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Seeing Russia Clearly

As Americans cast their eyes beyond their shores, there is much that bids for their gaze: a dynamic China, steadily expanding its military reach in the South China Sea and beyond; U.S. forces in the Middle East, trying to try to deal a decisive blow to ISIS; a frayed Europe, struggling to keep its union from unraveling. But nothing rivets our minds more than Russia and its strongman leader, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. And that is unlikely to change any time soon, with the FBI in the midst of what its director publicly characterizes as an open-ended “counterintelligence” investigation of “the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.”

Not since the Cold War has Russia so fixated America and the West generally. An MSNBC anchor delivers twenty-minute monologues, cobbled from press clips, on “The Russian Connection” to the presidential contest, including suspected Kremlin links to the Trump campaign. CNN runs a documentary on Putin titled “The Most Powerful Man in the World.” On the floor of the U.S. Senate, John McCain accuses his Republican colleague Rand Paul of “working for Vladimir Putin” in suggesting it might be unwise to expand the NATO alliance to cover the tiny country of Montenegro. And in the construction of Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee:

I think people need to understand we are in a global war of ideas. It’s not communism vs. capitalism, but it is authoritarianism vs. democracy and Putin is very much at the vanguard of that autocratic movement.

In this thinking, Russia under Putin bids to create a new global order antithetical to American and all freedom-loving interests. But is that really the case? So far, at least, no signs of a Russia-centric order have emerged. Although there are reasons to be concerned about Russia and Putin, exaggerated claims threaten to warp our understanding of the country and its true place in the global constellation. What is needed, then, is a corrective. It pays to try to arrive at a clear picture of Russia, as a basis for crafting a sound policy towards Putin and the country he leads.

A first question that might be asked is: just what is Russia? Russia needs to be apprehended, not as a spectral presence, but as an embodied one, with a history, geography, politics, economy, and culture that mark its character as well as shape and, in the end, limit its capabilities.

Vladimir Putin

Let’s begin with Putin, often thought to be a prototypical Russian autocrat. Russia, it is true, has just about always been ruled by autocrats. But this rote observation is the start of a discussion of Putin, not the end of one, for there are different traditions of autocracy in Russia, some more threatening to the West and to Western values than others. In the reformist tradition, Peter the Great, as a young man, worked incognito at a Dutch shipyard to glean lessons for the fashioning of his embryonic navy, and he later built a new capital city on the marshes of the Neva to open a “window to the West.” Catherine the Great courted Voltaire and Diderot, recrafted Russia’s legal code with inspiration from the writings of Montesquieu and founded a society for the translation of foreign books into Russian. Alexander II freed the serfs. In the despotic tradition, Ivan the Terrible established a police-terror regiment of fierce men cloaked in black, whose numbers rode through the countryside brandishing the head of a dog on a stick—“we bite like dogs” was the grisly tiding. Joseph Stalin, the Red Czar, starved millions of peasants, constructed a massive gulag to cement his monstrous regime of fear—and in banning foreign books and tightly restricting travel, stoked a xenophobic attitude towards the West.

In the context of these traditions, Putin, the former KGB colonel, can be understood as taking over for a reformer in the Kremlin, Boris Yeltsin, who looked to the West for political and economic ideas—and bringing this turbulent and largely unpopular period of reform to a halt. And he has done so openly and unapologetically. In January 2000, just after assuming power, he told Russians in a speech published on the Kremlin’s website:

It will not happen soon, if it ever happens at all, that Russia will become the second edition of say, the U.S. or Britain in which liberal values have deep historic traditions. Our state and its institutions have always played an exceptionally important role in the life of the country and its people. For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly that should be gotten rid of. Quite the contrary, they see it as a source and guarantor of order and the initiator and main driving force of any change.

For Americans, the arrival of the unknown Putin at the pinnacle of power in Russia was a source of both confusion and distress. Yeltsin was a familiar and generally well-liked figure, best known as the man who “stood on the tank” in Moscow, back in August 1991, to stare down an effort led by KGB hardliners to keep the tottering Soviet Union from collapsing. As the first president of the new Russian Federation, Yeltsin welcomed to Moscow a bevy of consultants from America, specialists in how centrally planned economies could make a “transition” to a market-based economy. To win reelection, in 1996, with the Communists threatening to retake power, he took advice from political consultants from Washington and financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund. And yet with his rule at its end, he chose as his handpicked successor a man who had devoted his career to the security services that had battled America during the Cold War.

