This article is the third of three essays on U.S.-Russian relations in the transition to a new U.S. administration. The second is here.
The new Trump Administration can be expected to conduct a thorough review of the country’s foreign and security policies. It would do well to avoid the temptation (one to which the incoming Obama Administration largely succumbed) of imagining that the nation’s foreign-policy problems are the fault of its predecessor’s incompetence, and that a defter touch would ameliorate or resolve a host of problems. Competence matters, of course, but a sober analysis would begin by recognizing the degree to which international affairs are shaped by objective factors and are driven by processes that even Washington, in all its omnipotent splendor, can sometimes influence barely, if at all.
A new U.S. President with a penchant for deal-making is expected to approach great-power relations in a largely transactional fashion, and speculation is already swirling about potential U.S.-Russia deals on Syria or Ukraine. A shrewd transactional approach would represent an improvement over the fruitless pursuit of a “strategic partnership” based on some mistaken conception of broadly shared interests or values. However, the immediate problem with the transactional approach is that, on closer reflection, a) there is no tidy U.S.-Russia deal to be struck on either Syria or Ukraine; and b) more broadly, neither side can realistically hope to get what it appears to expect from the other.
It is not clear how much of Syria will be left to bargain over by the time the Trump Administration takes shape. The Russia-Turkey-Iran negotiating format, which has left Washington a bewildered bystander, has been portrayed as a deliberate affront to an irrelevant United States. That might be the case, but at bottom it simply reflects the reality of the situation in Syria. The three aforementioned countries all have boots on the ground, as well as armed Syrian forces prepared to take a cue from them. When Washington decided (judiciously, in my opinion) to confine its direct military involvement in Syria to action against ISIS and to forego the role of kingmaker, it gave up any pretense to such leverage as would mandate a spot for the United States at the negotiating table. Such is life.
In any event, the new U.S. administration will have fewer pretensions with regard to Syria, and the guiding motif in the Trump camp has been the idea of U.S.-Russian collaboration against ISIS. Moscow would no doubt welcome a joint effort against “terrorism” in Syria. It would involve a division of labor very much like the situation under Obama, whereby the United States fights ISIS and Russia fights all the non-ISIS Syrian opposition groups irrespective of their theological coloration or propensity for wanton violence. Indeed, the one significant Russian military move against ISIS—the liberation of Palmyra—was reversed in December because Russian forces were absorbed by the far more important (for both Moscow and Assad) task of reducing Aleppo. Destroying ISIS has never been their top priority; hence repeated U.S.-Russian understandings on a joint struggle against “terrorism” in Syria have brought little real cooperation. The Obama Administration was beating its head against this wall for the better part of a year. The Trump Administration might decide to step in and do likewise, but in light of its predecessor’s experience might take a more guarded approach.
The incoming U.S. administration might well take note of a curious and underappreciated fact about Russia’s anti-terrorism campaign in Syria. The Central Asian states include some of Russia’s closest partners, and all of them face actual or potential threats from Islamic extremism—including from their own nationals currently fighting with ISIS. Yet none of them has sent forces to fight in Syria, and indeed they seem at pains to distance themselves from Russia’s actions there. Armenia is one of Russia’s closest military allies, and there is a large ethnic Armenian community in Syria presumably at risk from Islamic extremists. Armenia sent contingents to fight with the Americans in Afghanistan and even Iraq—but has dispatched no forces to fight with Russia in Syria. Many of Russia’s post-Soviet partners would seem to have a compelling interest in the success of Russian arms in Syria, and their notable reluctance to get involved there ought to serve as a cautionary tale.
