The Strategic Balance: A New US-Russian Zero Sum Game

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon.

As a life-long observer of Russia, I have never been as concerned as I am now on the state of Russian-American relations.

During the Cold War, the two sides opened up lines of communications that identified, broadened and deepened areas of common interests. Global stability was ultimately maintained on the basis of hard earned mutual understanding that conflict was in neither side’s interests.

That lesson of history seems to have been forgotten today.

What the US sees as being stabilizing to global order, Russia sees as being destabilizing. What the US regards as being destabilizing behavior, Russia assesses as being stabilizing. This fundamental disagreement is not tactical; it is strategic. It is not based on expediency; it is based on principle. As such, a dangerous zero sum game pattern has emerged as US and Russia make moves and countermoves that mimic practice during the Cold War.

It would not be an overstatement to suggest that a new ideological struggle has emerged between the US and Russia to the extent present areas of disagreement are based on starkly differing views of the world. This new ideological basis for competition between the US and Russia serves to justify waging a zero sum game in the name of global stability, as each side sees it, in which any US success is seen as being a Russian failure, and vice versa.

In Syria, Russia regards the overthrow of the Assad regime and the likely vacuum that would result to be destabilizing. Russian intervention in Syria is also motivated by the threat that returning terrorists pose to the stability of Russia’s soft southern underbelly. For its part, the US regards the removal of Assad as being a prerequisite for any plan to re-establish a legitimate government that will have the support of the Syrian people.

In Europe, Russia considers the expansion of NATO, with alleged US encroachments in Ukraine, to be destabilizing. Russia’s western flank is challenged by an expanding military alliance. The US regards the strengthening of the North Atlantic alliance and increased US influence in Europe and the former Soviet Union to be stabilizing, and in fact reassuring to many of Russia’s nervous neighbors. US resolve to strengthen its ties was reinforced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Russian invasion was motivated in part by its sense of threat to the region that it considers the “near abroad.”

Russia assesses the US Ballistic Missile Defense program to be inherently destabilizing, with the potential to tip the nuclear balance. The US regards BMD as a strategic, stabilizing force in its future application against rogue states, such as North Korea.

In cyberspace, Russia views US declared intentions to achieve cyber dominance” to be destabilizing. US defector Snowden’s cyber revelations have done nothing to dispel Russian perceptions in this regard. The US believes state-sponsored Russian hacking and blatant attacks against US interests have set unacceptable precedents that cannot be tolerated, and for which there must be a proportionate response.

Russia prizes its strengthening relationship with China as being a stabilizing force to its economy and exposed eastern flank, whereas the US assesses rising Sino-Russian cooperation as posing a challenge to American interests in the Far East and elsewhere.

It is not necessary to take a side in these competing worldviews – to reconcile this opposing weltanschauung, as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant might say. What is necessary is to accept that the US and Russia have different conceptions of the conditions that lead to global stability, and that drive the pursuit of legitimate national interests. As such, it would be fruitless to attack Russian national security interests, as they have defined them. Rather, to avoid a further deepening of this low point in US-Russian relations, a renewal of Cold war style, unemotional, pragmatic dialogue is required. Both parties need to focus not as much on narrowing areas of disagreement, as in embarking on a realistic pursuit of ensuring areas of disagreement do not create a crisis that undermines global stability.

In the Cold War, both sides set aside ideological differences to work on ensuring that misunderstandings did not lead to miscalculations that could produce catastrophic consequences to our two countries, and to the world. Considering the myriad obstacles we overcame during the Cold War, it is perplexing that greater effort is not being expended today by both sides to address differences that pale in comparison to what we have overcome in our past relations.

It is ironic that a US administration with a host of valid reasons not to engage Iran in nuclear weapons negotiations doesn’t see the wisdom of following a similar path with Russia. In the case of Iran, President Obama displayed the courage to adopt a different approach – to negotiate an agreement with a so-called rogue state to avert the possibility of a war that would surely undermine global stability. How is it then that the US seems unable to adopt a similar approach in defusing potential flash points with Russia? Setting aside the merits of the Iran deal, the foundation for its success was a mutual recognition that a deal was preferable to no deal, as all parties assessed stability in terms of their own interests. A key lesson learned in negotiations with Iran was that reaching a deal did not require reconciliation of opposing world views, nor a resolution of many other areas of disagreement. Defining a narrow set of shared interests, some explicit, others implicit, drove the process and helped justify an agreement that will remain effective in promoting global stability as long as both parties deem it is in their national interests to abide by it.

In this same spirit, it is time for the US to reexamine its assumptions concerning Russian actions, and reassess how to respond, accordingly. In so doing, it is not necessary for US policymakers, defense and intelligence officials to accept or condone Russian actions. It is only necessary to accept the fact that opposing US-Russian interests are not reconcilable in the near term, and therefore dialogue is necessary to reduce the likelihood that competition will spiral out of control. For their part, the Russians need to meet the US half way, which they thus far have been unwilling to do. Towards this goal, channels of communication should be expanded in all spheres of relations, not soured or closed. New channels should be explored to minimize areas of friction. Both sides should come to the table prepared to listen to one another. Flexibility should come in the form of being pragmatic to lower the risks of miscalculation leading to confrontation.

Left unchecked, the zero sum game the US and Russia are playing will produce the global disorder neither country desires. 

About the Author(s)

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, Former Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, Former Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorist Center