Obama meets with Poroshenko, June 2014.
Barack Obama meets with Petro Poroshenko, June 2014.

Acknowledging Policy Shortcomings Is First Step to Solving America’s Russia Problem

March 12, 2020
Paul Saunders

This op-ed is part of a new debate from Russia Matters. It is a rebuttal to "Contending With—Not Accepting—Spheres of Influence" by Steven Pifer. The opening argument can be read here: "US Embrace of Great Power Competition Also Means Contending With Spheres of Influence" by Paul Saunders.

Steven Pifer recently responded to my article “US Embrace of Great Power Competition Also Means Contending With Spheres of Influence.” While I have considerable respect for Mr. Pifer’s experience and integrity, I cannot always recognize my argument in his attempted rebuttal. In other areas, we clearly have significant differences.

First, Mr. Pifer asserts that the “article’s line of argument implies the United States should accept Moscow’s effort to shape a sphere of influence.” I explicitly rejected that, writing that publicly acknowledging spheres of influence would be “not merely unnecessary but counterproductive, including in U.S. relations with the states in contested zones, where leaders might conclude that Washington has given up on them and thus seek accommodation with America’s rivals.” What I called for was a greater effort within America’s government and from its foreign policy elites to develop effective policies toward countries in regions where rival great powers—China and Russia—have greater capabilities and/or greater resolve to advance their goals than Washington does. Considering that Russia has occupied parts of Ukraine and Georgia for six and eleven years respectively, and that U.S. policy has not made meaningful progress toward its stated goal to reverse this in either case, looking for better policy does not seem like a controversial goal.

Second, Mr. Pifer states that “Mr. Saunders assigns blame to the United States for Russia’s conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine,” quoting a sentence in which I argued that Washington bore responsibility “in part” due to failures in U.S policy. He later asks a rhetorical question that appears to imply that I suggested that American errors should somehow “justify” Russian conduct. They clearly do not; what Mr. Pifer did not do was to acknowledge my insistence, in the sentence following my comment about U.S. mistakes, that “Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to send Russian troops into these two states, and therefore is principally responsible for the outcomes.” No one can have more responsibility for Russian military interventions than Russia’s president, especially as Russia’s political system is currently constituted.

I assume Mr. Pifer is not arguing here that Russia’s behavior absolves the U.S. executive branch from its responsibility to reflect on its past performance with a view to doing better in the future, or that it absolves the Congress from its oversight of executive actions—past and present—and offering its own input. Failing to take those steps would demonstrably undermine not only American national security, but also (with respect to the Congress) the foundations of our constitutional checks and balances and ultimately our democracy. Acknowledging shortcomings in U.S. policy in Ukraine, Georgia or elsewhere in America’s domestic policy debates is not a gift to Putin—it is the first step in developing the approaches we need to manage our Russia problem successfully.

Mr. Pifer and I have contrasting views of NATO enlargement. In my view, U.S. policies to promote political and economic reform in Central Europe were not a humanitarian project; the goal was to strengthen American and NATO security at a time when no one could know whether Russia’s reforms would succeed. If Russian President Boris Yeltsin failed, something that became a greater concern over time, then ensuring that Soviet bloc countries could not fall into a reemerging Russian sphere of influence would limit Russia’s power and mitigate risks to U.S. and NATO security. These concerns mounted at exactly the time that NATO began to add new members and cannot easily be separated from U.S. efforts to facilitate Central Europe’s transitions.

Mr. Pifer argues that today Ukrainians and others “should have agency and the right to pursue their preferences” in joining the alliance and in pursuing other policies contrary to Russian preferences. Recognizing that Russia has considerable interests in Ukraine and that Moscow has a formidable ability to exercise influence and even power there does not mean “denying agency” to Ukraine or to other governments where Russia (or China) have significant interests and capabilities. Kyiv can seek NATO membership, or any other aims its leaders and people deem desirable, and neither Washington, Moscow nor anyone else can stop it.

The decisive question is not about Ukraine’s agency. What has mattered far more to today’s tragic realities in Ukraine are American and NATO agency, on one hand, and Russian agency, on the other. They can decide whom to encourage to seek membership in NATO (the U.S. and its allies) and how to respond to that (Russia). Ukraine has been a point of tension not because Ukrainians want to join NATO, but because the United States and NATO have generally encouraged Ukrainian efforts to join the alliance and Russia has consistently opposed them. Arguing that Ukraine’s desire to become a NATO member should settle this is to suggest that Washington and its allies should voluntarily delegate their agency to Kyiv. Expecting Russia to surrender its agency or redefine its interests absent wider changes in U.S.-Russian relations is unrealistic. Doing both simultaneously means choosing collision.

Some will likely express concern that this view of U.S. and Russian agency implies that Washington and Moscow should “go over Ukraine’s head” and ignore or sideline Kyiv. That would be a mistake. Even with its limited power relative to Russia and particularly to the United States, Ukraine’s actions matter to European peace and security.

Finally, Mr. Pifer argues that the United States should not “accept the legitimacy of the Russian efforts” to “establish a sphere of influence in its neighborhood.” As I noted earlier, I explicitly urged against any public U.S. statements about spheres of influence. Beyond this, however, I believe that conversations about the morality or legitimacy of Russia’s (or China’s) interests and their policies toward their neighbors or others may be useful in U.S diplomacy—meaning our efforts to persuade others to support America’s positions and to oppose those of our rivals—but that “legitimacy” is a distraction where security policy decisions are concerned.

Let us stipulate that all American interests and policies are legitimate and that all Russian interests and policies are illegitimate. Will this restore to life the thousands of Ukrainians who have died in Russia’s intervention in the Donbass? Will it rebuild damaged infrastructure and homes, resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees, or restore any other element of the pre-conflict status quo? Did pre-2014 Western statements that Russia’s interests and policies in Ukraine have been and remain illegitimate prevent Russia’s occupation of Crimea or its war in eastern Ukraine? Outside the realm of U.S. messaging, whether Russia’s interests and policies are legitimate or not is not a policy-relevant question. Thus, we should largely set Russia’s “legitimacy” aside in thinking about what we need to do, which includes in our domestic policy debates. “Legitimacy” might have value as we consider what to say to international audiences; however, it invites others to evaluate U.S. policy globally, which has not been flawless.

I appreciate Mr. Pifer’s time and energy in reading my original comment and writing a response. However, I believe that his arguments largely serve to illustrate my original point: American officials and foreign policy elites still have much hard thinking ahead in dealing with Chinese and Russian power—especially in the regions where their interests and capabilities are strongest.


Paul Saunders

Paul Saunders is a senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza