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Rollback redux: A new (old) framework for dealing with Russia

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With ongoing Russian efforts to interfere in an election just weeks away, not to mention Moscow’s efforts to militarily provoke the West and assassinate political rivals at home and abroad, it’s never been more clear that the United States needs a new approach to Russia. Despite releasing in 2017 what was widely viewed as a clear strategy aimed at competing with near-peer Russia, the Trump administration has had a complex, inconsistent relationship with Moscow, to say the least. Whether Donald Trump is reelected, or Joe Biden succeeds in replacing him, Washington needs to reinvigorate efforts to manage the Russia challenge.

Some have proposed a 21st century version of containment as an effective policy going forward. But containment still would leave the West vulnerable to Russian influence, pressure and intimidation. Instead, another Cold War-era approach may be more appropriate: rollback. By rolling back Russian power in diplomatic, political and especially economic terms, the West can more effectively reduce Moscow’s ability to hold Western interests at risk. A far less powerful Russia will find it more difficult to threaten the United States and its NATO allies. Moreover, accelerating Russia’s slow but steady decline will enable the West to pay more attention to the longer-term challenge of China. 

Rollback is an old concept whose time may have returned. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, American critics of containment against the Soviet Union argued it was too passive, consigning millions of people behind the Iron Curtain to life under authoritarianism. In contrast, rollback proponents argued for repulsing Soviet Communism more aggressively, including through wars of liberation. Eventually, though, rollback came to be focused on less militarized efforts to reduce Soviet power and influence.

Today, a competitive strategy underwritten by 21st century rollback policies could help to reduce Russia’s ability to invade more neighbors, annex additional territories, employ energy as a weapon, and threaten security and stability in regions of the world vital to the West. Such an approach acknowledges Moscow has legitimate interests across an array of issue areas — and it even recognizes that Russia might be considered a great power. However, where it differs significantly from containment or other approaches is in positing that Russia should not necessarily remain a great power. By reducing Russian power in diplomatic, political and economic terms, Moscow’s ability to threaten Western interest will diminish.  

What policies would comprise an effort to roll back Russian power? In terms of diplomatic tools, Western countries should make it as easy as possible for young, educated Russians to emigrate. Many already want to leave. A dwindling Russian population — particularly bereft of the educated, creative, entrepreneurial middle class — ultimately will reduce Russian economic power and international influence.

Western countries also should end bilateral summits and state visits with Russia. Russian leaders savor opportunities to appear on the world stage next to American presidents, German chancellors and British prime ministers. These photo opportunities convey that Russia matters, giving its leaders a political boost at home, as well as abroad. Instead of strengthening Russian soft power, better to let engagement occur through foreign ministers.

Similarly, the West should seek to keep Russia permanently out of the G-7, which would further reduce its soft power. Russia neither has a large economy nor is it a democracy, which long have been the two prerequisites for membership. Would this mean taking a potential carrot off the table that could be useful in incentivizing desirable Russia behavior? Possibly, but then again there’s little evidence that Moscow cares much about Western carrots based on the liberal world order.

Although diplomatic and political policies are useful in rolling back Russia’s power, economic policies are perhaps the most important. Taking steps to limit development of the Russian economy eventually could have a profound impact on Moscow’s ability to threaten Western interests. For example, Western states should make permanent their embargo on the export of specific military and dual-use goods to Russia, as well as end periodic reviews of the sanctions on Russian energy and financial sectors. Currently, sanctions by Canada and the United States are open-ended, but the European Union must periodically renew its sanctions.

Most importantly, the West must do what it can to keep the price of oil low. Russia’s economy remains almost entirely driven by resource extraction and roughly 36 percent of the Russian government’s budget revenue comes from oil and natural gas sales. By one estimate, Russia’s so-called “break even” point is now roughly $40/barrel — if the price of oil drops below this level, production costs exceed income generated through sales, limiting Moscow’s ability to create mayhem. How can the West do this? For starters, it can get out of the way of oil price wars. Additionally, it should promote faster development of liquefied natural gas and renewable energy infrastructure and encourage friendly governments in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iraq or Mexico to increase production when prices near Russia’s break-even point. 

Through a more consistent, clear-eyed application of strategy and policy, rolling back Moscow’s power should be achievable at relatively low risk. The rewards are potentially significant in terms of helping the West to better manage the short-term, acute threat posed by Russia, ultimately enabling the West to devote increased attention to a far larger, longer-term challenge — China.

Dr. John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College, and the author of “NATO and Article 5.” The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @JohnRDeni.

Tags Containment Donald Trump Joe Biden rollback Russia US-Russia relations

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