Salvo 03.03.2022 15 minutes

What is Russia to Us?

Red Square in Moscow at Sunset

Understanding our longstanding confusion

Editors’ Note

The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book by our late and great colleague Angelo Codevilla, America’s Rise and Fall Among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams, published by Encounter. The book grew out of a request by the Office of Net Assessment at the Department of Defense during the Trump administration that Dr. Codevilla prepare a memo on what a truly “America First” foreign policy ought to be. Angelo being Angelo, he delivered, a few months later, roughly 65,000 words along the lines of “What Would John Quincy Adams Do Today?” The book goes through the foundations of American foreign policy, where it went seriously and disastrously wrong in the twentieth century, and why now is the time to “return to reality.” John Quincy Adams was and is the preeminent guide to these questions because Codevilla regarded him as not only the most intelligent and serious practitioner of American foreign policy and diplomacy at the beginning of America but also the preeminent foreign policy statesman then or since.

You will see in this excerpt, originally drafted in 2019, Angelo’s characteristic incisiveness and perspicacity on the most serious matters of foreign relations. He, as ever, skewers implicitly and explicitly the bipartisan delusions and unseriousness of our ruling class.

From the founding of our Republic until the 1917 Bolshevik coup, Russia loomed small in U.S. foreign policy, and vice versa because the interactions between the two countries’ geopolitical and economic interests were few and compatible. Given that these fundamentals have not changed, we should expect that the two countries’ policies may gradually return to that long normal. But, for both countries, transcending the intervening century’s habits will not be easy.

The Russian bear is licking the Soviet era’s deep wounds as it growls behind fearsome defenses. Few other than Dostoyevsky imagined a tragedy as momentous as what the Communists inflicted on the long-suffering Russian people. No one knows whether or how it may be possible to undo its profound effects. Russia’s population is less than half of America’s (a tenth of China’s) and declining. Despite efforts to boost the birth rate, its demography is likely to recover only slowly as the dysfunctional effects of the Soviet era on the behavior of men toward women may gradually give way to traditional Russian culture.

The despair that manifests itself in alcoholism will also take a long time to dissipate. Russia’s economy is perhaps one eighth of America’s. Nor is its culture friendly to the sort of entrepreneurship, trust, and cooperation that produces widespread wealth. Authoritarian rule will continue to provide essential structure to social life, especially by appealing to nationalist sentiments. The only sure thing is that, since Russia stretches from the Atlantic to the Bering Strait, since it borders both Europe and China, and since its military forces are fearsomely, intelligently built, it cannot but affect us.

U.S. liberals believed the Soviet Union’s dissolution was impossible, and conservatives flatter themselves that they caused it. But virtually no one among us believed it was happening. Then, our establishment was well-nigh unanimous that Russia would evolve in a liberal direction. A decade of deep but ignorant involvement in Russia’s internal affairs followed.

Americans had preached democracy to Russians and others within the Soviet Empire as part of the struggle against the Soviets’ worldwide challenge. Russians did not have to be told that they were captives of a tyranny, but they appreciated America’s attention to their plight. After the Soviet Empire fell, pro-democracy activists in and around the U.S. government redoubled their efforts to “democratize” Russia and the other former communist countries according to their own lights, not realizing how deeply this would be resented. They also got too close to former Party officials, as these used their Western connections to buy and to loot Russia’s assets.

The Clinton administration combined ignorance and self-contradiction by trying to load onto Russia the hopes that the U.S. establishment had long entertained about global co-dominion with the Soviets, while on the other hand they pushed NATO to Russia’s borders in the Baltic states and interfered massively in Ukraine. Russians came to see America as an enemy. Few Americans understood Vladimir Putin’s 1998–99 rise as the reassertion of a bankrupt, humiliated, resentful Great Russian people.

The George W. Bush administrations fumbled at the new reality. Cleverishly, they courted American public opinion by publicly disavowing the treaty obligation to limit U.S. missile defenses, while simultaneously trying to appease Russia by continuing to limit them in fact. And as the Bush team struck a tough pose by formally objecting to Russia’s dismemberment of Georgia, they effectively condoned it. The administration’s dishonest incompetence earned contempt from all sides.

