Two Challenges to U.S.-Russia Relations: Ontological and Epistemological

17 Jan 2017

From an historical perspective, two challenges have been making U.S.-Russia cooperative relations difficult. One challenge has to do with the actions of both sides. The other challenge involves how they describe what is going on in their relations.

​The first (practical) challenge is that the United States and Russia have found it difficult or unnecessary to signal mutual intentions and have maintained uncertainty about those intentions. On one hand, what is the U.S. vision for Russia's place in Europe and in the world order? Does Washington want to return to the status quo ante (pre-Ukraine conflict)? The Russian side has reasons to fear a scenario of continued exclusion and is bracing to oppose it. Donald Trump's contradictory statements of goals in his administration's approach to Russia have only increased the uncertainty.

On the other hand, Russia aspires to a higher status, that is, for recognition by others of its right to bend or change the rules and create facts on the ground. But it is uncertain how a conversion into this higher status will happen, even if it is accepted by others. Is Russia just intent on thwarting several U.S. policies, such as missile defense deployments or NATO’s open membership door? Or is Russia determined to undermine U.S. power and alliances across the board? The nature of status claims is such that you can never be sure what a counterpart's status is going to be used for.

What is worse is that interaction between the two nations with uncertain intentions unfolds in the domains where the offense/defense balance has not yet been tested: consider Syria, cyberspace, "hybrid conflicts," and perhaps even what is usually called lobbying (hardliners in Russia call it intervention in internal affairs). It goes without saying that lobbying the Trump administration is likely to quickly become the main game in Washington, DC.

A pre-emption (first strike) option might work well in those domains, so a risk-taking posture could be rewarding. Create facts on the ground, and you prevail. But defenses are also being developed quickly, so you don’t really know, for example, if a certain cyber intrusion technology will work or if it has already been compromised, whereby the attempt to use it "under the radar" can result in a major bout of escalation. Maverick lobbyists for foreign powers, including Russia, are likely to face increased scrutiny in Washington as the U.S. bureaucracy grows concerned with Trump's inexperience in policymaking and his penchant for "grand bargains" that raise his public profile. In such a situation, if Russia overplays its hand in search for channels of influence on the White House, the possibility exists of politically charged revelations and political scandals.

Only "fog of war" considerations have so far been deterring both the U.S. and Russian sides from dramatic maneuvers and reactions. For Presidents Obama and Putin, being "presidential" has tended to mean showing restraint and avoiding surprise-open-attempts at "turning the tables.But this approach can change if Russia's status claims are turned down while at the same time pressure on Moscow is increased on the ground—for example, in the field of arms control, which is very sensitive for Russia because it endows status. The result could be a spike in tensions, along the lines of the 1983 "war scare."

The second challenge to the U.S.-Russia relationship is epistemological. It has to do with the misuse of concepts to describe their conflict. The real problem here is not the high temperature of mutual rhetoric or the wild accusations flying back and forth. The problem is the analytical impasse created by two major concepts that are now being accepted uncritically in the respective policy communities. These concepts are either meaningless or mistaken.

The US policy community has refused to consider Russia as a "rising power." Instead, it believes that Russia is revisionist in a number of dangerous ways. That description implies that Russia is in fact weak, but dangerouslike a Zika mosquito that you squash. From this assumption one could easily proceed to applying pressure on Moscow and at the same time denying status claims to Russia. This, in turn, creates strong incentives for Russia to engage in an all-out "balancing act" globally against the United States and U.S.-led alliances.

On the Russian side, there is the widespread, equally-flawed notion that the United States is seeking to preserve its "global dominance" and that Russia has no choice but to challenge it. Dominance is what we make of it, to use a constructivist maxim"confronting dominance" is an attractive course of action because it creates a feeling that many other discontents are "also on our side." But dominance is an umbrella term that effectively obscures two points in situations where Russia is trying to have its way on issues, such as Ukraine, Syria, arms control, and others.

First, sometimes Russia is working against a whole constellation of actors and interests, and in some realms where the United States is not even a major stakeholder. Why does Moscow think that a coup in Ukraine or a discussion of Ukraine’s and Georgia’s chances of joining NATO or the EU are signs of "U.S. dominance?" Why does stalling or reversing those trends tantamount to challenging the status of the United States?

Second, in some cases, what Russia is really confronting is U.S. power, not dominance. Moscow has so far been careful not to do that openly, but cyberspace is emerging as a natural candidate for a domain where that may soon be happening (more). On this front, Russia runs the risk of going one-on-one with the United States, which may be very costly. Some have called on Washington not to underestimate the costs of a new cold war for the United States, but this point probably applies to Russia even more.

What Moscow likes to call "fighting U.S. dominanceis in fact not fighting dominance, and probably not even undermining U.S. credibility. It is at times more akin to "tilting at windmillsor taking on coalitions that may not even include the United States as a leading member (consider Libya in 2011 or Syria today). Looking at Russia's relationship with the United States through this kind of lens leads to suboptimal results—in most cases, overextension.

It is important for both sides to reduce the uncertainty surrounding their intentions and clarify what they really expect from each other. If expectations are not centered on sustaining or undermining U.S. dominance, there is a good chance there can be mutual satisfaction.