Engagement, Not Confrontation: The Need for a New US Policy toward Russia

America and Russia are currently engaged in a new Cold War: a conflict marked by mutual suspicion and hostility; confrontation in certain regions of the world, such as Ukraine and Syria; and at least potential military competition. Over a quarter-century after the last Cold War ended with the Soviet Union’s formal dissolution in December 1991, the world once again faces the possibility of open military conflict breaking out between the Soviet Union’s heir—the Russian Federation—and the United States, with the catastrophic consequences such conflict might involve. This situation must not continue.

Avoiding war and de-escalating tensions between the United States and Russia should be top priorities for US policy makers and citizens. The prospects for such a rapprochement are currently dismal, however. While alleged conspiratorial connections between US President Donald Trump and his associates on the one hand and the Russian government on the other receive much attention, what is often overlooked is how the new president has continued existing hawkish policies toward Russia.[1]

Consider all the current US policies that could reasonably be viewed by Russian policy makers as threats to their country’s interests, either because they extend American power into Eastern Europe or northern Asia or because they directly harm Russia or a Russian ally. As of mid-2017, the United States continues to station military personnel in Poland.[2] These personnel are part of the increased NATO troop deployments in Eastern Europe that were a response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. The expansion of NATO that started in the 1990s also goes on, with Montenegro joining the military alliance this year.[3] 

Meanwhile, as part of another ongoing policy begun in response to the Crimean annexation and Ukrainian civil war, the United States is providing military training and advice to the government of Ukraine.[4] The US deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe, first undertaken by George W. Bush before being continued in a more limited form by Barack Obama, also continues.[5] The same is true of an anti-missile system deployed to South Korea.[6] In addition to all these extensions of American power, economic sanctions that were placed on Russia because of the Crimea annexation have not been lifted: indeed, the Trump administration has imposed new economic sanctions on Russia.[7] 

Moreover, while continuing these existing hawkish policies, Trump has heightened tensions between the United States and Russia by escalating American involvement in the Syrian civil war. Since Trump became president, the United States has repeatedly attacked Syrian government forces.[8] Because Russia is offering political and military assistance to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, American attacks on Syrian forces increase US-Russian antagonism. Such attack also make direct confrontation between American military forces and Russian ones more likely. The Russian Defense Ministry has already warned that US planes that enter the Russian area of air force operations in Syria may be regarded as targets.[9].​

The current hostile US-Russian relationship cannot be allowed to continue. American peace activists must act now to encourage a policy of engagement with Russia. Our goal should be for the US government to de-escalate tensions with Russia and to replace the current hostile relationship with a more civil and cooperative one. To advocate such a stance is not to overlook the myriad injustices perpetrated by Vladimir Putin’s regime—repressive domestic policies, the invasion of Ukraine, backing Assad’s brutal war against the Syrian people—but to recognize which approach to Russia is most beneficial to US national security.

Americans must recognize that while Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria may have been unjust or even barbaric, they do not pose a threat to the United States. That is, Russia’s actions do not threaten the safety or well-being of American citizens or the independence or territorial integrity of the United States. Recent Russian policies do not necessarily presage some grand plan of conquest in Europe or the Middle East but are consistent with limited goals meant to protect Russian national interests: in Ukraine, by securing influence in a country important to Russian security and identity; and in Syria, by protecting a Russian ally in the region.[10] Engaging Russia can coexist with protecting American national security. To persist in a confrontational policy toward Russia, however, carries two major but very different risks.

The first risk is that a US-Russian relationship characterized by mutual suspicion, an arms race, and friction in various “flashpoint” regions such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East will lead to open military conflict. Any such conflict means at best the loss of life and at worst  escalation to the nuclear level. The necessity of avoiding this risk is clear.

The second risk is that a second Cold War between the United States and Russia could lead to a similar outcome as the first one. Economic sanctions and low oil prices (oil being a vital Russian resource) have already taken a toll on the Russian economy—which is clearly weaker than the American one.[11] The continued economic burden of sanctions and unpredictable oil prices, combined with a new arms race, may result in some kind political upheaval within Russia.

To many policy makers and others in the United States, this outcome might appear to be eminently desirable. From their perspective, such a scenario would constitute “victory” in the new Cold War, as it would diminish Russia’s ability to compete against the United States. Even “victory” carries serious dangers, however.

While Vladimir Putin’s statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” was hyperbole, it reflected how tragic the aftermath of the Soviet state’s dissolution was for Russia.[12] The decade of the 1990s was marked by a series of crises for the new Russian Federation. The economy contracted dramatically and suffered a series of upheavals related to low oil prices and the 1997-1998 financial crisis that led to the savings of millions being wiped out.[13] A violent separatist movement arose in the Caucasus, leading to a bloody war and the Russian federal government effectively losing control over the separatist region (the region subsequently became a center of criminal and terrorist activity).[14] The Russian military, which was already suffering in the late Soviet era from poor training and housing, as well as indiscipline, experienced shortages of funds and equipment in the post-Soviet period.[15] Divisions between the president and parliament led to bitter, and in one case violent, confrontations.[16]

A repetition of the Russian experience in the 1990s is not a scenario responsible American policy makers should risk. Political and economic instability in one country can eventually affect others, and such a ripple effect is of particular concern when the unstable nation possesses one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world. A Russia wracked by political instability is one where military chains of command can become confused or where the national government can lose effective control of territory and the nuclear weapons based there. An economically unstable Russia with a cash-starved military establishment is one where military personnel could sell weapons and expertise, including the nuclear kind, on the black market.