If impotence in the face of Aleppo’s destruction has been a setback for the United States, there are still worse developments on the horizon. The restoration of Assad’s control over all or most of the country threatens to give Iran unfettered overland access to Syria, turning it once again into a conduit for Tehran-inspired depredations in Lebanon and Israel. The consolidation of Tehran’s influence over Syria bodes ill for a U.S. administration disposed to get tough with Iran, and the miserable options available (Syria as a hotbed of Shi‘a vs. Sunni-inspired terrorism) underscore why the Syrian civil war has been a largely no-win proposition for the United States from the outset. Iran’s ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean might be tempered for a while by the lingering weakness of Assad and the need to prop him up; they will not be seriously restrained by Russia, which had indulged Iranian behavior even before Moscow and Tehran became de facto allies in the Syrian civil war. There is no congruence of U.S. and Russian interests regarding Iran’s role in Syria. Indeed, Russia’s partners in its “anti-terrorism” coalition consist of Hezbollah, a world-class terrorist organization in its own right, and Iran, the premier state sponsor of terrorism. If there is some positive role for the United States in this unholy alliance, or some mutually beneficial U.S.-Russian deal to be had in Syria right now, I can’t imagine what it might be.
Ukraine presents no more promising territory than Syria for concluding a grand U.S.-Russia bargain, albeit for completely different reasons. Popular wisdom has it that Russia might be induced to return the Donbas to Kyiv’s control in exchange for the removal of Western sanctions, a binding agreement on Ukraine’s neutrality (perhaps something along the lines of the Austrian State Treaty of 1955), and tacit acceptance of Russian rule over Crimea. However, this outwardly reasonable scenario represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the conflict on several levels.
If Russia had actually invaded Ukraine to halt NATO enlargement as some people believe, this deal would appear quite satisfactory. In reality, however, such a settlement would represent abject capitulation by Moscow, and would be viewed as such by most Russians. Moscow doesn’t want Ukraine to be like Austria; rather, Ukraine should be at least like Belarus, and preferably like Crimea—an area to be tied closely to Russia, and preferably absorbed by it. A neutral, independent Ukraine, even bereft of Crimea, would mark the end of a long-term effort to assimilate the Ukrainians—to turn “Little Russians” into Great Russians. It would be a deathblow to ambitions for a Russian World and Eurasian Union, and would constitute a strategic defeat of the first magnitude for the Kremlin.
In addition, to pursue a U.S.-Russia deal on Ukraine would be to indulge the Kremlin’s fantasy that a) its setbacks in the post-Soviet space are Washington’s doing; and b) therefore Moscow can restore its equities via great-power negotiations. I have analyzed this fallacy elsewhere; it bodes no end of heartache for the Kremlin. To use a not-so-random analogy, you wouldn’t negotiate a real-estate deal with someone who doesn’t actually own the property, and who isn’t authorized to negotiate on the owner’s behalf. Diplomacy operates according to the same principle. Whatever Russia wants—or will settle for—in Ukraine, the Kremlin will have to get it from Kyiv, not Washington.
Even if Moscow were disposed to admit defeat quietly and negotiate Ukrainian neutrality, there is another obstacle. Ukraine gave up its nuclear capability in 1994, after much hesitation, for a pocket full of mumbles called the Budapest Memorandum, which ultimately committed no one either to respect or to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty or territorial integrity. Having learned this lesson the hard way, Ukrainians will be leery of accepting anything appreciably less robust than NATO Article 5 guarantees. Good luck trying to sell neutrality to the Ukrainians.
The new U.S. administration will encounter the argument that we must not let the Donbas turn into another “frozen conflict.” Actually, we would be quite fortunate to have the Donbas conflict frozen, rather than bubbling along at a slow boil as it is now. The Minsk Process will be of little utility. It might help consolidate a ceasefire, but it has proven useless as a framework for a negotiated settlement. The fundamental problem is that Russia is evading its obligation to withdraw its troops and equipment from the Donbas by blithely denying, in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, that it has ever had any forces there in the first place. Moscow wants to insert a Russian-controlled Donbas with veto powers into Ukraine’s governing process, and to foist on Kyiv the financial burden of maintaining and rebuilding the region. Kyiv has taken a “you broke it, you bought it” approach to the Donbas vis-à-vis Moscow. The Kremlin, for its part, imagines that if it can bring enough Western pressure to bear on Kyiv, Ukraine will be compelled to accept Russia’s terms. This fundamental divergence of interests is not going to be amenable to a split-the-difference approach.
