Russia Perceives U.S.-Led International Order as a Threat to Its Security and Interests, but Also Seeks Cooperation

For Release

May 18, 2017

Russia seeks to undermine elements of the current international order because its leaders and analysts see the current international order as dominated by the United States and a threat to their country's security and interests, according to a new RAND report.

U.S. officials have repeatedly described the development of a U.S.-led “rules-based international order,” composed of international economic institutions, bilateral and regional security organizations and liberal political norms, as a core national interest.

The report draws from analysis of Russian interests and views of the history of the post-Cold War period, during which Russia's underlying foreign policy interests have remained relatively consistent, including preservation of the regime and of the country's territorial integrity.

Though Russia sought integration into Western institutions in the 1990s, this effort to more closely join the U.S.-led order was not successful in their view because the West would not sufficiently recognize Russia's interests. Russia began to perceive the U.S.-led order as increasingly threatening following Western military operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Iraq, and due to perceived U.S. facilitation of “color” revolutions such as that which occurred in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the researchers found.

“They see expanding U.S. control as having been achieved through regime change and disingenuous support for 'liberal democracy,'” said Andrew Radin, lead author of the report and an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. “From a Russian perspective, the United States no longer has the power to back up this unilateral approach, and hence the current international order is not sustainable.”

At the same time, Russia sees the potential for cooperation and collaboration in some areas, such as support for the United Nations system, which it believes bolsters Russia's position as a great power, active participation in major international economic institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, and cooperation in counterterrorism efforts.

By contrast, where Russia sees elements of the U.S.-led order threatening its security, or undermining its influence in its neighborhood, Russia has pursued policies to undermine American influence by actively opposing European Union and NATO enlargement into the former Soviet world, and has increasingly sought to undermine these organizations.

“Russian views of order are in clear opposition to U.S. global leadership and efforts to expand Western institutions,” said Clinton Reach, co-author of the report and a policy analyst at RAND. “Still, there are areas where cooperation with Russia is possible under the right conditions.”

The authors find that the optimal U.S. approach to Russia with respect to the international order depends chiefly on two factors: the importance of enabling former Soviet republics to freely join Western institutions, and whether Russia will limit its aggression in Europe if its interests are recognized.

Depending on how U.S. policymakers evaluate these factors, the United States could recognize Russia's sphere of influence or double down on the existing approach of promoting democracy and supporting the EU and NATO. In practice, U.S. policy toward the European political and security order will likely involve some elements of both.

The report, “Russian Views of the International Order,” is one of several works on regional great power views of order for a project entitled “Force, Diplomacy, and the Emerging International Order,” which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense's Office of Net Assessment.

The research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institution, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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