A Complex Challenge Calls for a Varied Response

Misreading Russia Will Lead to Policy Mistakes

Administration critics paint Russia as a nation devoted only to regional hegemony, but the facts tell a different story, write Samuel Charap and Ben Morris-Levenson.

A Russian Su-27 fighter jet flies alongside a civilian airplane playing the role of a hijacked airlinerin a joint exercise between Canada, the United States, and Russia on August 8, 2010. (AP/Ted S. Warren)
A Russian Su-27 fighter jet flies alongside a civilian airplane playing the role of a hijacked airlinerin a joint exercise between Canada, the United States, and Russia on August 8, 2010. (AP/Ted S. Warren)

U.S. and Russian fighter planes met in the sky over the Pacific on August 8. The pilots were not there to shoot each other down. Instead, the former Cold War adversaries were conducting a joint counterterrorism exercise in which the Russian, U.S., and Canadian air forces worked together to test their response to an international terrorist hijacking.

Exactly two years to the day before the flight took off in Alaska, there were discussions in the Bush White House about whether to send U.S. pilots to conduct surgical strikes on Russian military units streaming across the Georgian border. This contrast demonstrates the complex challenge that Russia poses for U.S. policymakers. Formulating an effective policy toward Russia requires acknowledging this complexity in our assessments of Russia’s actions. A black-and-white analysis can only lead to policy prescriptions that fail to serve the national interest.

Critics of the Obama administration’s Russia policy have been loudly propounding just such an analysis of late. They point to recent Russian moves such as extending the lease on a military base in Armenia, rumored arms sales to Azerbaijan, and alleged Kremlin involvement in former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s ouster—and connect the dots to paint a picture of a Russia bent on regional hegemony.

The critics further argue that Russia has been able to consolidate power in the region because the Obama administration is “jettisoning 20 years of often muscular pursuit of a bipartisan freedom agenda.” The prescription is clear, they say: the United States should increase military and political engagement in Eurasia to combat the Russian threat head-on and “roll back the Kremlin’s growing regional influence.”

It is true that Russia often plays the role of neighborhood bully. But it is simply not the case that Moscow is in the process of successfully executing a grand strategy of regional dominance.

There is contradictory evidence about Russia’s involvement in former Kyrgyz President Bakiev’s overthrow, but we know for sure that Moscow had the opportunity to intervene directly after his fall, and that the Kremlin took a pass. Interim Kyrgyz leader Roza Otunbayeva practically begged Russia to send troops to quell the ethnic violence that gripped southern Kyrgyzstan, but Russian President Dmitri Medvedev refused. If Moscow had a coherent plan for regional domination, this was surely a perfect opportunity to implement it.

The Kremlin has actually worked together with the United States and the Kyrgyz authorities since then—first to help coordinate Bakiev’s escape into exile and then to address the humanitarian crisis there.

Russia meanwhile played a fairly constructive role in the Obama administration’s push for normalization between Turkey and Armenia. And perhaps more importantly, it did not stand in the way of the—once promising, but now stalled—reconciliation process. The Kremlin certainly had both the means and the motive to stop it given Armenia’s dependence on Russia and the possibility that a thaw with Turkey could lessen that dependence.

And Moscow has failed to galvanize its neighbors behind its less palatable foreign policy priorities. No former Soviet country has recognized Abkhazia or South Ossetia, despite intense pressure from Moscow, especially on Belarus. And neither of the two Kremlin-initiated regional groupings—the Collective Security Treaty Organization or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—have made serious strides toward becoming the institutionalized anti-Western blocs that many feared they would become.

This is not to suggest that Russia’s regional policies are always benign. Rather, they present a varied picture and therefore call for a varied response. When Russia is prepared to act constructively, we must try to work together with Moscow and other regional capitals to make progress in Eurasia. But when Moscow stonewalls or provokes, we must push back. And that is more or less what the Obama administration has been doing.

Critics’ proposed all-out diplomatic, military, and economic assault on Russia will not “protect America’s interests in Eurasia.” It will instead have the opposite effect, making more likely the emergence of the exclusively hostile Russia that currently exists only in their imagination. This Russia would be a greater threat to the neighborhood and would quickly cut off current, successful bilateral cooperation on issues of critical importance to U.S. national security such as reigning in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and stabilizing Afghanistan. And Russia’s odds at successfully repelling such an assault are rather high by dint of history, geography, and economic realities. U.S. national interests are best served by mitigating strategic competition in Eurasia, not by artificially exacerbating it.

Samuel Charap is Associate Director for Russia and Eurasia and Ben Morris-Levenson is an intern in the national security department at the Center for American Progress.

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