Graham Allison

Graham Allison on Russia: Insights and Recommendations

April 19, 2018
RM Staff

This evolving compilation of observations and policy ideas about Russia by Graham Allison is part of Russia Matters’ “Competing Views” rubric, where we share prominent American thinkers’ alternative takes on U.S.-Russian relations, Russia itself and America’s policies toward this country.

Graham Allison was director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs from 1995 until July 2017. He is a leading analyst of U.S. national security and defense policy with a special interest in nuclear weapons, terrorism and decision-making. He served with distinction in both the Reagan and Clinton administrations. As assistant secretary of defense in the first Clinton administration, Dr. Allison received the Defense Department's highest civilian award, the Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, for his work in reducing the former Soviet nuclear arsenal in Russia and the former Soviet republics. Dr. Allison was "founding dean" of the modern Harvard Kennedy School, and under his leadership, from 1977 to 1989, the program grew 20-fold to become a major professional school of public policy and government. His most recent book, “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?", was published in 2017 and quickly became a national bestseller.

This compilation is meant as a sampling of Dr. Allison’s views. All sections may be updated with new or past statements. The quotes below are divided into categories similar to those in Russia Matters’ news and analysis digests, reflecting the most pertinent topic areas for U.S.-Russian relations broadly and for drivers of the two countries’ policies toward one another. Bulleted text that is not italicized, bracketed or in parentheses is a direct quote from Dr. Allison. 

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Nuclear security:

  • The buildup of nuclear weapons and material, particularly in North Korea and Pakistan, is substantially increasing the risk of nuclear terrorism. No states are better positioned to address these challenges than China and the U.S., especially if they act in concert and can persuade Russia to join them. (“Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?,” published 05.30.17)
  • Here we are, 19 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and not one single nuclear weapon has come loose from that arsenal. That is nothing short of miraculous. There are many factors that contributed to that success. I would give highest and heaviest weight to the professionalism of the former Soviet custodians. The United States has also provided essential assistance spending more than $1 billion a year to help secure weapons and materials. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 11.04.16)
  • It’s not over yet—but so far, so good. Going forward, the United States and Russia should take heart that they’ve already done some pretty unbelievable things. Finding ways to secure and eliminate the additional weapons, including the tactical nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia deployed, will be very hard because the Russians have come to rely more on their nuclear weapons. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 11.04.16)
  • The challenge is nuclear terrorism: to put it bluntly, 9/11 with the Bomb. Many observers find incredible the notion that with President Bashar al-Assad gaining ground in Syria and with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army invading Crimea, Obama and his counterparts would devote so much time to a threat that seems so distant. … An appropriate response to a threat of such magnitude must obviously be complex and multilayered. At the core of the strategy, however, are three no’s: no fissile material, no mushroom cloud, no nuclear terrorism.  (Foreign Policy, 03.21.14)
  • The idea of having thick relations with Russian nuclear scientists is a good idea. … People get to know each other, work on joint projects, and there is a basis for conversation and cooperation. (New York Times, 08.03.14)
  • In response to a question about the countries from which terrorists could get nuclear materials and weapons: The first, and most likely, is Russia. Not because Russia wants to lose any weapons, but on the Willy Sutton principle. Willy Sutton was the famous American bank robber and when he was asked at his trials why did he rob banks, he said because that’s where the money is. The most material and weapons that are stored in conditions vulnerable to theft are in Russia, and in the two years after 9/11, we secured fewer weapons than in the two years before. (Mother Jones, 10.18.04)
  • If the good news is that all nuclear weapons were removed from the states that were previously part of the Soviet Union, the bad news is that the weapons were returned to Russia during a period of chaos and criminalization. (Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, Published 08.09.04)
  • The good news about nuclear terrorism can be summarized in one line: No highly enriched uranium or plutonium means no nuclear explosion. Although the world's stockpiles of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear materials are vast, they are finite. The prerequisites for manufacturing fissile material are many and require the resources of a modern state. Technologies for locking up super-dangerous material are also well tested. (Los Angeles Times, 05.20.02)
  • After four decades of extraordinary exertion in which America won a great victory in the Cold War, the supreme irony is that we find ourselves gravely threatened by the weakness and potential collapse of Russia. Nowhere is there greater danger than in the possible failure of Russian military officers who control nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at the United States and thousands of nuclear weapons vulnerable to theft and sale to terrorists. (The Boston Globe, 08.23.00)
  • Before democratization, before marketization, before any other objective, we need to do everything we can to secure loose nukes now—before Russia's economic meltdown becomes America's nuclear nightmare. (The Washington Post, 08.31.98)

