The Necessity of Another Russian Reset . . . and Its Utter Futility
In the wake of the recent intelligence community report on Russian involvement in U.S. elections, it is clear the relationship between Russia and the United States needs a fundamental recalibration. A critical element of any new strategic approach toward Moscow is a diplomatic ‘reset’ to the U.S.-Russian relationship. Ironically, the most important reason for outreach to Moscow is not to effect fundamental change in the trajectory of Western relations with Russia but rather to maintain consensus and solidarity within the West. Indeed, there should be no illusions about the likely success of any new diplomatic engagement efforts. Thanks to Russia’s geopolitical orientation and its internal political dynamics, even the most successful reset will have a short shelf life, but that does not make it any less useful in the long run.
Since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago, the West has pursued a neoliberal strategy of engagement, partnership, and inclusion toward its largest and most important successor state, Russia. This strategy was manifest through inviting Russian into the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, and Group of Seven leading industrial powers, providing a Russian voice within the halls of NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, giving billions of dollars in Western economic aid, denuclearization assistance, and investment credits, and a through variety of other policies.
This Western strategy of inclusion and partnership and its concomitant economic, political, and defense policies have endured through four very different U.S. administrations as well as numerous left- and right-leaning allied governments in London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome since 1991. Perhaps more notably, the Western strategy even withstood major rough patches in relations with Moscow, such as strong disagreements over Kosovo’s disposition in 1999, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Russia’s de facto dismemberment of Georgia in 2008. After each of these low points, the West, usually led by Washington, swallowed its pride (and sometimes its values) and reset relations with the Kremlin, all in pursuit of the West’s chosen strategy toward Russia.
Today, Russia and the West find themselves in the midst of another low point in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its illegal annexation of Crimea, its aggressive military posturing in northeastern Europe, its repeated violations of allied airspace, and most worryingly its interference in the U.S. elections. How the Trump administration will approach, Russia remains unclear, given the dramatically diverging viewpoints within the senior-most levels of the incoming team. However, it seems obvious that the West’s strategy to date has failed – efforts at integration, cooperation, and partnership have not resulted in a Russia less willing to threaten vital Western interests.
In response, the incoming administration should shift Western strategy toward a more competitive footing, but the opening round ought to include diplomatic outreach. Perhaps somewhat ironically, the primary objective of diplomatic engagement with Moscow should not be to defuse tensions. Certainly, if pol-mil tensions are in fact eased as a result of outreach, all the better. But the principle objective of diplomacy with Moscow should be to maintain consensus and solidarity within the Western alliance.
Most of Washington’s European allies have long believed that security in Europe can only be achieved with Russia, not against it. For this reason, the West has a long history of simultaneously pursuing the seemingly contradictory policies of diplomacy and deterrence vis-à-vis Russia. For instance, under the leadership of U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the West initiated both deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe and negotiations with Moscow to ban the very same weapons from Europe.
If Washington can maintain Western solidarity by at least attempting diplomatic outreach toward Moscow, it has a much higher likelihood of bringing about a far more important element in the new strategy toward Russia – a more intensified strengthening of conventional military power as well as offensive and defensive cyber capabilities in Europe, especially among the larger NATO allies. Across nearly all European members of the Alliance, defense spending has been steadily increasing since 2014. However, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom – which together account for just over 60 percent of all European NATO military spending – can and should do more.
Building up allied capabilities is likely to be more consequential for European security and a more effective means of safeguarding and promoting Western interests in the long run. This is because domestic political dynamics within Russia continue to undermine any politicians there that favor strategic, long-term rapprochement with the West. Largely due to geopolitical factors, Russian political leaders remain incentivized to pursue what political scientists call a relative gains approach in foreign relations, leading Russia to view international security in terms of a zero-sum game. This will not change under a post-Putin Kremlin.
Given these domestic political incentives within Russia, even the grandest, most successful reset of relations is very likely to fail in the short run yet again – and if past practice is any indicator, it will fail at Moscow’s hands. In the meantime, better to build up defense and deterrence capabilities as part of a major revamping of Western strategy and a more competitive approach toward Russia.