CHUKOTKA, A Russian region marginally larger than Texas, lies some three miles from the Alaskan coast. This startling proximity illustrates a fact of enormous significance for relations between the world’s two major nuclear powers, though one that is practically ignored by Americans from Main Street to Capitol Hill. Besides its largely peaceful borders with Canada and Mexico, the United States has a third neighbor—Russia.
The U.S.-Russian relationship has long been overshadowed by cycles of engagement and confrontation, culminating in the twentieth century with a Cold War that lasted over four decades. At the turn of the millennium, Americans no longer thought of Russia as a serious adversary. Indeed, they no longer thought of Russia much at all. In recent years, Russia has come roaring back into headlines thanks to its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and its intrusion into the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
More recently, Russia has been elevated to the status of a great-power competitor, right alongside China—which it calls a “strategic partner”—in the foreign-policy and national-security outlook now dominant in Washington. And the Russia preoccupation goes well beyond the U.S. government. No cable news debate, no investigative article, no district-level “town hall” meeting, can escape at least some mention of Russia and its role in the world, including right here at home.
Yet for many Americans, Russia itself remains psychologically far away. Russia is uniquely inscrutable. It is too close for comfort, meddling where it does not belong, and at the same time too distant to really matter. U.S.-Russia relations, we are often advised, would best serve the U.S. national interest if Russia could be compelled to back off, to withdraw all influence from Europe and the Middle East—to politely disappear from the future scene after acknowledging its regrettable history of wrongdoing.
Russia will not disappear, of course, and so it is essential to develop a revised approach to U.S.-Russia relations. Instead of friend or foe, it’s time for Russia to be viewed as the third neighbor of the United States. In an interconnected international environment, geography can matter less than psychology. Very often strategy begins in psychology, and what the United States needs in relation to Russia is the psychology of a neighbor.
Neighbors are rarely strangers to the irritations of proximity, which can include bristling resentment at perceived violations as well as hot and cold varieties of conflict. They are prone to complain about one another and to bicker over shared spaces and resources. Neighbors also know one another, and benefit from that knowledge. Although some neighborhoods are conflict zones, all neighbors have a vested interest in having their neighborhood not be a conflict zone—and in having their neighborhood prosper. The obvious mutual advantages of a good neighborhood and of neighborly relations are by no means a guarantee of either. Both require constant attention, work, and no small amount of compromise. Sometimes the best that can be attained is a degree of partnership amid tension.
An American “third neighbor” strategy toward Russia should rest on several pillars. The first requires knowing Russia far better, as well as developing a nuanced awareness of its history, and of the patterns and perceptions that have shaped the U.S.-Russian relationship over time. What matters here is not merely the story of conflict or the story of cooperation, but the story of conflict-and-cooperation, going back to the 1930s. This story furnishes key policy lessons while endowing those who study it with a feel for context and a realistic set of expectations. It shapes communication by honing the essential ability to behave respectfully and to conduct difficult conversations without abandoning one’s own principles.
The second pillar is a keen understanding of what each neighbor wants or believes is its entitled lot. What are the U.S. and Russian national interests at stake within this relationship? They are seldom found in either perfect, clean convergence or in divergence, and managing the U.S.-Russian relationship involves an interplay of common and unlike interests, overlaid with interpretations of international order unique to the United States and unique to Russia. Diplomatic relations between Moscow and Washington are burdened by the antithetical domestic political cultures of Russia and the United States. Even a single historical event—the Second World War, for example—can be interpreted very, very differently in both countries. Centuries of history have left each neighbor similarly ambitious but almost never ambitious about international order in the same way.
Finally, a new U.S.-Russia strategy should balance resilience toward Russian intrusions with an acceptance of, and engagement with, Russia as a near neighbor in world affairs. A formidable military force capable of global power projection, Russia will pursue its interests vigorously in the future. For American foreign policy to succeed in general, a functional, working relationship with Russia is crucial. U.S.-Russian relations are thus integral to American global interests, and to the kind of wider international neighborhood the United States intends to inhabit and to foster.
THE PAST hundred years have witnessed recurring conflict between Russia and the United States. As Americans became increasingly skeptical toward tsarist autocracy in the nineteenth century, high hopes were attached to Russia’s early moves toward liberation, including the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. But the Bolshevik takeover in November 1917, and its unfolding aftermath of civil war, collectivization, class warfare, repression, and famine, were glaring affronts to American values. The United States did not recognize the Soviet government until 1933. Six years later, the Nazi-Soviet Pact put Moscow and Washington at odds, though not precisely at war.
