Dealing with Russia: To confront or co-operate?

| October 7, 2018 | 0 Comments
U.S. President Donald Trump talks about welcoming Russian President Vladimir Putin back into the G8 fold while slapping tariffs on some of the U.S.'s key allies and trading partners.  (Photo: White house)

U.S. President Donald Trump talks about welcoming Russian President Vladimir Putin back into the G8 fold while slapping tariffs on some of the U.S.’s key allies and trading partners. (Photo: White house)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump have a lot in common. Trump wants to “make America great again.” Putin wants to do the same for Russia. Each leader sees himself as a strong man who can deal with the other.
Trump obviously doesn’t think Russia is as much of a threat to American interests as China and some of the U.S.’s key trading partners. While he talks openly about lifting sanctions on Russia and welcoming Putin back into the G8 fold, he has been slapping the U.S.’s European and North American trading partners with steel and aluminum tariffs and launching a trade war with China. Trump’s constant berating of U.S. allies for taking a ride on American coattails not just economically, but also militarily, has driven a deep wedge into the transatlantic alliance. The political damage may well be lasting, although many of the U.S.’s allies now say they will spend more on defence.
Some commentators believe Trump is simply being naïve when it comes to Russia. Others believe he is beholden to Putin because he has the goods on Trump’s former business dealings in Russia or they think the Russians colluded with Trump’s team to help him win the presidency, which is the subject of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive propositions, but the real questions are: If we can momentarily put the relentless din of hyper-partisan American politics on mute, how serious is the threat from Russia? And, second, how should the West handle Putin?
There are three differing views about the severity of the threat that Russia poses.

Russia in decline
Some believe that Russia is a declining power and that the health of its economy and demographic trends underscore its core weaknesses. “Russia is an economic pipsqueak,” a recent headline in Washington’s The Hill paper opined. The article went on to point out that there has been a lot of head-scratching on Capitol Hill about Trump’s infatuation with Putin because of Russia’s weak economic situation.
Despite having the largest land mass in the world (and 11 times zones), Russia’s population of 144 million (down from its all-time end of Cold War high of 148 million) is shrinking at roughly 0.4 per cent per annum. Low levels of life expectancy and the poor health of its population (especially males) are behind this trend. Comparatively speaking, Russia’s population is only about the size of Germany and Italy’s population combined, or slightly less than half that of the U.S.
With a GDP of $1.55 trillion US in 2017, Russia’s economy is a minuscule eight per cent of the U.S. GDP. Compare this figure with Canada’s GDP in the same year, which stood at $1.65 trillion, and you get the picture. It goes without saying that with a per capita GDP of less than $11,000, which is roughly the same as Turkey and Romania, most Russians are poor. The country also has one of the worst income distributions in the world. According to some estimates, 10 per cent of Russia’s population controls nearly 50 per cent of the country’s wealth. Karl Marx would surely turn in his grave. By comparison, during the Communist era, the top tenth of Russia’s income earners only took home a quarter of the country’s income.
Nonetheless, Russian income distribution figures are not all that different from the United States or France, which have some of the highest levels of income inequality in the world. Bear in mind, though, that both countries are much richer than Russia as measured by their GDP, which, comparatively speaking, means that those who are on the lower rungs of the income ladder are still generally better off than their Russian counterparts.

Russia resurgent
Not so fast, others say. Despite the paltry size of its economy, Russia is still the world’s second biggest military power after the United States. It has slightly more than 750,000 active frontline military personnel, 15,398 tanks, nearly 3,429 aircraft and 55 submarines. Compare that with the United States — 1.4 million active personnel, 8,484 tanks, 13,892 aircraft, and 72 submarines. With a defence budget of $84.5 billion versus the U.S. defence budget of $601 billion (2015 figures), you could say that Russia is squeezing a lot more out of its defence dollars than the U.S. even if the bulk of its military is comprised of conscripts, compared to the U.S.’s voluntary army.
Russia and the U.S. are also more or less evenly matched in terms of their nuclear arsenals, as measured by the number of warheads they have in their strategic arsenals — 6,850 for Russia versus 6,550 for the U.S. Some say this is why Russia still poses an existential threat to the U.S. even though the Cold War is supposed to have ended nearly 30 years ago.
Thanks to a recent spike in the growth of the Russian economy because of increases in the price of oil and natural gas — key staples of the Russian economy — and Russia’s growing grain exports to China, Putin is now able to modernize Russia’s military capabilities, including the three legs of its strategic nuclear triad — intercontinental missiles, bombers and submarines. Russia is also expanding its low-yield nuclear tactical weapon capabilities. In its nuclear posture review, the Trump administration announced that it, too, will embark on a strategic nuclear modernization program to keep the U.S. safe from its enemies, including Russia.
But it is not just Russia’s growing military capabilities that pose a threat to the West, according to those who believe that Russia is on the rise. It is Putin’s muscle-flexing and aggressive behaviour. The list is long: Russian incursions into Eastern Ukraine, its seizure of Crimea, its continuous probes along the northern frontiers of NATO neighbours and in the Arctic, its meddling in elections and sophisticated propaganda and disinformation campaigns, its poisoning of foreign spies and dissidents and its growing influence in the Middle East, where it has backed President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal and murderous regime in Syria with its air power and other forms of support. All of these actions point to a Russia that is asserting its power and influence beyond its borders. What is also worrying to some was Putin’s recent reference to Russia’s “invincible” nuclear arsenal in his March state-of-the-nation address to the Federal Assembly, where he also showed a video animation of Russian missile attacks against the state of Florida, where Trump has his Mar-a-Lago resort.

