A Cheerless Landscape

30 march 2016

U.S. Approaches to Russia Policy

Ivan Safranchuk is an associate professor at the Department of Global Political Processes of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: In the American discourse concerning relations with Russia the realists’ calls for interaction with it run counter to the alarmists’ stubborn mantra that Russia’s attempts to question U.S. omnipotence should not be left without a harsh response.

U.S. presidential elections are invariably accompanied by talk about the possibility of turning a new page on some essential political issue or even policy course. In fact, a new administration and policy line is more than guaranteed if the incumbent is not in the presidential race. Today U.S.-Russia relations have plummeted to a low not seen since the end of the Cold War or possibly even earlier. Yet chances for better relations between the two countries when the 45th U.S. president takes office are slim. Indeed, they will remain so at least as long as the current unfavorable situation continues.



There are two dominant approaches towards Russian policy in the U.S.—skeptical and alarmist. The realists represent a third approach, but their influence is limited. Few people today advocate unconditional cooperation with Russia and they have no say in decisions made in Washington. All these attitudes constitute two fields of the proposed matrix (see Table 1). The supporters of unconditional cooperation, the realists, and the skeptics appear in the field “Russia should become a partner/friend, but this does not work,” while the alarmists believe “Russia is a rival/foe and this does work (outright confrontation is unfolding).”

The skeptics’ basic idea is confined to the argument that Russia has not become a partner of the United States because it has not completed domestic reforms. At the same time the skeptics maintain that Russia will not be an enemy (and this distinguishes them from the alarmists). Since 2012, when Vladimir Putin returned to the president’s office, the skeptics have been increasingly personifying the “Russian issue.” In their opinion, the main reason why reform in Russia is incomplete lies in the personality of the Russian president. When Western sanctions were introduced against Russia in 2014 and the serious troubles in the Russian economy became increasingly apparent, the skeptics declared that Russia’s decline was a stable trend. They claim that Russia’s growing activity in world affairs is a sign of weakness, not strength. Unable to cope with internal development problems, the Kremlin resorts to pro-active measures (aggressive statements) on the international stage. In practical terms, the skeptics proposed a policy of “managing Russia’s decline,” which suggests:

  1. making life harder for the Russian elites in every conceivable way, especially for those who are presumably close to Putin;
  2. watching “Russia’s decline” and waiting for the critical point when the country will be ready for an essential adjustment of its internal and foreign policies (it is acknowledged that this may take an indefinite amount of time—one to ten years, but the collapse of the current system of government is seen as unavoidable and possible at any moment within this time span), maintaining permanent readiness for change, and cautiously encouraging change through “soft power;” and
  3. firmly containing Russia’s foreign policy projects until the expected events described above materialize. Figuratively speaking, the skeptics believe that Russia is ill (its internal development is in the wrong direction) and the sickness will only worsen, so Russia should deal with its disease on its own and get weaker, while at the same time it has to be prevented from “infecting” others. The skeptics see Russia as a hindrance rather than a menace.

Alarmism received a mighty boost after 2008 when both Russia and the United States saw that their worst expectations regarding each other were coming true. This attitude gained strength against the backdrop of the Ukrainian crisis. The alarmists claim Russia is on the rise, arguing that Russia’s internal system is robust enough and its foreign policy is becoming increasingly self-assertive. It should be remembered that the alarmists, though critical about the system of government in Russia as such, regard it as effective enough to initiate ambitious geopolitical projects. For this reason in practical terms the alarmists propose a policy of active and extensive counteraction. In doing so the alarmists proceed from the assumption that modern Russia is economically and militarily weaker than the Soviet Union was in its day, while the United States is stronger than it was during the Cold War. So the U.S. should be more resolute in order to submit Russia and force it to give up its geopolitical ambitions. The U.S. must be interested in reinforcing confrontation with Russia: Moscow should come under growing pressure; the rivalry must be expanded geographically; and its intensity stepped up. The bigger the scale of the conflict (naturally, at the non-nuclear level, without a direct clash), the greater the extent to which the United States will display its advantages.

