Russia and America: Rivals Today, Allies Tomorrow?
It almost goes without saying that U.S.-Russian relations are frosty right now.
There is a broad, bi-partisan sense that the fledgling shoots of Russian democracy have withered in the cold wind of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin’s neo-authoritarianism. Not content to put domestic liberty in Russia on ice, Putin has increasingly cast his icy gaze on his neighbors, going to war with the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in 2008, seizing the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, and aiding and abetting anti-Kiev rebels in its Russophone east.
In recent years, the Kremlin has assumed in many Americans’ eyes charter membership in a new Axis of evil in war-torn Syria, joining Iran and Syria’s embattled dictator Bashar al-Assad. The nail in the coffin of any potential reset in relations between the two countries is evidence that entities in Russia meddled in our last presidential election and seemed to be gearing up to make electoral mischief again this fall.
Given all this, it is hardly surprising that Russia has few friends in Washington, D.C. these days. Among the few are an increasingly beleaguered President Donald Trump.
It would be a strategic mistake to let our immediate differences with Russia blind us to the reality that our two countries have important long-term common interests. Indeed, they are of such a magnitude that they far outweigh our short-term conflicts with the Kremlin. Let’s consider them:
It is hard to find a silver lining in war-torn Syria, where Assad’s regime has brutally suppressed a rebellion against it, indiscriminately killed and injured hundreds of thousands of combatants and non-combatants, and displaced millions of refugees. However, the reality is that Western efforts to support a “moderate” opposition to Assad failed because the reality on the ground was that only extremists groups like ISIS or al-Nusra—or well-intentioned but destabilizing groups like the Kurds—had any chance of toppling the regime. In other words, après Assad, la deluge of either an equally odious caliphate or a cauldron of conflict as the Kurds and our allies, and their mortal enemies, the Turks turned Syria into a failed state. Believe it or not, in backing Assad, the Russians prevented the only things worse than the current state of affairs.
And as the two largest nuclear powers in the world, Russia and the United States have an interest in ensuring that the strategic balance between them remains stable. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was left with the most formidable nuclear capability on the planet. After years of letting their arsenal grow obsolete, the Russians are now beginning to modernize their forces and reassert themselves as a nuclear power.
The United States—beginning under President Barack Obama but accelerating under President Trump—has also committed to a multi-year, trillion dollar-plus upgrade of our weapons. Both sides have an interest in ensuring that this modernization does not become an all-out arms race. Getting arms control back on their bi-lateral agendas is not only a good way to not only save money but also to avoid catastrophe.
Finally, while the clamoring about the growing China threat one hears these days from certain precincts inside the Beltway are both over-wrought and premature, there is no doubt that the Middle Kingdom is the closest thing we have to a future “peer competitor.” Given that, history and geopolitics both should push us toward a closer and more congenial relationship with Russia.
The two largest Eurasian states share a long and unsettled border and have a history of suspicion and open conflict across it. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger followed this same logic to its conclusion and sought better relations with Mao’s China to counter-balance the Soviet Union.
Today, Putin’s Russia could play a similar realpolitik role in helping us balance a growing China without Uncle Sam having to do all the heavy lifting, as former Secretary of State Kissinger suggests. Instead, the U.S. status quo is pushing Moscow and Beijing closer together.
It seems strange given the concern about China’s rise across the political spectrum in America that we have been willing to tolerate continuing enmity with one of the few states that has both the motive and the capability to help counter-balance it if it truly proves to be an aspiring Asian hegemon. Unfortunately, the anti-Russia status quo inside the Beltway is pushing Moscow and Beijing into each other’s arms rather than pitting them against each other.
While many experts on U.S. national security recognize that these overarching geopolitical realities counsel a reset in U.S.-Russian relations, America’s political class has been slow to recognize them. One exception is Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) who takes a dim view of further NATO expansion—a major irritant between the two countries—and has sought to open dialogue with Russian legislators on some of these larger and longer-term issues of common concern. In the climate of Russophobia in our nation’s capital these days, his efforts have not garnered many allies.
If the shade of Richard Nixon is walking the corridors of power today in Washington, one of the few places it will find a lick of geopolitical commonsense about Russia is in the junior Senator from Kentucky’s office. It is too bad that more of his colleagues don’t channel the strategic wisdom of these two great Cold War realpolitikers and apply it to U.S.-Russia relations today.
Michael C. Desch is the Packey J. Dee Professor of International Relations and the Director of the Notre Dame Security Center. His most recent book is Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security (Princeton University Press).