New Washington think tank urges detente with Russia (Part One)

The Defense Priorities Foundation was founded in early 2016 in order to promote what it calls a “more prudent, restrained foreign policy” based less on military intervention and more on diplomacy and economic exchange. The think tank is staffed by conservative and libertarian foreign policy researchers and advisers. I spoke with Defense Priorities fellow Matt Purple about the state of the U.S.-Russia relations and if the two governments can resolve their geopolitical differences amid an atmosphere of mutual acrimony.

What is the status of the U.S.-Russia relationship and how did we arrive at the present situation?

It’s certainly at its lowest point since the Cold War. We haven’t rattled sabers with Russia this much since the Berlin Wall came down. Now, under George W. Bush, tensions were still high during that administration. There were two sources of contention there.

The first was the Iraq War. We wanted to take out Saddam Hussein, and the Russians did not. We went in anyway over Putin’s objection and he was not particularly happy about that. The second one was the NATO enlargement, which expanded right up along Russia’s borders and took into NATO many of the former Soviet Republics. That irked Russia.

So there is the combination of that and the moldering Russian economy, with the falling oil and gas prices. It has experienced negative growth since 2014. Putin needs to keep the music playing for his people at home. He needs to give his people an excuse to support him. If he has overseas adventures going on, that’s a great way to get people to stick with you.

This entire brew has changed things by making Russia a power that could become more militarily aggressive if it wanted to. The question going forward: is it going to become that way? Are those tanks going to come west?

What is your take on the situation in Syria as far as U.S. and Russia are concerned?

We need to approach it with real delicacy. The United States has this posture as the paladin of human rights around the world, and in many ways we have been. But ultimately foreign policy is a game of interests, and your interests run deeper than your values.

The problem in Syria right now is that Russia has a real interest in its presence in Syria. There’s the naval base they have at Tartus and also there’s a prospective pipeline and other economic interests in Syria. The United States doesn’t really have an economic interest in Syria. This is where it gets dangerous for us. First of all, the Russians are going to want it more because they have those greater interests. They are going to be more likely to double down in Syria.

There’s also the fact that they [Russia] already have a significant ground presence in Syria. They’re increasingly blurred together with Assad’s troops, so if you want to talk about bombing Assad you’re essentially talking about bombing Russia. They also have a number of S-300 and S-400 defensive systems on the ground, so if you want to establish a no-fly zone, you have to take out Russian ground forces and air defenses. Given what Russia has on the line, that’s a very dangerous proposition and we need to be careful here.

What about the NATO vs. Russia dynamic? What are some things to keep in mind about that potential conflict point?

Putin can’t be allowed to menace Europe, obviously, but we also don’t want to start a war with him unnecessarily. The good news is that I don’t think we’re going to find ourselves having to answer that any time soon. Russia wants to carry a big stick, so to speak, which is why despite their terrible economy they are investing something like 5 percent of GDP on their military. They’re basically following the Soviet model where you’re economically unsound but you’ve got this shell over you of nuclear weapons and fearsome technology, or at least technology that pretends to be fearsome. They have a large military and you have to take it seriously.

But the point is, a war with NATO would be suicidal for Russia both militarily and economically. They simply don’t have the power to sustain that sort of conflict. Which is why when Crimea was invaded a few years ago, there was talk that Russia would move on to Kiev, but they never did. They fomented a destructive proxy war in eastern Ukraine for a long time and they’ve been a destabilizing presence, but they haven’t gone westward. They’re not going to, because they’re not looking to take over Europe. This is not about rebuilding the Soviet empire, it’s about projecting power and making Russia a player on the world stage and shoring up Putin’s support with his own people.

What is motivating the renewed hostilities between the U.S. and Russia?

What you had after the Cold War was a period where we were very fortunate, and a lot of countries that had been communist flipped to being relatively democratic in a short period of time. So people got very high on the idea that this was the end of history and the only matter left was to make sure the remaining holdouts of authoritarianism flipped over to democracy.

That was incalculably stupid and a very poor read on human nature. Man is always going to be tempted by power. So that period we had in the 1990s, when there was relative stability, we are exiting that period. You’re seeing Russia flex its muscles. You’re seeing China exert itself.

It’s not so much that the world order is falling apart as you’re seeing the rise of adversaries who are freshly hostile. You have to learn to deal with a post-unipolar world and that’s not going to be accomplished by getting into a war with Russia over Syria that could potentially involve nuclear weapons. This is a time for statecraft and a time for caution. It’s a time for diplomacy and for serious men of the world who know when to give and when to take. Unfortunately, you don’t hear a whole lot of that right now.

What are the chances that we see a new approach to the Russia problem after the election, as opposed to the hawkish stance which seems to be in favor at the moment?

It’s a big question mark. Let me put it this way: candidates in elections are influenced by advisors. And advisors tend to be what This Town author Mark Leibovich calls “the formers” — former Secretaries of State, former diplomats, former this, former that — who tend to bounce around Washington like pinballs. They end up in the so-called foreign policy establishment advising candidates. The ideas in circulation tend to come from them.

The problem is, right now, those people tend to be pretty close to monolithically hawkish. It’s alarming because these are the people that are supposed to know better, but as of right now they are reckless. The tenor will be set by them, but hopefully cooler heads will prevail. Certainly, we can’t take a supine position with Russia — you have to take the threat seriously. But you don’t want to do anything that is going to exacerbate it. Unfortunately, that’s the road we seem to be going down right now.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.