Author: Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

When it comes to Russia, a clear, coherent U.S. strategy has been virtually non-existent. There has been a failure on behalf of administrations in Washington to demarcate their priorities and take actions that complement America's purported values in Moscow's relationship. The United States' foreign policy towards Russia has failed and will continue to fail until policymakers in Washington develop a coherent strategy that identifies their priorities and embeds them into action.

There are three priorities that should be front and center in how the United States approaches foreign policy that directly and indirectly concerns Russia. 1. The United States must focus on de-escalating tensions with Moscow in dialogue, diplomacy, and evaluating which policies are currently making Russia-U.S. relations less secure. 2. The US should emphasize peace through compromise and partnering with Russia to resolve existing conflicts worldwide. 3. Decision-makers must recognize the areas in which the Kremlin's policies are actually in line with American values

Instead of attempting to work out the differences between both sides, the United States has stepped away from any semblance of real diplomacy with Moscow and has instead tried unsuccessfully to isolate Russia through sanctions and other means. That strategy has made matters worse, while simultaneously failing to achieve anything of real substance.

The United States gains nothing by continuing a policy approach that doesn't work. What the United States should do instead is reinstate a policy of engaging Russia on all matters where there are overlapping interests. This policy should include high-level, regular dialogue between both countries' executive branches as well as policymakers from Congress and Russia's Federal Assembly. That dialogue can start with mutually beneficial topics for both countries and graduate to issues that are circumstantially harder to reconcile.

Whether it's arms control, fighting terrorism, climate change, or ensuring economic stability across the world — the two sides simply need to engage in dialogue to find common ground. That common ground will likely lead to stabilizing solutions that advance the interests and security of both countries.

Policymakers in Washington have levied sanction after sanction on Russia, oftentimes unjustifiably and without a warrant. And after more than seven years of economic warfare waged against Russia, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this form of financial pressure is not working. The United States has nothing to show for beyond mildly harassing the Russian economy. There have been no foreign policy victories for the United States on account of sanctions, nor are such victories closer to being attained. Russia, for its part, has not conceded an inch, the Putin administration has not been defenestrated from power, and there is very little chance that either of those things will happen anytime soon.

When it comes to Russia, sanctions haven't just failed — they have been counterproductive to winning friends and influence inside Russia. By truncating its GDP growth and the prospects of much-needed wage growth, sanctions have gradually hurt ordinary Russians than Russia's political elite and so-called "oligarchs." And as a result, average Russians have become significantly more skeptical of the United States since American policymakers started substituting diplomacy for sanctions.

What this means is that advocates of sanctions have been categorically wrong. Instead of forcing a change in Russia's behavior from the ground up by worsening its economic conditions to the point that ordinary citizens demand a capitulation in their government's foreign policy, sanctions have produced a sort of solidarity among Russians that holds the United States responsible for its economic woes. Russians don't hold their government at fault because American sanctions have been arbitrary and unjustified, as in the case of the Magnitsky Act, Crimea, and the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline.

This indicates that sanctionary warfare as a policy is failing on all fronts: morally, theoretically, and in practice. However, it doesn't have to be this way. Many Americans want to see the United States as striving to be a force for good in the world but to do that, American leaders have to build bridges and be ready to make reasonable concessions. The tandem of diplomacy and compromise has far more success stories than sanctions ever will. That's because compromise inspires trust, which is the foundation for any sort of effective partnership.

The United States should do just that - inspire trust in pursuit of a peaceful partnership with Russia that addresses issues ranging from global security to climate change to maintaining stability in the global economy. To do so, Washington should remove sanctions on Russia broadly and immediately begin a policy of rapprochement. This will give the United States real opportunities to influence Russia politically, while also creating the conditions to work together in resolving conflicts in places like Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, and Libya, where both countries have the combined leverage to influence a pathway to peace and stability. Doing so will also be good for American businesses, hundreds of which have lost revenue and investments as an unintended consequence of sanctions. More importantly, abolishing sanctions will put America's foreign policy back on track, back to exercising consistency, promoting human life, and being a much-need force for good in the world.

Justifications attempts are made to label Russian foreign policy as posing an existential threat to be countered and subverted, but what it really represents is a flaw in thinking and a dangerous misinterpretation of the threat that Russia actually poses.

That is, despite this mainstream rhetoric that labels Russia as "rogue" and "aggressive," the truth is that Moscow is actually more or less reactionary concerning its neighbors and the United States more broadly. Virtually every major foreign policy move the Kremlin has made in the past two decades can be seen as a countermove to Western policies that have more often than not shown disregard for Russia's vital interests. Russia is not interested in invading Europe or erecting some former glory of the Soviet Union. President Putin and Russia at-large have never expressed such intentions, nor does Russian foreign policy fit this bellicose description that it's often given. What Russia is interested in is protecting its own economic and security interests, not least of which is its relationship with NATO.

As is well-known, NATO's expansion since the fall of the Soviet Union has been a major source of hostility between the United States and Russia, with the latter viewing the steady encroachment of weapons and troops towards its border as an existential threat. Past administrations in Washington have failed to make security assurances that would quell Russia's anxieties about NATO's expansion and even used rhetoric framing Russia as NATO's 21st-century reason for being. This is another area where past policy has failed in regards to Russia and where current policy should be recalibrated to embrace reality.

That is not to say that NATO is obsolete or that it is void of purpose. Quite the opposite. The Alliance plays an incredibly unique and important role in American national security that should not be underscored. However, that being said, NATO's current formulation does not embrace reality for what it is in regards to the threat posed by Russia and it should not be expanded to include Georgia and Ukraine, as doing so would serve no practical purpose and only exacerbate relations with Moscow. Although NATO has certainly made its fair share of promises to Georgia and Ukraine regarding membership, American policymakers should understand that these two countries are not vital to U.S. national security and that including them into the Alliance would pose more risk than reward. Both countries have unresolved territorial disputes and unstable political elements that would risk drawing the United States into a conflict that the American public would have little appetite for.

More importantly, the conditions for joining Europe's foremost security infrastructure are clear: new members have to be voted in unanimously, possess a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; a political system that fairly treats its minority populations; a commitment to resolve conflicts peacefully; an ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations; and a commitment to democratic civil-military relations and institutions. In regards to virtually all of these criteria, Georgia and Ukraine simply miss the mark.

Instead of entertaining the prospect of expanding NATO eastward, the United States should work on reformulating the Alliance to address real threats to its collective security and look for avenues to partner with Russia in resolving conflicts and security risks in and around Europe. Doing so will create far better conditions for Russia-U.S. relations, it will alleviate anxieties on Russia's part, and promote U.S. national security interests in Europe.


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