How we fool ourselves on Russia

William J Burns (former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and a former Foreign Service Officer who has been called “the quintessential diplomat” and who served in five administrations) writes: In the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, profound grievances, misperceptions and disappointments have often defined the relationship between the United States and Russia. I lived through this turbulence during my years as a diplomat in Moscow, navigating the curious mix of hope and humiliation that I remember so vividly in the Russia of Boris N. Yeltsin, and the pugnacity and raw ambition of Vladimir V. Putin’s Kremlin. And I lived through it in Washington, serving both Republican and Democratic administrations.

There have been more than enough illusions on both sides. The United States has oscillated between visions of an enduring partnership with Moscow and dismissing it as a sulking regional power in terminal decline. Russia has moved between notions of a strategic partnership with the United States and a later, deeper desire to upend the current international order, where a dominant United States consigns Russia to a subordinate role.

The reality is that our relationship with Russia will remain competitive, and often adversarial, for the foreseeable future. At its core is a fundamental disconnect in outlook and about each other’s role in the world.

It is tempting to think that personal rapport can bridge this disconnect and that the art of the deal can unlock a grand bargain. That is a foolish starting point for sensible policy. It would be especially foolish to think that Russia’s deeply troubling interference in our election can or should be played down, however inconvenient.

President Putin’s aggressive election meddling, like his broader foreign policy, has at least two motivating factors. The first is his conviction that the surest path to restoring Russia as a great power comes at the expense of an American-led order. He wants Russia unconstrained by Western values and institutions, free to pursue a sphere of influence.

The second motivating factor is closely connected to the first. The legitimacy of Mr. Putin’s system of repressive domestic control depends on the existence of external threats. Surfing on high oil prices, he used to be able to bolster his social contract with the Russian people through rising standards of living. That was clear in the boomtown Moscow I knew as the American ambassador a decade ago, full of the promise of a rising middle class and the consumption of an elite convinced that anything worth doing was worth overdoing. But Mr. Putin has lost that card in a world of lower energy prices and Western sanctions, and with a one-dimensional economy in which real reform is trumped by the imperative of political control and the corruption that lubricates it.

The ultimate realist, Mr. Putin understands Russia’s relative weakness, but regularly demonstrates that declining powers can be at least as disruptive as rising powers. He sees a target-rich environment all around him.

If he can’t easily build Russia up, he can take the United States down a few pegs, with his characteristic tactical agility and willingness to play rough and take risks. If he can’t have a deferential government in Kiev, he can grab Crimea and try to engineer the next best thing, a dysfunctional Ukraine. If he can’t abide the risk of regime upheaval in Syria, he can flex Russia’s military muscle, emasculate the West, and preserve Bashar al-Assad atop the rubble of Aleppo. If he can’t directly intimidate the European Union, he can accelerate its unraveling by supporting anti-Union nationalists and exploiting the wave of migration spawned in part by his own brutality. Wherever he can, he exposes the seeming hypocrisy and fecklessness of Western democracies, blurring the line between fact and fiction.

So what to do? Russia is still too big, proud and influential to ignore and still the only nuclear power comparable to the United States. It remains a major player on problems from the Arctic to Iran and North Korea. We need to focus on the critical before we test the desirable. The first step is to sustain, and if necessary amplify, the actions taken by the Obama administration in response to Russian hacking. Russia challenged the integrity of our democratic system, and Europe’s 2017 electoral landscape is the next battlefield.

A second step is to reassure our European allies of our absolute commitment to NATO. American politicians tell one another to “remember your base,” and that’s what should guide policy toward Russia. Our network of allies is not a millstone around America’s neck, but a powerful asset that sets us apart.

A third step is to stay sharply focused on Ukraine, a country whose fate will be critical to the future of Europe, and Russia, over the next generation. This is not about NATO or European Union membership, both distant aspirations. It is about helping Ukrainian leaders build the successful political system that Russia seeks to subvert.