Ordinary Russians, though, saw an entirely different picture—a picture that Washington failed to appreciate. They experienced the 1990s largely as a time of chaos, punctuated by the financial crisis of 1998, when banks collapsed and depositors lost their life’s savings. (There was no deposit insurance in the new Russia.) A hated new class of oligarchs—financial and political moguls—acquired “privatized” properties for trifling sums in return for supporting Yeltsin. For the new leader, Putin, to have a law-and-order background, to vow to bring the oligarchs to heel in a reassertion of a “strong state,” to declare that Russian traditions, not the West, would guide Russia’s development—this was welcome news.

And so Russia got Putin, a departure from his predecessor. In keeping with the despotic tradition, menace indeed is a striking feature of Putin’s rule. Critics have been driven into exile, their property confiscated, and prominent detractors, inside and outside of the country, have wound up dead—some by poison, an age-old method of assassination by Russian intelligence operatives. Investigative journalism is a dangerous pursuit; dominant state-controlled media deliver a stale diet of propaganda. Yet there is no vast penal system and ordinary Russians are free to travel abroad. Facebook, for example, is available, unlike in China, where the state exerts much stricter controls over the Internet. In Russian terms, and on the basis of what is now known, Putin ranks as a mild despot. That judgment, though, would deserve to be made harsher if Putin is indeed complicit, as critics allege, in a rash of apartment bombings in Russia in 1999, which the Kremlin blamed on Chechen terrorists and used as a justification for a war to subdue Russia’s republic of Chechnya.

The imperial habit of Russia’s czars is perhaps what the West fears most about Russia. Catherine the Great bit off a chunk of Poland and fulfilled the dream of Russia’s rulers for access to warmwater ports by extending Russia’s dominion to the coast of the Black Sea. Stalin, after World War II, with his brute folding of Eastern Europe into the sphere of Soviet domination, created an empire that surpassed the domain of any Romanov czar. Leonid Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan—disastrously, in that instance. In this tradition, Putin, eighteen years into his reign, stands as a modest empire builder. His proudest accomplishment has to be the snatching back from Ukraine of the Crimea, the peninsula on the Black Sea, strategically important for Russia as the base for its Black Sea naval fleet. The Crimea for centuries had been in Moscow’s hands—it ceased to be so only in 1991, when Ukraine became an independent state, no longer a Soviet Republic, and kept possession of the territory.

Any imperialism is a cause for concern, but still it should be recognized that the imperial instinct can have a conservative rationale—to resist encroachment, to create buffer zones, to stand up for established clients, as opposed to imposing an ideology or adding new territory. Putin exhibits this reflex, in keeping with the Russian tradition of not accepting any hegemonic power, whether the British in the nineteenth century or the Americans in the twentieth, as the ordering principle for the world. He does not accept NATO’s designation of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and Ukraine as future members of the alliance—hence his limited military invasion of Georgia and his establishment of a de facto Russian protectorate in the Donbass of eastern Ukraine, on Russia’s border. He does not consent to American primacy in the Middle East—hence his military intervention in Syria’s civil war to prop up the Assad regime, a client of Moscow’s since Soviet times. In both cases, Putin is essentially saying that if Mother Russia herself cannot dominate the world, then the world should be multipolar. This attitude may be understandably irksome to the West, and to America particularly, but the leaders of China and Iran are similarly unaccepting—and for that matter, Turkey, India, Brazil, and others are not favorably disposed towards an America-centric order for the twenty-first century. At a greater volume, in a more strident manner, Putin is expressing a shared perspective.

Putin’s staunch assertion of Russia’s interests generally wins favor with ordinary Russians. Yeltsin grumbled about NATO but failed to halt its expansion during his rule, and he failed as well to keep NATO from bombing Serbia, Russia’s traditional ally in the Balkans. But that does not mean that the era of Putin will be everlasting in Russia. Paired with Russia’s tradition of autocracy is a tradition of upheaval. Ancient Muscovy was rent asunder by an anarchic Time of Troubles following the reign of Ivan the Terrible. During Catherine the Great’s rule, social discontents coalesced into the Pugachev Rebellion in the region of the Don Cossacks. Czar Nicholas II was forced by the people to abdicate the throne for disastrously leading Russia into the First World War.

