Foreign Policy

America tensions with Russia won’t end after Putin’s gone

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The source of Russia’s bad behavior isn’t just Putin.

It is also Russia’s historical pattern of foreign policy with its neighbors and other great powers.

In the past, neighbors meant just that, but today the concept of neighborhood is a widening circle of places where an ordinarily prickly Russia often runs into the United States, its great power nemesis and former Cold War enemy. American–Russian relations are in a new Cold War, and it will likely be a lengthy one, outlasting Putin, who may well have another decade to rule.

From the American point-of-view, Russia under Putin has behaved terribly for a decade.  It invaded Georgia toward the end of the Bush administration and now occupies parts of that independent nation.

{mosads}Toward the end of the Obama years, Russia seized the Crimea and fomented a proxy war in eastern Ukraine. It also threatened our NATO allies in the Baltic and deployed weapons that violated bilateral arms control treaties. In Assad’s darkest hour, while America diddled, Putin sent an expeditionary force to Syria, turning the tide of the war, saving both Assad and the Russian base there, and reinforcing a Russian position of strength in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.


The “why” behind Russia’s aggressive moves is always complex. 

Over centuries, Russia’s powerful neighbors from East and West have often invaded its huge, flat Eurasian landmass. The last neighbor to invade Russia, then the Soviet Union, was Germany. That war took 20,000,000 Soviet lives, half of them civilians. That amounted to nearly a third of all people who died in World War II. These repetitive invasions helped to create a series of authoritarian governments with a chip on their collective shoulder.

Russia’s attitude toward its neighbors was summed up in Lenin’s expression, kto-kogo, who-whom, shorthand for who will dominate whom.

Tsars and commissars alike kept a wary eye on Europe and Asian balances of power, as well as their smaller neighbors around its vast periphery.

When in doubt, coopt, subvert, and dominate was, is , and will always be the Russian modus operandi.

The sense of humiliation among Putin, a former KGB officer, a chekist, and his cronies at the breakup of the Soviet Union runs deep, and it is reflected in the many fights over major and minor issues with the former Soviet republics, referred to in Russia as “the near abroad.”

The presence of a Russian diaspora in many of these former republics often heightens tension, and the perceived Russian “right” to have a say in the internal affairs of neighboring states.


Russian fear, humiliation, and urge to dominate define Moscow’s approach to Russian-American relations. 

The expansion of NATO — meant to help cement the democratization of the East European states — rubbed salt in Putin’s humiliation and sparked problems between the new members of NATO and Putin. 

Our battle against al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were seen as further proof of our aggressiveness and urge to dominate. Our efforts to help struggling democracies were often seen as meddling of the worst kind, attempts at fomenting “color revolutions,” which Putin blamed on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

With a thoughtful, soft power president like Obama, who tried at first to “reset” American-Russian relations, Putin seized the opportunity to achieve the advantage in Syria and Ukraine. He also has reinvigorated the Russian armed forces with marked progress in nuclear weapons, missiles, new tanks, and special operations forces.

Russia’s ubiquitous “little green men” have shown up in Ukraine and Syria. Russian cyber weapons have been used often with ill effects inside the United States and its allies.

President Trump’s attack with Tomahawk missiles in Syria and current battlefield progress on the Raqqa front, have regained part of the initiative in Syria, but it’s not clear how long the reassertion of American power will continue to hold sway there.

President Trump and Secretary Tillerson’s recent strong, pro-NATO posture toward Russia bodes well for dealing with Putin and his government.

For reasons that are part Putin and part Russia, our future with that country will be one of vigorous competition and for now, limited cooperation.  In addition to overlapping and common interests, Russian economic weaknesses will argue against tension boiling over to conflict.

Russia can afford adventures, but a deliberate war is out of the question.

Given Russian and Putin proclivities, the United States needs some general directions to guide the specific policies under development by Team Trump. At the risk of over-simplification, the United States should: 

  • Stand firm with Russia, but avoid humiliating them.
  • Seek areas of common or overlapping interests in Syria and other regions of conflict, like Ukraine or Georgia.
  • Reinforce alliance relations in Europe and Northeast Asia.  Never sell out an ally to court favor with the Russians.
  • Continue to enhance NATO’s deterrent posture in Central Europe.
  • Reenergize bilateral arms control fora.  Russia and the United States have dampened tension and saved billions with arms control. 
  • Maintain best possible relations with China.  Triangular politics can be useful but are subject to the risk of political manipulation by the other powers.
  • Tell Moscow quietly that we are not likely to seek further NATO expansion with countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union.

In the end, Russia isn’t Canada, and it will never be a friendly country. Even when Putin is in the old chekists’ home, Russian-American relations will not be a bed of roses.

Russia will remain the captive of its history and the victim of its authoritarian style of government. The U.S. will succeed if we avoid war and steer clear of the negativity generated by toxic Russian politics and the Eurasian landmass that it occupies.

In the meantime, if we occasionally find a common or overlapping interest, it will be a bonus.

Joseph J. Collins is director of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University. A retired Army colonel, he was the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, 2001-2004. The opinions here are his own and not necessarily those of NDU, the Department of Defense, or any other government entity.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Crimea Donald Trump Europe Hillary Clinton Putin Russia Syria U.S. Ukraine

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