How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Relations between Russia and the United States have deteriorated to their most dangerous point in decades. The current situation is not, as many have dubbed it, a new Cold War. But no one should draw much comfort from the ways in which today’s standoff differs from the earlier one. The quantitative nuclear arms race is over, but Russia and the United States have begun a new qualitative arms race in nuclear delivery vehicles, missile defenses, and digital weapons. The two countries are no longer engulfed in proxy wars, but over the last decade, Russia has demonstrated less and less restraint in its use of military power. The worldwide ideological struggle between capitalism and communism is history, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has anointed himself the leader of a renewed nationalist, conservative movement fighting a decadent West. To spread these ideas, the Russian government has made huge investments in television and radio stations, social media networks, and Internet “troll farms,” and it has spent lavishly in support of like-minded politicians abroad. The best description of the current hostilities is not cold war but hot peace.
Washington must accept that Putin is here to stay and won’t end his assault on Western democracy and multilateral institutions anytime soon. To deal with the threat, the United States desperately needs a new bipartisan grand strategy. It must find ways to contain the Kremlin’s economic, military, and political influence and to strengthen democratic allies, and it must work with the Kremlin when doing so is truly necessary and freeze it out when it is not. But above all, Washington must be patient. As long as Putin remains in power, changing Russia will be close to impossible. The best Washington can hope for in most cases is to successfully restrain Moscow’s actions abroad while waiting for Russia to change from within.
At the end of the Cold War, both U.S. and Russian leaders embraced the promise of closer relations. So what went wrong? Russia’s renewed international power provides part of the explanation. If Russia were too weak to annex Crimea, intervene in Syria, or interfere in U.S. elections, Moscow and Washington would not be clashing today. But not all rising powers have threatened the United States. Germany and Japan are much stronger than they were 50 years ago, yet no one is concerned about a return to World War II rivalries. What is more, Russia’s relations with the United States were much more cooperative just a few years back, well after Russia had returned to the world stage as a great power.
In Russian eyes, much of the blame falls on U.S. foreign policy. According to this argument, the United States took advantage of Russia when it was weak by expanding NATO and bombing Serbia in 1999, invading Iraq in 2003, and allegedly helping overthrow pro-Russian governments in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. Once Russia was off its knees, it had to push back against U.S. hegemony. At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin championed this line of analysis: “We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. . . . One state, and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way.”
There is some truth to this story. The expansion of NATO did exacerbate tensions with Moscow, as did Western military interventions in Serbia and Iraq. Democratic upheavals in Georgia and Ukraine threatened Putin’s ability to preserve autocracy at home, even if Putin grossly exaggerated the U.S. role in those so-called color revolutions.
Yet this account omits a lot of history. After the end of the Cold War, U.S. presidents were truly committed to, in Bill Clinton’s words, “a strategic alliance with Russian reform” and Russia’s integration into the international system. Just as the United States and its allies helped rebuild, democratize, and integrate Germany and Japan after World War II, the thinking went, so it would rebuild Russia after the Cold War. It is true that the United States and Europe did not devote enough resources or attention to this task, leaving many Russians feeling betrayed. But it is revisionism to argue that they did not embrace Moscow’s new leaders, support democratic and market reforms, and offer Russia a prominent place in Western clubs such as the G-8.
The most powerful counterargument to the idea that U.S. foreign policy poisoned the well with Russia is that the two countries managed to work together for many years. The cooperative dynamic of U.S.-Russian relations established after the fall of the Soviet Union survived not only U.S. provocations but also two Russian military operations in Chechnya and the 1998 Russian financial crisis, after which foreign governments accused the Kremlin of wasting Western aid. And even the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, in 2002, and another, larger round of NATO expansion, in 2004, did not end the cooperative dynamic that U.S. President George W. Bush and Putin had forged after the 9/11 attacks. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 pushed U.S.-Russian relations to a low point in the post–Cold War era. But even this tragedy did not permanently derail cooperation.
