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What Russia Really Wants

As the war in Ukraine rages, it is difficult to imagine a constructive relationship between Russia and the West. The prospect is made unlikelier still by the Kremlin’s relentless anti-Western vitriol. Yet even if Russia’s strategic designs are defeated—hardly a sure bet, as the slow, uncertain unfolding of Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive shows—the country is not about to disappear from the global stage. Even a defeated Russia would still retain vast territory in the heart of Eurasia, the richest endowment of natural resources in the world, a colossal nuclear arsenal, and a permanent veto-wielding seat on the UN Security Council, among other assets. Like it or not, the United States must find a way to live with Russia.

Washington tends to see Moscow’s conduct as a malevolent and enduring threat to U.S. interests. The list of Russian transgressions is long and crystalizes the image of an implacable foe: the war in Ukraine, interference in U.S. domestic affairs, cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, global anti-American disinformation campaigns, cheating on arms control agreements, the armaments buildup in the Arctic, growing strategic alignment with China and Iran, and support for Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Yet there is one core element of Russia’s identity that the United States could harness for its own purposes: Russia’s sense of itself as a great power that conducts an independent foreign policy in pursuit of its national interests. Russia has long seen itself as a country with strategic autonomy, meaning that it has the freedom to assemble coalitions to defend and advance its interests. This has been a cardinal principle of Russian foreign policy since the eighteenth century, a constant in both tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. Even after the end of the Cold War, Russia still sought this freedom, looking to China as a strategic counterweight to the United States as it sought to rebuild its influence in the former Soviet empire.

For decades, the United States has opposed Moscow’s efforts to shore up Russian strategic autonomy. And given the enmity between the two countries, which has only grown in the wake of Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it may be hard to imagine a shift in Washington’s stance. But Russia’s quest for autonomy offers the United States potential leverage—and a potential edge in its competition with China. By abandoning efforts to turn Russia into an international pariah and restoring normal diplomatic relations, Washington could use Moscow to help create regional balances of power across Eurasia that favor U.S. interests. Consequently, as the United States works with its allies and partners to thwart Russia in Ukraine, it should nonetheless begin considering steps that could preserve Russia’s strategic autonomy in the future—especially ones that would reduce Moscow’s growing dependence on Beijing.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, Moscow struggled to regain its strategic autonomy. Amid a profound economic crisis, only the West could provide Russia with the investment, management skills and technology that it needed. Moscow was therefore in no position to resist when Washington, in the Russian view, trampled on Russia’s interests in the Balkans, expanded NATO eastward toward its borders, or encroached on its prerogatives in the former Soviet empire by backing political forces, especially in Georgia and Ukraine, that Russia considered hostile. Moscow chafed at U.S. actions; at times it bitterly complained; but ultimately, with no other strategic option, it acquiesced. To be sure, Russia continued to improve relations with China—a policy begun in the late Soviet period to prevent Beijing and Washington from ganging up on Moscow. But in the 1990s, China was still in the early phases of its ascent and depended on U.S. goodwill. Beijing did not have the means or predisposition to act as a reliable strategic counterweight for Moscow’s benefit.

Russia’s situation improved in the first decade of this century. Its power grew as Russian President Vladimir Putin restored order and soaring oil prices fueled an economic recovery. Fissures opened in the Western alliance as France and Germany resisted the United States’ bellicose approach to Iraq. Meanwhile, China’s vigorous growth increased its global economic sway, and its geopolitical ambitions began to spread beyond the western Pacific, across Eurasia, and into Africa and Latin America.

Closer ties with France, Germany, and China emboldened Russia to push back more aggressively against what it considered to be U.S. hostile policies and initiatives. In 2008, Moscow launched a short war against Georgia to derail that country’s NATO ambitions. The conflict dramatically demonstrated Russia’s determination to resist U.S. encroachments, as did its seizure of Crimea in 2014. Even as its troops surged through Georgia, Moscow maintained extensive economic ties with European countries, which accounted for roughly one-half of Russia’s bilateral trade and three-quarters of foreign direct investment in Russia. An uneasy cooperation continued with Washington on counterterrorism and nonproliferation. This situation enabled Moscow to maintain balanced relations with Beijing despite the rapidly widening gap in economic fortunes that greatly favored the latter. Russia was reaping the benefits of its regained strategic autonomy.

But Moscow then jeopardized this progress. Its growing aggression against Ukraine, starting in 2014 and culminating in the invasion of February 2022, ruptured relations with the West. Europe’s share of Russia’s overall trade collapsed, and diplomatic contacts were reduced to a minimum. Although sanctions have not changed Russian conduct or crippled the Russian economy, the West continues to enforce them as it steps up military, financial, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. 


Isolated from the West, Moscow has fallen ever deeper into Beijing’s embrace. Although the Kremlin touts its close strategic alignment and “no limits” friendship with China, the reality is not so rosy. Beijing has offered Moscow diplomatic support but so far has refrained from providing lethal military aid. Although China has increased trade with Russia, replacing the supply of consumer goods from departing Western companies, it has hesitated to make major investments in Russia, out of fear of Western sanctions. At the same time, Beijing has exploited Moscow’s isolation from the West to cut commercial deals on terms that inordinately favor its interests. China has also expanded its commercial ties in Central Asia at Russia’s expense.

