Celeste A. Wallander: “U.S. Policy on Russia”

File Photo of White House with South Lawn and Fountain

The White House
June 26, 2015
Remarks by Celeste Wallander, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia on U.S. Policy on Russia

U.S. Policy on Russia
CNAS Annual Conference
June 26 2015
Celeste A. Wallander
Special Assistant to the President
And Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia National Security Council

I am especially grateful that CNAS and all of you are interested in understanding U.S. policy on Russia directly from the source.  As we’ve all seen, the truth can sometimes be muddied, and the current Russian leadership has spun a tale in which the United States has sought to disregard, weaken, and exploit the Russian Federation.

Celeste Wallander file photoIn fact, the United States has long sought a robust and constructive relationship with Russia.  And this is why, for 25 years, the U.S. bipartisan core strategy has been to integrate Russia by facilitating investment and trade, by supporting Russia’s assumption of a strong role in global institutions, and by deepening our partnership in security cooperation to reinforce the foundations of stability and predictability.

Let me note some key examples. The United States recognized Russia as the sole legal successor state to the Soviet Union, which enabled Russia to take the Soviet Union’s seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that status carries.  The United States has also recognized Russia’s successor role in treaties and agreements governing nuclear weapons possession and stewardship, and concluded a new strategic nuclear reductions treaty with the Russian Federation that entered into force in early 2011.  The United States worked for many years to achieve – and the Obama Administration brought to success – Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. And through persistent efforts in the NATO-Russia Council and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United States has consistently sought to engage Russia on some of the toughest European security issues of our time.

U.S. policy on Russia has long held that we – and Europe and indeed the broader global community – would be more secure, prosperous, and capable of tackling global challenges if Russia is secure, prosperous, and integrated in global and regional institutions as a constructive stakeholder in the international system.

That assessment has not changed.  What has changed since President Putin came back to power in 2012 is that the Russian leadership no longer appears to accept the rules and institutions that Russia signed on to at the end of the Cold War and after – rules and institutions from which Russia has benefitted.  Although there were worrying signs that the Russian leadership sought to evade those rules in previous years – in its problematic “suspension” of the CFE Treaty, in its invasion and occupation of Georgia in 2008 and its creeping annexation of sovereign Georgian territory since then – it was Russia’s unilateral use of military force to acquire territory with the attempted annexation of Crimea that revealed the true scope of the Russian leadership’s rejection of the rules that constitute the fundamentals of global and European order.  And since then, Russia’s military intervention in eastern Ukraine and its use of coercion to attempt what it decries elsewhere as unacceptable -interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country- has fully revealed the depth of this Russian leadership’s rejection of the bedrock principles of European and global security.

So, we can and still do hope for a Russia that is secure, prosperous, integrated, and on a track to provide a better future for its citizens.  But meanwhile, we have to face the challenge of the Russia we face, not the Russia we wish to see.  U.S. policy toward Russia leaves open the potential for Russia’s return to the global community as a constructive stakeholder if Russia’s citizens choose it in future, and we hope that the Russian leadership will pursue a path that will make that a reality. And as always, the United States will leave open the door to maintain our historically strong ties with Russian society, investing in people-to-people programs, scientific and education exchanges, and opportunities for private investment, innovation, and trade.

The United States continues to cooperate with Russia in those areas where we share pragmatic common interests in tackling pressing global challenges, including nonproliferation, nuclear and other WMD security, preventing atrocities and humanitarian crises, and combatting violent extremism and terrorism.  In fact, even amidst what outside analysts have deemed the most severe worsening of U.S.-Russian relations since the Cold War, the United States has worked with Russia to remove Syria’s declared chemical weapons, to secure an agreement to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and to implement the New START treaty.

But Russia has now clearly demonstrated its willingness to use aggressive tactics, through conventional and unconventional means, to achieve its diplomatic objectives, so the United States must also defend itself and its allies against Russian coercion and aggression, and work to ensure that Russia’s coercion against its neighbors does not succeed.  NATO has already taken important strides in this respect by implementing the commitments made at last fall’s Wales Summit, including the development of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which deployed for the first time this month for a NATO exercise in Poland.  And as Secretary Carter announced in Estonia in June 2015, the United States intends – in coordination with Allies – to temporarily place approximately 250 tanks, armored vehicles, and associated equipment in Baltic and Central European countries to reinforce the U.S. commitment to NATO and collective defense, and promote Allied interoperability through a variety of training exercises.  While strengthening our defenses, we are also working on reducing our vulnerabilities and those of allies and partners who respect our common rules and principles.  To make our partners more resilient against Russian tactics, the United States is focused on areas such as the elimination of corruption, strengthening of democratic institutions – including independent and unbiased media – and diversifying energy supplies.   President Obama said in Tallinn that “we are stronger because we are democracies…we’re stronger because we embrace open economies… and we are stronger because we stand together.”  The strength of U.S.-European unity in the face of Russian aggression – as demonstrated in the rollover of EU sectoral sanctions in June 2015 – has proven the resilience of U.S. security relationships during a very difficult couple of years.

There is a Russian joke that goes “We hoped for the best, but it turned out like always.”  In national security policy, we do not have the luxury of mere hope, but neither do we have the easy but irresponsible escape of hopelessness.  Realism requires us to deal with the Russia we face, not merely the Russia so many – including Russians – hoped for.  But realism also requires us to re-commit to the values, commitments, and long-term strategic objectives that make the United States, our allies, and our partners, secure and prosperous.  Our policy leaves open the opportunity for Russia’s positive potential while firmly coping with the dangers that Russia’s leadership has posed to its neighbors, to Europe, and to the global community.

[featured images are file photos]