What Does Russia Want? What Does America Need?


On April 17, the Center for the National Interest hosted a panel discussion entitled “What Does Russia Want? What Does America Need?” Speakers included Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Initiative and a senior fellow for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Center on the Unites States and Europe at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President Obama, Paul J. Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest and a former State Department Senior Advisor during the George W. Bush administration, Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russia and East European Studies and a professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and Michael Kofman, a Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and expert on Russia’s military. Center President Dimitri K. Simes moderated. The event was covered live by C-SPAN and can be viewed online here. A summary of the event can be found below.

What Does Russia Want? What Does America Need?

Four prominent Russia experts agreed that while a rapprochement with Russia is still possible, it will be very difficult to achieve.

Angela Stent, a former National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia and a former member of the State Department’s prestigious Policy Planning staff, said that if she had to boil down the question of what Russia wants into a Tweet, she would say that Russia would like the United States to treat it as if it were the Soviet Union. In other words, it wants to be treated as a great power with global reach, a country with a right to a seat at the table in all important global decisions, a nuclear superpower, a country that is respected and feared by the rest of the world, and one that the United States treats as an equal. This has been a theme throughout the last 25 years, according to Stent; the Kremlin has long felt that the U.S. has not treated its interests as legitimate.

In explaining Russian objectives and what Moscow expects the U.S. to regard as its interests, Stent stressed that Russia defines its security perimeter not as the borders of the Russian Federation, but as the outer borders of the former Soviet space. When asked why Russia has intervened in Ukraine rather than focusing on improving the quality of life in Russia, Stent referenced Russia’s history of vulnerability along its western frontier and its impact on Moscow’s priorities. In this context, she said, Moscow believes that Ukraine’s decision to align more closely with the west is interpreted as a direct threat to the Russian heartland.

With regards to whether Russia will be able to fulfill its objectives and achieve the recognition it has been seeking under the Trump administration, Stent referenced Trump’s explicit eschewing of democracy promotion efforts in his inaugural address—this has gone a long way in assuaging Russian concerns about future U.S. interests in regime change in Moscow, she said. However, whether the Trump administration will be more willing to accept Russia’s interests in the post-Soviet space is much less clear, she said. Indeed, given what President Trump has said abut Russia in the past two weeks following the chemical attack in Syria, as well as his cabinet’s publicly-stated positions, this may be unlikely, according to Stent.

In terms of American objectives vis-à-vis Russia, Stent asserted that the Trump administration would like to have meaningful cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State and in bringing the Syrian civil war to an end. The U.S. would also like to work towards a viable solution in Ukraine and garner Russian support in confronting North Korea, she said. More generally, she added, the U.S. would like to have Russia as a constructive player rather than a spoiler. These are all aspirational, according to Stent, given the differing world views of Washington and Moscow. Washington must be very realistic about the limited range of common interests that it has with Russia, while also trying to do the best it can to work with Moscow on those specific issues, she said.

Steven Pifer—a career diplomat who has served as Ambassador to Ukraine and Special Assistant to the President for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia on the National Security Council staff—discussed Russian objectives in Europe. He defined Russia’s stance as much more active and belligerent compared to four or five years ago, as seen with Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Pifer also cited a growth in provocative activities by Russia’s air force, which have led to an increasing number of close encounters with Western aircraft. This is taking place against the backdrop of Russia’s military modernization effort and loose talk in the Kremlin about nuclear weapons, Pifer stated. He also said the Kremlin, having watched the post-Cold War security order develop and decided it is significantly disadvantageous to Russian interests, is now actively challenging that order.

Pifer defined Russia’s three objectives in Europe: a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space; ways to diminish the influence of NATO and the European Union; and a seat at the table in defining what a new European security order might look like. Russia does not want a reemergence of the Soviet Union, Pifer argued, but they want neighbors that defer to Moscow’s interests and are open to Russian business, not only because this is beneficial to the Russian economy, but also because these business interests are instruments for increasing Russian leverage along its periphery. Russia is seeks to prevent events like the so-called “Color Revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, which Putin views as being organized by Western security services, Pifer said. According to Pifer, we know what Russia wants, but they have not been as successful as they might have hoped.

