Let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario in which an imaginary country—we’ll call it Country X—that the U.S. is ostensibly at peace with after decades of tension also happens to have the nuclear capability to destroy the world as we know it. Engaging in respectful dialogue and making compromises on both sides could result in a global coalition with the power to defeat ISIS. Yet rather than choosing this option, the U.S. considers imposing harsh sanctions on Country X to weaken its already struggling economy, and then proposes stationing troops on Country X’s borders. All this despite the fact that if Country X’s economy or government collapses, the world security order would be thrown into even greater chaos. Now substitute “Russia” for “Country X.”
“In the U.S., there is almost no real, serious public debate about this gravest of international crises,” said Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, in a video conversation hosted by Reinvent. “The mainstream media inside the Beltway, those publications which have some authority with the political elite, has essentially engaged in group think: a kind of religious adherence to the narrative that Russia, that Putin, is solely to blame. Our think tanks, with few exceptions, are not doing a lot of thinking, and certainly not rethinking…and our political class has failed to offer even a debate, one worthy of a democracy.”
Clinging so tightly to a narrative that characterizes the other country as perpetually unreasonable makes it difficult for Russia and the U.S. to engage one another in productive, meaningful ways. According to Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies, history and politics at NYU and Princeton University, “A new narrative would be: no, Russia and Putin are not solely—and arguably not mainly—responsible for where we find ourselves today. Even if we agree, which Washington and its media do not, that the United States and Russia are each 50 percent responsible, that’s the beginning of a dialogue. That’s the beginning of negotiations. So long as Russia is blamed for everything—from Ukraine, to the refugees in Europe, to Syria—there’s nothing to discuss.”
While there are certainly valid reasons to object to particular actions taken by Putin, one of the many potential dangers of letting this dominant narrative go unchallenged is that we could end up right where we started: in a Cold War. Here are six new ways to think about this largely unchallenged narrative.
Many Russians see the U.S. and NATO as the aggressor, rather than the other way around.
The Pentagon recently proposed quadrupling military spending in Europe and stationing U.S.-NATO troops on Russia’s eastern border. Imagine the political and public outcry that would ensue in the U.S. if the situation was reversed: It’s difficult to imagine the U.S. tolerating Russia stationing troops on our northern or southern borders. And the post-Cold War expansion of NATO, in which twelve new members were added, doesn’t help appease Russian concerns about encroachment.
According to Cohen, Vice President Biden has repeatedly said that Russia wants a sphere of influence, but shouldn’t be allowed to have one (Biden said in a speech at the Brookings Institution in 2015, “We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence” and made similar remarks in 2009). Yet, Cohen says, a sphere of influence is exactly what the U.S. is pursuing for itself. “The United States has expanded its sphere of influence from West Berlin to the Baltics,” said Cohen. “It’s certainly the greatest expansion of a sphere of influence in modern times. Russia, so far as I can tell, doesn’t want a sphere of influence. It wants a zone of security on its borders, which means no foreign military bases.”
The asymmetrical system born at the end of the Cold War prevented Russia from joining the “Greater West” as an equal member.
According to Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent at Canterbury, the Ukraine crisis was a symptom, not a cause, of a larger problem related to the exclusion of Russia from what Sakwa calls the “Greater West”: the institutions and ideology of liberal capitalist democracies. This exclusionary post-Cold War security order has contributed to many of the difficulties endemic to the U.S./Russia relationship today. “For the last 25 years, Russia has been locked in a dead end, in the sense that there was no strategic space for it to develop,” Sakwa said. In the early years of his rule, Putin wanted to join this Greater West, according to Sakwa, but Russia wasn’t allowed to participate as an equal and independent member.
Americans are often quick to jump to the conclusion that Putin has no interest in cooperating, but this isn’t necessarily the case. “I think that Russia is almost desperately reaching out to engage, to find people to talk to, and it almost doesn’t understand how,” said Mary Dejevsky, chief editorial writer and columnist at The Independent. Excluding Russia from the global security order and discounting the role Russia played in, for example, the Iran nuclear agreement, or the role it could play in a coalition against ISIS, is beneficial to neither Russia nor the U.S.
