The US and Russia: Perpetual Enemies or Potential Allies?

A flag with the portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin waves over a Moscow crowd during a festival March 18, 2017, commemorating the third anniversary of Russia's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine. Ivan
A flag with the portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin waves over a Moscow crowd during a festival March 18, 2017, commemorating the third anniversary of Russia's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine. Ivan

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter@JosephVMicallef.

During the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump roiled the foreign policy establishment by praising Russian President Vladimir Putin and suggesting it was time for a comprehensive re-evaluation of U.S.-Russian relations and broader cooperation between the two countries, especially in the fight against jihadists.

In doing so, Trump raised two issues: one political and one strategic. By praising Putin and challenging the prevailing view that Moscow poses a long-term threat to American interests around the world, the Trump campaign underscored its anti-establishment credentials as an outsider and its distance from both the Republican and Washington foreign policy establishments.

The move also lent credence to a strategic view that had been circulating around Washington and which was closely associated with Michael Flynn, who would briefly serve as President Trump's national security adviser, that the threat posed to the United States by jihadists outweighs the threat posed by Russia. Since Russia is also threatened by jihadists, there is, in theory, a basis for a realignment of American-Russian relations and expanded cooperation in combating international jihadism.

Russia has a significant Muslim population, currently estimated at between 12 percent and 15 percent of its citizenry, or around 27 million people. Moscow has the largest Muslim community in Europe, outside of Istanbul, estimated at between two million and two-and-a-half million of its inhabitants -- roughly half of whom are Russian citizens and the balance immigrants, many undocumented, from the Caucasus.

More significantly, current birth rates between Russia's Muslim and non-Muslim citizens point inexorably to a steady increase in Russia's Muslim population. It's estimated that by 2050, more than 50 percent of Russia's population will be of Muslim descent, although not necessarily practicing Muslims. Muslim conscripts already make up more than 50 percent of the Russian Army's new soldiers and by 2030 this will increase to three-quarters of new conscripts.

The Russian Caucasus have been a hotbed of jihadist activity since the Russian empire first began to encroach on the region in the 18th century. In recent times, Russia has fought two bloody wars in Chechnya, first from 1991-1994 and then from 1999-2000. Since then, jihadists have been carrying out an ongoing insurgency in the region and have staged several high-profile terrorist attacks within Russia.

Chechen militants have a reputation as being among the Islamic State's most ferocious and effective fighters. It's estimated that 2,500 Russian nationals, many of them from Chechnya and the surrounding region, have fought with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Jihadism represents a serious threat to Russia. Notwithstanding those risks and its own self-interest, however, expanded cooperation with the West and an increase in Russia's role in combating jihadism would come at a steep price. At the very least, it would require the revocation of the economic sanctions placed on Russia following its intervention in Ukraine and its seizure of Crimea. More likely, it would precipitate a Yalta-like agreement under which the US and its NATO allies would recognize a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Republics and some portions of Eastern Europe -- what Moscow typically refers to as the "near abroad."

Such an agreement would end the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union and would most likely end Western aid to Ukraine. Where such an agreement would leave the Baltic Republics or NATO's newer members is unclear. Moreover, although the Kremlin has often spoken about a joint Russia-NATO effort to combat jihadism, especially in Syria, it has stopped short of providing any indication of what such cooperation would entail and what Moscow is prepared to bring to the effort.

There is a larger issue here than whether the struggle against jihadism might offer a basis for resetting U.S.-Russian relations. That issue is to define the nature of Russia's ongoing relationship with the West. The Soviet Union emerged from the Second World War as one of two undisputed superpowers in the world. During the Cold War, the USSR represented an alternative pole of legitimacy and opposition in a bipolar system that offered a unique and alternative ideology for organizing society, albeit one that had become corrupted and diluted, from the one offered by the United States and its allies.

Modern-day Russia is no longer a superpower, the Kremlin's pretensions notwithstanding. It still has a formidable military force, however, as well as an advanced military-industrial base and most importantly, more than 7,000 nuclear warheads and the missile forces with which to deliver them. It can no longer challenge the U.S. across the globe and no longer boasts the stable of client states it once had. Its presence in Latin America and Africa, once hotbeds of Soviet-American rivalry, for example, is largely nonexistent. Instead, Russia behaves more like an emerging power trying to define its role in the world.

Its primary focus has been in the near abroad, the region previously incorporated into the Soviet Union or under its control and the Middle East. The latter is particularly important to Moscow since the region represents the swing producers in the petroleum market whose production can have a significant impact on the prevailing petroleum price and because, opportunistically, it sees issues there where it can gather diplomatic chips that it can trade for concessions elsewhere.