Russia the aggrieved
A third school of thought believes Russia is on a “quest for status.” In the words of Russian scholar Mikhail Troitskiy, this quest is not based on Russia’s nuclear capabilities or its seat on the UN Security Council, but rather a Russia that views itself as a “retired superpower” that pulled out of the Cold War “voluntarily,” as opposed to being “defeated.” However, instead of being “rewarded” for its co-operative stance on arms control after the Cold War, its support for the Western intervention in Libya and co-operation in intelligence-sharing and counter-terrorism, Russia has repeatedly been snubbed as NATO has expanded its membership to Russia’s borders while the European Union reached out to countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, which Russia views as being historically within its own sphere of influence.
According to this view, Russia also believes that the West has not lived up to its own commitments in the 1997 “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Co-operation and Security Between NATO and Russia” and the subsequent declaration on “NATO-Russia Relations: A New Quality” in 2002. It also thinks it should have the right “to have a say about the membership of its post-Soviet neighbours in alliances” in which it is not itself a member.
Putin believes that the United States actively tried to undermine his regime when there were major public demonstrations in Russia’s larger cities after the December 2011 parliamentary elections. After his re-election to the presidency in March 2012, Putin quashed the protests and arrested opposition leaders, alleging that they were supported by the United States. As former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, who is no fan of Putin, concedes in the July/August 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, “Putin’s anti-American campaign was not just political theatre intended for a domestic audience: Putin genuinely believed the United States represented a threat to his regime.”
Furthermore, he “was never inclined to believe in Washington’s good faith. His training as a KGB agent had led him to distrust the United States along with all democratic movements” even though in the early years of his presidency, ”he had held open the possibility of close co-operation with the West…[and] even suggested that Russia might someday join NATO.” It’s a suggestion a number of Western analysts also put forth in the past.

Somewhere in between
Like most debates, there is some truth to each set of assertions. There is no question that the Russian economy is weak, though slowly recovering from its most recent financial crisis (2014-17), which saw the collapse of the ruble and affected consumers and its struggling business sector alike. But notwithstanding its economic woes, Russia is still a formidable military foe and it remains a nuclear superpower, whether we like it or not. Putin’s stance towards the West has also hardened — notwithstanding Trump’s recent overtures. The complete lack of trust between Russia and the West has prompted some commentators, such as McFaul, to refer to the current situation as not a new Cold War, but as a “hot peace” because of Russia’s incursions into its “near abroad.”
Despite disagreeing about Russia’s capabilities and Putin’s ultimate intentions, most commentators agree that the West — and the United States, in particular — lacks a coherent strategy to deal with Russia. Trump’s hastily conceived and disastrous Helsinki Summit with Putin in July 2018 is a case in point. The summit sowed “new disorientation and discord in American politics,” according to CNN’s Stephen Collinson, while handing Putin “another win.”
There is no shortage of ideas about what that strategy should be [see, for example, McFaul’s aforementioned article titled “Russia as It Is: A Grand Strategy for Confronting Putin,” in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs or the CIGI-Atlantic Council joint task force report titled Strategy of “Constrainment:” Countering Russia’s Challenge to the Democratic Order, of which, full disclosure, I am a co-author.] But all ideas converge on a number of common elements.
First, the strategy should be bipartisan and based on genuine dialogue and consultation between the United States and its allies. Second, Western countries need to reaffirm their commitment to defending democracy and human rights, and take effective measures to ensure that their own democratic institutions and electoral processes are not subverted, by developing better resilience against cyber-attacks and media manipulation by external actors. Third, the United States should recommit itself to defending its key allies in the Pacific and Europe while recognizing that stronger economic ties and security partnerships are but two sides of the same coin. And finally, the United States (and NATO) can pursue a policy of containment and engagement with Russia simultaneously, but can only do so from a position of strength and stability, not chaos or disarray.
Avenues of co-operation with Russia include, among other things, a renewed commitment to promoting nuclear non-proliferation and major reductions in strategic arsenals through arms control, intelligence-sharing and counter-terrorism co-operation, and developing new “rules of the road” to curb cyber-attacks.
The West must also recognize that Russia seeks respect and a place in the global security order. The Russian bear can’t be put into a cage. It’s just too big. But it has to be tamed. Russia also has to understand that its quest for respect and status will only be successful if it, in turn, respects the sovereignty and the right of self-determination of other nations, including its closest neighbours. It must also understand that there will be penalties if it doesn’t.
In 1953, the distinguished American nuclear physicist Robert J. Oppenheimer wrote, “We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” What was true then about the world’s two greatest nuclear powers is still true now. The continued risk of nuclear war should temper all great power ambitions and provide genuine incentives to reduce that risk.

Fen Osler Hampson is the director of the World Refugee Council. He is also chancellor’s professor at Carleton University and distinguished fellow and director of global security & politics at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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Category: Diplomatica

About the Author ()

Fen Osler Hampson is Distinguished Fellow and Director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University.

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