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Is it Time for a New American Approach to Russia?

In this episode of the Newlines Institute’s Contours podcast series, geopolitical analysts and Russia experts Jeff Hawn and Sim Tack join the Newlines Institute’s Caroline Rose and Nicholas Heras to break down the future of Russia after the country’s September 2021 parliamentary elections. The discussion includes a detailed assessment of the U.S. and European policy approach to Russia and recommendations for those approaches moving forward. In particular, Hawn, Tack, Rose, and Heras wrestle with the basic but important question of whether the Biden team needs to think more creatively while developing its policy on Russia.

Nick Heras: Hello everyone, and thank you for joining us for today’s episode of the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy’s Contours podcast. My name is Nick Heras and I am the senior analyst and program head for the state resilience and fragility program here at the Newlines Institute. Today, we’ll be discussing what is next in Russia after the recent Russian elections and what potential future developments in Russia’s social and political scene could impact the geopolitics of U.S., European and other dilemmas related to Russian policy.

I’m joined today by Jeff Hawn. Jeff is a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and he is studying in the International History Department. His research focuses on the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis and the post-Cold War international order. I’m also joined today by Sim Tack who’s an analyst at Force Analysis, where he studied strategic intelligence problems and monitors military capabilities and operations. His focus is on Russian foreign policy, behavior, and capabilities. Last but certainly not least, I’m also joined by Caroline Rose. Caroline is the program head and senior analyst for the Power Vacuums Program here at the Newlines Institute. Jeff, Sim, and Caroline, thank you for joining us today. Okay, Sim. I want to start off to talk with you. What were some of the lessons that you took from Russia’s recent elections and, moving forward, how should these lessons shape how we think about United Russia’s strategy?

Sim Tack: There’s a few different lessons I think that we can take from these elections. First of all, of course, which isn’t really a new lesson, but an important one to take away is the dominance that United Russia continues to show obviously in Russian democratic politics. There’s been a lot of talk about how United Russia, at least in the Kremlin, controls that electoral environment within Russia, but they very effectively are able to actually manage their majority in the Duma. So that’s one big lesson — separately from that, however, we are seeing a lot of shifts, a lot of changes in voting behavior in Russia, even though it hasn’t shifted that majority, the actual decisive makeup of the Duma. We see a new party, new people actually making it into the government — or into the Duma at least, not yet the government — but those are important milestones. Those are starting to show that there’s a lot of opposition pressure on United Russia as they’re trying to extend their rule into the future of the Russian Federation.

NH: Hi, Jeff, I want to flip it to you. What were the lessons that you took from the recent elections?

Jeff Hawn: Well, I think I agree with Sim in that United Russia remains very well positioned to manage its majority, but I also think that these elections are a precursor of what we’re going to see unfolding over subsequent election cycles, which will be a question of whether or not United Russia is going to manage its generational change and where the opposition parties are going to position themselves as this generational change comes about. What was interesting here is that United Russia, in addition to all its other electoral shenanigans, put forward as the face of its party Russian political figures who are widely very popular, widely well-known, and have a reputation of being less corrupt and standing up for Russia abroad. So Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, and Lavrov, the foreign minister, were the top of the party list. Dmitry Medvedev, the party’s leader, was actually sidelined because of his deep unpopularity over the corruption scandal a couple years back.

And it’s not just United Russia that’s looking ahead to this generational change. The Communists, who came in second, their leader is almost in his 80s and they’re in the wake of some of the disputes over the election. There’s been a split in the party about how aggressively to pursue these accusations of electoral fraud and progress. And I think the emergence of a new center-left center-right party in the New People, which has many familiar faces from Independence, especially people who were well known in electoral politics who had a reputation of getting things done, shows that there’s space in Russia for new parties to emerge. It was also very interesting to see the radical right-wing Liberal Democratic party, which has essentially been a project of its leader since the 1990s, lose so badly, it’s a question of what will happen in the future elections. Will we see these new parties continue to emerge and take small seats, or will we begin to see cracks and splits in United Russia going forward?

NH: Sim? You had some further thoughts on this subject.

