Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

Dealing with Putin

| November 16, 2014

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.

Less obvious, but still significant, are the limits imposed by the international system as a whole and particularly by other major powers.  While weaker than the United States, other major powers alone or especially in combination may have the capabilities and determination to stand up to Washington at specific times in specific places.  The United States should take these international realities especially seriously when dealing with a Russia that has a powerful strategic nuclear arsenal, a global presence that includes regional superiority in key areas along its frontiers, and an acute sense that its own existential national interests are at risk in the Ukraine crisis.

Expecting Russia to react to U.S. pressure like a smaller and weaker version of the United States or, alternatively, like a bigger but still relatively feeble analogue of Serbia in the 1990s, is dangerously misguided. Russia has its own style of conducting war. It has a tendency to be initially ill-prepared, to conceal its activities in a fashion unusual for democratic states and then to fight fiercely with little concern for casualties both in terms of human lives and damage to its own economy—the 26 million lives lost in World War II provide a potent reminder of that disposition. When the Obama administration asserts that we are not in a Cold War with Russia today, it engages in a wishful thinking coupled with political convenience. Unfortunately, whatever administration officials may think, a new Cold War is already starting and, while it may differ in important respects from the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, it could produce a real war and the attendant dangers of nuclear conflict. And the fact is that Russia’s leaders see it this way.

In this context, America needs to define clearly what U.S. vital national interests actually are.  As we see it, vital interests are those truly essential to safeguard America’s survival and well-being as a free and secure nation.  Russia can thus directly affect at least three vital U.S. interests:

-Preventing the use and slowing the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, securing nuclear weapons and materials, and slowing proliferation of intermediate and long-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons;

-Maintaining, including through America’s alliance systems, a balance of power in Europe and Asia that promotes peace and stability with a continuing U.S. leadership role; and,

-Preventing large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on the American Homeland.

Russia is self-evidently the only country that could destroy America as we know it in 30 minutes with strategic nuclear weapons.  Russia also has ten-to-one superiority in tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.  The Obama administration and most of the U.S. national security elite may not consider this important in the conviction that U.S. strategic nuclear forces will deter Moscow from using its tactical weapons. Such complacency is unwarranted. Russian military doctrine assesses that this superiority provides Moscow with escalation dominance and Russian officials may believe that their regional nuclear dominance would deter an American response.  This creates a clear and present danger.

Recent events have already demonstrated Russia’s ability to act on its revanchist instincts in Europe and the disturbing consequences that its actual and possible actions can have for not only U.S.-led alliances like NATO, but also the global balance of power.  U.S. policymakers should not want to face a choice between risking nuclear conflict in Europe or appearing unable to deliver on its security obligations to NATO partners and, by implication, to America’s Asian allies.  Likewise, as the United States strives to manage China’s emergence as a global power, it is not in America’s interest to have Moscow encouraging Beijing to challenge the United States and providing additional opportunities to do so.

Though Russia is clearly not in the same league as the United States in political, economic or military terms, if Moscow chose to become a global spoiler and actively sought to undermine U.S. policies it could significantly endanger vital U.S. national interests, including in combating terrorism and pursuing non-proliferation.  Moscow could also increase even more the gridlock in the United Nations Security Council.

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,

-reaffirming Ukraine’s non-NATO membership.

Unfortunately, while the fundamentals of a successful agreement are well understood, it is far more difficult to reach such a deal in practice than in theory.  Two big problems regarding the Ukraine crisis are the extent to which both sides mistrust one another and the Obama administration’s apparent lack of interest in investing any real political capital in seeking a solution in Ukraine. As with many aspects of the Obama foreign policy, the White House appears reluctant to deploy political capital in controversial but potentially effective actions.  A realistic and lasting solution would have to reflect the national interests and protect the dignity of both sides, including President Putin, yet most in Washington want to treat Putin as if he were Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi.

Secretary of State John Kerry appears vainly to hope that his not-so-special relationship with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will somehow produce a solution to the Ukraine crisis.  In the wake of Russia’s apparently refusal to attend the 2015 Nuclear Security Summit and its rejection of intelligence sharing to counter ISIL, it should be clear that this cannot succeed.  Under the circumstances, there is no responsible alternative to attempting to open a private channel to Putin and trying to end the U.S.-Russian confrontation over Ukraine before it gets completely out of control. Our candidates for that task are the team of Henry Kissinger and White House Counselor to the President John Podesta who just demonstrated his diplomatic skills in dealing with Beijing—but for them or anyone else to have a chance, President Obama must first recognize the peril to U.S. vital national interests that the crisis in Ukraine may create during his remaining years in office and beyond, and to act accordingly.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Blackwill, Robert and Dimitri K. Simes.“Dealing with Putin.” The National Interest, November 16, 2014.