U.S. policy towards Russia is one focused on managing differences, said Pifer. He agreed with Secretary Tillerson’s approach during the latter’s visit to Moscow of opening lines of communication and taking small steps in order to make progress towards a more cooperative relationship with Moscow, though it will undoubtedly take a significant amount of time to achieve normalized relations. While Pifer was pessimistic that the relationship will improve anytime soon, he stated that he is worries less worried about escalation and more about the possibility of a military miscalculation.

Paul J. Saunders, a former State Department Senior Advisor during the George W. Bush administration and author of numerous works on Russia’s foreign policy and U.S.-Russia relations, recently visited Russia and interviewed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. According to Saunders, Russia wants an international system that allows Russia to focus on its internal challenges and problems. It wants a rules-based international system, but with different rules—specifically, rules that constrain the U.S.’ use of force. Saunders stated that Russia would also like to see strong governments capable of controlling their own territory to ensure that terrorism and instability do not spread elsewhere. If he had to fit it into a Tweet, he joked, he would describe Moscow’s objective as a system of strong states in which, “what happens in Syria stays in Syria [or wherever else instability may arise].”

With regard to the EU, Saunders stated that it is not unusual that Russia would prefer to work bilaterally with its individual members rather than with the institution as a whole—a sentiment likely shared by most other countries. Indeed, he said, the U.S. often seeks to do the same. Echoing Stent’s comments, Saunders said that Russia also wants a role in the international system that satisfies its self-image as a major power, as well as a voice in collective security decisions at the international level. What Russia does not want, Saunders stated, is outside actors interfering in its political and economic system.

The U.S., meanwhile, wants a stable international system that continues to reflect its values and interests, said Saunders. Washington must ask itself if Russia, on its own, is the greatest threat to the international system. Saunders believes it is not, as the greater threat comes from China. The largest threat, he argued, would be cooperation between Russia and China that undermines the system as a whole. U.S. policy, he said, should seek to avoid this.

Michael Kofman, a Research Scientist at CNA and an expert on the Russian military, focused on how Moscow employs its military to secure its objectives and the implications for U.S. policy. Kofman stressed that the Russian military is a critical instrument of national power for the Kremlin, one that often makes up for Russia’s inability to achieve what it wants in the international system due to its weak economic position.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons were a guarantor of Russia’s sovereignty, a principal deterrent against the U.S., and a key component of its self-image as a global power, Kofman stated. Russia was overly dependent on its nuclear arsenal during the early post-Cold War period and its military was both dysfunctional and not a predictable instrument of national power, he argued. Between 2008 and 2011, however, Russia launched significant military reforms and a modernization program, allowing it to reemerge as the preeminent military power in the post-Soviet space and become the region’s “agenda-setter,” he said. Russia has also narrowed the technological gap with the United States in its use of conventional military power.

As a result, Kofman stated, Russia can use its military as a tool to try to impose its will on its neighbors, likely prevail in any local conflict, and be an important tool of coercion. The main purpose of the military, he said, is its role in coercive diplomacy. Russia wants to focus on time-limited, indirect uses of force and wants to reserve the bulk of its military power for compellence purposes, said Kofman. He notes that the Russian military still lacks the capacity to occupy significant territory due to its relatively small force and lack of reserves; instead, Russia focuses on occupying the smallest amount of real estate necessary in order to affect the target country’s strategic decisions. The military is not positioned for maximalist territorial acquisition and Moscow does not seem to be investing in weapons systems that could facilitate that type of strategy, argued Kofman. Russian force posture is still very much focused on contingencies in its near abroad, he said; indeed, despite its campaign in Syria, the Russian armed forces are still in “terrible shape” when it comes to their power projection capabilities. Nevertheless, he concluded, Moscow has succeeded in banishing earlier views that Russia was a declining power that Western governments could safely ignore.