ST: Yeah, since Jeff mentioned the role of Medvedev, that actually brings about a really interesting point on that generational change where United Russia had initially already started to try and have that generational handoff take place, but they kind of burned the next generation, if you consider that generation as represented by Medvedev and some other people, when they brought them into government at a particularly rough time for Russia, dealing with multiple economic crises, which really harmed their popularity within Russia. So in a way that even ups the ante for that generational shift, if that makes sense, where they have to essentially skip a generation and you’ve got these very old leaders, Putin himself, who’s got maybe one or two terms left in them, and people like Lavrov and Shoigu who obviously aren’t going to be around for that much longer either, that are going to be replaced by, possibly a very young generation, a very new leadership of Russia that that nobody’s even familiar with. So, in a way all bets are off in some of those future elections.

NH: I want to flip it to Caroline. Jeff mentioned electoral shenanigans occur in Russia. And as we all know, the Biden Administration came into office with the focus on creating a international coalition of democracies to take on the access of autocracies, if you will. However, up to this point that policy seems to have been a lot of bark but not a lot of bite. Carolyn. How do you think the U.S. is going to approach Russia in the wake of these elections?

Caroline Rose: So, I think we’ve already seen a bit of this policy with the Biden Administration shortly after the elections. The State Department came out with a statement, essentially saying that Russia’s laws on extremist organizations and foreign agents were part of a broader strategy to restrict political pluralism and prevented a number of organizations, for example the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, from even observing these elections. So I think that this is definitely a space for the Biden Administration to promote its agenda for forwarding human rights, respect for democracy, electoral integrity. And so I think that this is definitely an opportunity for the Biden administration to posture themselves on this issue. And then also let that be a policy to set an example for Eastern Europe and another periphery for democratic institutionalism. So I think that certainly the this is going to be a priority of the Biden Administration.

The question is, of course, how much impact can they have? I’m not necessarily sure. And I think that Jeff and Sim wrote a really great piece in Foreign Policy and then also for Newlines a few months ago that did argue that certainly United Russia, their hold on the Kremlin, it’s clear with this election. But in the coming years, particularly in the next two decades, their hold on the Kremlin is a bit more shaky and we’re starting to see it a lot of new parties come into the fold and compete with this party.

NH: So Jeff, I want to ask you, is there a tailored policy that the United States can take toward Russia?

JH: I have many opinions on this. I personally think the United States should re-examine its approach of sanctions because aggressively sanctioning everything that moves only serves to further alienate the U.S. from the Russian governing class and business circles, and this is something I wanted to bring up because we’ve mentioned the electoral funny business that went on, and I think anyone can deny that there certainly was tampering and vote inflation and I’m sure many people voted more than once, but we can’t ascribe United Russia’s continued parliamentary dominance solely to cheating. We have to remember that it does have a genuine popularity, maybe not for any particular policy but more on a bread-and-butter issues, you know, the ability to deliver on roads or on funding. It’s essentially a machine politics style of governing.

And when we think about the Russian opposition, one thing we have to remember is one of the reasons why they did do so poorly, or in the case of the Communists doing so well this time, is because what unifies opposition supporters is the opposition is not the ruling party and the government, but the opposition can barely agree on anything. As soon as policy discussion enters the field it falls to infighting almost immediately. So there’s no real alternative consensus for the opposition other than it’s not the ruling party, and its ability to deliver for its lobbies and for its supporters, especially in the regions, which often feel very neglected by Moscow, is going to be indicative of how strong it can be moving forward and how legitimate it can be as a functioning party. As I mentioned, one of New People’s appeals was its ability to put forward politicians who were known on the local level for getting things done and resolving issues.

In regards to U.S. policy, though, I definitely think that the U.S. needs to look at who is coming up in Russian political circles, both within and without the ruling party, and begin to look at cultivating relationships directly with the regions and help to position — the good relations with the U.S. is something that people in Moscow, and in regional governments, can lobby for as a means to access investment and greater international ties.

NH: So I want to unpack that a little bit Jeff. You’ve put in front of us an interesting proposal. And as you know, there is a rise in debate within Washington about sanctions and what the United States had overdone sanctions as a tool of foreign policy to the point where sanctions are no longer smart — the cudgel that we threaten the nations or other actors with. So I want to put the question to you. You’re sitting before a Senate panel, you’re testifying. Would you advocate revoking the Global Magnitsky Act, or what do we do about these types of sanctions authorities that we have?

