In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Putin and Obama

How to ‘Think Like the Russians’: A Partisan Perception Chart for Improving US-Russian Relations

June 27, 2017
Bruce Allyn

As readers of this website likely know, U.S.-Russia relations have dropped to a low point reminiscent of the scariest days of the Cold War, and the risk of nuclear miscalculation is the highest it’s been in nearly 55 years. With passions flaring and recriminations flying, how can Washington and Moscow find a calm common language and ratchet down tensions?

My colleagues and I have tried to help in this search by creating a negotiation tool called a partisan perception chart, which can often be a useful way to advance dialogue in confrontational relationships. Such a tool proved helpful in U.S-Soviet “Track 1.5” dialogues on nuclear-risk reduction back at the nadir of the Cold War in the 1980s. As I describe in more detail in a recent article in The National Interest, the chart we designed back then helped both sides see each other’s point of view, move beyond mutual accusation and shift the focus to common interests and reaching concrete agreements.

Below is the new version prepared for 2017, as we see a nuclear déjà vu with a risk of inadvertent war arguably even higher than in the 1980s. The chart seeks to represent important points of view in both countries as a tool to further dialogue. It is meant, in part, to counter some dangerous tendencies in the way human beings process critical information in adversarial situations according to extensive research in the field of negotiationfor example, to perceive one’s own side as more honest and morally upright, while seeing the other as untrustworthy, dishonest and seeking unilateral advantage. The sources for the points of view in the chart include official speeches, published articles and conversations with leading U.S. and Russian experts.

It is important to underline that there are major substantive differences between the U.S. and Russia on key issues of sovereignty, use of force, the rules of international decision-making and many others. The chart does not assume that all conflict is just the result of misunderstanding, action-reaction cycles or perceptual bias; nor does it assume moral equivalence. (In the midst of our own hellish Civil War, Abraham Lincoln remained firmly against slavery, yet he still was able to speak of his Confederate adversaries as human beings and envision a union. He famously stated: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”)   

This is the aim of a partisan perception chart: to get to know the other side better, to allow both sides to air their grievances, challenge the other side, correct inaccuracies and then move beyond their emotionally charged, opposing positions to begin to address critical underlying interests.


1) You are a military threat to us right on our border. 

Our country has experienced devastating invasions across our borders from Napoleon in 1812 to Hitler in 1941. The U.S. pushed NATO to our borders even though George Kennan, your own senior statesman said in 1998 that this is a “tragic mistake… No one was threatening anybody else… It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.'' In response to your epic mistake—your U.S.-led NATO expansion—we have had to engage in a massive military build-up to counter this threat.

1) You are a military threat to our allies in Europe. 

You are building up your military on NATO’s border, threatening Eastern Europe and the Baltics. We are forced to build up NATO forces, including, in January 2017, the biggest deployment of U.S. troops and tanks in Poland since the end of the Cold War. You have placed nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave within the European Union. We must defend the new NATO member states that have historically been under your domination. Your provocative, aggressive actions are revitalizing NATO. The Baltic states, Poland, Ukraine have had to massively increase their military spending to respond to your actions.

2) You are a strategic nuclear threat.

You directly threaten us with your military build-up and increasingly lethal technologies like “super-fuze” targeting, which greatly increases the kill capability of your ICBMs and SLBMs and your ability for a surprise first strike, undermining strategic stability. You are developing “Prompt Global Strike” weapons that could hit our nuclear silos. Your submarines have three times the number of warheads needed to destroy the entire fleet of Russian land-based missiles in their silos. In 2014, you began the “Third Off-Set” strategy to develop superior technologies to maintain military dominance—autonomous learning systems, human-machine collaborative decision-making, network-enabled autonomous weapons, high-speed projectiles and more. This threatens us and feeds your massive military industry. Your ABM defense on our border, the Aegis Ashore launcher, which you say is to protect Europe from nuclear Iran, can also fire Tomahawk cruise missiles and hit us in minutes.

2) You are a strategic nuclear threat.

You have pushed forth with modernizing and recapitalizing your entire arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems, increased number and size of military exercises and made explicit nuclear threats against the U.S. and our allies. You are playing with fire in your “escalate to de-escalate” strategy thinking you can benefit from using precision low-yield nuclear strikes in a conflict with NATO. We are integrating conventional and nuclear deterrence in response. In violation of the critical INF Treaty, you have deployed two battalions of the nuclear-capable SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missiles. Like in Soviet times, your military is pushing ahead with dangerous weapons: a new heavy ICBM, a resumption of rail-mobile basing and leaked info about your “Status-6” robotic mini-submarine that could spread radioactive contamination along our entire coast. We must react to these incendiary, provocative threats.