In a worst-case scenario, Russian political or economic instability could cause nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists, such as those who have been active in the Caucasus. The danger of such a scenario is already growing. The United States and Russia used to cooperate in efforts to secure nuclear materials in Russia and other nations. As a result of the current chill in US-Russian relations, however, these cooperative efforts have been suspended.[17]

A situation in which confrontation with the United States pushes Russia into a weak, unstable condition is almost as dangerous as one in which open war breaks out between the two countries. A politically and economically stable Russia is in the United States’ interests.

Engaging Russia will be a complex diplomatic process, and the precise details will need to be worked out and adjusted by American policy makers over the long term. The broad outlines of engagement, however, should be as follows:

1. The United States should not pursue further expansion of NATO, particularly in traditional Russian areas of interest such as Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

2. In the case of Ukraine, the United States should make it clear—through a formal diplomatic agreement, if necessary—that Ukraine will never be permitted to become part of NATO.

3. The recently increased NATO military presence in Eastern Europe should be reduced (gradually, if necessary) to its previous levels.

4. The missile defense systems in Eastern Europe and South Korea should be cancelled, as the Russians perceive these systems as provocations (the Korean system is also provocative to China).

5. American efforts to overthrow Assad’s regime in Syria or to assist others in doing so should be abandoned.

6. Joint US-Russian efforts to reduce both nations’ nuclear arsenals and to secure nuclear materials must be resumed at the earliest possible opportunity.

In essence, the United States needs to respect Russia’s (to use an old-fashioned term) sphere of influence and to avoid policies that could justly be interpreted as provocative.

To engage Russia in this fashion does not guarantee that Vladimir Putin or a future Russian leader will never engage in further aggression, whether in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, or elsewhere. Engagement is by no means an infallible, risk-free approach. It is, however, a less risky, more constructive approach toward Russia than confrontation.

Moreover, engagement does not require that American policy makers or activists condone or ignore the many injustices perpetrated by Vladimir Putin’s regime. Instead, engagement requires an ability to distinguish between Russian actions that are unjust or violate human rights and those that threaten the security of the United States. While Putin might pose a threat to Ukrainians, Syrians, or even Russians, he has yet to pose a serious threat to Americans. To treat Russia as a threat, however, and to respond with economic sanctions, provocative military build-ups, and brinkmanship is likely to foster dangers to the United States from Russia rather than avert them.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.


[1] I have not attempted to address here the highly complex issue of Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election and whether any illegal or otherwise inappropriate collaboration took place between the Russian government and Trump. That topic is beyond the scope and available space of this article. I will say only that current congressional and Justice Department investigations should be pursued in full and any actual wrongdoing prosecuted. 

[2] “Near The Russian Border, U.S. And NATO Beef Up Their Presence,” NPR, November 30, 2016, http://n.pr/2jKj03K; Lida Kelly, “NATO Deploys Troops to Poland while Concerns about Country’s Army Rise,” Reuters, April 13, 2017, http://reut.rs/2u1tqlo.

[3] “Montenegro Joins NATO as 29th Ally,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, June 9, 2017, http://bit.ly/2sJXNvg.

[4] “Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine,” United States Army Europe, accessed May 10, 2016, http://bit.ly/2nKZE3r; Charlsy Panzino, “Amid Russia Tensions, US Army Continues to Build Up Ukrainian Forces, Training Center,” Army Times, June 8, 2017, http://bit.ly/2u1MwrF.

[5] Ryan Browne, “U.S. Launches Long-Awaited European Missile Defense Shield,” CNN, May 12, 2016, http://cnn.it/1T9Nqg3.

[6] Jesse Johnson, “China, Russia Take Aim at U.S. Anti-missile System Planned for Deployment in South Korea,” Japan Times, January 13, 2017, http://bit.ly/2jvUfZP; Thomas Watkins, THAAD Missile Defense System Now Operational in S. Korea,” Agence France-Presse, May 1, 2017, https://yhoo.it/2pBRMCG.

[7] Alan Rappeport and Neil MacFarquhar, “Trump Imposes New Sanctions on Russia over Ukraine Incursion,” New York Times, June 20, 2017, 

​[8] Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Matt Spetalnick, “U.S. Warplane Downs Syrian Army Jet in Raqqa Province,” Reuters, June 19, 2017, http://reut.rs/2sFUTLx; Joshua Keating, “The U.S. Attacked Syria Again. What’s Going On?,” Slate, May 18, 2017, http://slate.me/2un7fps.

[9] “Russia Cuts Deconfliction Channel with Washington after US Downs Syrian Jet,” Tass, June 19, 2017, http://bit.ly/2tjWfcP.

​[10] For an analysis of Russian actions in Ukraine, see my essay, “Preventing a New Cold War: A Proposal for Solving the Ukraine Crisis,” Life Matters Journal 3, no. 4 (2015): 11-19.

​[11] Holly Ellyatt, “These Are the Only Sanctions That Russia Cares about,” CNBC, August 16, 2016, http://cnb.cx/2bzaBjS; Daniel J. Graeber, “Russia Could Miss Some Economic Targets,” United Press International, October 31, 2016, http://bit.ly/2iUFcIF.  

[12] Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 278.

​[13] Ibid., 86, 119-120, 122, 128.

​[14] Ibid., 142-143, 154-155.

​[15] David R. Stone, A Military History of Russia: From Ivan the Terrible to the War in Chechnya (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2006), 235, 241, 243.

​[16] Myers, The New Tsar, 86, 87, 128-129.

​[17] Bryan Bender, “Russia Ends US Nuclear Security Alliance,” Boston Globe, January 19, 2015, http://bit.ly/2iTn8P2; Bryan Bender, “US-Russia Work on Nuclear Materials in Jeopardy,” Boston Globe, August 3, 2014, http://bit.ly/1zXpm2t.

© 2017 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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