Putin at Zapad 2021
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Zapad 2021 military exercise.

For Russia and US, National Security Must Be Embedded in Mutual Security

January 06, 2022
Robert Legvold

As senior Russian officials prepare for talks on European security with Western counterparts, three aspects of the latest crisis around Ukraine point to its seeming intractability, but also lay bare an elemental factor that must be addressed if a way out of the impasse is to be found. First, the crisis underscores the scale of the challenge when the clash is over competing rights, not merely conflicting interests. Second, any solution depends on incentives favoring it, but when these are missing and disincentives prevail, little progress can be expected. Third, the absence of trust between the two sides is the elemental factor that creates a prior and fundamental obstacle to any movement forward and needs to be addressed separately. Together they undergird the danger with which leaders are struggling.

Common sense has long suggested that the safest and soundest level of national security resides in mutual security between and among states struggling in the scrum of international politics. During the brief halcyon years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this idea was at the heart of the pledge by U.S., European and Russian leaders to create a Euro-Atlantic Security Community from “Vancouver to Vladivostok.” The pledge was not honored for lack of creativity and political will, but the basic idea remains key if the worst is to be averted and steps easing the crisis surrounding Ukraine are to be found. What then is to be done?

The Perils of Countervailing Rights

Russia’s latest military build-up near the Ukrainian border has once again put Moscow and Washington on a collision course in their pursuit of security, with each claiming rights that seem to infringe on the other side’s. Russia, for its part, insists on its right to reinforce and move its military forces about as it likes within its borders; how it chooses is nobody else’s business. The U.S. and its NATO allies, in turn, insist that Russian neighbors, including Ukraine, have the right to choose with whom to ally and what organizations they wish to join; Russia does not have a veto over their choices.

If Russia, however, has the right to do what it wishes with its military forces on its own territory, then Ukraine has the right to do whatever its leaders wish to enhance the defense of their own territory, including securing major military assistance from outside. Likewise, if Ukraine has the right, as the White House has officially said, to decide its own future foreign policy course free from outside interference, including with respect to Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO,” then so does, say, Cuba. But how likely is it that the United States would react passively if Cuba entered a defense pact with Russia and allowed it to establish naval and air bases on the island? In these scenarios, Russia, Ukraine and Cuba are within their rights, but does this mean they would be wise to exercise them?

Finding Answers in a Self-Help System

Unlike, say, the other preoccupation of leaders in Washington, Europe and Moscow—the COVID-related conflicts where a country’s citizens have clashed over one group’s right to personal freedoms versus another’s right to public safety—conflicts between nations have no supreme arbiter, no level of government, capable of issuing and enforcing mandates or manipulating incentives to encourage one or both sides to back off the right they claim. The international system is a self-help system, and only the parties themselves can mitigate or eliminate the danger created by their claims. Thus, they have to produce the incentives leading in this direction.

At the moment, Russia and the West are focused on imposing unilateral negative incentives that lead in the opposite direction—with Russia threatening to invade Ukraine if it ends up in NATO (or NATO ends up in Ukraine) and the West threatening unprecedented sanctions if Ukraine is invaded. The escalatory risks inherent when countries insist on countervailing rights are thereby in danger of crossing the threshold into violence.

Instead, positive incentives are what is needed, but only if mutually beneficial. The measures taken would have to promise greater security with reduced risk than each side currently believes is better achieved through unilateral negative incentives. The goal should logically be national security embedded in mutual security, and the logical path toward this would be steps leading away from the use or threatened use of military force to resolve conflicts of interests. Steps toward this would include:

  • The de-militarization of the new line of confrontation stretching from the Arctic to the Black Sea by replacing the defunct Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) agreement with another, regulating armaments and units deployed forward;
  • Strengthening the Vienna Document constraining the scale and number of military exercises;
  • Reaffirming NATO’s pledge that it has “no intention, no plans and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory” of any new NATO member;
  • And agreeing not to deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe and tackling the threat posed by sub-strategic nuclear weapons.

Substituting positive incentives for those currently favored by the two sides, however, is not enough. Managing the current sources of tension is crucial, but this should be done within an altered agenda whose major focus is on the existential threats facing both sides. These include: regaining control over a more complex multipolar nuclear world in danger of running out of control; containing the onrushing dangers created by climate change; and girding to deal with future health pandemics worse than the current one and the destructive socio-economic effects that will exacerbate them. Achieving a level of cooperation commensurate with the threat that each poses will be exceedingly difficult, but the first order of business should be for countries on both sides of the divide to make the effort a priority.

Restoring Trust as a Discrete Policy Objective

If seeking greater security through mutual benefit is the direction in which logic points, why is this not the direction that events have taken? The answer brings us to the ultimate factor at play—that of trust, or in this case its absence. Again, we see a parallel with the pandemic, which has forced U.S. public health officials, for example, to struggle against low trust in government and experts.

But alleviating mistrust between Russia and the United States, again, has to be a bilateral enterprise. And it is important because the obstacle created by mistrust exists before other sources of tension work their effect. It both paralyzes the will to try to alter the current trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations and short-circuits steps that might be taken to move in a more constructive direction. Moreover, as relations between Russia and the United States and its NATO allies have steadily deteriorated, mistrust has deepened and then congealed. As a result, it has become a factor separate from the specifics of the issues that set the two sides at odds.

Because mistrust is not only separate but a roadblock, merely acknowledging its role is not enough. If progress is to be achieved, building trust needs to be an initial and separate policy objective. The steps may be small—such as restoring diplomatic facilities to a functioning level or toning down information warfare in whatever form or opening the door to dialogue, as the two presidents have done—but they should be taken with the express purpose of restoring some level of trust. If policymakers in Moscow and Washington (and Brussels) are to move away from strategies favoring unilateral negative incentives and gradually open the way to strategies featuring mutually reinforcing positive incentives, they will need to relearn how to think in small constructive terms with the larger objective always in mind.


Robert Legvold

Robert Legvold is Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus in the department of political science at Columbia University.

Photo by Kremlin.ru shared under a Creative Commons license. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.