The incoming Obama administration tried to go further along the same self-contradictory line by withdrawing anti-missile support from Eastern Europe and quietly promising even more restraint. But when, in 2014, Putin took Crimea, Obama imposed economic sanctions, meddled even more in Ukraine, and agreed to station token NATO and American troops in Poland and the Baltic States. Then, for what seems to have been the most tactical of domestic political calculations, the Obama administration and therefore the U.S. establishment decided to try explaining the course and results of the 2016 U.S. election campaign as “Russia’s attack on our democracy.”

All this produced a mess of appeasement, provocation, insult, and enmity without much of an international point on either side—another lesson in the consequences of incompetence mixed with self-indulgence at the highest levels.

Although today’s Russia poses none of the ideological threats that the communist Soviet Union did (and though we have no directly clashing interests with it), Russia is clearly a major adversary in Europe and the Middle East. Its technical contributions to China’s military, and its general geopolitical alignment with China, are most worrisome for the United States.

But what is the point of enmity between Russia and America? What other than Soviet inertia and wounded pride motivates the Russians? The U.S. maintains economic sanctions on Russia and has been reported to have placed malware in its electrical grid’s software! To achieve precisely what? Where to from here? The essential problem in U.S.–Russia relations is that neither side’s desires, nor either’s calculus of ends and means, is clear to the other, or perhaps even to itself.

Russia’s Reconquista

In this century, Vladimir Putin rebuilt the Russian state into a major European power with worldwide influence. Poverty and a resource-based economy notwithstanding, the Russian state is on a sounder financial basis than any in the West. The country is under a firm, united leadership appreciated by the vast majority, whose national pride and solidarity dwarf those of Western publics. Nearly all Russians approve strongly of the absorption of Crimea. Russia effectively controls Ukraine’s eastern end and has exposed the West’s incapacity to interfere militarily in the former Soviet Empire.

Vladimir Putin famously said that the USSR’s demise had been a tragedy. But no one suspects that he would re-create it if he could. Certainly, he wants to re-create the empire of the tsars. But to what extent? He certainly has expanded Russia’s influence beyond what it had been in about 1995, encountering little opposition. More than most, Putin is painfully aware of Russia’s limits. What then are his—and what can be any modern Russian leader’s—national objectives?

As always, Ukraine is where Russia’s domestic and foreign policy intersect. With Ukraine (and the Baltic states), Russia is potentially a world power. Without it, much less. Post–Soviet Russia’s horizons have shrunk because the twentieth century’s events forever severed Ukraine’s and the Baltic states’ peoples from Russia. Even Belarus has become less compatible with Russia. Modern Russia is reluctantly recognizing Belarus’s independence, even as the Soviet Union, at the height of its power, effectively recognized Finland’s.

In sum, post-Soviet Russia is a major European power, exposed to events in the Far East that it cannot control.

This Russia has no sane alternative than to live within that reality. Russian writing on international affairs focuses exclusively on the country’s role as a member of the European state system. By the 2030s, if not sooner, the Russian government will have filled such space and established such influence as comport with its own people’s and its neighbors’ realities, and will be occupied keeping it. Its conquest of Ukraine east of the Don signifies much less the acquisition of a base for further conquest than the achievement of modern Russia’s natural territorial limit in Europe.

As the Russian Federation’s own demographic weight shifts southeastward and Islamism continues to gain favor there, the Russian government will have to consider whether to keep the Muslim regions within the Federation or to expel them and build fences against them. As in decades past, post-Soviet Russia will have to work harder and harder to cut the sort of figure in Europe that it did under the tsars.

Russia has always been a Western country by virtue of its Christianity. Indeed, it has believed itself “The Third Rome,” and has acted as protector of Eurasia’s Christians against Islam. Today’s demographic and economic weakness has made it more Western than ever. No sooner had the USSR died than Russia restored the name Saint Petersburg to Peter the Great’s “window on the West.” As Moscow rebuilt its massive Christ the Savior cathedral to original specifications, it let countless priorities languish. As the Russian Orthodox Church resumed its place as a pillar of the Russia that had been Christianity’s bastion against the Mongol Horde as well as the Muslim Ottomans, golden domes soon shone throughout the land. Whatever anyone might think of the Russian Orthodox Church, it anchors the country to its Christian roots. Even under Soviet rule, Russians had gone out of their way to outdo the West in Western cultural matters. To call someone nekulturny (uncultured) was and remains a heavy insult in Russia.

