.
S

uccessive administrations in Washington have sought to achieve renewed or improved relations with Russia. President Bill Clinton established a close partnership with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and advocated for democratic transition (while empowering Yeltsin to subvert the democratic process) and adopt liberal economic policies. President George W. Bush saw into the soul of Vladimir Putin, the newly elected Russian president, driving for a closer partnership before 9/11 became the defining issue of his presidency. President Barack Obama downgraded relations with Russia yet sought a “reset” (or “overload”), while his successor, Donald Trump, professed an unhealthy admiration for Putin the autocrat. Today, President Joe Biden is presiding over the single greatest defeat of the Russian military since World War II, purely through support to Ukraine, without America firing a shot. 

Getting Russia Right | Thomas Graham | Polity

How the policies of multiple administrations—Democrat and Republicans alike—failed to achieve stability with Russia and what the United States should do now is the subject of a timely, and sure-to-be-controversial new book: “Getting Russia Right” by Thomas Graham (a copy of which was provided by the publisher for review). 

Ultimately, the components of Graham’s book are stronger individually than the final, assembled part. He certainly asks the right questions, not the least of which is what should and could bilateral relations between Washington and Moscow look like in a post-Ukraine world. The immediate challenge is found most prominently in the title and a theme to which he returns—the possibility that the United States could have gotten Russia “right.” In pursuing this line of inquiry, at times he appears to be overly forgiving of Russian behavior and excessively critical of American policy. While it is true that there may have been a window in which improved relations were possible, one missed both by Washington and Moscow, Russian aggression and the fear thereof drove much of American policy. 

Graham’s historical overview is certainly more grounded than his future forecast. He interrogates the post-Cold War relationship between the two countries with a far more critical eye than is commonplace in the genre, noting how—at least from a Russian view—the overtures for closer relations were thoroughly hedged through the expansion of NATO. 

Looking toward the future, he sensibly advocates for strategic patience and strategic humility, both of which have been missing in American policymaking. The former necessitates a longer-term view, beyond the two- and four-year election cycle, and the latter requires much more nuance and understanding than is often found at the highest levels of policymaking, and acceptance of the limits of the art of the possible. His argument that the conflict between Russia and the United States is one based upon friction between the two countries’ unique visions of exceptionalism is interesting (and curious) in the abstract, but too close a reading would omit the definitive challenges brought about by substantive policy decisions. National philosophies may shape political outlooks, but interests, above all else, drive the course of events. 

Graham offers three areas as foundations for future relations, beyond but also including Ukraine. The challenge in each of these is that Graham often looks at the issue through only the lens of U.S.-Russia relations, omitting broader considerations or challenges from his calculus. Yes, his book is about the bilateral relationship, but that relationship does not now, nor has it ever, existed in a vacuum. Looking at it only through the lens of relations between Washington and Moscow omits the agency, influence and actions of other European countries and America’s NATO partners. 

For Graham, a key foundation of future relations is and must be strategic stability between Washington and Moscow. The resumption of arms limitation and control talks is vital to preventing conflict escalation and nuclear proliferation but has largely been suspended, with treaties rapidly approaching the end of their agreement. There is an established foundation and process for these arms negotiations and discussions which, in theory, would make their resumption far easier and far more swift. Washington’s desire to bind China into future arms control agreements may stymie the creation of new accords, but reaffirming past bilateral agreements with the Kremlin may be comparably low-hanging fruit. 

Second, reconsidering the future European security is central to the future relationship between Washington and Moscow for Graham. The questions for him are: does Europe’s security architecture need reconsideration, and should it serve primarily to protect the continent from Russia or to create opportunities for engagement with Russia? 

His book arrives at an interesting time in NATO and European security discussions. Finland is now a member of NATO and Sweden is progressing—haltingly—to joining, as well. French calls for European strategic autonomy have risen in volume, driven by the threat from Russia but also questions about America’s long-term security commitments. Germany’s announcement that it would spend 100 billion euros on its military has, thus far, gone unfulfilled. Concurrently, the longer the war continues, the greater the domestic pressure to bring the war to a close in both the United States and Europe is becoming. Opportunities for radical and needed reform amongst the alliance and European partners may well also stall, due to perceptions about the reduced threat of a depleted and degraded Russian military. 

Moreover, any calls to welcome Russia back into the European community of nation-states will almost certainly fall of deaf ears in the immediate future. Vladimir Vladimirovich will remain a pariah under indictment from the International Criminal Court  and will not find welcome in European capitals, likely for as long as he remains alive. This is not to say that he won’t enjoy welcome hospitality in other countries, as evidenced by his recent trip to the Persian Gulf states.

