In the Thick of ItA blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
New US Security Strategy Bets on a Future Where Russia Matters Less
If there had been any lingering post-Cold War hopes that the United States could forge a partnership with Russia, they have been swept away by the 2022 National Security Strategy, released this month. The Biden administration endorses the position that no progress can be reached on repairing the relationship as long as Vladimir Putin remains in office, saying “it is now clear he will not change”; instead, the White House awaits a future when the Russian people have empowered a different government that is committed to working within the parameters of the U.S.-guided liberal international system. Indeed, the shift in U.S. thinking is so pronounced that this strategy does not even anticipate the possibility of a cooperative approach. Whereas past U.S. documents of this sort, even when emphasizing points of divergence and rivalry, maintained that there was a robust shared agenda (strategic stability, anti-terrorism, energy and so on), the 2022 iteration does not even use the term “cooperation,” let alone “partnership.” Instead, we find a very carefully constructed turn of phrase: “pragmatic modes of interaction.”
Thankfully, the strategic guidance dispenses with the notion that differences between Russia and the United States are the result of misunderstandings or miscommunications. It acknowledges, instead, that Washington cannot entertain any of Moscow’s demands for revisions of the post-1991 settlement in Europe and Eurasia, or in any other part of the world. It no longer maintains the fiction that somehow the United States understands Putin’s interests and vision for Russia better than he does, and it is just a matter of finding the right phraseology to convince him. It also makes clear that the United States does not see any workable compromises with Russia or any value in coming up with new ways of thinking about European security. It commits the United States to the further enlargement of Euro-Atlantic institutions as the only guarantor for that security, which Russia can either accept or see its efforts to resist countered (and hopefully overcome).
In the past, I’ve argued that if the United States was engaged in great power competition with Russia, it had two courses of action: turn Russia from a near-peer competitor into a friend or turn Russia from a near-peer into a non-peer competitor. The Biden/Harris team argues that, after years of trying, the first approach has failed. The strategy now explicitly notes that the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year will inevitably weaken Russia’s military and economic position, and counsels the United States to contain the prospects of open conflict, especially any clash that could turn into a nuclear exchange. But the overall strategy beyond the sections specifically related to Russia calls for the United States to assemble a coalition of partners from around the world to work together on a series of next-generation issues related to climate and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The implication is clear: A Russian natural resource base increasingly based on fueling 20th-century industrial economies will become less relevant as critical supply chains and new technologies bypass Russia or no longer require its hydrocarbons. Meanwhile, a Russia that remains cut off from the global economic mainstream will be unable to transform its economy and society. Meanwhile, the other parts of the former Soviet Union, starting with Ukraine, will become increasingly integrated with the Euro-Atlantic economic core and will provide an alternative interconnector with the broader Indo-Pacific region, both to South as well as East Asia.
Implicit in the 2022 strategy are steps that, if fulfilled, would strike directly at the foundations of Putin’s plan for reviving Russia as a great power for the 21st century: preventing Russia from becoming the key geoeconomic interconnector between Europe and East Asia; diminishing Russia’s role as a safe and secure provider both of conventional hydrocarbons and then of the hydrogen and minerals needed for the green energy transition; and contesting Russia’s position in the Arctic, which Putin’s own Arctic Strategy had identified as the key basis for sustaining Russia’s position in the international system. By leading the way for the world to find alternative connectors and suppliers, the U.S. would reduce Russia’s importance not only for Europe but also for South and East Asia.
At the same time, the Biden administration is committed to what the Atlantic Future Forum terms a “reglobalization” approach: a rewiring of the international system where the U.S. and its partners will revamp the rules and regulations for the 21st century. While Russia cannot be expelled from the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. is more likely to find new venues where Russia is not represented or has no veto and use them to bypass older legacy institutions in conducting more of the business of international diplomacy. If Moscow’s claim over the years has been that no global problem can be solved without Russia’s active participation and involvement, the U.S. now is more prepared to contest that assertion. And to the extent that Russia’s claim to have a seat at the global table rests on certain military capabilities, including its nuclear stockpile, the strategy commits the United States to working with its partners to find new defensive mechanisms to cope with or mitigate Russia’s remaining hard power capabilities, to lessen the threat they pose.
It should be noted that all U.S. national security strategies are largely aspirational in nature. Undertaking a herculean effort to bypass and route around Russia rests on a high level of expenditures U.S. taxpayers may not wish to bankroll, while Russia’s traditional partners may decide to continue, even under new conditions, some degree of their commercial and political relationship with Moscow. Nevertheless, the Biden team has cast its judgement: In the world of the future, Russia will matter less.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Official White House photo by Erin Scott shared in the public domain.