Nearly 70 years ago, George Kennan wrote his famous long telegram, later published as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Foreign Affairs. Kennan’s seminal article integrated material, ideological and historical factors into its analysis, developing a comprehensive and holistic approach to studying the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. Inspired by Kennan’s work, this article outlines the structural, domestic, and ideational sources of contemporary U.S. policy towards Russia. These three factors reinforce a dominant narrative among U.S. policymakers that sees the U.S. as defending the status-quo against Russia’s revisionist challenge to the post-Cold War international order. They shape the U.S. response to this perceived challenge, preventing the U.S. from seeking out an accommodation with Russia, but also discouraging it from immediately and forcefully confronting the “Russian threat”—even though many powerful domestic constituents lobby for this course of action.
Following John Ikenberry’s studies of post-war settlements, which identify the parameters and institutions of international order, i.e. the “rules of the game,” we contend that a fundamental disagreement about the genesis of the current international order lies at the root of the current conflict between Russia and the U.S. From the Russian perspective, the contemporary international order should begin from 1989 and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to conclude the Cold War. In an effort to revitalize the Soviet economy and save the Soviet system by reducing massive defense expenditures and transitioning from autarky to engaging with the international economy, Gorbachev moved boldly to dismantle Russia’s political and military dominance in Eastern Europe. The expectation at the time was that internal restructuring would reinvigorate the Soviet Union and that it would continue to play a pivotal role in world politics as a full-fledged partner, instead of rival, of the U.S. From the American perspective, the contemporary international order begins specifically with the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. A new post-war settlement in which Russia does not enjoy any residual rights or privileges and states are free to choose their own alliances and associations replaced the Cold War’s bipolarity. In a materially unipolar system dominated by the U.S., this permitted Warsaw Pact members to bandwagon with NATO to protect themselves from Russian revanchism. The basic disagreement thus becomes clear: Was the status quo set in 1989, making the U.S. a revisionist hegemon, or was it set in 1991, making Russia a revisionist challenger?
This fundamental disagreement shapes both sides’ policies in Ukraine and Syria. From Russia’s point of view its actions in Ukraine and Syria are merely defensive responses to serious challenges to its security and national interests created by America’s short-sighted and destabilizing foreign policies. In Ukraine Russia sees itself as acting to defend its vital sphere of influence against encroachment by the West. In Syria it believes it is preventing further destabilizing “regime change” and addressing the real terrorist threat from ISIS by protecting the lawful and legitimate government of that country. However this is not how Russia’s behavior is perceived in Washington. For Washington it is Russia’s policies that are destabilizing. Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and in particular its incorporation of Crimea, are seen as a grave challenge to the international order and to one of its most cherished and inviolable rules: no unilateral border changes. Similarly, Russia’s policy of supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria is seen as hindering the fight against ISIS and contributing to the refugee crisis by prolonging the Syrian civil war.
As a consequence, many U.S. leaders see Putin’s Russia as a revisionist power that is bent on overturning the established order and challenging U.S. global leadership. There are still some voices in Washington calling for a larger bargain with Russia that would avoid a new Cold War towards which the two sides seem inextricably sliding. However, as we will show below, structural, domestic political, and ideational factors all make any such agreement a non-starter for the American side. Instead, the debate in American policy circles is now focused on how best to deter Russia from its current course and correct its behavior, or failing that, how to isolate Russia and contain its non-democratic regime.
Structural factors such as the current balance of power and capabilities between states and their future power trajectories (whether their power is rising or declining) profoundly shape relations between states. Following the Cold War, American observers perceive Russia as a declining power, that is losing its global and even regional preeminence because it has failed to adapt to a new globalized world where economic and technological advantage trump military and great power politics. The power disparity between the U.S. and Russia is simply too great for Russia to be considered a credible challenger to the international order, and Russia’s position is seen to be weakening over time. Accordingly, President Obama has dismissively referred to Russia as a “regional power” and questioned its ability to exert influence internationally while Senator John McCain has called Russia a “gas station masquerading as a country.”
