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Re-Engaging Russia – OpEd

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Russian realignment offers the biggest opportunity to dramatically transform the international situation in the immediate future. A cooperative relationship between Russia and the Industrialized World could be a highly visible example of democratic development, strongly undercutting Chinese promotion of autocracy and minimizing cyber intrusions. It would also significantly reduce requirements for military forces, including a potential for major reductions in nuclear weapons. Diplomatically, collaboration with Russia could help resolve confrontations in Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine, Belarus, Syria and Myanmar.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 left America as the sole superpower. The situation was even seen as the End of History, with America the indispensable nation. But this was immediately followed by a major and largely unrecognized strategic blunder: the failure to integrate Russia into the Industrialized World. The Russian people had vague but optimistic hopes that the end of the Cold War would lead to a new era of peace and prosperity. But those hopes were immediately destroyed. As Robert Kuttner details, the West stood by while the fragile democratic effort was overwhelmed; former elites seized the nation’s assets. Under-employment was replaced with widespread unemployment. The population was encouraged to see democracy and market capitalism as Western ploys designed to humiliate Russia. This blunder also had a military dimension. The collapse of the Soviet Union had collapsed the basic rationale for NATO as a military alliance. But instead of a drawdown and despite earlier informal assurances, NATO initiated a totally unnecessary expansion. Russia naturally took this as a military challenge and objected strongly.

Putin emerged as leader and consolidated his position by blaming the West for Russian economic problems. Stressing the need to counter NATO, he rejuvenated the Army, a source of pride for the average Russian.  Emphasizing Russia’s rightful position as a world leader, his broadly confrontational stance gained wide domestic support. It also undermined democratic movements on Russia’s periphery: supporting breakaway provinces in Moldavia and Georgia, annexing the Crimea and strongly supporting an occupation of eastern Ukraine. Strong Russian support for Syrian President Assad resulted in thousands of deaths and major refugee flows into Europe. As the United States infamously pulled out of northern Syria, abandoning its Kurdish allies, Russia surged in as the new power broker. Relations between America and an increasingly autocratic Turkey deteriorated as military elements came in contact. Across the globe, Russian support allows Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro to remain in power. And now turmoil in Belarus may invite another Russian intrusion.

In purely military affairs, Putin announced a major increase in defense spending, boasting of powerful new weapons that could make American defenses obsolete. His belligerent military emphasis is fundamentally a show for the Russian people. He needs a visible enemy to distract public attention away from his plutocratic elite, from internal repression, and from actions subverting Russia’s professed democratic ideals. His central fear is not some Western intrusion, but internal unrest. This is the basic reason he reacted so strongly to the Rose Revolution in 2003 and the Orange Revolution the next year that removed pro-Russian governments in Georgia and Ukraine. His central objective is retaining power, while confrontation with the West is his main approach.

Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections reached well over 100 million Americans with false, misleading and inflammatory postings on Facebook, messages on Twitter and over 1,000 videos on YouTube. While America is vulnerable to such deceptive postings, Russia is vulnerable to truthful ones. Russian meddling seems to have been retaliation for the Panama Papers, thousands of documents from a Panamanian law firm that exposed corrupt financial ties of several prominent Russians. A furious Putin attributed the papers to Western intelligence. This allowed him to depict it as simply Western propaganda but demonstrated his sensitivity to exposure of corruption. The United States has a considerable advantage in open broadcasting. For almost eighty years, Radio Liberty has been a major challenge to Russia, becoming the most listened-to Western radio station.  In 2014, Radio Liberty launched a new Russian-language TV news program, Current Time. This has reported on such sensitive topics as Russian intervention in Syria, the poisoning of a Soviet refugee in London and the revelations of the Panama Papers. In 2018, its website had over 90 million visits, its Facebook page had some 600,000 followers, and it was active on YouTube, Twitter and other social networks. Putin works hard to label international media as intrusive and to stifle its content.