An alliance of necessity during the later war years resulted in a shared victory in 1945 that in turn precipitated renewed conflict. To their pre-existing ideological differences, Washington and Moscow added the impossible challenge of reconciling competing visions for postwar Europe, starting with an occupied and divided Germany. Distrust arose quickly, and neither side was comfortable with the influence wielded by the other. Stalemate in Europe solidified when the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb in 1949, touching off a full-fledged arms race in warheads, aircraft, missiles, and eventually even manned rocket ships.
Circles of tension rippled out in multiple domains—military, political, ideological, and in espionage, the Cold War domain par excellence. In the fall of 1962 and then again in the early 1980s, tensions threatened to spiral into outright war. Though cooler heads and dumb luck prevented direct U.S.-Soviet military confrontation on those terrifying occasions, Moscow and Washington could not be prevented from waging proxy wars, from Korea to Afghanistan, and Vietnam to Central America. These Cold War expeditions into the “third world” reflected the original failure, in 1945, to create a fully and mutually accepted security architecture in Europe, whose stability could be the basis for balancing competing interests elsewhere around the globe.
Nonetheless, running through and beneath these recurring episodes of conflict is a compelling history of U.S.-Russia cooperation. Tsar Alexander II supported the Union in the Civil War, sent a fleet to San Francisco to defend that vital port city from a potential British-French blockade, and even anticipated Lincoln’s emancipation of enslaved African Americans with his own liberation of Russian serfs in 1861. Teddy Roosevelt helped to broker the peace that ended the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, known to history as the Treaty of Portsmouth, New Hampshire—a location Roosevelt chose to escape the summer heat in Washington, DC.
For a few years in the 1930s, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed on the malevolence of Nazi Germany, a precursor of sorts to the World War II alliance, which Stalin betrayed by signing a nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1939. In 1941 and 1942, American food and materiel kept the Soviet Union in the fight, and the U.S. invasion of North Africa in 1942 and then of Europe enabled the Soviets to break the back of the Nazi war machine on the Eastern front.
Cooperation on security and economic issues came more naturally after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991: between Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. The extensive history of U.S.-Russian cooperation shows the potential in this relationship for conflict resolution as well as advancing common interests, not just for establishing the occasional marriage of convenience.
Precisely because the histories of cooperation and conflict run side by side, Washington and Moscow have at times been willing to cooperate even while enmeshed in conflict with one another. This was a key dynamic of the Cold War: the space race gave rise to Apollo-Soyuz and its offspring, the International Space Station; fears of environmental catastrophe spawned the first agreements on limiting nuclear testing; even the Potsdam Conference, which in 1945 ended up frustrating Moscow and Washington alike, held off direct conflict at a moment when Soviet superiority in conventional forces and a U.S. monopoly on nuclear weapons raised tensions to a fever pitch.
What Potsdam left unfinished was later taken up in Helsinki. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 emerged out of grueling diplomatic labor, conducted over several years. Helsinki diplomacy contains ironic lessons. By the early 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union each saw the other as an enduring power that could not be defeated in direct confrontation. Hence, the two countries approached one another as neighbors, and engaged in actual diplomacy.
A close look at U.S.-Russian relations after 1991 reveals cooperation coexisting with conflict—at least in Russia’s perception of matters. Russia always opposed NATO enlargement. It opposed the Kosovo War. It opposed the Iraq War launched in 2003. Then, the United States opposed the Russia-Georgia War of 2008. None of this precluded an overall reset of relations in 2009, allowing for agreements on arms control and even joint activities in support of common objectives in Afghanistan.
Cooperation-amid-conflict can be theoretically and morally unsatisfying. It is unstable by definition, driven more by the necessity to cope than the desire to win. But given the massive nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States as well as their sprawling global equities, it has proven its worth. At its best, the tension inherent to cooperation-amid-conflict has been an aid to the diplomatic imagination. It has inhibited zero-sum thinking and prevented worst-case scenarios from being realized.
WERE THE United States to pay serious attention to the interests of its Russian neighbor, what would it find? For post-Soviet Russia, the United States has been a serious problem. While Americans took satisfaction in the Cold War’s end, their lives were little changed. By contrast, life in Russia was radically transformed. Viewed from Russia, the United States government exploited the ensuing power vacuum to extend an “American system”—at times by invitation (NATO enlargement) and at times through force (the Kosovo War, the Iraq War). Russia felt disadvantaged by this arrangement and under Putin has pushed back. In an encapsulation attributed to Putin himself, Russia has been “rising from its knees,” economically and technologically. Later, Moscow advanced a far more assertive political and military posture worldwide.
