Russia-US Relationship: A Round Table Discussion

Approximate reading time: 20 minutes

Editor’s Note: OTH sat down with three professors from Air University to discuss the Russia-US relationship. The conversation was published as a Podcast on Tuesday, 29 May 2018. Below is an abridged transcript of the discussion. Highlighted in bold are the panelist’s main points.

All the panelists agree that the US has the potential to control the direction in which the Russian-US relationship will progress in the future. Dr. Hampton explains that missed opportunities on both sides during the 1990s led to the current tensions between the two nations. She suggests that Russia is a latent threat to the US and proposes that to adequately respond to Russia the US must first decide if it wants to lead the international order that it established at the end of WWII. After that the US must develop proactive policies to draw Russia westward. Dr. Conversino highlights Russia’s short of armed conflict, grey zone actions. He proposes that the greatest threat comes from Russia’s internal instability and suggests that the US must be more realistic in its consideration of Russia by acknowledging them as they are, a world power. He also points out that the US must look internally to resolve its democratic fissures and “fake news” problems. Dr. Connelly suggests that Russia is in a state of cultural death, which poses a threat to US policy rather than national security directly. He proposes that a more intimate understanding of Russia is a prerequisite to the development of effective policy, which must be caged in terms to which Russia is likely to respond. The discussion centers around the idea that there are opportunities for a better relationship between Russia and the US, but the US must deliberately take advantage of these opportunities in order to shape the environment it desires.

Over the past several years Russia has dominated our political discussions and news media coverage. The National Security Strategy, published in December 2017, emphasizes Russia as a major threat to national security. Russia appears to be a significant issue on the minds of the US public, politicians, and military leaders. Correspondingly, Russia appears to be escalating their offensive operations. Increasingly aggressive military actions in their near abroad, as observed by their actions in Georgia and Ukraine, and their use of hybrid warfare both in conjunction with military operations and independently as an information operation campaign, exemplified in their manipulation of foreign media and meddling in the US elections, area all signs of overt escalating competition. Additionally, Russia’s National Security Strategy explicitly identifies the US, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the West as an opponent in the struggle for dominance in world affairs. These are all indications of growing tensions on both sides. But behind all of the hype, smoke, and mirrors, what are Russia’s intentions and capabilities with respect to the US? Should the US be worried and threatened by Russia’s actions? How should the US respond to this emerging environment?

To answer these questions and explore the tensions in the Russian-US relationship from a strategy and policy perspective, OTH sat down for a round-table discussion with three professors from Air University: Dr. Mary Hampton, Dr. Mark Conversino, and Dr. Dan Connelly.

Introduction of the Panel

Dr. Hampton is a professor of National Security at the Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) and served as a Russian linguist in the Air Force during the Cold War. Her expertise and current research focuses on Russian foreign policy, European security, and trans-Atlantic relations. Dr. Mark Conversino is the Deputy Commandant and a professor of Strategy and Security Studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). A retired Air Force officer, he served in Strategic Air Command, where he focused on the Soviet Union from a military perspective. During graduate school he studied Russian history and Soviet/East European politics. Additionally, as a professor in the Air War College’s Regional and Cultural Studies Program, he focuses on examining Russia’s hybrid warfare threat and their information operations influence on the West. As part of this work, he leads an annual trip to the Russian region and recently returned from his 17th excursion. Dr. Connelly is a retired Air Force intelligence officer and currently teaches international security at ACSC. His study of Russia began with his undergraduate work and continued throughout his career. Dr. Connelly spent a year in Kiev, Ukraine studying Russian-Ukrainian relations in the 1990s. His focus areas are Russian history, language, politics, and culture.

From your perspective, what is Russia’s strategy and intentions w/respect to the US (NATO & West)? How has this strategy changed over the last ten years?

Dr. Hampton: Let me start at the end of the Cold War. We can see the seeds of Russia’s current strategy and policy towards the US, NATO, and the West in the waning moments of the Cold War. In 1989 I attended a two-week conference in Moscow. This was a very dynamic and exciting time is Russian-US relations. I saw many Russian people sincerely excited about change and turning towards the West. At the end of the Cold War, there was great optimism on both sides about Russia, if not integrating into the West, at least becoming more engaged with the West. Over the course of the next decade, this optimism began to wane as Russia watched NATO enlarge, extending all the way to its borders, with the addition of the three Baltic states. By the time Putin ascended as president, there was growing skepticism in Russia about westernization and the West’s intentions. All of this was fueled, in 1999, by Operation Allied Force. The face NATO showed to Russia, at that time, was no longer the happy democratizer, but rather the Cold War military face. This lesson was not lost on Putin, and it is still an active lesson in Russia today. What the West did in former Yugoslavia, intervening in a Slavic nation without consultation with Russia, was a turning point after which Putin became increasingly skeptical of the West. It is also important to note that this coincided with the failure of Russian domestic reform efforts. After this point, Putin showed increasing willingness to challenge, and in some cases, threaten or intimidate the West. So, to summarize, at the end of the Cold War, there was optimism in the East and the West about democratic enlargement and creating a Europe that is whole and free. As a member of the Partnership for Peace program Russia was perceived to have a role in this process. Those days of optimism are gone, but it is not over yet.

Dr. Conversino: I would echo that it is not over yet. When you look at the last decade, while Russia looked at the West and debated the direction of their relationship with the West, they also invaded two of their neighbors (The Republic of Georgia and Ukraine), and assaulted several others through cyber and other means. Their rational, or cover story, is that they are defending Russians, but we are also aware that part of their motivation is to slow, if not halt, these neighboring countries’ drift towards westernization. Russia wants to make these countries completely unappetizing to NATO or the European Union (EU) as potential members. In many ways, they have succeeded in doing that. Russia’s strategy revolves first and foremost around its goal of keeping the regime in power. The regime’s task is to convince its people that the regime’s interests are the people’s interests. Secondary objectives of Russia’s strategy are to raise their relative power in the world, fracture NATO, fracture the EU, and create a power imbalance that favors Russia. Since Russia has many long-term problems, demographically and economically, they can only enhance their own power at the expense of other powers. The means that they are using to achieve these objectives, is this notion of what we call “hybrid warfare;” they don’t call it that, they claim that they are behaving in a purely defensive fashion. Russia is resentful and bitter about what they see as “histories’ verdict” in 1991, which they see as a betrayal and the West turning their back on them. Thus, they are looking for ways, short of open conflict, to fracture the Western alliance, to undermine the post-WWII Bretton Woods Western-lead international system, to benefit them at the expense of the US and its allies.

Dr. Connelly: Let me preface a comment on Russian strategy with a tale of culture. I first propose that Russia is in a condition of extended cultural death that has been going on since about 1917. If Russia were to simply collapse, politically and socially, it is too big to just disappear. Examining that cultural death, understanding what affects and influences make it worse or make it better, is something that has been missing from our current discussions about Russia. Second, a rereading of the history of the 1990s suggests that Russia’s leadership missed an opportunity in the 1990’s to connect their aims with “The Russian Idea;” an idea that Russia’s story in the future and the present needs to be connected to its past. The Bolshevik period severed that connection in several ways, which led to missed opportunities. As a consequence of those mistakes, a lot of current Western thinking on Russia tends to vacillate between two poles. On the one hand there is this notion that we must update our strategic thinking on Russia every 15 minutes because of a new breaking story, and on the other hand there appears to be a calcification of thinking that revolves around whimsical decisions. In the 1990’s one such whim was that Russia was totally irrelative. More recently that thinking has shifted to the idea that Russia is purely evil. I argue that neither extreme is helpful to the discussion. I’m going to turn to a quote from the book Ender’s Game. In a discussion about adversaries the author writes:

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it is impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them in the way that they love themselves. In that moment when I love them, I can destroy them.”

So, regardless of what our intentions are with respect to Russia, it would seem that a more intimate knowledge of Russia is demanded of us. And I find that compared to the Cold War era, there seems to be a loss of intimacy. When I reflect upon a lot of the writing that was done in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, they seem more in tune with actual Russian thinking then a lot of the talk that comes across today.

Enlargement of Russia


Do you perceive Russia as a significant threat to the US, presently and within the next 10 years; why or why not?  

Dr. Hampton: There are several parts to this question. First, of course Russia is a significant threat. Any country with that many nuclear weapons, that at one time were all ready to go and pointed at us, is a significant threat. Is it an imminent, live threat, or is it a latent threat? Those are the more important questions. When I go back to the rise of Putin in the year 2000, Putin talked about Russia as a European country. So, in those first moments of Putin’s presidency he was westward leaning. Russia has a long history of debating westernization. Under Yeltsin there was a revolution in this thinking. President Yeltsin wanted Russia to join the West. Two things prevented this; first, the Russians became very frustrated with what they saw as a stab in the back by the West. Second, domestic politics prevented them from westernizing. It was a failed revolution because Yeltsin was not able to bring Russia’s domestic system into anything that would be in accordance with the requirements to join the western community of democracies. Thus, a combination of the perception that the West had failed them and a tremendous domestic failure led to the rise of Putin and in turn to Putin’s behavior over the last ten years. Putin’s behavior should be seen as threatening. He doesn’t directly threaten the West, he uses intimidation tactics and threatens neighbors and smaller powers, whom he is pretty sure the West won’t assist. So far, he has been right. Putin is a gambler; so far, he has played the right hands, and the West has largely stood by.

Additionally, part of the threat belongs to us. Over the last 10 years, democracy and democratic integration have been receding in the West. We have problems all over NATO and the EU. Brexit is just one example of that. The West must come to a consensus on what NATO and the EU stand for and what it means to be a Western democracy; I don’t think we know that. Putin is very adept at playing into these democracy fissures, to further fracture the West. He has not been completely successful. In fact, one could argue that his actions are in some ways having the opposite effect; they are bringing NATO back to its original core Article 5 identity, which has laid dormant for over a decade. The West is beginning to reorient itself around a military security identity where Russia poses a security threat. So, the question becomes, what will Putin do next? Will he continue as he has, or will he up the game? What becomes of the gambler as the West reorients itself around Article 5?

Dr. Conversino: Russia is a clear latent threat. You could say the same thing about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and any number of countries with capabilities that can strike the US directly or indirectly. Having said that, I don’t think Russia is an imminent threat; I don’t think their missiles are coming over the pole as we speak, or that the Russians are going to wade ashore at Long Beach any time soon. I see the threat as somewhat more indirect. Having just returned from the Baltic region, I personally witnessed allies that believe they are under a direct threat from Russia. They are under a constant barrage of propaganda meant to undermine their legitimacy and exacerbate divisions in their own societies. For example, Estonia and Latvia have not allowed ethnic Russians to fully assimilate into their society. It is the policy of the Russian Federation to defend Russians anywhere they find them. So how does that threaten the US? Well, the rhetorical question becomes, is the US prepared to go to nuclear war over Estonia? We have treaty obligations to these countries, so it won’t take a direct assault against the US to trigger some sort of confrontation, military or otherwise, between the US and Russia. Additionally, one must remember that these are independent actors. The Latvians may take actions to defend themselves, which triggers a bigger response from Russia, which in turn may call in our obligation under Article 5. We have to consider what are we willing to hold ourselves to.

On the other hand, I believe the greatest threat comes from a lack of internal stability in Russia. How will Putin react if he feels that things are going sideways, the earth is shifting under his feet, and the Regime is under imminent threat of collapse? Putin was a witness to the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). He is well aware of the fact that a Russian political entity, twice in the 20st century, collapsed with relative speed. He has vowed not to allow that to happen. So, if our sanctions work, what does that mean? If the Russian political structure begins to wobble, there is nothing we can do about it. So, we have to think through our own policies and their long-term impacts. What are we actually trying to achieve? If we create a regime crisis in Russia, this may become a much bigger threat to the US than any sort of conventional threat we typically think about.