Indeed, a frozen conflict in the Donbas is not only the most effective way to save lives in the short term, but arguably the best hope for an eventual settlement. As the fun and excitement of the Russian Spring wear off, the price of subsidizing the Donbas mounts with no end in sight, and Moscow realizes that it cannot leverage the Donbas to control the rest of Ukraine, the Kremlin might ultimately undertake a more rigorous cost-benefit analysis of its ill-gotten gains. Only then might Moscow finally undertake to work out some sort of arrangement with Kyiv directly, instead of trying to cut some unworkable deal with the West behind Ukraine’s back.
All the same, the paucity of genuine deal-making material in Syria or Ukraine might do little to dampen the ardor of aspiring deal-makers in the Trump Administration. Much of the U.S. impetus for seeking a modus vivendi with Moscow appears to arise from the judgment that, in the 21st century, the United States simply has more pressing security challenges than Russia. In light of an increasingly assertive China, a truculent Iran emerging from isolation, radical Islam, and an unpredictable, nuclear North Korea, would it not make sense to cut the best deal we can with Russia in order to focus our attention and resources elsewhere?
While setting priorities and choosing one’s battles are laudable signs of realism in foreign policy, the hope of removing Russia from the U.S. list of troublemakers, or even securing Russian assistance against other problem countries, is likely to remain a forlorn one.
Whatever their differences, Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are united by a burning revanchism. This incongruent entente has been downplayed as merely an “axis of convenience,” but what does it matter, if their misanthropic solidarity proves to be very convenient indeed? Learned specialists have rightly pointed out their disparate interests and the impossibility of welding them into any sort of genuine alliance. However, in the short to medium term, it makes no difference whether Russia and China, or Russia and Iran, are in some measure strategic competitors, as long as they remain de facto tactical collaborators. And they will continue to collaborate as long as they all seek radical revisions of the international order and their places therein, and as long as the United States remains the bulwark and guarantor of the status quo. Of course there are limits to Moscow’s revanchist ambitions—but European security would be a complete shambles long before those limits were reached.
If there is no feasible grand bargain that would peel Russia off from the coalition of geopolitical malcontents, are we therefore condemned to reprise the Cold War and a policy of containment? Yes and no.
The debate over whether we should avoid—or whether we are already in—a second Cold War is a sterile exercise with little relevance for policy choices. The genuine similarities between then and now do not require a full-scale resurrection of the Cold War-era mindset or approaches. At this point, it is the differences between the Soviet and current Russian challenges that are more relevant for U.S. policy. Above all, the struggle is neither existential nor global. If, for example, the Soviet Union posed a serious and immediate threat to Japan, the same is not the case with Russia. Moscow has neither the resources nor the ideological tools to foment revolutions against U.S. allies and client states around the world, and its ability to affect Western elections is yet to be determined, and at this point seems to be exaggerated. The contest is largely confined to Europe, and even within Europe, almost entirely to the post-Soviet space. There is no Red Army massed to plunge through the Fulda Gap and seize half of Western Europe, only Russian forces overtly or surreptitiously marauding in the immediate vicinity to reverse the centrifugal trajectory of Russia’s neighbors and undermine the post-Cold War European security architecture. Yes, Russia retains its nuclear arsenal and the ability—in one memorable image—to reduce the United States to a pile of radioactive dust, but the iron logic of mutually assured destruction strongly suggests that its weapon will remain sheathed.
The new U.S. administration will hear the argument that we must eschew a policy of containment, since Russia is too large and important to be isolated. But containment and isolation are not the same thing, even if they are often pursued in tandem (e.g., with regard to Iran). In the case of Russia, containment—and not isolation—is exactly what we need to pursue. Our conflict with Russia is overwhelmingly about European security. It is limited in both geography and scope. We do not need to combat a virulent ideology, topple an implacably hostile regime, or struggle on a dozen fields of combat scattered around the globe. We simply need to guarantee, to the best of our ability, that Russia encounters serious resistance, and accrues serious costs, whenever it disrupts the peace of Europe by subverting its neighbors. When the Kremlin pushes on the envelope of European security, we need to ensure that Moscow encounters spikes, not Jell-O. There was a joke in 2014 that the Donbas separatists were receiving aid from a humanitarian organization called “Russia Without Borders.” The goal of containment in Europe must be precisely to prevent Russian subversion of borders and the armed conflicts that inevitably ensue.
