Washington on horse

In Dealing With Russia Washington Should Embrace Reason, Not Passion

March 29, 2018
Paul Saunders

Vladimir Putin’s re-election as Russia’s President seems likely only to harden American attitudes toward both Putin and his country. Nevertheless, surrendering U.S. foreign policy to these sentiments, as understandable as they may be, rather than basing policy on cool assessment of the facts and of U.S. national interests would be a dangerous mistake.

Considering Putin’s actions as Russia’s leader, it is hardly surprising that 68% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of him. Nor is it surprising that most Americans, including not only ordinary citizens but also officials and journalists, should identify Russia very closely with Putin, especially after he has served as Russia’s president or prime minister since 1999. While Putin has not publicly uttered a Russian-language version of “l’etat c’est moi” (“I am the state”), one could fairly say that actions speak louder than words. Indeed, since Putin has led Russia for nearly all the last 20 years, one cannot easily separate his leadership from the realities of present-day Russia’s assertive foreign policy or its authoritarian and corrupt politics.

Yet considering that U.S. politicians in both parties have urged successive administrations not to over-personalize U.S.-Russia relations—or American relations with many other countries—when those ties have been good, it is reasonable to think that Washington should also strive to avoid this tendency when relations are bad. And U.S.-Russia relations are definitely bad, if not terrible, largely due to sharp differences over Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, Syria and U.S. domestic politics. Setting aside some significant U.S. errors in dealing with Moscow since the end of the Cold War, Americans have good reason to consider Russia an adversary and, for that matter, to have serious concerns about the Russian government’s treatment of Russian society. Russia’s interference in the 2016 election campaign, which many believe Putin orchestrated, has considerably exacerbated this. Nevertheless, as Henry Kissinger has said, “the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.”  

While it is essential to be realistic about Russia and its leaders, America’s domestic discourse about Russia has veered away from pragmatic sensibility toward a near-hysteria founded in no small part on outlandish stereotypes. A former head of the U.S. intelligence community said that he was alarmed by Russian contacts with Trump administration officials because Russians are “typically, almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor.” Similarly, a former military officer who is now a conservative television commentator wrote that “Russians refuse to help themselves, preferring brutality, squalor and hostility to the rule of law and civilization.” Each of these statements would be widely considered offensive in almost any other context. If you are unsure about that, try replacing “Russians” with the name of a different ethnic or racial group.

The danger here is that such attitudes rapidly distort not only public debates, but also deliberations in Congress and the executive branch that produce U.S. foreign and security policy. Perhaps the best recent example of how this can occur is in the process leading to the George W. Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq. The indisputable fact that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator contributed to an environment in which politicians and commentators seemed to compete in expressing hostility toward the Iraqi leader. More important, in the post-9/11 political climate these attitudes seem to have discouraged hard questions about Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities, which proved far less developed than most assumed and many claimed. Widespread hostility toward Hussein similarly appears to have facilitated ready acceptance of what Iraqi opposition figures like Ahmed Chalabi said about how easy a war and occupation of Iraq would be. Few noted that Chalabi and other opposition leaders—who wanted to run Iraq themselves—had a big personal stake in U.S. policy.

It would be hard to describe the consequences of the 2003 Iraq war as better than mixed. Beyond the American, Iraqi and other lives lost and the war’s trillion-dollar direct cost (so far, plus much larger indirect and longer-term costs), its strategic results have also been quite damaging: diverting the United States from its principal strategic challenge (China) for more than a decade, destroying a regional balance of power that had successfully contained Iran and contributing to the birth of the Islamic State group and a devastating civil war in neighboring Syria.

Since Moscow has weapons of mass destruction, unlike Iraq, as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles, a comparable error in judgment in dealing with the Kremlin could have grave implications for the United States. Russia also has a conventional military force sufficiently capable to defeat or severely wound any of the U.S. allies within its reach, not to mention aspiring allies in Ukraine and Georgia—neither of which has yet faced this force in full (or even close to that). Russia has sustained a very limited but politically effective military operation in Syria for two and a half years. And Russia can export high-tech weapons to U.S. foes and offer more direct support to America’s enemies in places like Afghanistan. After the 2016 election cycle, more Americans now know that Russia also has sophisticated cyber capabilities and few qualms about trying to use them inside the United States.

