Russia’s aggressive moves against Ukraine, in particular the recent closing of the Sea of Azov and the capture of three Ukrainian vessels, are a good reminder that the only way to normalize relations with Moscow is by deterring it. Russia will continue its predatory behavior whenever and wherever it sees an opening, a weakness that it can exploit to enlarge its imperial project. The promise of a harmonious partnership between Russia and the United States (and the Western alliance writ large), so hoped for by many in Washington and in Europe since the early 1990s, remains just that: a promise in the minds of the most naïve or the most interested in striking short term business deals with Putin’s regime.
Russia will not become a peaceful European state on its own; it has to be forced to abandon its aggressive behavior. Its westward thrusts—from its war in Ukraine to disinformation and subversion farther out—have to be countered and deterred. And a successful deterrence of Russia will carry benefits outside of the European theater. Only by firmly deterring Russia, in fact, will the United States be able to compete with China more effectively in the long run.
In a nutshell, then, let’s “normalize” relations with an imperialist Russia by deterring it. Let’s deter it by unequivocally demonstrating the permanence of the existing geopolitical order. And let’s demonstrate it by establishing permanent military bases in Central Europe.
To understand Russian behavior—and hence, to “normalize” relations with Russia—we should look at Russia first, not at the United States or NATO or the EU, or, for that matter, at Ukraine. Its behavior is not a reaction to some perceived slight or offense (e.g., the enlargement of NATO, or, as in the case of the recent Kerch episode, some Ukrainian provocation alleged by the disinformation experts at the Russian ministry of foreign affairs), but it arises from motivations internal to Putin’s regime and from a particular notion of Russian interests and identity. Putin’s Russia is engaged in an imperialist project that, first, aims to weaken the existing order on its western frontiers, and, second, hopes to restore some form of Russian influence over a large swath of Europe.
Three points are worth recalling here. First, Putin’s regime has never rejected the Soviet past; on the contrary, it is glorifying some aspects of it, in particular the imperial power extending over the ring of now independent states in Europe and Central Asia. Second, Russia has never accepted the post-Cold War settlement and, led by Putin, has gradually broken all agreements that underwrote stable relations with the West (the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, for example, guaranteed Ukrainian sovereignty). Third, Russia does not want to be an Asian polity, focused on the Caucasus and Asia. As an Asian power, Russia will play second fiddle to the growing Chinese behemoth; Moscow cannot compete with Beijing. As a European power, however, it can play a decisive role in the political life of that continent, especially if the United States retreats.
In Asia, Russia is a weak state; in Europe, Russia is potentially a great power.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Russia has pushed and will continue to push westward, using the whole panoply of its capabilities: subversion, corruption, cyber attacks, gas supplies, and old-fashioned hard military power are all vectored toward the West. As it has done throughout history, Russia is exploiting and exacerbating divisions within and between European states. Targeted disinformation and generous cash aim to increase political instability and to weaken the political will to oppose Russian interests. Gas pipeline politics (e.g., Nord Stream 2) isolate Central and Eastern Europe, increasing its vulnerability to Russian pressures. And large-scale military exercises clearly and regularly signal the capabilities that Russia can bring to bear, while, of course, daily Russian attacks in Ukraine keep a bloody war alight in Europe.
Long ago, Tocqueville brilliantly summed up the difference between the United States and Russia, when he wrote at the end of the first volume of Democracy in America that the “conquests of the American are . . . gained by the plowshare; those of the Russian by the sword.” The pattern of expansion set the pattern of behavior. Russia continues to wield its sword. There is no reason to believe that Russia, under Putin or his successor, will suddenly transform itself into a calm power radiating stability around it. Russia is seeking dominions, not partners and allies.
Any attempt to “normalize” relations with Russia has to start from the recognition that the interests of Russia and the United States—and of its allies—are not in harmony but in a long-lasting clash. And no Western concession to neo-Muscovite imperial aspirations will lead to a discovery of a Russian interest in peaceful partnership.
To have “normal” relations with Russia, therefore, the United States and its allies have to deter Moscow. That means to increase the costs, existing and future, for Russian aggressive behavior, and to do it for the long haul. There is a lot that has already been done. Sanctions are a useful tool, and the Trump Administration has continued to implement them to impose costs on Russia for its war in Ukraine as well as its interference in U.S. elections. Earlier this year, a rapid and decisive U.S. military response to an attack on U.S. forces in Syria in which large numbers of Russian mercenaries participated was also helpful to punish Russian belligerence. And the continued European Deterrence Initiative, supporting training, infrastructure, prepositioned equipment and building partner capacity, contributes to shoring up deterrence along Europe’s eastern frontier.
While all these tools employed by the United States and its alliance are necessary and useful, they are also insufficient because they are only response to Russian actions rather than a means to shape the strategic environment. They are reactive, playing catch up with Russia.
To deter Russia for the long run, Moscow has to be convinced of the permanence of the geopolitical order on its western frontier. Nothing conveys that message of permanence as military bases with U.S. and allied forces continually located in them. While NATO took new members after the end of the Cold War, it has not adjusted the military posture to back it up, considering the Russian threat to be on the wane. This is no longer the case: Russia is clearly a threat, a force of great instability in Europe (and in the Middle East too). Time for the West to act accordingly.