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • What we see unfolding now is a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. In the most dangerous moment in recorded history, to prevent the Soviet Union from placing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, John F. Kennedy was prepared to take what he confessed was a one-in-three chance of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. What risk will Mr. Trump run to prevent North Korea acquiring the ability to strike the United States? (New York Times, 05.30.17)
  • Is it accidental that the two states that have persisted the longest as bastions of Stalinist authoritarianism are the two that the US has most harshly isolated and sanctioned: North Korea and Cuba? (The Boston Globe, 04.24.15)

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • While no one should underestimate Russia’s potential as a spoiler, too many fail to recognize its influence when it chooses to help.  The agreement that prevented Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons could not have happened without active Russian assistance. (Russia Matters, 10.24.16)
  • But if the U.S. Congress rejects this agreement and proposes sending Secretary of State John Kerry back to the negotiating table, Kerry will most likely find no one else there. Partners who have negotiated and compromised over 20 months to achieve this accord will conclude that the U.S. government is incapable of making agreements. The international coalition will splinter and the sanctions regime will collapse, with Russia and China leading the way, but with France and Germany not far behind. (The Atlantic, 08.04.15)
  • I appreciate [World Politics Review editor Judah] Grunstein’s pointIran unshackled from sanctions can arm itself with sophisticated weapons from suppliers like China and Russia. Still, if I were to bet on the race between U.S. or Israeli offensive capabilities and Iranian defensive capabilities, I would choose our team. (Iran Matters, 08.15.15)

New and original Cold Wars:

  • Technology, in effect, made Russia America’s insufferable but inescapable Siamese twin. The strategic reality is even more horrific. However demonic, however destructive, however devious, however deserving of being strangled Russia is, the brute fact is that we cannot kill this bastard without committing suicide. (The National Interest, 08.14.17)
  • In a world in which Russia’s leader commands a nuclear arsenal that can erase the United States from the map, sufficient (and often politically painful) cooperation to avoid that outcome is indispensable. Just as in the Cold War, Americans and Russians today share a vital national interest in averting a nuclear war. (The National Interest, 08.14.17)
  • Russia is too big, too powerful and too committed to maintaining its sovereignty as a great power to become a supplicant in an American-dominated world order. Moreover, while the Soviet Union did lose the Cold War and its borders were rolled back to those resembling Catherine the Great’s, unlike Germany and Japan, it was not defeated in a hot war, not occupied and thus not shaped by the United States in the way states whose constitutions were written by the victor were. (The National Interest, 12.18.16)
  • The objective of American policy is not to placate Russia or please Putin. Rather, it is to advance vital U.S. national interests. As seen during Obama’s second term, when treated primarily as a “foe,” Russia can undermine important American objectives. If it can be persuaded to act more as a partner, within the framework of a sustainable, if difficult, working relationship, Moscow can help advance U.S. foreign-policy objectives in a number of ways. (The National Interest, 12.18.16)
  • If Americans clearly understand that the current path leads inexorably to a crossroad at which the U.S. and Russian presidents will have to choose between humiliation and nuclear confrontation, they too will move beyond the wishful thinking that has thus far prevented the United States from effectively pursuing its real national interests. (The National Interest, 12.18.16)
  • Effective deterrence requires three C’s: clarity about red lines that cannot be crossed (for example, attacking a NATO ally); capability to respond in ways that will make the cost of aggression greatly exceed any benefits an aggressor could hope to achieve; and credibility about our determination to fulfill our commitment. At the same time, we should recognize that if American and Russian forces find themselves firing upon each other, this would violate one of the principal constraints both sides respected assiduously during four decades of the Cold War—risking escalation to a war both would lose. (The National Interest, 04.20.15)
  • Successful Cold War strategies suggest a better policy: one that combines containment of further expansion, on the one hand, with engagement that targets the hearts and minds of adversaries on the other. West Germany took the lead in a policy it labeled “ostpolitik,” which reached out to people on the other side of the Berlin Wall, made them aware of life in market economies and free societies, and thus undermined communism from within. (The Boston Globe, 04.25.15)
  • Referring to recently released documents concerning the Cuban missile crisis: What this document reminds us [of], vividly, is that if President Kennedy had felt forced to choose what to do in the first 48 or 72 hours after the U.S. discovered the Soviet Union sneaking nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba, he would have conducted an air strike on those missiles, as the speech tries to justify. … We would have ... seen the chain of events that would have initiated. Down that path we would have come to nuclear war." (RFE/RL, 10.19.12)
  • Regarding the Cuban missile crisis: So I think that as a reminder of nuclear danger and of a crisis-end period, in which countries and leaders could contemplate actions that could kill hundreds of millions of people, we can look back and be thankful that the Cold War ended; that it ended with a whimper rather than a bang, and that we have lots of problems today but none of them pose anything like the risks that we saw then. (NPR, 10.14.12)
  • In both countries, baiting the former Cold War adversary is politically productive. Especially in a society that felt humiliated and thus craves to be proud of their country, Putin's readiness to stand up to the world's sole superpower has given him the highest approval rating among his fellow citizens of any leader in the world today. Thus especially when cooperating, Putin is always at pains to describe this in his own term—not as concessions to the United States. (The Boston Globe, 07.05.07)