Even after all these ups and downs, U.S.-Russian relations experienced one last spike in cooperation, which lasted from 2009 to 2011. In 2009, when U.S. President Barack Obama met for the first time with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin, who was then serving as Russia’s prime minister, the U.S. president tried to convince the two Russians that he was a new kind of American leader. He had opposed the Iraq war long before it was popular to do so, he explained, and had always rejected the idea of regime change. At least at first, Medvedev seemed convinced. Even Putin showed signs of softening. Over the next few years, Russia and the United States signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (or New START), worked through the UN to impose tough new sanctions on Iran, managed Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, coordinated to defuse violence in Kyrgyzstan after the collapse of the government there, and arranged a vast expansion of the network used to transport U.S. soldiers and supplies to Afghanistan through Russia. In 2011, in perhaps the most impressive display of renewed cooperation, Russia acquiesced in the Western intervention in Libya. At the height of the so-called reset, in 2010, polls showed that around 50 percent of Americans saw Russia as a friendly country and that some 60 percent of Russians viewed the United States the same way.
This period of relative harmony began to break down in 2011, owing primarily to the way that Putin reacted to popular democratic mobilizations against autocracies in Egypt, Libya, Syria—and Russia itself. The Libyan uprising in 2011 marked the beginning of the end of the reset; the 2014 revolution in Ukraine marked the start of the hot peace.
Popular mobilization inside Russia was especially unnerving to Putin. He had enjoyed solid public support during most of his first eight years as president, thanks primarily to Russia’s economic performance. By 2011, however, when he launched a campaign for a third term as president (after having spent three years as prime minister), his popularity had fallen significantly. The implicit bargain that Putin had struck with Russian society during his first two terms—high economic growth in return for political passivity—was unraveling. Massive demonstrations flooded the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other large cities after the parliamentary election in December 2011. At first, the protesters focused on electoral irregularities, but then they pivoted to a grander indictment of the Russian political system and Putin personally.
In response, Putin revived a Soviet-era source of legitimacy: defense of the motherland against the evil West. Putin accused the leaders of the demonstrations of being American agents. Obama tried to explain that the United States had not prompted the Russian demonstrations. Putin was unconvinced. After his reelection in the spring of 2012, Putin stepped up his attacks on protesters, opposition parties, the media, and civil society and placed under house arrest the opposition leader he feared the most, the anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny. The Kremlin further restricted the activity of nongovernmental organizations and independent media outlets and imposed significant fines on those who participated in protests that the authorities deemed illegal. Putin and his surrogates continued to label Russian opposition leaders as traitors supported by the United States.
Putin’s anti-American campaign was not just political theater intended for a domestic audience.
Putin’s anti-American campaign was not just political theater intended for a domestic audience: Putin genuinely believed that the United States represented a threat to his regime. Some pockets of U.S.-Russian cooperation persisted, including a joint venture between the Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft and ExxonMobil, an agreement brokered by Obama and Putin in which Syria pledged to eliminate its chemical weapons, and Russian support for the international negotiations that produced the Iran nuclear deal. But most of these ended in 2014, after the fall of the pro-Russian Ukrainian government and the subsequent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Once again, Putin blamed the Obama administration, this time for supporting the revolutionaries who toppled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Putin was never inclined to believe in Washington’s good faith. His training as a KGB agent had led him to distrust the United States along with all democratic movements. But in the early years of his presidency, he had held open the possibility of close cooperation with the West. In 2000, he even suggested that Russia might someday join NATO. After the 9/11 attacks, Putin firmly believed that Russia could work with the United States in a global war on terrorism. In 2008, after he stepped aside as president, he allowed Medvedev to pursue closer ties with Washington. But the Western intervention in Libya confirmed Putin’s old suspicions about U.S. intentions. Putin believed that the United States and its allies had exploited a UN resolution that authorized only limited military action in order to overthrow the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. In Putin’s view, Obama had turned out to be a regime changer, no different from Bush.
Four years after Russia annexed Crimea, the United States has still not articulated a bipartisan grand strategy for dealing with Russia. Such a strategy is necessary because Washington’s conflict with the Kremlin doesn’t revolve around mere policy disagreements: rather, it is a contest between Putinism and democracy. No tweaking of U.S. policy on Syria or NATO will influence Putin’s thinking. He has been in power for too long—and he is not likely to leave in the foreseeable future. U.S. policymakers must dispense with the fantasy that Putin’s regime will collapse and democracy will emerge in Russia in the near term. The United States and its allies must continue to support human rights and democracy and embrace people inside Russia fighting for those values. But real political change will likely begin only after Putin steps down.
