds confidence. Confidence goes a long way to curbing paranoia — the result being better security, less hacking and honest partnering but most of all, it can influence behavior.
The U.S. has a golden opportunity to become better business partners with Russia stimulating growth on both sides of the Atlantic. Also, U.S. Russian trade is small and could be much larger thereby invigorating the Russian economy…remember consumerism and trade. Exploit common and the U.S. could break the ice of cold war like relations and promote a warmer more beneficial understanding.
Relationships build trust and trust build’s influence and influence changes behavior. If the U.S. is to change behavior, it must find shared interests and use these to shape actions.
China’s GDP is $12.2 trillion with an annual 6.7% growth rate. By 2030, analysts project China will eclipse the U.S. economy. China’s economic influence is already parallel to the U.S in particular economic sectors and continues at a 6-7% annual growth rate. China is a command economy that nixes in capitalism along manufacturing lines. However, the state still controls economic production through heavy-handed oversight and direction. This has its advantages, especially along the lines of central planning. It makes it much easier to develop long-term plans and execute them giving speculators confidence in China’s economic direction. However, it does not play well to innovation and creativity, as seen through required Chinese intellectual property theft and re-engineering. The U.S. has suffered from Chinese exploitation of weak U.S. leadership and diplomacy, resulting in a current trade imbalance around $400B. Closed Chinese economic sectors, low labor costs, few traded U.S. goods, and intellectual theft have indirectly promoted China to a world power willing and now able to expand its regional influence. Btw, China has done more to damage the U.S. economy and our way of life than any Russian hacker. This is not lost with Trump and a trade war alone will not resolve this current imbalance. Hedging is key but not at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) of which out of the 11 countries involved the U.S. possessed close to a $200B trade deficit…how does that hedge against China?…well, at the expense of the U.S., that’s how.
The U.S. for the first time since its birth can no longer rely on themselves to yield power and influence. Russia is in the Chinese neighborhood and is a key to a U.S. counterbalance. For example, Russia is a major global energy player ranking 2nd in the world. It is the largest supplier to Europe supplying over 30% of its oil. More importantly, and to the point of hedging, Russia has doubled its oil exports to China in the last five years surging ahead of Saudi Arabia as the largest oil importer for China. Adding to this, China has surpassed the U.S as the biggest net importer of oil in the world which means its thirst (dependence) is steadily growing. All of this speaks of a need to build a solid relation with Russia.
Between the U.S.’s military and economic power as well as Russia’s nuclear and energy position, this hedge is a well-placed bet to counter China’s recent military aggression, monetary manipulation, and trade practices.
The end game
There are numerous reasons why the U.S. should have a relationship with Russia…i.e. Nukes, China, the Middle East, economic and an ability to influence. And Putin is an autocrat but he can be our autocrat. The world is not perfect, and the U.S. does not hold the high moral ground nor does our form of governance or ideas fit everywhere — as if we have not learned these costly lessons? Let’s not make the same mistake of previous administrations, but look to a more realistic and rational approach to Russia. One in which a welcomed but firm approach will bear the fruits of interests, influence and future change.