JH: So, that is a tricky question. I definitely think sanctions are overused, and I think that they’re ineffective as a strategy, because while they make policy makers in D.C. feel good and they make the people who lobby for them feel good, ultimately, they’re ineffective because they only serve to strengthen the regimes they target rather than weakening them. The idea seems to be is that if you sanction enough of these people, they’ll start to turn on the regime and change their behavior. And as we’ve seen time and again, sanctions in principle do cause a change in behavior. They cause regimes to become more entrenched and they cause the elite networks that support that regime to become more entrenched because they don’t have an alternative.

If you think about the history of sanctions, as far as I know the only time that sanctions have worked effectively was when the U.S. sanctioned the U.K. and France during the Suez Crisis. Cuba has been under an embargo for 50 years and it’s not changed its behavior. It’s actually taken a generational shift, both in the U.S. and in Cuba, for there to be any progress on diplomacy. And of course, that’s fallen apart pretty magnificently with U.S. political dynamics, and same case with Iran where, when the other party does come to the table, the U.S. essentially demands total surrender. And this was the problem we saw within Russia’s case with the T-90s the refusal to repeal or even consider repealing the Jackson-Vanik amendment, even though it had largely served its purpose. My answer is probably a little bit too mercurial, but I don’t think in principle that sanctions work.

NH: Okay, Caroline, I wanted to ask you from your perspective, being deep on U.S. policy toward Europe, Eurasia, and so the geopolitical sinew that ties that policy together. Do you think there’s an appetite with the administration and in particular its supporters in Congress to ease up on Russian sanctions? Is there a way to build into the U.S. policy some of what Jeff is saying, but not entirely lose the pressure that can be applied to Russia?

CR: I don’t see it yet with this administration. And I think that the responses so far to the elections issued by the State Department are pretty clear that while many observers and analysts have welcomed the introduction of new parties into the Duma and into the election process, it’s pretty clear that this administration is not quite ready to open up to Russia. And I think also they’re trying to gauge how Russia will manage its relationship with China, where Russia will fit in the great power competition that is unfolding in both the Pacific and Eastern Europe. So I don’t quite see it yet. Jeff made a very interesting point on the effectiveness of sanctions. I don’t necessarily see Congress escalating a series of sanctions against Russia immediately, either. I think that right now we’re in a really interesting period where the administration is trying to essentially gauge attitudes and where the direction of the Duma and also this post-Putin era that is going to unfold the next few years.

NH: Okay. So we talked about the stick of sanctions. Sim, I want to ask you — Jeff put out some ideas that are interesting about focusing on Russia’s regions, looking to the rising generation of social and political actors within Russia. So is there a carrot approach the U.S. can take, Sim?

ST: I think there definitely is. Just to zoom out for a second, the problem that we’re really dealing with from a U.S. perspective, or I would even extend that to the European perspective, and the West in general is kind of in the same position when it comes to Russia at this point. But the big challenge that we are dealing with is that I think there’s a bit of a lack of understanding of

what exactly Russia is, what Russia wants, and where Russia is going. So, as Caroline mentioned as well, we are going to be dealing with that post-Putin era fairly soon — within historical context were literally talking just 14, 15 years away, and Russia is going to look dramatically different than how it looks now.

So if we want to actually be prepared, if we actually want to be able to have a feasible relationship with a stable Russia in that future, I think that’s something that we need to start figuring out now. And as Jeff mentioned, if we take a very hostile approach to this — and I’m not saying that there’s no room to actually draw red lines to try and maintain some level of order at an international level, that there are certain things that we need to protect and defend, but at the same time we want to make sure that we’re not automatically turning everything that could potentially grow in Russia into the enemy before we get to that point.

NH: I want to go to Jeff. Jeff, when you talk about a regional strategy, looking at Russia in the perspective of its regions to me, that sounds like some sort of Langley op, or something that would have been hatched across the river, so to speak, sitting here in Washington, D.C. What do you mean by focusing on Russia’s regions, exactly?