The United States also has to give up on the idea that Russia can or should be integrated into multilateral institutions. The theory that integration would moderate Russian behavior has not been borne out by events. The United States must dig in for a long and difficult confrontation with Putin and his regime. On most issues, the aim should be to produce a stalemate, as preserving the status quo will often be the best the United States can hope for.
Containment must start at home. Limiting Putin’s ability to influence U.S. elections should be priority number one. The Trump administration should mandate enhanced cybersecurity resilience. If the federal government can require all cars to have seat belts, then federal authorities can require elementary cybersecurity protections such as dual authentication for all processes related to voting during a presidential election. Those who operate the systems that maintain voter registries must be required to receive training about how to spot common hacking techniques, and an even more rigorous set of standards must be adopted for the vote count. In a dozen states, including large battlegrounds such as Florida and Pennsylvania, at least some precincts lack paper trails for each ballot cast. These sloppy practices have to end. Every precinct must be able to produce a paper record for every vote.
Congress should also pass laws to provide greater transparency about Russian media activities inside the United States, including a requirement for social media companies to expose fake accounts and disinformation. Foreign governments should not be allowed to buy ads anywhere to influence voter preferences. Beyond elections, the federal government must devote more time and money to blocking Russian threats to all national electronic infrastructure.
To further counter Putin’s ideological campaign, the United States should organize democracies around the world to develop a common set of laws and protocols regulating government-controlled media. Through regulation, Washington should encourage social media platforms to grant less exposure to Kremlin-created content. Algorithms organizing search results on Google or YouTube should not overrepresent information distributed by the Russian government. When such material does appear in searches, social media companies should make its origins clear. Readers must know who created and paid for the articles they read and the videos they watch.
On their own, without government intervention, social media platforms should provide sources from more reliable news organizations; every time an article or video from the Kremlin-backed news channel RT appears, a BBC piece should pop up next to it. Social media companies have long resisted editorial responsibilities; that era must end.
In Europe, Putin’s success in courting Hungarian President Viktor Orban and nurturing several like-minded political parties and movements within NATO countries underscores the need for a deeper commitment to ideological containment on the part of Washington’s European allies. Those allies must pay greater attention to combating Russian disinformation and devote more time and resources to promoting their own values. NATO members must also meet their defense spending pledges, deploy more soldiers to the alliance’s frontline states, and reaffirm their commitment to collective security.
No theater in the fight to contain Russia is more important than Ukraine. Building a secure, wealthy, democratic Ukraine, even if parts of the country remain under Russian occupation for a long time, is the best way to restrain Russian ideological and military aggression in Europe. A failed state in Ukraine will confirm Putin’s flawed hypothesis about the shortcomings of U.S.-sponsored democratic revolutions. A successful democracy in Ukraine is also the best means for inspiring democratic reformers inside Russia and other former Soviet republics. The United States must increase its military, political, and economic support for Ukraine. Washington should also impose new sanctions on Russians involved in violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and ratchet them up until Putin begins to withdraw.
In the Middle East, the United States needs a more aggressive strategy to contain Russia’s most important regional ally, Iran. It should continue to arm and support Syrian militias fighting Iranian soldiers and their allies in Syria and should promote anti-theocratic and pro-democratic ideas in the region, including inside Iran. Abandoning the fight in Syria would deliver a tremendous victory to Moscow and Tehran. The goals of U.S. policy toward Iran must remain denying Tehran a nuclear weapon, containing its destabilizing actions abroad, and encouraging democratic forces inside the country, but not coercive regime change from the outside.
The United States must contain the Kremlin’s ambitions in Asia, as well. Strengthening existing alliances is the obvious first step. Putin has sought to weaken U.S. ties with Japan and South Korea. To push back, the United States should make its commitment to defend its allies more credible, starting by abandoning threats to withdraw its soldiers from South Korea. It should also begin negotiations to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A harder but still important task will be to divide China from Russia. In 2014, Putin suffered a major setback when China did not support his annexation of Crimea at the UN. But today, putting daylight between the two countries will not be easy, as Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have forged a united front on many issues. When opportunities do arise, such as working with Beijing toward North Korean denuclearization, Washington must act.
The United States must dig in for a long and difficult confrontation with Putin and his regime.
