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Amid the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is “time to take a critical look at the post-Cold War history of U.S.-Russian relations and the quality of U.S. policymaking, with the hope that the lessons learned [will] help the United States better deal with the Russia challenge in the future,” argues Thomas Graham in his latest book, Getting Russia Right.
“After a quarter century of failed efforts to build a lasting partnership, followed by several years of mounting tensions, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, crystalized a profound alienation between Russia and the United States. Relations today are scraping the depths of Cold War antagonisms. Indeed, they have probably not been so hostile since 1983, the darkest year of the second half of the Cold War,” observes Graham, distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and former special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff.
Graham asserts that the United States faces two very different challenges in the wake of the war in Ukraine: “defeating the Russian assault on the European order in the short term, while preparing the ground for relations that will enable the United States to interact with Russia, as a major pole of power in the emerging polycentric world, to construct and sustain a long-term complex global equilibrium and to deal with transnational threats.”
He contends that although “there is good reason to seek to weaken Russia to a degree that prevents it from invading again any European country,” the United States also needs a Russia that is strong enough to control its nuclear weapon arsenal and help maintain a balance of power in Eurasia.
The book’s exploration of U.S.-Russia relations begins in 1989 with the George H. W. Bush administration. Graham writes, “Euro-Atlantic integration, equal partnership, shared democratic values, and free-market economies were declared to be the foundation of relations between the two countries. Arms control . . . would be both a symbol of equality and partnership in preserving strategic stability and, in the American view, a hedge against chaos in Russia and the surrounding region. Geopolitical pluralism in the former Soviet space and the advancement of Western institutions, as well as the American presence, in the former Soviet bloc would serve as a hedge against Russian recidivism.”
“All the while, Russia’s glaring strategic weakness and the absence of any other great power competitor would enable Washington to overcome any Russian resistance,” he recounts.
Subsequent U.S. administrations, under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, “all operated within this framework, albeit with waning enthusiasm and confidence, and greater cynicism and disregard for Russia,” until the 2014 invasion of Crimea, which “irrevocably stripped that image [of U.S.-Russia partnership] of any credibility.”
“The premise that Russia could join the West,” Graham claims, “ultimately failed because it was, and remains, incompatible with the deeply held national aspirations and policy imperatives of both the United States and Russia.”
However, replacing misguided hopes of democratic partnership with deterrence through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and coordinated sanctions is insufficient, Graham cautions. “Even a Russia in decline will long retain the capacity to act as a major power, to advance or thwart American interests in critical areas, and, therefore, remains a country that Washington cannot afford to ignore,” he concludes.
Read more about Getting Russia Right and order your copy at cfr.org/book/getting-russia-right
To request an interview, please contact CFR Communications at [email protected].