Beyond the measures required for containment, however, there is no need for the West to isolate or punish Russia across the board. We need not be chagrined if Russia pursues a pivot to Asia. Moscow is already learning that the political risk perception engendered by domestic corruption and the Kremlin’s foreign policy is just as effective at scaring off Asian money as it is at discouraging Western investment. And we need not be concerned if some of Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors choose voluntarily to align themselves more or less closely with Moscow. (Frankly, however, if attraction had been working the way Russians anticipated, the Kremlin would not have needed to resort to compulsion in the first place.)
While there is probably no grand, game-changing deal to be had with Russia, there are some actions that the new U.S. administration could take, in the overall context of managing a contentious bilateral relationship, to alleviate friction. They are not unilateral concessions to Moscow, but unilateral concessions to reality—a far less flexible or forgiving partner.
Western promotion of human rights and good governance works best when we have willing partners—recall the attitude of the Central Europeans following the collapse of Communism. Intense engagement with the Russians on human rights and democratization made sense when both sides believed that Russia was transitioning to a Western political system. However, Russia’s political trajectory has taken a rather different turn, and carping about every perceived Russian failure to meet Western standards has become a rather pointless ritual. We need not give the Kremlin a blank check on human-rights violations, but must recognize that our dialogue with Russia can no longer assume a set of shared values or standards.
Well might Washington reflect, with uncharacteristic humility, upon its inability either to prevent Boris Nemtsov’s murder or to ensure that the perpetrators were brought to justice. Finger-wagging lectures will not change the fact that our ability to influence the human-rights environment in Russia (or most other places, for that matter) is extremely limited. The hectoring approach to human rights is not merely a poor substitute for genuine influence in such matters; it is a counterproductive trivialization of foreign policy. We might still have occasion to criticize the Kremlin for egregious actions, but the nitpicking should cease. Such an approach would have the added benefit of reducing the Kremlin’s propensity to imagine that regime change lies at the heart of U.S. policy toward Russia.
Second, Washington might reconsider its attitude toward Russia’s role in Central Asia. The winding down of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan is turning Central Asia once again into a backwater for U.S. interests. The Russians (and Chinese), on the other hand, are broadly and deeply engaged in the region in a generally helpful manner, providing security, trade, and investment. Moscow’s initial post-2001 welcome for U.S. engagement in Central Asia was undermined by the perception that the Americans a) intended their stay to be permanent rather than temporary; and b) were inclined reflexively to view any diminution of Russian influence in the region as a good thing. A reassessment of the U.S. approach to Central Asia ought to take account of the positive role Russia plays in blunting the spread of Islamic radicalism in the region, and to try to avoid working at cross-purposes there with Moscow. Of course, a benign U.S. attitude toward Russia’s role in Central Asia would change 180 degrees in the event the Kremlin decides that northern Kazakhstan is the next part of la Russia irredenta to be liberated.
Finally, the new administration might usefully consider that a transactional relationship is not limited to grand bargains, and that negative inducements can be just as effective as positive ones. For example, the next time Moscow explores a major arms deal with Iran, Washington could moot the idea of providing anti-armor capabilities to Ukraine. Such a transactional approach would be far more likely to affect the Kremlin’s calculus than the usual puerile argumentation with Moscow that destabilizing arms sales are somehow not in Russia’s own interest. If someone objects that it would be irresponsible to provide such a capability to Ukraine, I would reply that it would be far less irresponsible than providing any kind of weapons to Iran.
Whatever their inclination, the Trump Administration and the Kremlin are likely to find a grand bargain elusive. The notion that we are one deal away from securing Russia’s cooperation in squelching Iran, or helping us manage China’s rise, is utopian and unworthy of a realist approach to foreign policy. Similarly, most of Moscow’s frustrations in the post-Soviet space are due to problems of its own making, and no amount of wheeling and dealing with Washington will resolve them.