Conference Report – New Dawn: Russia and the West after the U.S. Presidential Elections
November 18, 2016
On Thursday, November 3, 2016, FPRI co-sponsored a conference, New Dawn: Russia and the West after the U.S. Presidential Elections, with the Atlantic Council, which hosted the conference in Washington, D.C. Other sponsors included the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the Charles Koch Institute. The following is a report on this conference and an analysis in light of the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
In opening remarks, Mr. Damon Wilson, the Executive Vice President of the Atlantic Council, stressed that Russia, specifically renewed Russian assertiveness and aggression in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, will be a key foreign policy problem the next President of the United States will face. For this reason, Mr. Wilson said, it is necessary to bring together experts with a diverse array of opinions on the matter, so that no option is left unconsidered.
The first panel, “The Russia Factor in the U.S. Presidential Elections,” explored the question of Russian intervention in the U.S. election. The four panelists were Mr. Steven Lee Myers, a Correspondent for the New York Times; Mr. John Haines, Co-Director of FPRI’s Eurasia Program; Ms. Miriam Elder, World Editor of BuzzFeed News; and Dr. Michael Desch, Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Mitchell Orenstein, a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Eurasia Program and Professor of Central and East European Politics in the Slavic Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania, moderated the panel.
The panel first addressed the issue of Russian intervention in the U.S. presidential election, particularly in regard to cyberattacks against American political institutions. Ms. Elder asserted that these hacking efforts fit with Russia’s goal of destabilizing the West because it causes the electorate to question “the reality in which we are functioning” and “the basis of democracy as such.” She also asserted that Russian involvement in U.S. elections is unprecedented and unique. Mr. Haines disagreed with the latter point, arguing that it is not unique for governments to try to influence elections in other states. He argued that the real significance of Russia’s intervention in this case is that they published genuine documents, which strongly support a Russian narrative that “looks to discredit American democratic processes.” Dr. Desch and Mr. Meyers addressed perceptions of these cyberattacks among the American public. Dr. Desch argued that the American public was not as concerned with Russia hacking American political institutions as with the content of documents . Beyond these documents, Russia did not figure significantly in the collective mind of the American electorate. Despite this, according to Mr. Meyers, Democrats persisted in emphasizing this issue, using it as a “convenient instrument against Trump.”
Dr. Orenstein then turned the conversation to Donald Trump’s apparently pro-Russian stance and asked how he became so popular among Republican voters when Republicans have typically taken a more hawkish position on Russia. Dr. Desch pointed out that Russia is simply a side issue to many voters this year, and both parties have flipped positions on several other issues this cycle as well. The election is more about a “repudiation of business as usual” than anything else. Furthermore, he asserted that the Republican establishment, even those supporting Mr. Trump, has not yet shifted its positions on Russia. Both Mr. Meyers and Ms. Elder said Russia policy will be the subject of conversation and debate within the establishment as the new administration forms. Mr. Haines argued that Mr. Trump is not, in fact, pro-Russian, so much as he is calling for another “reset” and a different approach to the multiple areas in which our relations with Russia have deteriorated. Dr. Desch added that Mr. Trump’s stance on Russia looks positive only due to the more hawkish position of his opponent, Secretary Hillary Clinton. Dr. Orenstein disputed this by saying that Mr. Trump, if not pro-Russian, is at least pro-Putin, having referred to the Russian president as a “strong leader” and as a “great leader.” According to Mr. Meyers and Dr. Desch, Trump’s approach to Russia comes primarily from a desire to exploit Russia’s and America’s common interests to solve problems with ISIS and Iran.
Mr. Myers argued in favor of a “doing business” approach, in which the U.S. and Russia would negotiate and exchange concessions when interests overlap, as in Syria and Iraq. Ms. Elder asserted that this strategy would be equivalent to another reset on Russia, which already failed once before. Dr. Desch argued that NATO expansion would have to stop as expansion provoked Russia in the first place.
Finally, the panel discussed possible reasons why the Russian government favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Ms. Elder argued that Russia’s stance comes from a combination of deeply ingrained sexism and Putin’s personal sense of distrust of Secretary Clinton, whom he blamed for supporting protests against him in 2011. Mr. Meyers agreed with this point, adding that the 2011 protests occurred together with the events of the “Arab Spring,” intensifying President Putin’s sense of vulnerability and his subsequent dislike of Secretary Clinton. Dr. Desch asserted that under Clinton, the United States would be a symbol of “militant democracy” and of “militant liberalism.” This combination would continue to create problems for the Russian regime. The panel concluded by discussing potential U.S. responses to the Russian hacks, but as Mr. Meyers pointed out, any responses are not likely to be in the public view. Ultimately, according to Dr. Desch, Russia’s exposé of information about Secretary Clinton and the DNC was important not because of how the documents were obtained, but because their content resonates with widespread negative perceptions among American voters about our political system.
