(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

Spring 2024

The United States’ Relationship with Russia

– Ambassador John Sullivan (Retired) and Joseph Dresen

Former US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan draws on history to provide insights for today’s diplomats confronting growing tensions between Russia and the West.

George F. Kennan was the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union for just four months in 1952, before he was dismissed by Stalin as “persona non grata” for negative comments that Kennan gave in an interview about working in Moscow. Kennan is far better known as the author of America’s containment strategy toward the Soviet Union, which he proposed in The Long Telegram and “X” article. Although his tenure as Ambassador was short, his influence is lasting. The US containment policy drove America’s diplomatic doctrine for over four decades. Policies ranging from the Berlin Airlift to the Marshall Plan to the creation of the IMF and World Bank were all born from the logic of containment. Kennan also co-founded the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, together with former Librarian of Congress James Billington and historian S. Frederick Starr, in 1974.

Kennan exemplifies just how much ideas matter in challenging times, and that important ideas can leave a lasting legacy. One person who knows this all too well is John Sullivan, the last ambassador to Russia before Vladamir Putin invaded Ukraine, arguably one of the most challenging periods in US-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War. Ambassador Sullivan’s career spans four decades in public service in prominent diplomatic and legal positions under five US presidents. Here he joins Joseph Dresen, senior program associate with the Kennan Institute, for a conversation about US-Russia relations and all that it entails amidst today’s rising tensions between Russia and the West.

Joseph Dresen: Every US president since Bill Clinton has come into office wanting better relations with Russia but has left office with a worse one. How does the next president break that cycle? Is that even the right question?

Ambassador John Sullivan (retired): I don't think that's the right question. The right question is, what is the appropriate relationship with Russia that is in the interests of the United States? If confronting (or, as George Kennan proposed in the mid to late '40s, containing) the Soviet Union or Russia is in the interests of the United States, then that's what the President of the United States should focus on. It's the wrong approach to think there's a way to improve relations and one just has to find the right way to do it.

What we're confronting in this axis between Moscow and Beijing is the threat to what we in the United States have called the rules-based international order. We see this domestically in our own politics and people questioning our constitutional system, our constitutional republic, democracy itself.

Joseph Dresen: How does or should US policy toward Russia break with the priorities expressed by the Ukrainian government? In other words, where do our interests converge and diverge?

Ambassador John Sullivan (ret): The convergence is fairly obvious: defeating the aggressive war that the Putin government is waging against Ukraine, which bears parallels to the aggressive war that Germany started on September 1, 1939. The parallels between the Germans' justifications for invading Poland, Germany's situation, in the interwar years compared with Putin’s actions today are striking. The Chancellor himself becomes the Fuhrer, and his view of how Germany has been wronged and the merits of that argument, are very similar to Putin’s grievances with Ukraine.

Hitler’s rationale for war was rooted in grievances that grew out of a war—The Great War—that (in his view) the German Empire didn't lose. Solitary guilt for WWI was imposed, as well as massive reparations, losing 10% of their European territory in addition to their colonies, restrictions on the size of their military, and so on. Justice Robert H. Jackson, the US chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, acknowledged all this and essentially said, "Even so, you can do anything to address those legitimate grievances except what you did, which is start an aggressive war.” Of course, that war turned into WWII. It's the same analysis for Russia: A Cold War Putin thinks that Russia didn't really lose, that the dissolution of the Soviet Union happened because of weaklings like Gorbachev in Moscow who lost the homeland. It's a very similar “stab in the back” theory. Hitler would've said the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century (from the German perspective) was the resolution of the Great War and the Treaty of Versailles. Putin’s response? He called the dissolution of the Soviet Union the “greatest catastrophe” of the 20th century, effectively declaring his own “stab in the back” theory.

The United States must confront the aggressive war that Putin has started in Ukraine. Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, launched an aggressive war to absorb territory. We can engage in whataboutisms regarding US military actions—"what about Libya? What about Vietnam? What about Iraq?” But the United States hasn't aggressively absorbed another nation or a territory in a long time, and certainly not since the establishment of the United Nations at the end of the Second World War.

The impact of Russia's military aggression against Ukraine can be seen at the Retroville shopping mall after a missile airstrike by Russian troops. Kyiv, Ukraine, March 3, 2023. Shutterstock/kibri_ho.

Given all of this, the United States’ interests are closely aligned with the Ukrainians in resisting and pushing back on Russian aggression. Where there may be some divergence is if the Ukrainians are willing to concede territory. I could posit an unlikely situation where the United States kept doing the right thing in supporting Ukraine, but the Ukrainians just didn’t have the personnel, the wherewithal to keep up the fight—just because they’d be exhausted by an aggressive war waged upon it by a much larger country. That, I could see as a divergence. But as long as the Ukrainians are resisting, we should support Ukraine.

Joseph Dresen: The conventional wisdom in Washington and elsewhere is that the growing relationship between Russia and China represents a danger for the United States and the West. Are we too concerned about that dynamic, or are we not concerned enough?

Ambassador John Sullivan (ret): I think there's significant concern about the relationship between Putin and Xi, which is different from the relationship between the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China. The current dynamic between the two started long before the war launched on February 24, 2022. There are still any number of Russians, including Russian nationalists, who were and are concerned about the Russian Federation's relationship with the PRC going back centuries. I think the United States is right to be concerned about it. And in particular, to be concerned about the PRC's support for Russia's aggressive war against Ukraine.

Chinese president Xi Jinping welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin to the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, September 4, 2016.  Shutterstock/plavi011.

