Strategic Competition

The U.S. presidential election regularly raises the question how the new president will influence relations between Russia and America. Every U.S. political cycle is accompanied by hopes of change for the better. So it was after the election of Donald Trump, who was practically considered to be the Kremlin’s appointee, according to “witnesses” who testified about Russian interference in the election. Yet at the same time, even in the twilight of his presidential term, Trump has decided to expand anti-Russian sanctions to include the SVR, the Ministry of Defense, Rostec, Oboronprom, Irkut, MiG, Russian Helicopters, Tupolev, OAK, Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company, SRC Progress, and the special aviation detachment Russia, which is used by all official delegations of the Russian Federation.

So it was with Barack Obama, whose empathy and youth were deemed a good basis for dialogue. So it was with many other presidents as well. Soon enough, hope vanished. Even if friendly ties developed between the state leaders, the structure and routine of foreign policy flattened out their positive charge.

Joe Biden, winner of the latest presidential election, is the rare president over the last few decades who doesn’t raise false hope and expectations in Moscow. Biden is an experienced and professional figure who has directly or indirectly influenced policy toward the Soviet Union and Russia for almost half a century. Observers should hardly harbor illusions about a “fresh look” at Russia. It will be in keeping with the structure of our relations and the basic constants in the course of U.S. policy regarding Russia. It’s necessary to soberly assess the nature of our interaction as well as the strategic trends of the American administration’s policy.

Russia is one of America’s key rivals, as well as one of its most dangerous. Despite the weakness of its economy, the Russian Federation is a major military power that makes decisions on its own and is prepared to defend them. Although Russia is inferior to what the Soviet Union was in terms of its ideological, military and especially economic influence, it is important as a participant in potential anti-American coalitions. For the time being, Washington is turning a blind eye to the prospect of an alliance between Russia and China. In the U.S., China is also considered a key rival, albeit of a different kind. The basic assumption, to all appearances, is that at present, such an alliance isn’t in the interest of either Moscow or Beijing. It seems the U.S. is confident that it can successfully contain and gradually crush both countries, all the more since their policy in the political and military sphere is still far from one of allied consolidation.

From the American point of view, Russia poses a threat or challenge to the U.S. from most angles: in Europe, in Asia, in the Middle East, as well as in the key functional areas of nuclear issues, digital technology, space, etc. At the same time, there are extremely few areas where Russia is vitally important or at least simply important for the U.S. At best, it is a question of preserving dialogue on arms control, cooperation in the Arctic, episodic coordination in the fight against terrorism, unclear partnership on climate, the remnants of cooperation in space, and paltry economic ties. The Russian diaspora in America has long since assimilated and doesn’t represent a lobbying force of its own.

Biden and his administration will work toward the following strategic objectives in relations with Russia:

1) At a minimum, containing Russia and counterbalancing its military potential, and achieving complete superiority in all key classes of arms and military technology at the maximum. Strictly speaking, the maximum objective here is optional. Even if the U.S. lags behind in some new classes of weapons, it is unlikely that it would allow Russia to radically change the balance of power, undermine U.S. security, and earn any serious dividends. In the best case, it would allow Moscow to maintain its own security, and intermittently hinder the U.S. in the achievement of its domestic objectives.

That said, by the look of things, the ideal objective for the U.S. in this direction would be the radical disarmament of Russia using the model of 1945 Germany. This could be achieved either through a military defeat of Russia or as the result of a radical shake-up of its political system and subsequent reconfiguration from within. The first scenario shouldn’t be discounted, but its cost for the U.S. is significant. The second scenario is cheaper and safer, especially considering the collapse and self-destruction of the Soviet Union. Hence the importance of the second objective;

2) Destabilizing the Russian political regime. Doing that is often associated with financing the opposition, the ideological indoctrination of particular “pro-Western” audiences, the information war, etc. But this is merely part of the picture, and not the most important part. All these measures can be viewed merely as bacilli that would barely harm a healthy body. The Soviet Union did not collapse due to these factors by any means, though these issues were involved. It collapsed under the weight of its own problems, the neglect and subsequent loss of control of the republics. Washington might act on the assumption that the same scenario could possibly work in modern Russia, too.

It’s enough not to interfere with the further flourishing of Russia’s systemic problems: corruption, the dubious effectiveness of the government, and problems with the rule of law. Ardent crusaders against “Western interference” will merely help reach this goal. Like Brezhnevian cadres, they will mop up initiatives, bureaucratize the system, and further undermine the law for the sake of imaginary security. The inveterate supporters of mopping up anything and everything are the best allies the U.S. has in achieving its objectives;

3) Economically and technologically containing Russia. To some extent, this objective may be achieved through sanctions and restrictions on trade, investment, finance and technology. Yet here, too, this is only part of the problem. Even before its major falling-out with the U.S. and the West in 2014, Russia couldn’t overcome its marginal economic status, despite having significant financial resources, access to global capital markets and other benefits. Today, the situation is more difficult. Economic conditions are far less favorable, while the political risks for foreign economic ties are becoming ever higher. It’s enough for the U.S. merely to gradually heat up the kettle.

All this, of course, doesn’t preclude cooperation or at least interacting on some issues. There are discrete focal points of business cooperation, educational projects and person-to-person contact. Two realities may well coexist. But the policy will inevitably return to the three “major coordinates” of Russian-American relations outlined above. Even if one allows for major concessions to Russia on the Donbass or other issues, such concessions are unlikely to change this vector. It has taken root quite firmly in the United States. And that means any concessions for the sake of a nominal improvement in relations with Washington are unacceptable.

What should Russia do in such a situation?

1) Preserve and develop its defense potential, taking into account the latest global achievements in science and engineering. This is a time-consuming and costly task. Many weapons systems don’t allow us to solve the current problems of foreign policy. But they guarantee that Moscow at a certain stage won’t turn into the Belgrade of 1999. Russia has the capacity to asymmetrically contain the U.S., even assuming American superiority.

2) Build, in a consistent manner, a state based on the rule of law, an open society, and highly effective governance. Such a state would be more difficult to destabilize from the outside, no matter how active the propaganda, information war, and intelligence operations. Mopping-up operations and excessive “verticalization” will give the illusion of security, but in fact, they will undermine it.

3) Maintain ties with the world economy with the understanding that globalization is contracting under the influence of the political rivalry among major powers. This means there is a need for diversifying trade ties and for self-reliance in strategic sectors.

At the same time, these measures are purely defensive. Is it possible to act in the offense? Quite possible. And Russia should hardly copy American objectives. We’re unlikely to outdo Washington in absolute power terms. The U.S. political system has too large a margin of strength to try to undermine it by the same means that the Americans themselves use against their opponents. It would also be difficult for us to build viable global economic alternatives. What to do?

First and foremost, we should exploit the trends in modern international relations. Among them are the rise of China, the instability of anti-Chinese coalitions, the competition of technological platforms, changes in ideological coordinates and values, etc. Next, we should carry out focused yet high-intensity actions in regions and functional areas where Russia has gained experience and has the capacity for an active policy. Finally, the attractiveness and competitiveness of the Russian model itself, its value system and way of life, are important. Achieving this objective requires the country to realize and rediscover its own identity. It requires time, patience and a ton of work, which by no means must always amount to ceremonies and public relations. It requires that which will bring dividends for the years and decades to come.

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About Jeffrey Fredrich 199 Articles
Jeffrey studied Russian language at Northwestern University and at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He spent one year in Moscow doing independent research as a Fulbright fellow from 2007 to 2008.

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