What to Say to Russia

March 14, 2014 Topic: Global Governance Region: Russia

What to Say to Russia

Lower demands, lower expectations and remind Putin that both sides have a lot to lose from further escalation.


The United States has a powerful interest in stopping the Ukraine crisis from escalating. The Obama administration rightly wants to shift its focus away from Europe and the Middle East and towards China. Restoring Ukraine as a buffer between Russia and Western Europe will help alleviate insecurity on both sides, making it easier to pivot to Asia. On the other hand, conflict in Ukraine will deepen the rift between Russia and the West and make it difficult to cooperate on issues from arms control and counterterrorism to Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

If the administration hopes to make any headway in order to stave off conflict, it needs to convince Vladimir Putin that making a deal is better than making trouble. Specifically, U.S. officials need to deliver a set of reminders, warnings, threats and assurances.


American diplomats should remind Russia that it was much better off before it sent armed forces to Ukraine. If Putin had stayed put, Russia could have maintained a reliable voting bloc in Crimea, which would have been useful given the very close results in recent elections. In addition, Russia could have waited for the inevitable Ukrainian backlash against the West for having to implement IMF austerity measures. It could have avoided a dreadful stock-market and currency plunge. And Russia could have focused media attention on the shadier characters in the new Ukraine government, rather than diverting media attention by sending its own masked men into the Crimea.

The simple message to Putin is that Russia’s strategic position was quite favorable before it blundered into Ukraine, and he can restore that position if he is willing to back down in the current crisis.

Diplomats should also deliver a simple warning: Things will get worse no matter what Washington does. A formal annexation of Crimea will drive Ukraine closer to NATO and lead European states to balance against Russia. It will validate the far-right parties in Kiev who are most opposed to Russian interests. And it will further discourage investors, especially if they believe that Putin has designs on territories in the east of the country. Russia has put its security as well as its economy at risk, and it stands to lose a great deal more in a prolonged conflict.

To reinforce that point, diplomats may threaten specific sanctions against specific Russians. The utility of economic sanctions partly depends on the nature of the target regime. Sanctions are particularly effective if a foreign leader needs the support of key economic elites; if sanctions target those elites, the leader is more likely to back down. Thus if the Treasury Department can identify a set of elites on whom Putin relies, then the United States may be able to craft sanctions that cause him to reconsider. While sanctions are not a silver bullet, they may be useful in combination with other tools of coercion, and there is some evidence that Putin is sensitive to investors.

Finally, U.S. officials must offer credible assurances that Washington will honor its commitments if Russia agrees to strike a deal, even if those commitments include formal recognition of Russian interests in the region and limits to American support for Ukraine. This will be a very hard sell. Russian leaders may reasonably doubt U.S. promises after watching Washington support NATO’s expansion for more than two decades. They may also be wary of U.S. overtures, given the fact that the Obama administration has treated the current crisis as a morality play, with Ukrainian protesters playing the heroes and the Kremlin and its allies playing the villains.

One easy way for Washington to build credibility with Moscow is to change its public rhetoric. The Obama administration can raise questions about the far-right-wing officials who took part in the street protests and now occupy several important roles in the new government. It can stress the importance of respecting everyone’s interests in the future of Ukraine, while toning down the high-sounding talk about the inviolable norm of sovereignty. Diplomats can also quietly suggest that the American public and Congress are not keen on open-ended foreign aid packages like the one that will be needed to rescue the wheezing Ukrainian economy. In fact, the administration would probably be happy to avoid a political fight over the issue, even if that meant enduring Russian influence in Kiev.

Above all, the administration should lower its expectations and its demands. While Russia has compelling strategic reasons to restore the former status quo, Vladimir Putin has not proven to be much of a strategist. He is unlikely to remove Russian forces any time soon, especially now that he has invested Russian nationalism and his own reputation in Crimea. For this reason, the United States runs a major risk of escalation with little hope of success if it insists on a complete withdrawal as a precondition to political negotiations. Opportunities for successful diplomacy remain if U.S. officials can put together a set of credible threats and promises, but the chances of resolving the crisis in a way that suits U.S. interests will vanish if the administration commits itself to an offer that Russia can’t accept.

Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security at Southern Methodist University.