It is no secret that U.S.-Russia relations are at their lowest ebb since the end of the end of the Cold War in 1989. Spurred on by President Vladimir Putin’s nationalist impulses, Russia has invaded two neighboring states, Georgia and Ukraine, seized the Crimean Peninsula, and interfered in elections in the United States and various European nations. Russian cyber warriors arguably made a difference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, won by Donald Trump by the slimmest of margins—just 80,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Russian agents have used nerve agent in assassination attempts on British soil. Russian aircraft have pulverized civilian communities in Syria, killing thousands in the process and generating waves of hundreds of thousands of refugees washing up on Europe’s shores. Russian denials of their bad behavior would be humorous if the consequences were not so significant.
Putin views the collapse of the Soviet Union as “a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” He views the world through the eyes of an ex-KGB agent—an arena of global conflict where Russia can exploit its traditional strengths of intelligence and deception (maskirovka), areas where it has historically excelled. Russian cyber warriors are wreaking havoc on the Internet, ironically using our own freedoms (of speech and the press) and technology (the Internet and social media) against us. Putin’s goals are fairly clear: to reintegrate the Russian-speaking areas in the “near abroad” adjacent to Russia’s borders, sow dissention in the West, weaken U.S. resolve to engage abroad, crack the foundations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and return his nation to the status of a major power on the world stage. In short, Putin wants to make Russia great again.
Given the chaos Putin has sown in the West over the past decade, improved relations between the United States and Russia would be a welcome development. But at what cost? Lifting the sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of the Crimea would validate Russia’s theft of territory and its complete disregard of international laws and norms. Siding with Russia in the Syrian civil war would endorse the use of war crimes as a valid strategy and consign America’s Kurdish allies, who helped us to fight and destroy the Islamic State, to a bleak future. Failure to retaliate against Russian interference in elections would likewise validate the use of cyber warfare as a low-cost, high reward implement of statecraft.
A reset in U.S.-Russian relations under the current circumstances would hand Putin a major geostrategic victory for little to no gain. Improvement of relations might reduce tensions in Europe, end U.S. involvement in Syria, and perhaps temporarily halt Russian meddling in U.S. domestic affairs, but only at the cost of throwing our European and Kurdish allies as well as international laws and norms under the bus. A better strategy would be to firm up America’s alliances with its like-minded democratic partners around the world, pushing back firmly against the bad behavior of our strategic adversaries. Putin and Russia need to pay a stiff price for their actions, but the reckoning will likely not come while Donald Trump is in office.