Will Russia continue to play the role of spoiler?

U.S. relations with Russia have been in a tailspin for almost three years. Moscow’s decision in early 2014 to annex Crimea and use military force there and in Eastern Ukraine put a seeming end to almost a quarter century of Western efforts to engage and integrate Russia. In their place has come a spiral of tension and a new conventional wisdom that whatever the path forward, the United States and its allies are in for a long, tough ride with the Russians.

In the wake of the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, however, not a few have asked if this is still the case. The president-elect has made a point of his desire to mend fences with Russian president Vladimir Putin. This has led to speculation, in Russia and the West, that the incoming administration will seek some sort of deal with the Kremlin, ending the standoff and setting the stage for a categorically new relationship.

I would caution the next administration to move carefully on this front. This is not because better relations with Russia are a bad idea. To the contrary, both countries have a lot to gain from cooperation, and much to lose from conflict, rhetorical and real. However, Donald Trump will be the third of as many U.S. presidents that have begun their tenure pledging a new, more collaborative, way forward with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. There are reasons that this has repeatedly proven more difficult than it seemed.

The Kremlin has a foreign policy explicitly centered on prestige, and it seeks to gain that prestige by “standing up” to Washington. 

To define policy toward Russia, it helps to consider Russia’s perspective. The Kremlin has a foreign policy explicitly centered on prestige, and it seeks to gain that prestige by “standing up” to Washington. This derives in part from a consistently zero-sum view of the world: for Moscow to be strong, it must be strong in comparison to others. The United States, which emerged from the Cold War as the world’s sole superpower, is a natural yardstick. Moreover, the Kremlin sees the United States as having prosecuted a concerted policy of punishing and weakening Russia. Today, in its view, Russia has finally grown strong enough to push back. As a result, and over the last three years especially, one of Moscow’s goals has been to demonstrate that Russia, too, can do the sorts of things the United States does (including foreign interference), and that it can keep the United States from always getting what it wants. In practice, this has meant that Russia has sought not only to advance its own, specific goals. It has also looked for opportunities to challenge U.S. policies and leadership, and to present a Cold War-like juxtaposition between the two countries. Washington, meanwhile, with its global goals and interests, has tended to notice Russian positions and concerns only when the Russians force the point. It has therefore viewed many of Russia’s policies and actions as part of a strategy of spoilerism.

Spoilerism or not, Russian actions have effects. While few doubted Moscow’s ability to wreak chaos in Ukraine, Russia’s military involvement in Syria surprised many by making a real difference: although it did not bring the country any closer to peace, it has decisively bolstered the Assad regime and changed facts on the ground. In Europe, while Russia’s Ukraine operation may now appear to be something of a morass, its second-order implications have the potential to shift long-standing continental dynamics. If Russia was not, initially, in any doubt about NATO’s alliance commitments and the EU’s institutional strength, now, between populist political movements and very public soul-searching about Europe’s future, Moscow may well feel that it has real openings to challenge European and Western unity and its institutions. Evidence of Russian interference in a range of domestic political processes—from an attempted coup in Macedonia to the release of hacked emails from America’s Democratic Party leadership in the midst of our election—has fostered distrust and frustration. Some Westerners see Russian fingerprints in every setback. Others ignore the phenomenon entirely. But the lesson for Russia is that this sort of thing can work, and that it may make Russia look more powerful and capable than it actually is.

Meanwhile, Russia is also facing a continuing economic recession at home, one rooted less in the sanctions imposed on it in the wake of its actions in Ukraine, and more in the combination of low oil prices and failure to carry out structural reforms when the economy was stronger. To date, the Kremlin has been able to blame the bulk of these problems on the United States and its European allies, muting (or at least refocusing) domestic discontent. This suggests that for Moscow, a better relationship with Washington is a mixed blessing: Russia is seeing a strategy of brinksmanship and escalation bear fruit in attaining a range of goals, and may have reason to think that more is possible. If fences are mended with the United States, at least some of this will have to be curtailed.

In this environment, if the Trump administration seeks deals, it must remain aware of several things. First among them is that it is not the coming to power of a new U.S. president that makes deals possible. Deals have been on the table all along: the problem was that Russia wanted them on its own terms only. Sanctions could have been (and still can be) lifted if Russia was willing to make progress on its commitments under the Minsk II agreement, meant to settle the Ukraine crisis. Russia could have had cooperation in Syria if it was, well, willing to actually cooperate, rather than do its utmost to ensure an Assad victory in Aleppo. So given a situation where Russia actually benefits from the status quo, and is facing a U.S. administration that seeks better relations, Russia is likely to try to get the same sorts of deals it has sought all along: ones that are all about U.S. concessions. At a minimum, these might include acceptance of the status quo in Ukraine, lifting of sanctions, and support for Assad in Syria. More maximally, Russia may seek pledges of no NATO membership for Ukraine (and other post-Soviet countries) and limitations on the U.S. and NATO role (and force posture) in Europe. It may want pledges of noninterference (as defined by Moscow) in Russia’s internal politics and those of its neighbors. Whatever the concessions, if all that the United States gets in exchange is a deal, then it is a bad deal. This is not just because these concessions will undermine European trust and security and do nothing to stabilize Syria. It is a bad deal because, as noted above, Russia views international relations as a zero-sum game, and Washington as its primary adversary. This means that when the United States takes a step back, Russia sees weakness. When it takes a step forward, Moscow sees threat. This security dilemma will not change because Donald Trump takes office.

Moreover, a bad deal will eventually be recognized as such. European responses to Washington selling out its allies will hurt the United States as well as the continent. Meanwhile, a Russia fresh from U.S. concessions while still dealing with substantial challenges at home will seek, and expect, more. Frustration by either or both parties will then almost certainly lead to a relationship even worse than the current one (and without the Western unity that has been so crucial over the last three years, and, indeed, for decades). Expect, in this case, to see even more Russian interference in other states’ domestic politics. Expect arms races and escalating military brinksmanship. Expect an increased risk of conflict, with all the dangers that implies.

When the United States takes a step back, Russia sees weakness. When it takes a step forward, Moscow sees threat.

None of this is meant to argue that the United States should avoid deals. It simply means that any deals struck with Russia must recognize and manage the security dilemma. This means that they must include clear gains for the United States, ones that are evident not just to the White House, but also to the Kremlin. Arrangements that advance security goals for allies and partners, with their full involvement, will also help ensure U.S. and Russian security. Progress in arms control and nonproliferation; serious, multilateral engagement on Europe’s security future; and a way forward in Syria that includes sustainable reconstruction could all be pursued to positive effect. The Trump administration may have less interest in and standing to pressure Russia on human rights, but it will do no one, including itself, any favors by giving up Washington’s prerogative to hold other states accountable. But if a deal for its own sake is insufficient, unsustainable, and dangerous, agreements that genuinely benefit both parties are not only possible, but likely to be critical if we are to avoid further cycles of hostility.


Olga Oliker