Babylon the Great Should Stop Underestimating Russian Power

The U.S. Should Stop Underestimating Russian Power

Vladimir Putin deploys capabilities and resources that have made his country a resurgent global player

Russia is also the world’s largest exporter of grain, and it sells many things of far greater value—including nuclear power plants, construction materials, nickel, timber, diamonds, advanced mining equipment, chemicals, high-tech communications equipment and ever more sophisticated weaponry, which sometimes comes with the services of Russian soldiers and mercenaries.

Russia hasn’t needed the world’s biggest economy or military to forge new relationships. Only 18 months after Russian-speaking militiamen seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Russian forces performed a snap mobilization by air and sea into Syria, saving Bashar al-Assad’s reeling regime—and changing the balance of power in the Middle East. Russian military hardware, including antiballistic missile systems, now sit on the soil of Turkey and Greece (both NATO members), as well as in Iran and Syria; America’s regional partner Saudi Arabia recently agreed to buy such systems too.

Russia has taken advantage of the vacuum created by Trump’s isolationism.

Russia has taken advantage of the vacuum created by Mr. Trump’s isolationism and the resulting strains with U.S. allies. Moscow has supported right-wing populists in Western Europe, including Marine Le Pen’s bid for the French presidency, and Mr. Putin has become a role model for authoritarian populists like Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Nicolás Maduro remains president of Venezuela because of Russian intervention, and one key reason that Libya remains a violent mess is Russian support for a powerful warlord there.

Meanwhile, Russia has used oil and weapons sales to forge an axis of mutual convenience with China. Mr. Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping boast of their close relationship, and their countries increasingly cooperate in joint military exercises. Under Narendra Modi, India too relies heavily on Russia for weaponry. Yet Russia saves plenty of arms for itself and has transformed the remnants of the decrepit Soviet military into an agile, professionalized fighting force.

In the past few years, Mr. Putin’s Russia has also become adept at the use of its “soft power” in support of anti-liberal values. Conservative societies in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are the most receptive. Many in these countries see Mr. Putin as a socially conservative alternative to American and European hedonism, permissiveness and “political correctness.” Russia’s message has been pushed world-wide through RT, Mr. Putin’s global television mouthpiece, and through its sister radio network, Sputnik. Notoriously, Russia has also used its “sharp power” to penetrate information environments in other countries, including cyberattacks, like the recent offensive against the U.S., and disinformation campaigns intended to sow confusion about the divide between truth and fiction.

President-elect Joe Biden and his foreign-policy team must meet the true threat posed by today’s Russia. This means working with Mr. Putin where the U.S. must while challenging his many efforts to harm American interests, both overseas and at home.

One immediate opportunity for cooperation is U.S.-Russian arms control, since the New START treaty—which sets crucial limits on further nuclear-weapons deployment and provides an extensive verification regime—is set to expire in February 2021. Mr. Biden’s team should also move quickly to work with Russia and others to revive the Iran nuclear deal that Mr. Trump too hastily abandoned. A nuclear-armed Iran isn’t in either Russian or U.S. security interests. Moscow has strong relations with Tehran and will be instrumental in getting the mullahs to sign any new agreement. Similarly, Russia remains vital to efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, after Mr. Trump’s courting of Kim Jong Un did nothing to check his weapons program. Finally, the Biden administration should work with Moscow on limiting the further militarization of space and the Arctic.

Matters are quite different on Ukraine: Mr. Biden should work with our European allies to resist Russia’s continued support of separatist rebels in Ukraine’s east and Moscow’s occupation of Crimea. The U.S. has some leverage because of its tough sanctions against Russia and could offer gradual, partial relief in exchange for concrete actions to end the conflict on decent terms, including restoring Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia. Meanwhile, Mr. Biden’s team should invest in Ukraine’s economic and political success, including fighting corruption. Progress and prosperity in Kyiv would demonstrate to Russians that democracy can work better than aggressive autocracy.

At the same time, the Biden administration should take advantage of some of Russia’s key weaknesses, including the “Putin exodus” of the past several years. Thousands of Russia’s most highly educated citizens have fled, and more Russians (especially those aged 18-30) than ever before say in recent surveys that they intend to emigrate permanently. This robs Russia of the labor and creativity of its most talented citizens. Making immigration into the U.S. easier for these highly skilled Russian workers is good for us and bad for Mr. Putin.

Russia today isn’t a traditional superpower, but it possesses a diverse set of powerful tools and, under Mr. Putin, the will to use them to remain a formidable global player. The U.S. must face up to the threat that Russia now poses with a sense of urgency and by deploying the full range of American diplomatic, economic and political resources, including a renewed effort to rally the world to our tradition of democratic values.

—Dr. Stoner is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Her forthcoming book is “Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order,” which will be published by Oxford University Press on Feb. 1.

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