Relations with Russia: A Strategy of ‘Constrainment’

Three years ago this month, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and laid the groundwork for its ongoing campaign to destabilize Ukraine.  That moment marked the end of a period of more than twenty years when the countries of the West looked to Russia as a partner. Of course, even before 2014, Russia had demonstrated a pattern of destabilizing countries in its neighborhood, particularly Moldova and Georgia. But Russia’s aggression against Ukraine—including the first changing of borders by force in Europe since World War II—represented a new strategic reality, and a wake-up call for the United States and its allies.

That new strategic reality is even starker today:  Russia has not only continued to undermine the post-World War II and post-Cold War international order through its illegal occupation of Crimea and its continuing war of aggression in eastern Ukraine; Russia has also engaged in political aggression against our societies, using cyberattacks, disinformation, propaganda, and influence operations to affect the outcome of elections and undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.   

In essence, Russia is trying to undo decades of progress toward a more stable and integrated Euro-Atlantic community. It wants to turn back the clock to a time when Russia dominated neighboring countries through force and coercion.  Using military intimidation, economic warfare and “active measures,” it aims to weaken and divide NATO and the European Union, which it sees as the main obstacles to its expanded power in Europe, and is trying to reduce their attractiveness to other countries.  It openly works to destabilize countries that seek closer ties to the Euro-Atlantic community, as we are seeing in the Western Balkans, even sponsoring an armed coup d’état in Montenegro at the end of last year to derail that country’s accession to NATO. 

And Moscow’s challenge to the international rules-based order now extends beyond Europe to Syria and the broader Middle East. As Russia has provided greater levels of military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—including bombing moderate opposition groups and driving tens of thousands of civilians from Aleppo and other cities—it has made it even more difficult to find a long-term end to the violence in Syria, while contributing little to international efforts to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).  Now, Russia may be seeking a foothold in Libya, undermining international efforts to support the government of national accord and end the civil war.

All of this has occurred against the backdrop of a massive upgrading of Russian military forces, both conventional and nuclear, in every domain. At the same time, Russia continues to flout many of its obligations under arms control and transparency regimes, as we have seen with the recent news about the deployment of a long-range ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

So, while we should always seek constructive relations with Russia, we should approach the relationship without illusions.  We need to recognize that it is Russia’s actions which have fundamentally changed our relationship, and that any change for the better depends on changes in Russian behavior.  Given the comprehensive nature of the challenge that Russia poses to our security and that of our friends and allies, we need a comprehensive strategy for meeting that challenge, one that builds on the combined material and moral strength of our close allies and partners in Europe and around the world. 

The Atlantic Council’s “Strategy of ‘Constrainment’” report provides such a strategy, and should be required reading for the new US administration.  Based on contributions of former officials and experts from three continents—the D-10 Strategy Forum—the report sets out a comprehensive framework for the United States and its allies to counter the Russian challenge to our security interests and our democratic institutions.  Using a new word, it presents a strategy of “constrainment”—measures to constrain Russia’s ability to undermine our interests—with five key pillars. 

I would like to highlight a few points that struck me as especially important.

  • Pillar one, defending against and deterring potential Russian threats, emphasizes the need to strengthen NATO’s defense and deterrence posture, including cyber defenses and countering Russian anti-access/area denial capabilities.  But it also stresses, correctly in my view, that helping Russia’s neighbors defend themselves is no less important than what we are doing for NATO itself in constraining Russian ambitions.  It recommends, in particular, lethal defensive weapons for Ukraine. Another important recommendation under this pillar is that we lay down clear redlines, with meaningful consequences, to deter further Russian meddling in democratic elections.
  • On the second pillar, penalizing Russian violations of global norms, this has clear relevance to Ukraine.  As the Trump administration formulates its Russia strategy, it is essential to maintain the US-European consensus that the sanctions imposed following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine be maintained until Russia ends that aggression and, once again, respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The litmus test, in this regard, will be for Russia to fully implement its obligations under the Minsk Accords and end the insurgency it has orchestrated in eastern Ukraine.  I hope the Trump administration will make implementing Minsk an integral part of its Russia strategy.
  • The third pillar of the strategy is to “wage a battle of narratives” to counter Russian propaganda, disinformation and “fake news.”  Here, the report offers some innovative ideas:  upgrading US government efforts to assess and counter Russian propaganda, and coordinating more closely with similar efforts by the European Union (and, I would add, with NATO); and creating a new non-governmental entity along the lines of the National Endowment for Democracy—again combining resources from North America and Europe—to generate more diverse and credible content that communicates what the West stands for to our own publics and to Russian-speaking audiences.
  • The report recommends, as the fourth pillar of the strategy, continuing to support the aspirations of the Russian people by speaking out for democratic rights, meeting with opposition figures, and encouraging more people-to-people contacts.  Some might consider this unrealistic, given how closed Russian society has become. Indeed, the Kremlin, fearful of a “Russian Maidan,” will continue make it very difficult carry out such engagement.  But I agree with the authors that we should not give up on efforts to reach out to the successor generation and support what remains of Russian civil society, since they are the keys to Russia’s future—and to better relations between the West and Moscow—over the longer term (i.e. after Russian President Vladimir Putin departs the scene).
  • Finally, underpinning all the other pillars is the report’s recommendation to maintain Western unity by collaborating with the leading democracies in dealing with Russia.  As a NATO veteran, I’m in violent agreement:  If we want to influence Russian behavior and re-create the conditions for more constructive relations, our best—in fact, our only—chance for success is to combine the economic, political, and military weight of like-minded nations and organizations in pushing back against Russian challenges to our security and our values.  If we let Putin divide us, we’re lost.

The paper concludes by acknowledging that there may be some areas where we can still cooperate with Russia to mutual benefit, as we have seen in the case of the Iran nuclear deal.   The authors recommend that we look for other possible areas (countering ISIS, dealing with North Korea), but that we adopt a policy of “principled engagement” that avoids offering trade-offs that would compromise our values.  Again, I full agree, and can offer a concrete example of what this means in practice—again relating to Ukraine:  We should not consign forty-five million Ukrainians to a Russian sphere of influence, or impose neutrality on that country, in return for Russian cooperation against ISIS, for which Russia should require no incentive.

Alexander “Sandy” Vershbow is a distinguished fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He is a former US ambassador to Russia, NATO and South Korea, a former deputy secretary general of NATO, and a former assistant secretary of defense. This blog post is an adaptation of remarks he delivered at the launch of the Atlantic Council’s “Strategy of ‘Constrainment’” report in Washington on March 16. You can follow him on Twitter @ARVershbow.

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin in September announced plans to develop nuclear and conventional weapons to counter the United States and NATO. (REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin)