In Donbas, Russia’s offensive in eastern Ukraine is hamstrung by insufficient personnel, rock-bottom morale, failing equipment — and a formidable Ukrainian military bolstered by Western weapons. Although territory will continue changing hands, this will be Russia’s last offensive. Yet, the Kremlin’s stockpiles will enable it to keep the conflict simmering long after its forces are exhausted.
For the past three months, the most pressing question for the United States and its allies has been how to keep Vladimir Putin’s armies at bay. Now, the time has come to ask how to deal with Russia going forward. And while that relationship will not be a new Cold War — the old Cold War had an ideological component, especially in the Soviet Union, which is absent today — American policymakers and their allies can learn a great deal from their 20th-century predecessors. Facing a similar challenge, Ronald Reagan implemented a mixture of carrots and sticks — a blend of competition and cooperation — which once again fits the situation.
When Reagan won the presidency in 1980, he was no optimist when it came to the United States’ prospects in its contest for global influence with the Soviet Union, nor were most Americans. After all, Reagan had won the 1980 presidential election thanks to a struggling economy, shaky energy sector and the sense that Washington was being caught flat-footed around the world — exemplified by the Iranian hostage crisis.
While Reagan was a longtime Cold War hawk, he also abhorred the idea of nuclear war and hoped to improve superpower relations. In office, Reagan engaged with the Soviet Union to keep tensions under control, but also to lock in U.S. advantages through diplomatic agreements. Reagan recognized that achieving this latter goal required the United States to expand and flex its military power. Doing so would allow him to exploit and prey upon the Kremlin’s numerous — and often self-inflicted — weaknesses.
Reagan confronted a moment not unlike our own today. In Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion had already gone sour. Wisely, Reagan offered the Soviets no face-saving off-ramp from the mess of their own making. Instead, he pressured the Kremlin leadership to scramble for any exit they could find — letting the Soviets lose and then take stock. The United States supplied the Afghan resistance, the mujahideen, with Stinger antiaircraft missiles, and though their significance on the battlefield has been mythologized, they did erode the advantage provided by the Soviets’ helicopters. Equally important, Reagan understood the power of an underdog story to rally public opinion and invited Afghan leaders for a meeting in the Oval Office.
By the time the Soviet withdrawal began in the spring of 1988, no one — including the Kremlin — had doubts about the limits of Soviet military power.
While the Soviets were flailing in Afghanistan, Reagan was expanding upon Jimmy Carter’s military buildup. He knew that building U.S. forces further emphasized the weaknesses of Moscow’s military. Washington’s naval strategy presented the Kremlin with a 360 degree threat: Soviet aggression in Europe, for example, could beget retaliation in the Soviet Far East, thanks to U.S. capabilities at sea. Investments in precision-guided munitions and the Strategic Defense Initiative made plain what the U.S. advantage in high-tech industries meant, not just economically but militarily. Most important, the Soviets grasped this disparity and understood that matching Washington’s power would require a buildup that was simply economically unfeasible.
But this is only half the story of Reagan’s management of U.S.-Soviet relations. He also sought to build trust and to understand Soviet needs and realities — a crucial component in the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
In early 1983, for example, the president personally intervened in the case of a group of Christians from Siberia seeking to emigrate to practice their religion freely. If the Kremlin allowed the group — holed up in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow — to leave the country, Reagan promised Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that he would not make political hay out of the concession. Moscow gave ground and Reagan kept his word. Reagan was particularly animated by the issue of religious freedom and used it as an ideological cudgel against the Soviet Union every chance he got, but he also built trust, assuring Moscow that Washington could be a good-faith interlocutor, despite Cold War competition.
Reagan’s mixture of carrot and stick set the table for real gains once Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, giving the president a negotiating partner who shared his vision of a nuclear-free world. Gorbachev understood that the Soviet position in the world had diminished due to the military, economic and technological superiority of the United States. The agreements they reached were far from equitable, and always in Washington’s favor: The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, for example, saw the Soviets destroy three missiles for every U.S. munition and preserved the major U.S. and NATO advantage in air- and sea-launched weapons. With less and less leverage each month, that was the best Gorbachev could do.
Reagan’s military buildup and willingness to aid the Afghans had provided leverage that the Soviet leader simply couldn’t match. Even so, Reagan’s willingness to engage in negotiations, build trust by keeping his word and try to understand the Soviet perspective made Gorbachev comfortable negotiating with him and led to major breakthroughs.
As the war in Ukraine shifts, President Biden and his foreign policy team will need to settle in for a lengthy period of turbulence in U.S.-Russian relations. Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he will not accept Ukrainian statehood, and he and his spin doctors have framed the “special military operation” as just one front in a struggle with the West. Nikolai Patrushev, the closest thing Putin has to a national security adviser, has gone even further, insisting that the United States is determined to stamp out Russian sovereignty and culture. Only by nationalizing — and militarizing — the state and its economy, Patrushev claims, can Russia resist U.S. efforts to subjugate the world. This is a grim view of the future from one of the few who reliably has Putin’s ear.
But at the beginning of the 1980s, the world looked fairly bleak from the Oval Office as well, with the prospects for cooperation with Moscow scarcely better. Though not without missteps, by the end of Reagan’s eight years, the careful balance between competition and cooperation had put the Cold War on track to a largely peaceful conclusion.
The similarities between the two moments provide the contours of a strategy for the Biden administration. As in Afghanistan in the early 1980s, Russia faces the prospect of a humiliating defeat in Ukraine. The United States is aiding Russia’s foe, not only with weapons and equipment, but with solidarity and support — as it did with the Afghans in the 1980s. Reagan’s example suggests that the United States allow Russia to lose its war and force Putin to face the consequences of his actions. But Reagan also offers another, equally important lesson: When Russia finally comes to understand the limits of its power, the United States would be wise to be ready to come to the table and negotiate.