Adams knew from personal experience, and would remind us, that Russia’s Westernism is not and never was imitation or love of the West. Rather, it is the assertion that Russia is an indispensable part of it. The Russians saved Europe from Napoleon. They are proud of having saved it from Hitler too. Their having done the latter tyrannically, as Soviets, does not, in their minds disqualify them from their rightful place in Europe or justify Europeans, much less Americans, trying to limit Russia’s rightful stature. Adams would recognize that today’s Russian rulers are not gentler or nicer than the emperor who shook off the Mongol yoke—who was not known as “Ivan the Nice Guy.” Today’s Russians, like their forebears, are calculating Russia’s stature in terms of the limits—primarily in Europe—set by their own present power as well as by that of their immediate neighbors. Today’s Russia is all about working the edges of limits it knows too well.

This Russia is no more willing to conquer Europe than it is able. Willingness and ability had stemmed from the communist political apparatus that ruled the USSR and projected itself throughout the world. Sister communist parties and front groups made significant portions of foreign countries—especially European ones—positively eager for Soviet domination. The Soviet armed forces, already in control of Eastern and Central Europe, were well equipped to take, if not to hold, the rest. Now, the political infrastructure—the Party that decided things in Moscow and the communist-friendly apparatus in Europe—is gone. Nobody in the West envies Russia. Russian influence in Europe now stems from Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas and from the opportunities for corruption that this entails.

Nor do Europeans fear Russia enough to reduce their reliance on Russian gas. In addition, West European diplomats lobby Americans consistently against America’s imposition of sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea and the Donbass. This is not the case with Poland and the Baltic states, and of course Ukraine, who view enmity between the U.S. and Russia as some kind of insurance for their own independence. But America cannot possibly guarantee it.

Russia’s armed forces, for their part, are now configured for area-denial rather than for projection of power. The Russian military establishment, unlike that of the tsars and of the Soviets, emphasizes technology to economize manpower that, for the first time, is scarce and precious in Russia. Russia’s reliance on nuclear weapons recalls nothing so much as the 1950s Eisenhower doctrine of “more bang for the buck.”

The Russian military’s prospective areas of operation are, not incidentally, the ones where the U.S. military envisions conflict: the area around the Niemen river on the borders between Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Russia; and the area north of Crimea. Both are places where Russian armies have won historic victories. Though Russia’s military posture has ever been and remains strategically defensive, its operational doctrine since World War II calls for taking the initiative in a preemptive, massive, decisive manner. In these prospective conflicts, the Russians would use the S-400 air/missile defense system to isolate U.S./NATO forces by air, as well as strikes (or threat thereof) by the nuclear-capable Iskander missile to cut them off on the ground. Their ground forces, led by Armata tanks, the world’s best, would then press to make them prisoners.

Russia is confident that it can safely conduct military operations on its borders, even with nukes, because it possesses missile and anti-missile weapons superior in number and quality to those of America and China combined. As regards strategic offense, suffice it to say that the 2011 START treaty’s aggregate limits of “800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments” refer to “launchers.” In Russia, these are mobile, invulnerable platforms, which almost certainly contain a larger but unknown number of missiles.

On the defensive side—beyond the sixty-eight underground-reloadable launchers protecting Moscow—Russia’s strategic defenses rest on the connection between its peripheral radars and some three hundred of the S-400 systems (to be replaced by S-500s beginning in 2021) deployed near every population center and other important points throughout Russia. Unlike U.S. systems like Patriot, Aegis, and THAAD, the S-400s are programmed and launched before they come into view of the local radars, on data provided by the early warning radars. They carry nuclear warheads to minimize the need for extreme accuracy. In short, Russia has a viable missile defense. Russia’s nuclear submarines are deployed in defensive positions for denial of naval access to Russia itself, as well as to the deployment areas of Russian ballistic missile subs on the edges of the Arctic ice cap. The U.S. military has no way of dealing with this.