Many Russian political elites are pushing for even more of a hard-line policy toward the West.
American political leaders tend to view Putin as too aggressive and confrontational, a perception that stands in stark contrast to that of many influential Russia politicians. “Western policy, and particularly American policy, has greatly empowered the anti-Western elites and lobbies in the Russian political system,” Cohen said. “And Putin is not an autocrat. Putin is the decider. But he has to deal with quite a few people, and he can’t get half of his policies implemented in Russia anyway.” Many of these people, according to Cohen, call Putin a weak leader, and accuse him of being too soft on the West. “They see him not as an aggressor, but as someone who’s constantly reacting to Western aggression, and too late.”
According to Sakwa, opinion polls suggest that the alternative to Putin would be someone who’s much more of a hard-liner. “There are powerful factions in Moscow and many of them, in fact more and more, condemn Putin for being a weakling and for giving into the West,” Sakwa said. American politicians need to understand that plummeting perceptions of the U.S. in Russia will inevitably shape who succeeds Putin and how he or she behaves toward the United States. It’s difficult to imagine that antagonizing Russia will result in a future leader who is friendlier and more cooperative than Putin.
The coarseness of the political dialogue in the U.S./Russia relationship exceeds that of the Cold War.
Political leaders in the U.S. and other Western countries often employ inflammatory language when talking about Putin (Hillary Clinton once compared him to Hitler) that contributes to the erosion of goodwill. “I can’t think of any other times when American political leaders would get up and make personal comments about the Russian leader or the Soviet leader,” said Susan Eisenhower, president emeritus of The Eisenhower Group, Inc. (and Dwight Eisenhower’s granddaughter). “In the case of the Eisenhower administration, President Dwight Eisenhower felt very strongly that if you insult people in public, you will never successfully achieve the potential for cooperation.”
We’re trapped in a vicious cycle in which tension spills over into dialogue, thus heightening tension even further. “More and more frustration has led to all sorts of pathologies within Russia, and indeed in the West, which has gotten us to this point where we’re all shouting at each other,” said Sakwa. “The coarsening of public discourse, the collapse of traditional diplomacy, the language sometimes used by our Western leaders, has been absolutely shocking.”
Russia wants to keep Assad in power because they believe the Syrian army is essential to defeating ISIS.
American opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the main obstacle preventing a joint U.S./Russian coalition against ISIS. “The unwillingness to cooperate on a functional level against the Islamic State with Moscow is utter folly, unless the United States is prepared to send in 20-30,00 combat troops into Syria,” said Cohen. He believes that Russia’s support of Assad’s government stems from Russia’s belief that the Syrian army is necessary to fight ISIS on the ground—if Assad goes, the viability of this plan falls apart.
Our roundtable participants disagreed over what the U.S. objective is in Syria—some think that American political leaders aren’t sure what they want, while Cohen believes that the U.S. is trying desperately to preserve its position on top of the global hierarchy. “People in Washington, and almost all of the would-be presidents on the scene today, want a unipolar world, where Washington is either the policeman, or the manager, or the decider. It’s impossible,” said Cohen. “When a great power pursues, with the force of arms, an illusion, it becomes exceedingly dangerous.”
Trump—yes, Trump—may be the candidate most open to new thinking about Russia.
The name “Donald Trump” isn’t exactly synonymous with open-mindedness. Yet in this particular situation, Trump’s willingness to butt heads with the establishment demonstrates a willingness to challenge the dominant narrative. “The only [candidate] who’s forcefully stated an alternative policy toward Russia, in his own crude way, is Donald Trump,” Cohen said. “When he says he doesn’t accept these allegations against Putin because they’ve never been proven, that’s the correct thing to say. When he says he will make a deal with Putin, he means—because he doesn’t quite understand it—diplomacy.”
Cohen mentioned Bernie Sanders as another candidate who seems slightly more open to dialogue with Russia than other candidates, and Susan Eisenhower suggested Rand Paul as yet another. Eisenhower believes that Paul’s age may have something to do with his more progressive attitude. “It’s up to all of us to build a new cadre of young people who know about international security,” Eisenhower said, “who know about bilateral security, and who are interested in cooperation: economically, culturally, scientifically, and in every other way.”