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Putin attends a meeting with members of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights in Moscow

Restoring equilibrium: U.S. policy options for countering and engaging Russia

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Lenin was famously, perhaps apocryphally, asked how to advance a political cause. He’s reported to have answered, “Probe with a bayonet; if you meet steel, stop! If you meet mush, then push.” To date, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political advances into Europe and military advances into the Middle East have encountered largely mush. In January 2018, Bruce Jones, director of the Brookings Foreign Policy Program, convened eight Brookings experts—Sergey Aleksashenko, Pavel Baev, Michael O’Hanlon, Steven Pifer, Alina Polyakova, Angela Stent, Strobe Talbott, and Thomas Wright—to discuss an effective U.S. strategy for countering Russian aggression and deterring future offenses. The edited transcript below reflects the group’s judgments on Russian foreign policy, U.S. and NATO strategy toward Russia, Russia’s economic and political future, and recommendations for addressing the war in Ukraine as well as Russia’s interference in U.S. and European elections.

There is a range of views among Brookings scholars on what specific steps to take to counter Russia and move toward engagement. The director’s view, however, is that a little steel is needed now to deter future aggression. That should be an opening gambit and part of a wider set of measures, including diplomacy and engagement. The aim would be to minimize the risks for further escalation and begin the hard work of re-establishing an equilibrium in U.S.-Russia relations.

Director’s summary

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy is driven by a zero-sum worldview that sees the liberal international order as inherently threatening to his political regime. As a result, agreement—or even mutual understanding—between Russia and the West over fundamental security issues, such as the future of NATO, is unlikely while Putin remains in the Kremlin.
  • A core strategic challenge for the United States is to restore equilibrium in theaters of political and hybrid warfare. This may require countermeasures such as intensified economic sanctions and offensive measures to expose Kremlin-implicated corruption. Deterrence of Russia’s revisionist conduct can be achieved only if the West signals credibly that it has the capacity and will to impose serious costs, and assumes some risks of escalation.
  • At the same time, the United States and Europe should combine pressure with an openness to cooperation on discrete issues of common interest. This could include a high-level U.S.-Russia dialogue on strategic stability. At a minimum, the United States and Russia should maintain channels to reduce the possibility of inadvertent escalation, particularly where the two countries’ militaries are operating in close proximity. And the United States should signal its willingness, over time, to improve relations with Russia if Moscow reconsiders its revanchism.
  • There is no consensus among Brookings experts on the question of Georgian and Ukrainian pathways to NATO and the EU. There is a shared recognition that the status quo is unstable for all concerned, but disagreement over whether such instability is preferable to the likely terms of a détente with Moscow.
  • Ukraine remains the centerpiece of ongoing tensions between the West and Russia. Any effort to implement a negotiated solution to the crisis will require progress from both Ukraine and Russia on the Minsk Accords, but it remains unclear whether Putin will take such necessary steps without additional pressure.
  • Russian economic growth is likely to remain sluggish, particularly absent higher oil prices, and under the pressure of Western sanctions and Russia’s continued overreliance on commodity exports. Moreover, prospects for economic reform and modernization remain limited as elites in Russia perceive economic reform as a threat to their political survival and personal wealth.
  • While gradual economic decline may lead to public discontent, particularly among younger Russians, it is difficult to assess whether such discontent is likely to trigger social instability. Policymakers should be modest in assessing Russia’s internal trajectory over the coming years, let alone trying to shape it directly.
  • Barring internal upheaval, because Putin relies on an aggressive foreign policy to compensate politically for economic vulnerability, Russia, and not only China, is likely to demand long-term, strategic focus for U.S. national security.

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