As the Kremlin tries to redefine its relationship with the rest of the world, Western policy experts and analysts have been working on policy recommendations and guidelines to deal with a more bellicose Russia. Below is a recap of five research papers published by the leading think tanks over the last five months. We have also included opinion polls showing the current attitudes in the West toward Russia.


Russia's President Vladimir Putin (right) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu hold a meeting at the National Defense Control Center. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky / TASS.


  1. Reports

Brookings Institution: “What Makes Putin Tick, and What the West Should Do” (January, 2017)

  • Authors: Fiona Hill, former director of the Brooking’s Center on the U. S. and Europe (she has recently joined the National Security Council staff as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs), and Clifford G. Gaddy, an economist specializing in Russia, former senior fellow at the Center on the U. S. and Europe.
  • Hill and Gaddy, who co-authored an insightful book about Vladimir Putin (Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, 2014), juxtapose their own observations and the widespread Western misconceptions about the Russian president in the post-Crimea reality.
    • 1) The West “underestimated Putin’s willingness to fight… to achieve his goals” at all costs.
    • 2) The West misinterpreted Putin as a “mere tactician,” when in fact he thinks strategically and is able to translate that into action.
    • 3) The West failed to realize how Putin misunderstands the West itself—its motives, mentality, and values.
  • To counter Putin’s policies more effectively, the West needs to develop a clear idea of who it is dealing with—a ruthless fighter and a survivalist. His judo-training taught him how to “figure out ways of pushing bigger, stronger opponents to the mat while protecting himself.”
  • Putin thinks in terms of the worst-case scenarios. The notion that he is an improviser or an opportunist is dangerous; Putin always sets strategic objectives and calculates many ways of achieving them. Each option depends on the circumstances.
  • In domestic policy, Putin relies on contingency planning, back-up plans and his ability to learn from past mistakes. As president, he streamlines his leadership, limits the number of actors he interacts with, and frees himself to deal with the dynamics and high uncertainty of the Russian and international realities. “He doesn’t micromanage, he monitors.”
  • It is noteworthy that the Kremlin works hard to make Putin appear as inscrutable and unpredictable as possible. His image is carefully branded; his public appearances are well-prepared and orchestrated performances.
  • In foreign policy, Putin constantly probes and sizes up his opponents, checking to see if they mean what they say: are they ready to fight till the end, like he is? If not, Putin exploits their empty threats. If they are, he looks for unconventional ways to outmaneuver them.
  • For instance, the authors argue that the 2008 Georgia war demonstrated to Putin that the U.S. security priorities lie elsewhere, and that “the West wanted to contain Russian on the cheap in Europe and Eurasia.”
  • Another example is the Ukraine crisis. All Putin’s actions—from the annexation of Crimea to counter-sanctions and the disinformation campaign—were carefully planned contingency operations that were not thwarted by unexpected events, such as the MH17 downing.
  • Putin’s weakness is that he has a limited understanding of what drives Western leaders. He sees the West through the filters of his Cold War KGB experiences and relies on the views of Russia’s conservative and patriotic elites. “He looks for—and finds—plots and conspiracies.”
  • Given his frame of reference, Putin is unlikely to believe that the West “is not out to get him.” And the post-Crimea fall-out only strengthened his mistrust.
  • In his August 2014 speech, Putin laid out his vision of a “New Yalta” agreement, and the only question for him is which country (Russia or the United States, the only real sovereign countries, in his opinion) will prevail to determine the new contours of their respective spheres of influence.
  • Putin still wants to do real business with the West and collaborate on issues of mutual strategic interest (e.g. Afghanistan), thus avoiding turning Russia into a pariah state.
  • Hill and Giddy conclude that Putin’s ultimate goal is security (or bezopastnost, literally “lack of danger”) for Russia, which means deterrence. It also means there is no definitive endgame. “He will keep on playing as long as he perceives the threat to last.”
  • Until a “New Yalta” agreement is reached, Putin will continue his hybrid war with the West and keep his options open.


