U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

5 Conservative Principles for Dealing With Russia

April 12, 2017
William Tobey
This piece was originally published by Foreign Policy. 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived in Moscow on Tuesday with perhaps more experience negotiating with Russians than any new secretary of state since John Quincy Adams — whose first diplomatic mission to Saint Petersburg preceded his admission to Harvard, and who served as our young republic’s first minister to the czarist court. Tillerson needs no advice on how to deal with Moscow, but he leaves behind a country riven by arguments about Russia. Democrats are furious over interference in the U.S. presidential election, whereas some Republicans have developed a blind spot in the weather eye they traditionally train on U.S. national security issues. Reestablishing a rough consensus on principles to guide American relations with Russia, therefore, is a high foreign policy priority. Five ideas might start that process.

First, except for a brief period in the 1990s, Russian and American political values are and have been deeply incompatible. America’s founding documents — the Declaration of Independence and Constitution — commit the country to democracy and respect for individual rights. Beneath a democratic veneer, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is authoritarian, and committed to “order” and “security” at the expense of individual rights. The Russian government controls media outlets, especially television. It manipulates elections to make them noncompetitive. Rule of law is no protection for the assets and even the lives of those who run afoul of Putin. Consequently, Russia’s government derives no legitimacy from its ostensibly democratic procedures. Once, a booming oil industry granted legitimacy derived from prosperity, but no more. Increasingly, nationalism — truly the last resort of scoundrels — is the source of Putin’s claim to legitimacy.

This dynamic instills a profound sense of insecurity in Moscow, with the very existence of liberal democracies serving as a daily argument against the legitimacy of the Russian government. This is likely why Putin directed Russia’s intelligence services to meddle in U.S. and European elections. If all election processes are illegitimate, then Russia’s government is not disadvantaged, and authoritarian order may even outshine democratic chaos. The defeat of an American presidential candidate abhorred by Putin was probably an unexpected tactical victory in a broader strategic campaign to undermine the West. Until Russia values democracy, individual rights, and rule of law, Washington and Moscow’s policies will be animated by fundamentally different values.

Second, Russian and American interests are incompatible in many but not all cases. Russia is revanchist. For Putin, who saw the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century — an era that included both Communism and Nazism, as well as two world wars — reestablishing a semblance of the Soviet Union’s security domain is a priority. Thus, Russia has effectively seized territory from Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, and furiously fought the right of all three nations, and others, to determine their own security policies. Most of all, Moscow seeks to crack European and transatlantic unity. The NATO alliance and European economic integration are emphatically in America’s interest. Hence, Russia opposes them.

Similarly, in Syria, Russian and American goals are far different. The United States seeks the defeat of the Islamic State and the establishment of a stable, democratic Syrian government that would permit the end of the brutal civil war and the return of refugees. Moscow seeks to preserve the Syrian government, employing Russian forces to eliminate all opposition. It also seeks to maintain its access to naval and air bases, and to minimize the risk from Muslim extremists returning to its territory. If the Islamic State kills off moderate alternatives to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, so much the better. The refugee flows into Europe, which stress democratic institutions there, advance Moscow’s interests.

On some matters, Russian and American interests coincide. Both countries seek to end radical Islamic terrorism. Both countries need to secure nuclear weapons and materials, and to work with third parties to do so. Both countries have an interest in a stable and transparent nuclear weapons balance, although Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty must be reversed.

Third, we should cooperate where we can, even as we compete where we must. President Richard Nixon deployed a “madman theory” against the Soviet Union, but also pursued détente (admittedly, a steady policy between those extremes would have been optimal). President Ronald Reagan rightly saw the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” but also pursued the INF and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty negotiations.

Fourth, we should be clear-eyed about both U.S. and Russian vital national security interests. U.S. alliances advance American security interests and values. They have promoted unprecedented peace and prosperity in Europe, Northeast Asia, and elsewhere for over half a century. They have diminished American burdens and increased American influence. They must be defended as vital interests.

Moscow too has vital security interests — albeit some which are distasteful. Yet if they were vital to Russia but peripheral to us, it would be better not to pursue them at all costs. This does not mean simply acceding to Moscow’s use of force. For five decades, the United States refused to recognize the Soviet Union’s seizure of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, mostly by placing an asterisk on official maps. The United States, however, chose not to risk World War III and the destruction of the countries in question by attempting to pry them away from the Soviet Union before its demise. Some sneered at this policy as an empty gesture, but today those nations are free and independent. Sometimes patience is a powerful weapon in the diplomatic arsenal. The greatest risk of war between the United States and Russia — the two most heavily armed countries in the world — stems from misjudging where each other’s vital interests lie. Prudent analysis and careful diplomacy are called for.

Finally, it is important to remember that no mortal government lasts forever, and Putin’s Russia is not the only viable model for Russia. The country is capable of democracy. Russia and the United States are not natural enemies. Until Russia changes of its own accord, however, we must deal with it as it is. That means recognizing the differences between U.S. and Russian values, fiercely defending those American interests that are vital, cooperating where we can, and refusing to be baited into conflicts that are not central to U.S. security. A bipartisan consensus behind these principles would make U.S. policy toward Russia more effective, regardless of which party controls the White House.


William Tobey

William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and previously served as the deputy administrator for the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2006-2009.

Photo credit: Flickr photo by the U.S. State Department shared as a U.S. government work.