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • U.S. and European leaders’ insistence that Ukraine was free to ally itself with the EU or even NATO sounded good in the abstract. But it ignored Russia’s views of its vital interests and Russia’s capacity and readiness to act to protect those interests. Having been invaded by Napoleon and Hitler, Russians are neuralgic about threats from their western front.  Even more than two decades after the Cold War was consigned to the history books, the Russian security establishment sees NATO as a major threat that is always seeking opportunities to move closer to Russia’s border. Against that threat, Russia’s security establishment sees Ukraine as an essential buffer. (The National Interest, 10.28.15)
  • Claims that were it not for oil and gas, Russia would be a banana republic without bananas also require a second look. In at least one dimension, Russia remains a superpower equal to the United States. As the only leader commanding a nuclear arsenal that can literally erase the United States from the map, Russia's president has a unique claim on the attention of every American counterpart. Nuclear weapons aside, Russia also has the most potent military forces in Europe. And despite European's best efforts to imagine a world in which military force is obsolete, Russia's recent actions in Ukraine remind us that their project remains unfinished. (The National Interest, 11.11.14)
  • Two decades after the end of the Cold War, the twin trends of overdependence on U.S. power and underinvestment in military might have left European defenses at risk of becoming dangerously irrelevant. … The European Union's population is triple Russia's and its economy is eight times larger, yet it spends 60% less on defense than Russia does relative to GDP. Such miserly investment helps explain Europe's impotence in response to Putin. For Washington, this state of affairs is untenable. For Europe, it should be unacceptable. (Los Angeles Times, 06.13.14)
  • Those now coping with the current crisis should remember actions taken over the past two decades that prevented this becoming a nuclear crisis. And they should not forget commitments we made as part of the price for denuclearization. Fortunately, and rightly, the US refused to provide Ukraine a NATO Article 5 security guarantee. We did join Russia, however, in accepting obligations that Russia has now blatantly violated. If the U.S. and its European partners fail to make Russia pay a significant price for violating these commitments, how will we persuade additional states to eliminate nuclear weapons and materials? (The National Interest, 03.21.14)
  • Why, it will be asked, should Ukraine not be free to enter into any economic or military relationship it chooses—including the EU and NATO? In a word, the answer is: history. However inconvenient, Ukraine's survival and wellbeing will remain highly dependent on the forbearance and even largesse of its neighbors—none more importantly than Russia. (The National Interest, 03.15.14)

Missile defense:

  • Regarding U.S.-Russian disagreement over ballistic missile defense: At this impasse, what would Reagan do? One can be sure that he would be thinking well outside the box of conventional proposals now on the table. My bet is that he would offer the Russians not only transparency about U.S. missile defense systems, but actual shared control of those systems in a reconfigured deployment that would incorporate Russian as well as U.S. radar systems, and invite Russia to join the U.S. in deploying defenses against emerging nuclear threats. (Los Angeles Times, 03.28.13)