The realists maintain that it is unreasonable to waste time and effort on attempts to reform Russia or wait for such changes to occur at some future date. The realists are not against internal political changes in Russia. They just disagree that it should be a U.S. foreign policy aim. The realists believe that Russia has grown stronger and this objectively changes the conditions for relations. Solutions should be looked for with regard to the current balance of power. Mutual interests must be taken into account and reasonable swaps identified instead of continuing attempts to fundamentally change the existing state of affairs. To a certain extent this stance proceeds from the awareness that the world has far more important problems to attend to than the personality of Putin or Russia in general. It is far more important to establish new regional orders and think of what the world will soon become with the development of new technologies; that is, to shape the future and avoid getting bogged down in the problems of the past. Russia will inevitably constitute a major part of the rapidly changing world and this cannot be ignored. The realists propose various swaps regarding all burning issues, including the “Ukrainian crisis,” but they acknowledge that translating them into reality now would be impossible for the simple reason that politicians are unprepared to make such decisions. The realists are by no means ready to agree with Russia on all matters, but at least they agree to negotiate and bargain.

The advocates of unconditional cooperation recognize the principle of equality in relations with Russia. As a rule, they are very critical of official U.S. policy, especially that part which is a product of the alarmists’ recommendations. The supporters of cooperation invariably stand in harsh opposition to the alarmists in debates about how the U.S. should act. The supporters of cooperation with Russia make favorable or neutral comments on Russian domestic and foreign policies, which distinguishes them from both the alarmists and skeptics.




Cooperation without





Decline: Russia

is getting


Rise: Russia is

getting stronger

Recognize both

negative and

positive trends

in Russia’s


Russia is a normal part of

the West with its own

special features

The real

problem is in


Putin and his


Russia as such

Refrain from



Western countries’



Laying siege to

Russia; active


of its foreign



pressure on


resistance to it


Doing business

with Russia;

swaps accommodating

the interests of

Russia and

the U.S.

Adjustment of Western

countries’ approach;

cooperation with Russia


Wait for the

current system

in Russia to

collapse and

build a




domestic reforms)

Make Russia

weak and force

it to drop its



Build a new

world order

in the current

context (actual

recognition of


and not try to

change the world

in general or

Russia in

particular to suit

one’s own taste

Build partnership relations or even an alliance with Russia



Of great importance is not only what approach each of the groups described above advocates, but also the way they interact in the process of discussion.

The alarmists and skeptics formulate basic decisions about Russia for the U.S. administration not only because they represent the two largest schools of thought. Despite their differing viewpoints, they share common ground in their criticism of and hostility towards Russia. This enables them to compromise on certain aims that are eventually confined to restricting Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. But the alarmists and skeptics propose different means and methods of practical policies where no compromise is possible. In practice, both programs are implemented simultaneously: the alarmists put strong pressure on Russia and incite conflict, and the skeptics’ strategy lays siege to Russia and contains its foreign policy initiatives.

In terms of influence, the realists fall far behind both the alarmists and skeptics. The skeptics firmly postulate that “Russia has disappointed America.” This is why arguing in political debates that one can do business with Russia is a loosing battle. The alarmists appeal to the classic maxima in which it is not permitted to openly challenge the United States. At the same time, the rhetoric of Russian officials is often regarded as an attempt to do precisely that. The realists’ calls for interaction with Russia as it is run counter to the alarmists’ stubborn mantra that Russia’s attempts to question U.S. omnipotence should not be left without a harsh response. Thus, the fundamental concepts of both the alarmists and the skeptics fit in with the bounds of what is permissible in the U.S. political establishment, while the basic stance of the realists is miles away from what the U.S. is prepared to regard as politically acceptable (although there is more understanding of this in New York’s business quarters).