Dr. Connelly: First, I would like to characterize Russian strategy as one of paranoid defense. That has traditionally been Russia’s strategy, and I don’t see a significant change in that over time. Additionally, when we look at the current conditions in Russia, economically, demographically, culturally, we see widespread devastation and problems. As they slide towards poverty, they are fixating on oil, which is only a short-term solution. The long-term future for a country that decides to rely heavily on oil is bleak, at best. Consequently, Russia may only have about 5 -10 years of relative freedom of action. This must be considered in our calculus, as we look at the potential threat they pose. So, based on their strategic culture of paranoid defense and their dwindling economy, I see Russia as a threat to US policy. That is where we should spend most of our attention when it comes to Russia. I’m distinguishing here between a threat to the US homeland and a threat to policy options and preferences. I don’t see that Russia has an ability to threaten the homeland. Thus, we ought to be weary of creating conditions where the threat Russia poses appears to be more significant than it really is.

How well is the US responding to Russian aggression, and from your foxhole, what is your recommendation for how the US should deal with this problem?

Dr. Hampton: As I stated previously in other venues, the US must first decide whether we want to lead the international order we constructed in 1945. That order survived the Cold War, one could even say it won the Cold War. After that, through the 1990s, that international order helped define the institutionalization of democracy and democratization throughout Europe and around the world. It is now hanging on but being threatened from numerous sides, externally, and most importantly, internally. Today we are witnessing an American public that does not want to bear the costs of world leadership. We have so many domestic disputes that we no longer have the time or the will to lead the international order. So, the US must decide, do we want to lead or do we want to react? I think that right now we have moved into reactive mode.

We are reacting to Russian threats and aggression. We have not developed any kind of proactive policies towards Russia; this is a problem. It is not deadly, but it allows Putin further opportunity to continue dividing where divisions are possible. There still exists a lack of consensus in NATO regarding the Russian threat, and it is causing some fundamental regionalism problems inside NATO. If you live in northeastern NATO, you are wondering what the heck is going on, why isn’t anyone doing anything. For example, Sweden and Finland, two neutral countries, have actually been considering joining NATO because of Russia’s behavior. While if you live in Mediterranean NATO, then you are more focused on immigration and terrorism. We have divisions in NATO, in the West, and within the US. We are reacting somewhat adequately to Russia, through renewed focus on Article 5, but we lack a solid proactive policy towards them.

Dr. Conversino: First, we need to, as a nation and as a culture, pay more attention to ourselves, and to what we are doing, and spend less time looking for Russians “under the bed.” The Russians didn’t have to create any fake news. We are creating enough hyper-sensationalized media ourselves. We have to resolve this problem of misinformation and fake journalism. We have to ensure that our population, and those of our allies, are properly educated, while simultaneously preserving our democratic values and protecting the First Amendment. We have to exercise some self-discipline and understand that while we are undertaking responsible democratic debate, we are being watched by countries that want to take advantage of our divisions.

As far as some of the things the US has done in response to Russian aggression I think that we have taken some reasonable measures to shore up confidence in NATO. Our NATO partners are realizing that they can no longer take for granted that a tax payer in the US is going to be more concerned about the defense of NATO than they are. So, they are acquiescing and moving closer to spending 2% of their GDP on defense. On the other hand, I think that the punitive sanctions we enacted on Russia are relatively ineffective. The sanctions are not coercive because Russia is not going to give up Crimea any time soon. It appears that we are just sanctioning them because we don’t know what else to do. At the same time, Russia views the sanctions as hostile acts, as acts of war. We think in very black and white legalistic terms, but Russia doesn’t see the world in the same way. We must change our thinking if we hope to make some sort of progress with Russia. While Moscow sees themselves at war at some level with the US, we are just meandering along thinking that if we can just get past this next issue, things will go back to some form of normalcy.

In terms of what we can do to get ourselves back off the ledge, I think we need to treat Russia as a legitimate great power. As limited as their time horizon might be, currently they are a legitimate power. We have to treat their government with the same respect that we would every other legitimate country. Constantly referring to Putin as a thug and a KGB agent and making a cartoon out of the place is not productive. We need to deal with them as they are, not as we wish them to be; we have to recognize reality. They have legitimate security concerns, which we must recognize. Now that does not mean we shouldn’t sanction them for annexing parts of their neighbors’ territories, but we should recognize their concerns as legitimate. And finally, we must also realize that they are throwing our own words and actions back in our faces. We call it election meddling when they interfere in our political processes, but its promotion of democracy and civil society building when we do it. You really cannot have it both ways in that regard. They are operating within our system. For example, RT is operating openly and legally. It’s our fault if we don’t know what we are looking at and can’t discern fact from fiction. I think the way to improve things is to simply be more realistic about the nature of Russia, the nature of its concerns, and the nature of the regime, as well as our own problems and weaknesses.

Dr. Connelly: Our tendency towards a legalistic attitude is spot-on. We have a tradition of this type of attitude, especially towards interstate relations. This tradition goes back a very long way; it can be traced back to Hugo Grotius, in early modern history. Russia has no Hugo Grotius. Consequently, our understanding of legal binding relationships is different from theirs. This is an oversimplification of the distinctions between the Russian and Western experiences, nevertheless we are somewhat confounded in our responses to Russia by our system of thinking. Additionally, I see our response to Russia as a mixture of a kind of despair, some hand wringing, and some fantasizing. I want to emphasize fantasy because I think that if we have a policy that is driven by waiting for the Russia that we want, we will be disappointed every time. So we need something better. The language of policy is the area where I see the most potential for growth in the future. I see this as a matter of self-discipline. If we can become more disciplined in the way in which we express our policy, as well as in the thinking behind it, we will be better postured to respond to Russia. Ideology is something that continues to get in our way. It seems to feed all the negative factors in our relationship with Russia. If we can reduce that ideological component in our policy, our policy will be more effective. So, I recommend that we evolve our policy language.

Concluding Remarks

Dr. Connelly: In the near-term, Russia has three potential futures: political social collapse, a turn towards extreme nationalism, or a cultural rebirth. This third option has the potential of producing a Russia we want to deal with. Consequently, I think there are opportunities to create that better relationship with Russia. I think that understanding how we are currently prosecuting deterrence is going to be one of the key factors in which we can kill two birds with one stone: improve our deterrent capacity and also evolve our policy language so it ends up working with the Russia psychology more effectively. We can only achieve this if we better understand what Russia actually wants. Russia has an extraordinarily long history of Western imitation. However, we often find that Russia imitates us in the exact ways we don’t want them to and refuses to imitate us in the ways we would prefer. A better understanding of their national desired end state and the manner in which they operate, which frankly only comes from a thorough study of Russia, will enable more effective policy. That understanding of the operational environment is our missing step in policy development. By immediately jumping into our own policy inclinations and goals, we miss an opportunity. We forget how to cage our policy in terms that Russia will be most likely to respond to.

Dr. Conversino: We need to be very forthright and upfront with them. They have 1,000 years of history that we cannot fully understand because we didn’t live it and it was not passed down to us through generations. But at the same time, they need to understand where our red lines are. Then the two sides can begin to move forward. We need to take a more realist approach. They are not on board with certain social things that we believe in. In that regard, they will not become like us. We must also be cautious of cultural imperialism. If we are going to get all up in arms about supposed meddling in our society, then we ought not to do it in theirs. We have to figure out how to work with them, without giving up our own values, interests, and the faith and trust of our allies.

Dr. Hampton: Today the US is considered, by some in the international relations community, to be a revisionist society, but in 1989/1990, the revisionist power was Russia; it decided to change and change drastically. This was very revisionist, and a period of clear westernization in Russian history. The West was eager to take advantage of this revolution. It turns out that NATO wasn’t the organization to open the door. But, I think that in the near future Russia will come back westward. Russia has to fix its economy, and it only has a few alternatives: it can keep declining while remaining totally dependent on its oil and natural gas resources, it can become dependent on China, or it can try again to turn to the West. I think they will choose this third option. So, I think that after we decide whether we are going to lead the international order or not, we need do everything in our power to reenergize the trans-Atlantic community to encourage Russia to turn westward again.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

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