Nuclear arms control:

  • Critics will note that the United States and Russia are allowed to maintain 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and a much larger number of weapons and weapons-equivalents in their stockpiles. But this misses the point: Consider how numbers in the new START Treaty compare with those at the height of the Cold War. The United States and Russia had more than 68,000 nuclear weapons at the Cold War's peak. In 1991, when the Cold War ended, those arsenals stood at 55,000. New START will reduce deployed strategic warheads to levels almost 90 percent below the high. (The Washington Post, 04.08.08)
  • Success in combating the greatest threats to Americans' security and well-being requires Russia's active cooperation. Iran is only the most urgent illustration of the central proposition: Without deep Russian cooperation, the United States has no hope of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, nuclear terrorism, and nuclear war. (The Boston Globe, 07.05.07)
  • Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un trading threats with words like “fire and fury”; Pakistan deploying tactical nuclear weapons to counter Indian conventional threats; Russia enunciating an Orwellian doctrine of “escalate-to-de-escalate” that calls for early use of battlefield nuclear weapons; and major nuclear-weapons states modernizing their arsenals—nukes are back. The cruel irony: This is happening after eight years of a president who won the Nobel Peace Prize largely for his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. (New York Times, 12.28.2017)
  • When the Cold War ended in 1991, nuclear weapons vanished from the minds of most Americans. Together with the Soviet Union, they were supposedly consigned to the dustbin of history. But the emergence of 21st-century nuclear threats—including the fear that terrorist groups will obtain this ultimate W.M.D.—has revived discussion about these devices of destruction. (New York Times, 12.28.2017)
  • Despite an 80 percent reduction since the Cold War, American and Russian nuclear arsenals still number in the thousands. Many remain on “hair trigger” alert, posing serious risks of an accidental launch. If all were used in a full-scale war, especially given the possibility of “nuclear winter,” life on Earth could be extinguished. There have been repeated close calls and near accidents, including as recently as 2007 when an American B-52, mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, flew across the United States. In sum, while the doomsday machine has not yet exploded, we may be living on borrowed time. (New York Times, 12.28.2017)

Counter-terrorism:

  • Russia’s decisions on whether to share intelligence, or withhold it, significantly affect odds of preventing attacks by terrorists on U.S. citizens and assets across the world. (The National Interest, 12.18.16) 
  • We need a realist approach toward Russia—one that acknowledges that another reset is impossible in the near future, but still provides for continued talks on resolving the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and for establishing rules of the game in the cyber domain. More important, Washington should engage Moscow in areas of mutual interest where Russia’s behavior can have a significant impact on U.S. national security, such as preventing accidental war and terrorist attacks and countering proliferation of nuclear weapons. (The National Interest, 10.28.16)
  • Russia’s help in the war on radical Islamic terrorism could go well beyond the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. The difference between a relationship in which the Americans and Russians are sharing intelligence and one in which they are withholding it directly impacts Washington's ability to prevent terrorist attacks on the homeland. This was illustrated vividly by the Boston Marathon bombings, where the after-action review found that Russian security services had previously tipped off their American counterparts about the Tsarnaev brothers—but that the information had been discounted because of the distrust among the parties. (The National Interest, 12.18.16) 
  • As creators of the nuclear world, the United States and Russia have a special responsibility to ensure that the world’s arsenals of weapons and materials are contained and secured. …  Key pillars would include: making preventing nuclear terrorism a priority for the president and his administration; establishing a “gold standard” for securing nuclear weapons and materials; building a global alliance against nuclear terrorism; orchestrating a global cleanout of all fissile material; stopping the production of new fissile material, shutting down the nuclear black market; engaging the global alliance in a comprehensive review of the nonproliferation regime; and prosecuting the war on terrorism to eliminate those who would conduct nuclear attacks. (Russia in Global Affairs, September/October 2004)

Conflict in Syria:

