As Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump prepare to take part in the July 16 Helsinki Summit—their first meeting to not take place on the sidelines of a broader summit—expectations in both capitals are low. Virtually no one expects a breakthrough on any of the issues dividing Moscow and Washington. Yet, following a near-collision between Russian and US forces in Syria earlier this year, both countries see a need to at least stabilize the relationship. Granted, communication channels between their militaries are vitally important for the task of deconfliction. However, if US-Russian tensions are to de-escalate, a high-level dialogue between presidents is required. If the upcoming summit lays the groundwork for such a dialogue, it will have served a useful purpose.
Since 2014, Russia and the US have been embroiled in a conflict comparable to, yet very different from, the Cold War; one that is as, or even more, dangerous than its twentieth-century predecessor. In February 2018, US forces killed a number of Russian private contractors advancing on positions held by US allies at Deir-ez-Zor. In April, the US and its allies launched missile strikes against Syria, following a dire warning from Moscow, whose Chief of the General Staff threatened to retaliate should Russian assets or personnel be harmed. In these two instances, the two countries came closer to a direct military confrontation than at any time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. This new confrontation can be termed a hybrid war–a term that is not to be confused with hybrid warfare, which is more about the methods used than the essence of conflict.
This conflict is a two-way contest, not just a series of Russian raids against a largely passive US. It should be viewed as part of the ongoing transformation of the international order. In this wider process, Moscow is not Washington’s main competitor—that title belongs to Beijing—but it is nonetheless active, visible, and vociferous, and increasingly aligned with Beijing.
The hybrid war is fought in multiple domains, including the economic, informational, cyber, and military. Taking place in a much more integrated and globalized world than the bipolar one that hosted the Cold War, this new conflict is highly dynamic rather than static and is often fought in the global commons, without barriers like the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. Economic and financial sanctions against Russia have become the weapon of choice for the US and its allies. The stated purpose of such instruments has been to make the Kremlin change its course by increasing the price that Russia’s oligarchs, business community, and citizens must pay for Putin’s policies. This recalls the ultimate objective of any war: to break the opponent’s will.
Consequently, the erstwhile distinction between foreign and domestic does not apply to the current conflict, and the home front is now key. Even before 2014, Russia’s state-run news outlets targeted Western audiences and took the battle to the US and Europe. Not content to merely counter the West’s incessant criticism of authoritarian practices and human rights abuses in Russia, they began identifying and exploiting the flaws and failures of the US political system with the aim of discrediting it in the eyes of the disgruntled—within and beyond the US. Much like the West’s Cold War-era propaganda, which did not discriminate between the liberal Andrei Sakharov and the nationalistic Alexander Solzhenitsyn as both were essentially anti-Soviet, Russian propagandists look to both the left and the right to promote ideas and voices critical of US politics and policies.
In the 2016 US presidential election, their strategy appears to have been to depict the vote as a cynical manipulation of the electorate by the elites rather than a genuine exercise in democracy; compromise and thus undermine Hillary Clinton, whom Russia’s ruling elites intensely disliked over her support for anti-Putin protestors in 2011-2012, and amplify Trump’s diatribes against the US political establishment. There have probably been other operations by those whom Putin once described as “patriotic hackers” less visible to the naked eye. In any case, Moscow’s informal answer to Washington was that the US interferes everywhere, including in Russia-why not fight back? After all, à la guerre comme à la guerre. However, it is unlikely that the Kremlin believed it could get Trump elected.
Compared to the Cold War, today’s information warfare is more sophisticated and also more vicious. Under the hybrid war’s conditions, the erstwhile grudging respect for one’s rival that existed between the USSR and the US is no more. With values front and center, ahead of interests and ideology, today’s US political establishment believes it occupies the moral high ground and finds it unpalatable if not impossible to deal with a morally abject regime such as Russia’s. The fact that Trump appears to admire the strongman that is Putin (along with Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un) and seeks to engage him further destabilizes US domestic politics. Those US political elites who tirelessly fight against Trump view him as a traitor and treat Russia as a central player in the US’s domestic political crisis.
Unlike its twentieth-century predecessor, the hybrid war is also a vastly unequal contest. The US overwhelms Russia by an order of magnitude in virtually all important respects, except in terms of nuclear weapons, where a degree of parity remains. Despite the foreign policy chaos created by Trump, the US can still call on scores of allies and partners to maximize the impact of, and legitimize, its own actions. Russia, by contrast, is essentially a lonely power. Even its de jure allies, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, are protective of their sovereignty and proud of what they call a multi-vector foreign policy. Moscow’s expanding entente with Beijing is a major asset, but China only backs Russia when it serves its own interests, not out of any sense of selfless solidarity.
