Foreign Policy Essay

What Ronald Reagan Can Teach Us About Dealing With Contemporary Russia

By Raphael S. Cohen, James Dobbins
Sunday, May 12, 2019, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The U.S. victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union is often laid at the feet of Ronald Reagan. As Russia again emerges as an adversary, the question “what would Reagan do?” is increasingly being asked. Raphael S. Cohen and James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation argue that circumstances today differ considerably from the Reagan-era standoff during the Cold War. However, Reagan’s strong rhetorical stance, use of economic pressure and other means still could be applied to better oppose Moscow.

Daniel Byman


Politics loves its historical analogies and today, perhaps, there is no more common a comparison to the Trump presidency than the Reagan administration. It appears everywhere from punditry about campaign rhetoric to analyses of diplomatic summits and arms control regimes. The Reagan analogy also holds policy significance. Reagan’s tenure was marked by his successful competition with the Soviet Union. While scholars dispute why the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed, popular accounts credit Reagan with winning the Cold War by ordering a costly military buildup that the Soviet Union could ill-afford, supporting pro-democracy forces in Eastern Europe from Solidarity to Pope John Paul II’s Catholic Church, and unequivocally advocating democratic virtues. Today, “great power competition [has] returned,” as the National Security Strategy proclaimed recently. With Russia still meddling in elections worldwide and Russian troops still in Ukraine and Syria, and now in Venezuela, the question becomes: Does Reagan provide a blueprint for triumphing over modern Russia?

The old maxim that “Russia is never so strong nor so weak as it appears” is arguably as true today as it was during the Cold War. Modern Russia is a shadow of its Cold War self, geographically, economically and militarily. For all its ability to subvert democratic institutions across Europe and the United States, its capacity to project military power much beyond its borders remains limited. Its economy is no longer among the largest in the world, and it is more reliant on natural resource exports than in Cold War days. It has lost many of the proxies it once had in the Eastern Bloc, and its few friends are burdened with their own internal problems.

And yet, while modern Russia on many dimensions may be a less formidable version of the Soviet Union, it also may be less vulnerable to some of the same strategies Reagan employed in the 1980s. Russia is no longer a superpower, and it is not trying to go militarily toe-to-toe with the United States. While the latest Russian weaponry may make headlines and its forces pose a threat to those countries in its near abroad, Russia spends a relatively modest 4.3 percent of its GDP on defense; and its military—although numerically superior in discrete regions like the Baltics—is a fraction the size of that of the United States, let alone the sum total of the NATO alliance and other U.S. partners. Instead, Russia has chosen to counter U.S. military might in other ways, investing in advanced air defense systems and its nuclear arsenal.

Russia’s asymmetric approach to the U.S. military likely would limit the effectiveness of any second Reagan buildup. While there are military moves that would certainly cause concern in Moscow—from forward stationing U.S. forces in Eastern Europe to threatening Russia’s nuclear deterrent—the Kremlin is unlikely to engage in a costly arms race that it lacks the economic base to sustain. The United States may want to spend more on itself for a host of other reasons, but it is unlikely to have the same benefit of imposing costs on Russia that it did in the Reagan era.

The United States also has fewer geopolitical levers to pressure Russia than it did under the Reagan administration. There is no equivalent to Solidarity—an organized pro-democratic force in a sizable country—today. Modern Russia’s few “satellites,” which include breakaway bits of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, and most of Syria, impose a drain on Moscow’s limited resources and contribute to its international isolation. Rolling back Russian influence in these areas may well be worthwhile for other reasons, but success would actually reduce Moscow’s burdens.

Washington may want to consider a more active and comprehensive information campaign directed at Putin’s standing at home and abroad. Admittedly, effects within Russia are likely to be limited, given the regime’s domination of most media and Putin’s approval rating, which still tops 60 percent. Moreover, such measures would also need to weigh risks of success and the dangers of what a wounded regime might do when fighting for its survival. Nonetheless, as Reagan understood, words can be a powerful weapon especially when aimed at what authoritarian regimes tend to value most—their own survival. Consequently, a more aggressive U.S. response targeting the Putin regime at home—highlighting the personal corruption in Putin’s inner circle and supporting domestic opposition to the regime—may offer the best chance of eventually halting Russia’s most egregious forms of interference.

Perhaps the best point of leverage the United States may have today is an option Reagan did not. The Russia of today is intertwined with the West in ways that it never was during the Cold War. This, in turn, gives the United States new economic tools to use against Russia in the form of sanctions but also in pursuing policies for other reasons, like expanding its energy exports to undercut the Russian economy. None of these economic measures is a policy silver bullet that will stop Russian adventurism, at least in the short term. But over time, and if supported by other Western nations, these measures could improve the United States’s hand, weaken Russia’s and eventually allow the United States to win this new round of great power competition—though perhaps in less dramatic fashion than Reagan did.

Ultimately, the Reagan playbook has limited utility as a practical guide for combating Russian revanchism today. Both the United States and Russia are, after all, in very different places than they were three decades ago, and great power competition has likewise changed. Yet Reagan still teaches at least one lesson for today’s competition with Russia. Throughout his presidency, Reagan advocated for the power of freedom to triumph over darker forces in global politics. He also knew that freedom itself was fragile—“never more than one generation away from extinction” and continues only “if we fight for it, protect it, defend it and then hand it to [our children] with the well thought lessons of how they in their lifetime must do the same.” As the United States confronts authoritarian regimes such as Russia abroad and battles a wave of doubt in democracy around the globe, Reagan’s call remains as relevant as ever before.