  • Syria provides a further bloody reminder that where parties are not willing to kill and die for their objectives, others who are will prevail. After announcing a grand objective—“Assad must go”—Obama was unwilling to commit American military forces to achieve that goal, leaving a vacuum that Vladimir Putin stepped in to fill. (The National Interest, 12.18.16) 
  • Advice to Trump ahead of taking office: As one of your first foreign-policy steps, we recommend that you order a review of the Syrian crisis with a view to developing a fundamentally new policy. That policy would be more open to cooperation with Russia in defeating ISIS and Al Qaeda, and less focused on removing Assad, but would also demonstrate that America will not allow Moscow and/or Tehran to impose a solution in Syria. (The National Interest, 12.18.16) 

Elections interference:

  • Russia’s cyberintrusion into the recent presidential election signals the beginning of what is almost sure to be an intensified cyberwar in which both they — and we — seek to participate in picking the leaders of an adversary. [The difference is American elections are generally fair so] we are much more vulnerable to such manipulation than is Russia. (New York Times, 06.10.17)
  • I have no question that we’re the good guys, and they're the bad guys. So there's no moral equivalence here. But if a Martian were looking at this and said, “Who interferes most frequently in other countries’ elections?” Excuse me, we announced that we promote democracy. So I'm in favor of promoting democracy. That’s the right form of government. And our Constitution, actually our Declaration of Independence says, “All human beings,” whichever country, should be able to be free. So, from a Russian point of view, are we just doing to them sort of like what we do to guys in Ukraine? If there's a government, there's a demonstration, a guy that we said was democratically elected—Yanukovych is there. Lo and behold, he’s overthrown by a crowd, where we had an Assistant Secretary out giving out cookies and cheering him on. (“Russiagate: Everything You Wanted to Know but Were Afraid to Ask” HKS Forum, 05.02.17)

Energy exports:

  • Russia is the world’s largest oil producer and second largest gas producer. Over the past decade, Russia has added more oil and gas exports to world energy markets than any other nation. Most major energy transport routes from Eurasia start in Russia or cross its nine time zones. As citizens of a country that imports two of every three of the 20 million barrels of oil that fuel U.S. cars daily, Americans feel Russia’s impact at our gas pumps. (Politico, 10.30.11)

Bilateral economic ties and sanctions:

  • On the contrary, the damage to an already-stagnant Russian economy suffering from low energy prices is actually reducing Putin’s foreign-policy flexibility. Russia’s president needs to show that his country’s suffering has been worth it. Retreat could severely damage Putin’s carefully cultivated image as a strong man—a style Russians have historically appreciated—and alienate his hypernationalist political base. They resent sanctions, which they see as hurting ordinary people much more than Putin’s entourage, and they want their leaders to resist, not capitulate. For many, Russia’s dignity is at stake. (The National Interest, 04.20.15)
  • Even after the great financial crisis of 2008, Putin still believes that Americans are the masters of finance and economics. He has often expressed his deep conviction that the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century" was the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He has reflected on the analysis by former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar that identifies the squeeze on Soviet finances caused by the sharp drop in oil prices in the mid-1980s as the primary proximate cause of that event. (National Interest, 11.11.14)

Other bilateral issues:

  • I think the good news story is that the demonization of Putin has not made America safer. I think Putin is demonic and he’s a dangerous character. And I think his behavior is dangerous for us. That’s a reality. But just demonizing him and blaming him for things—I have to ask about our security: At the end of each round, are we better off, are we worse off? And the answer is, we’re worse off. (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 07.31.17)
  • Everyone knows that Russia is a dangerous, difficult, often disappointing state with which to try to do business. Putin is a KGB man. His view of the world, and Russia’s place in it, was shaped by formative experiences as an intelligence operative. He carries with him deep scars from the collapse of the Soviet Union—which he believes was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. A fierce patriot, he is determined to assert Russia’s role as a great power of which his fellow citizens can be proud. He is prepared to play rough and has built formidable military capabilities he is not reluctant to use. And Putin is especially sensitive to any signs of disrespect. Nonetheless, in pursuit of his goals, he has shown himself to be a strong, strategic, pragmatic leader who has played a weak hand more effectively than many who had more advantages. (The National Interest, 12.18.16) 
  • No one denies that Russia is a dangerous, difficult, often disappointing state to do business with. We should not overlook its many human rights and legal failures. Nonetheless, Russia is a player whose choices affect our vital interests in nuclear security and energy.  (Politico, 10.30.11)
  • Russia remains the land of matryoshka dolls and Potemkin villages. One penetrates one layer only to discover another, each reflecting truths that compete with contradictory realities within and beyond. Two decades on, the story is unfinished. Relative to our brightest hopes, Russia disappoints today and will do so in the future. Compared to our darkest fears, we have much for which to give thanks. (Christian Science Monitor, 12.25.11)
  • The United States and its allies have a fundamental interest in avoiding violent disintegration of the present Soviet Union. No event in the postwar period would pose such high and uncontrollable risks of chaos, civil war and even nuclear war. (Los Angeles Times, 06.3.91)