For Russia, the unipolar international structure established in 1991 and the relative diminution of Russian power within it has meant that Russian objections to policies that it believes threaten its most vital interests, such as the ballistic missile shield proposed for Central Europe and NATO enlargement, have fallen on deaf ears. To be taken seriously and gain the spot at the bargaining table Russia believes it earned in 1989, the country has to demonstrate that ignoring its interests and preferences comes at a cost. It thus has to escalate crises and practice brinksmanship to show that ignoring Russia on questions of world security and order will hurt America and its allies. This kind of strategy may catapult Russia to the limelight, but it is fundamentally contradictory if Russia’s ultimate purpose is to gain recognition as a bargaining partner. Escalating and destabilizing the situation in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere may draw attention to its concerns and make Russia more important for specific issues. But it also makes it less of a credible negotiating partner for any future grand bargain. Not just President Obama but any U.S. leader would be reluctant to reward what Washington sees as Russian “bad behavior” as this could encourage further Russian aggression and embolden other powers (most troublingly China) to test U.S. resolve.
Robert Gilpin noted long ago that prestige and status (and not power as many neorealist theorists argue) are the actual currencies of international relations. If a state’s status and prestige are recognized by other states it can achieve its goals without actually having to exercise material power. The U.S. is unwilling to open discussion on these issues of order because it will give Russia much higher status and greater prestige than it believes is merited by its current capabilities and strength. Nor is it willing to open up discussion on issues of order that it regards to have been solved long ago with the collapse of the U.S.S.R. The United States regards Russia as a declining great power, so it prefers to push any confrontation with Russia forward into the far and distant future when Russia will be even weaker relative to the U.S. than it is now—particularly after it exhausts itself in the process of challenging the U.S.-led international order.
If larger structural factors inhibit the U.S. from validating Russian concerns and working out a compromise that would help avoid confrontation, domestic political factors mean that politicians from both parties agree on a hawkish position towards Russia, but vary in the extent to which they advocate support for intervening in the issues important to Russia. In the immediate term, the presidential cycle has given candidates from both parties an opportunity to demonstrate their “toughness” on security issues, with Republican candidates in particular using Russia and its assertive behavior to attack President Obama. Leading Republican candidates assert that Obama has been too soft on Russia, and particularly on Putin, from the get-go. They have criticized his administration’s initial attempts to “reset” relations in Moscow after the 2008 Georgian war as tantamount to appeasement, arguing that it has only emboldened Putin to adopt more aggressive policies
Most of the Republican candidates, with the notable exception of frontrunner (but still political outsider) Donald Trump, advocate much more muscular and hawkish policies to thwart the Russian “aggression,” including the arming of Ukraine with lethal weapons, the forward deployment of missile interceptors and radars in Poland and the Czech Republic, and the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria to stymie Russian airstrikes in that country—even if the latter risks a direct confrontation between Russian and U.S. warplanes. According to Florida Senator Marco Rubio (who is seen by many experts as the Republican establishment’s preferred nominee) “[Putin] needs to understand that there are serious costs for invading neighbors, propping up a murderous dictator like Assad, and violating the airspace of and threatening other countries.”
Democratic candidates have also tried to distance their foreign policy approaches from Obama’s. Despite notable successes, such as the end of the Cuba embargo, the successful negotiation of a nuclear deal with Iran, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, ongoing difficulties in the Middle East, which Obama promised to bring to an end, have left a majority of the American electorate unsatisfied. Growing authoritarianism in Russia provides a major opening for Democratic candidates to appeal to the liberalism of their constituents on issues such as democratization and LGBT rights. Like their Republican counterparts, taking a hawkish position on Russia is like pushing on an open door: even foreign policy doves such as Vermont Governor Bernie Sanders support a policy of “standing up to Putin” and isolating the Russian leadership politically and economically.
As Secretary of State during the first Obama administration, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton was one of the main architects of the U.S.-Russia “reset.” She is now taking a tough stance on Russia to distance herself from this policy and deflect criticism from her political rivals in both parties. While defending the “reset” as a sound policy that garnered significant immediate achievements (the new START Treaty and Russia’s cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran), Clinton has tried to shift the blame for the subsequent deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations on Russia’s growing authoritarianism and Putin’s need to distract attention away from domestic problems by appealing to nationalism and adopting a more aggressive and anti-American foreign policy. According to Clinton, Putin’s objectives are “to stymie, to confront, and to undermine American power whenever and wherever.”