3) You interfered in our elections. 

Your American political consultants played a decisive role in pro-U.S. Boris Yeltsin’s come-from-behind presidential election triumph in 1996, which, along with IMF support for Yeltsin, violated Russia’s sovereignty. Aggressive and outspoken U.S. officials like Hillary Clinton interfered in our internal affairs after our 2011 State Duma elections, sending a signal to activists to stage protests. In March 2012, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul decided to redirect $50 million toward “civil society assistance” to NGOs that your government approves in Russia and which often criticize our government.  Just imagine your reaction if the Russian government sent $50 million to American groups that support our values and interests.

3) You interfered in our elections.

U.S. intelligence concluded that Russia led an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, harm Clinton’s electability and undermine the U.S.-led liberal international order. You used RT as a messaging tool for the Russian government and extensively used social media and trolls to spread fake news. You criticize our support for liberal values to feed your conspiracy theories like the claim that the U.S. supports an anti-government “fifth column” in your country, which is really a way to distract your population away from your own domestic political and economic problems.

4) You interfered in the former Soviet states on our border

The U.S. government supported your nicely named “color/flower revolutions”—the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. In December 2014, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland walked in Kiev’s Maidan Square handing out food to protesters opposing President Viktor Yanukovych who was elected by a democratic vote in 2010. Imagine if a top Russian official showed up in support of an Occupy Wall Street demonstration or at an anti-government demonstration in Puerto Rico or Mexico. We saw how you reacted—went ballistic—to our weapons near your border back in 1962, when we had an international legal right to provide Cuba with missiles requested by Castro after your Bay of Pigs invasion.

4) You interfered in the newly independent, former Soviet states.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, you took political, economic, legal and covert action to maintain hegemony over what you call your “near abroad” to “protect the rights of Russian-speakers,” maintain access to ports in the Black Sea and Baltics and maintain buffer zones from traditional rivals like Turkey and Iran in the south, China in the east and European powers in the west.

Proclaiming your grievances with the new post-Soviet international order, you have used a variety of tactics and instruments to try to restore a sphere of influence over former Soviet states, including subversion of governments by discrediting their leaders, applying economic trade and investment pressures, use of energy warfare and cyber warfare.

5) You launched military invasions of sovereign states.

Your government invaded Iraq in 2003 under a false premise about WMDs and tried to establish an American model of democracy to control politics and resources. Then, during the ephemeral Arab Spring, your government supported the invasion of Libya, then Syria, creating complete chaos and an opening for the so-called Islamic State to flourish in the Middle East and beyond. You have handled Islam like a monkey handles a grenade. You continued to run your experiments in states on our border. Your own public is tired of this American interventionism, whether led by George W. Bush’s neo-con advisors like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle or Obama’s liberal interventionists like Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power. All this helped elect outsider Donald Trump.

You have led invasions of our three historical allies in the Middle East: Iraq, Libya and Syria. What if we threatened your historical ally—the authoritarian, extremist Islamic state of Saudi Arabia? In Syria, your actions threaten one of our only two military bases outside the former Soviet Union, while you have 800 foreign military bases in 80 countries—more bases in foreign lands than any other people, nation or empire in history. Just imagine your reaction if we directly threatened any one of them.

Your government nudged your puppet, Georgia's then-President Saakashvili, to discard negotiations in favor of a military solution in his country's dispute with South Ossetia, a la the Croatian operation Storm against Serbian Kraina in 1995. A Council of the European Union report concluded that “Georgia started the unjustified war.”

5) You launched military invasions of sovereign states

In 2008, you launched a war with Georgia, recognizing pro-Russian separatist regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. After Georgia's Rose Revolution, elected President Mikheil Saakashvili stood up to Russia, seeking to restore Georgia’s legal right to full control over separatist regions.  Since the war, you have occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia in violation of the cease-fire agreement. 

In 2014, you took the shocking action of using military force to annex Crimea and then began supporting pro-Russian rebels seeking to take over eastern Ukraine.

Regarding U.S. military action in the Middle East, a majority of Americans do now believe that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake with grave unintended consequences, collateral damage and mass civilian deaths. But the killing of innocent civilians was not intentional.

