Cooperation Amidst Conflict: The Importance of Common Ground in U.S.-Russia Relations

By: Abigail Stowe-Thurston

The video is distressing: two Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft fly aggressively toward a U.S. naval destroyer in the Baltic Sea, missing the ship by just 30 feet. No, this wasn’t a Cold War encounter – it’s footage from April 12, 2016, an emblem of the current geopolitical strain between the United States and Russia. Nonetheless, amidst increasing tensions and dangerous close calls, the United States must resist the urge for more aggressive actions and instead prioritize finding ways to cooperate with Russia on key international security issues like nuclear security and arms control.

Russian foreign policy and domestic policy are inextricably linked. In other words, the Putin administration relies heavily on the perception of a resurgent Russia in order to gain legitimacy and support in the domestic arena. In this period of economic decline and social unrest, expressions of power abroad are even more critical in bolstering the regime’s public image. Because of this, Russia is openly reactive to American and NATO actions that it finds threatening, regardless of whether they are real or perceived.

For instance, when Russia feels that NATO is encroaching on its borders, the country’s image as a Great Power is called into question along with the fortitude of the entire Putin administration. Russia’s response has been to theatrically demonstrate its military strength in hopes of restoring its image at home. So while American narratives represent senseless acts of Russian aggression, they also exemplify Russian insecurity and reactivity.

In light of Russia’s reactionist attitude, the United States should exercise caution and avoid unnecessary provocations – even if the other side isn’t doing the same. This means continuing to meet our treaty obligations under the New START and Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreements, avoiding the use of incendiary rhetoric that does little to increase security or improve diplomatic options, and looking to revive cooperation on issues in the core interests of both nations like nuclear security.

Indeed, the world’s two foremost nuclear powers avoided destructive conflict by cooperating during times of tension in the past. In his recent testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, former Ambassador Jack Matlock emphasized the gravity of the risk posed by a potential conflict, adding that Russia is unlikely to join the United States in confronting those challenges that face both nations “…if they regard us as an enemy, or a competitor for influence in their neighborhood.” Ronald Reagan’s statement that “A nuclear war cannot be won” still holds true, but ensuring such a war is never fought requires more communication and collaboration in times of conflict and disagreement, not less.