JH: In a tangible policy dimension, what I’m talking about is soft power, direct investment. Many of these regions are quite large geographically, but quite small population-wise, and the population is quite focused and concentrated. For a very low price tag, the United States could certainly encourage and actively explore foreign direct investment or joint infrastructure projects with municipal and regional governments. And it essentially, it puts the regional governments and Moscow in a tricky situation because hypothetically — I know of one project in Tatarstan that actually was very successful, which was building a new hospital through a joint venture between some U.S. investors and the Tatarstan government. And hypothetically, if the U.S. was to expand and broaden that kind of direct investment projects, especially if it was with the caveat that would be a majority Russian-owned enterprise once it was completed. Because Russia has a very deep phobia about giving up control of critical infrastructure.

But at the same time, there’s a need for investment in critical infrastructure. There’s a lack of investment for a variety of reasons, lack of funds, corruption and just, general bureaucratic sluggishness. But if you’re able to start putting up hospitals and roads and rail links, and schools with signs that say, partially funded by USAID or U.S. Investment Corps, whatever we want to call it, I think it has a very strong soft power appeal, and I think it puts Moscow in a difficult position because if they turn down this kind of beneficial investment, it further alienates them from the regions, so that’s kind of my idealized approach.

And then ideally this would also help to build direct relationships between regional political players and power brokers who in the future could become major players on the national stage. Let’s not forget that Boris Yeltsin, who while his legacy is quite complicated, was a very good friend and ally to the United States and very beneficial for US policy, began as a regional governor in what is now Yekaterinburg, then Sverdlovsk, and he had a deep appreciation for the need to invest in the regions.

NH: Yes, but I have a question on that, Jeff, and then I will ask Sim to weigh in. Make a very interesting and compelling point rooted in. not only Russia’s recent past but also where its future trajectory could be. But United Russia would seem to have an interest in limiting U.S. influence, especially in the regions, especially in some places where it’s already trying to contend with the influence from other actors in Eurasia, whether it’s China in Russia’s Far East and Central Eastern region, as well as some of the challenges Russia feels from the demographic issues from its perspective related to its own internal Muslim population. So I want to ask you then, if you’re United Russia and you have an interest in keeping the oligarchy going, how do you manage a situation where the United States has decided to try to essentially smother you with kindness to affect a certain change?

JH: Well, that’s where United Russia, as a political party, really shows its weakness. It’s not a cohesive political party as we understand it. It’s a coalition of interest groups who have various aligned points they’re trying to move towards, but this is the kind of thing that would widen and exaggerate those fissures and would force them to address these very sticky issues. You know, during the run-up to the election, there was some very direct comments from United Russia candidates to voters and to local business lobbies or the equivalent of local chambers of commerce: Vote for me, make sure that your employees and such vote for me or you won’t get your road funding or you won’t get funding for this project, which has been on the back burner for 10 years.

So it’s important to remember that the dynamics of Russian politics, ideology has never really strongly taken root. There’s a lot of ideologies that are experiment with and thrown around — really it’s about who can deliver. And again, it’s like kind of the machine politics approach. One of my favorite anecdotes from this election is there’s a well-known Russian libertarian podcaster who endorsed the Communist party because they were the opposition most likely to win. So, I think that this kind of approach of bypassing the central government and appealing directly to the regions would help to exaggerate the internal conflicts in Russia and there might actually be progress on opening up to that kind of investment.

NH: Okay, so Sim, Jeff made some bold arguments just now. I also want to say that you had an interesting way of framing how the U.S. should look at Russia and the evolution of U.S.-Russian relations when you said that 15 years from now, we’re looking at it potential major transition in the Russian political structure. Now, 15 years from now, a rising generation of young foreign policy professionals, people who are in their 20s now, in their 30s now, will be essentially entering the prime of their careers. So now is the time for them to start thinking about what is the future of Russia.

So I want to ask you to weave in, in response to Jeff’s bold plan, as well as how you think about how the rising generation of U.S. foreign and national security policy leaders should be forecasting, what they need to know about Russia’s future.

ST: I think one interesting way to approach that is that we’re essentially talking about two potentially different scenarios depending on how exactly the United States decides to deal with Russia over those next 15 years. And in one of those scenarios, and I think that one aligns closest with a policy that Jeff is arguing for, I’m not sure that U.S. foreign policy would be able to really

bypass the Kremlin or the central government per se. They might actually be able to put their foot down and kind of rule out any kind of us initiatives at regional levels. But if we see some kind of collaborative position where the U.S. starts to understand, okay, what are the real interests of the Russian government? The Russian ruling class? They are not trying to rule Russia to be belligerent or to be oppressive. They are trying to rule Russia for a very pragmatic purposes of guaranteeing their own position in power, turning profits, if people want to put it down to the very material levels.

