Dealing with Putin

The stage is being set for an even more dramatic confrontation between the West and Russia over Ukraine. Obama must recognize the danger to U.S. national interests that the crisis may create and act accordingly.

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With Russia and Ukraine trading blame for the apparent breakdown in their tenuous September 5 cease-fire agreement, the stage is being set for an even more dramatic confrontation between the West and Russia. Ukraine and NATO are accusing Russia of dispatching fresh weaponry and troops into disputed eastern territories as a possible precursor to a fresh offensive. Meanwhile, Russia has announced that it will expand its long-range bomber missions to include the Gulf of Mexico. Before the situation deteriorates any further, President Obama should push for a diplomatic settlement that preserves Kiev’s independence but avoids a lasting geopolitical confrontation with Moscow that is detrimental to vital U.S. national interests.

Russia’s behavior in Ukraine is a direct challenge to the post-Cold War order in Europe.  On top of this, Russian officials have exacerbated a pre-existing breakdown in mutual trust by denying involvement in Ukraine even as leaders in the governing United Russia Party claim credit for providing heavy weapons and other aid on Russian television.  When rebel leaders simultaneously acknowledge the presence of active-duty but “vacationing” Russian military personnel in Ukraine, it is hard to take Moscow’s pronouncements seriously.  The fact that many of the original rebel leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk were not locals and had Russian nationalist backgrounds adds to the sense that Russia was behind their actions. 

Nevertheless, Russia’s conduct in Ukraine did not initially threaten vital U.S. national interests as will be explained below. But as the U.S.-Russia confrontation over Ukraine continues and intensifies, America’s vital interests may be increasingly at stake.  Unfortunately, because those interests are complex and multi-dimensional, the United States cannot protect all U.S. interests through simple and one-dimensional responses like more pressure on Russia or more engagement.  

What should the United States do?  The essential first step is to acknowledge that Washington’s current approach has been ineffective and that the present fragile cease-fire in Ukraine is no basis for complacency. Quite the contrary.

Any new policy requires both conceptual clarity and, even more important, the political will to develop and implement a strategy that will genuinely advance U.S. national interests and particularly U.S. vital national interests.

The Obama administration claims that its policy—based primarily on imposing costs on Russia through several rounds of sanctions—is working. Certainly the administration has successfully collaborated with the European Union and other key allies like Canada, Japan, and Australia to impose sanctions and voice its moral outrage for Moscow’s actions.  The West at present stands united in the face of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which is certainly quite important, and it was neither easy nor automatic to achieve this unity.  Still, U.S. policy is only “working” if the West can alter Moscow’s calculations and therefore its conduct.  So far, sanctions have not prevented Russia from meddling in Ukrainian affairs and they appear unlikely to change its behavior in any substantial way in the period ahead.

What have sanctions accomplished?  It is not easy to measure their economic impact because the policy has coincided with a significant decline in energy prices, a development that discourages both foreign and domestic investors and significantly pressures the ruble, which has declined since February 28 by 24 percent in value to the dollar.  Still, because the Russian federal budget requires oil prices above $90 per barrel to avoid deficit spending, the sanctions are likely contributing to Russia’s economic troubles, especially by curtailing critical long-term investment in energy exploration and by contributing to inflation that is beginning to hurt ordinary Russians.

If curtailing Russia’s economic growth (not significantly by most analyses) and punishing Russian consumers are the primary goals of U.S. and European Union policy, then the sanctions could be considered a limited success.  Conversely, if the Western objective is to change Russian behavior in Ukraine or, more broadly, to tame Putin’s defiant foreign policy, then neither developments in Russia nor the history of sanctions elsewhere provides much basis for optimism.  At the very same time, the sanctions and Obama’s broader policy toward Russia may produce unintended but predictable consequences that jeopardize American national interests.

The United States wields an unparalleled combination of military power, economic might, leverage in the international financial system, and strong alliances. It also possesses a political and economic model that appeals even to some detractors of U.S. policies.  There can be no doubting that America can afford to be far less selective, and far less careful, pursuing its interests and values than any other nation.  Still, however great America’s power and freedom of action, they are not unlimited.

The history of Washington’s interventions from Vietnam to Iraq offers a clear reminder of the limits of American power.  What this history also demonstrates is that the American people may be willing to start optional wars, but will not support them forever or at any cost.  When voters are not reacting to an attack or to a clear and direct threat to United States, the U.S. political system, more often than not, is ill suited to sustain long-term conflicts, where victory is elusive and sustained patience is mandatory. 

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