Putin likewise is not immune to disturbances welling up from below. He rid Russia of despised Yeltsin-era oligarchs but has created, in effect, a new class of barons, bound to him. He is widely believed by his people to have enriched his circle with the bounties of Russia’s natural resources economy. Here is dry tinder for discontent. In March, the country’s leading anticorruption investigator, Alexei Navalny, released a fifty-minute video displaying and documenting a bounty of assets, including a Tuscan winery and villa, said to belong to the country’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin protégé. In just three weeks, the video, narrated in Russian with English subtitles, received more than ten million views on YouTube. Tens of thousands of Russians in over eighty cities, many of them young people, participated in protest rallies called for by Navalny.

Because Russia has failed, yet again, to develop genuine democratic institutions, there is little scope for change short of another upheaval, a popular demand for a change of regime. Putin’s critics in Moscow tend to see CNN’s “most powerful man in the world,” not as feeling safe in his protracted rule, but as increasingly fearful of a popular uprising. They know their Russian history, how change can come like a thunderclap, and they may be right.

Russia versus China

Putin is not a superman and present-day Russia is not a superpower, even though Russia retains a nuclear arsenal that is at rough parity with America’s. For one thing, Russia lacks economic heft and dynamism, vital components of true geopolitical might.

Consider a comparison with China. China is a colossus, an $11.4 trillion economy, second in the world behind the United States, with Russia, a relative pygmy, at $1.3 trillion, in twelfth place, sandwiched between South Korea and Australia. China has a population of some 1.3 billion, Russia some 145 million, and yet China has been able to amass wealth for its people at a much faster pace. Twenty-five years have passed since the establishment of the Russian Federation. In every one of those years, except one, in 2000, the rate of growth in China’s economy has exceeded Russia’s. In nine of these years, Russia’s economy has contracted; not once for China.

Back in 1990, China accounted for a scant 3 percent slice of global manufacturing; today, the share is 25 percent. Russia, though, has not managed to shift away from a boom-and-bust economy that is heavily dependent on the extraction of natural resources like oil and gas, diamonds  and nickel. It sits at the global top with Saudi Arabia as a producer and exporter of hydrocarbons, with Europe dependent on Russia for about a third of its gas supplies, but as the example of Saudi Arabia suggests, petro-powers do not get to rule the world. The Kremlin realizes this, but its top-down (“strong state”) efforts to develop a hub of high-technology industry have fallen flat as ambitious and talented Russians tend to view places like Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv as more hospitable to their entrepreneurial dreams. Since the start of the Putin era, some 1.5 to 1.8 million Russians have emigrated from Russia, a brain drain of the highly skilled and the well educated. There is no Russian-manufactured product that has global cachet except maybe the Kalashnikov.

China attracted a spectacular $500 billion in direct foreign investment in the quarter century following its launch of market reforms, under Deng Xiaoping. Last year, the Chinese yuan, not the Russian ruble, joined the U.S. dollar, the euro, the yen, and the British pound in the IMF’s elite basket of reserve currencies, from which member countries can draw loans. The Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges are both in the top five of global exchanges in the amount of capital raised; the Moscow exchange is a bit player. And foreign investors remain reluctant to commit large sums of capital to Russia except in the largely state-controlled oil-and-gas sector.

If these trends persist, Russia’s economy could become a satellite of a Eurasian economic order centered on China, with Russia’s main role to send oil and gas to China via a network of pipelines now being expanded. Already, the sparsely populated Russian far east is being colonized, de facto, by migrants from overcrowded China in search of potable water, arable land, and export-import business opportunities. Portions of this territory once belonged to China, but pre-Soviet czarist Russia, then the stronger and more vibrant force, took the land for itself. Now the tide of history runs in reverse, with Russia the diminished presence.

Soft Power

Today’s Russia is not a superpower because it lacks economic bulk and vitality—and also because it is wanting in what the political scientists call soft power, a magnetism based on a culture, a way of life, that others find worthy of emulation. Here a comparison with the Russian Federation’s predecessor, the Soviet Union, is instructive. It may seem impossible to recall, but the USSR once did exert a kind of global tropism, a serious challenge to the allure of the West. And the mystique of the multinational Soviet Union was tied specifically to Russia—which gave birth to the Soviet model with the Russian Revolution of October 1917.

