Candidates need to articulate Russia policies now

Candidates need to articulate Russia policies now
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In the worst-case scenarios modeled by scientists at Johns Hopkins University, the spread of the coronavirus could kill up to 65 million people over 18 months.

In a nuclear exchange between Russia and NATO triggered by a mere accident or miscalculation, 34 million would die and another 57 million injured in the first few hours of a conflict.

With relations between the United States and Russia at an all-time low today, the second scenario should worry us as much as the first. So far, not a single Democratic candidate has articulated its stance on Russia. This needs to change. 


Those of us who were at the Pentagon as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 certainly did not expect Russia to become an amiable democratic ally anytime soon. 

Our 1992 Defense Planning Guidance received a lot of flak from well-meaning liberals at the time for its unabashed conclusion that, regardless of the end of communism, Russia would remain a strategic rival.

Hence, most of us do not find it surprising that, even as our latest crisis with Iran quiets down, Russia continues to pose major challenges for American foreign policy. 

At the end of December, as the Trump administration was planning to kill Gen. Soleimani with a drone strike, Russia announced the deployment of a new hypersonic missile capable of reaching any U.S. target within thirty minutes undetected by any existing anti-missile systems, reminding us yet again of its military prowess. 

And just a couple of weeks ago, President Putin unveiled a sweeping constitutional reform that will enable him to remain at the helm of Russia's destiny for the indefinite future. A formidable and wily adversary, we are going to have to deal with him for a long time. 


With 145 million people, the earth's most significant landmass, its sixth-largest GDP by purchasing power parity, and a nuclear arsenal and technical elite second to none, Russia is, as it has been for the past three centuries, one of those Great Powers with a proud identity and culture, to which the German historian Leopold von Ranke pointed as shaping the very destiny of humanity. Yet, today the United States has no coherent strategy towards Russia. 

President TrumpDonald TrumpCaitlyn Jenner says election was not 'stolen,' calls Biden 'our president' Overnight Health Care: FDA authorizes Pfizer vaccine for adolescents | Biden administration reverses limits on LGBTQ health protections Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal MORE's obvious warmth towards Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinQueen's cousin and associate accused of 'secretly trading on their links' to Putin, monarchy for profit Putin warns of resurgence in Nazi beliefs on anniversary of WWII's end Biden 'confident' meeting with Putin will take place soon MORE sits awkwardly with his administration's steady stream of economic and political sanctions against Russia. At a time of intense polarization on Capitol Hill, one belief binds Democrats and Republicans like no other: the need to punish and isolate Russia. But this policy of isolation and punishment has been ineffective and counterproductive. 

What we need instead is a policy of strategic engagement: while sharply disagreeing with Russia on key issues and containing its expansion where it matters to us, we should engage it in multiple areas where we have common interests. Even at the height of the Cold War, we negotiated, talked, and traded with Russia. As was the case, then a steady policy of engagement based on a mixture of firmness, patience, and pragmatism is our best course. Three issues stand out on which we should engage Russia.

First is arms control. At present, both powers are amid a runaway, costly arms race involving nuclear, hypersonic, and space weapons, which neither one can win. The best way to slow down and manage this senseless race would be to open a round of serious arms control negotiations similar to the one the hard-headed Nixon administration launched with Moscow in late 1969, and which over years of difficult negotiations led to the remarkable arms control successes of the 70s and 80s.

The second is Ukraine. Working closely with Europe, Washington should probe whether Moscow is seriously interested in settling the conflict. The outlines of such settlement would involve some greater autonomy for the Russian-speaking regions in eastern Ukraine, in exchange for Russia ceasing to support paramilitary elements fighting the Kyiv government. Ukraine's right eventually to join the European Union should be acknowledged, while reassuring Russia that NATO membership is not in the cards. The issue of Crimea should be put off for future discussions, in essence, writing it off as a practical matter. 

To be sure, Mr. Putin may not be truly interested in a Ukrainian deal. He may prefer keeping a low-intensity conflict going as a means to destabilize Ukraine in the hope of eventually drawing it back into Russia's strategic orbit. But the United States and its allies should pursue the diplomatic approach while continuing to provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself. 

The third is trade and investment. The sanctions Europe and the United States have imposed on Russia have succeeded mostly in drawing Russia closer to China, while disproportionately hurting European farmers and American manufacturers. The Western allies could borrow a page from Ronald Reagan, one of whose first acts in office in 1981 was to restart grain exports to the Soviet Union in spite of major geopolitical tensions with it. There are vast synergies with Russia that the United States and Europe can pursue in energy, manufacturing, technology, and agriculture. It would be highly unwise for the West to convince Russia that its economic and strategic future lies with China.

 As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his 1835 "Democracy in America," Russia always has been a complicated, and often difficult, neighbor and partner for the West. Russia's current meddling in our democratic elections, its quest for power in Europe and the Middle East and its sense of grievance over its loss of empire would not have surprised the Congress of Vienna diplomats who worked to restrain Russia in 1815, or the British statesmen who lost sleep over Russia's expansion in Persia, Afghanistan and Manchuria in 1900. 

As the 21st century plays itself out, we cannot write Russia off, or hope to build a more stable world without it as an active partner. Inevitably, we will disagree and compete on many issues. But such tensions need not preclude the West from pursuing areas of common interest. 

We can do this from a position of strength and confidence infused with patience and pragmatism, in the belief that it is vastly better for the United States and Europe to have Russia as a difficult partner than to cast it as our long-term enemy. 

Candidates, let's hear how you plan to engage. 

Alberto R. Coll is a former principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense and the author of The Wisdom of Statecraft. He is a professor of law and U.S. Foreign Relations at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.