The political climate in the United States is thus unlikely to encourage rapprochement, or even relaxation of tensions between the two countries, at least until the current electoral cycle runs its course and a new administration takes office. Nevertheless, domestic political factors over time will continue to hinder the development of more cooperative relations. Russia has few friends in Washington but many enemies. Over the last few decades a powerful anti-Russia lobby has emerged in Washington. This lobby is diverse and includes older organizations that represent ethnic groups traditionally hostile to Russia (Poles, Balts, and Ukrainians), representatives of post-Soviet states that are trying to distance themselves from Moscow by integrating more closely with the West, such as Georgia and Ukraine, neo-conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute that see Putin’s Russia as a threat to U.S. hegemony, and “liberal hawks” and democracy promotion advocates opposed to growing authoritarianism in Russia itself. According to political scientist Andrei Tsygankov, the lobby propagates a distorted view of modern-day Russia, portraying it as an imperialist and revanchist power whose worldview is fundamentally opposed to the principles and values of the West.
This lobby does not unilaterally control U.S. foreign policy towards Russia, as perhaps some Russian commentators believe, and it has been quite critical of U.S. policy when it deems the latter insufficiently tough on Russia, as was the case with the “reset.” However, it has been able to shape the general political discourse in a way that is not conducive to compromise or the development of a more balanced understanding of Russia’s motives and interests. Moscow has failed to develop the kind of lobbying presence in America’s capital that many countries such as Israel, Japan or even Poland have, leaving it mute in having someone push for its interests or articulate its point of view to the Washington establishment. Russia’s “image problem” cannot be remedied by simply employing the most well-connected lobbyists or most effective PR strategy. The real problem is much deeper in that post-Soviet Russia does not possess the kind of attractiveness or soft power able to overcome and dispel deeply entrenched Cold War-era stereotypes about Russia as an authoritarian and backward society. These prejudices have only been strengthened by Russia’s recent backsliding on democracy and human rights.
While the U.S. establishment tends to largely agree about the threat posed by Russia, there is more of a plurality of opinion over the issue of how best to respond to this threat. Hawks from both parties advocate a more robust response to Russia’s “aggression.. President Obama has thus far adopted a more cautious approach and resisted calls to escalate U.S. involvement in Ukraine or Syria, but rifts have begun to open up even within the administration itself. Evelyn Farkas, the Defense Department’s top official on Russia and Ukraine, resigned in protest over the President’s unwillingness to confront Russia more directly. In a subsequent Op-Ed in Politico she warned: “Russia’s challenge is so fundamental to the international system, to democracy and free market capitalism that we cannot allow the Kremlin’s policy to succeed in Syria or elsewhere.” Any future administration will thus face strong domestic political pressures from both parties to take a tougher line towards Moscow.
DIFFERENCES IN WORLD VIEWS
Major differences in worldviews also work against reaching a larger accommodation. For Russia to get what it wants, the U.S. would have to recognize the legitimacy of Russia’s desire to maintain a sphere of interest in the post-Soviet space. For most members of the American establishment any talk about “a sphere of influence” violates the right of all nations and countries to choose their own foreign policies and alliances and reflects an anachronistic 19th century Realpolitik understanding of international relations that is not in tune with the realities of a modern, globalized, and interdependent world. To recognize Russia’s or China’s sphere of influence in their respective regions would be a step in the wrong direction: a return to the great power conflict and war of past centuries. To be sure, prominent American Realists such as Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt have urged the U.S. to recognize Russia’s right to a sphere of influence in its own backyard. But their views are in the minority and have met with either staunch criticism or silence.
U.S. elites and public have never been comfortable with Realpolitik and balance of power approaches to international politics. From the very early days of the republic, the “founding fathers” were deeply suspicious of the European balance of power politics and saw it as being profoundly unprincipled, immoral, and undemocratic. Separated from the rivalries and conflicts that plagued Europe, the United States emerged as a world power relatively unscathed by foreign invasion, military occupation, and material devastation of war. There was no need to practice Realpolitik and a more idealistic approach to foreign policy could emerge. According to Mearsheimer, “Realism stands opposed to Americans’ views of both themselves and the wider world. In particular, realism is at odds with the deep-seated sense of optimism and moralism that pervades much of American society.”
To be sure, liberal idealism is only one strand of American foreign policy and it has also had to compete with isolationist and imperial strands (i.e., manifest destiny) and even moments when realism has asserted itself (most notably the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy). However, liberal idealism has dominated foreign policy thinking since the end of the Cold War. America’s “victory” in this struggle and its subsequent historically unparalleled dominance of the international system has validated the idealist approach and given rise to self-righteous views of American exceptionalism that often ignore the many instances of unscrupulous Realpolitik the U.S. has frequently engaged in. American elites believe that they are presiding over a unique international order that is based on universal liberal principles that serve the best interest of all mankind. Accepting Russia’s demands for “a sphere of influence” would jeopardize not only American hegemony but also the future of what they believe to be a fundamentally just and fair order.