II. Russia’s domestic developments

Politics, economy and energy:

  • Following the 2003 arrest of Platon Lebedev, a Yukos oil company official: Whatever the merit of the charges, no one doubts the prosecution is politically motivated. Most observers agree that the real target of the attacks is Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky. … The ensuing drama has revealed the fragility of the Russian economy and of Mr. Putin's effort to ground economic reforms in an internationally recognizable rule of law. (The Wall Street Journal, 09.01.03)
  • Despite history, culture, and recent national experience that make Russia rocky soil for democratic seeds, Russia's fledgling democratic experiment survives. With the election of members of the Duma and the campaign for June's presidential transfer of power, the "democratic presumption" is taking hold across Russia's political spectrum.  (The Boston Globe, 12.21.99)

Defense and aerospace:

  • Russia's Soviet-era scientific establishment and post-Soviet achievements make it a global leader in science and technology, particularly in high-tech military hardware. (The National Interest, 12.18.16) 

III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia was on its knees, dependent on Western assistance and consumed by its own internal affairs. In that context, it was not surprising that Western leaders became accustomed to ignoring Russian perspectives. But since Vladimir Putin took over in 1999, he has led a recovery of Russia’s sense of itself as a great power. Fueled by rising oil production and prices that brought a doubling of Russia’s GDP during his 15-year reign, Russians increasingly bridled at such treatment. (The National Interest, 04.20.15)
  • German businesses are having no problem whatever doing a huge amount of business in Russia, but so, too, for many great Americans companies. You mentioned John Deere. Coca-Cola has just made a decision to put another $5 billion into Russia. Pepsi, this is one of their biggest markets. Boeing has a fantastic plant there. Microsoft has a very significant facility there. So I think there's a fantastic amount of opportunities and I think what Dmitry was saying was at the same time that American businesses are doing effective business there, there's also the question of what's happening to culture, government, Russian business relations that make that more challenging than it ought to be. (CSPAN, 10.31.11)
  • Regarding Vladimir Putin coming to power: I think as you look forward, at least for what you can see, from what he's said, if you read carefully the statements that he's made and watch his campaign, you find a person who's very realistic—indeed brutally realistic—who's very pragmatic, showing no evidence of ideology or principle in trying to achieve his objectives, and whose ambitions for Russia are essentially modern and moderate, namely that Russia not fall into collapse and not fall into the third rank of poor powers. And he feels that in order to do that, Russia's got to join the world and join the world economy. So if that's the philosophy that comes through in his administration, I think he will indeed prove a man with whom the West can do business. (NPR, 03.27.00)

China:

