The Foreign Service Journal, March 2020

38 MARCH 2020 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Ukraine’s movement away from Russia represents a most dif- ficult and painful divorce within the core of the historical Russian state. As such, it is only partly a foreign policy matter. The Russo-Ukrainian separation will take decades and likely generations to become a fact fully accepted in Russia. For Ukraine, the process of nation-building has involved a thorough rejection of anything to do with Russia and severance of all contacts with it. In Moscow, U.S. policies in Ukraine have been largely seen as aimed at diminishing Russia through undermining its great power position (e.g., Zbigniew Brzezinski’s famous quote that Russia without Ukraine cannot be an empire) and even as a dry run for regime change in Moscow. In Russian eyes, the most dangerous element of U.S. policy has been Washington’s sup- port for Ukraine’s NATO membership. For Russians, the Atlantic alliance is a U.S.-owned platform for pressuring Russia in order to weaken it and, in extremis, an advanced position from which to attack the Russian heartland. Fears of the dangers associated with NATO’s eastern enlargement are probably exaggerated, but they remain an article of faith within the Russian security and military communities, where memories of Hitler’s surprise attack of 1941 live on. The United States is unlikely to stop supporting its Ukrainian clients, Russian leaders believe. U.S. political and diplomatic support, as well as military assistance, to Ukraine will continue into the future; and thus, a major irritant in U.S.-Russian rela- tions will continue to exist. Yet NATO membership for Ukraine— intolerable for Russia for security reasons—will probably remain out of reach, Russians conclude. Without acknowledging it, Washington cannot ignore the possibility that such a move, even before it is consummated, might precipitate a preemptive Rus- sian action. Since Ukraine clearly matters much more to Russia than it does to the United States, Moscow believes it has a de facto veto on Ukraine’s NATO membership through high-cost military intervention. Should the conflict escalate, Russia will have an edge in escalation dominance. A prudent U.S. policy needs to make sure that its actions in Ukraine do not cause it to stumble into a military conflict with Russia. A Trying Period Ahead FromMoscow’s vantage point, as far as overall U.S. relations with Russia are concerned, the United States has no best way forward now, only a least bad one. Confrontation is here to stay, at least for the medium term. Possibilities for any serious U.S.- Russian cooperation will be extremely limited over the next five years or so. Whatever the outcome of the 2020 elections, the U.S. body politic will probably continue to need Russia as a villain. This attitude will express itself in ever-mounting sanctions pres- sure. The specter of an all-powerful America having no real use for Russia while seeking to hurt it whenever it can will, in turn, be used by the Kremlin and its allies to shore up Russian patrio- tism and civic nationalism. Vladimir Putin regards President Donald Trump as a realist politician, defending and promoting the U.S. national interest while eschewing liberal expansionism. He believes he can do business with Trump on the basis of Russian and American interests. Alas, Putin also has to acknowledge that the embattled U.S. president has to deal with a Congress and media that are very hostile to Russia, and thus is not capable of materi- ally improving U.S.-Russia relations. Apart from U.S. and West- ern weariness with Ukraine after six years of conflict there and the relatively modest U.S. interest in that country, the Kremlin has not seen any serious change in the U.S. position on Ukraine under Trump as compared to the Obama administration. Russians see past and present Ukrainian leaders as des- perately trying to ingratiate themselves with those who wield power in the White House or are likely to emerge as winners in U.S. presidential elections: whether Hillary Clinton in 2016 or Donald Trump in 2020. Trump’s own actions, recently subject to impeachment proceedings, are shrugged off as part of the messy business of politics, where abuse of office, even in democracies, is far more frequent than publicly revealed or admitted. During this trying period, the United States and Russia need to prevent direct military collision between themselves. Unlike during the Cold War, the worst might now result not from a pre- meditated all-out attack, but rather from accidents, incidents or proxy conflicts escalating to a dangerous level. Conflict preven- tion and management will require, above all else, direct contacts and 24/7 communication between the military and security departments of the two countries. More substantive dialogue will remain severely constrained. n For Russians, the Atlantic alliance is a U.S.-owned platform for pressuring Russia in order to weaken it and, in extremis, an advanced position from which to attack the Russian heartland.