Symbolizing Russia and the U.S., a grizzly bear and bald eagle approach each other in the Alaskan wilderness.

Toward a New Russia Policy for America

October 25, 2016
Thomas Graham

No issue has vexed the United States more since the Cold War than Russia policy. For the past 25 years, each president has set out to put relations on a firm, constructive basis. Each one has failed, leaving relations in worse shape than he found them. Despite our hopes and efforts, relations are now at their lowest point since the last years of the Soviet Union.

To be sure, our policy has not been without success. President Clinton brokered the denuclearization of Ukraine and oversaw the peaceful withdrawal of Soviet/Russian forces from Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. President George W. Bush engaged Russia in enhancing the safety and security of nuclear weapons and fissile material in Russia and elsewhere. And President Obama negotiated a strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia and worked with it to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Despite today’s acute alienation, our Russia policy has arguably made the United States—and our allies in Europe and Asia—much more secure than we were at the end of the Cold War. 

If the policy failed, it was at the level of grand strategy. The overarching goal of each post-Cold War administration was to integrate Russia, through blandishments and pressure, into the Euro-Atlantic community as a free-market democracy. Cooperation on strategic issues, regional conflicts and transnational challenges was justified not simply on its own terms; it was presented as a lever for advancing that integration or as evidence of progress. And each administration gave assurances that Russia was on the right path, no matter how slow or fitful the process. 

The Ukraine crisis, however, gave the lie to those assurances and made clear that integration is beyond our reach. Russia is not interested. It is seeking rather to rally opposition to the U.S.-led liberal global order and working aggressively to erode the cohesion of the Euro-Atlantic community. The room for effective cooperation on any major issue has narrowed drastically, witness the situation in Syria. Just as important, the assumptions that undergirded that strategy—about American primacy, the inevitable advance of free-market democracy, the absence of fundamental conflicts among the great powers—no longer hold in today’s globalized world with multiple centers of power espousing different systems of values and often at odds on geopolitical matters.

Fresh Needs, Stale Leftovers

The conclusion is straightforward: We need a new strategy for a new era.  The debate has been engaged, as we prepare for a new administration to take office in January 2017. But it already feels stale, for it is little more than a variation on the debates we have had for the past 25 years. In 1999, a working group in which I took part identified four different schools of thought on dealing with Russia that had emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union: “Forget Russia,” proto-containment, limited security engagement and broad engagement.1 Each is inadequate in its own way to current circumstances.

  • The “Forget Russia” school believes that Russia is in decline and therefore not worth much effort. But today, even if it is in secular decline (itself a controversial proposition), Russia remains a force in world affairs with a modernizing military that far outclasses those in its immediate neighborhood, sufficient scientific talent to develop the military applications of today’s revolutionary technologies, a world-class diplomatic core and the mindset and habits of a world power. It derives added clout from its nuclear arsenal, vast resources and geographical location. That should matter to the United States.
  • The proto-containment school assumes that, weak or strong, Russia is destined to create trouble for the United States. U.S. policy should therefore aim to bolster surrounding states against a resurgent Russia or the destabilizing spillover of a failed Russian state. But today we cannot contain one of the largest economies in a globalized world. It is geopolitical malfeasance in a complex, multipolar world to try to isolate Russia when a rival power, such as China, is prepared to embrace it for its own purposes. And it is counterproductive when great-power cooperation is critical to managing mounting transnational threats, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism and climate change.
  • The limited-security-engagement school argues that, even if Russia is difficult to engage, we still have to work with it on a number of top American security issues. But today those issues cannot be dealt with in isolation from the overall tenor of relations because Russia insists on linkage even if we do not.
  • The broad-engagement school proceeds from the assumption that, to gain Russia’s cooperation on urgent security issues, the United States has to build the necessary trust through close cooperation on a wide range of other issues. But today fundamental conflicts of interests—on Syria, Ukraine and world order, for example—narrow the room for cooperation on other issues and reinforce the distrust. 

What then is the alternative?  How do we manage relations with a country that rejects our concept of world order and opposes us on many geopolitical matters but whose cooperation we need on some urgent global challenges?

The Post-Post-Cold War World Order

The search begins with an assessment of the current turbulent state of the global system, in which the foundations of the post-Cold War order are eroding and those of a new one are taking shape. Four characteristics of this emerging order are pertinent to the development of a Russia policy. One, it is multipolar, even if the United States remains the pre-eminent power by any measure, and power itself is being diffused by revolutionary technologies in communication, information and production. Two, it is not moving toward free-market democracy but rather toward a clash of values and systems. Three, mounting cross-border flows of people, ideas and capital are intensifying transnational challenges. Four, economic prosperity and technological advance depend on transnational networks in finance and research and development.

In these circumstances, the task of American foreign policy is to create and sustain balances of power, at the global level and in key regions, that advance our interest in a stable, secure liberal world order by containing regional conflicts, fostering collaboration among geopolitical rivals in managing transnational threats and facilitating productive cross-border flows of capital and knowledge. To succeed, the United States will have to move beyond a mindset that was perhaps appropriate to the bipolar global competition of the Cold War and the immediate post-Cold War decade of U.S. global dominance, one that divides countries into friends and adversaries in an existential conflict (anti-Soviet vs. pro-Soviet during the Cold War and democratic vs. anti-democratic in the post-Cold-War period as a rule, although there were exceptions in both cases) and sees the United States as the leader in defining and maintaining the global system and in setting the global agenda.

