A Russia Problem, Not a Putin Problem

08/27/2014 10:09 am ET | Updated Dec 22, 2014

Thomas Graham, Kissinger Associates, August 2014

This article is part of Carnegie Corporation of New York's Carnegie Forum: Rebuilding U.S.-Russia Relations. Read more perspectives here.

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The Ukraine crisis has put an end to 25 years of U.S.-Russia relations. The swiftness with which they collapsed, and the absence of any influential forces in either country actively working for their repair, is evidence of how much pretension and frustration had infused relations in recent years. It also suggests a deep-seated anti-American bias in the Russian elite, mirroring a Russophobia of comparable depth on the American side.

It may remain true that there is much the two countries could do together, on WMD nonproliferation, counterterrorism, regional balances, energy security, and climate change, among other things, that would advance the interests of each country and benefit the world as a whole, particularly over the long term. But shared interests will not be enough to bring the two countries together again. For the problem in relations is grounded in each country's sense of itself and its role in the world -- in the American belief that it should be the global leader and in Russia's conviction that it should be a major independent actor. That reality creates major obstacles to cooperation even on shared interests.

Under these circumstances, there can be no new reset in relations. Seeking to repair them by returning to an earlier set of assumptions about them is a dead end. Those assumptions no longer hold. Rather, relations need to be rethought in light of the realities in both countries, including the huge divide in worldviews.

The first step in rethinking relations on the American side will require that we ask some fundamental questions, such as:

How important is Putin?

Putin is the dominant figure in Russia today, and he makes the final decisions on foreign policy. But we need to remember that he operates in a political context and does not have a free hand, as he must balance the competing factions around him to maintain his own position. Moreover, he is a product of the Russian elite, and he gives voice to its consensus on Russia's role in the world, which has deep roots in history and strategic tradition. His departure might lead to a change in style, but it will have little impact on the substance of Russian foreign policy. In short, we have a Russia problem, not a Putin problem.

How does the Russian elite think about world affairs?

Russian strategic thinking falls within the broad outlines of the realist school: Sovereign states are the central actors in world affairs; competition among states is inevitable; power, especially the hard variety, is the coin of the realm; and the goal of foreign policy is to create the optimal geopolitical balance for advancing one's interests. In such a world, only the great powers have the wherewithal to pursue genuinely independent policies; they are the few countries that determine the substance and structure of world affairs. Russian pride dictates that Russia must do all it can to sustain itself as a great power. The first task is guaranteeing Russian security.

What are the essential requirements of Russian security?

First, modern Russia has seen its security as dependent on creating strategic depth, as it emerged on the almost featureless great Eurasian plain. To that end, it has pushed its frontiers outward until it met the resistance of well-organized and powerful states. Over centuries, this dialectic of expansion and resistance came to define Russia's geopolitical zone of interest as the heart of Eurasia, which encompasses all of the former Soviet space (and most of the former Russian imperial space minus Finland and Poland). Today's Russia believes that Russian primacy in -- not necessarily control of -- this region is vital to its own security. Ukraine is critical in this regard, since it creates strategic depth against potential aggression from the West; in particular, it precludes Ukraine from becoming a member of NATO and bringing that organization's infrastructure within a few hundred miles of Moscow.

Second, the choice that faces countries in this region is not Russian domination or genuine independence; it is a choice among great powers vying for influence over them. Russians tirelessly point out that today's Ukraine is composed of disparate territories that were only united under Soviet rule. In their minds, much the same could be said of all the other former Soviet states, which assumed their current form in the Soviet period and most of which had no substantial history of independent statehood before the breakup of the Soviet Union. Such states can never be fully sovereign. If they are not in Russia's orbit, they will inevitably fall into that of another great power. As a matter of its own security, Moscow will always seek to limit the presence of other powers in the former Soviet space.

Third, Russian territorial ambitions beyond its traditional geopolitical zone have been quite limited historically. In this regard, the Soviet period stands out as an anomaly, born of the unique conditions of the mid to late twentieth century: the power vacuum in the center of Europe created by the total collapse of Nazi Germany and the subsequent bitter ideological divide and revolutionary upheaval that produced a global competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. Those conditions no longer prevail, and Russia has reverted to its historical policy of creating a suitable balance of power on the European continent that takes into account the interests of the other great European powers.

Is an ideological divide emerging?

Since he returned to the Kremlin in May 2012, Putin has advocated a form of Russian nationalism that sets itself against the West. But his anti-Westernism does not mark an absolute rejection of the West and its values; it does not mark a return to the existential Cold-War struggle between two political systems with diametrically opposed views of human character and the relationship between state and society. Rather, Putin has positioned himself as the defender of traditional Western values against their postmodern, and he would argue decadent, interpretation in much of the West today. In his mind, he is not seeking to export Russia's values, as the Soviet Union did, but rather to rally other societies that also oppose the West's interpretation of certain values to create an international system that is more representative of the differences within a shared value system.

Despite much overblown rhetoric in Washington, Russia in fact poses a limited challenge to the United States. The appropriate response is not to return to the Cold War. But neither is it to speak of a return to cooperation if Russia realizes the errors of its ways and begins to conduct itself in a way the West finds more compatible. Rather, we need to abandon hopes of transforming Russia and acknowledge that it is one of many major powers in the world today. In dealing with Russia, we need to think in terms of competition and accommodation, that is, of great power diplomacy, refashioned to take account of the differences between today's world and the last period of great power diplomacy in the nineteenth century. We might also remind ourselves, that period was one of relative peace and security, of prosperity and progress.

This article is part of Carnegie Corporation of New York's Carnegie Forum: Rebuilding U.S.-Russia Relations. Read more perspectives here.