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Research Questions

  1. What effects have limited less-hardline approaches toward rivals historically had on the weaker rival's behavior?
  2. What costs and benefits should U.S. policymakers expect if, at some point after the end of the Ukraine war, were they to adopt a less-hardline approach towards Russia?

Whenever and however Russia's invasion of Ukraine ultimately ends, the U.S.-Russia relationship is likely to remain hostile in its aftermath. Over the long term, however, the United States will have incentives to reduce the risks and costs of its relationship with Russia in order to focus on other challenges, such as China. Future U.S. policymakers might therefore wish to again consider a limited less-hardline approach toward Russia. Supporters of such approaches contend that limited less-hardline approaches can reduce an adversary's insecurity, moderate its behavior, and reduce the costs and risks associated with competition between the two countries. Critics are reluctant to make concessions to U.S. rivals and worry that softening the U.S. stance could embolden a rival to become more demanding and aggressive.

The authors used four historical case studies of limited less-hardline approaches with strategic similarities to the U.S.-Russia relationship before the war in Ukraine to evaluate these competing claims. These cases were (1) negotiations between Britain and Russia over Central Asia from 1899 to 1914 (2) U.S.-Soviet negotiations on the post–World War II order from 1945 to 1946, (3) the U.S.-Soviet détente from 1969 to 1975, and (4) the U.S.-Russia reset from 2009–2013.

The authors found that such approaches have led to durable but narrow gains without emboldening the rival to be more demanding or aggressive. These limited policies also have limited effects. They only reduce a rival's threat perceptions modestly and do not prevent future deterioration of the relationship over outstanding conflicts of interest.

Key Findings

History shows some prospects for limited less-hardline approaches to advance U.S. interests

  • A limited-scope less-hardline U.S. approach to Russia in the future could lead to limited but durable gains.
  • Limited, less-hardline approaches that do not address core Russian concerns are unlikely to stabilize the U.S.-Russia relationship in the medium to long term.
  • In a peacetime context, there is little evidence that negotiating with Russia or making limited concessions will embolden Moscow to become more demanding or aggressive.
  • Attempting to implement less-hardline approaches could create domestic constituencies in both the United States and Russia that are committed to the success of such approaches.

Other factors could affect a Russian response to a less-hardline U.S. approach

  • Russia might be more willing to reciprocate U.S. offers of negotiation during periods when Moscow perceives that international trends are moving against it.
  • The combination of antagonistic U.S.-China relations and close Russia-China relations will decrease Russian willingness to make concessions in negotiations with the United States.

Recommendations

  • If the United States adopts a limited less-hardline approach to achieve narrow goals, it should remain alert that the relationship will likely deteriorate over unresolved issues.
  • If the United States wishes to adopt a less-hardline approach to Russia as a means of stabilizing the relationship on a more permanent basis, then Washington might need to engage in negotiations over core Russian security concerns, including the security order in Europe.
  • The best timing for U.S. outreach to Russia might be during a more constructive period in U.S.-China relations or when there are tensions in the Sino-Russian relationship.
  • As policymakers evaluate possible less-hardline approaches, they should consider the entire picture, including the effects of any hardline policies that they plan to sustain simultaneously.
  • Analysts should generate and compare options for less-hardline U.S. approaches to Russia.
  • Scholars should determine whether there are conditions under which less-hardline approaches embolden rivals.

The research described in this report was sponsored by the Broad Reach Foundation and conducted by the Center for Analysis of U.S. Grand Strategy within the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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