Democratic ideals have strong resonance with Russia’s civil society organizations. The more difficult everyday economic situations become, the more difficult for the government to suppress opposition. Independent candidates make electoral politics increasingly contested; the government reacts with voter suppression; in July 2019 more than 1000 people protested in Moscow over barring opposition candidates from the city ballot.  Open broadcasts have a significant potential to influence developments in Russia. A wave of arrests against journalists in 2019 vividly illustrated the Kremlin’s concern about popular protests. This year thousands marched to mark five years since the assassination of an opposition politician while the arrest of a regional governor brought widespread protests and a petition with more than 30,000 signatures in Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East. Two following events underlined Kremlin concerns on the opposition:  the self-immolation of independent journalist Irina Slavina in Nizhny Novgorod and the poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Navalny was air lifted to Germany for treatment, but returned to Russia and was promptly arrested. A hunger strike severely undermined his health and even brought objections from President Biden. Protests by thousands helped initiate a transfer to a hospital with civilian doctors that ended the hunger strike and significantly improved his health. He remains a major symbol for opposition to Putin.

It is understandable that the Russian populace wholeheartedly embraced a strong leader who brought stability and pride back to Russia. Putin has skillfully manipulated Russian ambivalence towards the West which has been a driving force for centuries. And he has systematically consolidated his domestic political position. In June 2020, a constitutional referendum provided a basis for him to extend his presidency. Despite his continuing high popularity, efforts to nominate him for another term have already been termed inappropriate by Europe’s top constitutional law body, the Venice Commission, and have a potential to trigger mass protests. He is increasingly vulnerable at home. Russia has poorly addressed the COVID virus, with actual cases far outnumbering reported levels. In a broader perspective, both economic and demographic projections paint a grim future for Russia, with Putin doing little to address it. Health issues and a reliance on raw material sales downgrade the potential for economic development. 

The situation with Russia gets more complicated every day. Within the last month there has been talk of military confrontation with Ukraine, increased collaboration between and China and Russia, and Russian support for Syrian evasion of chemical weapons use, Russia has also been steadfastly standing by Myanmar’s coup leader.

The core Western objective should be doing what it should have done thirty years ago: integrate Russia into the Industrialized World, as we did postwar with Germany and Japan. Western open broadcasting can make Russian corruption and repression as transparent as possible, exposing the underlying reason for low economic performance and the total fiction of a Western threat. NATO now focusing on Russia as an enemy only supports Putin’s threat narrative, while some misstep could actually result in armed conflict. It also drains huge amounts of resources from positive uses (including disaster preparations) to supporting interminable wars. A move to integration could have strong appeal to the Russian public increasingly dissatisfied with the internal situation. Russian protestors want democracy but have nothing to rally around. We should give them something, actively inviting Russian to join in development efforts. 

America needs to work closely with NATO to issue a strong statement deemphasizing military operations and focusing on Russian political, social and economic integration into the Industrialized World. NATO has to demonstrate that it is not a threat. It is economic pressures, opportunities and incentives that could most effectively move Russia toward a more democratic and cooperative posture. A NATO outreach policy needs to be supported by significant actions. The coronavirus will certainly pressure NATO to modify its standard of 2% of Gross Domestic Product supporting defense expenditures. A small portion, say, initially 0.25 %, could be dedicated for a new Russian Partnership Fund to improve Russia’s internal economy and increase collaboration. The fund could work with Russian representatives to identify most attractive projects, ones that could have maximum impact for minimal cost while simultaneously demonstrating project transparency and accountability. 

Creating a new approach to helping Russia become a truly global partner with other countries is essential. We already have an existing partnership in our joint operations on space exploration as well as continuing cooperation on securing nuclear materials and knowledge. There is now broad agreement on renewal of the New START Treaty, set to expire next year. Significant nuclear weapons reductions would benefit both countries. We need to expand our approach to include assisting with infrastructure and medical issues, educational exchanges, environmental challenges, helium supply and other scientific matters.  Russia, for example, has a totally inadequate highway system while the United States has deep experience building a nation-wide transportation network. Investment projects outside the oil industry are badly needed, but that has been a main Russian focus for years without results. And, of course, the coronavirus also makes medical collaboration increasingly attractive.

The core principle needs to be to show the Russian people the total fiction of a Western threat while making Russian corruption and repression as transparent as possible. Creating a new approach to helping Russia become a true global partner with other countries is key. Programs that promote real economic advancement and provide Russia its own position on the world stage would have a strong resonance with the Russian people.

Rather than promote a new Cold War, now is the time to definitively end the last one.

*About the author: Edward Corcoran,  Ph.D., LTC(R), is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org and the author of recently published Threats and Challenges that examines the threats and challenges facing the United States as a basis for development of a comprehensive National Strategy.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus