25.05.23 Review

A Less-Than-Hard Line: RAND analysts discuss the potential for de-escalation in US-Russian relations after the end of the war in Ukraine

The confrontation between Moscow and Washington will continue after the end of hostilities in Ukraine and will endure in the long-term. However, long-term confrontations have their periods of escalation and de-escalation, and a commitment to a less-than-hard line during such a confrontation could yield significant rewards. RAND Corporation analysts insist that policymakers and their advisers should pay more attention to the opportunities offered by the transition to a ‘less-tough approach' and take greater account of changes in the domestic political situation and international context when choosing the best tactics in dealing with Russia. These arguments are in line with the logic of those who argue that the main focus of US foreign policy should remain the strategic competition with China, and that relations with Russia should be viewed from that perspective rather than shutting out the possibility of changes in the relationship between the countries of the Great Triangle.

Russia and the US have entered a long period of confrontation, which will not end with the end of hostilities in Ukraine. While it now appears that the American objective in this confrontation will be maximum opposition to Russia in all spheres, the historical experience of long-term confrontations has shown that throughout them, the rivals have resorted to both hardline and less-hardline strategies to achieve their strategic goals, RAND researchers have written in 'What Should Future US Policy Toward Russia Be in Peacetime?' The latter does not mean the removal of contradictions in strategic vision and national interests, but a willingness to address the critical concerns of an opponent to achieve its strategic objectives. Changes in the international system, in Moscow's political priorities or behaviour may prompt Washington to adopt a 'less hard line' stance towards Russia at some point.

RAND analysts detail the benefits of a 'less hard line' - possible concessions in response to a reduction of the risk of a conflict escalating into open warfare, increased trust between the parties, and reduced costs associated with pursuing a harder line, especially when it comes to defence spending. At the same time, they recognise that this line of conduct may lead the adversary to conclude that their opponent (in this case the US) is not prepared to spend resources on defending its positions. In such a situation, the risk of higher stakes in negotiations, on the one hand, and the risk of a military confrontation, on the other, increases. 

Note that some analysts believe that this was the case on the eve of the current armed conflict, when the Kremlin assessed the West’s capacity to adopt a tough response to the invasion of Ukraine as very low. Perhaps Moscow would not have ventured into a large-scale invasion if it had received signals that the West would respond by supplying Ukraine with missiles, tanks and aircraft. But, at the time, the US and NATO categorically ruled out such a possibility.

In an attempt to predict how relations between Russia and the US might develop in the future, the report analyses four historical cases of transition from a hardline to a less hardline approach and vice versa during a long period of confrontation between two parties. These include the Russian-British confrontation in Central Asia in the early twentieth century, the Soviet-American negotiations regarding the contours of the new world order after World War II, the period of 'détente' in Soviet-American relations during the Cold War and the attempted 'reset' between 2009 and 2013.

As a conclusion to their analysis, the experts formulate several arguments in favour of the pragmatism associated with a 'less rigid approach'. They argue that stabilisation and predictability in US-Russian relations can hardly be achieved without taking Russia's concerns and interests into account. Conversely, the failure to resolve a wide range of disagreements becomes a source of problems and unpredictability for the future. After the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the US and its allies have been less inclined to make fundamental concessions to Russia, so a less rigid approach would, in any case, have clearly delineated tactical issues.

According to the authors of the report, Russia is likely to remain an aggressive revisionist state after the end of hostilities, regardless of the level of hardness of the US position. At the same time, as a state in a weaker position, it may at some point be forced or interested in adjusting its course when faced with a higher priority threat. The rising costs of war, for example, may induce Moscow to be more enthusiastic when it comes to making reciprocal concessions on non-strategic issues, as offered by the United States. 

The US-Russia-China triangle will be crucial to future confrontation scenarios, the RAND analysts acknowledge. Right now, the China factor is working toward escalation: increasing tensions between the US and China are reducing Russia's interest in de-escalating its relations with the US. In the late 1960s, the USSR's anxiety over the emerging rapprochement between the US and China, and its tensions with China, prompted Moscow to 'de-escalate tensions' with Washington. Moscow now has no reason to suspect that China will abandon its 'friendship' with Russia in favour of engagement with the United States. In this regard, analysts believe that Washington may have to put a more interesting offer for Russia on the table. That said, the best time for Russia and the US to resume contacts on the basis of a 'less rigid approach' may be a period of tension in Sino-Russian relations or a period of constructive cooperation between Washington and Beijing.

Either way, the analysts from RAND insist that policymakers and their advisers need to pay more attention to the opportunities presented by the shift to a ‘less hardline’ policy and give greater weight to changes in the domestic political environment and international context when choosing the best tactics to adopt.

In sum, the report continues the line of RAND expertise outlined by the corporation's January report 'Avoiding a prolonged war in Ukraine', the context and content of which Re:Russia has previously discussed. Both are within the logic of arguments contending that strategic rivalry with China remains a priority for US policy, and that the current focus of the Washington administration on the conflict with the Kremlin diverts resources away from that priority as well. While the previous report recommended that the Biden administration seek an early end to the war, this one similarly maps out a post-conflict strategy for relations with Russia. The report argues that maintaining a hardline approach alone in the policy arsenal of confrontation with Russia will only strengthen the Russia-China alliance and increase Russia's dependence on China, which is not in the interests of the United States.