A modern US-Russia policy must embrace realism and strategic humility
While the Biden administration has taken steps to manage the Russia question including sanctions in response to spying and electoral interference, agreeing to an extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and holding a bilateral summit with President Vladimir Putin, it has yet to issue a formal strategy toward Moscow. A smart strategy toward Russia must be based on reality, not hyperbole or erroneous assumptions.
The administration is pivoting its policy energy toward strategic competition with China and refocusing on the Indo-Pacific. Yet, the White House cannot simply ignore Russia in favor of an all-China strategy. Doing so is as dangerous as getting its Russia policy wrong in the first place. Moscow will retain the ability to be a disruptive actor in Europe and further abroad, particularly if it feels doing so will be to its strategic advantage. The interim national security strategy notes as much: “Russia remains determined to enhance its global influence and play a disruptive role on the world stage.”
The White House needs to first recognize that Russia believes that the West is at war with Moscow. This is not idle speculation but is fundamentally informing Moscow’s actions. The “Color Revolutions” of the 2010s, the West’s support of democratic movements within Russia and its backing of Ukraine are seen by Moscow as part of a Western hybrid warfare strategy. The end goal of this strategy, in Moscow’s view, is the destabilization of the Putin regime and the defeat of Russia.
If Russia believes the West is at war with it, then all options are on the table. As a result, Moscow’s undertaken aggressive, even reckless (in the view of the West) actions: A munitions’ depot explosion in 2014 in the Czech Republic, the 2015 poisoning of a Bulgarian arms dealer, an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016, interference in the 2016 Brexit vote and American elections and more.
Washington must also understand that Putin is not going anywhere in the near term. The recent constitutional reforms ensure that the president could stay in office through 2036. Even more important than this realization is the simple fact that Russia’s strategic worldview and national interests are not going to go away simply because Putin is no longer in office.
The president must also abandon the fundamentally flawed assumption that Russia is an “economy that has nuclear weapons and oil wells and nothing else. Nothing else.” Kathryn Stoner in her exceptional book “Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order,” and Michael Kofman and Andrea Kendall-Taylor in their recent Foreign Affairs essay, highlight the fact that economically, militarily and politically, Moscow is not declining and assuming the contrary risks underestimating what the Kremlin can and will do.
Confronting Russia means diversifying the tools used by Washington and its allies. At a macro level, this means thinking asymmetrically and finding novel ways of pushing back on Moscow’s ambitions. Washington needs to end its tit-for-tat approach to Russian mischief — expelling diplomats is a useful signal, but does nothing to dissuade Moscow from acting, it is just the cost of doing business.
Sanctions are a part of that strategy but are insufficient alone. Sanctions can and do signal displeasure with Moscow’s actions and behavior, but there is a declining utility. Here, pressure could be applied in a novel way by pursuing the kleptocracy in Europe and within the United States. The administration is to be applauded for efforts to fight corruption as a core national security priority. This is, however, not enough. The kleptocratic enablers in London, on Wall Street, and in hot property markets around the world must be pursued and disincentivized from cleaning dirty money — wherever it comes from.
Challenging Russia also means pushing back where Moscow is found, and it is not just in Eastern Europe. The Kremlin’s activity in Syria and Central Africa present areas where Washington and the West can stymie Moscow’s interests and ambitions.
Washington must also reassure its European allies that its pivot to the Indo-Pacific does not mean an abandonment of its preexisting commitments. To dissuade Russian aggression, NATO must serve as a deterrent and this means modernization and improving both coordination and national-level spending. Joint responses to Russian malfeasance are also critical — Russia prefers to work with countries independently and coordinated/allied action prevents this division. Washington must also understand the pressures allies in Europe are facing, not the least of which is via energy security. This presents a novel challenge and one that Washington will be hard-pressed to address.
Perhaps more than anything else, the Biden administration should adopt a frank and candid understanding this is not the Cold War and not all Russians want to be American. What Russians today want more than anything else is a better Russia for Russians — economic opportunity, upward mobility, security and stability at home — all of the things Americans want. This does not mean being “American” and it is strategic arrogance to assume the contrary.
Adopting a posture of strategic humility will go some way to informing how Washington approaches the Russia challenge, and highlight the limits of what Washington can achieve when it comes to Moscow. No matter what the White House does, it will be insufficient to change Russia’s strategic calculus or national interests. Ultimately, a realistic goal of strategic stability and managed competition should be the National Security Strategy’s objective. Here, Washington must communicate its red lines and understand Moscow’s, alike.
To do so the White House needs to work domestically to depoliticize the relationship, getting it off the front pages of broadsheets and social media. This means not rising to the bait often thrown by Putin, such as wading into America’s culture wars, something he sees as merely reciprocal. This does not mean Washington should abandon its soft power priorities, but rather that those priorities are guided by raw power, considerations and calculus.
The White House’s strategy must be grounded in reality and not in outdated assumptions and hyperbole. Anything less will simply achieve more of the same, and that is a risky prospect.
Joshua C. Huminski is director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress and a George Mason University National Security Institute visiting fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.