In its place, the United States will have to learn the rules of conduct that produce and sustain stable multipolar systems: the pursuit of limited goals through limited means; the treatment of  no power as a permanent foe but always as a potential partner in dealing with specific challenges; constant attention to the potential consequences of actions on discrete problems for the balance of the global system as a whole; reasonable trade-offs that help maintain the system itself with an opportunity for further advance of one’s interests.

In such systems, cooperation does not necessarily beget further cooperation, nor does competition preclude cooperation. Great-power relations are inevitably a mix of resistance and accommodation, with the balance at any moment reflecting the overlap in interests and priorities and one power’s capability and will to help advance or thwart the achievement of the others’ goals. A power makes the most progress when it focuses on its priorities and if, to gain needed support from other powers, it is prepared to accommodate their interests as long as that does not endanger the achievement of its priority goals. In short, a power seeks not so much to align the interests of other great powers as to mesh them with its own to advance its purposes.

What does this mean for America’s Russia policy?

Toward a Russia Policy that Works for the United States

Within the broad goal of defending the liberal global order, which provides the foundation for American security and prosperity, there are four objectives that should top our priorities: (1) maintaining strategic stability, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and constraining arms races to help preserve peace; (2) managing the rise of China so that its actions do not threaten the liberal world; (3) enhancing the security of Europe, an essential element of that order; and (4) containing regional conflicts that threaten the United States directly or countries and regions of strategic importance to the United States.2 Russia is a factor of greater or lesser importance as a partner or competitor in all these issues. The challenge is to structure relations with Russia to the greatest possible benefit of American interests. I do not have the space to describe this policy in detail; rather, I would suggest the following as critical steps toward developing that policy.

The first task is to expand the room for maneuver with Russia by putting it into a global context.  Since the Cold War, the United States has tended to see Russia largely through a European prism, witness today our policy toward Ukraine and Syria (with a focus on the spillover of terrorism and migrants into Europe). That viewpoint tends to fuel antagonisms by sparking memories of the Cold War, in which Europe was the central battleground. It also leads to policies that might be appropriate in the European context, but that ignore the consequences elsewhere in the world, such as northeast and Central Asia, where Russia could be a partner in shifting coalitions to ensure that the rise of China does not harm core U.S. interests. At a minimum, we need to consider the potential consequences of our sanctions and efforts to isolate Russia from Europe for our interests elsewhere—those policies, for example, tend to weaken Russia economically and drive it into China's embrace, thereby strengthening a strategic competitor in Asia—and we need to take steps to diminish the risks of negative outcomes, which could include more cooperative relations with Russia in other regions.  

In a similar vein, we should focus not so much on shared interests or common threats as a basis for cooperation as on a comparison of Russia’s interests and priorities and our own to determine what incentives we might offer, or what pressure we might apply, to persuade Russia to help advance our priorities or not thwart our efforts, to see where we could accommodate Russia without endangering the advance of our priorities. The former Soviet space, where rivalry continues to poison relations, could be a rich area for advantageous trade-offs. To see the possibilities, we need to eschew an undifferentiated approach toward the region and put its sub-regions into their appropriate geopolitical configurations and consider the significance of Russia’s presence in each sub-region. From the standpoint of U.S. national interests, its presence in Kazakhstan, where Russia could provide security against Islamic extremism and help channel China’s actions in ways not detrimental to our interests, is radically different from its presence in Ukraine, where Russia's recent actions have challenged the post-Cold War order. Our policy should reflect that difference. We should be able to work with Russia in Kazakhstan even as we resist some of its actions in Ukraine.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that Russia is not going to become a free-market democracy in any period relevant for policy-making and that American efforts to push it in that direction are usually counterproductive. Russia is too complex and our knowledge too thin to engage effectively in Russian domestic affairs, and Russians are too proud to bow to our hectoring, especially when our dysfunctions are on vivid display as they are during the current presidential campaign. This yawning values gap does not, however, preclude our working out with Russia (and other major powers) a set of rules of the road to keep the inevitable competition from spinning out of control, as we did during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, despite a much more profound values gap.

U.S.-Russian relations will never approach the hopes we had for them 25 years ago. But they do not have to return to the bitter confrontation of the Cold War, as many commentators now assume they must. With attention to the role Russia plays in a turbulent period, a clear-eyed view of the multiple challenges we face and a disciplined pursuit of our priorities, we should be able to craft a mixed relationship that is sufficient to our strategic tasks. In truth, we could not ask for more.


Thomas Graham

Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University and managing director at Kissinger Associates, was senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff 2004-2007.


  1. See U.S.-Russian Relations at the Turn of the Century: Reports of the Working Groups organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, and the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Moscow, August 2000. Thomas Graham and Arnold Horelick authored the U.S. report.
  2. These issues are explored in more detail in an article by Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute, and the current author.

Editor's note: This article was completed in September, but published in October when this website went live.

Photo credit: Kennan Ward, 2006.

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