The Wisdom of U.S. Restraint on Russia

As in the Cold War, Washington Cannot Wish Moscow Away

In “Stop Tiptoeing Around Russia” (August 8, 2022), Alexander Vindman contends that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington’s approach to Moscow has been stuck at the appeasement end of the policy spectrum. “For the last three decades,” Vindman writes, “the United States has bent over backward to acknowledge Russia’s security concerns and allay its anxieties.” The United States, he argues, should have occupied the other extreme: instead of “tiptoeing” around Moscow, as the title of his article put it, Washington should have embraced an outright confrontation from day one.

Vindman’s narrative badly misreads the history of U.S. policy toward Russia and its neighbors in the post-Soviet era. Further, despite his claims, a more confrontational relationship with Russia would not have served U.S. interests—and would be particularly problematic today. Indeed, the lessons of every significant Cold War crisis suggest that a more circumspect policy is necessary at such a perilous moment.

U.S. policy toward post-Soviet Russia has never come close to the extreme accommodationism that Vindman describes. Washington did try to forge a partnership with Moscow, but those efforts were carefully circumscribed to avoid even the impression of a great-power condominium. When American and Russian interests diverged, the United States did not hesitate to act. Even in the 1990s, the heyday of bilateral relations, Washington actively pursued NATO enlargement, intervention in Kosovo, and ballistic missile defenses in the face of Moscow’s vehement objections.

Contrary to Vindman’s claims, U.S. policy has been consistently nonaccommodationist in Russia’s immediate neighborhood, seeking to prevent a new Moscow-led regional juggernaut from reemerging after the Soviet collapse. Beginning in the early 1990s, Washington strove to “convince everyone in the region that ‘Russia’s not the only game in town,’” in the words of Strobe Talbott, former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s top Russia adviser. The United States lobbied for oil and gas pipelines that would break Russia’s energy export monopoly and thus provide the region’s other producers and transit states with independent revenue streams. It gave political and financial support to regional groupings of former Soviet republics that excluded Russia.

U.S. aid budgets of that era also reflected the prioritization of Russia’s neighbors. Despite being home to half the population of the newly independent states, Russia received 17 percent of assistance funds earmarked for the region in 1998. And Ukraine was the focal point of U.S. efforts in the region, particularly after its two revolutions in 2005 and 2014. Indeed, if U.S. allies had not objected, the George W. Bush administration would have put Ukraine (and Georgia) on a glide path to NATO membership in 2008. Any hesitance in embracing Ukraine has historically resulted from that country’s chronic dysfunction, not a desire to kowtow to Moscow. In short, rejecting Russia’s stated redlines has been the norm for U.S. policy toward the region. Respecting them has been the exception.

The facts therefore belie Vindman’s historical narrative about U.S. policy. They also suggest his proposed alternative would have been contrary to the interests of the United States and of Russia’s neighbors. By avoiding the confrontational extreme of the policy spectrum with Russia, U.S. policy delivered any number of substantial gains. The bilateral relationship was not nearly as fruitless an endeavor as Vindman claims. Consider, for example, the significant verified reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals the two sides achieved through arms control, or Russia’s assistance in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, tensions between Moscow and Washington tend to go hand in hand with greater threats to the security of Russia’s neighbors. The kind of outright U.S.-Russian confrontation Vindman advocates would have endangered U.S. interests and the security of countries such as Ukraine. Courting such a confrontation makes even less sense now, during the most significant crisis between Washington and Moscow in decades. The Cold War teaches precisely the opposite lesson: crises call for pragmatic restraint.

In periods of high tension, U.S. presidents have repeatedly displayed a degree of deference to Soviet and Chinese interests. During the Korean War, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur confidently pushed American forces to the Yalu River, promising that China would never enter the war. When it did, MacArthur urged escalation, including the use of nuclear weapons. But despite MacArthur’s insistent, public claims that the U.S. military’s hands were tied, President Harry Truman refused to risk a wider war. Instead, he sought negotiations with China on a cease-fire and accepted a grinding and highly unpopular stalemate. His courageous decision “not to let the crisis in Korea, however horrible, flare into a world war,” historian David McCullough has argued, “stands among the triumphs of the Truman administration.”

In 1956, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower not only refused to intervene in response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary but argued forcefully for restraint. “I doubt that the Russian leaders genuinely fear an invasion by the West,” he told his National Security Council. “But with the deterioration of the Soviet Union’s hold over its satellites, might not the Soviet Union be tempted to resort to extreme measures, even to start a world war? This possibility we must watch with the utmost care.” Eisenhower hoped that Washington’s guarantees of nonintervention would encourage similar restraint by Moscow. His secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, went so far as to say of the Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellites: “We do not look upon these nations as potential military allies.” This short-term self-discipline set the stage for long-term success: Hungary was freed from the Soviet yoke, the United States prevailed in the Cold War, and a devastating war was avoided.

In recent months, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has drawn scathing criticism for its calculated caution with regard to American involvement in the Ukraine conflict. Yet in Cold War confrontations from Cuba to Czechoslovakia to Vietnam, U.S. presidents consistently restrained their short-term ambitions to avoid the calamity of large-scale war—especially if they were confident that the United States would prevail in the long run. U.S. leaders have every reason for such confidence today: Russia’s losses in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s global isolation, and punishing sanctions are devastating Russia’s strategic position relative to the United States and Europe.

Vindman portrays U.S. support for Ukraine as paltry, limited by misplaced concerns about Russian escalation. To the contrary, history suggests that the Biden administration’s approach to aiding Ukraine is informed by a difficult but ultimately essential balancing of risks and opportunities. Washington has been inching up the volume and sophistication of its security assistance to Ukraine, gradually increasing Kyiv’s military position without provoking a wider war. Although this approach has frustrated Ukrainian leaders and many observers, it reflects the best traditions of Cold War–era crisis diplomacy—pursuing U.S. interests while avoiding a direct clash with a rival, always with an eye on the long term.

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