The realists’ ideas become diluted in debates with the alarmists and the skeptics. The latter two groups may compromise on ultimate goals, but they remain divided over the means (in practice they implement both sets of political recommendations). The realists disagree with the alarmists and the skeptics over their ideas (but lose the debate), yet by virtue of the nature of their views they escape frantic debate about the means. Only the realists keep asking questions about the scale and scope of employing the methods for which the alarmists and skeptics are pressing. They argue that neither the “siege” of Russia nor any other kind of pressure should be regarded as the ultimate goal, and that border lines should be clearly identified where it would be feasible to enter into negotiations with Russia. Others argue that since another Cold War is already underway the U.S. should look into how to minimize its costs, making the “war” as short and safe as possible. Arguments of this sort provide common ground for such realists and advocates of unconditional cooperation. But to a far larger extent the realists tend to tacitly agree with the skeptics’ methods (the skeptics too would like to lay siege to Russia with minimal risks and this explains why they are trying to hold back the trigger-happy alarmists). The realists lack the political power to argue with the skeptics and the alarmists over the basic aims, while debate over methods is not a priority for some realists. And others tend to take intermediary positions closer to the skeptics.

The advocates of unconditional cooperation with Russia disagree with both the ends and means. However, in their attacks against the alarmists and skeptics over policy goals, they receive no support from the realists. The realists already feel they are in an uncomfortable position as they happen to be beyond the bounds of what is considered politically permissible in Washington. They are interested not in criticism of the current policies as such, but in regaining influence over practical policies. The advocates of unconditional cooperation with Russia are still farther away from what is politically acceptable in Washington than the realists. In discussions over policy goals in relations with Russia the realists distance themselves from the advocates of unconditional cooperation (although a compromise between them and even their coalition is possible when it comes to essential issues) for the sake of retaining the hope their combined influence will expand. In criticizing U.S. policy methods the advocates of unconditional cooperation have far fewer reasons to count on support from the realists, because, as was said above, the realists prefer to dodge debate over the means. The advocates of unconditional cooperation with Russia are ready to actively discuss the means (with the alarmists in particular), but they are unable to join the corresponding dialogue between the alarmists and the skeptics. The proponents of cooperation have been labeled “marginal” on the sidelines of mainstream discussions in Washington, which greatly benefits the alarmists. Whereas on some issues on the current agenda the advocates of unconditional cooperation may criticize the alarmists in their habitual fashion, the criticism the alarmists will hear from the skeptics and the realists on the very same issues will sound far milder (for both the skeptics and the realists are keen to distance themselves from cooperation supporters).

Those who promote unconditional cooperation with Russia keep a set of positive ideas regarding Russia close at hand, but they have no influence over practical policies or the content of discussions in Washington. However, their stance does play a certain role in that paradoxically it helps the alarmists (contrary to the wishes of cooperation supporters).



The situation in Washington where the views of alarmists and skeptics prevail is not good for Russia. The failure of the skeptics would add to the strength of the alarmists and vice versa. For now it remains unclear where and under what circumstances the discussion of U.S. policy towards Russia will emerge from this dichotomy. Neither the alarmists nor the skeptics will be able to monopolize the agenda. Indeed, both sides have an approximate parity. Another factor for balance is that many experts in Washington prefer to keep away from the prevailing systems of views. Nor do they form new “schools of thought;” they merely avoid joining existing theories, staying neutral towards the skeptics and the alarmists, maneuvering between them, and exploring opportunities for potential compromise. There is certain demand in the U.S. expert community for adjusting the existing intellectual space and formulating new views. But how soon this demand will be met is anyone’s guess. The balance between the skeptics and the alarmists at a time when a large number of experts remain neutral creates conditions for wider application of realism, which the “neutrals” may find increasingly attractive.

When the new administration takes over in 2017, a fresh impetus for reconsidering relations with Russia will certainly follow. However, it may not be strong enough to overpower the existing system of views in the near future. Although the influence of realists may start to grow, in all likelihood the alarmists and skeptics will continue to shape U.S. policy towards Russia through yet another political cycle.

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