Heritage Foundation: The Trump Administration and the 115th Congress Should Support Ukraine (April, 2017)

  • Authors: Luke Coffey, director of Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, and Daniel Kochis, policy analyst in European affairs.
  • The authors argue that the Ukraine issue will determine the U.S. geopolitical orientation: the West vs Russia. Resolving this conflict, which has claimed over 10,000 lives since 2014, will have long-term implications for the U.S. transatlantic relations.
  • The report contends that describing Russia in Cold War terms is incorrect—the country should be viewed as imperial rather than Soviet, of which “Putin is an imperial leader.” The authors also claim there is a sentimental link to Kyiv that dates back to 9th-century Kievan Rus’.
  • According to the report, Russia’s long-term strategic goal is to keep Ukraine “out of the transatlantic community and distanced from organizations like NATO and the EU.”
  • Keeping the Ukraine conflict “frozen” is the most effective way to achieve this goal. The most aggressive (and very costly) scenario would be to reestablish control of the Novorossia (“New Russia”) region from imperial times, creating a land bridge between Russia and Crimea.
  • The report notes that since 2014 Russia has been militarizing the Black Sea; domination in this area is considered “a matter of national survival.” Meanwhile, the Black Sea region is of strategic importance to the U.S. as well, based on its obligation to the NATO Treaty: “Three out of six Black Sea littoral countries (Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania) are in NATO.”
  • The authors also highlight the following issues: human rights violations in Crimea, the illegitimate Crimea referendum, and daily fighting in the Donbas.
  • Three key reasons are given as to why the U.S. must help Ukraine: this country is a victim of Russian aggression; it is committed to the transatlantic community; and its frontlines are currently stabilized, showing the ability to defend its own territory.
  • In response to Russian aggression, the U.S should:
    • craft a strong policy on Ukraine and Russia;
    • continue and, when necessary, expand economic sanctions against Russia;
    • provide advanced weaponry and military training to the Ukrainians;
    • issue a non-recognition declaration on Crimea;
    • pressure Russia to live up to its commitments under the Minsk II ceasefire agreement;
    • help Ukraine to uproot entrenched corruption and cronyism within its economy and governing system.


Council on Foreign Relations: “Reducing Tensions Between Russia and NATO” (March 2017)

  • Author: Kimberly Marten, foreign policy analyst, and professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University.
  • Kimberly Martin evaluates the current NATO-Russia tensions from a realist prospective, focusing on several issues in this report: 1) why NATO matters; 2) how tensions between NATO and Russia developed; 3) what drives Russia’s behavior; 4) arms control; 5) how a genuine crisis between NATO and Russia could erupt; and 6) how to assess and respond to such a crisis. She also gives detailed policy recommendations.
  • Marten notes that Trump questioned the need for NATO on the presidential campaign and underscores that NATO is instrumental in expanding U.S. influence and power, therefore the U.S. must forge a middle path between isolationism and hawkishness.
  • Today, Putin’s Russia appears to be challenging the post-Cold War international order. Its aggression reflects fear and paranoia as well as disappointment with Western policies and attitudes (e.g. NATO expansion).
  • After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia felt ashamed and betrayed over its lost influence and prestige. Besides, historically, Russia has felt vulnerable to outside influence and conquest.
  • Marten argues that in reality NATO and EU expansion was meant to encourage Russia to join the West. In fact, many attempts were made to engage with Russia throughout the 1990s (a two-track policy for Russia during NATO expansion, Russia’s joining the Partnership for Peace, signing of the seminal NATO-Russia Founding Act).
  • Putin gained a wide domestic audience by exploiting public fears and insecurity towards the West. He justifies crackdowns on domestic opposition as purging Western conspirators.
  • Though Putin’s regime appears stable and will likely survive for now, there is a growing fear over his eventual succession. Marten notes that the Russian elite fear the Kremlin may lash out against the West during a succession crisis.
  • Tension between the U.S. and Russia has worsened since the erosion of arms control agreements. The U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was perceived by Moscow as an attempt to harm Russia’s nuclear deterrence at a time of reduced conventional forces.
  • It is difficult to assess Russian military capabilities due to a lack of reliable data, but there are many potential areas of crisis between NATO and Russia, including escalation from a military accident, seizure of the Baltic States, etc.
  • In terms of response measures, Marten suggests that the U.S. both deter and reassure Russia. All such measures should be based on rules and treaties in a consistent and open manner. Some of them include:
    • reaffirming U.S. commitment to NATO;
    • legitimizing the 2016 Warsaw Summit pledges through the 1999 A/CFE agreement;
    • constructing offensive capabilities for cyber warfare;
    • redeveloping sanctions for deterrence;
    • The U.S. and NATO need to publicly show respect for Russia and Russian leaders;
    • Trump needs to publicly reaffirm that the U.S. does not want regime change in Russia;
    • The U.S. should publicly state that currently Ukraine does not meet NATO membership standards.