Finally, we should be wary of superficially appealing notions like a common war on Islamic extremism or a common effort to “contain” China. Russia’s bloody role in Syria makes the terrorist threat far worse and despite long-term concerns about a rising China, Mr. Putin has little inclination to sacrifice a relationship with Beijing.

I’ve learned a few lessons during my diplomatic career, often the hard way. I learned to respect Russians and their history and vitality. I learned that it rarely pays to neglect or underestimate Russia, or display gratuitous disrespect. But I also learned that firmness and vigilance, and a healthy grasp of the limits of the possible, are the best way to deal with the combustible combination of grievance and insecurity that Vladimir Putin embodies. I’ve learned that we have a much better hand to play with Mr. Putin than he does with us. If we play it methodically, confident in our enduring strengths, and unapologetic about our values, we can eventually build a more stable relationship, without illusions.

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9 thoughts on “How we fool ourselves on Russia

  1. hquain

    One thing I honestly don’t understand is how Putin’s strategy is sustainable. Russia is widely reported to be in dire economic straits. His military adventures are expensive, and surely distract from whatever is needed to shore up the home front. You can’t live long by patriotism and fervor alone. So how does the charade continue?

  2. Dieter Heymann

    Today power comes out of the brains of inventive geniuses which makes us and Russia about even.

  3. Paul Woodward

    I don’t think Putin is approaching this in terms of what is sustainable for Russia — his focus seems to be on remaining as president for life and to do that, all he has to do is prevent the emergence of a credible alternative. Autocrats have a stunning capacity to make themselves indispensable even as they lead their nations to ruin.

  4. Francisco Velasco

    William J. Burns’s quarter of century as Ambassador to Russia didn’t teach him anything. This text is following the trend to demonise Russia, Putin and aiming a poisonous dart to Donald Trump: – “Tempting to think a personal rapport will sort out disconnections…” – It’s a foolish starting point for sensible policy…” – “specially foolish in view of Russia’s deeply troubling interference in the elections, (a statement yet to be proved)…”

    Mr. Burns is like a parrot dishing out a litany of standard paragraphs and phrases as old as Moses. Contrary to his writing and long list of clichés he hasn’t learned any lessons. It wasn’t worth reading him…!

  5. Ken Hoop

    Lies and more lies.
    Julian Assange is telling truth and we “fool ourselves” by believing the ruling class of the United States is anything but decadent, greedy beyond redemption, and bent on world domination in a way that real conservatives–like Pat Buchanan for example–sees is unbeneficial to the average American much less the average Western European.
    Which is why he was correct in saying NATO should have been disbanded when the Iron Curtain fell.
    Putin and Russia represent conservative tradition, particularly when contrasted with American imperialism which has lately destroyed several non-threatening Mideast countries as it tried to subvert Ukraine.

    Here’s how authentic European patriots reply regarding one component of Burns lies.

  6. Paul Woodward

    Francisco — If you want to make a cogent argument against the views Burns articulates, you need to get your facts straight — he was US Ambassador to Russia for just two and a half years. Moreover, you and anyone else who claims Russia is being demonized would make a more credible case if you could demonstrate that the accusations being made are false. What we generally see instead is colorful posturing lacking substance.

  7. Paul Woodward

    Ken: “Lies and more lies” — clearly a student of Trumpian analysis and rhetoric. Still, I appreciate your reference to “authentic European patriots” — it leaves little room for doubt about the cultural markers to which you attach significance.

  8. Chris Zell

    The truth about Putin and Russia is quite simple. He has said he wants a free trade zone from ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’. Russia would benefit enormously as a transit nation with roads, high speed rail, pipelines and trucking – plus huge natural resources to be developed, for decades to come. This would emerge from diplomacy, not blitzkrieg and China’s Silk Road initiative helps this.
    US Neo Cons MUST STOP this by any means or find itself isolated and broken as an empire. This is far easier to understand as truth than over a century of Russia-hate.

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