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Thomas Graham on Russia: Insights and Recommendations

January 03, 2018
RM Staff

This evolving compilation of observations and policy ideas about Russia by Thomas Graham is part of Russia Matters’ “Competing Views” rubric, where we share prominent American thinkers’ alternative takes on U.S.-Russian relations, Russia itself and America’s policies toward this country.Thomas Graham

Thomas Graham’s expertise on Russia has grown through a long career as a diplomat, policy advisor and scholar. Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, he was stationed in Moscow as a high-ranking member of the U.S. Foreign Service. He served in the George W. Bush administration as special assistant to the president and was the senior director for Russia on the National Security Council. He also was a senior associate in the Russia/Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 1998 to 2001, and he was one of the founders of the Russian Studies Project at Yale University. Graham is currently a managing director at Kissinger Associates, a consulting firm founded by the former secretary of state.

This compilation is meant as a sampling of Graham’s views. All sections may be updated with new or past statements. The quotes below are divided into categories similar to those in Russia Matters’ news and analysis digests, reflecting the most pertinent topic areas for U.S.-Russian relations broadly and for drivers of the two countries’ policies toward one another. Bulleted text that is not italicized, bracketed or in parentheses is a direct quote from Graham.

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Nuclear security:

  • For perhaps the first time in the counterterrorist struggle, the United States, European Union and Russia share a common concrete enemy in the form of ISIS. None of them can afford to tolerate the existence of a terrorist quasi-state, which is actively training its nationals and interested in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Nor can the U.S., EU and Russian leaders sit and wait for ISIS to decide if it should escalate from executing citizens of Western and post-Soviet states to launching sustained terrorist campaigns against them. (co-author, The National Interest, 02.10.15)

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • On the idea that closer U.S. ties with Russia, backed by Trump, would create a wedge between Moscow and Tehran: It’s difficult to see what the U.S. would offer to make it so attractive that Russia would distance itself in a radical way from Iran. (The Washington Post, 04.07.17)

New and original Cold Wars:

  • On idea that Russia can be “contained” in the Putin era: Yet containment will not work in our globalized, increasingly multipolar world, as it did during the Cold War. The West cannot contain one of the world’s largest economies, and it is geopolitical malfeasance to weaken unduly a power critical to the equilibrium we hope to create out of today’s turbulence, particularly in Asia. (Financial Times, 05.31.15)
  • Every time a serious problem emerges in U.S.-Russian relations, someone reaches for the Cold War trope. It is time to put it to rest. The Cold-War rivalry resulted from a set of circumstances—ideological and geopolitical—that no longer exist today. What is taking place between Russia and the United States is a not so unusual rivalry between great powers. (Russia Direct, 03.15.14)

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • Referring to growing cooperation between Russia and U.S. and NATO in 2002: Symbolically at least Russia was recognized as a great power. As U.S.–Russian relations grew warmer, Putin toned down his objections to the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the NATO decision to expand to seven countries in Eastern Europe, including the three former Soviet Baltic states. But the optimism proved short-lived. (co-author, The Boston Review, 09.12.17)
  • Russia’s leaders—no matter who they are—will continue to seek predominant influence in former Soviet states and resist any encroachments by the West. They will reject U.S. assurances that the expansion of NATO is not a gambit to contain Russia. They will not be persuaded by Western claims that universally accepted legal and ethical norms have changed the nature of world politics. (co-author, The Boston Review, 09.12.17)
  • After more than 20 years of hope that Russia could be brought into the West-led international order, the re-emergence of the Russia problem has shocked the West. But the threat is limited. This is not a rising revolutionary force but a declining state seeking to restore its power. It can be managed. One way is to revitalize the European project. That means dealing vigorously with the issues fueling anti-EU forces—the democratic deficit, immigration and inequality. To be sure, steps such as a NATO presence in the Baltics and robust planning for hybrid-war contingencies are necessary, but the West needs to avoid over-militarizing its response to what is largely a political challenge. (Financial Times, 05.31.15)

Missile defense:

  • To be updated.