We supported military action in Libya in order to stop Gaddafi from committing genocide against his own people in Benghazi.

You have supported the butcher Assad in Syria who has used chemical weapons against his own people.

Our actions were driven by a responsibility to protect innocent civilians in Libya and Syria from their own unelected dictator leaders.

6) You say we invaded a sovereign state with the annexation of Crimea, but this is a special case.

After the West supported toppling the democratically elected President Yanukovych, we tried to compromise, asking that Ukraine's interim government be a coalition of all political forces, that all armed revolutionary factions be disbanded and that Russian remain as one of two official state languages. But the West would not be reasonable. Crimean leaders then asked to be reunited with Russia. Crimea had been part of Russia since 1783; it was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 as an administrative act, a “gift” by Nikita Khrushchev for political reasons that were meaningless for the local population because Ukraine and Russia were both parts of the same country at the time.

Even historically pro-Western Mikhail Gorbachev supported the return of Crimea to Russia, which today is still 70% ethnic Russian. In March 2014, a majority in Crimea voted in a referendum to reunify Crimea with Russia. It is parallel to the U.S.-supported Kosovo secession from Serbia. The U.S. would do the same in a similar situation. You break international law; we can too.

Regarding the tragedy with the Malaysian Airliner, the Dutch inquiry did not claim that the civilian airliner was intentionally shot down or that the Russian military took part in firing the missile.

6) The annexation of Crimea violates all agreed international norms.

Your use of military force to annex Crimea, legally a part of Ukraine, was condemned by a UN resolution as a violation of international law.

After annexing Crimea, you have continued your assault on Ukraine. You have subsequently supported separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine using hybrid warfare—propaganda, cyber warfare and the infiltration of regular troops disguised as local rebels. A Dutch-led investigation concluded that the missile system that shot down a Malaysia Airliner, killing all 298 on board, was trucked in from Russia at the request of Russian-backed separatists and returned to Russia the same night.

In the Ukraine conflict, you have called for a cease-fire and a negotiated solution, while still advising and supplying pro-Russian militants who refuse to negotiate.

7) You have no real democracy.

Politics in your country is now laughable. To understand politics in your country, you have to be drunk. It is now clear to the whole world just how flawed your two-party, winner-take-all political system really is. There are other better models in Europe. Only 30% of eligible U.S. voters voted for your presidents Bush and Obama, and even fewer elected Trump—just 26%—and Hillary Clinton got millions more votes than Trump. That means three-quarters of American voters did not vote for Trump. You have no right to give lessons in democracy. You have divisive, dysfunctional, gridlock politics. How about you fix your own house before you lecture others?

Our history is different—with centuries of tsarist and Soviet centralized government—and our new democracy is fitting for our country and our traditional values at this stage. President Putin has an 80% approval rating by the Russian people—since 1999 it has never been lower than 60%—and this is not just due to state-controlled media. Putin has restored our pride. You demonize Putin for degrading Russian democracy but under your friend Yeltsin the oligarchs controlled the media and bought votes for financial gain.

Yes, we have curtailed freedoms in Russia. But even historically pro-Western Gorbachev admits that U.S. geopolitical pressure, interference in our domestic politics and sanctions have all pushed Putin to operate in a more authoritarian way.

7) You have no real democracy.  

Your government controls the press, has silenced independent media and limited public discussion and influence of opposition political parties. Government-controlled media feed constant pro-Kremlin narratives, stifling opposition. You have three “systemic opposition” parties that give the appearance of pluralism but always follow the Kremlin lead.  Serious opposition candidates are prevented from running.

President Putin and his inner circle operate with near complete authority and power, citing the external threat from the U.S. and the West to justify stifling domestic opposition, the alleged “fifth column,” and to pass the foreign agent law and close NGOs.

In the first decade of Putin’s presidency, growing wealth due to high oil prices could compensate for diminished democracy. But the standard of living has been falling in your country with 20% of the population now below the poverty level. Putin has not delivered on promises to create millions of high-end jobs, improve education and health services and steeply raise real wages. In these conditions, it is getting harder for your people to accept diminished democracy.

Not only have you suppressed democracy at home, your President Putin continues to lead a sophisticated and opportunistic campaign to sabotage liberal democracy in Europe and the United States.

8) Your economy is based on inequality.

Your “democracy” is based on systemic inequality: the richest 1% in the U.S. now own more wealth than the bottom 90%.

8) Your economy is based on inequality.