Third, and finally, the resolution of Ukraine and the country’s future is critical to the bilateral relationship. Resolving Ukraine will likely necessitate some form of negotiated settlement under the current strictures Washington and its European counterparts have established. Fearing escalation, the West has not, arguably, provided the arms and munitions necessary for total Ukrainian victory. Graham’s argument of a “just” settlement for the West, Russia, and Ukraine is almost certainly impossible in the foreseeable future and will ring violently hollow for the Ukrainian people who have suffered at the hands of Russian aggression.

Graham raises a theme that is somewhat underdeveloped—that the United States should work to cultivate stronger relations with Russia with a view to dividing the Moscow-Beijing relationship, and countering Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions. Inverting the Sino-Soviet split certainly sounds like an attractive proposition but is something that is far simpler to consider in the abstract than execute in practice. The alignment of interests between Moscow and Beijing may be tenuous and convenient at best, but it is far closer in theoretical and practical considerations than Graham acknowledges. 

A similar book looking at “Getting America Right” from the Russian perspective would be equally instructive. Graham rightly notes that Washington—outside of expert circles—does not understand Russia. It is equally the case that Moscow likely doesn’t understand America nearly as well as either it or Washington assumes. That delta between assumed knowledge and reality is significant and is the space in which miscalculations can and will occur. Engagement, such as which Graham advocates, would improve bilateral understanding reducing, but not eliminating, the risks of misunderstanding. 

“Getting Russia Right” is an important and necessary book, but one that is unlikely to get the readership it should for two reasons. First, considering Russia in any context other than ensuring its defeat in Ukraine is politically and reputationally a risky proposition. Yet, doing so is simply part of prudent strategic planning, for creating and seizing upon favorable policy opportunities, and responding to future developments. Despite hyperbolic claims that Russia will disintegrate or should be purposefully “de-colonized,” Moscow is not going anywhere and will remain a power of objective significance and importance. 

Second, the structural challenges that affect Graham’s book will limit its readership. Asking the right questions is a good first step, but the answers he offers are incomplete and not wholly satisfactory. Ultimately, getting Russia right suggests that there is a “correct” answer to the question. It is a quintessentially American view—that geopolitical problems can be solved—but one that is unreflective of history and experience. Restraining policy expectations and aspirations are necessary. The bilateral relationship with Moscow is likely only manageable at best.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

The Vexing Questions of Future Relations with Russia

The Kremlin during holiday season. Photo by Michael Parulava on Unsplash

December 16, 2023

Multiple U.S. presidential administrations have attempted and largely failed to improve relations with Russia and achieve stability in the country. In his latest book, Thomas Graham performs a historical survey to understand why that is, writes Joshua Huminski.

S

uccessive administrations in Washington have sought to achieve renewed or improved relations with Russia. President Bill Clinton established a close partnership with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and advocated for democratic transition (while empowering Yeltsin to subvert the democratic process) and adopt liberal economic policies. President George W. Bush saw into the soul of Vladimir Putin, the newly elected Russian president, driving for a closer partnership before 9/11 became the defining issue of his presidency. President Barack Obama downgraded relations with Russia yet sought a “reset” (or “overload”), while his successor, Donald Trump, professed an unhealthy admiration for Putin the autocrat. Today, President Joe Biden is presiding over the single greatest defeat of the Russian military since World War II, purely through support to Ukraine, without America firing a shot. 

Getting Russia Right | Thomas Graham | Polity

How the policies of multiple administrations—Democrat and Republicans alike—failed to achieve stability with Russia and what the United States should do now is the subject of a timely, and sure-to-be-controversial new book: “Getting Russia Right” by Thomas Graham (a copy of which was provided by the publisher for review). 

Ultimately, the components of Graham’s book are stronger individually than the final, assembled part. He certainly asks the right questions, not the least of which is what should and could bilateral relations between Washington and Moscow look like in a post-Ukraine world. The immediate challenge is found most prominently in the title and a theme to which he returns—the possibility that the United States could have gotten Russia “right.” In pursuing this line of inquiry, at times he appears to be overly forgiving of Russian behavior and excessively critical of American policy. While it is true that there may have been a window in which improved relations were possible, one missed both by Washington and Moscow, Russian aggression and the fear thereof drove much of American policy. 

Graham’s historical overview is certainly more grounded than his future forecast. He interrogates the post-Cold War relationship between the two countries with a far more critical eye than is commonplace in the genre, noting how—at least from a Russian view—the overtures for closer relations were thoroughly hedged through the expansion of NATO. 

Looking toward the future, he sensibly advocates for strategic patience and strategic humility, both of which have been missing in American policymaking. The former necessitates a longer-term view, beyond the two- and four-year election cycle, and the latter requires much more nuance and understanding than is often found at the highest levels of policymaking, and acceptance of the limits of the art of the possible. His argument that the conflict between Russia and the United States is one based upon friction between the two countries’ unique visions of exceptionalism is interesting (and curious) in the abstract, but too close a reading would omit the definitive challenges brought about by substantive policy decisions. National philosophies may shape political outlooks, but interests, above all else, drive the course of events. 