Panel 2: Sanctions Regime: Should it Be Maintained?
The second panel was moderated by Dr. Daniel Hamilton, Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. The panelists included Mr. David Kramer, Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership; Dr. Sergey Aleksashenko, Nonresident Senior Fellow in Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution and former Deputy Minister of Finance of the Russian Federation; Dr. Emma Ashford, Research Fellow at the CATO Institute; and Ms. Elizabeth Rosenberg, Senior Fellow and Director of the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
After Mr. Kramer provided a description of current sanctions against Russia and Ms. Rosenberg described potential sanctions on Russia over its actions in Syria, the discussion focused on the effectiveness of the current sanctions regime. Dr. Hamilton noted that he would purposefully leave the definition of “effective” up to the panelists. Mr. Kramer argued that sanctions are only one part of the toolkit available to the West in dealing with renewed Russian aggression. While in his opinion lethal military assistance should have also been provided to Ukraine to help defend itself, at least sanctions had, to an extent, contained Russia. He also argued in favor of intensifying the sanctions because they are most useful if backed with the threat of increasing them if behavior does not change. Russia has continued to violate the Minsk Agreements, yet the sanctions have remained the same.
Dr. Aleksashenko argued that the sanctions have not been effective at changing Russian policy and that Mr. Putin stopped pushing further into Ukraine on his own accord because he had achieved his strategic goals. However, Dr. Aleksashenko conceded that the sanctions regime effectively provides Putin with “political information,” sending the message that the West condemns Russian behavior in Ukraine and remains unified in this stance. However, when sanctions appeared to be most effective in late 2014 into early 2015, this was in fact due to a cascade of problems facing Russia: sanctions, falling oil prices, and foreign debt repayments reaching their peak. After this period, sanctions carried less weight, and Russia has captured as much of Ukrainian territory as it can currently manage effectively. Moreover, Russia has skillfully manipulated the portrayal of its own countersanctions—which have strongly impacted consumer access to goods and raised prices—such that the majority of Russians believe these restrictions were a Western imposition rather than a decision by their own government. Dr. Ashford went a step further, arguing that the sanctions regime has been ineffective at changing Russian behavior and that its messaging is counterproductive. She asserted that the sanctions have led to the consolidation of Mr. Putin’s power and popularity within Russia.
The panelists then proposed sanctions policies going forward. Dr. Ashford said that sanctions could not possibly work by themselves and that they would need to be coupled with diplomacy and engagement. In addition, adding further sanctions would preclude diplomacy thus limiting the effectiveness of existing sanctions. Mr. Kramer disagreed arguing that diplomacy and engagement had already failed and cited the enormous amount of time that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have spent negotiating with one another with little result. He proposed widening the sanctions net to include several additional Russian institutions, including the Russian central bank, and argued that the United States must do a better job of communicating to Russians the real impact of the sanctions regime versus that of Putin’s countersanctions. He predicted that sanctions could expand even given uncertainties about U.S. direction after the election. He pointed out that the Magnitsky Act and other sanctions have passed Congress with large bipartisan majorities—something unlikely to change. Dr. Aleksashenko argued that economic data show the Russian economy has slowly recovered since its initial drop when the sanctions regime began even though the regime has remained in place. Rather than simply maintaining the current sanctions regime, Dr. Aleksashenko argued that the West should ban investment in Russia, which is a key source of finances. Ms. Rosenberg agreed with Dr. Aleksashenko’s perspective, adding that U.S. laws banning American businesses from doing business with certain Russian businesses need to be more stringently enforced.
General Philip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO and former commander of the U.S. European Command, gave the keynote speech. He stated that he is an optimist, but that NATO is not headed in a positive direction with regard to relations with Russia. Thus, “we have to determine . . . how to create a more positive path forward.” He argued that Russia sees itself as important on the world stage right now, returning to superpower status. It will, therefore, be difficult to incentivize the country to change its behavior. General Breedlove laid out three main challenges facing NATO-Russian relations:
- Hybrid war: Even since the end of the Cold War, Russia has engaged in soft power competition with other European states, but, in recent years, it has also put military force back on the table and has used it as a means to change internationally recognized borders in Europe. The new hybrid war, or what Gen. Breedlove terms “conflict or competition below the threshold” involves broad-based competition across all elements of national power with an increasingly important cyber component. Gen. Breedlove argued that the response to this situation is the key to future success. The Western alliance needs to rebalance its DIME—diplomatic, information, military, economic—tools against Russia to address this new development.