President Putin has made the state the chief arbiter in the economy, with 110 individuals controlling 35% of the wealth.

9) We are morally superior.

Russia stands strong for our traditional Christian values. We see much in the West that to the majority in our country appears morally corrupt. The vast majority of Russians are conservative and the pro-Western liberal elite that supports the American form of liberal democracy is only a small percentage of our population. You give front-page coverage to groups like Pussy Riot whose acts in a Russian church were extremely offensive to the majority of our people. Your own conservatives recognize that we defend true Christian values; as Pat Buchanan noted, President Putin has planted Russia’s flag “firmly on the side of traditional Christianity.”

Though you claim you were fighting to spread “democracy,” your ill-conceived invasions have led to immoral results—100,000 violent civilian deaths in Iraq—and your efforts to topple Gaddafi in Libya and Assad in Syria led to civil wars with over 400,000 killed in Syria alone before Russia got involved militarily to try to stabilize the situation. The refugee crisis is the worst since WWII. The result is less democracy and more violent chaos. The road to hell is paved with your good intentions to spread your democracy. During this period, Russia does not have anything near this amount of blood on its hands. Trump was right when he blurted out that the U.S. is “not so innocent.”

9) We are morally superior.

Russia has for centuries been backward and barbarous. As President Reagan put it, it has been an evil empire, whether tsarist repression or Stalinist terror, in which tens of millions died.

We have tried to help reform your country, to spread freedom in tsarist times, in Soviet times, in post-Soviet times, but it has failed. Your system has repeatedly fallen back into economic corruption and authoritarianism. Russia ranks 131st out of 176 countries in corruption while the U.S. ranks 18th.

The majority of us believe that the U.S. democratic system has been an exceptional inspiration for individual freedom and an open society in the world, a “city on a hill,” and U.S. leadership and military power have ensured a rule-based, stable world order since WWII. There are some who say this is a myth, that America does not behave better than other nations in its foreign policy, but the majority of Americans believe in unique "American exceptionalism" and that we are destined to lead the free world.

10) You violate human rights.

You began criticizing us in the 1990s for violating human rights in Chechnya, where we had Saudi-trained Wahhabist extremists trying to create an Islamic state. Then look how fast, after 9/11—led by 17 radicalized Saudi hijackers out of 19—the Bush administration passed the Patriot Act curtailing civil liberties, set up Guantanamo and CIA “black sites,” embraced torture, acted on false intelligence and manufactured public consent for the invasion of Iraq. As soon as you were threatened, once you felt what it was like to have a major attack on your homeland, as Russia has had many times, you quickly curtailed human rights; yet you have condemned us for doing the same when we tightened political and press control in the face of threats—terrorism, instability, near economic collapse before Putin became president—and U.S. agitation against our president and our system.

You may not have many political prisoners, but although the U.S. has only 4.4% of the world's population your “democracy” has 22% of the world's prisoners.

You had Clinton and Bush family dynasties controlling politics for years. Putin is in power longer, but has given us needed stability. You now have serious instability with your established politicians thrown out of power. Imagine what it is like for us having had the total collapse of our system in 1991.

10) You violate human rights

You limit political freedoms and human rights. There have been many unresolved extrajudicial killings of your journalists and opposition activists. There are cases of alleged poisoning of opposition figures and trumped up corruption charges against opposition figures. There is no moral equivalency between the unintended consequences of U.S. actions and these deliberate Russian killings.

America is not perfect, but we do not imprison or eliminate our political opposition figures, as has been happening in Russia. We have always supported the freedom and creativity of the individual as a core value, setting up checks and balances in our government to lessen the danger of tyranny and abuse of power.

We also limit the term of a president to eight years. President Putin has effectively already been the top leader for 16 years and with his likely win in the 2018 election he will be in power for over two decades.

11) You don’t understand us or our history, or how to deal with us.

John Kennedy was beloved by Russians for his 1963 speech acknowledging that “no nation in the history of battle suffered as much as the Soviet Union in WWII.” This trauma is still not forgotten in our country. President Putin’s older brother died in the Nazi siege of Leningrad. In addition, for the majority of Russians, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a devastating trauma. Our situation was worse than the U.S. Great Depression. You pushed your own American model of democracy in our country, leading to economic impoverishment, crime and political chaos. President Putin lifted Russia back up “off its knees” to restore our national dignity. You just elected a president to “make America great again.” The suffering in your coal towns does not even come close to what happened to our people.

