The Best Way to Deal With Putin? Take It Slow


(AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a nationally televised question-and-answer session in Moscow on Thursday, April 17, 2014. 

“And then, in an instant, everything changed forever.” It’s one of the great clichés of literature and public policy. Not only overused, it’s often deployed in an overly-deterministic way: “9/11 changed everything.” Well, no it didn’t, at least not until officials acted as if it did, and then decided to change everything: torturing innocent people, building black site prisons, starting (and failing to win) two wars, collecting information on everyone’s phone calls.

Sometimes, though, U.S. foreign policy discourse has the opposite problem: Failing to absorb change, it continues to move its legs in mid-air, like Wile E. Coyote, without never looking down to notice that it’s already gone over the cliff. 

That’s where we are right now with Russia. Putin-huggers and old Cold Warriors alike have been trotting out policy prescriptions that imply we can either continue the status quo ante by acquiescing in Russia’s activities in Ukraine, or return to it by some stronger, more effective pressure, whether military or economic.

Russia’s neighbors, each in their own way, think differently.

In Finland and Sweden, both of which held to neutrality as an ideological value through the tensest days of the Cold War, public debates about whether to join NATO are underway.

In Finland, the prime minister and his party support joining the alliance, and even Green Party leaders say the party is “reconsidering” its opposition in light of Russia’s actions.

Sweden announced that it would increase its defense budget, which had been declining, in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, and public support for NATO membership, while not a plurality, is on the rise. (This 2013 Russian parody mocks Sweden’s NATO flirtation, offering insight into what quasi-official Russian outlets think of their neighbors. H/t The Atlantic.)

Belarus, the state wedged between Russia and Ukraine (and which makes both its neighbors look like exemplars of parliamentary democracy by comparison), has responded to the crisis in another way: confident no one would notice, it resumed executions. (Belarus is the only country in Europe with a death penalty, but in response to EU pressure had not executed anyone for over a year.) Meanwhile, attempts to build on the pressure applied to Russia during the Olympics around persecution of political opponents and the LGBT community by launching a boycott of the Ice Hockey World Championships, which Belarus is hosting this May, have fizzled as attention turns to its larger neighbors.

Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—Russia’s NATO-member neighbors—have requested a broad and problematic range of reinforcement, from an increase in the number of NATO military exercises to U.S. troop presence to missile defense systems. They won’t get all of what they want, but they will get some, which will further irritate Moscow.

Western Europe is struggling more. If the U.S. public debate is exemplified by Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff, the EU mascot could be Yosemite Sam. Ian Traynor, writing inThe Guardian, summarizes:

So the Europeans have come up with a policy of inaction designed to look like action—lots of activity and no decisions. The sanctions are always being "prepared".

The British authorities well know the impact of serious financial sanctions on the City of London, just as Paris is aware of the effect on defence contracts and the Germans are acutely conscious of the costs to their car exporters and energy giants… The Russians know this… The Europeans, with 12 times more trade and investment at stake than the Americans and, unlike the US, quite dependent on Siberian energy supplies, resent the pressure from Washington to get tougher. They are deeply divided, between eastern and western Europe but also within those two camps. The Poles and the three Baltic states are the hawks, while Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria are "more understanding" of the Russian position. In western Europe, Britain tends to the side with the east European hawks, while Berlin is determined not to close off dialogue with the Kremlin. Italy, Spain, Greece and Greek Cyprus are against punishing Russia.

Along the way, three fundamental foreign policy ideas about Russia have been proven wrong:

  • First, the idea promoted, at least sporadically, from administrations beginning with that of George H.W. Bush all the way to Barack Obama’s, that Moscow could be induced to value participation—and, frankly, mere observer status—in international institutions above supremacy in its own neighborhood.

  • Second, that Russia could be ignored, dismissed as a second-tier power with over-reliance on natural resources, collapsing demographics, and illusions of grandeur. It was pretty to think so, but as long as UN Security Council votes and the energy supplies of US treaty allies depended on Moscow, it was never true.

