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Research Questions

  1. What are the core interests that drive Russian foreign policy and its approach to the international order?
  2. How have Russia's views of the international order changed since the end of the Cold War?
  3. What are the major points of contestation between the United States and Russia?
  4. What should be U.S. policy toward Russia with respect to the international order?

In this report, RAND researchers analyze Russian views of the international order. They identify core Russian foreign policy interests, including defense of the regime, influence in its neighborhood, and status as a great power. The authors trace how these interests have led to growing Russian skepticism of the West and to Russia's current view that the international order is dominated by the United States and is a threat to Russian interests and security.

The report notes several areas in which U.S. and Russian interests overlap and cooperation is feasible, including the United Nations system, international economic institutions, and counterterrorism. U.S. and Russian interests are directly opposed in other areas, including U.S. support for liberal democracy and the expansion of the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The desired U.S. approach to Russia with respect to the international order critically depends on two factors: (1) the importance of enabling former Soviet republics to freely join Western institutions and (2) 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.

Key Findings

Russia's Core Interests and Views of the International Order

  • Russia's five core interests include defense of the country and the regime, influence in the near abroad, a vision of Russia as a great power, noninterference in domestic affairs, and political and economic cooperation as an equal to other great powers.
  • After pursuing closer relations with the West after the Cold War, Russia has become more skeptical and suspicious of the West. From a Russian perspective, the West has refused to recognize Russia's basic interests, and several Western activities, such as support for color revolutions and EU and NATO expansion, threaten Russia's security.
  • Russia seeks to strengthen the international order where it perceives the order as benefiting Russia's core interests, as in the United Nations system and certain international economic institutions. In other areas, where Russia perceives the international order as threatening, it has actively sought to undermine the existing order.

Major Points of Contestation Between the United States and Russia

  • The most fundamental point of contestation between the United States and Russia on the international order is the status of Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine — all former Soviet republics. Russia views these countries as part of its exclusive sphere of influence, while the United States views these as free, sovereign countries that have the right to join Western institutions.
  • U.S. policy toward democracy promotion, foreign intervention, and the free flow of information directly conflict with Russian views and could lead to contestation or conflict.

Recommendations

  • Russian and U.S. interests are not always opposed. By recognizing that Russian views of the current international order vary across elements of the order, it becomes possible to identify points of potential cooperation and likely contestation. Where there are shared interests — including avoiding major war, improving economic cooperation, and combating terrorism — cooperation is feasible and potentially desirable.
  • In areas where there is contestation, the desired U.S. approach to Russia with respect to the international order critically depends on two factors: (1) the importance of enabling former Soviet republics to freely join Western institutions and (2) whether Russia will limit its aggression in Europe if its interests are recognized.
  • If one does not believe that Western institutions should necessarily be open to former Soviet countries or that Russia would undertake aggression if the West ceased to be active in the former Soviet countries, it would make sense to adapt the U.S. approach to order to recognize Russia's sphere of influence.
  • However, if one believes that the former Soviet countries should be free to join Western institutions and that Russia has the potential to expand its influence and undertake aggression, it would make sense to double down on the existing approach to order while bolstering U.S. support for its partners.
  • U.S. policy toward the European political and security order will likely involve some elements of both recognizing Russian interests and strengthening the existing international order in Europe.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Background of Russian Foreign Policy

  • Chapter Three

    Russian Views of the Current International Order and Its Components

  • Chapter Four

    Alternative Russian Views

  • Chapter Five

    Conclusion and Policy Implications

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense's Office of Net Assessment and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, 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.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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