Russia's Back-to-the-'80s Foreign Policy

Moscow has reprised Cold War tactics against the United States. It’s worth remembering that they didn’t work out well for the Soviet Union last time.

President Ronald Reagan stands with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and laugh in front of an American flag.
President Ronald Reagan stands with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during Gorbachev's arrival ceremony at the White House on December 8, 1987.  (Gary Hershorn / Reuters)

History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The latest round of Russian-American embassy staff hits—Russia cut hundreds of U.S. Embassy employees in an escalatory response to U.S. expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats last December—recall the big Soviet-American embassy staff expulsions of 1986. Few recall the details of these Reagan-era fights. But many remember that the 1980s ended badly for the Soviet Union.

And that is the point: Moscow now, like then, has been going down a dark road of confrontation with the United States and aggression elsewhere. As with the Soviets and reactionary tsars, external confrontation coincides with, and may be compensation for, stagnation at home. Putin’s tactics, like the demonization of the United States in Russian official media, appear recycled from the Cold War. Russian cyber hacking and disinformation recall Soviet “active measures” of the 1980s. Russia’s low-grade war in Ukraine is different from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (for one thing, the Ukrainians are fighting for a European future), but both aggressions triggered resistance on the ground and from the West. Russia’s leaders can try to convince their people, and themselves, that their ability to bully neighbors, repress dissenters, and shake their fists at the United States, is a sign of strength. But, just like in the mid-1980s, this won’t work.

Despite the hopes of the Soviet regime then and Putin’s regime now, the West is not on its last legs. The anti-European, pro-Russian French nationalist whom Putin supported lost badly in France’s elections this spring. Whatever deal Putin sought or thought he had with President Trump, the power of American institutions and long-term American interests in the success of certain values—including the rule of law, human rights, democracy, and the prosperity these generate—is likely to prevail, which will not help Putin. Neither Putin’s aggression abroad nor his repression at home will fix a stalled Russian economy still dependent on oil, gas, and other raw material exports, or a political system rooted in staggering corruption organized from the top.

Russians now recognize (and criticize) the early and mid-1980s as the period of zastoy (stagnation). But after several high-growth (i.e., high-oil price) years, Russia seems to be winding up in a similar place. Perhaps as a result, also like in the mid-1980s, thoughtful Russians may be recognizing, some even saying in public, that their country cannot go on like this; that Russia needs to modernize; and that for this to occur, Russia needs more, not less, rule of law at home and more, not less, access to foreign capital and technology. Russia therefore needs more constructive relations with the West, including the U.S. The Russians who feel this way are right. Experience suggests that Russia must choose between modernization and aggression.

Russia hands at the State Department and National Security Council are analyzing the cuts in embassy and consulate staffing, and probably considering whether retaliation makes sense. The professionals can work out the options, as I and my colleagues on the old Soviet Desk did in the 1980s. I hope their recommendations are taken. But, ultimately, it’s not the response to the immediate provocations that matters most. Our specific response in 1986 to the Soviets pulling all Russian employees from Embassy Moscow was not all that important. What was important was that the Reagan administration understood the nature of the Soviet Union and developed a policy to deal with it—a policy that (as carried out by the pros of the imagined and maligned “deep state”) worked.

A sound Russia policy would mean resisting Russian aggression and helping others resist it; identifying areas of potential cooperation, without expecting too much or rewarding Russia for its cooperation in areas of supposed mutual interest; stabilizing the relationship where possible, including by keeping up dialogue, civilian and military; and looking to a better future relationship with a better Russia. We deal with the Russia we’ve got. But let’s remember that Putin’s Russia is not the only possible Russia. We have learned the benefits of keeping up contacts with Russian society generally, including with democracy-minded dissidents, who may not always remain in the shadows, and with reform-minded potential future leaders.

And the experience of the 1980s suggests appropriate tactics for today. Now as then, they include steadiness, especially in the face of Russian fear-mongering or attempts to intimidate. Now as then, they also include patience: The Russians could misread overeager creativity (like running after them, urging them to cooperate on something, anything) as weakness. And despite Trump’s stated dislike of the new sanctions bill he signed on Wednesday, it does give his administration new authorities to keep up the pressure on Putin to settle the conflict in Ukraine along the lines of the Minsk Accords framework, and increase the price to Russia for its interference in America’s electoral process last year. (I was the State Department’s sanctions coordinator in the Obama administration and had a hand in the current Russia sanctions, and I supported the current bill, which is now a law.) When Russia takes a different path, as it will if history is any guide, America should be ready to respond.

Europe has meanwhile proven itself a capable partner on Russia. America and Europe imposed sanctions together to resist Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. European nations have done their share deterring Russia’s pressure on NATO members, through troop deployments to the Baltic states, alongside American deployments to Poland and elsewhere in Central Europe. The new sanctions law does contain language which could risk this solidarity with Europe, but late amendments reduced some of that danger, and the administration can make the current law work as it is intended: to pressure Russia, not force a split with Europe.

In dealing with Russia, as during the Cold War, Americans need to remember who they are: leaders of the free world, and advocates of democracy and the rule of law. Our values give us power. We have made our share of blunders, and our institutions are again being tested at home. But we are still in our deepest nature a nation built on values, starting with our dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal. The power of this American tradition gives America its global standing. If we put this memory and these values to work in dealing with our latest Russia challenge, in solidarity with our democratic allies in Europe and beyond, we will succeed.