September 28, 2023

Charting a Transatlantic Approach to Russia

A Working Paper of the Transatlantic Forum on Russia

Introduction

Although the United States and Europe are not directly engaged in the war with Russia in Ukraine, Moscow clearly sees itself as being at war with the West. The United States and Europe, therefore, must be prepared for a period of what is likely to be prolonged confrontation with Russia, with the war for Ukraine at the center of that confrontation.

Successfully navigating this period of sustained confrontation requires continued cohesion and coordination between the United States and Europe to ensure they share a common picture of the challenge that Russia poses and the necessary response. Russia’s war in Ukraine has precipitated rapid and major changes in Europe and broader ripple effects that are altering political dynamics much farther afield. Because of the war in Ukraine, Russia itself is changing in still unknowable ways. Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking the country in a more authoritarian direction, Russian society is shifting, and the Russian military’s degradation in Ukraine means that the nature of the Russian threat is evolving. Russia’s war, therefore, requires the allies to re-examine long-held assumptions and understandings about Russia and its intentions and capacity, and it is those updated assessments that should guide the transatlantic partners’ future policy approach toward Moscow.

There is no going back to the way things were with Russia prior to its invasion of Ukraine. Instead, Western allies must build on ongoing efforts to constrict and constrain the Kremlin’s ability to sustain aggression in Ukraine and more broadly beyond Russia’s borders. It also will require the development of a long-term and sustainable approach to restoring peace and stability to Europe, increasing resilience to the Kremlin’s tools and tactics, and planting the seeds for a less confrontational relationship with a future Russia. In many ways, such an approach will resemble the containment strategy first set out in the 1940s, a strategy designed to apply steady and forceful counterpressure to a regime whose paranoia and insecurities represented a clear danger to the West, just as the Putin regime does today.

Each of the transatlantic allies’ preferred policy approaches will reflect their own proximity to and history with Russia, as well as current political realities within their own borders. Nonetheless, there is broad consensus within the alliance that the unprecedented cohesion and coordination among allies in the wake of Russia’s invasion must hold. To that end, this working paper provides a starting point for the development of a transatlantic approach to Russia. It articulates expectations for relations with Russia that should guide the allies’ approach, outlines the broad objectives that a transatlantic Russia policy should seek to accomplish, and in some cases more specific near-term actions the allies can take. The analysis reflects two years of dialogue that CNAS has conducted through its Transatlantic Forum on Russia (TFR). It brings together and builds on previous work facilitated by the Forum, including policy papers, op-eds, articles, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, “What Comes Next for U.S. Policy Toward Russia,” and other cited publications. The paper aims to provide fodder for policymakers and experts on both side of the Atlantic to debate and refine through continued dialogue, including through the future work of the TFR.

Expectations for Future Relations with Russia

A transatlantic approach to Russia must reflect realistic expectations of Russia, its intentions, and its evolving tactics. Looking forward, a transatlantic approach to Russia should be informed by the following expectations:

Relations with Russia will remain confrontational so long as the war continues, and the conflict is likely to be protracted.

Though most wars end within a few months, those that last more than a year tend to drag on for over a decade. Putin’s ideological commitment to the war and the incentives shaping his decision-making calculus suggest the Russo-Ukraine war may very well fit this historical precedent. The reasons that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky keeps fighting are clear: if he doesn’t, Ukraine as it was ceases to exist. That sentiment has been well articulated by Western leaders who highlight that, if Russia stops fighting, there will be no more war; if Ukraine stops fighting, there will be no more Ukraine. Even a decision by Zelensky to pursue a negotiated settlement that cedes territory to Russia carries the risk that, having learned that might makes right, Moscow might attack again in the future. In the jargon of political scientists, Zelensky faces a credible commitment problem in which Kyiv cannot be confident that Putin will commit to a settlement and then not simply regroup and attack again in the future. By agreeing to a settled peace now, Ukraine could find itself in a worse position later, especially if the country remains outside of NATO.

For Russia, even though the Russian military struggles to make gains on the battlefield, Putin remains confident he can achieve his objectives. Moscow is confident that the West will tire of its support for Ukraine or that political changes in the United States and Europe will result in less support for Kyiv. But even more, continuing the war benefits Putin personally. The invasion of Ukraine has significantly complicated Putin’s ability to rule, not least because his image as a competent leader has been irreparably damaged. Sustaining the conflict is in his interest because it makes Putin more resilient to the domestic challenges that have mounted since the invasion. Using data from Sarah Croco and Jessica Weeks, research conducted by Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz finds that since the end of World War II, only rarely have personalist authoritarians like Putin been unseated while an interstate conflict is ongoing. Other data similarly show that leaders that initiate war are especially unlikely to be ousted amid war. This is because the execution of the war creates dynamics that make it more difficult to orchestrate an autocrat’s removal.

The same does not hold true for dictators who lose wars; they become more vulnerable to ejection. Once Putin ends the war, there will be a political reckoning inside Russia. He therefore has strong incentive to stay in the war, especially if there is risk that Russians will perceive the outcome as a defeat. Research by Giacomo Chiozza and Hein Goemans found that about 80-percent of the leaders in power at the end of a conflict remained in power afterwards. However, of those leaders who were ousted, all had experienced a military defeat. Overall, when leaders are defeated in war, about half end up losing power.

Although personalist autocrats like Putin tend to be among the most resilient to military defeats, leaders’ expectations of what might happen if they are ousted also shape their calculus. Those who worry that they will be jailed, exiled, or killed—a fate most common among personalist autocrats—will be sensitive to even small increases in their risk. Moreover, Putin’s very clear responsibility for the invasion makes him particularly vulnerable. Research by Sarah Croco suggests that such culpable leaders are motivated to continue fighting wars, even in the face of hardship, because domestic actors will want to punish them if they fail in a war that they played a role in starting. Even if Ukraine is wildly successful in its counteroffensive, Putin has every incentive to fight through the hardship, meaning that this war will go on for a long time, significantly constraining the scope of relations with Russia.

Not only is Putin poised to maintain power, but the confrontational nature of relations with Russia likely will persist past his departure.

Putin’s ability to hold onto power for as long as he has increases the prospects that he will continue to do so. According to research by Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, not all autocrats are so durable; just a quarter of post–Cold War autocrats have governed for 20 years or more. Over his long tenure, Putin has created in Russia what political scientist Milan Svoilik calls an established autocracy wherein regime officials and elite are fully dependent on the leader and invested in maintaining the status quo from which they benefit. The longer that such established autocrats are in power, the less likely they are to be removed at the hands of the elite. Strong consensus about the use of repression, on full display in Putin’s Russia, further reduces the likelihood that he will be forcibly removed. Research by Kendall-Taylor and Frantz finds that the typical post–Cold War autocrat who had governed for 20 years (Putin has been in power for 23 years) ended up ruling for a total of about 36 years. It is plausible that Putin will remain in power for several years to come.

What’s more, the changes he is orchestrating inside Russia make the future of transatlantic relations with Russia more problematic. Putin already is taking Russia in a more authoritarian direction. If anything, Putin is moving Russia in a more totalitarian direction as he attempts to mobilize Russian society in support of his war not just on Ukraine, but also on the West with the United States at its center. Society is being militarized, public acts of support are growing, as are incidents of Russians reporting on the “anti-patriotic” activities of their fellow citizens. Putin is proffering what Andrei Kolesnikov describes as, “an older strain of nationalist ideology in which the decadent West is the enemy and Russia has a messianic destiny to oppose its harmful influence.” There also likely will be deep Russian resentment over Western sanctions and the role that U.S. and European weapons have played in the high number of Russian casualties. Amid the Kremlin’s propaganda, many Russians appear to feel besieged and, often, just as embittered as Putin himself. The longer Putin remains in power, the deeper these ideas’ roots will grow, raising the likelihood that relations with Russia will remain confrontational even after Putin departs.

Given the societal changes taking place inside Russia, the expectation in Western capitals must be that authoritarianism and the contours of Russian foreign policy will outlast Putin. The historical record shows that for all post–Cold War autocrats (except monarchs) in power 20 years or more, authoritarianism persists past the leader’s departure in 76 percent of cases. When such leaders are also older personalist autocrats, authoritarianism endures–either with the same regime or with the establishment of a new one–92 percent of the time. Moreover, the same regime group of regime insiders often remains intact after longtime leaders leave office—a prospect that would be made more likely if Putin exits on account of natural death or an elite-led coup.

Such continuity likely would extend to the nature of the Russian regime and its external relations. Successors that deviate from the status quo are likely to provoke fierce resistance from the “old guard” who have considerable control over the levers of power in the system. Beyond sidelining (if they can) individuals who pose a serious threat to them, new leaders who inherit office this way tend to adhere to the previous program. In countries such as Syria and Uzbekistan, for example, the successors of longtime leaders Bashar al-Assad and Shavkat Mirziyoyev respectively showed early signs of liberalization through actions such as the release of political prisoners, only to revert to traditionally more repressive practices. In part for these reasons, research by Sarah Croco finds that when successors come from the same regime as leaders involved with the initiation of a war, they are likely to continue the conflicts they inherit. By invading Ukraine, Putin has created problems that will be difficult for future leaders to navigate–for example, how to end the war including resolving the status of Crimea and the other territories Russia has illegally annexed, wartime reparations, and accountability for war crimes that will open future leaders up to accusation of capitulating to the West and therefore long complicate Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe. Although a new leader could change the tone of Russia’s external relations–just as the transition from Putin to Medvedev created an opening for U.S.-Russia cooperation that did not exist with Putin as President–the broad contours of Russian foreign policy likely would endure.

Along with the intent, Russia will retain significant capacity to challenge the United States and Europe, although the nature of the threat is evolving.

Russia’s war in Ukraine not only has exposed the deficiencies of the Russian military, but U.S. and Western responses to the invasion have accelerated long-standing trends pushing Russia toward decline. Europe has reduced its energy dependence on Russia, diminishing both the country’s leverage over Europe and government revenues that depend heavily on energy exports. Unprecedented international sanctions and export controls are limiting Russia’s access to capital and technology, which will cause Moscow to fall even farther behind in innovation. If before the war Russia was already facing serious challenges, its outlook now is decidedly dimmer.

Given Russia’s outlook, there will be a strong temptation in the United States and Europe to downgrade Russia as a future threat. Rising U.S. tensions with China only will increase the allure of such arguments, especially in Washington, as the imperative to focus limited resources on Beijing grows. But that would be a mistake. Russia may be down, but it’s almost certainly not out. Moscow sees itself at war with the United States in Ukraine and will seek reprisal. Putin will remain intent on restoring a sphere of control over the post-Soviet states, including the destruction of Ukraine and its national identity. He will look for opportunities to demonstrate that Russia is still a power to be feared. Moreover, the Russian military may be wounded, but it retains many of the capabilities that most concern NATO. Although Russia has expended thousands of precision-guided weapons, it retains significant capabilities in integrated air defense, electronic warfare, anti-satellite, and other advanced systems, particularly in the undersea domain.

Moreover, the more vulnerable Moscow perceives itself to be given the destruction of its conventional military forces in Ukraine, the more it will look to offset those vulnerabilities by resorting to nonconventional tools, including cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns, covert operations, and most ominously, increasing reliance on nuclear weapons. A weakened Russian conventional force is more likely to rely on the prospect of nuclear escalation to offset NATO conventional superiority in Europe. A future crisis or conflict with NATO would leave the Kremlin with few options prior to threatening or potentially using nuclear weapons, shortening the pathway to nuclear war. In sum, Moscow is poised to remain a good enough power—one with significant remaining capacity and intent to challenge U.S. and European interests.

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  1. “What Comes Next for U.S. Policy Towards Russia,” U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, May 15, 2023, (statement of Dr. Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program CNAS), https://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/what-comes-next-for-us-policy-towards-russia.
  2. Benjamin Jensen, “How Does It End? What Past Wars Tell Us About How to Save Ukraine,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 4, 2022, https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-does-it-end-what-past-wars-tell-us-about-how-save-ukraine.
  3. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, “Putin’s Forever War: How the Invasion Empowers Russia’s President,” Foreign Affairs, March 23, 2023, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/putins-forever-war.
  4. Kendall-Taylor and Frantz, “Putin’s Forever War.”
  5. Kendall-Taylor and Frantz, “Putin’s Forever War.”
  6. Giacamo Chiozza and H. E. Goemans, Leaders and International Conflict (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
  7. Chiozza and Goemans, Leaders and International Conflict.
  8. Kendall-Taylor and Frantz, “Putin’s Forever War.”
  9. Sarah E. Croco, “The Decider’s Dilemma: Leader Culpability, War Outcomes, and Domestic Punishment,” The American Political Science Review 105, no. 3 (August 2011): 457–77, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41480852.
  10. “What Comes Next for U.S. Policy Towards Russia,” (statement of Kendall-Taylor).
  11. Erica Frantz and Andrea Kendall-Taylor, “Treacherous Path to a Better Russia,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2023, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/russian-federation/treacherous-path-better-russia; and “What Comes Next for U.S. Policy Towards Russia,” (statement of Kendall-Taylor).
  12. Milan Svolik, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
  13. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, “After Putin: Lessons from Autocratic Leadership Transitions,” Washington Quarterly 45, no. 1 (Spring 2022): 79–96, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0163660X.2022.2057112.
  14. Kendall-Taylor and Frantz, “Treacherous Path to a Better Russia”; and “What Comes Next for U.S. Policy Towards Russia,” (statement of Kendall-Taylor).
  15. Andrei Kolesnikov, “The End of the Russian Idea: What It Will Take to Break Putinism’s Grip,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2023, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/russian-federation/vladimir-putin-end-russian-idea
  16. Kendall-Taylor and Frantz, “After Putin.”
  17. Erica Frantz and Andrea Kendall-Taylor, “When Dictators Die,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 4 (October 2016): 159–71. https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/when-dictators-die/.
  18. Croco, “The Decider’s Dilemma.”
  19. Kendall-Taylor and Frantz, “Treacherous Path to a Better Russia.”
  20. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Michael Kofman, “Russia’s Dangerous Decline: The Kremlin Won’t Go Down Without a Fight,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/russia-dangerous-decline.
  21. Kendall-Taylor and Kofman, “Russia’s Dangerous Decline.”

Author

  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor

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