The problem with the Kremlin's foreign policy is that its conception of national security is stuck in the 19th and 20th century and creates an inherent contradiction between Russia's dependence on western capital and technology and Moscow's desire to control its periphery.

Students of Russian history are quick to point out that Russia's lack of defensible frontiers and its history of repeated invasions from the west create a geopolitical imperative that has wound its way through Russian history for the last five centuries. Only by controlling its periphery can Moscow be certain of defending itself and protecting its core. During periods of Russian strength, that periphery extends outward, only to retreat during periods of Russian weakness. At the height of the Cold War, Moscow succeeded in pushing that periphery all the way to the Adriatic Sea, albeit briefly, and well into Central Europe.

Over the last several decades, hydrocarbon exports have represented around 70 percent of Russia's foreign earnings and around 50 percent of the federal government's budget. During periods of high oil prices, Russia generated sufficient surpluses to finance the modernization of its industry and its military. It was still dependent on foreign technology in many industrial sectors, especially the petroleum industry, but the rapidly growing economy and rising personal incomes made Russia an attractive place to invest.

That did not mean that the Kremlin's desire to exert more control over its periphery was any less contradictory with its desire to attract foreign capital and technology, but it does mean that economically, it was less dependent on Europe and the U.S. and better able to afford the price of an aggressive foreign policy toward its neighbors.

Since 2008, low oil prices have meant that Russia has been in a period of very low to negative growth and declining real wages. Moscow has run persistent budget deficits and has been forced to dig into its reserves. It has cut back its spending, especially those funds earmarked for the modernization of its military forces. Its intervention in Ukraine and its seizure of Crimea resulted in the imposition of economic sanctions that have further aggravated the economic slowdown precipitated by low oil prices.

Moscow's desire to control its periphery, much of which has now been incorporated into NATO and the European Union, is incompatible with a long-term improvement of its relationship with the United States and its allies. More importantly, it represents an adherence to a national security paradigm that is largely obsolete.

Russian history notwithstanding, there is no state today that could mount a significant military threat to the territorial integrity of Russia. Neither Europe nor even the United States have the military manpower or the political will to mount an invasion of Russia. In theory, China's military forces are large enough to pose a threat to Russian control of its Far Eastern regions. But such scenarios, while plausible, are more the stuff of fiction writers and the odd thriller than a practical consideration.

That does not mean that the Kremlin does not rightly see threats to its security from the West. The lessons of the color revolutions that have swept across some of the former states of the Soviet Union have not been lost on Moscow -- especially the fact that those revolutions were encouraged by political and financial support from the United States and the European community. The Kremlin is correct in perceiving such actions as legitimate threats to the Russian ruling elite.

In the digital age of the internet and social media, however, geography is less of a factor. When the threat to Moscow came from tanks, be they Panzers or M1s, geography and its ability to provide defense in depth were critical. Geography is irrelevant to social media. In a world of instantaneous digital communication and dissemination of news, proximity is both meaningless and ubiquitous.

As long as the Kremlin defines its security in terms of controlling its periphery, its relationship with the United States and the European Community will be problematic. Russia's gambit in Ukraine has misfired spectacularly: NATO has increased its forces along its East European periphery. Under pressure from the Trump administration, its members are beefing up their defense spending, and Russia has been subjected to crushing economic sanctions.

More importantly, there is, for now, no evidence that the U.S. or EU are open to considering a Yalta-like agreement that would reset Russia's relations with the West, end economic sanctions and give Moscow a free hand to shape the national governments along its periphery more to its liking.

High oil prices will make it easier for Moscow to pay the price of an aggressive foreign policy, but they do not eliminate the contradiction between that policy and its need for better economic relations with the West. The fact that oil prices will likely stay low for the foreseeable future means that for Moscow, there is no easy way out of its dilemma.

It is in the West's interest to improve its relationship with Russia. To do so, it needs to persuade the Kremlin that it will not pursue a color revolution-inspired regime change while making it equally clear that it will not abandon NATO's newest members or tolerate Moscow's attempts to instigate its own counter-color revolutions or to intimidate those states into adopting policies more to Russia's liking.

U.S.-Russian relations are unlikely to improve if Moscow adheres to a concept of national security welded to its historic experiences in the 19th and 20 centuries. Nor will they improve if the U.S. and NATO see every instance of political unrest as an opportunity to encourage new color revolutions that will ultimately necessitate a further eastward expansion of NATO to defend.

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