12/23/2014 10:19 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2015

A Call for Compromise in U.S.-Russian Relations

On December 4, the House passed Resolution 758, a document which many websites have called a declaration of war against Russia. While this might be sensationalist reporting, it is true that Resolution 758 may lead to further escalation between both countries. It emphasizes U.S. demands, without offering a two-sided solution to the conflict.

President Vladimir Putin, in his state of the nation address, made it clear that he would stand up to Western hostility, arguing that the U.S. "would gladly let Russia follow the Yugoslav scenario of disintegration and dismemberment....It did not work, just as it did not work for Hitler...who set out to destroy Russia and pushed us back beyond the Urals. Everyone should remember how it ended."

Resolution 758 is the provocation Putin needs to continue defying Western demands, using American aggression as an excuse. This is what columnist and political analyst Ekaterina Schulmann meant when she maintained that "Aggression is born out of feeling insulted--in the eyes of the perpetrator it gives justification for every horrible action." Putin's annual year-end news conference is yet another example of a perceived plot by the U.S. and Europe against Russia. It remains to be seen whether Russia's recent economic troubles will cause Putin's approval ratings to plummet or breed more anti-American sentiment (a mixture of the two is most likely).

The resolution serves not only as provocation for Putin but also as content for his well-controlled propaganda machine. The Russian state has not missed an opportunity to accuse the U.S. of being "a giant hypocrite," especially regarding the Ferguson riots and the CIA torture report. If mainstream news sources in the U.S. can paint the resolution as a declaration of war, Putin's state controlled media will undoubtedly be more creative.

Resolution 758 is also misguided for a reason many will find controversial. In the midst of the crisis over Ukraine, Putin has made at least one legitimate claim, most notably the demand to stop the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In the March article "Sorry, Putin Isn't Crazy," Jeffrey Tayler makes the point that "despite President George H. W. Bush's apparent promise to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev not to enlarge the group," NATO has expanded three times, each time getting closer to Russia's borders. Any leader familiar with basic principles of international relations would know that this brings up the security dilemma, which holds that any increase to one state or group's security threatens the security of the other state. Ukraine's renewed rapprochement with the European Union certainly derailed Russia's plans for an Eurasian Economic Union, but its intentions of joining NATO were a far greater threat to Russian security.

A well-crafted U.S. foreign policy response to Russia should focus on a "win-win-win" for the West, Russia, and Ukraine, as Brooking fellows Michael O'Hanlon and Jeremy Shapiro point out. They explain that, so far, the firm responses of the West risk "reinforcing an action-reaction dynamic that will quite probably make the No.1 victim of this crisis to date-the people of Ukraine-worse off than before." So far, a compromise has been impossible because both sides continue to make demands without offering any concessions of their own. O'Hanlon and Shapiro's proposal is likely to work because it respects international law but also allows leaders in each country to paint the compromise as a success, something which they argue will be especially vital to Putin. Some elements of their proposal are: allowing Russia to make historical claims on Crimea but accepting a binding, internationally monitored referendum to determine the region's future; promising that Ukraine will not be a candidate for NATO membership; lifting sanctions on Russia gradually as the agreement is implemented; and ensuring that Russia agrees to remove military "volunteers" from Ukrainian territory (see their full proposal here).

The U.S. seems to be at a loss with Russia ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, crafting foreign policy was simple-oppose the Soviets. Now, the choices are more complicated, for Russia has proved to be a key ally in certain situations, namely in reaching an agreement on Syria's chemical weapons, and a troublemaker in others, like the present crisis in Ukraine. An alliance between both countries is both unnecessary and unlikely, but the U.S. should take the lead and work towards compromise, rather than towards unilateral resolutions, if both countries are to peacefully coexist.