- De-escalation by escalation: Gen. Breedlove argued that Russia seeks to prevent conflict by reacting extremely to small provocations to dissuade a Western counter-reaction. This strategy is difficult to deal with because it presents a binary of appeasement vs. conflict. It leaves very little room for a middle ground and makes it extremely challenging to deal with conflicts in the information space as well as actual military space.
- Renewed discussions about nuclear weapons: certain voices in Russia have raised the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons as part of a conventional conflict, according to Gen. Breedlove. This is dangerous, and both sides will have to commit to productive dialogue to avoid nuclear war.
Gen. Breedlove called for productive dialogue between the U.S. and Russia rather than simply being “in the vicinity of each other” and reiterating uncompromising national positions. He concluded by paraphrasing a quote from President George H.W. Bush, hoping for a peaceful, free, whole, and prosperous Europe, including Russia.
Panel 3: U.S. Russia Policy for the 45th President: Containment, Restraint, or Engagement?
In the third and final panel, Ambassador Adrian Basora, Co-Director of FPRI’s Eurasia Program and former U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, served as the moderator. The panelists included Ambassador John Herbst, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan; Ms. Judy Ansley, former Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor of the National Security Council; Dr. Evelyn Farkas, Nonresident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center; and Dr. William Ruger, Vice President of Research and Policy at the Charles Koch Institute.
Ambassador Basora first asked the panelists to outline how the next U.S. president should shape policy toward Russia, and specifically, what steps should be taken within the first 100 days in office. Dr. Ruger asserted that the U.S. first must more clearly understand what role it wants to play in the world. He then advocated for restraint in dealing with Russia, arguing that the next president should take a realist approach, and make choices with a “laser-like” focus on American security. Pursuing NATO expansion is not part of that approach, according to Dr. Ruger. Furthermore, the U.S. should stop thinking about Russia as a rival or even as a potential power on the world stage. The combined American and European militaries and economies dwarf their Russian counterparts. Dr. Ruger proposed that the next President of the United States take plenty of time in negotiating with Russia, using lower-level dialogue and focusing on engaging Russia in areas of mutual interest, such as counterterrorism and counter-proliferation.
Dr. Farkas advocated for deterrence as the best policy the U.S. could employ with regard to Russia. She argued that the next President should increase American air and naval military capabilities to make Russia think twice before acting. Furthermore, she proposed giving lethal weapons to Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, so that they could defend themselves against Russian aggression. While she also characterized negotiation as crucial, Dr. Farkas said it is up to Russia to make the first move to repair relations. The U.S. should not “fruitlessly run after the Russians in the hopes that they might cooperate.” Additionally, she argued that the international community has done a “paltry, miserable job” of holding Russia accountable for questionable actions. Further failures to deter Russia will embolden an even greater threat: China.
Ms. Ansley argued in favor of deterrence and containment and said that the next U.S. President must take a “stronger and much more assertive approach to Russia going forward.” NATO must be strengthened as an agent of both deterrence and containment. The U.S. needs to make it clear to the Kremlin that Russian actions have consequences, and the U.S. must reassert itself as a global leader. Syria is the primary roadblock to a successful American policy towards Russia; the U.S. should not allow the humanitarian disaster to continue and cannot normalize it by working with Russia on other issues. Syria is where Russia is stepping out of its role as a regional power and making a statement on the global stage. Therefore, the situation in Syria must be resolved before anything else can be.
Amb. Herbst argued that the next President of the U.S. must be assertive when it comes to dealing with Russia. The West has a massive economic and military advantage over Russia, and our leadership has maintained the post-Cold War era as “the most prosperous and stable in world history.” NATO has helped to create that European stability. It would not make sense to let that advantage go to waste. The current administration has failed to understand our true interests in Ukraine in part because the previous president had engaged the United States in the Middle East in ways that were beyond our capacity and fear of doing so again was wrongly transferred to this situation. The next President must step up immediately after taking office and declare U.S. interests and its role in the world.