The belief in liberal internationalism often goes hand in hand with the belief in liberal democracy as the most effective and just form of government. Democratic rule is not only in the best interest of domestic populations, but also for international peace and stability, as democracies enjoy pacific relations with one another while autocracies are prone to aggressive and warlike behavior. Trying to find an accommodation with Moscow is seen by many in Washington as a futile exercise in appeasement that will encourage even more aggression on the part of Putin’s authoritarian regime, which needs to engage in aggressive and nationalistic foreign policies in order to compensate for its lack of domestic legitimacy and failing foreign policies.
* * *
Kennan’s integrative analysis of the factors shaping “Soviet conduct” allowed him to develop a nuanced and complex understanding of Soviet foreign policy. The U.S.S.R’s material vulnerabilities and weaknesses, its psychological insecurities (which had deep historical roots in the repeated foreign invasions the country was forced to suffer), conspiratorial origins as a banned group, and messianic communist ideology led him to conclude that the Soviets’ intentions were aggressive and constituted the gravest threat the U.S. had ever faced to its national security. Nevertheless, Kennan also argued that the Soviets’ faith in the ultimate dialectical victory of communism over capitalism would prevent them from engaging in overly-risky behavior that would jeopardize this outcome. He thus concluded that the threat from Soviet communism could be contained and there was no need to roll it back directly.
We try to adopt a similar integrative approach by examining the structural, domestic-political, and ideological considerations that shape U.S. policy towards Russia and what U.S. leaders perceive to be Russia’s challenge to the U.S.-led global order. From the structural perspective, the U.S. is reluctant to engage with what it sees as a declining power (Russia) either in a settlement or in direct confrontation and prefers to delay either outcome into the future when Russia will be much weaker. In terms of concrete policy on the ground this means ignoring Russia’s calls for a new security architecture in Europe, while at the same time taking steps to strengthen NATO and its defensive commitments in the Baltics, Poland, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe to prevent Moscow from engaging in reckless behavior designed to push the U.S. towards the bargaining table on these issues. It will also mean that the U.S. is unlikely to take action (such as the arming of Ukraine with lethal weapons or enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria) that would provoke an immediate confrontation with Russia. The optimal U.S. strategy in both Ukraine and Syria is to use these crises to hasten Russia’s decline by making sure that Russia gets bogged down in the conflicts that are raging in both countries. Given the structural balance of power between the two sides, the U.S. should bide its time and let Russia “tire itself out” by becoming embroiled in drawn-out conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.
Domestic politics and ideological factors make it very difficult for the U.S. to commit itself to any kind of overarching deal with Russia, at least as long as the current regime in Moscow is in power. Given the current politically charged climate, even hinting at accepting the legitimacy of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria would be denounced by many as tantamount to appeasement. Even the current strategy adopted by the Obama administration, of biding time and letting Russia “tire itself out”—which makes the most sense from the structural perspective (as described above)—has come under intense criticism from the Republican opposition and liberal hawks, who demands that Obama go on the offensive against Putin. Thus far Obama has been able to hold his ground, and it is likely that any future president will also stick to the same prudent strategy after the election rhetoric dies down and they are forced to face the realities of decision-making. Nevertheless, the well-established “anti-Russia” lobby will keep the heat on any future president to show that he is adequately addressing the “Russian threat.” Moreover, significant segments of the American elite now believe that Russia will only give up its challenge to U.S. leadership and become integrated into the Western-led liberal order if there is democratic regime change in Russia itself. They will put pressure on the administration to criticize Russia for violations of democracy and human rights and oppose any policies of cooperation or constructive engagement that appear to strengthen or legitimize the current authorities in Moscow.
For the U.S., the stakes in Ukraine and Syria have been elevated by Russia’s great power challenge. As the current Russian government shows no sign of conceding on issues of prestige and status with President Putin likely to be in power until 2024—if not longer—the fate of both countries will be consumed by the U.S.-Russian struggle over the future of the international order. Russian-U.S. relations begin to resemble the Cold War, as the U.S. institutes containment policies in preparation for a long-term showdown. The issue then becomes who can hold out longer to demonstrate the resolve necessary to get the other side to back down. If this is indeed the case, history may be repeating itself, with the most detrimental consequences to be borne by the people of Ukraine and Syria.