US needs to engage Russia with carrots, as well as sticks

While it was inevitable that the two countries would find themselves in a standoff, a think tank president argues interaction is essential to stop further escalation

By Richard N. Haass  / 

Sun, Mar 04, 2018 - Page 7

The Cold War lasted for four decades, in many ways both beginning and ending in Berlin. The good news is that it stayed cold — largely because nuclear weapons introduced a discipline missing from previous great-power rivalries — and that the US, together with its European and Asian allies, emerged victorious, owing to sustained political, economic and military effort that a top-heavy Soviet Union ultimately could not match.

A quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, we unexpectedly find ourselves in a second one. It is both different and familiar.

Russia is no longer a superpower, but rather a country of about 145 million people with an economy dependent on the price of oil and gas, and no political ideology to offer the world. Even so, it remains one of two major nuclear-armed states, has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and is willing to use its military, energy and cybercapabilities to support friends and weaken neighbors and adversaries.

This state of affairs was anything but inevitable.

The end of the Cold War was expected to usher in a new era of friendly Russian ties with the US and Europe. It was widely thought that post-communist Russia would focus on economic and political development. Relations also got off to a good start when Russia, rather than standing by its long-time client Iraq, cooperated with the US in reversing then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

The goodwill did not last. Just why will be a matter of debate among historians for decades to come.

Some observers will blame successive US presidents, pointing to a lack of economic support extended to a struggling Russia, and even more to NATO’s enlargement, which, by treating Russia as a potential adversary, increased the odds it would become one.

The US could and should have been more generous as Russia made its painful transition to a market economy in the 1990s, while NATO enlargement was preferable to other security arrangements for Europe that would have included Russia.

That said, the lion’s share of the responsibility for the emergence of a second Cold War is Moscow’s, and above all, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s. Like many of his predecessors, Putin views the US-dominated world order as a threat to his rule and to what he regarded as his country’s rightful place in the world.


Russia in recent years has used armed force to seize, occupy and annex Crimea — in the process violating the fundamental principle of international law that borders cannot be changed by armed force.

Putin continues to use military or covert means to destabilize Eastern Ukraine, Georgia and parts of the Balkans. Russia also employed military force in particularly brutal ways in Syria to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s appalling regime.

Putin’s Russia also went to great lengths to carry out “fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016,” US special counsel Robert Mueller has said.

Heads of US intelligence agencies have made it clear that they expect more such efforts between now and the midterm congressional elections in November.

As Russia has become a revisionist country, with few if any qualms about overturning the “status quo” by whatever means it judges necessary, shoring up Europe’s defenses and providing lethal arms to the Ukraine is a sensible response.

What more should the US do, beyond reducing the vulnerability of voting machines and requiring technology firms to take steps to prevent foreign governments from trying to influence US politics?


First, Americans must recognize that defense is not enough. Congress is right to call for additional sanctions and US President Donald Trump is wrong to refuse to implement sanctions that the US Congress has already passed.

The US government also needs to find its voice and criticize a Russian regime that arrests its opponents and reportedly murders journalists.

If Trump, for whatever reason, continues to coddle Russia, then Congress, the media, foundations and academics should publicly detail the corruption that characterizes Putin’s rule. Circulating such information might increase internal opposition to Putin, persuade him to hold off on further interference in US and European politics and, over time, buttress more responsible forces within Russia.

At the same time, the objective should not be to end what little remains of the US-Russian relationship, which is already in worse shape than it was for much of the first Cold War. Diplomatic cooperation should be sought whenever it is possible and in the US’ interest.

Russia might well be willing to stop interfering in eastern Ukraine in exchange for a degree of sanctions relief, if it could be assured that ethnic Russians there would not face reprisals. Likewise, the Kremlin has no interest in a military escalation in Syria that would increase the relatively modest cost of its intervention there.

At the same time, Russian support is needed to tighten sanctions against North Korea. Maintaining arms-control arrangements and avoiding a new nuclear arms race would be in the interest of both countries.

There is thus a case for regular diplomatic meetings, cultural and academic exchanges, and visits to Russia by congressional delegations — not as a favor, but as a means to make clear that many Americans are open to a more normal relationship with Russia if it were to act with greater restraint.

The US and its partners have a large stake in greater Russian restraint while Putin remains in power — and in a Russia characterized by something other than Putinism after he is gone.

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, served as director of policy planning for the US Department of State from 2001 to 2003, and was former US president George W. Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland and coordinator for the future of Afghanistan.

Copyright: Project Syndicate