Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has made a more constructive U.S.-Russia relationship implausible for the foreseeable future. However, once the fighting eventually stops, the United States will continue to face long-term structural incentives to improve the stability and predictability of its relations with Moscow.
History has shown that relations between even bitter rivals can shift over time. Future changes in the international system, competing policy priorities, or shifts in Russian behavior may create incentives for Washington to consider a less-hardline approach to relations with Moscow, as it has attempted in the past. Such a future policy would aim to advance U.S. interests by proactively addressing certain Russian interests and concerns. RAND researchers explored the trade-offs that states face when they adopt a less-hardline approach, examining the benefits and costs in four historical case studies and assessing what can be learned to inform future U.S. peacetime policy toward Russia.
What Is a Less-Hardline Approach?
When two states are rivals or have significant differences, they can choose either a hardline or a less-hardline approach toward each conflict of interest. A state adopts a hardline approach when it tries to achieve its goals by outmaneuvering or coercing a rival and does not seek a resolution that accounts for the rival’s interests. In contrast, a state adopts a less-hardline approach when it seeks to advance its own interests by proactively addressing what it perceives to be the rival’s interests or concerns. We focus on less-hardline approaches in peacetime rather than concessions made in a crisis to avoid war or during an ongoing war to end the fighting.
The defining feature of a less-hardline approach is a state’s willingness to address the other side’s concerns as a means of achieving its own goals. However, less-hardline approaches can vary in breadth and depth, from small compromises on peripheral issues to larger concessions on more fundamental conflicts of interest. In addition, a state can shift toward a more conciliatory policy in one area even as it sustains hardline policies in others. Moreover, a less-hardline approach can still involve a tough stance during negotiations.
The gray box illustrates the differences between hardline and less-hardline approaches and provides examples of each.
Potential Benefits and Costs of Less-Hardline Approaches
Scholars and policymakers have made numerous claims about the potential benefits and costs of cooperative approaches, as shown in the table.
One potential benefit involves concessions and side payments from the rival, which can be made during negotiations to reach a deal. Resolving one or more conflicts can also reduce the risk of peacetime competition escalating to war. So, a less-hardline approach can reduce the costs associated with hardline approaches, such as defense spending, sustaining a forward military presence, or maintaining readiness for war. A less-hardline approach might reduce the rival state’s threat perceptions or insecurity, making the state less likely to undertake aggressive or military action and possibly encouraging the state to take risks involved in cooperation on other issues.
The most direct cost of a less-hardline approach involves the concessions or incentives that a state offers its rival, which could result either from unilateral concessions or as part of a negotiation. Another common concern is that less-hardline approaches will convince the adversary that the United States is weak-willed or irresolute, meaning it is not willing to bear significant costs to defend its interests. This, in turn, could cause the rival state to become emboldened — more demanding in negotiations, or more likely to launch military action — in the expectation that it will not meet resistance.
Circumstances Surrounding the Use of Less-Hardline Approaches
Both the benefits and costs of less-hardline approaches can be affected by the circumstances in which these actions occur.
Scholars have suggested that there are multiple reasons why the benefits may not always be realized in practice or may be smaller than a state adopting a less-hardline approach might hope. First, insecurity and mistrust can make a state worry that concessions might add to the rival’s power or diminish their own, or lead a state to believe that the rival may defect on any agreement. Second, the mix of a state’s policies — including continued competition in one area — may affirm the rival’s belief that there is no positive change in the state’s behavior despite some less-hardline approaches. Third, states may have incentives to misrepresent the strength of their resolve on a given issue, so that they can press for a bargain that is more aligned with their own preferences; such incentives can make states suspicious about their rivals’ claims. Finally, when a nation’s leaders adopt a strategy, there remains the risk that lower-level officials within the bureaucracy could adopt policies that unintentionally or intentionally run counter to that strategy or even try to sabotage a new strategy.
Just as the potential benefits of conciliation may depend on the circumstances, so might the costs. The distribution of power could affect whether a rival is emboldened by a less-hardline approach. A relatively weaker state may be less likely to be emboldened by a conciliatory policy out of concern that, if the weaker state undertakes aggression, it could find itself in a conflict in which the stronger state brings all its material advantages to bear against it. Finally, some scholars have argued that a weaker state’s ambitions — whether it is happy with the status quo or is revisionist and seeks to change it — can affect whether a state is emboldened by conciliatory gestures.
Selection of Case Studies
Below, we present four historical case studies involving broad strategic similarities to the U.S.-Russia relationship before Russia’s 2022 war in Ukraine. To select cases, we used the existing international relations literature to identify the circumstances (e.g., preexisting level of insecurity) that may affect the way that states respond to less-hardline approaches. We then sought cases that matched circumstances in the U.S.-Russia relationship in mid-2021 as closely as possible. Ideally, we would have selected cases that share similarities with what the U.S.-Russian relationship might evolve into after this war. Unfortunately, much remains uncertain about the war and its impacts.
We selected cases in which there is an asymmetric distribution of power, geographic separation, and pronounced mistrust between the parties and in which a globally stronger state adopted more-conciliatory policies toward a weaker rival. We also preferred cases in which the weaker state seeks more territory or greater influence in the domestic affairs of its neighbors, both states have nuclear weapons, and the stronger state has allies with a stake in the rivalry. Although all the selected cases involve either Russia or the Soviet Union, this choice was based on the issues described above rather than the countries involved.
In each case, we assessed how such policies affected the weaker state’s perceptions and behavior and ultimately the course of the relationship between the two countries. We also considered how hardline elements of the stronger state’s approach interacted with and mediated the effects of the less-hardline elements.
Although the ultimate trajectory of the conflict in Ukraine is not knowable at the time of this writing, many aspects of the prewar U.S.-Russia relationship (e.g., geography, alliances) appear likely to hold. The further the postwar U.S.-Russia relationship departs from the conditions that we used to select case studies in mid- 2021, the greater the risk to the continued relevance of our findings.
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