Western countries must also develop a coherent strategy to contain the Russian government’s economic activities. Europe must reduce its dependence on Russian energy exports. Projects such as the planned Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany are no longer appropriate and should be discontinued. Putin uses government-owned and supposedly private companies to advance his foreign policy interests; the United States and Europe must impose greater financial sanctions on the activities those firms undertake in the service of Kremlin interests abroad if Russia continues to occupy Ukraine or assault the integrity of democratic elections. At a minimum, the West must adopt new laws and regulations to require greater transparency around Russian investments in the United States, Europe, and, as far as possible, the rest of the world. Russian officials and businesspeople tied to the Kremlin cannot be allowed to hide their wealth in the West. Genuine private-sector companies inside Russia should be encouraged to engage with Western markets, but authorities must expose the ill-gotten financial assets that Putin and his cronies have parked abroad. The goal should be to underscore the economic benefits of free markets and access to the West while highlighting the economic costs of state ownership and mercantilist behavior.
On the other side of the equation, Western foundations and philanthropists must provide more support for independent journalism, including Russian-language services both inside and outside Russia. They should fund news organizations that need to locate their servers outside Russia to avoid censorship and help journalists and their sources protect their identities.
More generally, the United States and its democratic allies must understand the scope of their ideological clash with the Kremlin. Putin believes he is fighting an ideological war with the West, and he has devoted tremendous resources to expanding the reach of his propaganda platforms in order to win. The West must catch up.
Containing Russia does not mean rejecting cooperation in every area. The United States selectively cooperated with the Soviet Union during the Cold War; it should do so with Russia now. First on the list must be striking new arms control deals or at least extending existing ones, most urgently New START, which is set to expire in 2021 and contains crucial verification measures. Combating terrorism is another area for potential partnership, as many terrorist organizations consider both Russia and the United States to be their enemies. But such cooperation will have to remain limited since the two countries have different ideas about what groups and individuals qualify as terrorists, and some of Russia’s allies in the fight against terrorism, such as Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, are at odds with the United States. U.S. and Russian officials might also seek to negotiate an agreement limiting mutual cyberattacks. Yet Washington should not pursue engagement as an end in itself. Good relations with Russia or a friendly summit with Putin should be not the goal of U.S. diplomacy but the means to achieve concrete national security ends.
Some might argue that the United States cannot pursue containment and selective cooperation at the same time. The history of the Cold War suggests otherwise. President Ronald Reagan, for example, pursued a policy of regime change against Soviet-backed communist dictatorships in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua while negotiating arms control deals with Soviet leaders.
On global issues in which Russia does not need to be involved, the United States should isolate it. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. presidents have been eager to give their counterparts in the Kremlin symbolic leadership roles as a way to signal respect. Those days are over. Conversations about Russia rejoining the G-8 must end. Western governments should boycott sporting events held in Russia. Let the athletes play, but without government officials in the stands. Given Moscow’s politicization of Interpol arrest requests, Interpol must suspend Russian participation. Even Russia’s presence at NATO headquarters must be rethought. The more the United States can do without Russia, the better.
Even as the United States isolates the Russian government, it must continue to develop ties with Russian society. By canceling exchange programs, banning U.S. civil society organizations, and limiting Western media access to Russian audiences, Putin has tried to cut the Russian people off from the West. The United States and Europe need to find creative ways to reverse this disturbing trend. Happily, far more opportunities exist to do so today than did during the Cold War. Washington should promote student and cultural exchanges, dialogues between U.S. and Russian nongovernmental organizations, trade, foreign investment, and tourism.
But no matter how effective a containment strategy U.S. policymakers put in place, they must be patient. They will have to endure stalemate for a long time, at least as long as Putin is in power, maybe even longer, depending on who succeeds him. In diplomacy, Americans often act like engineers; when they see a problem, they want to fix it. That mentality has not worked with Putin’s Russia, and if tried again, it will fail again.
At the same time, American leaders must say clearly that they do not want endless conflict with Russia. When the current confrontation winds down, most likely because of political change inside Russia, future U.S. presidents must stand ready to seize the moment. They will have to do better at encouraging democracy within Russia and integrating Russia into the West than their predecessors have done. Past politicians and the decisions they made created today’s conflict. New politicians who make different decisions can end it.