Since Donald Trump took office, Russia has come to hold a unique position in US internal and foreign affairs. It is not simply another ‘rogue state’ in the international arena, but has become a hot-button domestic issue, with ongoing investigations into alleged collusion with the Kremlin.
Trump's personal deference to Vladimir Putin does not reflect the broader picture of tense US–Russia relations. The political and military establishment in Washington sees Russia as a threat, as outlined in the recently published National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defence Strategy (NDS).
The NSS calls Russia a ‘revisionist power’ while the NDS proclaims the US is in ‘strategic competition’ with the Kremlin. Moscow is certainly a challenge for the US: it seeks to reshape the Western-led, rules-based international order, and is using full-spectrum warfare to disrupt Western democracies.
Russia is not afraid to take military action when it feels challenged or perceives a potential geopolitical loss – such as in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria. Russia is also quick to exploit cracks in Western democracies through the sophisticated manipulation of social media and other platforms. Russia actually considers itself at war with the West: this will surely lead to more hostile behaviour.
The Kremlin voluntarily suffers from a siege mentality whereby any political or military move by NATO towards Russia’s proclaimed ‘sphere of influence’ is deemed a security threat. As far as Moscow is concerned, the answer is simple: Russia only wants cooperation on an equal footing with the West, and seeks unequivocal recognition of its ‘legitimate security concerns’ in the European shared neighbourhood and beyond.
America dubbing Russia a competitor suggests to the Kremlin that its strategy to disrupt and destabilize the West is working. It represents a self-fulfilling prophecy, fuelling the Kremlin’s belief that the world should be organized by a concert of great powers, and that cooperation on the West’s terms is not possible in a competitive international system.
Such perceptions have helped shape Russia’s sense of itself as a ‘great power’, now able to damage the post-Cold War Western security architecture. Russia has been nursing grievances against the West since the early 1990s. In this respect, Russian intentions have remained largely the same since 1991: all that has changed is the Kremlin's ability to assert itself and make its intentions a reality.
Russia’s increasing confidence has far-reaching implications for transatlantic security and for the future of the US–Russia relationship. The deterioration in US-Russian relations increases the potential for tactical errors and provocations that could spark military escalation. Many Western relationships with Russia are fraught with Russian brinkmanship, which increases the risk of miscalculation. Potential triggers include Russian jets routinely buzzing NATO surface vessels on the Black and Baltic Seas, unprofessional air interceptions over Syria, and force posture and military exercises in the shared neighbourhood.
With these actions, Russia is exploring the boundaries of escalation and testing the Western response. There is now a vicious circle of warmongering rhetoric and dangerous manoeuvring. For the US and its allies, ‘escalation management’ is therefore paramount regarding Russian deterrence in the NATO shared neighbourhood.
In this environment, the scope for improving the US–Russia relationship or finding mutual interest appears limited. For now, Washington is raising the cost of Russia’s actions through sanctions and quick-fix policies, such as providing lethal weapons to Ukraine. This is not enough.
Washington needs to devise a strategy for US–Russia relations that effectively manages the threat posed by the Kremlin. Trump's national security adviser, HR McMaster, hinted at ‘competitive engagement’ with Moscow in his December 2017 speech. This will have to be done without accommodating the Kremlin and/or striking a ‘grand bargain’ – which would implicitly accept that the current world order is no longer functional. The US will make no such concessions to Russia, according to the recent comments by Jon Huntsman, US ambassador to Russia.
Stability in deterrence will likely be decisive in the year ahead, as Russia will keep trying to edge out US influence in the world and take a bigger share of the international order. It will also be a decisive year in terms of reassurance for NATO allies, and may well see a resolution of sorts in the Mueller investigation into collusion with Russia.
But with the current leaderships in Moscow and in Washington, and as the international system becomes more disordered, the US–Russia relationship will surely get worse. The question is: how much worse?
Mathieu Boulègue, Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.