In the Indo-Pacific region, Russia’s vast, mineral-rich, sparsely populated territories could help fuel China’s dynamic economic growth, while its relations with other key regional actors, such as India, Japan and South Korea, could help constrain Chinese ambitions.
Finally, with regard to transnational challenges, as one of the top four emitters of greenhouse gases, Russia is an unavoidable partner in mitigating the risks of climate change. With a rich history in vaccine development, Russia could also be a major player in dealing with deadly pandemics.
In short, the United States will not be able to ignore Russia. But, contrary to current thinking in Washington today, the challenge is not to contain Russia. Instead, we need to figure out how to harness its power for American purposes in the global arena.
The three tasks that have defined relations with Russia for the past half-century or more should continue to inform American policy. First is the pursuit of peaceful coexistence to reduce to the minimum the risk of a nuclear cataclysm — an imperative for the two rivals that together control close to 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Second is the responsible management of the inevitable competition to avoid a direct military confrontation which could escalate to nuclear war, especially in Europe, the Middle East and the Arctic, where Russia plays prominent roles. And third is mutually beneficial cooperation to meet urgent transnational threats, such as climate change, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism and pandemics, among other things. In current circumstances, a fourth should be added: structuring relations with Russia to best position the United States to deal with its major strategic rival, China.
To accomplish those tasks, Washington should bear in mind two considerations that run counter to today’s conventional wisdom.
To start, while there is good reason to seek to weaken Russia so that it lacks the capacity to invade any European country, seeking to cripple the Russian economy actually jeopardizes American interests. As Washington understood during the final days of the Soviet Union, it needs a Russia strong enough to reliably control its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, the vehicles to deliver them, and the materials and knowledge to build them. Russia should also be strong enough to govern its own territory effectively and to prevent severe domestic instability, which would inevitably spill over into neighboring regions. And it should be strong enough to negotiate and implement agreements to reduce the production of greenhouse gases and to mitigate the damaging consequences of the Arctic’s rapid warming.