Russia keeps inserting itself into the world’s conflicts, exerting outsized influence in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere. How much of a threat does it pose to the United States? And what should we do about it? These questions are at the top of our foreign policy agenda.
Russia is not our friend. It sees the world order as dominated by the U.S. It wants to reshape the world in ways that are not compatible with American views and interests. It challenges our power and influence in several regions of the world.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Its support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine has ramped up the tension in the region. From the Mueller investigation, we know that Russia meddled in our elections in 2016, pulling off the most effective foreign election interference in our history.
Russia is not a major power. Its military power is modest, and Russia’s per-capita GDP is about one-fifth of America’s. Its economy is the world’s 12th largest. It doesn’t have the economic and military might to compete with the United States.
It also has an aging population, many intractable domestic problems, and an economy, heavily dependent on energy prices, growing only slowly.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has played his hand adroitly. He holds some strong cards. Russia is one of two major nuclear-weapon states, has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and impressive human talent, with strong research and development capability.
Putin has stepped into power vacuums around the world, choosing his partners strategically. In Syria, he aligned himself with the brutal leader Bashar al-Assad and ended up on the winning side. He has worked opportunistically to split the U.S. from our allies in Europe. He wants to use his power to extend and strengthen Russia’s role in the world, weaken democratic institutions, and diminish US and Western dominance over the international order.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s stance toward Russia is puzzling. He has little interest in Russia’s brutally repressive human rights record. He has praised Putin and seems to take pride in their warm personal relationship. While his administration has generally taken a tough stance, the president has at times disputed the assessments of his own intelligence professionals. He has moved to give Putin what he most wants, relief from sanctions.
Trump denies that he or his presidential campaign colluded with Russia, but evidence of that is growing as the story unfolds. That the American president has to make such a denial is, in itself, quite extraordinary.
The U.S. relationship with Russia is certainly at an inflection point. Russia sees America as a rising threat to its aspirations.
What does this mean for U.S. policy?
We start by strengthening our own society, politically, economically and militarily. We need to reduce the vulnerability of our voting machinery and prevent Russia from influencing our elections.
We energetically support American leadership to help make a better world. We cannot resolve every conflict or right every wrong. But we should be the champions of an international order that seeks liberty and justice for all and a more secure, inclusive and generous planet.
Without exaggerating the threat, Russia’s moves against our vital interests must be confronted and managed.
Abroad, we have to deploy troops where needed and deploy missiles in Europe to protect our allies. We should provide lethal arms to Ukraine, tighten sanctions when Russia steps out of line, and speak out robustly about Russia’s human rights violations.
At the same time, we must search for ways to engage and cooperate with Russia whenever it is possible and in our interest: on tightening sanctions against North Korea, avoiding a new arms race and, possibly, managing the conflict in Syria.
Despite our differences—if we don’t talk to Russia, a bad relationship will get worse.
By Lee H. Hamilton