Atlantic Council: “Strategy of ‘Constrainment’” (March 2017)

  • Authors: Ash Jain, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security; Damon Wilson, executive vice president at the Atlantic Council, Fen Hampson, professor at Carleton University and director of Global Security Research at the Centre for International Governance Innovation; et al.
  • Since 2000, Russia has shifted towards revisionism. Putin’s personal ambitions and preservation of the Russian political elite have shifted Moscow’s foreign policy toward confrontation.
  • While labeled a “declining power,” Russia remains opportunistic and a disruptive influence through asymmetric operations.
  • Moscow’s strategy towards the West has been pursuing the following objectives:
    • weaken NATO;
    • sow political divisions within Western countries;
    • discredit liberal democracy through disinformation campaigns;
    • forge relationships with autocratic leaders who share contempt for the West.
  • The authors offer a new Russia strategy for the West—the “strategy of ‘constrainment.’” It has to be coordinated and sustainable and capable of advancing both Western interests and values.
  • The five pillars of this “constrainment” are:
    • 1) defend and deter potential Russian threats.
    • 2) punish Russian violations of international norms.
    • 3) counter Russian propaganda with a coordinated Western narrative.
    • 4) support the democratic aspirations of the Russian people.
    • 5) maintain unity amongst Western nations.
  • Some of the policy recommendations that the paper puts forward include:
    • bolster the security of NATO allies and partners, enhance cyber defense, empower intelligence sharing and cooperation, and deter Russian interference in Western politics;
    • empower a whole-of-government approach to combating Russian propaganda, and develop an independent entity to foster a positive narrative for liberal democracy.
    • publicly support democratic and individual liberties in Russia; meet Russian opposition figures; engage with the Russian public through scholarships, social media, and private-sector interaction.
    • publicly condemn Russia’s violations of international norms.
    • adopt a systematic and sustainable approach toward imposing sanctions.
  • The authors also note that symbolism and status are of the utmost importance to engaging with Russia, while its economic integration in the global markets is vital to leveraging change.
  • Cooperation with Russia is deemed possible on certain issues of mutual interest (e.g. the fight against ISIS), but it should be narrow to achieve results that benefit both parties and should not compromise Western commitment to a rules-based, democratic order.


RAND: “European Relations with Russia” (April 2017)

  • Authors: Stephanie Pezard, political scientist; Andrew Radin, associate political scientist; Thomas S. Szayna, senior political scientist director of the Defense and Political Sciences Department; F. Stephen Larrabee, senior political scientist and distinguished chair emeritus in European Security.
  • In the latest report on the relationship between Europe and Russia, the Rand Corporation addresses the ongoing security competition in Eastern Europe regarding threat perceptions, responses, and strategies following the Ukraine crisis and the continued challenges to the EU and NATO.
  • The report examines how European states perceive Russia's behavior in Eastern and Northern Europe, identifies fault lines within Europe regarding threat perceptions and analyzes whether these divides extend to perceptions of NATO and the U.S.
  • Geographic proximity to Russia is largely a determining factor of threat perception towards Moscow. Eastern NATO members perceive Russia as an existential threat, while southern and western NATO members do not.
  • Historical legacies from the czarist and Soviet periods also continue to filter the perspective of eastern NATO members to Russia, as do security and strategic capabilities (e.g. Russian military buildup in Kaliningrad poses a large imbalance).
  • Yet, while eastern NATO members view Russia as aggressive, the majority opinion does not believe Moscow is likely to attack the West:
    • Russian aggression is often perceived as posturing and saber-rattling rather than indications of future aggression;
    • still, while officials do not fear Russia starting a war against NATO, there is anxiety that a military accident could trigger a crisis.
  • The report confirms that Western Europeans are very concerned over Russian hybrid warfare. The authors note that hybrid conflict should not be perceived as a substitute for conventional war but a supplement.
  • The Baltic States emphasize conventional Russian threats over hybrid warfare.
  • Russian strategic communication is a primary effort at undermining Europe: Moscow produces targeted messages in the Baltics and Poland to move public opinion against NATO, Ukraine, and the U.S. Yet, Russian subliminal messages have yet to solidify into policy change.
  • The report also finds that Russian minorities in the Baltic States are much less susceptible to Russian manipulation than those in Ukraine, but still remain vulnerable to propaganda and radicalization.
  • The report analyzes how European states have responded to Russian behavior. While generally agreeing that a firm response is required, they are also eager to maintain open channels of communication with Russia.
  • Western Europeans are aware of a strategic communications gap with Russia, and the EU has opted for communications that redefine the narrative.
  • Today, the relationship between Europe and Russia is irremediable due to the Crimea annexation and Russia’s sponsored conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Tensions are unlikely to recede anytime soon; and future actions toward Russia will depend on Russian behavior.
  • The report holds that Vladimir Putin’s aggression is dangerous in the short term, yet will likely contribute to Russia’s downfall in the long run.
  • Europe’s economic and non-lethal military assistance to Ukraine is likely to continue in tangent with sanctions against Russia.
  • NATO expansion is extremely unlikely to include Ukraine, Moldova, or Georgia in the near future.
  • The report also considers the following scenarios that need to be addressed by the U.S. and NATO:
    • Russian capabilities to subvert a Baltic State;
    • Russia’s ability to deny reinforcement to the Baltic States;
    • the operability and threat of Kaliningrad;
    • improvements for intelligence-sharing and decision-making within NATO;
    • control over potential nuclear escalation.


