Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, US-Russian relations repeatedly have been hit by surprise developments. In just the last couple of years, unexpected events have included Edward Snowden’s leaks, Crimea, Donbas, Syria, the Russian Metrojet tragedy and the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian Su-24. The list could go on. In each case, Washington was forced to make reactive as opposed to proactive policies concerning Russia or its neighbors.
This phenomenon is such that Russia’s ability to surprise is frequently presented as one of its prime tactical advantages over the West. The US Congress has even called for investigations into “intelligence failures” connected to Russia’s ability to surprise.
The focus should not be on intelligence failures. Many Russians were equally surprised by these events. The problem is that Washington repeatedly has failed to look for potential flashpoints, and, therefore, has done nothing to prepare for them. Breaking the pattern, then, should begin with identifying the next potential hot spot.
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Paul Stronski is a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on the relationship between Russia and neighboring countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. He was Director for Russia and Central Asia on the US National Security Council Staff from 2012 to 2014; he also has served as a research analyst in the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, focusing on Russia and the South Caucasus.