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

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 foreign policy fellow and defense expert Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis (USA, Ret.) 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.

How bad is the current U.S.-Russia relationship and how did we arrive at this point?

I do believe that it is definitely as bad as it’s been since 1992, when the USSR fell apart. It drives me crazy, to be honest, because it’s completely unnecessary. My view is not shared by a lot of people because it doesn’t beat the hubris drums of “America’s great on every aspect of everything we’ve ever done.” My firm, unemotional take is that 70 percent of the problem is due to foolish decisions that we made in the immediate post-USSR period.

There was a lot of expectation that with the demise of the USSR, with the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact, we would reach out a hand to our former enemies. In my opinion, that was the key moment to profoundly and fundamentally change the whole dynamic of conflict in Europe, and we utterly failed to do it. In zero sum terms, we [the U.S.] won, so they [Russia] had to lose.

Bigger than that was the expansion eastward of NATO. Here’s the thing — NATO was formed completely reasonably in the 1950s to combat the very serious Warsaw Pact threat. But that’s gone, so why did you need to expand a military alliance when the whole reason for it was gone?

At that time, Russia was in an unequivocal position of weakness and knew they could do nothing about it. Over the years, the comparative balance of power has kind of shifted because they are no longer weak. And I can tell you, because I’ve traveled to Russia, the Russian people felt that whole slight as much as the Russian leadership did. The seeds of conflict were built in.

Does Russia have designs on further military activity against the West or Western interests?

First of all, I’ll say that Russia is not stupid. They are definitely not 1939 Nazi Germany on a quest to control continental Europe. There’s no way they do that. They don’t have anywhere near the capability to make good on that threat. The comparative balance of military power between NATO and Russia is something like eight to one in favor of NATO. So Putin, whether or not he wants a return to the “glory days” of the USSR, is smart enough to know that he’s not going to stick his nose somewhere and get bloodied and then come back in retreat.

Russia might be willing to use military force if we actually tried to turn another one of their border states into NATO. Then they would genuinely feel that they are being militarily threatened, and if they didn’t take action, they would risk being invaded. From their perspective, it’s not a crazy idea or crazy possibility.

What is Russia’s interest in Syria and how does it conflict with our own?

You have something close to mirror images with the United States in Iraq and Russia in Syria. We have so much invested, going all the way back to the 1991 Gulf War, in Iraq. We’ve built up their security forces, we’ve built up their government because we want them to succeed for a lot of geopolitical reasons. There’s no way we’re going to sit by at watch that fall.

Likewise for Moscow in Syria. The last thing they want is for that regime to fall because that is their ally in the Middle East. They’ve given military equipment to Syria and they’ve been with Syria for decades, so they are not going to sit passively by and let them fall. The converse is also true. Russia’s interest in Iraq is pretty low. We ought to have a similar view of Syria. We just want something close to stability — I won’t say peace, because that doesn’t seem conceivable in the current environment. Do we really want to risk a war with Russia over something at the margins of our interests? I hope the answer is no.

What do you think of the Russia policy positions staked out by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the presidential campaign?

Regardless of who you may be for, this is one of the places where the positions of the candidates are starkly different. I gave Trump some credit in the last debate. Clinton made it sound like it was patriotic to bash Russia and Trump said, “Look, I’d like to get along with Russia. We don’t need to make them our enemy.” Whether he would actually do that, I don’t know. But he did stake out a pretty bold position that we want to cooperate with Russia, because we have a lot more to gain economically and elsewise if we do.

It seems that Clinton is very strongly anti-Russia and is perhaps building her bona fides by being hawkish. Maybe that was campaign rhetoric. But you can only go by what they are saying, and this whole thing about a no-fly zone [in Syria] is crazy. That you would actually risk war with Russia, risk our planes being shot down by Russian anti-aircraft fire? There’s nothing at stake in Syria in terms of American national interest that justifies the risk of such an outcome. There’s nothing to gain by that.

Some of her [Clinton’s] biggest potential lieutenants like Michelle Flournoy, who is strongly advocating a no-fly zone, they have what I consider the most dangerous attitude you can have, which is that you’re going to send Russia a message by shooting one of their planes down, and they’re not going to do anything about it. You’re playing, forgive the pun, Russian roulette.

In your opinion, how do we go about easing the tensions between the U.S. and Russia?

An important point to remember is that we have built this current state of affairs on 25 years of bad policy and bad action. Nothing is going to reverse that in the near term. For example, even if Trump comes into power and does everything that he said he would do, or if Clinton wins and significantly changes American policy, it’s going to take years of consistent actions on our part. The only way we can start down that path is to actually change our foreign policy philosophy toward Russia and say, “Let’s work toward cooperation and mutual benefit.” This doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

There’s not a single policy here or a tweet there that’s going to make a difference. The only thing that I could hope for is that they [Clinton or Trump] wouldn’t exacerbate the situation, so we can at least get to 2020 and elect somebody who would try to improve things. The best we can do right now is to make sure things don’t get worse, and they can get a lot worse.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.