  1. Opinion polls

Reuters/Ipsos Data: FBI Director Comey's Departure (May 16, 2017)                        

  • Thirty five percent of Americans believe that the main reason why Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey was due to Trump’s concern with “Comey’s investigation of Trump administration ties to Russia.”
  • Among self-described Democrats, the number is higher—55%; among Republicans only 12% believe so, among independents—35%.
  • Overall, 15% thought that the reason was “the way Comey handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server,” with 36% referring to a combination of reasons.
  • Answering the questions on the need to launch an independent investigation into communications between the Russian government and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election, 40% said they strongly agreed, and 20% somewhat agreed. 14 % responded that they somewhat disagreed, and the same number said they strongly disagreed. 12% were undecided.                                               
  • The poll was conducted on May 10-14, 2017 (after Comey was fired). In it, 1,541 Americans were interviewed online, including 686 Democrats, 515 Republicans, and 199 Independents, all aged 18+.


YouGov/HuffingtonPost: American People’s Opinion on Russia (May 2017)

  • Only 2% of Americans consider Russia to be a U.S. ally, while 26% think it is an enemy. 10% said Russia is “friendly,” 37 % believe it is “unfriendly,” and 25% were not sure.
  • Interestingly enough, the sense of Russia’s “unfriendliness” increases with the respondents’ age. In the 18-29 age group, only 14 % see Russia as an enemy, with 19% in the 30-44 group, 32% in the 45-64 bracket, and 39% aged 65+. 
  • Thirty four percent believe that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help elect Donald Trump (16% think that it did interfere, but not to help Trump), 20% don’t believe this version, while 31% were not sure.
  • In terms of party identification, 65% of Democrats believe in Russian interference to help Trump, while only 5% of Republicans and 27% of independents agree.
  • Overall, 29% of the Americans think that Trump’s relations with Russia are a serious problem; 18% believe that it is “a somewhat serious problem”; 13% said it was not a very serious problem, and 17% that it was not a problem at all. 23% were undecided.
  • Naturally, 58% of Democrats agree that Russia is a very serious problem, while only 4% think so.


Pew Research Center: Political Survey (April 2017)

  • 31% of Americans cite Russia as the country representing the greatest danger to the U.S.—the highest figure since the Cold War. Only 5% thought so in 2013.
  • North Korea comes second (22%), China is third (13%); then Iran (9%), Syria (6%), and Iraq/ISIS/Al-Qaida (5%).
  • According to Pew, Russia is by far the top national threat in the view of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents: 39% name Russia, while 21% cite North Korea and 13% point to China.
  • As for Republicans and Republican-leaners, 27% say North Korea poses the greatest danger to the U.S., 21% cite Russia and 18% Iran.
  • Pew experts note that this partisan divide in mentions of Russia as the “greatest danger” is as large a partisan gap as for any country dating back to 1990.


 Matthew Seyffert contributed to this report.