Editor’s Note: Jill Dougherty is an American journalist, a former CNN foreign affairs correspondent and Moscow bureau chief with expertise in Russia and the former Soviet Union. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
I first went to Russia in 1969 as an exchange student. I’ve studied, lived, worked and traveled there ever since. I’m now considered an “expert” on Russia, a word which always strikes me as an exaggeration when it comes to understanding a country as complex as this.
I remember a friend of mine who studied Russian with me. He laughingly told me once that, as he heard little Russian kids speaking the language better than he did, that if he simply gave them a gentle kick, they’d speak English.
Sometimes, I think our approach to Russia is like that. If only Putin, his government, or the whole country would come to their senses, they’d see things our way. But, like those kids who speak Russian because they are Russian, Russia is not going to act as we do just because, as we see it, it’s the “right” way.
In mid-October, in Sochi, Russia, I listened as Vladimir Putin answered questions at the Valdai Discussion group, an annual meeting of international foreign policy experts. Sitting back in a large chair, he deftly batted away his interviewer’s probing and it became clear to me that, as Putin sees it, Russia never did sign onto “our” ideas – Western principles and the “liberal international order.” As the Soviet Union crumbled, Russia was weak and went along with the West, he said. But as it grew stronger, economically and militarily, it returned to its Russian roots.
Now, the United States and Russia are locked in an angry geo-political confrontation that threatens to spiral into direct military conflict - even if neither country wants it.
America’s current strategy toward Russia, simply put, is not working; it is instead tying our hands. It’s making Russia more aggressive externally and less democratic internally. The dangers are escalating, as this week’s armed attack on Ukrainian military vessels in the Kerch Strait proves. Moscow is becoming bolder in challenging the United States and its allies, while expanding its regional and global trade and security arrangements.
We need to re-think how we deal with Russia. Confrontation combined with an endless cycle of sanctions isn’t the answer, even if sanctions sometimes are justified. But a “Let’s just be friends” approach won’t do either. For our own security, we need a bi-partisan, sustainable policy based on a realistic definition of why we even care about Russia.
Like the United States, Russia has its own strategic interests – whether or not we accept them or condone them. For the sake of our own security, we must try to understand what motivates Russia. Objectively analyzing Moscow’s aims helps clarify how we should pursue our objectives or respond to future actions by the Kremlin.
For that we need more tools than simply confrontation, a more flexible strategy to respond to the dangers, challenges and, yes, even opportunities that Russia may present. Although confrontation may sometimes be necessary, we must add two more components: competition and cooperation.
For the past six months, I have been part of a group that’s trying to outline such a strategy. It’s called the Mayflower Group (after the DC hotel in which we’ve been meeting) and it includes political and public figures as well as policy analysts.
Our first conclusion: To revise our strategy toward Russia, we first have to define what is in America’s own long-term strategic interests. The first interest is national security; Russia, after all, is the only country that can destroy our country with nuclear weapons. And new weapons are on the way, including hypersonic weapons designed to evade US defenses and hit their targets with little or no warning.
Russia can disrupt our way of life, even destroy our advanced weaponry, through cyber attacks against US computer networks. And, as we saw in 2016, it can exploit social media to undermine our democracy with disinformation campaigns. The US, of course, has the capability to harm Russia, which locks the two countries in an embrace of mutual destruction.
The Mayflower Group also concluded that we have to make clear to our fellow citizens that confrontation is not cost-free; If we let arms control agreements atrophy or even disappear, are we willing to pay for an arms race?
Also, if we continue to sanction Russian individuals and entities, can we still cooperate with Russia on space exploration and manage our competition in the Arctic Ocean? Are American business willing to lose out to foreign competitors on lucrative contracts with Russia? If we don’t communicate – military-to-military, political-to-political – with the Russian government, can we avoid misunderstandings that could have terrifying consequences?
Our strategy, we believe, must:
- Strengthen strategic stability through verifiable arms control agreements and joint efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear arms.
- Bolster our offensive and defensive cyber warfare capability while also supporting dialogue with Russia and others designed to promote strategic stability in the cyber sphere.
- Restore official and citizen-to-citizen contacts to manage competition between our two countries and promote a better understanding of one another.
Nearly a half-century ago, studying at Leningrad State University, the same university where Vladimir Putin studied law, I lived in a dormitory with Russian students and made Russian friends – some of whom I am still in touch with.
It changed my view of Russia forever and gave me some insight on what motivates Putin, and his country, today.
Building a new US strategy toward Russia, however, is not an attempt to be “friends.” It’s not predicated on Russia’s liking us. It is based on strengthening our own security.
Like it or not, building paths to Russia is part of ensuring US security.