So I think there are ways for the United States to try and work with the Russian elite that will always be underwriting the actual electoral dynamics, those rough industrial, and economic realities will always underwrite that more electoral externalization, if you will, of political demands. So if that is the scenario that we go with, where the United States takes a more collaborative position, I think we get to a point in 15 years from now where we could be dealing with a relatively stable Russian government that the United States can continue to expand trade and relations with. Now if we don’t see that, and I think honestly, this is the more realistic scenario where we see a continuing polarization at a global level, the same way that as Caroline mentioned that we see that happening with China, I think that that polarization between the West and Russia seems like the very likely path forward as well.

I think that’s where we start to hit a lot of uncertainties because that’s where we’re talking about Putin essentially being replaced. We don’t know which kind of candidates could arise from Russian political life to replace Putin himself. We are seeing increasing pressure in Duma elections on United Russia. This time, they managed to guarantee their majority, but when they lose a lot of their strong candidates, when other opposition parties continue to grow — 2036 the year when we’ll have both presidential and Duma elections when Putin is no longer eligible to run for elections, by then we could see an election of completely different parties that form a coalition maybe even without United Russia entirely. And so if we get to that kind of a situation, I think it’s — it becomes a dangerous situation because we don’t have a model of what actually Russia could behave like under those conditions, and it becomes a really vague question about how do you actually prepare for that.

NH: So Sim, I want to ask and then Jeff, I’d like to hear you weigh in on this question. So you’re sitting in the Kremlin right now. What’s keeping you up at night? You are looking into the future. What is bothering you the most?

ST: So I think what bothers the Kremlin the most is the inability to actually make the people happy. And by the people, I mean both the people and the people that matter — the elites, the industrial and oligarchic Elite that subscribes To United Russia leadership. So I think that is the big problem that United Russia has been facing initially. When Putin and United Russia came to power the first decade or so up until around, you know, 2008-2009, was actually looking very positive. There was a new, a rise of Russian power on the international level. There was economic progress, but then, the global economic crisis kind of threw a wrench in that and Russia really hasn’t been able to repair from that.

Subsequent crises have pushed Russia further down each and every time, and now we’re at a place where the Russian people are constantly seeing their purchasing power being reduced.

We’re seeing the big announcements of national development plans failing to materialize. We are seeing a lot of spending on fancy military technology, but obviously the people of Russia can’t eat missile defense systems or strategic missiles. So the reality is that it’s very difficult for them to actually provide the insurance of their own control over Russia. And that is why I think we’re seeing over the last decade United Russia’s efforts to change electoral legislation, to change the Constitution, and to essentially try and insulate the political system from all of those pressures that they are dealing with.

NH: Jeff, I want you to weigh in on what’s keeping the Kremlin up at night.

JH: I think Sim’s correct. And I think I’ll just build on that a bit historically. Russia has had a great deal of difficulty sustaining economic growth because it runs up against obstacles which are seemingly intractable and almost impossible to solve. One of the biggest issues that has right now is a failure to diversify its economy. And there’s multiple reasons for that — corruption being one, ongoing brain drain as the best and brightest try to leave for greener pastures overseas, and the continued reliance on hydrocarbons, and the continued psychological scarring of the 1990s, poor macroeconomic decisions. So big fixation on maintaining a budget surplus and a strong currency reserve as a safeguard, but I think what the Kremlin fears more than anything is stagnation because stagnation is a prelude to crisis.

That’s what the issue in the Soviet Union was is throughout the Brezhnev years you had a great deal of stability, but also these problems that started off as manageable just continue to grow and grow and grow, and become intractable to the point where it just, it was impossible to fix them once somebody started trying, and that brought the entire system crashing down. So, a fear of a repeat of that intractable problems becoming unsolvable and I think we do see sustained efforts by the government to address these issues. But as Sim said, for one reason or another, they don’t materialize, and they, and they fall apart.

