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Russia’s Impact on US National Interests: 5 Primers

June 14, 2021
RM Staff
Download PDF with all five primers

America today is grappling with a transition from its “unipolar moment” of the 1990s to renewed great-power competition with Russia and China. As U.S. decision-makers look for the best way forward, quite a few international-affairs analysts have argued that attempts to figure out a Russia policy that would give the U.S. an edge in that competition have been stymied by a failure to align policies with a hierarchy of U.S. interests. What, in short, are America’s vital national interests? How can they be protected or advanced? How does and can Russia impact them, and can changes to U.S policies make that impact benign? The volume posted here (links above and below) includes five primers that were written in the past year in an attempt to answer some of these key questions. The five vital U.S. national interests the primers tackle come from a list compiled by a task force that grew out of the Commission on American National Interests. That, to the best of our knowledge, was the last collective effort to define such a hierarchy of interests. They are: (1) preventing the use and slowing the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, securing nuclear weapons and materials and preventing proliferation of intermediate and long-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons; (2) maintaining a balance of power in Europe and Asia; (3) preventing large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on the American homeland; (4) ensuring energy security; and (5) assuring the stability of the international economy. Below we summarize some of the primers’ key findings.

1. Preventing nuclear war and proliferation (January 2021): The author, arms control expert Alexandra Bell, argues that none of the efforts necessary to reduce nuclear risks “can be truly successful without the help and cooperation” of Russia, whose impact on this goal “cannot be overstated.” Believing that nuclear tensions around the world “are now at the highest levels seen since the end of the Cold War,” Bell recommends both immediate and longer-term actions. The former include managing the fallout from the collapse of the INF Treaty. The latter involve a longer list: to rebuild teams of people who can produce a new generation of arms control and nonproliferation agreements; to restart dialogues and deal with (rather than rehash) grievances, “including treaty compliance, confusion about each other's doctrines relating to nuclear use and missile defense.” While these interactions need to be shielded from the thornier parts of bilateral affairs, she writes, more generally, “substantive discussions over nuclear issues need to be reinvigorated and broadened to include emerging threats like hypersonic weapons and the incorporation of artificial intelligence into strategic command systems.” All these dialogues must be regular rather than sporadic, encouraging “bold and creative thinking” about arms control and nonproliferation. Beyond nuclear arms, Bell recommends expanding bilateral cooperation to contend with conventional arms control challenges, the threat of nuclear terrorism and nuclear security. Working together to expand these efforts into multilateral formats may also be a path to explore, according to Bell, who was appointed deputy assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance a day before this primer was published.

2. Maintaining a balance of power in Europe and Asia (August 2020): The author, Nikolas K. Gvosdev of the U.S. Naval War College and the Foreign Policy Research Institute, concludes that, as the U.S. “endeavors to retain favorable balances of power in both these key regions, its interests are best served by having Russia remain an independent pole within the international system rather than grow even closer with China and forge a formalized, strategic Sino-Russian entente.” He notes that there are two basic types of balancing: “defensive, which aims to keep adversaries out of a state’s sphere of influence, and transformational, in which states want to change the balance in their favor but without leading to outright conflict.” Washington, Gvosdev writes, “can (and should) simultaneously maintain defensive balances of power in both Europe and Asia but can only promote a transformational balance in one region or the other, not both. … U.S. policy toward Russia should likewise prevent further deterioration in the bilateral relationship” and “areas of disagreement or confrontation between the two should not torpedo productive and necessary cooperation.” Noteworthy, too, is the role of U.S. partners in Europe and Asia, which are both fortified by U.S. leadership in the task of balancing Russia and China and are not likely to support “open contestation” with these two powers.

3. Preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. homeland and assets abroad (April 2021): The key judgement of this primer’s author, George Beebe, is that “Russia has demonstrated a strong ability to help the United States prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. targets” and is highly unlikely to “facilitate large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks” against the U.S. The author likewise believes that, despite bilateral tensions and mistrust, there is “more the two sides can do in terms of sharing both intelligence and expertise,” including, possibly, cooperation on preventing nuclear terrorism and more intelligence sharing about terrorist groups. “In assessing future prospects,” he writes, “we must remember that counterterrorism cooperation is not binary but exists in varying degrees.” He notes that even most Russia hawks in the U.S. do not call for an end to bilateral cooperation on terrorist threat warnings: “It has been ongoing for more than 20 years” and should continue. “Joint operations, however, would be a bridge too far” due to “the adversarial state of U.S.-Russian relations,” writes Beebe, who formerly served as director of the CIA’s Russia analysis and as special advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney for Russia/Eurasia and intelligence programs, and is now the vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest.

4. Ensuring energy security (September 2020): This primer’s author, Li-Chen Sim, who teaches at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, asserts that when it comes to energy security the United States is in a unique position, straddling “the consumer-exporter divide almost equally: It is the world’s largest consumer of crude oil but also currently its largest producer,” plus “the world’s largest exporter of petroleum products and … third largest exporter of natural gas.” Russia, meanwhile, is a top oil and gas producer that relies on energy exports for a significant portion of budget revenue. For the purposes of this primer, Sim defines energy security as “the availability of a diverse range of energy resources that are reasonably priced and resilient to disruptions,” with “an acceptable level of environmental sustainability.” With an abundance of rich factual data, she shows that Russia’s impact on U.S. energy security can be summarized thus: Though Russia barely affects the availability of energy, it can strongly influence U.S. gasoline prices and the diversity of export markets for U.S. oil and natural gas; Russian nuclear power, coal and renewable energy policies have minimal impact; and as far as resilience goes, “Russia has been accused of cyber intrusions that could adversely affect U.S. energy supplies.” The author predicts more of the same in the next five years: Russia will continue to depend on hydrocarbon exports; global energy demand will recover, making competition for market share even fiercer; and the U.S. will keep importing oil even if it becomes a net exporter of petroleum products, as expected, due to the peculiarities of its refineries and oil-related logistics.

5. Stability of the international economy (December 2020): In this primer, Joseph Haberman of the Council on Foreign Relations, considers how Russia—which is not in the Top 5 of either the world’s largest economies or U.S. trading partners—adeptly uses its limited resources to assert itself globally, and at times at the expense of America. He notes that, “because of its reliance on fossil fuels for budget revenue, Moscow has its own vested interest in a robust international economy” and the biggest shocks to global markets in recent years have come from elsewhere—like the global recession of 2008-2009 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Defining economic stability as “the basic functioning of economic activity across borders and resilience to major shocks or crises,” Haberman looks at Russia’s potential to disrupt it in five areas: fossil fuels, cybersecurity, de-dollarization, Arctic shipping and nuclear weapons. His broad conclusion is that, among these five, the largest negative impact on the stability of the international economy would arise from a nuclear war between the two Cold War-era foes; Russia’s impact in the other four areas is either limited or hard to measure. Haberman concludes that in the energy sector Russia “poses challenges to discrete U.S. economic interests” but none of these “threatens economic stability on a global scale.” The Russia-related challenges emerging from the shadowy world of cyber operations are harder to assess: NotPetya, a 2017 malware attack that Western investigators have attributed to the Russian military, “gravely disrupted international commercial shipping and cost the global economy an estimated $10 billion or more in damages”; beyond that, however, “the precise economic toll of Russian cyber activities is difficult to measure.” Russian efforts to displace the dollar as the world’s premier reserve currency have been weak, and the net effect of climate-related changes to Arctic shipping routes remains to be seen. Haberman concludes by pointing out that while U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, collectively about 90 percent of the world’s total, are “not obviously an economic issue, nothing could be more destructive to global economic stability—to say nothing of human civilization as we know it—than an outbreak of nuclear war.”

Download PDF with all five primers

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