  • Third, that Russia’s governing regime was a status quo power that could sustain itself based on its national greatness as defined within its post-Soviet borders.

These foundational policy ideas came into play for neocons, realists, liberal interventionists, leftists in different ways. The assumptions behind them cut across American ideologies. Now their falsification, thanks to the reality of Russia’s Ukraine intervention, leaves everyone scrambling… like that cartoon coyote.

Across the partisan divide, people who know Russia well, regardless of party, neither want to acquiesce in a Russian assault on Ukraine, whether formal or surreptitious, nor to launch military assaults. Actual Russia experts have been a bit in abeyance in recent years, but now they are roaring back. (Yours truly, with a perestroika-vintage BA in Russian studies and time spent in Soviet Kiev, is but a wannabe.)

Former U.S. State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter asks if a stronger U.S. military approach to Syria would change Putin’s approach to his neighbors. Others ask: Shouldn’t problematic U.S. actions outside our borders (think: Iraq) shame us from pushing back on Putin’s aggression?

No, say the Russia hands; the answer to both is the same. Would a more aggressive Russian approach to Syria change U.S. views on the status of Texas, or drug crimes in Mexico?

Russia will never be a U.S. ally; neither should it be allowed nor encouraged to create itself as a full-on U.S. enemy.

The goals of U.S. Russia policy should be simply this: to seek Russian cooperation or acquiescence on issues of mutual interest. These include a negotiated end to Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions (and North Korea’s), a smooth U.S. withdrawal and continued regional access to Afghanistan, outcomes in the Middle East that minimize extremism, terrorism and destabilizing violence that laps at Russia’s borders more than our own, trade and economic partnerships that benefit capital and labor on both sides.

Of course, the U.S. should support Russia’s citizens as they seek more and more secure rights—in particular an end to persecution on the bases of political belief, ethnicity and sexual orientation; and respect for the rights of Russia’s neighbors to make their own way–while avoiding the mistake of denying Russia a profound security, cultural and economic interest in what it considers its own backyard.

How can that be accomplished? Underneath partisan critiques and arguments, experts from recent administrations of both parties say that the U.S. has no real options but to impose economic sanctions, and must be prepared to hang in over time for sanctions to have the desired effect of turning Russia’s economic oligarchs against the policies of the government that, up to now, has allowed them fabulous wealth in exchange for political acquiescence.

Why sanction? Why not just let Russia alone, and leave its neighbors, especially the ones who are not U.S. allies, to their fate? Whether you are a tree-hugger or a hard-core free-trader, you have benefited over the last decade from U.S. ability to bring Moscow along on key issues: reducing nuclear arsenals, bolstering trade deals, de-emphasizing U.S. military presence in Europe whether you plough that money into debt reduction, domestic spending, or foreign aid.

Slaughter’s provocative question—would bombing Syria rein in Putin?—has an under-considered flip side: How would it affect other areas of engagement with Russia? What is the right mix of pressure and acquiescence, support for neighbors and understanding of Moscow’s concerns, that will achieve these goals:

  • Get a durable nuclear agreement with Iran. Maintain stability of energy prices for the U.S. and NATO allies.

  • Easy and safe withdrawal of U.S. combat troops and materiel from Afghanistan.

  • Support the civil society voices inside Russia fighting oppression on political, ideological and sexual orientation.

  • Support the forces in Ukraine but other former Soviet states as well who want responsible governance in lieu of gold toilet seatswhile ensuring, in the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, that “rhetoric doesn’t threaten what policy can’t deliver.”

The White House has appeared at times to be moving in slow-motion as it attempts to sorting out these immediate and longer-term challenges, in the face of loud, lazy politicized commentary. But remember, the Road Runner's mid-air action-freeze works better than the coyote trying to cycle over the abyss, in the vain hope of reaching the other side of the canyon.


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