The Revolution made Russia a lodestar for disaffected intellectuals in places like Paris and New York and for ordinary people across Africa, Asia, and South America, which the imperialist West had colonized, the riches carted away to the metropoles. From his home in Greenwich Village, Harvard graduate John Reed, a journalist and social activist, set sail across the Atlantic, bound for Petrograd to report that “great Russia was in travail, bearing a new world,” as he later wrote in Ten Days That Shook the World. Reed was exhilarated to find that, in this cosmic genesis, “Old Russia was no more; human society flowed molten in primal heat, and from the tossing sea of flame was emerging the class struggle, stark and pitiless—and the fragile, slowly-cooling crusts of new planets.” In this worshipful treatment, the Russian worker became the icon around which all workers of the world might finally unite against the decadent, doomed capitalism of the West. And some workers and peasants did. With the Russian example in mind, Mao Zedong was made chairman of the new Soviet Republic of China, in 1931.

Even in the early 1950s, with Lenin long dead and Stalin nearly so, the “New Faith,” as Czeslaw Milosz branded the Soviet ideology in his book, The Captive Mind, still managed to entice vulnerable intellectuals. “The New Faith is a Russian creation,” Milosz, who by then had defected to the West from his posting in the Moscow-dominated Polish government, stressed. And in this ordering of the galaxy, “the Center” was Moscow. In time, and all over the world, all peoples will speak “the one universal tongue, Russian,” as Milosz characterized the Soviet Russian ideal. “Everything will be shaped by the Center, though individual countries will retain a few local ornaments in the way of folklore.”

But as became clear only later, Russian soft power had peaked. Stalin’s crimes were revealed by his successors; Russian dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn spread word of the lies at the core of the New Faith. There was to be no “new world” modeled on Russia, no homage paid to Moscow as the center of the world. It was a fantasy. And when the bankrupt Soviet Union finally collapsed, Russian-language textbooks got tossed out the window from Tallinn to Tashkent.

It is this hollow legacy that post-Soviet Russia inherited. The one thing that Russia can never lose is its Russianness. Putin’s Russia is trying to stitch together, maybe, a replacement model by which Russia might once again win global favor. The idea seems to be that the rich countries of the West are rotten and soulless, in thrall to civilization-killing ideas. Traditional Judeo-Christian values need to fill a secular vacuum that leaves the West prey to Islamic infiltration. Russia can wage this culture war and win it by rallying the Marine Le Pens of the West around this banner. So ideologists in Moscow would have it. It is this model, hitched to Russia’s naturally authoritarian bent, that so worries folks in Washington like Rep. Schiff of California.

Some degree of worry is understandable. Putin has rehabilitated figures like the Russian aristocrat and Orthodox “religious philosopher” Ivan Ilyin, deported by the Soviet Union in the early 1920s as an enemy of Bolshevism. Ilyin believed that Russia was naturally both Orthodox and authoritarian—and had a destiny apart from the West. So, too, Putin encourages Russians to pursue an Orthodox education to give fresh spiritual life to the nation. Friends like the filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov have promoted a kind of pan-Slavism, with Mikhalkov, on a visit to Serbia, warning of a “war against Orthodoxy.”

At the same time, what most stands out in Ilyin’s thinking, and in Putin’s homage to the philosopher, is the need for Russia to be on guard against a predatory West that bears Russia ill will. Today’s Russia is as busy trying to defend its values as it is seeking to export them. As much as anything, Putin invokes thinkers like Ilyin to justify his own iron rule, as part of a Russian continuum. He has warned his countrymen to be on guard against a “fifth column” implanted in Russia by Western politicians, “hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent.”

In truth, the “new” model is a variation on an old model, fashioned in the time before the Revolution. Dostoevsky, in the nineteenth century, offered the example of Orthodox Russia as a cleansing agent for the decadent secularizing West. In its way as grandiose as the New Faith, the idea was that Russia and only Russia could save Christianity. Russia, with the fall of Constantinople, was to be a “Third Rome,” a Russian monk proclaimed early in the sixteenth century.

But Russia has never been seen in the West as a Third Rome. Russia’s history in the main is as an importer of ideas from the West. Even Marxism was an import. And while Putin’s Kremlin has made a marriage of convenience with the Russian Orthodox Church, Russians are not untouched by the secularizing currents of Europe. There is no groundswell of religious fervor in Russia apt to inspire the Danes and Dutch, the French and Germans, to repopulate their empty cathedrals. Although a growing share of Russians identify as Orthodox Christian, on the order of 70 percent, fewer than 10 percent of Russians attend church at least once a month.