Russia’s 2015–18 intervention in Syria, and its adroit management of Turkey, achieved the tsars’ historic desire for a warm water port. But while its hold on its Mediterranean naval and air bases is firm, keeping Turkey friendly to Russia must ever be troublesome. Absent a securely friendly Turkey, Russia’s renewed control of the Crimea, and even the Mediterranean bases, will be of limited worth. Whatever else might be said of Russia’s role in the Middle East, Adams would acknowledge that Russia has brought more stable balance to local forces than ever in this young century. Along with most Americans Adams would not envy Russia’s new responsibilities for the region.

The U.S. Side

John Quincy Adams would ground U.S. policy toward Russia on the facts of Russia’s interest as regards America, and America’s as regards Russia. Since any and all U.S. missile defenses are our supreme interest, and supremely our business, Adams would not listen to, never mind accommodate in any way, Russia’s objections to them. But he would not regard Russia either as a grave geopolitical challenge to the United States or as a particularly difficult diplomatic problem.

While agreeing that Russia’s sales of advanced arms to China and alignment with it against America in the UN are serious matters, Adams would reject the notion that today’s triangular United States–Russia–China calculus is comparable to what it had been between 1949 and the early 1960s, when the Soviet Union directed a common long-term enterprise, and ideology covered somewhat China’s and Russia’s racial antagonism; nor what it was during the Soviet–Chinese military confrontation of the 1970s and ’80s when China feared Russia, and the United States was in the position of relieving China’s worries. Today, a weak Russia sells arms to strong China just for money, which hardly relieves its growing fear of “yellow hordes” that are more numerous and richer than ever. Unlike in the ’70s and ’80s, the problems between the two stem from basic disparities. Adams would judge that the best that America can do for itself is to do nothing that obscures those disparities. He would bet that without backhanded U.S. support for current Russo–Chinese relations, the two countries would be each other’s principal enemies within a decade.

Ukraine is the greatest practical limitation on Russia’s ambitions. Its independence is very much a U.S. interest, but it is beyond our capacity to secure. Adams would see U.S. relations with Russia with regard to Ukraine as resembling U.S. relations with Europe and Latin America two hundred years ago. Then, Adams knew that the Europeans realized (or that experience would force them to realize) that they could not control any part of the Western Hemisphere. By stating America’s intention to guard its hemispheric interests while forswearing meddling in European affairs, he encouraged the Europeans to think and act reasonably. Today, he would be confident that Russia realizes it cannot control Ukraine except for its Russian part, or the Baltics, never mind the states of Eastern Europe. He would reassure Russia that the United States will not interfere with Russia joining the mainstream of European affairs and will not use normal relations with Ukraine or any of Russia’s neighbors to inconvenience Russia. Adams would not engage in any hostilities to try defining Russia’s limits in Europe, knowing full well that this is beyond America’s capacity and that it undercuts the basis for fruitful relations.

Adams would not hide the fact that U.S. policy, implemented by ordinary diplomacy, is to foster the Baltic States’, and especially Ukraine’s, independence. But he would know and sincerely convey to Russia that their independence depends on themselves, and that he regards it as counterproductive to try making them into American pawns or even to give the impression that they may be. He would trust in a Ukraine that had stopped longing for the borders that Stalin had fixed for it in 1927 and Khrushchev augmented in 1954, in a Ukraine retrenching into its Western identity (as, for example, by asserting its Orthodox church’s independence from Russia’s), and that is standing firmly on its own feet. He would trust in Russia’s actual acceptance of its inability ever again to control this Ukraine. This would be Adams’s Ukraine policy.

Since fruitless strife was the result of the sanctions that other administrations had placed on Russia to punish it for taking Crimea and the Donbass, Adams would remove them. The sanctions had done nothing to move Russia but emboldened Ukraine to suppose it has U.S. support for acting as if it had the same right to navigation in the Sea of Azov, passing under a Russian bridge, as it does in the Atlantic Ocean. Adams never much trusted in formalities.

But Adams, the Monroe Doctrine’s author, would be willing to wage outright, destructive, economic war on Russia were the Russians to continue support of anti-U.S. regimes in the Western Hemisphere. If you want economic peace with America, he would say, stop interfering in our backyard. We Americans, for our part, are perfectly willing to reciprocate, regarding your backyard.

In sum, nothing would be geopolitically clearer to Adams than that natural policy for both America and Russia is not to go looking for opportunities to get in each other’s way.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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