America Needs a Real Russia Policy

"We need to ask hard questions about what we want to achieve, how we want to achieve it and the consequences of our actions."

The outrage at Russia is more than sufficient. What Washington needs is a policy. Particularly in the aftermath of the MH17 tragedy, the drive to punish Russia, to raise the costs of its aggression against Ukraine by levying harsher sanctions and seeking to isolate it internationally, is understandable; it might also meet a profound psychological need to demonstrate that we are not indifferent to the loss of nearly 300 innocent lives. But punishing Russia falls short of a credible policy.

We need to ask hard questions about what we want to achieve, how we want to achieve it and the consequences of our actions. Today's turbulent world offers no easy answers or moral clarity. To protect and advance our interests, we will be compelled to make trade-offs that are less than fully morally satisfying. That is an inevitable part of statecraft.

Amidst the passions and calls for action against Russia, what do we need to consider?

First, sanctions. Whatever their effect in the long run, in the short run, they have only served to bolster Putin at home and energize ultranationalist forces, particularly prominent in the military and security forces. Although they may alter his tactics, they have not deterred Putin from pursuing what he sees as a vital Russian interest, securely anchoring Ukraine in Russia's sphere of influence. Despite international censure, Russia continues to send heavy equipment to the separatists in eastern Ukraine; fighting on the ground has intensified. If Putin yields to domestic pressure to send the troops across the border, what is the West prepared to do to defend Ukraine, especially since we have ruled out the use of force? Simply more sanctions?

Second, Ukraine. We want to encourage Ukraine to take a Western path, while defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity. But Ukraine is broken, politically and economically. Russian aggression has not created, but has highlighted the domestic fissures between East and West, between the elites and the rest of society, and among oligarchic clans that have bedeviled Ukraine since its independence. Even if the separatists are defeated, Ukraine will need a generation—and billions of dollars—to build a component state and repair the economy. Does the West have the patience and resources for such a task, given its own profound socioeconomic problems? The recent trials in agreeing on rescue packages for profligate European Union members would suggest that it does not. Moreover, how does the West plan to repair without Russian help an economy that is—and will long remain—dependent on Russia for energy and needs Russia as a market for its manufactured goods, which will not soon meet the EU's stringent standards?

Third, the Transatlantic Community. While everyone is mesmerized by Asia, it remains true that America's closest and best partner is Europe. We should be devoting considerable time and effort to restoring ties, especially with Germany, that have frayed because of neglect and more recently NSA-leaker Snowden's revelations. Concluding negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) should be a priority. But our rush to sanctions, our desire to lead the West, has only exposed further rifts between the United States and Europe and within Europe itself. Even after the MH17 tragedy, key European states are reluctant to adopt more stringent sanctions, because their deep commercial ties to Russia leave them much more vulnerable than the United States is to Russian retaliation at a time when they have not fully recovered from the global economic crisis of 2008-09. Europeans are not closing ranks under U.S. leadership.

In addition to sanctions, we are also pressing for revitalizing NATO against a resurgent Russia. To be sure, there is an urgent need to reassure the most vulnerable allies about our commitment to collective defense. But the Russian challenge is not so much a conventional military one (NATO has the superior forces) as a socioeconomic one, as its actions in Ukraine demonstrate. And NATO allies should not be focused so much on building up their capacity for conventional warfare or acquiring new capabilities as on tending to the internal problems that Russia might exploit, including the Baltic states' treatment of their ethnic Russian minorities, as well as the growing prominence of populist, anti-EU forces.