Any assessment of U.S. policy toward Russia must be viewed from the broader perspective of American objectives in Europe. Three times in this century, the United States made enormous commitments of military and economic might to thwart an aggressive power’s ambitions to dominate the European continent, with the (sometimes belated) understanding that American security required that no one country control Europe and that a balance of power of sorts be maintained to prevent a continental hegemony. Twice the enemy was Germany; once, the Soviet Union.
Now, for the first time in this century, Europe is at peace, and no power threatens to launch a major war. Geostrategically, the dominant force on the continent is the U.S.-led NATO alliance, which securely anchors a democratic Germany to the rest of Western Europe. Eastward, stretching from Estonia to Bulgaria, a vast borderland has emerged that contains nine newly independent former Soviet satellites and three former Russian imperial possessions. Together, they constitute an extensive buffer zone between Germany and Russia. Far to the east lies Russia itself, a severely weakened empire shorn of its protective perimeters from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and from Transcaucasia across Central Asia to China; bordered by eight of the fourteen weak and vulnerable Soviet republics that acquired instant independence when the Soviet Union was dissolved on December 25, 1991; marginalized as a great power; and uneasy over the potential of political Islam. What is more, the Russian government presides over a society in disarray, a demoralized people, and a deteriorating, quasi-anarchical economy and political system.