America’s Interests—Not Hysteria—Should Be the Basis of U.S. Strategy Toward Russia

By John Dale Grover

As accusations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election continue, so does the hatred and fear of all things Russian. In fact, so powerful are the emotions and concerns over Moscow’s interference that many have asserted that America must aggressively wage a Second Cold War until Putin is forced from power.

The fact of Russian interference cannot be denied. However, regardless of whether collusion is proven to include President Trump himself, the fact remains that Russia is a nuclear power with whom the United States is currently locked in a fierce political struggle, including several proxy wars. Putin is a geopolitical rival and a very clever tactician. He's not a friend of America, but he's not an immediate national security threat that must be destroyed at all costs either. His regime is distasteful, but so was the Soviet Union, Mao's China, and Vietnam—each of which America had to eventually live with.

Ultimately, America still needs a clear-headed policy towards Russia that properly assesses the threat from Moscow and the risks of various responses. Washington's policy must be based on American interests and not on a blind desire to cause as much harm to Russia as possible. The catch with nuclear powers is to deter them while also making sure to never put them in too tight of a corner.

Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable for America to argue that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)  should refocus on defending against Russia. Washington should also refuse to tolerate election interference, while also trying to de-escalate tensions. The hard lesson learned from Europe's endless holy and civil wars—in which everyone tried to impose their way of life and political systems on each other—is that countries shouldn't interfere in each other's domestic affairs. That is how wars get started.

The Cold War and mutually-assured-destruction taught the world not to go too far when playing chicken. No matter how outraged Americans are over recent events, these are vital lessons no one can afford to forget.

Yes, Trump didn't help himself during the Helsinki summit with Russian President Putin, but it is possible for a patriot to both decry Trump’s performance while also questioning whether American sons and daughters should be risked over Ukraine or Montenegro.

Trump ought to have been firmer in public on NATO and should not have poured cold water on his intelligence agencies’ evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump could have done so even while still being diplomatic about it. But Trump should have also said that there is no place for brinksmanship and that America has no intention to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs.

After all, that’s why the modern system of nation-states codified in the Peace of Westphalia generally recognizes state sovereignty and frowns upon intervention in each other’s internal affairs.

Recognition of others nations’ core interests of sovereignty and security are important because it helps each great power avoid triggering each other's red lines. This is also why NATO’s expansion to include Montenegro is a bad strategy and ignores the historical role of the Balkans as a tinderbox.

Wise realists like Bismark, Kissinger, and Kennan understood that avoiding great power wars took care, diplomacy, and firmness. Hotheads like William II instead choose feelings and a desire for punishment and domination over great power balance and peace.

At Helsinki, Trump should have insisted that he will always pursue America's interests and that if they happen to overlap with Russia, then both countries will try and work together. This could mean cooperation on anti-terrorism, improving communication between both militaries to avoid any accidents, and taking another look at arms control agreements such as extending the New Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.

All the while, despite Trump dragging his feet on imposing the most-recent Russia sanctions, his administration has generally implemented policies against Russia’s interests (even though bad for Russia does not automatically mean good for America, contrary to the black-and-white and unstrategic thinking pervasive in Washington). Sanctions are still in place. Trump hasn’t tried to exert his full force to brow-beat Congress into lifting those sanctions either. He has, for all his bluster, so far reinforced America’s commitment to NATO and hasn’t ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Europe. The Trump administration expelled 60 Russian diplomats over the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in the United Kingdom. In Syria, U.S. airstrikes killed 200 unofficial Russian forces fighting American-backed rebels.

Finally, America is still training Ukrainian soldiers to resist Russia and Trump authorized the delivery of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Kiev—something that Obama didn’t do. Trump may not have ordered or agreed with all of this, but he is the Commander-in-Chief, and it is important to acknowledge that—to some extent—his actions have rebuked Russia.

Russia isn’t as powerful or stable as China. It is a weak, struggling former empire with an economy smaller than Italy’s and only slightly bigger than South Korea’s. Moscow is not a threat that requires Washington to push back on every front and include every single former Soviet satellite into NATO. Diplomacy and grand strategy are about the pursuit of the national interest, about what is best for America. This means being realistic about threats and correctly seeing alliances, such as NATO, as a tool to advance the national interests of security and prosperity. Wise leaders match means to national ends and do not act out of anger. Fools confuse means for ends and will take action simply out of spite. This is why NATO cannot endlessly expand and also why America needs to harden its election infrastructure and tell Russia that both countries must respect each other’s domestic affairs and sovereignty.

Russia is a country that needs to be told not to mess with American elections again. It is also one that the United States needs to grudgingly live with because it has nuclear weapons.Any fantasies of U.S.-imposed regime change in Moscow or fears that Putin is Hitler are out of touch with reality and ignore history. It is possible to warn off Moscow from harming U.S. interests while also concluding that relations with Russia must not deteriorate further. The catch is having a Congress and President who will work together to make this a priority..

John Dale Grover is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He is also an assistant managing editor of the National Interest and a writer for Young Voices. His articles have appeared in Real Clear Defense, Fox News, The American Conservative, and other outlets.

This piece was originally published by on August 12, 2018. Read more HERE.