Putin Has Made Russia America’s Top Spoiler, Not Its Global Peer
Russia has dominated the U.S. foreign policy discussion in recent weeks, and it has been an international issue making headlines throughout the U.S. presidential election campaign. With its actions in Syria and Ukraine, its probing of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, and its apparent interference in the U.S. campaign, Russia has certainly got Washington’s attention – which it clearly wants. However, this has only succeeded in making Russia the number one nuisance in the eyes of the United States, not the respected global peer President Vladimir Putin wants it to be.
Russia longs for a multipolar world in which it is a major player with its spheres of privileged influence. It also wants to be accepted as an unavoidable power for addressing global issues, effectively having the ability to check any U.S. foreign policy initiatives. And Putin’s actions show he wants the United States to recognize Russia as its equal in Europe.
As far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned, though, geopolitics is a table with many seats. Russia will continue to be only one of several priorities for the next administration. Even if, as one observer puts it, “Putin’s message is that Russia will start acting as an equal, whether or not the U.S. wants to treat it as one,” overestimating the Russian challenge would be as mistaken as underestimating it. Unlike during the Cold War, Russia cannot be a binary geopolitical adversary for the United States; rather it is a major spoiler to be dealt with. Its ability to spoil has certainly encouraged Putin to take high-risk actions in places like Syria, Georgia, and Ukraine. But Russia’s success is more measured by its ability to undermine U.S. goals in these theaters, rather than that to directly confront the United States.
There is no doubt that Russia’s behavior poses a threat to Eastern Europe and has changed the American security calculus in the region. (The same might be true in the Middle East.) It has driven the United States back to a more active security presence in Europe, perhaps at some cost to the more important matter of dealing with the long-term challenges posed by China’s rise in Asia and globally. But this still does not add up to making Russia a primary, sole global adversary as the U.S. election rhetoric may suggest.
While taking the challenge seriously, the next administration is unlikely to return Russia to the status of ultimate geopolitical adversary. This will be true even if Hillary Clinton, who is widely expected to be more confrontational toward Russia than President Barack Obama has been, wins the election. For his part, Donald Trump regularly voices pro-Russia and pro-Putin sentiments, though no one can confidently predict what the foreign policy of a Trump administration might actually be.
Despite the state of the relationship, American policymakers cannot rule out the possibility that Putin might make “friendlier” overtures to reengage in a transactional relationship over specific issues, such as counter-terrorism cooperation. While they would likely be receptive on a case-by-case basis, they would also be deeply suspicious given the lack of trust on both sides. The United States has more or less given up on expecting significant progress with regard to Russia while Putin is in power.
In the short or medium term, a broader “reset” in the relationship is unimaginable for most in Washington. Even if there are some transactional steps that can be taken jointly with Russia in the coming years, few experts or policymakers expect that these can amount to building blocks for a better and more stable relationship in the longer term. Rather, they will only address immediate overlapping interests.
The irony for Putin is that his actions to try to force the United States to approach Russia as a geopolitical peer to be respected and accommodated have so eroded trust among American policymakers that they have made such an outcome less likely. The United States will keep addressing its relationship with Russia as it is today – a dysfunctional and transactional one at best, focused on minimizing Russia’s ability to play the spoiler, and with no foreseeable prospect of a major improvement.