Nuclear arms control:

  • As the world’s two largest nuclear powers by a wide margin, the United States and Russia bear a unique responsibility for maintaining strategic stability. Russia’s recent nuclear saber-rattling, apparent violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, suspension of the Plutonium Disposition Agreement and disavowal of interest in further arms reductions have unsettled the strategic environment. Cooperation on nonproliferation remains uneven, as rivalry in cyberspace heats up in the absence of agreed rules of behavior or a common understanding of the dangers. (The National Interest, 02.01.17)
  • As one of its first steps, the new Trump administration should propose to Russia a wide-ranging discussion of arms-related issues, to include prolonging the new START, reviewing the implications of advanced conventional weapons for nuclear stability, developing norms for cyberspace and exploring ways to bring other nuclear powers into discussions of strategic stability. (The National Interest, 02.01.17)


  • Under the influence of counterterrorism cooperation, relations drew even closer in May 2002. At the U.S.–Russian summit held in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Putin and Bush issued a Joint Declaration proposing a strategic partnership in which the two countries would work together as equals on common interests. (co-author, The Boston Review, 09.12.17)
  • For Russians the whole terrorist threat is summarized by the problem in Chechnya, a group inside Russia that was fighting for independence from Russia through means that we would consider terrorism. That’s somewhat different from the threat that the United States sees, which is really 9/11, an alien force from the outside coming to our shores with the intent of undermining and ultimately extinguishing the United States as a community of values. So they are very different views of what terrorism is, what the nature of that threat is. Very different ideas about how to go about combatting or countering terrorism emerge from that difference in perception. (Carnegie Corporation of New York, Diffusion podcast [PDF], 10.12.16)

Conflict in Syria:

  • The Russians have continually focused on the need to support what they would consider legitimate governments against extremists, against separatists, against terrorists. You see that currently in the Russian effort to defend Assad in Syria, and arguing that that is the key priority if the ultimate goal is to defeat ISIS. The United States looks at it in a different way, and believes that it is the structure of a political society that creates opportunities for terrorists, that creates reservoirs of discontent that terrorists can exploit, and therefore the goal should be to promote legitimate governments that deal with social problems. So we think the solution in Syria really involves eliminating Assad, a brutal dictator, who, in a sense, is creating the recruits for ISIS. (Carnegie Corporation of New York, Diffusion podcast [PDF], 10.12.16)
  • At the same time, with the demands of the Ukraine crisis on the Russian military, it will be stretched to sustain operations in Syria. Given the risks, the buildup is not likely a cynical play to whip up patriotic fervor and bolster Putin's domestic rating; it is rather an effort to defend Russian national interests. (The National Interest, 09.15.15)
  • We need to work with Moscow on a political transition in Syria, no matter how frustrating that might be. The beginning point is accepting that no one can put Syria back together again. (The National Interest, 09.15.15)

Cyber security:

  • Regarding U.S. dialogue with China and Russia on cyber-security: You can’t ignore them. But what you talk about, the range of issues, how you talk about them, varies [and differs from talks with U.S. allies] in part because we see Russia and China, particularly from the aspect of cyber-espionage, as probably two of our greatest threats. (The MacMillan Report-Yale University, 11.14.12)

Elections interference:

  • If the United States remains rudderless, Putin will be unable to engage Trump on the issues with which he most needs his help. And Russiagate won’t prove to have been a masterful maneuver. (co-author, The Boston Review, 07.24.17)
  • Washington is now enveloped in an anti-Russian hysteria. Many are convinced that Russian interference last year was instrumental to Donald Trump's victory and fear that Russia will pull off similar upsets in critical elections in Europe this year, notably in France and Germany. That Russia adeptly used cyber tools to exploit American vulnerabilities only adds to the alarm. In a few short years, Russia has been transformed in the American mind from a weak, declining power we could safely ignore into the main adversary, setting the agenda in the Middle East and determining the course of electoral politics in democracies in the West. (YaleGlobal Online, 04.04.17)
  • I think they [the Russians] most certainly have something on Trump. (Huffington Post, 12.27.17)

Energy exports:

  • To be updated.

