U.S. Peacetime Policy Toward Russia: Q&A with Miranda Priebe and Bryan Frederick


May 17, 2023

U.S. and Russian flags are seen printed on paper in this illustration, taken January 27, 2022, illustration by Dado Ruvic/Reuters

illustration by Dado Ruvic/Reuters

U.S. policy towards Russia has hardened following Moscow's 2022 invasion of Ukraine and appears likely to remain focused on punishing Russia's aggression for some time. Before the war, however, there had been an ongoing debate about whether Washington should consider alternative approaches to the U.S.-Russia relationship that might be less costly for U.S. interests, including the possibility of adopting a less-hardline approach to Russia.

To inform this debate, RAND conducted a series of historical case studies of similar less-hardline approaches rivals had adopted towards their adversaries in the past during peacetime. We asked RAND senior political scientists Miranda Priebe and Bryan Frederick to discuss the implications of the findings in their new report, Future U.S. Peacetime Policy Toward Russia: Exploring the Benefits and Costs of a Less-Hardline Approach.

It's been more than a year since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began. Was your report written in reaction to this conflict?

Miranda Priebe No, it wasn't. Our research was actually completed in January of 2022. Not the best timing, we know. Since that time, we've updated the analysis and implications of the research for the evolving circumstances, but the motivations for the work preceded the conflict.

So what were the motivations for doing this work originally?

Bryan Frederick There had been a long-standing debate within the United States about long-term policy towards Russia. On the one hand, Russia had been engaged in a series of malign activities internationally for years, from the 2014 invasion of Ukraine to numerous instances of election interference in other countries. So the motivation for U.S. policymakers to punish or constrain Russia was fairly clear. On the other hand, the relationship with Russia had become highly costly for the United States at a time when competing priorities like China's rise and domestic challenges were becoming more acute. As a result, in 2021, the Biden administration was considering whether a more stable, predictable relationship with Russia might be possible that would allow policymakers to focus on these other challenges. Our report was initially undertaken to try to inform these decisions.

What type of alternative policies does your research explore?

Priebe We focused on what we call “less-hardline” policy approaches. A state adopts a less-hardline approach when it seeks to advance its own interests by proactively addressing what it perceives to be the rival's interests or concerns. That is, we wanted to explore what the costs and benefits would likely be of the United States being more accommodating of Russia's concerns as a means of trying to shift Russian behavior.

And how did you go about doing this research?

Frederick We tried to identify historical cases that had structural similarities to the U.S.-Russia relationship as it stood in 2021 and then see what we could learn from them. That means that our research focuses on four historical case studies where a stronger state adopted a limited less-hardline approach towards a weaker rival in peacetime, that is, where it adopted policies to address some of its rival's concerns but maintained more-competitive policies in other areas. Specifically, we looked at the Anglo-Russian negotiations over Central Asia (1899–1914), the U.S.-Soviet negotiations on the post-World War II order (1945–1946), U.S.-Soviet Détente (1969–1975), and the U.S.-Russia Reset (2009–2013). We then explored what the costs and benefits of adopting the limited less-hardline approach had been for the stronger state.

What did you learn from these historical cases?

Priebe We found that pursuing limited less-hardline approaches can lead to some gains for stronger-state interests and that these gains can be fairly durable. For example, the various arms control treaties that came out of U.S.-Soviet Détente survived the later downturn in relations in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the Anglo-Russia case, the agreement resolved issues that may have otherwise led to conflict. Of course, the stronger state makes compromises as part of a less-hardline approach, so there are always some costs, too. In our cases, critics of less-hardline approaches worried that these compromises would embolden the weaker state to be more demanding or aggressive. But we did not find evidence of that happening in our cases. Limited less-hardline approaches also had limited effects. The competitive issues that remained unaddressed between the states tended to be the sources of future conflict. In other words, a limited less-hardline approach did not stabilize rivalries over the long term. The bottom line is that policymakers should keep their expectations realistic: It's possible for a limited policy to produce limited gains, but probably not to fundamentally transform the relationship.

What does all this mean for U.S.-Russia policy today?

Frederick Our research focused on peacetime policy, so it doesn't offer insights for U.S. policy toward Russia during the war. For the foreseeable future, U.S. policy towards Russia is going to be focused on punishing Russian aggression in Ukraine. And it is also quite difficult to imagine the United States pursuing a less-hardline approach towards the present Russian leadership even after the war. But going forward, the United States is still likely to face structural incentives similar to those it was concerned with in 2021, including the need to focus on China and domestic challenges. Those pressures could prompt U.S. policymakers to consider less-costly approaches towards its rivalry with Russia. As remote as this possibility may seem today, our research could eventually inform those future deliberations.

Priebe Yes, we know that this is not research that is going to be of near-term interest to most people. But there are some scholars and policymakers that do focus on longer-term strategy and policy. And history shows that even bitter rivals often do pursue alternative policies towards one another at some point. So, having this research available to inform those decisions, whenever they may become relevant, may be helpful.

Miranda Priebe is director of the Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy and a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Bryan Frederick is associate director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE, and a senior political scientist at RAND.