A Russian military vehicle rolls past a house set on fire by South Ossetian militia in the Georgian village of Kvemo-Achebeti outside the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, August 18, 2008

A New Era in Relations with Russia

A Russian military vehicle in South Ossetia during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008

Photo by Denis Sinyakov/Reuters

In the last decade, Russia has revamped its military, invaded two neighboring countries, intervened on behalf of President Bashar al Assad in Syria, and threatened NATO with nuclear saber rattling, aerial incursions, and military exercises. Since its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Russia's relations with the United States and NATO have plummeted to a post-Cold War nadir. In response, the United States and European Union have imposed economic sanctions, excluded Russia from major diplomatic forums such as the G8, and bolstered NATO's defenses against Russia in Central Europe. Underlying all this, great uncertainty surrounds the future of the Putin regime, with some predictions of collapse and others of even more aggressive policies to come.

Russia/NATO wargame

Results from multiple scenarios in an unclassified wargame. Squares indicate battalions. Rapid operational defeat poses an intractable strategic conundrum for U.S. and NATO heads of state. Response options risk nuclear escalation or NATO collapse.

Source: David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO's Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics, 2016

Why Is the Issue Important for the Incoming Administration?

Russia will remain a major national security challenge for the incoming administration. Tensions are likely to continue over Ukraine, and policy toward Moldova, Georgia, and other non-NATO partners will be contentious. NATO has reinforced its deterrent on the Eastern Flank and may seek to deploy more forces there in the future. Meanwhile, overall strategic stability with Russia may be weakening; at the same time, the incoming administration will need to assess Russian proposals for closer cooperation on counterterrorism airstrikes in Syria and ending the civil war there. Specific policy issues to be addressed include:

  • Should the United States seek to play a more prominent role on Ukraine issues, perhaps seeking to revise the “Normandy format” whereby European allies lead negotiations with Russia over the conflict in Ukraine?
  • Should the United States supply lethal weapons to Ukraine in the event the Minsk II agreement continues to falter and the conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine intensifies?
  • What policy should the United States pursue for Georgia and Moldova? In particular, what should its policy on NATO membership for Georgia be?
  • Is the NATO Warsaw Summit pledge to deploy four battalions along the Eastern Flank sufficient to deter future threats, or does the United States need to go further and deploy additional forces? What is the appropriate U.S. force posture in Europe in general?
  • What options exist for building strategic stability with Russia in the future? What are the relative roles of strategic deterrence, arms control, transparency, and other measures?
  • Are the requisite elements in place for fruitful counterterrorism cooperation with Russia in Syria?

U.S. President Barack Obama and Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas speak to American paratroopers and Estonian soldiers in Tallinn, Estonia.

Photo by Sgt. John L. Carkeet IV

RAND Research Addresses Russia

In Their Own Words

RAND researchers Michael Johnson, David Ochmanek, and David Shlapak discuss a series of wargames that examined the probable outcome of a Russian invasion of the Baltic states.

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