Dealing with Putin

November 16, 2014 Topic: Security Region: Ukraine

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.

Russia, the European Union and United States should be natural allies in the fight against Al Qaeda, ISIL, the Taliban and similar terrorist organizations. However, if the Russian government which increasingly views the United States as its principal adversary makes this an organizing principle of its foreign policy the consequences could be quite serious. This is not simply a question of losing possible opportunities to share intelligence or cooperate in other ways—few seem to recall that during the Cold War, Soviet security services actively assisted terrorist groups targeting U.S. and Western civilians.  The absence of a great power sponsor has been the main weaknesses of modern terrorist movements.  If a confrontation with Russia continues and intensifies, Moscow could fill that void. There are some in the Russian security services who are reputed to consider selective aid to terrorist groups targeting the U.S. as a possible asymmetrical response to American economic pressures.  Even some of those eager to restore ties to the West, and particularly to Europe, say that this can only occur through obostrenie, meaning that Moscow must first intensify the confrontation to give Western leaders a dose of reality. 

Taken in isolation, Russia’s conduct in Ukraine presents geopolitical and moral challenges but does not threaten the vital U.S. national interests described above.  There are no grounds for a European domino theory or fear that a compromise with Moscow would be a new Munich.  Vladimir Putin is no Adolf Hitler and Russia is no Nazi Germany.  A united NATO stands in sharp contrast to the divided Europe that Hitler exploited in 1938.  And Putin, with his background as a ruthless but cautious intelligence operative can hardly be compared to the German racist demagogue.  

Moscow argues that the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych’s corrupt and inept but legitimately elected government released Russia from its obligation to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. As noted above, this assertion is unpersuasive. Instead, the Ukraine crisis provided Moscow with a unique combination of both the danger of an imminent humiliating defeat and the opportunity for a major victory in annexing Crimea, which the vast majority of Russians view as an integral part of the Russia. 

The real danger to vital U.S. interests in the Ukrainian crisis is not that Putin will seek to rebuild the Soviet Union, but the fear in a number of NATO frontline states that America is not prepared to deliver on its Article 5 commitments in the face of Russian efforts to use military and energy blackmail to undermine the European order.  This is a serious and legitimate concern.  Moreover, it is not limited to Europe because many other nations, friend and foe alike, wonder about both President Obama’s foreign policy and how much they can rely on America.

Therefore, the administration could not stand idly by in the face of Putin’s challenge to the post-Cold War order and, as have many of its predecessors, it reached for the economic sanctions instrument. The trouble is that with rare exceptions, the history of economic sanctions demonstrates few instances of success and no precedent for a major power like Russia changing its policies on key issues under pressure.  It is not easy to compel action even by medium to smaller countries like Iran and Cuba.

At the same time, as we have seen in Iran, sanctions provide a convenient excuse for domestic economic trouble which is creating a strong nationalist backlash too. In Russia, Putin is already riding a powerful nationalist wave that has lifted his approval rating to 86% and simultaneously generated righteous indignation against the West, particularly the United States.  Indeed, Western sanctions are the most important mechanism for the mass mobilization of Russian opinion against the United States and Europe. This nationalist fever helps Putin withstand sanctions even as it makes it more difficult for him to back away from the Ukrainian separatists. 

If the Congress passes legislation codifying existing sanctions imposed on Russia by executive order, Washington may find that semi-permanent U.S. sanctions on Russia make Moscow a determined adversary for a long time to come.  Few expected the Jackson-Vanik amendment imposing trade restrictions on the Soviet Union to last 40 years or that it would be in place for more than twenty years after the USSR itself ceased to exist and Russia no longer restricted Jewish emigration.  How will Russia’s elites react to years or decades of personally targeted sanctions?  Sanctions that are politically easy to impose but almost impossible to lift are too blunt an instrument for great power diplomacy.

