How Reflexive Hostility to Russia Harms U.S. Interests

Washington Needs a More Realistic Approach

A general view shows the Spasskaya Tower and the Kremlin wall in central Moscow, Russia, May 2016. Sergei Karpukhin / REUTERS

During his confirmation hearing last week, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, took a tough stance on Russia, describing it as “a danger to our country,” even as Democrats criticized him for being insufficiently harsh. This is typical in the era of Trump, when those on both sides of the aisle routinely portray Russia as a dire threat to the United States. This bipartisan enmity toward Russia has pushed even Trump, whose rhetoric on the country often vacillates between open hostility and admiration, to adopt reflexively hawkish policies, from purposeless sanctions to nuclear saber rattling.

But rather than altering Russian behavior, these policies are all too often making the situation worse. A more effective Russia policy is possible. It would acknowledge the difficult realities of today’s U.S.-Russian relationship while focusing on both deterrence and reengagement, as needed. Regrettably, it cannot be achieved so long as the United States’ reaction to Russian actions is reflexive hostility and confrontation.


It is not surprising, given Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, that many Americans are hostile to Russia. Although the scope of the interference remains unclear—and the impact questionable—it nonetheless feels like a violation. Yet today’s inflammatory rhetoric is still notable. Former Vice President Joe Biden recently wrote, for example, that “the Russian government is brazenly assaulting the foundations of Western democracy.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, has called on Trump to “train his fire on the foreign adversary, Russia, that attacked us.” And Democratic Representative André Carson of Indiana warned of a “new Iron Curtain descending across Europe.”

Unfortunately, this threatening rhetoric not only serves to keep tensions high but also produces knee-jerk policy responses focused on mindless confrontation. Take last year’s sanctions legislation, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Although sanctions are rarely effective, the Obama administration’s Russia sanctions were

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