The main new idea in post-Soviet Russia—more of a sentiment, really—is nationalism. In the Soviet Union and even in the Russian empire of the Czars, ethnic Russians constituted a minority of the population. Now, for the first time ever, they are a majority, of about 80 percent, and “Russia for Russians” is a popular domestic slogan. Russia’s resurgent nationalism may find acceptance among European political figures seeking to rekindle nationalist sentiments in their own lands. “Crimea was Russian. It has always been Russian,” France’s Le Pen told a CNN interviewer earlier this year, in support of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. “I won’t hide that, in a certain sense, I admire Vladimir Putin,” she told a Russian newspaper in 2011. “He makes mistakes, but who doesn’t? The situation in Russia is not easy.” Her party, the National Front, received a $10 million loan from a Russian bank in 2014. In Italy, the Euroskeptic Lega Nord Party headed by Matteo Salvini is cultivating ties with United Russia, the ruling pro-Putin party in the Duma.

Still, there is little evidence of a new “Putin coalition” in Europe made up of little Putins.1 Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, actively promotes his support for LGBT rights and distances himself from Putin. And leaders of the populist right in Poland and the Baltic states are apt to view rising nationalism in Russia as a dire threat to the existence of their much smaller countries. Although a weakening of the European Union may work to Russia’s benefit, the populist forces aligned against Brussels are rooted in long-simmering political, social, and economic discontents within European nations, with the various populist movements apt to persist even in the absence of a calculated effort by Russia to bolster them.

As a political force, nationalism tends not to attract but to repel. Russia’s intensified “Russianness” is mostly experienced as off-putting by its neighbors and others around the world. A Pew Research Center “global attitudes” survey of forty nations in 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, found that a median of only 30 percent of them viewed Russia favorably. For Russia to have garnered an unfavorable rating of 80 percent in Poland was perhaps not surprising, given the history of conflict between the two nations, but in France the rating was 70 percent, and so too in Germany. America also has its global image problems, but nonetheless, in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even the Middle East (by a narrow margin), the United States was viewed more positively than was Russia in the Pew survey.


Russia, then, at most a middling in its store of soft power, is not apt to win any “global war of ideas.” Still, there does remain a way in which Russia can be said to exert a kind of sway, and that is in a role as a spoiler of the liberal Western order. The objective would be, not to nourish emulation of Russia, but to sow mayhem in the societies of the West and profit from the discord. A West that loses faith in itself, in its political, legal, and economic institutions—this is a West that Russia might subdue or at least escape from, to pursue its own schemes elsewhere.

Several aspects of a spoiler role suggest themselves. The first is in the dark art of propaganda. Putin’s Kremlin, without doubt, believes that the media sphere, as it often called in Russia, is a battleground. What counts is not objective truth per se but the narrative that can be established, hard won in the way that territory can be seized in combat. The antagonists, in this mentality, are the Western-based global news media, and the Russian-based sources of information to the global public.

In its declassified paper, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections,” published in January, the U.S. intelligence community devoted seven of the twenty-two pages of text to Annex A, on how “Kremlin’s TV Seeks to Influence Politics, Fuel Discontent in U.S.” The object of analysis was “RT America TV, a Kremlin-financed channel operated from within the United States.” The annex originally was published after the 2012 election by a unit of the CIA.

Every particular of Annex A can be stipulated. English-language RT America, a wing of the Kremlin-sponsored RT (or Russia Today) global television network, dwelled on issues like “U.S. election fraud” and the Occupy Wall Street movement, the latter depicted by the channel as a fight against “the ruling class” in a political system deemed to be “corrupt and dominated by corporations.” America was said to be a “surveillance state” afflicted by police brutality.

The question is how much any of this matters. America’s media hardly ignore these issues. Nor do European media. Occupy Wall Street, for example, gathered considerable coverage; in November, 2011, when New York City police, in riot gear, arrived in early-morning darkness to clear Zuccotti Park of its encampment, CNN was at the scene to capture the ensuing clash. If Americans worry about a “surveillance state” it is not least because the Washington Post and the Guardian together published sensational stories based on classified documents brought to them by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, a government contractor. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, focused on police brutality, was a significant story for U.S. broadcasting and print outlets. RT is a bit player on this landscape. According to Annex A, RT/RT America had about half a million Twitter followers, compared to nearly seven million for CNN/CNN International.