Another danger is the likely gap between American and Russian perceptions of economic sanctions.  The U.S. view sanctions as an alternative to war because they do not significantly affect the American people.  Russians may have the opposite view, however, if sanctions impose truly intolerable pain.  Should this happen, Moscow’s response may not be submission but an asymmetrical assault on U.S. national interests.  This could include cyber-attacks, support for anti-American terrorists or expanded military action in Ukraine.

Instead of applying economic sanctions against Russia (which have not changed Putin’s behavior in Ukraine; have hurt the Russian people; will likely become a semi-permanent feature of the international landscape; and will make repairing U.S.-Russian relations more difficult), the United States should have concentrated its efforts on reassuring its Alliance partners consistent with the second U.S. vital national interest identified above.  After intense discussions with the Europeans, President Obama in a major speech to the nation should have announced these concrete steps arising out of the Ukraine crisis:  He would seek from the Congress a substantial increase in the defense budget; the U.S. would permanently deploy substantial ground and air units in Poland and the Baltic States along with other NATO Allies; it would accelerate military technology transfer to Poland; it would enhanced its intelligence facilities and capabilities closest to Russia’s borders; it would review again the issue of enhanced BMD deployments in Eastern Europe; it would convene a major Washington Energy Conference on the subject of how to reduce European dependence on Russian energy over the long term; it would go forward with the Keystone pipeline; it would approve the licenses of a dozen or more U.S. natural gas terminals and seek new legislation to foster the export of American energy; and it would urgently try to conclude the TTIP and to smooth the way for Congressional approval.  And the President would make clear he was taking all these major initiatives to strengthen the Alliance because of Russia’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine.   The Administration took not a single one of these actions, but it is not too late.

At the same time, the Obama administration should urge the Baltic states to do more for their own security, which would mean upping their defense budgets; in the case of Latvia and Lithuania defense outlays are below two percent of GDP and considering that they are most vulnerable to Russia aggression, they would be wise to let others in NATO act as leaders in public condemnations of  Moscow’s practices. The Obama administration is right to limit military assistance to Kiev, which could trigger preemptive Russian military action. Imagine the reaction in Moscow if U.S. weapons kill Russian soldiers. With Moscow’s tactical nuclear superiority and its local conventional dominance, any steps that could encourage further Russian intervention would be imprudent.  Nevertheless, Washington should quietly but strongly explain to the Russian government that expanding fighting in Ukraine would inevitably increase pressure on Washington and others in NATO to provide major military assistance to Ukraine.  This is not an idle threat but rather an obvious statement of fact, particularly after the Republican takeover of the Senate, that Western leaders should encourage Putin and his advisors to take into account in their policy formulation.

Nor should we deceive ourselves with the cynical view that at worst, Ukraine will be the home of a new and ugly frozen conflict that America can live with.  Neither Kiev nor the insurgents are interested in maintaining the status quo.  For the Ukrainian government, separatist control over eastern Ukraine is a fundamental challenge to Kiev’s legitimacy.  In addition, it is an obstacle to Ukraine’s aspirations for EU and NATO membership and a constant source of encouragement to disillusioned Russian-speakers in eastern and southern Ukraine to resist federal rule.  For the insurgents, the current ceasefire line, which leaves the Donetsk airport under control of loyalist troops, is unacceptable in the absence of a meaningful diplomatic process.  Russia may also be quite tempted to establish a land bridge to Crimea before winter complicates supplying the peninsula.  Finally, there are too many radical field commanders, angry paramilitaries, and frustrated citizens hungry for combat on all sides.

The general contours of a settlement to the Ukraine crisis can be imagined.  Key elements include:

-assuring Ukraine’s territorial integrity, with the exception of Crimea, where the sides will continue to disagree;

-providing greater autonomy to eastern and southern Ukraine while maintaining the Kiev government’s genuine sovereignty over those territories;

-ensuring that Ukraine is able to pursue association with the European Union without Russian interference but with a trilateral consultation regarding the impact of an Ukrainian EU affiliation on the Russian economy; and,