Graham offers three areas as foundations for future relations, beyond but also including Ukraine. The challenge in each of these is that Graham often looks at the issue through only the lens of U.S.-Russia relations, omitting broader considerations or challenges from his calculus. Yes, his book is about the bilateral relationship, but that relationship does not now, nor has it ever, existed in a vacuum. Looking at it only through the lens of relations between Washington and Moscow omits the agency, influence and actions of other European countries and America’s NATO partners. 

For Graham, a key foundation of future relations is and must be strategic stability between Washington and Moscow. The resumption of arms limitation and control talks is vital to preventing conflict escalation and nuclear proliferation but has largely been suspended, with treaties rapidly approaching the end of their agreement. There is an established foundation and process for these arms negotiations and discussions which, in theory, would make their resumption far easier and far more swift. Washington’s desire to bind China into future arms control agreements may stymie the creation of new accords, but reaffirming past bilateral agreements with the Kremlin may be comparably low-hanging fruit. 

Second, reconsidering the future European security is central to the future relationship between Washington and Moscow for Graham. The questions for him are: does Europe’s security architecture need reconsideration, and should it serve primarily to protect the continent from Russia or to create opportunities for engagement with Russia? 

His book arrives at an interesting time in NATO and European security discussions. Finland is now a member of NATO and Sweden is progressing—haltingly—to joining, as well. French calls for European strategic autonomy have risen in volume, driven by the threat from Russia but also questions about America’s long-term security commitments. Germany’s announcement that it would spend 100 billion euros on its military has, thus far, gone unfulfilled. Concurrently, the longer the war continues, the greater the domestic pressure to bring the war to a close in both the United States and Europe is becoming. Opportunities for radical and needed reform amongst the alliance and European partners may well also stall, due to perceptions about the reduced threat of a depleted and degraded Russian military. 

Moreover, any calls to welcome Russia back into the European community of nation-states will almost certainly fall of deaf ears in the immediate future. Vladimir Vladimirovich will remain a pariah under indictment from the International Criminal Court  and will not find welcome in European capitals, likely for as long as he remains alive. This is not to say that he won’t enjoy welcome hospitality in other countries, as evidenced by his recent trip to the Persian Gulf states.

Third, and finally, the resolution of Ukraine and the country’s future is critical to the bilateral relationship. Resolving Ukraine will likely necessitate some form of negotiated settlement under the current strictures Washington and its European counterparts have established. Fearing escalation, the West has not, arguably, provided the arms and munitions necessary for total Ukrainian victory. Graham’s argument of a “just” settlement for the West, Russia, and Ukraine is almost certainly impossible in the foreseeable future and will ring violently hollow for the Ukrainian people who have suffered at the hands of Russian aggression.

Graham raises a theme that is somewhat underdeveloped—that the United States should work to cultivate stronger relations with Russia with a view to dividing the Moscow-Beijing relationship, and countering Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions. Inverting the Sino-Soviet split certainly sounds like an attractive proposition but is something that is far simpler to consider in the abstract than execute in practice. The alignment of interests between Moscow and Beijing may be tenuous and convenient at best, but it is far closer in theoretical and practical considerations than Graham acknowledges. 

A similar book looking at “Getting America Right” from the Russian perspective would be equally instructive. Graham rightly notes that Washington—outside of expert circles—does not understand Russia. It is equally the case that Moscow likely doesn’t understand America nearly as well as either it or Washington assumes. That delta between assumed knowledge and reality is significant and is the space in which miscalculations can and will occur. Engagement, such as which Graham advocates, would improve bilateral understanding reducing, but not eliminating, the risks of misunderstanding. 

“Getting Russia Right” is an important and necessary book, but one that is unlikely to get the readership it should for two reasons. First, considering Russia in any context other than ensuring its defeat in Ukraine is politically and reputationally a risky proposition. Yet, doing so is simply part of prudent strategic planning, for creating and seizing upon favorable policy opportunities, and responding to future developments. Despite hyperbolic claims that Russia will disintegrate or should be purposefully “de-colonized,” Moscow is not going anywhere and will remain a power of objective significance and importance. 

Second, the structural challenges that affect Graham’s book will limit its readership. Asking the right questions is a good first step, but the answers he offers are incomplete and not wholly satisfactory. Ultimately, getting Russia right suggests that there is a “correct” answer to the question. It is a quintessentially American view—that geopolitical problems can be solved—but one that is unreflective of history and experience. Restraining policy expectations and aspirations are necessary. The bilateral relationship with Moscow is likely only manageable at best.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.