What we're confronting in this axis between Moscow and Beijing is the threat to what we in the United States have called the rules-based international order. We see this domestically in our own politics and people questioning our constitutional system, our constitutional republic, democracy itself.

I have been asked if it’s worthwhile to study Russian anymore, since we can't travel there and our relations are terrible. Students wonder if they should instead study Mandarin or Arabic. I tell them this is exactly the time that we need people to study Russian.

I think of Churchill's famous quote, which I will paraphrase as, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for every other form of government that's been tried.” The same could be said about the rules-based international order. Yes, there are problems with it, but are we really going to chuck it out the window and go back to August 1939? To a time when a country with legitimate grievances (Germany) solves them by launching an aggressive war, in part by making up stories about Polish barbarism? We didn't do that in 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait based on Iraq’s own grievances. The UN Security Council opposed Iraq then: the Soviet Union voted in favor of a response, and the PRC abstained. Thirty-three, thirty-four years later, the Security Council is completely ineffective on today’s issue, a dead letter. Do we want to go back to a system where we resort to violence first? No.

Joseph Dresen: We were speaking a little bit earlier about George F. Kennan. How relevant would you say his policy prescriptions for the United States are going forward?

Ambassador John Sullivan (ret): As Ambassador, I was devoted to reading Kennan at every opportunity I could to inform myself. His observations about the Russian mindset, Russian leaders, what motivates them, what animates them, the history…were all invaluable. I used to say to my colleagues at the embassy all the time, because they'd see the copies of Kennan’s Long Telegram and the X Article dog-eared and highlighted with marginal notes on my desk: They are as relevant today as they were in 1946 and 1947. It's uncanny. There are some quotes where one can exchange “Stalin” and “Soviet Union” for “Putin” and “Russia,” and read it and say, "Aha, that’s exactly what I was thinking about Russia in 2024." But I would distinguish between Kennan’s historical observations and his policy prescriptions, particularly now, when we're in the third decade of the 21st century.

This is a people, a culture that could make significant contributions to humanity, and it's been hijacked by extremists.

As for policy prescriptions, I've written a book about my experiences in Moscow, and it's principally about the lead up to the war in Ukraine. In the epilogue I cite Kennan and contend that we need a 21st century version of containment for Russia under Putin. Ultimately, I cite Kennan's conclusion: He predicted that the United States would prevail against the Soviet Union, but only if the United States was true to its founding principles. The same rationale applies today: If we're true to our values and what we stand for, of course we'll prevail.

Joseph Dresen: How does the work of the Kennan Institute help diplomats and policymakers get their job done with Russia?

Ambassador John Sullivan(ret): I followed the work of the Kennan Institute very closely as ambassador. It started, of course, with the man himself and his work—from 1933, when he opened the US embassy with William Bullitt, the first US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, through his work as Deputy Chief of Mission in Moscow for Ambassador Averell Harriman, and then as Ambassador himself. As a distinguished fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, I often refer students to the Kennan Institute.

Kennan Institute founders, left to right: S. Frederick Starr, George F. Kennan, and James Billington. Photo courtesy Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

In more recent years I have been asked if it’s worthwhile to study Russian anymore, since we can't travel there and our relations are terrible. Students wonder if they should instead study Mandarin or Arabic. I tell them this is exactly the time that we need people to study Russian, and to learn more about Russia, which—to get back to your first question—will help us get US policy with respect to Russia right in the future. We need experts who can advise now more than ever…we need future Kennan’s. Imagine if in the 30s and 40s people worried that the Soviet Union’s communist system would never be integrated, and those in the West decided to study something else?

Joseph Dresen: Is there anything else to add about the state of US and global relations with Russia at this moment in time?

Ambassador John Sullivan (ret): I worked there through not just the diplomacy leading up to the war itself, but even before that, during the COVID-19 pandemic. From rushing the Sputnik V vaccine to market, and then manipulating statistics around its efficacy, and doctors throwing themselves out of hospital windows because of the conditions they were forced to work in. Even the “Sputnik” name was intended to echo the Soviet’s triumph in launching the first satellite.

This is a people, a culture that could make significant contributions to humanity, and it's been hijacked by extremists. Instead of making contributions, whether it's in space, in science, in medicine, in literature, they're starting aggressive wars again in Europe, turning the clock back 80 years, and that's tragic. But it's also important to educate the West about this challenge that we have, and we're not doing it. I'm a huge fan of how the Biden administration initially approached its opposition to Putin and his war in Ukraine, but the White House needs to do a better job of leading the American people on this issue in the future.


Ambassador John Sullivan (Retired), former US deputy secretary of state and former US ambassador to the Russian Federation, is a partner in Mayer Brown’s Washington DC and New York offices and co-lead of the firm’s National Security practice. He is also a Distinguished Scholar at the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University and a Distinguished Fellow at the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University. He serves as a Contributor to CBS News, is quoted frequently in international media as a leading authority on foreign affairs, and has written a book on his experiences as ambassador, Midnight in Moscow, which is forthcoming from Little, Brown and Company in August 2024.

F. Joseph Dresen is senior program associate with the Kennan Institute, where he is responsible for development issues, editing the Institute’s Kennan Cable series, and managing the Kennan Conversation program that brings Kennan experts to cities across the United States. He has edited and co-edited Institute publications on issues ranging from Russian energy, human rights, and rule of law issues. He has been interviewed on economic and policy issues on Voice of America and Voice of Russia.

Cover photo: March 10, 2011, file photo, then Vice President of the United States Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)