Is Russia a threat to the United States? Many policymakers and pundits certainly seem to believe so. Last month, President Joe Biden labeled Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer.” Pundits and analysts make similar claims, warning of Moscow’s eagerness to “act as an anti-U.S. spoiler at every opportunity,” declaring Russia’s “threat to the United States and its interests in Europe,” and cautioning that Russia is “globally resurgent in ways that we can’t afford to dismiss.” That Russian agents were responsible for the recent SolarWinds hack and influence operations around the last two presidential elections only underscores the problem. Russia, it seems, is wedded to challenging the U.S. both at home and abroad.
But the conventional wisdom is wrong: Although any state with a lot of nuclear weapons is a potential threat, the Russian challenge is overblown. To be sure, Russia is a destabilizing force in Europe and the Middle East, led by a government with a horrible civil liberties and human rights record. Nevertheless, these issues do not require the U.S. to treat Russia as an adversary or a threat to core American interests. Instead, Russia is a problem child in international relations that can, and should, be coolly managed.
The case for Russia as a threat is overhyped by hawks and threat inflators. Outside the nuclear realm (addressed below), Russia’s military might is a shadow of the USSR’s. Although capable of generating impressive military power close to its border, Europe has an array of capable regional actors, such as Germany, who are capable of checking Moscow’s strength. Russia simply lacks the wherewithal to upset Europe’s balance of power, much less conquer the continent. This situation is cold comfort to the Eastern European members of NATO proximate to Russia. Nevertheless, the vulnerability of states such as Lithuania and Estonia is fundamentally geographic—they would be threatened even if Russia were militarily denuded—and, in any case, that vulnerability does not seriously imperil Washington’s interest in a stable European balance of power.
A similar point applies to Russian intervention in states along its borders, such as Georgia and Ukraine. For sure, Russian actions have led to death and destruction. The relationship of these actions to American interests, however, is unclear. Far from premeditated aggrandizement, Russian intervention is best understood as a response to events on the ground. After all, Moscow has long asserted Georgia and Ukraine to be central to its security, and only intervened militarily when the EU and NATO looked ready to bring the states into their orbit.
The Russian decision to intervene in Ukraine is thus lamentable, but far from threatening to the U.S. Moreover, where Moscow has been able to retain some degree of influence over its near abroad—Belarus comes to mind—or its vital interests are absent, no military interventions have erupted. In short, Russian interventions have been disproportionate and dangerous, but there is a defensive method to Russian behavior—and Washington has done little to manage Moscow’s threat perceptions. One can even turn the issue around: To minimize the risk from further Russian interventions, the solution is not to underscore the Russian threat in ways that increase Moscow’s anxieties and overstate its capacities, but rather to downplay tensions with Moscow and reduce Moscow’s perceived need to keep states on its borders out of Washington’s own orbit.
What of Russia as an ideological adversary? Russia hawks allege that Moscow’s support for autocrats and illiberal governments abroad—and interference in U.S. domestic politics—highlight Russia’s devotion to challenging liberal democracy and the “liberal international order.” Again, the argument is suspect. For one thing, major instances of Russian autocratic support—Syria, for example—have come in states where Russia (or the USSR before it) long maintained ties and erupted only after other options for salvaging Russian interests faltered. Far from backing autocrats at every opportunity, Russia has mainly tried to preserve the status quo.
More directly, Moscow’s actions are not the cause of liberalism’s dilemmas so much as they exploit existing domestic problems in the U.S. and elsewhere—all at a time when many in the U.S. want to challenge Russia’s own domestic arrangements. The fact is that the durability of liberalism is not contingent on decisions made in Moscow, but rather depends on how the U.S. and others address the economic, political and security needs of their citizens. Indeed, Russian threat inflators who suggest otherwise have a bizarre understanding of liberalism itself, seeing it as at once strong enough to transform Russia and improve bilateral relations, yet so weak that shadow Russian actions can topple the whole liberal edifice! Treating Russia as an ideological threat avoids the real problem—liberalism is most acutely threatened by intrinsic, not extrinsic, problems.
None of this is to give Russia a pass. Ultimately, Russia does imperil its neighbors, intervene in its near abroad and exploit liberalism’s problems. Likewise, Moscow has shown sophistication and willingness to use modern technologies to intervene in U.S. domestic affairs via its subversion of national elections, SolarWinds hack and other such escapades that challenge U.S. sovereignty. Above all, Russia remains a nuclear power with the military capacity to destroy the U.S. The net result is obvious: Russia cannot be discounted.
Still, the solution is not to overstate the Russian threat, but to recognize that the U.S. needs to address the Russian challenge in cool, hardheaded fashion. Russia seeks—as the U.S. director of national intelligence noted in her recent testimony—to “give itself the ability to push back and force the United States to accommodate Russia’s interests.” To minimize the risks to the U.S. from this situation requires a nuanced approach.
First, the U.S. should blend defense and deterrence to reduce U.S. domestic vulnerabilities to Russian influence operations and cyber campaigns. Electoral security, revitalized counterintelligence and improved cyber defenses are reasonable. Likewise, the U.S. needs to reinforce its capacity to retaliate for Russian domestic intrusions and communicate its willingness to do so.
Second, Washington must continue stabilizing the bilateral nuclear relationship. Unlike its conventional military power or ideological actions, Russia’s nuclear might is a real potential threat. Minimizing it requires that the U.S. avoid an arms race with Moscow and clearly communicate with Russian strategists to avoid miscalculations. Doing so requires engaging Russia, rather than treating it as an inveterate threat and rushing to the ramparts.
Finally, the U.S. should recognize that U.S. and Russian interests are generally not in direct conflict, and that their divergences can be more effectively compartmentalized. The European balance of power is stable; both share an interest in avoiding further unrest in Russia’s near abroad and around NATO’s eastern flank; and both face domestic challenges that require time and resources. In the longer term, China’s rise also presents each side with reasons to moderate bilateral tensions. Deconflicting areas of friction should be the order of the day—a situation President Biden’s recent offer to meet Russian leaders acknowledges.
Russia is a problem to be managed pragmatically and with coolheaded realism. The more we lose sight of this situation and instead overstate the Russian threat, the more difficult the relationship will become. Prudence and moderation, not hyperbole, will yield tangible results.