Russian interests stem from a historically rooted and widely accepted view that the security of the state itself is paramount, because without it, there can be no safety, freedom, or prosperity for Russian families and individuals. This is certainly the premise of Putin’s avowedly statist regime. As a consequence, Moscow seeks to push problems onto the periphery and maximize leverage—by persuasion if possible and by coercion if necessary. (Washington is not so different on the issue of leverage.) Better conflict in Georgia, Ukraine, or Syria than at home. Better to impose terms on the international order than to have the international order impose terms on you. Russia’s goal is not to defeat or replace the United States; Russia lacks the requisite power, and knows it. The goal is to contain the United States and to check its power within a fluid, transactional, and multipolar international order. This is not the international order Russia wants to create. It is the order Moscow believes to be already in existence, and within which it is destined to operate.
U.S. interests (where Russia is concerned) are somewhat more diffuse. Immediately after the Cold War, the United States attempted to integrate Russia into an international order defined by democracy and market capitalism, but this project never gelled. Once Russia revealed itself to be an actor outside the script the United States had attempted to write for it, conflict ensued. The United States lamented Russia’s drive to push instability to its periphery, at first in the post-Soviet space. An aspirational containment, which was incapable of reversing Russian advances into Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, then confronted Russia’s challenge to the integrity of the NATO alliance in Europe, and its efforts to alter the regional order in the Middle East, empowering Iran and imperiling Israel. In line with this renewed containment imperative, the United States has drawn a line in the sand on democracy, resisting and deterring intrusions (cyber or otherwise) into its domestic politics and into the domestic politics of U.S. allies. If Russia is not the only source of this problem, it is the foreign country most willing to employ the many disruptive tools at its disposal.
Despite the divergence in worldview, Russia and the United States are neighbors not only in some overlapping global interests, and not just in the shared space of international contests, running the gamut from diplomatic spats to armed conflict. Like any neighbors sensible of themselves and their surroundings, Moscow and Washington also share a basic interest in limiting the costs of adversity—especially those cases which threaten to bring the two into direct confrontation.
The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has forced both sides to reckon with the vast unanticipated costs of public-health responses, social-support programs, and reinvestment in devastated economies—despite differences in the pandemic’s timeline and scope of its impact in the two countries. In the years ahead, both sides will also need to re-evaluate spending priorities and to rethink the meaning of national security. While this process may or may not yield opportunities for cooperation between the United States and Russia, it will certainly cast the costs of the current conflict in a new light.
The Ukraine crisis has already forced much greater U.S. defense expenditures in the European theater, while U.S./EU sanctions have slowed the Russian economy. More severe sanctions could be devastating to Russia, and anything resembling war between Russia and a NATO member state would be immensely costly to both sides. The breakdown in arms control between Moscow and Washington risks profligate spending on a new arms race.
As in the Cold War, unconstrained competition between Moscow and Washington is potentially ruinous for both sides. The dangers are most acute and most obvious in the military sphere. An accident, a misread signal, or an excess of bravado could lead to an escalatory spiral. Precisely because each country has a nuclear arsenal capable of practically obliterating the other, there is almost zero chance of one side emerging victorious. Not for nothing is uniformed military “deconfliction” one of the few functional channels of U.S.-Russian dialogue at present.
The challenge of the U.S.-Russian relationship is that the overall interests of the two sides cannot be easily harmonized, and neither side is much inclined to prioritize limited areas of cooperation or compatibility over deeply felt differences. Too much conciliation and one side perceives itself as the loser. Too much tension and both sides lose, and potentially lose everything. Even if there is a median, it is unlikely to be a happy one.
DOES THE difficulty of finding compromise amid incompatible interests necessarily condemn neighbors to conflict? Not necessarily. Neighbors have the option of being clear with one another about their interests and red lines; each has the option of acquiring sufficiently deep knowledge of the other to understand disputes in their full context. In the best case, U.S. strategy towards its Russian neighbor would reflect the sum total of U.S. interests, balanced against the risks of opposing interests Russia considers vital and against the potential gains of cooperation, limited as they may be.
Faced with a multiplicity of ongoing direct and proxy confrontations with Moscow, Washington must consistently advocate and actively defend its own vital interests. It should clearly communicate its redlines to Russia: the security of NATO member states; political and economic stability in Europe, as well as Israel, Japan, and other regional allies’ security; American democratic politics unharmed by outside meddling. Having communicated these redlines, the United States must be willing to enforce them in ways that will be taken seriously by Russia. This may be sanctions or diplomacy but can at other times include adjustments in military force posture or even use of kinetic, cyber, or other coercive measures. Anything less risks eroding the deterrent logic of American redlines for Moscow.
Containing the costs of conflict between neighbors is a broader interest Americans must simultaneously pursue. At home, this means resisting any tendency to inflate threats emanating from Russia, as was common during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was in fact a far more formidable enemy than today’s Russia could ever be. Externally, it entails consistent, regular diplomatic engagement with Russia, starting with heads of state and the national-security bureaucracy from political to working levels. Remarkably, there has not been such engagement between the two countries since 2011.
