Bearing up: How the US deters Russia

To counter Moscow’s aggression, whether in elections or in Ukraine, requires the same mix of deterrence, restraint, and patience that won the cold war. 

AP Photo
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy Vladimir Korolev, right, and Commander of Western military district Andrei Kartapolov attend a military parade during the Navy Day celebration in St.Petersburg, Russia, July 30.

After a meeting last weekend with Russia’s foreign minister, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States harbors an “extraordinary” mistrust of Moscow, caused in large part by its hacking of the 2016 US election. In recent days, that mistrust has resulted in tougher sanctions on Russia and a beefed-up US military presence along its borders. Many US allies have followed suit after Russia meddled in their democracies.

Yet at the same time, Mr. Tillerson also spoke of addressing differences with Russia and finding “places we can work together.” And indeed, Russia did support tough measures against North Korea at the United Nations on Aug. 5. It is also seeking cease-fires in Syria and renewing talks about its role in Ukraine.

For those who remember how the cold war was won against the Soviet Union, these latest US moves reflect a tried-and-true stance toward aggression by Moscow whether it be cyberattacks or military attacks. It is a policy of patience, restraint, and deterrence.

More than a dozen US presidents have now accepted the idea that Russia’s expansionist tendencies reflect more weakness than strength, and by containing Russia’s aggression, it can eventually reform or come to its senses. Bad ideas, in other words, collapse on their own fallacies.

This containment theory requires vigilance and statecraft – and a measure of hope that enough Russians will tire of isolation and economic stagnation. Then they will want to join the West rather than accept the Kremlin’s artificial fear of it.

The deterrence side of containment is certainly growing in many ways. Germany, for example, has improved its cyberdefenses after a shadowy group with ties to Russian intelligence broke into the computers of think tanks associated with Germany’s top two political parties. Sweden, which has long stayed out of NATO, plans a joint military drill with the alliance. And in Lithuania and Latvia, civic activists, who call themselves “elves,” are working to counter Russian misinformation in their countries’ media.

The new cyberdefenses reflect a deep faith in the values of Western democracy. “I see no reason why we should be losing,” says Janis Sarts, director of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence. “It is about acknowledging the problem, resourcing solutions, and using what is best in our societies (free speech, civic engagement, innovation) to win it for our future.”

Russia’s aspirations to dominate its neighbors and split the Western alliance must be taken seriously. But the response must not be in kind. Rather the West can once again be firm when needed but offer opportunities for Russians to adopt another national identity. Russia’s illusions about imperial greatness do not have a long shelf life.

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