How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 1)

How did Russia and the West get here and how do we move forward? (Part 1)

Matthew Kupfer
Davis Center, Harvard University

The following piece is the first in a series of responses to the current state of Russia-West relations provided by our Consortium Fellows, who participated in the inaugural UC Module at the Harriman Institute. 

There are few reasons for optimism about US-Russia relations in the near future. Unfortunately, our countries simply have fundamentally different views on several major policy issues. Russia's commitment to keeping Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in power is largely incompatible with our government's conviction that Assad must go. Furthermore, the United States is unlikely to cancel the majority of its sanctions against Russia as long as the Kremlin maintains control of Crimea. In short, relations are at a general standstill.

We now face a contradictory situation: we must continue to oppose Russia's actions in Ukraine and Syria, while simultaneously trying to cooperate with Russia where our interests overlap (the Iran nuclear deal was a good example of this). But, perhaps more importantly, we must also be strategically cautious. Recently, during the December 15th Republican Party Debate in Las Vegas, several candidates, particularly New Jersey governor Chris Christie, declared that they would shoot down Russian warplanes over Syria. Each was keen to persuade primary voters that he would "stand up to" Putin. This kind of grandstanding will surely score points with the Republican base, but it makes for risky policy and only helps the Kremlin depict the United States as pathologically anti-Russian. As the debate concluded and the candidates made their final remarks, a common refrain claimed that the United States "doesn't 'win' anymore." Winning, these candidates would have you believe, means going in with guns blazing. This is both flat wrong and dangerous.

A "winning" Russia policy will not be based upon force or bravado. Rather, it will stem from measured and, at times, restrained, responses to Kremlin actions. A quick look at Moscow's reaction after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over Syria clearly indicates the risk inherent in these candidates’ proposals: it may not be World War III, but Russia will not take this sitting down. American policymakers must remember that Putin's ability to play the spoiler and complicate our policies abroad does not mean that we are "losing." Nor does it mean that the Kremlin is "winning." Falling oil prices have significantly weakened the ruble. Crimea recently experienced two weeks of mass blackouts. Russian-Turkish relations are in collapse, affecting trade, tourism, and possibly even energy. And a recent poll indicates that, out of 85% of Russians who rely on television for the majority of their news, only 41% believe what they are hearing. Though the situation is far from gloom and doom for Putin, this also isn't "victory."

America isn't "losing" to Russia. But we have a lot to lose, and we will lose if we escalate tensions with the Kremlin into direct conflict or wind up embroiled in an endless war in the Middle East. It's time to tamp down the rhetoric and play the long game.