Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

Pinning Down Putin

| June 09, 2020

How a Confident America Should Deal With Russia

Few nations elicit such fatalism among American policymakers and analysts as Vladimir Putin’s Russia. For some, the country is an irredeemable pariah state, responsive only to harsh punishment and containment. Others see a wronged and resurgent great power that deserves more accommodation. Perspectives vary by the day, the issue, and the political party. Across the board, however, resignation has set in about the state of U.S.-Russian relations, and Americans have lost confidence in their own ability to change the game.

But today’s Russia is neither monolithic nor immutable. Inside the country, low oil prices, the coronavirus pandemic, and Russians’ growing sense of malaise all bring new costs and risks for the Kremlin. Abroad, Putin has played a weak hand well because the United States and its allies have let him, allowing Russia to violate arms control treaties, international law, the sovereignty of its neighbors, and the integrity of elections in the United States and Europe.

Washington and its allies have forgotten the statecraft that won the Cold War and continued to yield results for many years after. That strategy required consistent U.S. leadership at the presidential level, unity with democratic allies and partners, and a shared resolve to deter and roll back dangerous behavior by the Kremlin. It also included incentives for Moscow to cooperate and, at times, direct appeals to the Russian people about the benefits of a better relationship. Yet that approach has fallen into disuse, even as Russia’s threat to the liberal world has grown.

Whoever wins the U.S. presidential election this coming fall will—and should—try again with Putin. The first order of business, however, must be to mount a more unified and robust defense of U.S. and allied security interests wherever Moscow challenges them. From that position of strength, Washington and its allies can offer Moscow cooperation when it is possible. They should also resist Putin’s attempts to cut off his population from the outside world and speak directly to the Russian people about the benefits of working together and the price they have paid for Putin’s hard turn away from liberalism.

The fatalists may prove right that little will change inside Russia. But U.S. interests will be better protected by an activist policy that couples a strong defense with an open hand if the relationship improves. Such an approach would increase the costs of Putin’s aggressive behavior, would keep democracies safer, and may even lead the Russian people to question their own fatalism about the prospects for a better future.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nuland, Victoria.“Pinning Down Putin.” Foreign Affairs, June 9, 2020.