Written by Timothy A. Model, PhD Student in the Department of Political Science
Prompted by revelations about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, investigations of Russian ties to the U.S. presidential administration officials, and the alleged Russian poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England, America’s attention to Russia has reached Cold War levels. Surveys find that the American public is worried about Russia: approximately 90 percent of respondents in a 2017 Pew Research Center survey believed that Russia posed a threat to the United States, and more than half of all respondents viewed Russia as a “major threat.”
Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies in partnership with the Russian Studies Workshop organized an event on January 29 with the purpose of drawing attention to U.S.-Russian relations. Moderator and Director of the Russian and East European Institute Professor Sarah Philips posed three questions about Russia that are on the minds of Americans and the international community: what kind of global power is Russia, what are Russia’s foreign policy goals, and how should the United States respond to Russia? The group of expert panelists tasked with answering these challenging questions comprised former United States Ambassador to Russia James F. Collins, Editor-in-Chief of Counterpoint Maria Lipman, senior fellow and research professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University Andrew Kuchins, and President and CEO of the U.S.-Russia Foundation Celeste Wallander. The panel was part of the 3rd annual conference, America’s Role in the World, organized by SGIS.
What kind of global power is Russia?
Many of the Global Russia panelists treated America’s fear of Russia as overstated. Although Ambassador Collins mentioned that Russia is succeeding at extending its reach throughout the world, Wallander suggested that accompanying Russia’s global reach is a decline in the country’s power, evidenced by stagnating economic growth and slowed foreign investments. Kuchins agreed, referencing a quote attributed to a host of political figures in history, “Russia was never so strong as it wants to be and never so weak as it is thought to be.” Kuchins did not present Russia as a global power in economic terms, but did note that Russia’s strengths are instead in its nuclear capabilities, membership on the United Nation Security Council, robust energy sector, and extensive intelligence services.
What are Russia’s foreign policy goals?
A central component of ensuring global security is in America’s ability to understand Russia’s foreign policy. Multiple panelists suggested that Russia’s foreign policy is a reaction to perceived security threats. “Russians have… a preoccupation with security,” said Ambassador Collins, explaining that Russians have felt threatened by a perceived encroachment of the West, and the U.S. in particular, on Russian borders. Kuchins also illustrated how these security threats have guided Russia’s goal of contesting U.S. hegemony and efforts to divide Western alliances.
Beyond security threats, panelists described that Russia’s power, once a source of national pride, faded in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Both Lipman and Kuchins viewed the Russian people’s desire to revive the country’s position on the global stage as a motivation behind the country’s aggressive, anti-Western foreign policy. Lipman suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drive to return his country to its former glory is so powerful that he has been willing to sacrifice the country’s development.
Wallander proposed that alternative view that domestic politics has driven Russian foreign policy. Specifically, Wallander understood Russia’s foreign policy as a method of preserving Putinism, a word that has been used to describe Russia’s political system as the control over the country’s politics and vital economic sectors by Putin and his cadre of elites. Wallander claimed that Russia’s use of foreign policy for self-preservation has become unsustainable because of its contradictions: whereas Putinism has been upheld by its access to the international system, the country’s foreign policy has promoted economical isolationism.
How should the United States respond to Russia?
Following news of Skripal’s poisoning, the U.S., along with other Western countries, implemented sanctions and expelled select Russian diplomats. The Global Russia panelists were mostly skeptical of the potential for these actions, the sanctions, in particular, to influence Russian foreign policy in a way that advances U.S. interests. Compared to the Obama’s implementation of Russian sanctions that targeted certain elites, Wallander raised concerns that the newest sanctions would damage the whole Russian economy and alienate the Russian public. Lipman mentioned that Russia has responded to these sanctions by spreading anti-Western propaganda that has undermined the activities of Westernized Russians, whose interests are in promoting liberal democracy. In addition to alienating potential allies within the Russian citizenry, Kuchins argued that sanctions have forced Russian entrepreneurs to move their money back into Russia, giving Putin greater control over Russian revenue flows.
The panelists instead proposed alternative strategies. Many of the answers concentrated on methods of cooperation with Russia. Ambassador Collins suggested that the U.S. deepen its relationships with Russia’s civil society actors. Wallander recommended that the U.S. encourage academic and student exchanges between Russian and U.S. universities, but she reminded the audience that, “cooperation is a tool, not the goal.” Aside from cooperation, panelists argued that in order for the Americans to respond to Russia, the U.S. first needs to bolster the institutions it helped create. Wallander endorsed efforts to reassert the value of international law and the political and economic institutions that comprise the international system. Ambassador Collins worried that Russia’s control over its nuclear arsenal has not been well-regulated, a problem that he believed the international community would need to address. Kuchins additionally called for U.S. assistance in the development of Ukraine, a U.S. ally and Russian neighbor that has long struggled with crime and corruption.
Understanding the current state of Russia is a necessary precursor to deciphering its foreign policy. Each panelist reminded the audience that Russians, too, are victims of their government’s policies. As Lipman demonstrated, the Russian government has encouraged Russians to treat fellow countrymen and countrywomen who hold Western political and economic beliefs as enemies. At the same time, the government has tolerated dangerous and extremist ideologies. Lipman’s unfortunate image of Russia portrays how the integration of these two forces have forced Russia onto a new, unifying ideological spectrum, one with roots in older ideas: anti-Americanism.
Given these trends, a person might be pessimistic, but the panelists were not, opting instead for pragmatism and informed reasoning. After all, the Russian nation-state is still recovering after years of Soviet control and a tumultuous post-Soviet period, as Ambassador Collins stated. Of course, Russia and the Russian people will outlive Putin and the current regime. This fact is perhaps why each panelist called for long-term thinking and solutions rather than short-sighted, emotional reactions.