As is so often the case with Moscow, there is nothing new here. In the summer of 1963, John F. Kennedy’s Washington also was exercised about the Kremlin’s targeting of America’s domestic troubles. “The Soviets have engaged in a veritable barrage of broadcasting to foreign audiences on the U.S. racial crisis,” the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research reported in a memo sent to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. “Recurrent themes in the Soviet treatment have been: that racism is inevitable in the capitalist system and can only be eradicated along with capitalism itself,” the bureau related. The racial strife was real but capitalism managed to survive.

A more serious concern is the spoiler threat presented by Russia’s invasions of America’s cyberspace. Russia has a vibrant culture of hackers, many possessed of an anti-American animus, fanned by Putin’s labeling of the United States as a global busybody. Undoubtedly some hackers have links to the Kremlin, and investigations underway in Washington of suspected Russian operations like the breach of the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee can be expected to find stronger proof of such actions. But here, too, perspective is useful. America is the world’s ripest cyber-target, also a prime focus of the Chinese, the North Koreans, and the Iranians. In 2013, before the uproar over Russian hacking, the New York Times, based on a study by an American computer security firm, identified P.L.A. Unit 61398, a Shanghai-based wing of China’s People’s Liberation Army, as a major source of  “attacks on American corporations, organizations, and government agencies” in cyberspace. “In the Cold War, we were focused every day on the nuclear command centers around Moscow,” a senior U.S. defense official told the Times. “Today, it’s fair to say that we worry as much about the computer servers in Shanghai.” Russia is supposedly guilty of the hack of Yahoo, North Korea of the hack of Sony Pictures. Although the Kremlin appears to have a sharper focus on America’s political system as a target, there is no unique cyber threat emanating from Moscow.

The larger point is that a spoiler role is by definition of limited impact. America’s political and legal institutions, its economic arrangements, its social tensions—these are organic in nature, springing for better and worse from the history and culture of the country. The Russians are not apt to have more than a marginal influence on our sprawling society of 325 million people in any of its important features.

How to Deal with Russia

So this is Russia in the here and now: a country led by a corrupt autocrat but not, by historical standards, an especially ruthless one; a country with an unstable economy deriving much of its wealth from natural resources extraction; a country that is not particularly admired around the world but is increasingly nationalistic and aspiring to be a spoiler in the domestic affairs of America and other nations of the West.

How to deal with this Russia? It is tempting to lament that America and Russia are fated never to get along, to circle each other in grim wariness. The two countries, in their fundamental natures, are a study in antonyms, as suggested by Tocqueville nearly two centuries ago, in Democracy in America:

The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centers all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude.

Should Washington’s investigators produce hard proof of a Kremlin effort to tilt the results of the 2016 presidential election, and especially if proof is found of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the election (a possibility the FBI is examining), then U.S.-Russia relations are apt to remain politically radioactive for a very long time. The likelihood is for a more punitive tack towards Russia, beyond the sanctions already in place for the annexation of Crimea and military support for the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

But in the absence of such findings, decision makers must try to put relations with Russia on a less contentious footing. The answer of how to deal with Russia, to start with, is with a sense of proportion. Washington does not have limitless diplomatic and strategic resources. Its most important bilateral relationship is with Beijing because China, not Russia, is the rising power of our times. A Chinese century, as an ordering principle for the world, is conceivable for the twenty-first century; a Russian century is not. The bilateral relationships with Japan and Germany, the world’s third and fourth largest economies, after the United States and China, are (at least) on a par with the importance of the Russia relationship. Russia does not merit a consuming focus.

And in this respect, Americans should rigorously ask themselves, why is there such an obsession with Russia? It might be that we are looking, at least subconsciously, for a way to avoid addressing our own glaring deficiencies. We have manufactured our own debacles over the last fifteen or so years—and have not really fixed them. Against the advice of most of the world, we invaded a country, Iraq, that had not attacked us on 9/11, and instead of implanting a democracy in the heart of the Middle East, as promised, we sowed chaos and created a new generation of Islamic terrorists. At home, our political and financial elites produced the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, causing housing prices to collapse and crushing the retirement portfolios held by millions of ordinary investors. Russia had nothing to do with either calamity.

