Location, Location, Location: Why Russia Matters

Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.

In this episode, Carnegie Corporation Visiting Media Fellow Michael Moran speaks with Robert Legvold, author of "Return to Cold War," and Thomas Graham of Kissinger Associates, about the drivers behind the U.S-Russia relationship. Why do these two nations seem fated to be rivals, if not downright adversaries?


Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow at Carnegie Corporation of New York, is a foreign policy analyst, author, geo-strategist, and Principal, Global Risk Analysis at Control Risks.

MORAN:  Hello, and welcome to Diffusion: Russia in Focus. 

In the 25 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, hopes for a new era of Russian-American friendship have proven illusory.

Indeed, a quarter century since the hammer and sickle came down from the Kremlin for a final time, US-Russian relations are in a state of crisis.

Why do these two nations seem fated to be rivals, if not downright adversaries?  

I’m Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow at the Carnegie Corporation of New York and a Principal at the international risk consultancy Control Risks. Over the next several weeks, I’ll speak with leading Russia experts whose varying views have the power to shape this too-frequently volatile relationship.

We start with an examination of the context of the Russian-American relationships – the drivers of Russian behavior and foreign policy. 

Robert Legvold is author of Return to New Cold War and a professor at Columbia University.

Thomas Graham is a managing director at Kissinger Associates and a senior fellow at Yale. I’ll start with you Tom Graham.

You spent most of the last term of George W. Bush’s presidency as his top Russia advisor. In your view, what is it that drives Russian foreign policy today?

GRAHAM:  I think that the main driver is Russian national interests. You need to remember that this is a country with a centuries-old history, the sense of what it needs for security and prosperity has grown out of its historical experience. So there is a deep-rooted belief within the Russian political elite that they need secure borders, that they need to drive those borders out as far as possible to protect the Russian heartland, because Russia itself is located on a great Eurasian plain that has very few physical barriers to protect its borders.  ….

MORAN: Bob Legvold, you see this somewhat differently – as less deep-seeded and more deliberate on Russia’s part, yes?

LEGVOLD: There's no question that President Putin and those around him are  designing a foreign policy intended first to support what they see as the requirements for a strong state.  That means mobilizing a population, asserting Russia, even demanding a right to respect in the international community that in many respects the power of Russia may not justify.  Nonetheless, they feel that’s essential.  That, as I said, I think is their view of what's necessary in creating a strong state.  Secondly, as they think about the outside world, by in large I think their principle objective at this stage is maintaining strategic independence so that they're not viewed as essentially a tool of any major power.  That's potentially a problem in the near term with China.  That has been a problem in the relationship with the west, and they've tried to shake that off.  Therefore, this notion of strategic independence is something that I don't think people in the west appreciate, but I think does drive Russian foreign policy.

MORAN: Alright gentlemen, I want to put to you a more basic question. Why does Russia matter to the US? Russia is a declining power, economically it’s simply not in our league. Why the bother?

LEGVOLD: I think the problem for a long time – not merely recently, but probably for the entire post-Cold War period – has had two factors. I would call these two factors ‘false metrics’ and ‘misshapen perspectives’.  …  The False Metrics position has been: Russia doesn’t really count in the end because it’s a pale shadow of what the Soviet Union was; it has just one-eighth the GDP of the United States, roughly one-tenth of our defense budget, and is a country in trouble – it is in economic crisis today and it was in chaos after the Soviet Union collapsed. When seen in that frame, it’s been very easy to dismiss Russia,  …...   The Misshapen Perspectives position assumed that Russia no longer posed the threat that the Soviet Union did. The nuclear cloud disappeared and we can turn to other things.  …… . When Russia recently did come back to the center of things, in part because of the partial restoration of its economic position (thanks to rising oil prices and eliminating external debt and the rest) in the 2000’s, it felt like it was back on its feet. It then became somewhat more assertive and then particularly so in the Ukrainian crisis. Then Russia came back as the old Russia, even as the Soviet Union, that is to say, as the adversary. You see this depiction very clearly now in American politics. Look at how Democrats talk about Putin in the context of Trump in this fashion. He is put in the same category as Kim Il-Sung and Saddam Hussein, the worst political devils in international politics. That’s a symptom of the way in which we now see Russia as an adversary. Indeed, that’s the way in which we talk about it. It has come back in the wrong way. There’s no nuance, no introspection about the two decades that we’ve done this dance together.

GRAHAM: we also need to think about the opportunities and not only threats. 

MORAN: Tom Graham of Kissinger Associates.

GRAHAM: So if the United States and Russia can find a way to cooperate, Russia could be an important partner with us in helping create a stable, flexible balance of power in Northeast Asia.  We’re concerned about the rise of China.  Having Russia in the mix gives us another tool that we could use in order to manage that difficult relationship with China.  In the Middle East we’re seeing today that Russia is a player, and while we have radically different notions of what needs to be done at the current period, if we were able to come to some sort of common understanding, Russia could certainly be a partner with the United States in defeating terrorism and insuring stability in the Middle East if we were able to come to some sort of common understanding. In Europe, we would be able to focus our resources on issues that are important to the security and prosperity of peoples in all those countries.

Moran: Why then, can we not get it right? I’m not sure how many resets we’ve had, but there has been more than a few. What are the underlying impediments to building good relations, and Tom Graham, I’ll start with you: What will it take to overcome them and begin to cooperate on issues of vital importance?

GRAHAM Russia has always existed in an environment where it has had to deal with external threats, largely coming from powerful states. The United States, on the other hand, has been one of the most secure great powers in the world because of our geographical location. We have friendly states to the north and south that don’t compare to us in terms of potential power, and we have two great oceans that provide an element of protection, and so we don’t see other states as being significant threats to us in our own environment. We tend to rank non-state actors higher in terms of threats to our national security than the Russians do because they can operate across borders, and have greater capabilities thanks to developments in information technology and globalization. 

LEGVOLD: I think it’s important to recognize the central source of why Russia matters. That is the real estate agents’ mantra: location, location, location.

MORAN: Robert Legvold …

LEGVOLD:  Russia is at the very core of the Euro-Asian space. It’s within that space beginning with Ukraine, but also concerns the instability in the Caucuses, and potential instability in Central Asia that’s important to European security and by extension to the U.S. Then it is encircled in a concentric circle by instability from the Korean peninsula, across the subcontinent of India and Pakistan, to a Middle East in flames, and back up around into the caucuses and Central Asia. No country is more important to what happens in that context, which is a context that’s very important to the United States, than Russia. If we’re not cooperating and dealing with a whole host of properties that are, as I say, at that Euro-Asian center and the concentric circle around it, then we’re really going to have an unsuccessful U.S. foreign policy.

MORAN: Next week on Diffusion, Focus on Russia: Is Moscow a spoiler or are its actions the predictable result of a US policies that deny it great power status? Two former Russia policymakers, Georgetown University’s Angela Stent and Matt Rojansky of the Wilson Center, discuss whether it is possible for victor and vanquished to overcome their animosity. For more on the Carnegie Corporation of New York, or to sign up for our podcasts, visit us as Carn-NAY-gie-dot-org. Until next time, this is Michael Moran.