Like in the Iraq case, some Russian opposition activists are sufficiently eager for Washington to change Russia’s system of government—again, so that they and their friends and allies can eventually lead the country—as to be unreliable sources of information about Russia’s politics or policy. Some of Russia’s European neighbors have even more to gain or lose than opposition figures who hopefully realize that U.S.-sponsored regime change in Russia is a long shot at best. Notably, a Washington Post report on the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s election interference stated that “because of the source of the material” the National Security Agency questioned intelligence from a foreign government asserting that Putin “was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump.” This suggests that NSA analysts feared that the source government had an interest in the policies that could flow from America’s conclusions about the intelligence it provided.

With this in mind, Americans would do well to take a deep breath and silently count to 10 (or perhaps a much higher number) before taking further important decisions on U.S. policy toward Russia. It’s plain common sense to avoid making profound decisions amid pervasive anger and hostility.

America’s first president, George Washington, had much to say on this topic in his Farewell Address, printed in 1796 to announce his decision to forgo seeking re-election for a third term in office. Recognizing his new country’s weakness, Washington’s broad foreign-policy advice to his successors was to “observe good faith and justice toward all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” Today’s superpower United States can often afford to deviate from this rather cautious approach, something Washington himself foresaw in writing that if America avoided foreign conflicts and focused on its own development, “the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance … when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”

Yet despite his expectations about America’s future power, Washington admonished that “nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies toward particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded.” Washington—perhaps at his best as a student of human nature, arguably his greatest strength as a wartime leader and then president—went on to explain how these sentiments could distort decision-making, thereby leading to costly and unnecessary conflicts:

“Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.”

American power likely ensures victory in any direct military conflict with Russia other than a thankfully improbable but surely winnerless nuclear war. Nevertheless, history has repeatedly demonstrated that even victories can be quite costly and even counterproductive in achieving one’s strategic objectives. That is the danger in adopting “through passion what reason would reject.”

The risks of miscalculation, accidents and escalation are especially high today, when U.S. and Russian military forces are operating in close proximity to one another in Europe and the Middle East and Washington and Moscow are supporting opposing sides in two ongoing armed conflicts. Putin’s recent speech unveiling new weapons programs should not in themselves keep anyone awake at night; as Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stated, Moscow already has the capability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, Russia remains actively engaged in fighting in eastern Ukraine, where Kiev’s forces suffer on average one combat loss every three days. More ominously, after U.S. airstrikes that Moscow acknowledged killed or wounded “several dozen” Russian mercenaries in Syria, Russia’s General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, bluntly threatened to respond to any U.S. missile attack that threatens Russian military forces by counterattacking “missiles as well as launchers.” Thus Gerasimov, who is less prone to bluster than some other Russian officials, appears to have stated that Moscow could directly strike U.S. aircraft or ships that fire these missiles.

The United States can and should continue to advance its interests in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere and should certainly be prepared to stand up to Moscow in doing so. At the same time, however, American officials (and legislators) can ill afford to confront Russia without thinking through the probable short and long-term consequences of each specific U.S. move. This in turn requires a clearer hierarchy of priorities among U.S. interests—something that will be hard to establish amid the bitter domestic disputes now underway in America. No matter how satisfying it may feel, however, continuing reflexive hostility toward Russia won’t help the United States to develop an effective foreign policy toward Moscow or toward any major challenge in which Russia plays a significant role. On the contrary, it is likely to make each of these problems worse.


Paul Saunders

Paul Saunders is the executive director of the Center for the National Interest.

Photo credit: Public-domain image of the painting "George Washington rallying his troops at the Battle of Princeton in New Jersey" by William Tylee Ranney.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.