Any reset with Russia must first assess whether Russia’s policy interests are reconcilable with the interests of the U.S. and NATO. For President Putin and Russian elites, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the worst calamity of the 20th century. Russians have always felt a deep-seated and occasionally real sense of vulnerability from the West. For many Russians, the security dilemma is very real. Moreover, after the end of the Cold War, NATO expansion increased this perception of vulnerability beyond Russian defenses to economic and political domains as well. Russia’s current military capabilities are no match for NATO, although they are now investing heavily in defense. To compensate for their deficiencies, Russia is effectively advancing its policy interests using alternative means. These means include: nuclear intimidation, special operations, pressuring weak neighbors, information warfare, cyber-attacks, subversion, bribery, assassinations, and economic and energy blackmail.
It appears that Russia’s vision of the future, policies goals, values, and norms of international conduct severely clash with those of the United States. Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea are clear examples of violations of international norms and signal President Putin’s belief that countries do not have the right to choose their own alliances. Putin’s Russia wants to be able to dictate the terms of how countries in their geographical sphere will behave on a wide range of global issues. At the same time, Putin’s Russia rejects demands from the West as well as the canons of international law.
Furthermore, the Kremlin’s meddling in the domestic affairs of Western countries should be viewed as part of a strategy to advance its goals by eroding Western liberal values from within. Moscow fears Western influence in Russia. Putin increases his room for maneuver by sowing dissention inside liberal democracies by attempts to delegitimize their internal political processes. The use of multiple channels by Russia to spread false information during elections has arguably succeeded in affecting American politics at a cost acceptable to Moscow.
Russia’s intervention in Syria reveals another aspect of its political character. For the United States, justice requires that the mass murder of innocent civilians be punished. For Putin, saving a strongman from a popular rebellion, and using chemical and gas weapons to do so, is more important than justice. The Putin-Assad strongman alliance has also exacerbated the flow of refugees into Europe. That terrorist groups are exploiting the refugee crisis to send fighters to Europe was never in doubt. What is more interesting is how terrorist and Kremlin strategies have now merged. Terror attacks in Europe have set Europeans against refugees, citizens against their governments and countries against European Union rules. By proxy, Putin is meddling in the internal affairs of European countries and eroding liberal democratic principles.
Under the current circumstances and for the foreseeable future, it is difficult to see how a reset would adequately secure U.S. interests and preserve the values that define who we are. There may be opportunities for limited cooperation on mutually beneficial issues. Still, it is unlikely that Moscow will ever feel secure against the West and Russia’s behavior necessitates that the United States be stronger than Russia. The best way forward, and to keep the security dilemma from spiraling out of control, may simply be to recognize Russian realities and focus on a political strategy that reinvigorates liberal democratic principles backed by sufficient strength and actions to thwart its enemies. The conditions for a reset do not currently exist.