Bilateral economic ties and sanctions:

  • Washington has no choice but to deal with Russia as it is, raising the question: How to manage relations with a large, powerful country that is crucial to any enduring security arrangement in Europe but espouses alien values and competes for influence in other strategically critical regions? (Politico, 08.12.17)
  • Sanctions will ultimately disappoint—especially when Russia believes its vital interests are at stake, as in Ukraine today, and that no steps short of capitulation could lead to the lifting of sanctions given the pervasive anti-Russian animus in Washington. (Politico, 08.12.17)

Other bilateral issues:

  • The hard truth is that America cannot ignore Russia or seek to isolate the country, as it has tried to do in recent years. That is the reality of today’s emerging multipolar world. (co-author, Financial Times, 12.17.17)
  • The demonization of Putin is a reflection of our declining confidence in our own capabilities. It's easier to blame Putin. He's pursuing Russian national interests, but he's not running world affairs. (NPR, 01.18.17)
  • Putin is not an aberration among recent Russian rulers, as he is routinely depicted to be in the West… His policies toward the West are a logical evolution and, in important respects, a continuation of theirs, grounded in a similar understanding of Russia’s destiny. … In Moscow’s reading, the United States had masterminded the revolution [in Ukraine] to install a pro-Western figure as president over the candidate endorsed by Putin. Putin soon came to view the revolution in Ukraine as a dress rehearsal for regime change in Russia itself. Putin believed it was part of the United States’ larger effort to construct a unipolar world based on its values and interests, a world that it could dominate with little regard for other major powers. In response Putin began working to fortify Russia against Western influence and interference. (co-author, The Boston Review, 09.12.17)
  • There is no easy resolution to these outstanding problems, and certainly no truly grand bargain that would resolve most, if not all, of them. The best that can be hoped for is a mutual commitment to manage the differences in a way that avoids falling into a confrontation that would benefit neither side and risk catastrophic damage given each side’s arsenal of nuclear, cyber and advanced conventional weapons. (The Washington Times, 04.11.17)
  • Russia is neither as strong as it seems nor as weak as we think. That aphorism has been attributed to the great French diplomat of the early 19th century, Prince Talleyrand, and numerous other European statesmen thereafter who have dealt with the puzzle of Russia. It encapsulates the flawed assumptions behind America’s Russia policy since Vladimir Putin rose to power in 1999. (YaleGlobal Online, 04.04.17)
  • Russia has always existed in an environment where it has had to deal with external threats, largely coming from powerful states. The United States, on the other hand, has been one of the most secure great powers in the world because of our geographical location. We have friendly states to the north and south that don’t compare to us in terms of potential power, and we have two great oceans that provide an element of protection, and so we don’t see other states as being significant threats to us in our own environment. (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 10.19.17)
  • Moreover, Russia itself is no longer interested in integration, if it ever was. Rather, it presents itself as a unique construct, intent on challenging the U.S.-led world order across a broad front, including hard geopolitical matters like Ukraine, as well as the values that animate Western society. This does not mean that from time to time the United States and Russia will not cooperate on discrete issues, only that the cooperation will not be grounded in a sense of shared values and a common vision of a just global order. (The National Interest, 08.24.16)
  • The West acts as if it had a Vladimir Putin problem. In fact it has a Russia problem. The Russian president stands within a long tradition of Russian thinking. His departure would fix nothing. Any plausible successor would pursue a similar course, if perhaps with a little less machismo. (Financial Times, 05.31.15)
  • Some deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations was inevitable as the euphoria of our common victory over Soviet communism wore off. Some of the economic hardship and undemocratic behavior is due to the harsh Soviet legacy, which ruled out an easy transition to a market economy and an open society. Much of the industrial decline has come from the sharp drop in weapons productions. (Christian Science Monitor, 10.26.00)
  • Referring to U.S. policy toward Russia in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union:  The administration backed an economic course—the so-called "Washington consensus"—that did not take sufficient account of Russian political realities, including a widespread elite and popular opposition to that course. Critics were generally dismissed as communists, hard-liners, or economic illiterates. In the end, the administration found itself backing a small, unpopular group of radical reformers. Not only was the economic program not implemented, but the way it was pursued cast into doubt American support for the democratization of Russia. (Christian Science Monitor, 10.26.00)