A second principle is pragmatism. Even a belligerent Kremlin is not necessarily beyond the pale of deal-making. In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev put nuclear missiles in Cuba; the following year, with the Cuban Missile Crisis behind them, the United States and the USSR, joined by the United Kingdom, signed in Moscow the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Richard Nixon, a Cold Warrior second to none, ushered in a period of détente during his presidency. Putin twice during his reign has agreed to pacts for the United States and Russia to limit their strategic nuclear arsenals. In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, he acquiesced to the stationing of U.S. troops in former Soviet republics in Central Asia to participate in the campaign against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Eight years later, with that war still raging, he opened Russian airspace to Afghanistan-bound flights of U.S. troops and military hardware.

Tensions between the two powers rose in April after the U.S. military conducted a cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase to deter the Assad regime’s further use of chemical weapons against Syria’s own people. The Kremlin denounced the attack, and it is conceivable that Syria could become the theater for an intensified competition between Russia and America. Still, Washington gave Moscow advance warning of the strike—and Russia apparently made no attempt to shoot down the missiles.

The most promising area for deal making between the U.S. and Russia remains the combating of Islamic militancy. This is the great shared interest between the two powers. America is threatened and so is Russia, its soft southern underbelly ripe for attack and insurrection along a long arc that stretches from former Soviet Central Asia on the doorstep of China to the Caucasus Mountains by the Black Sea. There are many opportunities, including greater sharing of intelligence on Islamic terror networks and coordination of military operations against ISIS and related actors in the Middle East. Consider a parallel to the Second World War. FDR knew that Stalin was an indiscriminate murderer of Soviet citizens, and yet he made a calculated decision to work with him to vanquish Hitler. “I bank on his realism,” FDR told his personal physician. On this very same basis—realism—the leaders in Washington and Moscow of today ought to be able to find common cause in waging battle against Islamic radicalism.

Washington has made several mistakes in its handling of post-Soviet Russia and, unfortunately, they cannot be entirely corrected. The first mistake was to try to make a “new” Russia, freed of Communism, in the liberal, democratic image. As the experience under Yeltsin’s rule showed, the experiment failed. There was no new Russia. The lesson from this episode still applies: resist the temptation to meddle in Russia’s internal affairs. This is easier said than done—the lure is apt to be irresistible for more than a few U.S. Senators (and perhaps the White House) should anti-Putin demonstrations mount in intensity. But the Kremlin would be sure to make wily use of Washington’s “intrusion,” even of a rhetorical kind, to discredit the Putin opposition as an instrument of an American plot to weaken Russia.

Should we Americans hope for the toppling of Putin? In our hearts, yes, because he is stifling Russia’s human potential and because even as his cronies enjoy their Tuscan villas and London flats he cynically caters to the paranoiac features of the Russian national character. In our heads, though, we must understand that a successor to Putin could be as autocratic and as jingoistic as he is. It can be remembered that Russia’s revolutions tend not to end well.

Washington’s second mistake after the Soviet Union’s collapse was to try to exploit Moscow’s momentary geopolitical weakness. It was at a triumphant Washington’s urging that NATO, the quintessential Cold War institution, founded in 1949 to put into practice the doctrine of containment, expanded to the borders of the new Russian Federation. George Kennan, the principal author of containment, warned that NATO expansion would prove “a tragic mistake” for Western relations with Russia. “I think the Russians will react quite adversely and it will affect their policies,” he said. He was right. But to dismantle the alliance now would be seen by Moscow, correctly, as appeasement. The wise strategy is simply to focus on strengthening NATO as it is, with no further expansion. European members can be pressed, as Washington is now pressing them, to pay more for NATO’s upkeep.

One Cold War was enough. No pair of nations, even as different as America and Russia, is fated for permanent rivalry. The challenge for U.S. decision makers is to focus on the real possibilities for cooperation—and to resist the phobias that are inflaming our domestic politics and keeping us from seeing Russia clearly.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume I, Number 2 (Summer 2017): 151–65.


1 In France’s presidential election, held on May 7, Marine Le Pen received only 34 percent of the vote, to 66 percent for the more establishment candidate, Emmanuel Macron. Her lopsided defeat suggested that there was no wave of enthusiasm in Europe for candidates, like Le Pen, openly expressing admiration for Vladimir Putin. (Note added to online edition of this article after conclusion of 2017 French presidential elections.)

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