Home / Articles / The Confrontation with Russia and US Grand Strategy
The United States no longer views cooperation with Russia as a possibility and is now focused on knocking Russia out of the ranks of the great powers.
Reducing Russian capabilities is more important than forestalling further cooperation between Russia and China.
Ukraine is now a central priority for American strategy and is no longer ancillary to the larger US-Russia relationship.
Over the past year, two understated but dramatic shifts in US strategy have taken place: the United States no longer seeks to prioritize cooperation with Russia and no longer expects to forestall greater Russia-China cooperation. Support for Ukraine becomes critical as part of an overall strategy designed to degrade Russian capabilities. These developments will, in turn, shape and constrain the options available to the United States over the next decade.
For the past thirty years, US policy towards Russia has toggled back and forth between the hope that a post-Soviet Russia could become a near-peer partner to the United States, and concerns about Russia’s ability to raise costs for and frustrate US preferences for Europe and the Middle East. The effort to “reset” US-Russia relations during the first term of the Obama administration took place against the backdrop of Ukrainian elections that brought Viktor Yanukovych to power in Kyiv, and his efforts to balance between Ukraine’s desire for greater economic integration with Europe and reassuring Russia on its security agenda.
When the 2014 Maidan Revolution provided a popular rejection of Yanukovych’s regime, the Obama effort to reset relations became unsustainable. In response to a renewed push for Western integration on the part of the post-Yanukovych Ukrainian governments, Vladimir Putin resorted to outright force to seize control of Crimea and foment uprisings in southeastern Ukraine designed to destabilize the country and force its federalization. From this point onward, the US-Russia partnership became politically untenable.
Yet, during the last years of the Obama administration, the Trump administration, and into the first year of the Biden administration, Russia policy was stuck between those advocating a more robust pushback against a “revisionist” Kremlin—with Russia now identified as a “great power” competitor of the United States—and those seeking to find ways to manage competition and limit confrontation, on the grounds that Washington needed to be able to focus more of its attention on Iran and China. As the United States intensified sanctions pressure on Tehran, for instance, it quietly accepted that Russian energy would fill the gaps, even if it meant strengthening the resources at Moscow’s disposal. And Russia was still seen as a necessary partner in any long-term coalition meant to balance the rise of China.
Russia’s open invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, however, has brought the debate to an end. Even with no formal statement of policy, the policy signals are quite clear: the United States no longer believes it is possible to either move forward on any agenda of partnership with Russia, at least under Putin, and that a Russia that continues to wield a mix of hard, soft and sharp power capabilities creates obstacles for the United States. Thus, the United States, via sanctions, trade policy, financial instruments, and outright military support for Ukraine, is seeking to degrade Russian tools of statecraft. If Russia cannot be, from Washington’s perspective, a near-peer partner, then it must be reduced to the status of a non-peer competitor.
Reducing Russia’s great-power capabilities also takes priority over preventing or disincentivizing a closer entente between Moscow and Beijing. In essence, the United States is prepared to accept that China may gain a temporary boost from having additional, low-cost access to Russian natural resources (and that Beijing can offer a partial lifeline to maintain Moscow’s position). The gamble is that the long-term degradation of Russian capabilities will reduce the level of support Beijing might be able to expect from its partnership with Moscow.
In addition to trying to reduce Russia’s overall levels of national power, the United States also appears to be committing to the long-term renovation of the Ukrainian state. The level of military, economic, and financial support to Kyiv moves beyond a more limited mission set of weakening Russian capabilities in favor of constructing Ukraine as a 21st–century front-line state against a Russia now deemed to be implacably hostile—and for this renovated Ukraine to acquire a set of capabilities akin to those possessed by South Korea, Taiwan, or Israel. In other words, a Ukraine that can sustain an impressive degree of military and technological capability and have the economic base to support its position. While the Biden administration may not openly be endorsing former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Three Lighthouses” approach, the idea is that Ukraine’s importance to the United States will increase as it is expected to serve as the anchor of the Euro-Atlantic world’s eastern bulwark (as Israel does for the Middle East and Taiwan for East Asia). With the recent release of Japan’s new national security strategy, and the related defense white paper envisioning a web of partnerships to connect the Indo-Pacific basin with the Euro-Atlantic region, and identifying the defense of Ukraine as central to this effort, Ukraine is moving to assume a more central role in geopolitics and as part of US and allied efforts to contain the China challenge independent of how this might impact US relations with Moscow.
From George H.W. Bush to the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency, US policy tried to balance Ukraine’s desire for closer relations with the Euro-Atlantic world with preserving a cooperative relationship with Moscow. In his meetings with both Volodymyr Zelensky and Putin in summer 2021, Biden attempted to manage this balancing act. Putin’s decision to launch the “special military operation” in February 2022 has brought this effort to a close. American support for Ukraine and the concurrent effort to weaken Russian capabilities outweigh any possible benefits the United States might receive from a cooperative relationship with Moscow, and the risks of a closer Russia-China entente are less pressing than containing Russia’s efforts to forcibly modify the post-Cold War order. The United States is now gambling that knitting together a coalition of its European and Asian partners to thwart Russian ambitions in Ukraine will translate into an enduring coalition that can contain and limit China’s revisionism down the line.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.