II. Russia’s domestic developments

Politics, economy and energy:

  • Putin now finds himself at a crossroads. He has advanced the goals he set for himself 17 years ago: Russia is stronger militarily, has a higher international profile, and is a power to be reckoned with. But the path forward for sustaining Russia as a great power remains unclear and numerous economic and social problems lie ahead. (co-author, The Boston Review, 09.12.17)
  • [Vladimir Putin’s] phenomenal rise is a direct consequence of the brutal military operation in Chechnya, which remains widely popular with the Russian public. With the election behind him, Mr. Putin now appears ready to step up the final assault on Grozny, the capital of the breakaway republic. He has won solid support from the military brass and the security services, both of which have been promised additional resources, though neither has undertaken any serious reform. And he has pushed for greater investment in the military-industrial complex, which he sees as a pillar of economic recovery. (New York Times, 12.21.99)

Defense and aerospace:

  • To be updated.

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • To be updated.

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • [Putin’s] mission, when he rose to power 18 years ago, was to restore his country’s status as a great power—one of the few that determine the structure, substance and direction of world affairs—and to ensure that no global problem could be resolved without Moscow. He has made considerable progress. (co-author, Financial Times, 12.17.17)
  • Throughout history, Russian leaders have insisted that Russia is a great power. Yet they have been acutely aware of their country’s vulnerabilities—how to defend a vast, sparsely populated country with long borders with powerful or unstable neighbors located on a broad plain with few physical barriers to foreign invasion? … Today, Putin has tried to solve this dilemma by acting like a 19th-century great power, seizing territory and displaying military might. But his seeming successes have increased the risk of parlous overstretch. Eighteen months after the Syrian incursion, which Putin promised would be short, Russia remains deeply engaged with no exit in sight. Considerable forces are tied down along the border with Ukraine to deal with various contingencies arising from Russian actions in the Donbas. Provocative Russian behavior in Europe has revitalized NATO, which Russia has always seen as a threat. Meanwhile, the melting Arctic ice is compelling Russia to take defense of its northern border seriously for the first time in history. Troubles in Afghanistan threaten to exacerbate conditions in the poor, fragile states of Central Asia and in Russia itself. And, despite the talk of strategic partnership, Moscow casts a wary eye toward its newly assertive neighbor, China, with which it has a long history of uneasy relations. (YaleGlobal Online, 04.04.17)
  • Because of the struggle between the Taliban and ISIS over the tactics and leadership of various terrorist groups, the Russians have tilted toward the Taliban. … It’s kind of ironic to see the Russians who were complaining about our support of the Taliban in the 1990s now aiding the Taliban. (The National Interest, 09.18.17)
  • Moreover, the Russians are hoping to bog down the United States in Afghanistan while they devise their own regional solution to the problem that excludes Washington, Graham said: They don’t believe the United States has the staying power, that eventually we will tire of this… It’s not in our neighborhood, it is in their neighborhood. They have nowhere else to go. (The National Interest, 09.18.17)
  • Keeping U.S. military power at bay is central to Putin’s effort to reassert Russian influence, particularly in the Middle East. The leading Arab states may want Assad’s ouster, unlike Putin, but they do respect power, as do Iran and Israel. Putin’s decisiveness, coupled with Obama’s evident ambivalence about the use of force and deeper involvement in Middle East affairs, will lead all the regional powers to reassess their strategies in ways that focus more attention to Russia. (The Daily Star, 09.24.13)
  • Russian emissaries have scoured the world as part of an attempt to gain influence on the global stage. In South Africa, they attempted to capitalise on Jacob Zuma’s former contacts with Soviet intelligence to negotiate a $76bn contract to build a series of nuclear power plants, although the project has since run into legal difficulties. In Libya, Russians have been courting one of the regional warlords, Khalifa Haftar, and through him are likely to form part of any talks about the country’s future. In Venezuela, Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company, has been bailing out the Maduro government in exchange for equity stakes in the country’s energy sector. (co-author, Financial Times, 12.17.17)