For de-escalation or diminution of tension to be possible at all, it must be shown to be desirable in the first place. As long as the leading official and public voices of both sides insist on an outcome to the current conflict that resembles America’s “victory” in the Cold War, or that of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany, there can be no effective containment of the costs of conflict or the risks of escalation. It is here that the history of cooperation-amid-conflict over more than a century can be drawn upon, in both countries, for practical examples and for inspiration.
A successful American strategy will be sufficiently guided by an awareness of Russian interests and perspectives to recognize where added pressure may be warranted, and when the better path may be either compromise or outright line-drawing, recalling Robert Frost’s hoary maxim that good fences make for good neighbors. Washington should eschew moralizing about Russia as a many-tentacled malign creature or as some twenty-first-century incarnation of the Evil Empire. Rather, it should take careful note of Russian interests and do its best to formulate predictions of Russian behavior on the basis of these interests.
Russia will go to considerable lengths, for example, to block any further enlargement of NATO and to build up its leverage in the Middle East. With trade, diplomatic, and humanitarian contacts so eroded, Moscow sees little to lose in the U.S.-Russian relationship, and so will be more likely to intrude into domestic American politics to increase social friction and deepen internal cleavages in the United States. At the same time, Russia’s sluggish and vulnerable economy could limit its capacity for bold, costly international advances in the future, including major military power projection beyond its immediate post-Soviet periphery.
Little of the foregoing portends disaster for the United States. The challenges from Russia can be handled, but only if they are first understood. Doing so demands substantially more, and more sustained, national investment in Russian expertise than Americans have made since the end of the Cold War. As the United States has embraced a posture of increased conflict with Russia—first in defense of the “liberal international order” and more recently under the banner of “great power competition”—a generation and a half of young Americans have encountered dwindling opportunities to study Russia. A U.S.-Russian relationship in which one side speaks one language and the other speaks two languages will not benefit the United States. This shortcoming of preparedness can be reversed at relatively modest cost, less than the cost of producing and maintaining a single new nuclear missile, though it will take a decade or more for the improvement in U.S. academic expertise and policy analytical capacity to register fully.
As in the Cold War, American strategy should seek to shape the image of the United States held by our Russian neighbor. Resources stripped from cultural diplomacy and people-to-people engagement during recent years of intentional mutual isolation must be restored. The dismal view of the United States shared by most Russians stems to a large degree from Kremlin propaganda, but younger Russians are increasingly indifferent to state-controlled television, and would surely welcome expanded opportunities for travel or even virtual exchange with Americans. These contacts can be focused on partnership in areas of obvious common interest, including climate change, the Arctic, space exploration, pandemic disease and disaster response, and the common aspirations of ordinary people on both sides for greater security and prosperity in their individual lives.
U.S. policymakers, experts, and journalists must stop relegating Russia to Churchill’s caricature of riddle-mystery-enigma or to that of a Cold War bête noir. Both are clichéd, and neither is helpful. Instead, Americans should not hide Russia behind an iron curtain or bottle it up behind a wall of its own making. Washington should make the psychological shift to seeing Russia as the third neighbor now.
Already Russia is actively pursuing closer alignment with China while asserting its interests globally. This makes Russia a critical variable for U.S. foreign policy, from Latin America to the Middle East and from Europe to East Asia. Russia has the potential to augment a growing U.S.-China rivalry, either by aiding China or by exploiting collisions when they occur. Yet were it so inclined, Russia could help contain or at least complicate China’s rise to regional hegemony in Asia or, down the road, to global hegemony.
As the United States contemplates Russia as the third neighbor, it will have much to learn from its relationships with the two familiar neighbors, Mexico and Canada. Canada and Mexico lack Russia’s long history of invasions from east and west, and they avoid the kind of crusading, expeditionary foreign policy that is second nature for both Russians and Americans. Yet in the relationships among Canada, Mexico, and the United States are all the ingredients of competition and conflict. They have still managed to find their way to a stability in relations that helps each more than it harms them. Extreme, destabilizing policies are generally held in check; close ties and mutual understanding are cultivated. None of this happens by accident. It is the achievement of leaders and societies that recognize the realities of a common neighborhood.
Russia will never be irrelevant to American interests. Nor can it be made subservient to them. Moscow cannot be bludgeoned into compliance with anyone else’s values or notions of world order, and Russians will not accept involuntary isolation from the Euro-Atlantic civilization of which they have always been a part, and which they have helped to shape and preserve. For Americans, Russia should be made less foreign, with all the irritations and all the benefits of connection. However unavoidable, conflict should be contained and balanced against cooperation. Russia, our third neighbor, must be a country with which the United States can manage to live.
Matthew Rojansky is Director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center.
Michael C. Kimmage is a professor and department chair of history at Catholic University of America.