NH: Okay, but I want to go back, Jeff. I want to ask you this question. One of the most compelling points that both you and Sim have made in our discussions is this idea that, you know, United Russia has had an effect in terms of shaping how Russians, whether they’re older or younger, perceive of themselves in the world and Russia’s role in the world. Are there certain elements of United Russia’s policies, as well as Putin’s vision for Russia, that will remain constant, even if there’s a changing of the guard inside Russia in the next 15 to 25 years?

JH: Shorter answer is, yes, and this is something that the United States at a policy and cultural level has always failed to understand. Even Boris Yeltsin continued to maintain that Russia was a great power and a great nation. It’s a very core part of their identity. And there’s been a persistent issue in D.C. with people underestimating and failing to factor Russia into their calculations and take it seriously — Obama’s famous “It’s just a regional power” comment, Condoleezza Rice’s very flippant comment to Putin about the U.S. assuming dominance in the Central Asian security space. So it’s not that United Russia or Putin has instilled these values in the public. It’s that these values were always there and United Russia and Putin are a reflection of that.

And I don’t think any of the opposition parties with the exception maybe of Yabloko would really differentiate very much on Russia’s foreign policy. Maybe some of them would be less

aggressive and I do think there’s elements within the United Russia who would prefer a more cooperative and thus lucrative relationship with the West. But if we do see a changing of the guard, I really don’t see a fundamental shift in Russia’s foreign policy interest or how it sees its role in the world. That said though, as time moves on, their issues with their economic stagnation and their demographic stagnation are going to continue to become more pronounced, and it’s a question of how well they can continue to play the weak hand they’ve been dealt.

ST: So Jeff was talking about how the foreign policy that we could see coming out of Russia, even if other parties come to power, might not really be too different from what we see now. One thing that I think we need to realize there is how much the current foreign policy that Russia is showing is defined by the policies of other countries towards Russia, right? So even though the calculations, the internal calculations within Russia might not differ too much based on who is actually in power, there is a very big influence from how the West is positioning themselves towards Russia. So, if we take on a different approach towards Russia we might suddenly see very different behavior when we’re talking about Russia’s assertive pursuit of influence in Africa, for example, where they’re very directly competing with Western, U.S., and French zones of influence on the African continent, or of course, the escalations around the Baltics, and Ukraine and Poland, Eastern Europe in general.

I think if we can find a more productive and a more collaborative manner to deal with all of those issues, in the end, it doesn’t really matter as Jeff points out who’s in power in Russia, but that could really change the way that Russia perceives their environment, and formulates their own foreign policy behavior, and thus becomes potentially less of a threat, or less of a concern to us as well.

NH: Okay. So Caroline, I have a big, maybe huge, geopolitical question to ask you. As you know, the Biden Administration but really this started before the Biden Administration with the Trump, and before that the Obama administration, but really the Biden Administration has put a huge focus on the China challenge and pivoted U.S. policy towards what appears to be a generations-long struggle with China for essentially the soul of humanity.

I want to ask you, does a resurgent Russia, that could potentially have a different leadership, present an opportunity for the United States to have a partner of sorts to confront China in this generations-long battle, and how does the United States think about its China challenge in relation to the reality of Russia?

CR: That’s a great question and to answer simply, I think, yes, certainly the United States should try and make use of any kind of pivot or shift in the Russian electoral and political landscape to make them a more cooperative and collaborative partner in the international system, particularly when it comes to competing with China. That being said, certainly, I think there are constraints to how far that relationship can go going back to what Jeff and Sim mentioned about the respective foreign policies of some of these newer parties that we’ve seen, there isn’t much there yet to necessarily analyze. A lot of their policies have been domestic policies or focused on economic Development and political debates, but I think that in regards to foreign policy looking at Navalny’s party, the Russia of the Future Party, although that has been banned I think that some of their messages and some of their platforms — for example, rejecting certain

interventions such as the one in Syria, also calling for greater focus on economic development and infrastructural projects — I think that that could be an interesting indicator of where the foreign policy platforms in some of these newer parties where that it’s headed.