  • Behind the economic disparity lies an even bigger gap in ambition and strategic vision. China is a rising power that looks forward with optimism; it is building the future. Russia is a declining power worried that it will never recover its lost greatness; it wants to recreate the past. (YaleGlobal Online, 05.03.16)
  • Russia’s massive territorial presence in Northeast Asia and its continuing political, economic, and security presence in Central Asia make it a major player in the construction of new security structures in both those regions, along with China, the United States, and other powers. Its treasure trove of natural resources in Siberia and its Far Eastern region could play a central role in fueling Chinese economic growth. A continued strong Russian presence increases the possibilities for building stable security structures; a weak Russia would make those tasks harder. (The Century Foundation [PDF], 04.20.09)


  • Even with further sanctions, Moscow will destabilize Ukraine until steps have been made to protect what it sees as a vital interest: ensuring that Kiev takes Moscow's interests into account and does not embrace the West. (Financial Times, 07.20.14)
  • The more effective response would be to mount a major effort to rebuild the Ukrainian state and repair its economy. History shows that Russian expansion stops when it runs into well-organized, consolidated states. To do this, Ukraine needs help with political reform and building competent military and police forces. (Financial Times, 07.20.14)
  • In the Ukraine crisis … Washington needs to approach Moscow with a mixture of focused resistance and calculated accommodation. Resistance to Russian aggression should guide America's strategy. The credibility of NATO’s Article 5 commitment to collective defense should be reinforced, both to reassure exposed allies and to deter Russia. Military exercises, air patrols, contingency planning and similar activities in support of Poland and the Baltic states are necessary. Over the longer term, NATO allies need to rebuild the military capabilities that have been eroded over the past generation. (Financial Times, 04.27.14)
  • We will not come to a common view of the legitimacy of any new government in Kiev until we have managed to find a suitable balance in our geopolitical competition over Ukraine. International recognition of Ukraine as a neutral state might be one way of moderating our geopolitical rivalry so that we can both support one government as Ukraine's legitimate government. (Russia Direct, 03.15.14)
  • In Europe, Russia has demonstrated through its incursion into Ukraine that it has an effective veto over the eastward expansion of NATO and the EU through the use of force. No longer can those organizations develop and implement policy toward their eastern neighbors without accommodating Moscow’s interests, in sharp contrast to the situation in the 1990s and 2000s. Rebuilding a durable European security architecture will now also require bargaining with Russia. (co-author, Financial Times, 12.17.17)

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Russia’s interests in this region extend back at least 300 years; they are bound up in the exigencies of guaranteeing security on the central Eurasian plain. Russia has historically sought to drive its frontiers out as far forward as possible to keep external powers as far as possible from the Russian heartland, that is, to create as much strategic depth as possible. At the same time, the lands of the former Soviet space have also provided resources essential to the production and enhancement of Russian power. Russia’s effort to reassert its presence throughout this region is today’s manifestation of this historical drive. (The American Interest, 02.02.16)
  • Restoring and maintaining itself as the dominant influence in the former-Soviet space is a top priority for Russia. Historically, this is the region that has given Russia its geopolitical weight. Politically, economically, and militarily, it remains critical to Russia’s security and prosperity in the eyes of the Russian elite. Psychologically, it is central to Russia’s self-identity as a great power, for a great power, by definition, must radiate power and influence into neighboring regions. (The Century Foundation [PDF], 04.20.09)

Photo by Max Pixel, freely distributed under a Creative Commons Zero - CC0 license.

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