China and Russia have a long history of troubled relations, which have been thinly papered over by the post–Cold War rapprochement. China continues to outstrip Russia’s economic and military power: in the early 1990s, the two countries’ economies were roughly the same size, but China’s is now ten times as large and still growing. So the Kremlin needs a counterweight to China to retain its strategic autonomy. Alienated from the West, Russia is looking to greater Eurasia and the global South. Moscow hopes to repurpose the institutions it played a key role in creating in the decades after the Cold War to counter the West—principally the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS—to create a web of relations to constrain China’s ambitions. Moscow is expanding its diplomatic, commercial, and security ties with non-Western countries, especially in Africa and the Middle East, and working to sustain its traditionally close relations with India. But the harsh reality is that a credible strategic counterweight cannot be fashioned out of any combination of states from those regions, which lack sufficient economic weight, technological prowess, and military might. If Russia wants to avoid strategic subordination to China, it cannot rely on inchoate multilateral groupings that have little chance of rivaling Western-dominated global institutions. Nor can Russia count on highly transactional bilateral relations with countries weaker than itself. The only genuine option, then, is the West—principally, the United States. Only Washington and its partners can provide Russia with the commercial opportunities, technological cooperation, and geopolitical options that it needs to preserve its strategic autonomy and avoid becoming a permanent junior partner to China.

Putin will never acknowledge this reality. His anti-Americanism is too deeply entrenched, and he has lashed his fate to Chinese President Xi Jinping too tightly, to seek an opening with the United States, even if it is strategically beneficial. But future Russian leaders will not be burdened by the same psychological and political constraints. The challenge for the United States is to persuade these leaders that the West can assist the Kremlin’s effort to preserve its strategic autonomy. Washington should offer to restore normal diplomatic contacts and reopen Western markets to Russian trade and investment. At the same time, it should adopt a constructive approach to Russian security concerns and create a respectable place for Russia in Europe’s security architecture—all on the condition that Moscow end its aggression against Ukraine by, at a minimum, stopping its bombardment of towns and cities, agreeing to a cease-fire, and helping to prepare negotiations for an enduring settlement. This bargain would multiply Russia’s options on the global stage, granting it genuine strategic autonomy. For its part, Washington would gain an advantage over Beijing by depriving China of a strategic partner that it can use as a wedge between the United States and its Western allies and partners.


Some might object that the United States has little reason to help a hostile Russia out of a predicament of its own making. But Russia’s strategic autonomy would also bring significant strategic benefits to the United States. Most obviously, it would attenuate, if not necessarily undo, Russia’s close strategic alignment with China. This closeness has allowed China to exploit Russia’s isolation from the West to enhance its own capabilities. Beijing has gained access at heavily discounted prices to critical natural resources beyond the reach of the U.S. Navy. It has received sophisticated military equipment that it is not yet capable of producing on its own, including an advanced ballistic missile warning system, which is currently under construction. When it is complete, only China, Russia, and the United States will have such systems. And with a settled border to the north and no pressing need to worry about Russia’s strategic intentions, China can focus on competing against the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.

At a minimum, greater strategic autonomy would help ensure that whatever deals—geopolitical, political, commercial, or technological—Russia cuts with China will tilt less in the latter’s favor and reduce the advantage Beijing might gain in its rivalry with Washington. Beyond that, a more strategically autonomous Russia would also open up room for new diplomatic and commercial arrangements in Central Asia, Northeast Asia, and the Arctic. Although these arrangements would complicate China’s calculations, they need not be directed against Beijing. Rather, China could be included in many ad hoc coalitions created to deal with matters including nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and regional security. But they would help ensure that China could not exploit Russia’s weakness to dominate these regions to the detriment of the United States.

The conundrum that Washington faces is how to make the Western option attractive to Moscow without rewarding its aggression or jeopardizing U.S. interests in Europe. The challenge, in other words, is balancing the United States’ need to back Russia with bolstering Ukraine’s independence and Europe’s security. Russia is not likely to reconcile with the West if the United States continues to insist that Moscow abandon the Ukrainian territory it has seized, make a major contribution to Ukraine’s reconstruction, and accept NATO’s expansion eastward.

If Russia wants to avoid strategic subordination to China, it cannot rely on inchoate multilateral groupings.

That would be possible only if the West remains united behind Ukraine and Kyiv’s forces make progress on the battlefield. In that situation, instead of pressing for a total, humiliating defeat of Russia, the United States should make clear to the Kremlin that it is prepared to deal constructively with its security concerns, to lift sanctions, and to promote the restoration of Russia’s commercial relations with the West. Arms control measures that either Russia or the United States has abandoned in recent years—including the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Open Skies Treaty—could be revived and adapted to current realities. In this scenario, Washington and its partners should remain open to rebuilding energy ties between Europe and Russia—without, however, allowing Europe to return to a state of excessive dependence on Russia. Russian leaders should find an offer of a respectable position in Europe very much in their interest, particularly if the alternative is a stinging defeat.

Undoubtedly, many would decry any such effort at reconciliation—especially the Balts, the Poles, and the Ukrainians. Segments of the U.S. public who have come to see Russia as a “persistent threat,” as the Biden administration’s national security strategy terms it, would also object. They would reject any U.S. effort to help Russia preserve its strategic autonomy as rewarding its aggression when the goal should be to defeat and so weaken Russia that it can no longer threaten Europe. To ease those concerns, Washington should show, in words and deeds, that it is committed to NATO as the foundation of European security against any future Russian aggression.

The United States cannot afford to look at Russia solely through the European prism. It needs to appreciate the varying roles Russia plays across Eurasia. Total victory in Ukraine through Russia’s crushing defeat would create strategic problems for the United States elsewhere. Despite its revulsion at Moscow’s conduct, Washington will still need a Russia strong enough to effectively control its own territory and to create regional balances of power in Asia that favor Washington. The United States need not fear Russian power. Rather, it needs to think creatively about how it can harness Russian strengths, interests, and ambitions to advance its own. As the superior power, the United States should not find that to be an impossible task.

Source : Foreign Affairs