And I think that the United States should certainly watch with interest on where these foreign policy proposals, what kind of collaboration that they’re encouraging with Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe, the kinds of partners that Russia will be looking to engage with and where the United States can occupy and how they can occupy that space. I think that that will be incredibly important, but at the same time, while seeking out Russia as a partner will be important, it’s also going to be significant to understand that there will be constraints to this relationship, particularly as the Russian and Chinese relationship right now certainly is strengthening over the, especially over the past few months.

NH: Okay. Well, I want to ask all three of you a big question wrap up our discussion. I’ll start with Sim and go to Jeff; we’ll have Caroline finish it off. Was Donald Trump right? That the United States has more interest in cooperating with Russia than it does with competed with Russia?

ST: So personally, I think that very limited statement is probably true, but we need to actually understand the context of why that is true. And if we want to say that we have more of an interest in collaborating with Russia, that does not mean that we need to bend over backwards and accept anything that comes from Russia, but I think the opposite way — trying to force anything that we want on Russia — is not going to get us anywhere, either.

The reality of the international system is that we are talking about independent states that have their own interests at heart. And you do need to find some kind of middle ground to be able to collaborate, but it is my belief that a lot of the relationship, a lot of the hostility between the West and Russia right now is based for a great deal on a certain level of misperceptions or misaligning perceptions — I’ll put it that way — where Russia is possibly behaving in certain assertive ways because they perceive a threat from the West, through the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, development of new weaponry in the West, while at the same time, those responses, those reactions are being perceived in the West as Russia being aggressive and belligerent. And while neither of these perceptions is wrong — a level of threat exists there — but by being unable to break that cycle of threat perceptions we’re essentially a stuck in a cycle of escalation that doesn’t leave a lot of room for actual productive, diplomatic interaction at that superpower level.

JH: I think that historically the United States has been unable to properly modulate its perception of Russia. Russia’s either an existential threat or a joke country that doesn’t require a lot of our attention. You saw this problem particularly badly in the 1990s, where there was a brief moment of positive trajectory with the Gorbachev-Reagan-Bush relationship, but after Gorbachev lost power, U.S. interest and U.S. focus on Russia shifted dramatically and really there’s a huge loss of interest. And there’s an inability to treat Russia as a normal country. So things like the refusal to entertain the notion of allowing them into NATO but instead creating this Partnership for Peace initiative, the refusal to put in into the calculus how Russia would perceive NATO expansion — again, the Central Asian security comments that came up after 9/11 — I think Sim’s abso

think more fault lies with the United States for its failure to understand Russia in a non-ideological context.

The U.S. put a lot of time and money into building its Kremlinologists during the Cold War, but a lot of them were looking at Russia through a purely Marxist-Leninist perspective, or trying to understand Russia’s actions through that rather than like, George Kennan said, you need to get the Russian mud on your boots. You need to really try to understand the country, and people spend years doing that. But this is a point I’ve written on for Responsible Statecraft, and I just want to emphasize here again: There’s a real lack of effort in D.C. to accurately understand Russia, to accurately understand its intentions its drivers and its arrest orders, and I think there needs to be more sustained investment on the part of the U.S. in understanding Russia before formulating policy towards it.

CR: I completely agree with both Jeff and Sim that we have misaligned perceptions of Russia, and because of that we have become stuck in what Sim said — the cycle of escalation. That being said, I do see space for I guess you could say course correction where the United States, if we do put enough attention and an understanding to treat Russia as not necessarily just a normal country, as Jeff mentioned, but on non-adversarial terms, I think that there is room for that. Particularly if you look at the 2018 National Defense Strategy, I mean, certainly they named Russia as a primary competitor in the context of great power competition, but I think that there is a bit more room and wiggle room for cooperation and partnership than for example, with China, just looking at that document alone.

And I think that, in the context of this administration, and of course, with the elections that just occurred, I think that we are seeing this growing space for a reset in relations, to really gauge attitudes, understand different threat perceptions, and also identify shared interests in both trade, political interests and, and of course, in foreign policy. And so, I think that that will be very important, maybe not necessarily for this administration but for the next two decades or so for the United States to try and of course correct this relationship with Russia.

NH: Well, thank you very much, Jeff, Sim, and Caroline for this in-depth discussion on the once and future Russian conundrum for U.S. foreign and national security policy. Thank you everyone for listening to us today on this episode of the Newlines Institute’s Contours podcast. All the best.

Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

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