Russian and U.S. generals shake hands
Russian and American generals shake hands during a U.S. military visit to Russia to boost security cooperation, August 2006.

Understanding Russia Doesn’t Mean Liking Moscow; It Means Making America Safer

June 28, 2017
Paul Saunders

One of America’s biggest problems in dealing with Russia today is the pressure on policymakers to decide on a course of action without a good understanding of our rival and its motives, goals and priorities. While few would condemn a company for studying the market to assess its competitors, or decry U.S. politicians for doing research on their opponents, attempts to get a rigorous, fact-based picture of the thinking in Moscow faces three interrelated challenges, exacerbated by our country’s polarized political climate: the maelstrom of the 24-hour news cycle; the equation of understanding with apologia; and a desire to avoid informed debate. Indeed, some in the political and media establishments have moved beyond understandable anger and concern over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine and alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election to a 1950s-style hunt for internal enemies. This poses considerable dangers for U.S. national interests that extend beyond the U.S. relationship with Russia because Moscow is not America’s only rival and it is not the only threat to our security, prosperity and way of life.

The Three Challenges

Paradoxically, the role that experts play in policy debates automatically declines as Russia (or any other issue) becomes more politically important. When issues attract political attention, they attract media attention. This, in turn, fuels endless commentary on television, in print and online. Unfortunately, quantity dilutes quality: Most of the politicians, pundits, journalists and others dominating public discussions on politically salient issues provide opinions on every topic under the sun, from Russia to Yemen to gun control, health care reform, or the latest Twitter drama. No one could understand so many issues in any meaningful depth—it is simply impossible. And because no one does, public debates are often ill-informed.

An even more serious challenge is the tendency to equate “understanding” Russia’s motives, goals and conduct with “sympathy” for Moscow, its foreign policy or its domestic practices. Like in business, politics or any other realm of human activity, so too in international relations it is essential to understand one’s rivals. The purpose of understanding someone whom you may not like is not to develop sympathy that justifies concessions, but to predict behavior, which is necessary to advance your own aims less expensively and more effectively. As military officers often say, “the enemy gets a vote” in any conflict; failing to see how a rival or foe might respond to your own moves creates vulnerability, not security, and distorts decision-making. Even if you acknowledge in private moments that you may have made your own mistakes in the past, or that your rivals have some legitimate anxieties, you are likely to remain quite unsympathetic toward a rival’s hostile and damaging behavior.

The third challenge is that some—especially among activists seeking a more confrontational approach—reject efforts to understand Russia precisely to avoid debate about U.S. policy. Not unlike some climate change skeptics, they are deeply committed to policy approaches that require them to reject widely accepted explanatory models because they fear that accepting the models would legitimize consideration of unwelcome policy responses. For example, many who have favored providing lethal arms to Ukraine refuse to discuss how Russia might respond; they recognize that the possibility of Russian escalation could discourage others from adopting their preferred policy. The other two challenges facilitate these efforts to shut down debate by producing an uninformed false consensus that marginalizes alternative perspectives.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss But Peril

The danger in failing to understand Moscow’s motives, aims and conduct is that Russian behavior becomes unnecessarily surprising and disruptive. This was especially evident in Russia’s seizure of Crimea and later intervention in eastern Ukraine; Russia’s readiness to use force to secure its perceived vital interests in Ukraine should have been obvious for some time, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war over the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Indeed, it should similarly have been evident earlier that Russia could respond assertively to NATO’s Bucharest Summit declaration that Georgia would become an alliance member, particularly in combination with Moscow’s insistence (denied by the West) that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence would establish an international precedent for other independence-minded regions within internationally recognized states.

Poor understanding of Russia’s foreign policy is even more serious a threat to U.S. national interests today. American and Russian military forces are operating in the same airspace in Syria, where each side is testing the other’s limits, and, along with NATO forces, are moving into increasingly confrontational postures in Europe. While none of the governments involved want a direct military conflict, suspicions are rising on all sides. A potential “hot war” in Europe is most worrisome in that—like during the Cold War—it could rapidly escalate to a level at which the parties must contemplate the use of nuclear weapons. Only through unflinching analysis of Moscow’s behavior, and tough and well-informed responses, can we avoid stumbling into this situation.

Giving in to Moscow is not an acceptable solution to the crises in Ukraine or Syria. Rather, the United States should assertively act to advance its own interests in each case. Yet only through more accurate understanding of Russia’s aims and more open debate over U.S. options will Washington succeed in developing policies that satisfy America’s requirements without taking unnecessary and possibly quite costly risks, both now and over time. This is even more important because U.S. policymakers cannot address the Russia problem in isolation; they must simultaneously manage China’s increasingly confident exertions of its power, combat terrorists internationally and prevent terrorist attacks domestically, contain Iran’s regional ambitions and protect Americans from a menacing and unpredictable North Korea—to name only the most serious threats. The gravest risks to America and its people lie in failing to see the connections between these threats and in inadvertently contributing to tactical or strategic cooperation among two or more of these five parties against the United States. Accordingly, undermining efforts to understand Russia’s motives, goals and priorities is a direct threat to American security and well-being.


Paul Saunders

Paul Saunders is the executive director of the Center for the National Interest. He was a senior adviser at the Department of State during the George W. Bush administration.

Photo distributed by U.S. Air Force as part of the public domain. Photographer: Capt. Russell Montante.

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