In the quarter century since the end of the Cold War, every American president has entered office optimistic about the prospects of forging a strategic partnership with post-Soviet Russia. None has succeeded.

With relations between Washington and Moscow now at their lowest point in decades, the question of whether the United States and Russia are doomed to be antagonists on the world stage has assumed new urgency and significance. Are the repeated failed attempts at building enduring cooperation between our countries since 1991 the consequence of avoidable errors and miscalculations? Or is the persistence—and resurgence—of U.S.-Russian rivalry the product of deeper, structural forces on both sides?

The course will consist of two sessions per day over a one-week period. In seminar discussions, led by national security expert Vance Serchuk, students will examine the history of U.S.-Russian relations from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the invasion of Ukraine and the 2016 presidential election. They will also hear from leading policymakers and scholars with a view toward exploring how U.S. policy regarding Russia reveals important truths about the character of American power itself—and what it means for the future. Past guest lecturers have included Dan Fried (Atlantic Council), Jamie Fly (German Marshall Fund), and Julia Ioffe (The Atlantic), among others.

Images courtesy

Vance Serchuk on Russian dynamics in the Middle East


Vance Serchuk

Vance Serchuk is Executive Director of the KKR Global Institute and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to joining KKR, Mr. Serchuk served for six years as the senior national security advisor to Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut).

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


The End of the Cold War


Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the Cold War? Why did it end? How did it end?
  2. How does Henry Kissinger explain the end of the Cold War? What are the rival explanations offered by Stephen Kotkin? How did Kennan prophesize that the Cold War would end?
  3. What role did the U.S. play in the dissolution of the Soviet Union? How does Kissinger explain Reagan’s role?
  4. How was the collapse of the Soviet Union experienced and perceived inside Russia? How did Russians explain what happened to their system?



George H. W. Bush Policies toward Russia


Discussion Questions:

  1. What were the policies of the Bush 41 Administration towards newly-independent Russia following the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991? What were Washington’s priorities, and what did it choose not to prioritize?
  2. What was Richard Nixon’s critique of this approach? Do you think it is fair?


Two Visions of the Post-Cold War World

Russia Policy under Clinton

Criticisms of Clinton Administration Policy


Discussion Questions:

  1. The Clinton Administration came to office at a moment when the organizing concept for U.S. foreign policy for the past 40-plus years—the Cold War—was suddenly gone. What was the alternative vision it put forward in its 1994 National Security Strategy? How did Russia fit into that vision?
  2. What were the instincts and policy priorities of the Clinton Administration towards Russia when it entered office? What was its strategy for pursuing them? To what extent did its approach differ from that of the George H. W. Bush Administration? What were the similarities?
  3. Kissinger and Fukuyama offer strikingly different predictions about what the post-Cold War future is likely to look like. What are their respective ideas? In hindsight, who made the better arguments? To what extent did the Clinton Administration follow any of their recommendations?
  4. The U.S. had high hopes in the early 1990s for Russia’s evolution into a free-market democracy. What went wrong? Who is to blame? What are the competing explanations for the failure of Russian “reform” offered by Stephen Kotkin and Kim Holmes, respectively? Which do you find most persuasive and why?
  5. The Clinton Administration invoked a number of historical analogies to justify its Russia policy. What were they? What historical analogies did Russian leaders invoke to explain their experience in the 1990s?



The NATO Expansion Debate

The Serbian Revolution


Discussion Questions:

  1. One of the major flashpoints between the U.S. and Russia during the 1990s was the question of NATO expansion. What were the arguments for expanding NATO eastward? What were the arguments against? What were the alternatives? Imagine yourself as a decision-maker at the time: which course would you have supported?
  2. What was the impact of developments in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s on the trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations? How did Russia react to U.S. intervention in Bosnia in 1995 versus Kosovo in 1999? What happened in Serbia in late 2000?
  3. By the end of President Clinton’s term in office, U.S.-Russian relations had deteriorated. Why did this happen, in your view? To what extent was this a failure of American policy? How should the Clinton Administration be assessed for its handling of Russia?



Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Condoleezza Rice, writing on the eve of the 2000 election, characterize the Clinton Administration’s approach to Russia in the 1990s? What approach does she counsel instead?
  2. What does the Bush Administration adopt as its Russia policy upon coming to office? To what extent did its policy change after 9/11—and if so, how? What did Bush hope to achieve with Russia? How was the Bush approach to Russia similar or different from that of President Clinton? Did he succeed? Was it the right approach?
  3. How does the 2002 National Security Strategy talk about Russia? What are its assumptions about Russia and its place in the broader international order? How are these similar or different from the Clinton approach?




Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the reasons for the deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations under President Bush? Was this downturn unavoidable? What is President Bush’s explanation for what happened? What is Angela Stent’s?
  2. What happened in Chechnya in the 2000s?
  3. What were the manifestations of Russia’s increased international assertiveness in the mid-2000s? Did this reflect a fundamental shift of the Russian foreign policy outlook? What explains them? How did the U.S. react to these actions by Russia?
  4. What were the causes of the 2008 Russia-Georgia War? What was the relationship between events in the Balkans and the conflict in Georgia?
  5. What are the competing views of the significance of the 2008 Georgia War offered by Kissinger, Stent, and Lieberman-Graham? What are their respective recommendations and implications for U.S. policy following the war?


The Reset


Russian Internal Developments (2011–2012)


Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the Obama “reset” with Russia? What were its goals? Did it accomplish them? What did it not seek to accomplish? What were the criticisms of the reset, and to what extent do you think they are valid? What were the alternative approaches that Obama might have taken upon taking office? Why do you think he chose the path he did?
  2. What was the domestic political and economic situation in Russia at the time that Obama entered office? How do you think that influenced Russia’s response to the reset?
  3. What role did the 2011 war in Libya play in shaping U.S.-Russian relations? How did the Russian leadership view the U.S.-led intervention there?
  4. How did domestic developments in Russia in 2011 shape the U.S.-Russian relationship? How did the Obama Administration react to the 2011 protests following the Duma election? Why do you think this was the Obama approach, and was this the right response?



U.S. Human Rights Policy

Post-Reset Reflections… and What Next?


Discussion Questions:

  1. What were the arguments for and against the Magnitsky Act? How did the Obama Administration react to the proposed legislation?
  2. U.S.-Russian relations had deteriorated by the end of Obama’s first term. Why? Do you think this was inevitable for the U.S., or was it the consequence of mistakes on the part of Obama? If so, what was the alternative approach?
  3. What were the possible approaches towards Russia for the Obama Administration as it began its second term? What approach did outgoing Secretary Clinton recommend? What path did Obama ultimately pursue? Did it work?


Syria Diplomacy and the Red Line (2013)

Ukraine Explodes

Russia’s (New?) Worldview

Russian Military Modernization and Theory


Discussion Questions:

  1. What was Russia’s strategy in Syria from 2011 to 2014? What were its interests there? Conversely, how did Russia fit into the Obama Administration’s Syria policy, and how did Syria fit into its Russia policy? What were the alternative paths available to the Obama Administration? Why do you think it took the course it did?
  2. What was the calculus behind the Russian offer to partner with the U.S. to remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile? How did the U.S. react? Was this the right choice?
  3. What precipitated the crisis in Ukraine in late 2013 / early 2014? What role did the U.S. play? Could the crisis have been averted? Was it foreseeable?
  4. What is the relationship between what happened in Ukraine in 2014 and what had happened in Georgia in 2008? Or Kosovo in 1999? Or between Ukraine and Syria?
  5. What is hybrid warfare? How does it work? How was it manifest in Ukraine in 2004 and Syria in 20152016?
  6. Was Russia’s intervention in Ukraine a success, or a mistake, on Putin’s part? How should the answer to this question affect the U.S. response?
  7. How did the Obama Administration react to the Ukraine crisis? How did U.S. allies react? What were some of the alternative policies it might have pursued, as described by Flournoy and Kissinger? Why did it pursue the path it did, as against the alternatives?



Syria Escalates (20142016)

Three Views on “What Went Wrong”


Discussion Questions:

  1. How did Russia escalate its involvement in Syria in late 2015? What was its strategy? Was it successful? Was Russia’s intensified involvement in Syria a sign of newfound strength or, as President Obama argued, an indication of weakness?
  2. How did the U.S. respond to Russia’s escalation in Syria? What were the alternatives?
  3. Mearsheimer, Stoner-McFaul, and Kotkin offer competing explanations for, “What went wrong?” and, “Who is to blame?” in the collapse of U.S.-Russian relations between 2014 and 2016. What are their respective arguments? Who is most persuasive? If you are a U.S. policymaker, what are the implications of each analysis?

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

Nuclear Strategy and World Order

Explore the ways nuclear weapons have transformed the world we inhabit today.

Chinese Grand Strategy

Explore the implications of China’s global rise for U.S. primacy and the liberal international order.

Foundations of Grand Strategy

Assess grand strategic theory and practice in Thucydides and Plutarch.

War Studies Program

Learn the theory, practice, organization, and control of war and military forces.

American Political Thought

Engage key texts that have helped shape the political idea – and political ideals – of America.

Can Free Speech Survive the Internet?

Consider the impact of the Internet on our political discourse and associational life.