One of the things I hope to do with this newsletter is to invite you to think about the foreign-policy challenges faced by the United States and the rest of what we used to call the “free world,” the developed democracies and their partners who created and maintain the global system of peace, trade, and cooperation. I know that it feels like we’re swamped with domestic news, and that’s understandable; we’re staggered from a pandemic, an attempted insurrection against our government, and the continuing problem that one of our two major political parties, the GOP, seems to have lost its collective mind.
But it’s still a dangerous world out there. As you read this, Russia and China together have nearly 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads pointed at the United States. A global catastrophe could erupt and obliterate most of the world in less than 30 minutes. You may wonder why anyone would do such a thing, but no one plans for a cataclysm; countries and their leaders make mistakes and miscalculations.
That’s why it was encouraging to see CIA Director William Burns sent to Russia recently to express U.S. concern about a Russian military buildup—or, more accurately, another Russian buildup—on the border with Ukraine. Engagement and attention matter. But how dangerous is this situation? What should the Biden administration be doing next?
There are some long—very long—answers to those questions, but to get us started, I’ll offer a few guidelines for how to think about Russia. (Frankly, after the groveling that characterized the Trump years, we could all use a refresher on the basics.)
1. There is no underlying reason for geopolitical stress between Russia and the United States.
There’s a scene in the classic Cold War movie Red Dawn where the kids ask a downed Air Force flyer what started World War III. He says, “Two biggest kids on the block, I guess. Sooner or later, they’re gonna fight.” This is old-school realism, but it’s nonsense. America and Russia have a lot more in common on a lot of things—terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, regional stability—than differences in areas where they might disagree (like energy markets). The Cold War was about ideology, not size, and when it was over, we had a relatively peaceable relationship with Russia.
So why can’t we get along?
2. The Russian government is a criminal enterprise led by a boss who will use nationalism and conflict to stay in power.
Putin, like any other Mafia don, isn’t going to retire and go to a dacha (the way Boris Yeltsin was allowed to in 2000). As Tony Soprano said, “There’s two endings for a guy like me, a high-profile guy: dead or in the can.” Putin’s not going to let either of those things happen, and if whipping up a military conflict is what he thinks it’ll take to stay in power, he’ll do it—as we already know.
This is also why Putin is determined to smear the American electoral system and sow chaos in democracies. He can point to our troubles and say, “See? They’re no better than I am. And they’re far less orderly.” Add to that his posturing as the leader of a white Christian bulwark against gays and atheists and vegans and spelling reformers and whatnot, and finding enemies of Mother Russia in the West is a natural strategy.
The corollary here is that the Russian people are not our enemy. They’ve had more than enough of war and deprivation. The Russian government, the men of power in the Kremlin, are the ones who see us, and any democratic system, as a danger.
3. The old Soviet Union is gone, but Putin is a Soviet nostalgist of the worst kind.
Putin, I think, actually believes some of his own gas. He isn’t a Communist—far from it—but he is what the Russians would call a sovok, a “Soviet guy,” a product of The System, a nostalgist for the good old days of the 1970s when the U.S.S.R. was at the top of the heap and those uppity Americans were on their asses. He would like to see Russia dominate Europe, vanquish NATO, and be treated as a world superpower. He restored the old Soviet national anthem as Russia’s national anthem and he openly grieves the end of the U.S.S.R.
A crime boss with a jones for the days of Soviet glory is a dangerous combination.
4. Russia is a weak but exceptionally dangerous country.
Add to all of this that Russia is an insecure giant, a resource-rich nation whose GDP is still stalled somewhere between Brazil’s and Canada’s but whose military is outfitted with excellent arms—and, of course, nuclear weapons. We actually have more reasons to fight with China in the coming years than with Russia, but China—rich, rising, and in need of continued prosperity—is more committed to the status quo than Russia is.
Putin, by contrast, has nothing to lose from continued conflicts around the world and much to gain by presenting himself as a powerful and levelheaded leader who always backs his friends and never throws them over, no matter how awful they are. (Just ask Bashar al-Assad in Syria.)
The danger is that Russia today is just strong enough to get itself into trouble: The Russian military could, for example, invade and overrun our Baltic allies in a short time, but they would inevitably be driven out by superior Western forces and weaponry. This would leave nuclear weapons as the only alternative to a humiliating Russian defeat. (And there’s some evidence that they’ve thought about it.) The surest path to World War III is if Putin thinks he can repeat his success in Crimea by invading a small patch of NATO and creating another “frozen conflict.” This would be a horrendous but understandable miscalculation from a Soviet relic like the Russian president.
This is where the Russians themselves might become part of the problem. As a society, Russia suffers from both an inferiority complex and a certain amount of messianism, and this can sometimes manifest itself in aggressive nationalism.
Almost 40 years ago, during my first trip to the U.S.S.R., I went to a bar in Leningrad, where one of the locals invited me to have a drink. We did the usual toasts to peace, a ritual in those days, but after a few drinks he asked me, “Why does your president”—Ronald Reagan—“want a war?” I was all of 22 years old, and I said, gamely, in my best three-drink Russian, “No one wants a war, including President Reagan. No one would win.” He shook his head and stared at me. “No. We will win. You go back home and you tell Gospodin Reagan”—the Russian term for “mister” that had a very negative connotation in Soviet usage—“that if there’s a war, we will be victorious.”
I decided at that point it was closing time. (For me, anyway.) But that attitude still runs deep in a Russia that sees itself both as a gloriously martial nation and yet as a victim at the same time.
5. America is still the leader of NATO, and NATO is still the line of defense against the Russian regime.
We’re not going to get along very well with Russia as long as Putin’s in charge. We just have to live with that reality. And so until there’s change in Russia, NATO should be front and center in America’s alliances. After Trump’s servile attempts to suck up to Putin by being hostile to NATO, there’s a lot of repair work to be done. (Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” didn’t help, either.) Americans should embrace a return to Atlanticism; even the danger we face from China is mitigated by having a strong Euro-Atlantic alliance of three-quarters of a billion people in the richest and most advanced countries of the world.
What could lead us into conflict with Russia, and what could we do about it? More on that in the coming weeks.