With Washington and Berlin having come to an agreement on the future of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the absence of a coherent strategy towards Russia is becoming readily apparent. While there are numerous tactical and operational level activities taking place, such as attempts to frustrate the construction of the pipeline, these efforts are disconnected from a politically viable strategic outcome that recognizes the realities in and perspectives of Moscow — and America’s limited ability to affect either — as well as the geopolitical realities evidenced by Europe’s reliance on Russian energy.
The absence of grand strategy or any strategy for that matter, is not something that is necessarily new in American foreign and national security policy. Each administration’s national security strategy document is more an outline of objectives or desires, rather than an articulation of politically viable and achievable outcomes. Of course, it takes several months for a new administration to craft said strategy, a lengthy period of time to get the right people in place and for those people to begin to affect the necessary change, all the while the administration struggles to cope with a litany of challenges and crises of the day.
Yet, when it comes to Russia, at a macro-level, Washington seems to be conspicuously missing any sense of a strategy at all, and this is not a new condition. What does the White House want the relationship with the Kremlin to be? What can that relationship look like? What is the politically viable and achievable end state? For that matter, is there one?
To be sure, Moscow’s history of recent activities and behaviors are an anathema to international norms of behavior. The poisoning and imprisonment of critic Alexei Navalny, the attempted murder of intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom, the SolarWinds hack, the 2016 election interference, the seizure of Crimea and ongoing war against Ukraine, and the list goes on. These speak more to the strategic picture and calculus in Moscow than anything else. Putin and the Kremlin very much view Russia as under assault from external forces and threatened by internal dynamics. With a paranoid worldview, are these behaviors at all surprising? Does that mean the West should kowtow to Moscow and seek to assuage its fears? Certainly not, but it does mean treating Russia as it is, not as we wish it to be.
Confronting these behaviors is an operational necessity, but when it is divorced from a desired and viable outcome, they are merely firefighting at best. This is where the absence of a strategic objective towards Russia is particularly detrimental. During the Cold War, in a broad if overly simplistic summary, the United States and NATO had a strategy to confront and contain the Soviet Union. The end goal may have been the end of communism, but the reality of the situation was much more about the development of strategic stability, cooperation where possible (such as on arms control) and confrontation where necessary, be it in Latin and South America, Africa, or Southwest Asia.
Today, there is no analogue to the Cold War strategy of containment. There are, of course, some corners of Washington that believe and expect the collapse of the Putin presidency and the flourishing of a more competitive, open, and pluralistic democracy in some form or fashion in Russia, as if that will magically cure the ails of the bilateral relationship and bring about geopolitical normalcy. These are fantasies at best and dangerous delusions at worst, based on outdated understandings of contemporary Russia. Russia is no longer the Soviet Union and Russian citizens are not cut off from the global market or information economy. While the average Russian undoubtedly wants politics to improve, the economy to strengthen and their needs to be met, this doesn’t mean an upending of the system. Put simply, any changes to Russia's politics will not happen at the hands or instigation of the West.
It also assumes that if the leadership in Moscow were to change the substance would change as well, that somehow the strategic calculus and worldview of the Kremlin would instantly become favorable to the West. Again, a dangerous delusion that misunderstands the personalist autocracy of Russia, Moscow’s view of the wider world, and history. To be sure, the tone changed with President Dmitry Medvedev, but the substance remained largely the same and there is no reason to expect that Putin’s successor would have a dramatically different world view or that even if they do, they will be able to turn the ship of state and reform the autocracy.
Washington must articulate an achievable strategy that recognizes these realities, as well the shortcomings of its policy tools, and defines an end state that is viable vis-à-vis Moscow. Here, geo-strategic stability must be the end result, buttressed by necessary deterrence and cooperation where possible.
The United States must engage with its Eastern European allies and NATO partners to ensure that conventional deterrence is not merely a concept, but exists and is credible. Integration and cross-training, and the forward deployment of forces for bi- and multilateral exercises, would reassure those capitals, but also send a message to Moscow that America takes its alliances seriously and remains committed to the European continent. Washington must also work with these allies to combat dis- and mis-information, and irregular and political warfare waged by Moscow. These activities will, undoubtedly, be seen by Moscow as inflammatory and characterized as aggressive in nature.
With that in mind, Washington must undertake an aggressive campaign of engagement and diplomacy on issues where there are mutual interests, such as strategic arms negotiations. Engagement and discussions are a critical first step to reducing tensions and require an investment of time and energy without an expectation of definitive results. Withholding negotiations is not a punishment, nor is their conduct a reward — it is a fact of doing business as a nation-state.
Concurrently, the White House and Congress must look to develop alternative ways of constraining Moscow’s behavior beyond sanctions. Sanctions are a necessary part of a coherent strategy, but they are insufficient alone. Here, the early steps on constraining the financial freedom of movement for kleptocrats is a good example. These efforts must also take into account the strategic conditions, such as Europe’s reliance on Russian energy — a condition that will not ebb in the foreseeable future — that will constrain Washington’s already limited ability to act. More must be done to identify areas of networked pressure, nodes on which Washington and its allies can press to respond to Moscow’s violation of norms of behavior. Ultimately, the United States must accept that its power is limited, but it can still work smartly to respond to Russia’s provocative acts.
The Biden administration may want to move on from Russia and focus on domestic affairs, but ignoring the problem won’t make it any less real. Until the White House defines a realistic relationship with Moscow, it will continue to fight the fires that the Kremlin starts.
Joshua Huminski is director of the Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersHouse passes sweeping defense policy bill After messy Afghanistan withdrawal, questions remain Congress should control its appetite for legacy programs when increasing defense budget MORE Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs for the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @joshuachuminski