  • The relationship between Xi [Jinping] and Putin is very thick, very tight. They are, I would say, best buddies, actually. (CSIS, 07.31.17)
  • U.S. strategic interests require preventing an alliance or even alignment between Moscow and Beijing. Short of a formal alliance, which neither seems to seek at this point, Russia’s backing will embolden China to take tougher positions in confronting the United States. Just as Richard Nixon’s opening to China during the Cold War expanded America’s leverage with the Soviet Union, closer relations with Russia can help counterbalance a more powerful and assertive China. (The National Interest, 12.18.16) 
  • To be clear, there is virtually no chance that China would join Russia against the United States and Europe in a confrontation over Ukraine. Likewise, China is not prepared to bail Russia out financially or to risk its lucrative economic integration with the West to support Moscow’s revanchist ambitions. But neither is Beijing indifferent to the possibility of Russia’s political, economic or (particularly) military defeat by the Western alliance. Many in Beijing fear that if the United States and its allies were successful in defeating Russia, and particularly in changing the regime in Russia, China could well be the next target. The fact that the Chinese leadership views this as a serious threat could, over time, push Beijing closer to Moscow, a development that would fundamentally alter the global balance of power. (The National Interest, 04.20.15)
  • In 2014, the U.S. remains the sole superpower in a world that is, on current trendlines, evolving toward polarity: bi-polarity with China, or even multi-polarity if Europe becomes a player, India rises to the ranks of a great power, and Russia is able to sustain its new assertiveness. Chinese or Russian miscalculations about the relative balance of power pose potential risks. (The Atlantic, 07.30.14)
  • Entering the final decade of the nineteenth century, two powers dominated the Asian continent: Qing Dynasty China, for centuries the predominant regional power, and the Russian Empire, a European great power with long-standing ambitions in the Asia-Pacific. … By 1905, China and Russia had been chastened by two damaging against the ambitious Japan, and both had to contend with a new Pacific power whose growth showed no signs of slowing. (“Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?,” published 05.30.17)
  • China’s economic development is transforming it into a formidable political and military competitor. During the Cold War, as the US mounted clumsy responses to Soviet provocations, a sign in the Pentagon said: “If we ever faced a real enemy, we would be in deep trouble.” China is a serious potential enemy. (“Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?,” published 05.30.17)

Ukraine:

  • Overtly arming Ukraine will thus unmask previously covert American activity and justify Russia responding with arms or even troops, initiating a game of escalation that plays to his strength. … Strategically, this would be what chess masters call a trap. By shifting the competition from the economic chessboard (where the United States and Europe have all the powerful pieces) to a military one, he will have moved from weakness to strength. (The National Interest, 04.20.15)
  • Could a U.S. response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine provoke a confrontation that leads to a U.S.-Russian war? Such a possibility seems almost inconceivable. But when judging something to be “inconceivable,” we should always remind ourselves that this is a statement not about what is possible in the world, but about what we can imagine. As Iraq, Libya and Syria demonstrate, political leaders often have difficulties envisioning events they find uncomfortable, disturbing or inconvenient. (The National Interest, 04.20.15)
  • Most of the territory that is now Ukraine was part of Russia for most of the past millennium, and will remain so in the mind of Putin and his associates for the remainder of their lives. (The National Interest, 06.06.14)
  • Following the 2014 downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine: My prediction about the European Union is they will make loud voices but will not impose sanctions that create significant costs for themselves. … I’m betting Germany does not reduce its purchases of gas, the French don’t give back the money for the ships they’ve sold and the British don’t do anything that would disturb the City [the London financial district where many Russian oligarchs and businesses park and trade their money]. Unless they discover a sanction that punishes Russia without punishing Europeans—and the answer is they can’t—I think the EU is going to show its mettle. (Politico, 07.19.14)
  • For the twenty-two years since it became an independent, sovereign state in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has been a flailing, almost failing state. … For every initiative the EU or United States can take to help Ukraine, Russia has five ways to undermine it. In sum, if Ukraine is to have a chance to succeed as a modern nation, it will require a degree of acceptance and cooperation from Russia as well as its Western neighbors. (The National Interest, 06.06.14)
  • Ukraine is free to choose between claiming all the rights and privileges of a normal modern state and ending up with half its current territory, or meeting enough of a Russian bully’s demands to have a chance to survive with its current borders and, if it succeeds, to put Putin to shame. (The National Interest, 05.07.14)

Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • First of all, it is necessary to give due tribute to the significant role that Kazakhstan has historically played in the area of nuclear nonproliferation. Kazakhstan is one of the few states that had an arsenal of a nuclear superpower quite within its reach. It decided to return these weapons to Russia and this decision was the right one. If Kazakhstan had made an attempt to establish the operating control over this nuclear arsenal of more than 1200 strategic warheads— carried mainly by intercontinental ballistic missiles that were aimed at the United States— such a decision would have led to a crisis with unpredictable consequences and potentially catastrophic scenarios. (Kazakhstan TV interview, 02.01.02)

Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zach Allan, shared under a CC BY 2.0 license.