Even with the odds against it by a wide margin, the Kremlin is not about to submit. To compensate for its weakness relative to Washington, Moscow has resorted to asymmetrical behavior: acting swiftly to keep the opponent off balance, running higher risks, reaching out to all relevant players, building regional and local advantages, using new tools, and acting aggressively in the informational space. Russia also seeks to reap benefits from whatever disunity Trump’s policies create in transatlantic relations as well as the deep divisions that external challenges and internal conflicts of interest have produced within the European Union. Finally, Russia also hopes to catch in its sails the wind that rises in the East and the South and promises to end the West’s centuries-long domination of the international system. Thus, notwithstanding its asymmetry, the US-Russia contest is ongoing, and its outcome is uncertain.
The US-Russian confrontation is likely to last a long time, well beyond the presidencies of Trump and Putin, and may even intensify under a new US president from the Democratic Party. It is not the result of misunderstandings or mistakes made—though there have been plenty of both, the most common of them being ascribing one’s own imagined motives to the opponent. Rather, it is firmly rooted in the nature of great power politics and behavior. Historically, when at the end of a major war the defeated power was incorporated into a common security system (e.g., France in 1818, or Germany in 1954), a long period of peace commenced. When this did not occur, as with Germany after World War I, renewed confrontation followed. Russia’s violent rejection of the post-Cold War order in 2014 belongs to the latter category.
The failure of the self-avowed victors of the Cold War to incorporate their defeated rival into the Euro-Atlantic security architecture was a serious blunder, and their hope that a defeated and declining Russia would fade into irrelevance was a gamble fraught with historically predictable consequences. Once Russia got back on its feet a decade and a half after the Soviet collapse, it renounced the US’s global dominance while demanding a role and a status commensurate with its self-image, and proceeded to protect its national security interests as defined by the Kremlin, not the White House. These positions clashed with the US’s view of the international order it had unilaterally crafted since 1991.
With that clash, which came into the open over Ukraine, a brief Pax Americana—certainly in the sense of a peace between major powers—ended and great power rivalry resumed. Russia is just one part of that story. The Ukraine crisis was preceded by the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, and in turn the European debt crisis of 2010-11, both of which exposed the vulnerabilities of the US-led global economic and financial system. Increasingly, powerful others took notice. China dropped Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy doctrine of self-restraint and began asserting itself not only economically but also geopolitically and militarily. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, and the growth of the People’s Liberation Army’s might are all hallmarks of the challenge from China. After the Ukraine crisis, Moscow and Beijing upgraded their strategic partnership to an entente—a kind of closeness just shy of an outright alliance.
By early 2018, the US formally recognized that it was in a rivalry and competition with both China and Russia—a situation that US strategists had long feared. Of its two principal adversaries, Washington sees Russia as both the weaker and the more provocative by far. On top of military interventions in Ukraine (2014) and Syria (2015), the US accused Russia of interfering in the 2016 US presidential election. In the absence of a clear strategy, the default US approach to Russia has been to use multiple forms of pressure, with a preference for economic sanctions, in order to saddle the Kremlin with a burden so high as to end its willingness to stay the course. However, the Kremlin is determined not to surrender, both hoping that countervailing international factors will work to its advantage and fearing that concessions to the US will only heighten the pressure rather than relieve it. The resulting impasse can be illustrated by a Russian saying: “the scythe has met a stone.”
Whether there is a summit or not, the US-Russia relationship cannot be “normalized” in principle until there is a new normal for that relationship. For now, the US insists that Russia “behave” itself, while Russia hopes that the US is eventually unseated from its position of global dominance and becomes a “normal great power” driven by national interests, not a universalist agenda. Great empires, as Russians know too well, unravel not when some outlying provinces rebel against the center but when the center comes to believe it has concluded an unfavorable deal with the periphery and seeks to change the terms of the favor. To some in Russia, Trump’s policies toward US allies appear to signal that the US is embarking on that fateful path.
Be that as it may, US-Russian adversity is not going away. But it should, and can be, better managed. Formal agreements between Moscow and Washington are less important than clear understanding of the sources of the other side’s behavior. While tactical unpredictability will remain a fundamental quality of the hybrid war, strategic predictability is essential. Clarifying each other’s long-term intentions in a frank dialogue is the key to stabilizing the relationship and preventing escalation.
One should be realistic in attempting to stabilize the relationship. Russia believes that the US must first resolve its domestic political crisis, which has a salient and highly toxic Russian dimension at its heart. No serious conversation—not about managing confrontation, but about de-escalating it—can begin otherwise. The motto for Moscow should be strategic patience. The US-Russian confrontation, now a hybrid war, is real. But it is not eternal.