Amb. Basora also asked the panelists whether current problems with Russia are the result primarily of Putin and his administration or of mistaken U.S. and European policies. According to Dr. Farkas, the Kremlin drives the confrontation. Putin’s key objectives are, first, to stay in power, and second, to ensure that Russia is a great power. Finally, to meet his first objective, Putin must ensure that regime change does not occur. In Dr. Farkas’ view, since Putin can no longer meet economic promises to his people, he has turned to nationalism and is promoting a 19th century view on Russia’s role in Europe that envisions neighboring countries as having less than full sovereignty. The U.S. strongly opposes this viewpoint making it the source of much of the current conflict.
Dr. Ruger stated by contrast that “our behavior in the post-Cold War era”—such as NATO expansion—has created security concerns within Russia. He proposed that the U.S. avoid any triumphalism. Amb. Herbst argued against this position, arguing that NATO has played an essential role in maintaining European security after the fall of the Soviet Union. He pointed out that in the early 1990s, several frozen conflicts popped up across the post-Soviet world, where Russia attempted to maintain influence, and these conflicts predated NATO expansion or any other forms of Western triumphalism. In a world where “imperial Russian tendencies” never really died, Amb. Herbst argued that NATO protects those at risk. Ms. Ansley agreed with this position, stating that the only U.S. failure in recent years has been in not responding strongly enough when Russia has acted against our interests and the interests of its neighbors.
In closing remarks, Dr. Ruger responded that engagement and restraint are not mutually exclusive. Instead, the U.S. should maintain restraint in some areas, but also engage in areas of common interests. Dr. Farkas responded that engagement is important, but the U.S. must not forget that Russia is a nuclear power and can do a great deal of damage. Additionally, Russia’s actions in Syria need a response. Ms. Ansley remarked that Syria needs to be the starting point for U.S. policy toward Russia. First, the U.S. must determine its own position clearly and then pursue it just as clearly. According to Amb. Herbst, the next president must clearly state our interests, which include global order, a strong trans-Atlantic relationship, a strong NATO, and support to Ukraine. The U.S. must also take a stronger position on Syria.
After the Election
In the days since this conference took place, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has inserted new uncertainty into the debates on U.S. policy toward Russia. Not only was Russia suspected of interference in the American electoral process—a problem debated in the first panel—but Trump and running mate Mike Pence also have provided the American public with conflicting signals as to the probable direction in which they will steer U.S. Russia policy. Trump’s position appears to promote a sharp change in direction and reconciliation with Russia over several contentious issues, including Russia’s involvement in Syria, its annexation of Crimea, and its involvement in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russia has cautiously welcomed the election results. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the extent to which President Putin’s and President-Elect Trump’s concepts of foreign policy correspond is “phenomenal.” He also suggested that Trump could go far to rebuild U.S.-Russia relations by slowing or halting NATO expansion near Russia’s borders.
The prospect of such engagement and compromise with Russia, while sharply at odds with positions taken by many American foreign policy experts, appears consistent with Trump’s self-image as a “deal maker” who will take a pragmatic approach to international relationships. Also troubling to Russia observers have been statements from Trump supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin—who has steadily curtailed press freedom, weakened institutions putting checks on his power, and created an environment in which no opposition figures can function. These actions have raised concerns that rather than simply pragmatic cooperation, Trump may admire this strongman figure and to an as-yet-unknown extent, emulate his approach to governing.
In contrast to Trump, during the vice-presidential debate, Mike Pence took a tougher stance toward Putin and also later acknowledged that Russia was involved in email hacking related to the election. It is unclear whether these apparent contradictions within the Trump team have been resolved, or whether Trump’s new team of appointees and advisors will easily agree on a coherent Russia policy. He has already earned the skepticism of many GOP foreign policy experts. Moreover, Trump will be governing with a Republican Congress that has generally supported a tough approach to Russia. For example, Congress recently passed a defense policy bill authorizing lethal military aid for Ukraine, something Trump’s statements thus far suggest he may not support.
In the short term, a Trump-led “reset” may help to ease some immediate tensions with Moscow. However, in the longer term, it will be crucial to balance a desire for engagement with a strong pursuit of America’s security interests and a defense of fundamental American values both at home and abroad. Doing so will not be up to the next president alone. Congress can contribute to an array of efforts to manage problems related to Russia, including to better support training of Russia experts, counter the Russian information war, fund upgrades to the country’s cybersecurity, and promote exchange programs that will contribute to understanding on both sides. The success of this country and the well-being of both the Russian and American people depend on strong, but also careful and thoughtful, leadership.