We have a Russian proverb: “You don’t go into someone else’s monastery with your own set of rules.” You provoked us into reaction by pushing your liberal hegemony right up to our borders and your ill-conceived reform efforts inside our country.

You are still fighting the Soviet Union, not the new Russia. We need mutual respect, to stop demonization and reestablish normal human and national relations. While you wallow in your anti-Russia, anti-Trump hysteria, we can turn to the new rising global superpower—China.

11) You don’t understand us or our history, or how to deal with us.

We treasure our freedom and individual liberty. We are a country founded by immigrants who sought freedom from tyranny. For us, your legacy of Communism is repugnant. We see that authoritarianism returning. It is hard to trust you or cooperate on shared threats, whether terrorism, nuclear proliferation or third-party cyberattacks given your suppression of democracy at home and abroad, your actions in Crimea and Ukraine and your violation of the INF Treaty. 

We can try to work on relations through nongovernmental tracks, but the majority in our country think you must stop provocative actions so we can reach a consensus on Putin’s motives. A majority of the U.S. political elite believes Putin is incurably hostile and no deals are possible. Some see Putin’s behavior as reactive to U.S.-led NATO expansion and Middle East invasions yet doubt we can deal with him and must contain your country’s now very aggressive behavior.

Others in our country see Putin as a typical strongman, vengeful but not incorrigibly corrupt and we need to adopt a realist position, engage Moscow and respect your country’s interests in what has been a U.S.-dominated post-Soviet international order.

12) You don’t keep your agreements; your violations have broken trust and are provoking a dangerous, new arms race and risk of unintended nuclear war.

The breakdown in our relations all started with your expansion of NATO, a violation of the spirit of our agreement in 1989 when U.S. Secretary of State Baker initially indicated that, if President Gorbachev consented to reunify Germany, NATO would “not move one inch to the East” and Gorbachev affirmed that “any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.” But U.S. officials never put this in writing and quickly altered the terms to keep a unified Germany in NATO, pocketing your gains and taking unilateral advantage of the weakened political and economic state of the Soviet Union at the time. This has created a deep sense of betrayal and bitterness in Russia. Yeltsin accepted your terms. We will no longer accept your terms. You took advantage of us when we were open to a new collaborative relationship with the U.S. and the West. That is why President Putin has said the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”  Not because he so loved the Soviet system. But because our interests were not respected and it could all have been different had you treated us as you would yourself had you been in our shoes.  We embraced you as a friend and ally and then you pushed your military to our border, went on a rampage of invasions and color revolutions.  You cannot be trusted.  Our annexation of Crimea is defensive, not aggressive.

Both of our countries are now facing new nightmare scenarios that could lead to devastating unintended nuclear war, including third party hacking of our nuclear command and control systems, and ever-more sophisticated weapons using quantum computing, virtual reality and other emerging technologies.

Despite this, actions by the U.S. are forcing us into a new round in the strategic nuclear arms race with the increasing risk of inadvertent nuclear war, agent provocateur nightmare scenarios, that could put an end to both America and Russia as we know them.

12) You don’t keep your agreements; your violations have broken trust and are provoking a dangerous, new arms race and risk of unintended nuclear war.

The complete break in our relations came with your shocking annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, with your violation of basic agreed international norms. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we invited you to partner with NATO and the G-8 economic alliance. Poland, the Czech Republic and other sovereign countries wanted protection. We could not leave them out of NATO because of your “hurt feelings.” We tried partnership, but you were a poor partner with your corrupt reform process and state-supported kleptocracy.

You have repeatedly violated NATO airspace and engaged in dangerous military encounters, creating a dangerous risk of escalation.

You have deployed a new ground-launched cruise missile that violates the landmark 1987 INF Treaty. This cannot go unanswered and we must act to protect our nation and our allies.

Both of our countries are now facing new nightmare scenarios that could lead to a devastating unintended nuclear war, including third party hacking of our nuclear command and control systems, and ever-more sophisticated weapons using quantum computing, virtual reality and other emerging technologies.

Despite this, actions by Russia are forcing us into a new round in the strategic nuclear arms race with the increasing risk of inadvertent nuclear war, agent provocateur nightmare scenarios. that could put an end to both America and Russia as we know them.


Bruce Allyn is a senior fellow and affiliated faculty at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, and a former director of the Harvard-Soviet Joint Study on Nuclear Crisis Prevention.

Photo credit: by ewiemann, shared via Wikimedia Commons under a CC BY 2.0 license.

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