America Should Embrace Restraint in Dealings With Russia
Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
America Should Embrace Restraint in Dealings With Russia
Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Story Stream
recent articles

Dara Massicot of the RAND Corporation believes that the Russians will release a new military doctrine by 2020. Massicot argues that the new Russian military doctrine will contain nine fundamental changes to the previous doctrine, from 2014. Understanding these changes will be essential for any Western policymaker hoping to anticipate Russia's strategic intentions.

From the perspective of most American policymakers, the most interesting aspect of Massicot’s piece is her claim that while the new Russian doctrine will make coded barbs about Washington, Moscow will stop just shy of officially declaring the United States a military threat. This underscores the fact that, no matter what differences Moscow and Washington may have, the Russians continue to seek a diplomatic solution to tensions with the United States. However, seven other points that Massicot believes will be in the new Russian doctrine indicate that Moscow is no longer content to play by the rules of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the United States was the unipolar power.

Russia has embarked on a slow and steady revitalization of its armed forces. While the Russian Federation’s military and economic power pales in comparison to its Soviet predecessor, the changes to Russia’s military have done much to make Moscow a regional power again. In the 1990s, a succession of U.S. presidents supported expanding NATO and the European Union into regions that Moscow historically viewed as their sphere of influence. These moves aggravated Russia. As early as 1994, at a meeting of NATO’s leadership with then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leader cautioned his audience that they risked taking the world from the Cold War into a “cold peace.”

Welcome to the Cold Peace

Today, this is precisely the state of U.S.-Russian relations. The breakdown was not entirely the fault of Western leaders. But given Russia’s decrepit state following the Cold War, most of the breakdown can be attributed to a bizarre combination of Western arrogance and ignorance of Russia. For its part, Russia is a country that crosses 11 of the world’s 24 time zones. What’s more, Russia’s borders are historically unstable. Russia has been invaded and nearly destroyed three times in its long history. It was conquered by the rampaging Mongols, who swept from Asia through Russia and all of the way down into the Middle East. After the Russians managed to secure their independence from the Mongols, their security was hardly assured. In fact, Russia would endure endless threats from its south -- from Muslim raiders emanating from Ottoman territories -- and from its West in neighboring Europe.

Russia would then experience two more serious attempts at invasion and conquest. The first was by Napoleon in 1815. The second was Hitler in 1941. In both cases, Russian geography and a tenacity in the face of extreme hardship allowed Russia to survive. Yet the mentality of constantly being surrounded by hostile forces and always being under threat of encirclement, invasion, and conquest has been translated from one Russian generation to the next. This mentality, more than anything, explains Russian behavior in the post-Cold War era -- especially under the very traditional Russian strongman leadership of Vladimir Putin and his cadre of Russian nationalist-imperialists.

As Benn Steil argued in the pages of Foreign Policy last year, Russia’s real argument with the West is not so much ideological. (They abandoned Communism and not even Putin longs for its return.) Instead, Russia’s real gripe is with geography. Moscow must contend with an impossible geography that most Americans could never comprehend. Russia’s massive land borders which adjoin not one, but three potential zones of conflict -- Europe to Moscow’s west, the Greater Middle East to Moscow’s south, and China to Moscow’s east. Given this, Russian foreign policy has long taken a cold, realistic view of foreign policy wherein Russian leaders have striven for regional dominance and global balance of power. Culturally and historically, Russian leaders live in a world of continuous threats being just around every strategic corner. So, they govern their country with a strong hand (the silnaya ruka), and they create military and foreign policies that reflect their desire to have buffer zones around their country that they can use to prevent any foreign threat from invading.

Toward a true balance with Russia

For years, Washington’s actions have rankled Moscow’s leadership. This explains why the new Russian military doctrine will have “coded barbs” about American power. Russia under Vladimir Putin (or any of his successors) will not allow for the United States to operate globally with the kind of geostrategic impunity Washington enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. Yet Moscow fully understands that it cannot and should not seek to wage war with the United States, unless Washington does something that Moscow believes will pose a direct threat to its own territorial integrity or internal political stability.

Despite differences in character and objectives, there is much that Washington and Moscow have in common. Both countries are seriously threatened by jihadist terror. Both are deeply concerned by China’s rise. While both sides disagree on the issue of rogue states like Iran or North Korea, neither want to see nuclear weapons proliferate. Washington might be able to get Moscow to assist in restraining Russia’s Iranian proxy in the Middle East, if the United States could create a deal with Russia that addresses key points of disagreement (like Ukraine or Russia’s return to the Middle East). Both countries also have a long and storied history of cooperating on matters relating to space policy -- although, like everything else today, American actions are driving Russia into the waiting arms of China.

The longer that the United States and the Russian Federation refuse to talk to each other, the more likely it is that the two sides will blunder into war against each other. That both the United States and Russian Federation are readying for war is not earth-shattering news. Every power does this. But an American policy that embraces restraint when dealing with the panicky Russians just might prevent a great-power disaster from occurring soon. Russia’s refusal to declare the United States a “military threat” is a clear indicator that there’s still hope for diplomacy. Washington should accept this as an opening and make some fundamental changes to the way it deals with Russia and views the world.

Otherwise, there just might be another great-power world war soon. After all, few believed that Britain and Germany would go to war in 1914. Yet this is precisely what occurred. Another great-power conflict today, with the advent of nuclear weapons, would be even more destructive than the killing fields of the First World War.

The views expressed are the author's own.