Small Wars Journal

Time for a Factory Reset with Russia. Please Close all Open Programs

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Time for a Factory Reset with Russia. Please Close all Open Programs

Edward Owens

Imagine the future president of the United States tumbling into bed at the Moscow Ritz Carlton in 2013 with no companions but the Gideons, dozing off over Proverbs 29:2-3, say. Donald Trump need not have fallen into a GRU honeypot in a bugged hotel room to desire rapprochement with our erstwhile adversary. Alignment with Russia on the Middle East, Ukraine, and nuclear defense issues strongly supports the security interests of the United States, and the opportunity for reconciliation will not last long.

Russia’s deepening ties with Iran and its Shia-led client regime in Syria is at odds with America’s Sunni-oriented posture. Even supporters of the Iran nuclear deal cannot countenance any change in strategic alignment that would snub our allies in Riyadh and Rojava. Support for the brutal Assad government is beyond the pale for many Americans, who feel an admirable inclination to nurture democratic impulses wherever they may arise.

In Europe, Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty is abhorrent to both Democrats and Republicans. President Trump’s explicit admiration of Vladimir Putin appears at best to be a tacit approval of the Russian president’s revanchist adventures in Ukraine and Syria, and his desire to turn the balance of power in Eastern Europe and the Middle East on its head.

Unfortunately, military developments have found Russia on the strategically correct side in Syria. The Syrian government’s inevitable victory will be politically humiliating for the United States while Moscow reaps the spoils. A change in policy direction now will ensure a less painful outcome. Assad has no illusions about a return to status quo antebellum, and the United States can position itself to compel behavioral changes from Assad at the close of hostilities. This includes applying lessons learned from OIF to develop pluralistic, democratic instruments of government under American stewardship that will be able to weather low-level insurgency and economic ruin.

Iran will emerge as the dominant regional power in the years following the conflict. Renewable energy advancements will cripple Saudi Arabia and leave the United States with no influential regional partners. Meanwhile, Russia will already have their foot in the door in Tehran. The United States must anticipate this now rather than down the road when circumstances constrain our options.

In Ukraine, Russia’s behavior is motivated by anxiety and pride, and underpinned by the concept of Russkii Mir (Russian World), their historic sphere of influence. Russia has as much right to security in its near-abroad as the United States. Ignorance of this simple reality led to the embarrassing cancellation of our Polish and Czech missile defense systems and the annexation of Crimea. However, Moscow is in no economic or military position to annex, occupy, or prosecute an endless counterinsurgency in Donbass. Given American assurance of removing the current sanctions regime and halting NATO’s eastward expansion, President Trump can compel Putin to withdraw troops in such a manner that neither country loses political face.

The United States and Russia cannot rationally contain live fire with competing priorities in Ukraine, Syria, or any other battlespace given the threat of a nuclear spasm. Indeed, it is the nuclear dimension that most demands cooperation between the two countries. A space-based, global shield is more important than ever in an era when deterrence may fail against irrational nuclear states and non-state actors. Such a system is economically and technologically unfeasible for either country alone, but can be accomplished through collaboration. The argument that defense is incompatible with mutual deterrence is moot in a joint security arrangement.

Though these recommendations may appear to be concessions to Moscow, they must necessarily take place in a framework in which the United States acts as a senior partner. This is not merely a principle of national interest, but a practical truth as well: Russia is operating from a position of weakness, with more than half a dozen armed conflicts lighting up its border region in Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and the North Caucasus. Low oil prices and sanctions continue to depress the Russian economy while the United States makes steady gains.

Russia is neither friend nor foe, but a perennial rival that respects power, not friendship. Its domestic illiberalism is loathsome and not to be admired by any American politician. Still, the United States must recognize that Russia will reap all the geopolitical capital gains when the dust settles in the Middle East if we do not overhaul our regional policy. Regarding NATO, President Trump may find the collective defense organization more to his liking if it does in fact defend against, rather than antagonize our primary adversary. The president also enjoys the rapport with Putin necessary to make advances on a long-elusive missile defense system. Let us take advantage of these opportunities to advance our own long-term security interests.

About the Author(s)

Edward T. Owens is a managing director at Khelil Global Intelligence. A former Marine and combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Edward holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.