Containing Putin’s Russia

Former Assistant Secretary of State (in the previous (Obama) Administration) and victoria_nulandformer CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), Victoria “Toria” Nuland, who is also the Brady-Johnson Distinguished Practitioner in Grand Strategy at Yale University, and a Member of the Board of the National Endowment for Democracy, has penned an interesting article in Foreign Affairs.

Few nations,” she writes, “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 … [that’s about where I sit on the spectrum, while] … 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,” says Ms Nuland, who has been described as a “neocon” by some commentators, “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.

Then, echoing Robert Gates’ comments which I discussed just a couple of days ago, she says, and I agree, fully, that “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.

The problem, in my opinion, began in the Putin-Lines-590-LIObama administration, in which Ms Nuland was a very senior official, when “lines in the sand” were drawn and then redrawn and drawn again … and Putin crossed each without consequence. It is worse in the Trump administration which appears, to some observers, to be afraid to fight and even unwilling to recognize Putin’s Russia as a teal, verified threat to peace and stability.

Ms Nuland says that “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 … [and for that the US administration needs to rebuild alliances, not to tear them down even further, but that means that weak-sister allies, like Canada, must step up and do a fair share] … From that position of strength, Washington and its allies can offer Moscow cooperation when it is possible … [and, by implication, constraint, even force, when peaceful coexistence is not 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 … [see again, Secretary Gates’ comments a couple of days ago about soft power agencies like USIA, but] … The fatalists may … [likely will, in my opinion] … 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.

Screen Shot 2020-08-01 at 07.14.16Both Russians and the people of the West wished Putin well, back in 2000, when he aimed to restore law and order inside Russia and make Russia a respected actor on the world’s stage. But it didn’t turn out that way, instead of law and order the Russian people got an autocrat and watched their (always unfamiliar) liberties drift away. On the world’s stage, we saw a thug, not a partner for peace.

Both Democratic and Republican presidents worked closely with U.S. allies to prevent Putin from reestablishing a Russian sphere of influence in eastern Europe and from vetoing the security arrangements of his neighbors … [Ms Nuland says, but NATO enlargement proved to be a serious sticking point, because] …  If Russia couldn’t reclaim lands it had once dominated, only a zone of nonalignment stretching from eastern Germany to the Baltic and Black Seas would keep Russia safe, Putin asserted. But few in Washington considered it an option to slam the door on the new democracies of central and eastern Europe, which had worked for years to meet NATO’s rigorous admission standards and were now clamoring for membership. Leaving them in a geopolitical gray area would not have kept those states safe and free. Russia’s brutal treatment of those countries that were left in security limbo—Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—has since made that clear.I continue to believe that NATO enlargement was a mistake, but I certainly appreciate Ms Nuland’s point of view … there was strong diplomatic pressure on the US from the former Russian colonies.

Ms Nuland says that “Putin has always understood that a belt of increasingly democratic, prosperous states around Russia would pose a direct challenge to his leadership model and risk reinfecting his own people with democratic aspirations. This is why Putin was never going to take a “live and let live” approach to former Soviet lands and satellite states. Instead, he seized on practically every democratic struggle of the last 20 years—Kosovo’s successful push for independence in 2008, the protests that set off the Syrian civil war in 2011, the Bolotnaya Square protests in Moscow in 2011–12, the Maidan uprising in Ukraine in 2014—to fuel the perception at home of Russian interests under siege by external enemies. For a long time, it worked. Russia’s conquests in Ukraine and Syria were wildly popular at home and deflected attention from its internal problems. With these successes, Putin’s geopolitical appetite grew. He came to believe that democratic states were weak and that Russia could corrode their political systems and social cohesion from the inside.” I call it “opportunistic adventurism” or “adventurous opportunism” and it has worked for him.

In no small measure,” ‘Toria’ Nuland writes, “the United States and its allies have enabled Putin’s boldness. Over the past 12 years, Putin and his cronies have paid a relatively small price for their actions. Russia has violated arms control treaties; fielded new, destabilizing weapons; threatened Georgia’s sovereignty; seized Crimea and much of the Donbas; and propped up despots in Libya, Syria, and Venezuela. It has used cyberweapons against foreign banks, electrical grids, and government systems; interfered in foreign democratic elections; and assassinated its enemies on European soil. The United States, meanwhile, has drawn redlines it later erased, pulled out of treaties and territory it needed to pressure Russia, openly questioned its own commitment to NATO, strained its alliances with tariffs and recriminations, and even lent presidential credibility to Putin’s disinformation campaigns. U.S. and allied sanctions, although initially painful, have grown leaky or impotent with overuse and no longer impress the Kremlin. Russian diplomats attend international negotiations on Syria, Ukraine, arms control, and other issues with instructions to stall any real agreement, thereby buying their country time to strengthen its ground position. Russia has also mastered the art of exploiting divisions in and between the United States and allied countries, thwarting their efforts at crafting a coherent counterstrategy.” It is important to understand that she is correct in asserting that containing Russian aggression always had to be an allied quest and the failure ~ and there’s no other word for it, is there? ~ is not America’s, alone.

But Putin cannot achieve his aims easily. “The United States and its allies have also lost focus on the one thing that should worry the Russian president:” Ms Nuland says, “the mood inside Russia .. [because] … Despite Putin’s power moves abroad, 20 years of failing to invest in Russia’s modernization may be catching up with him. In 2019, Russia’s GDP growth was an anemic 1.3 percent. This year, the coronavirus pandemic and the free fall in oil prices could result in a significant economic contraction. International sanctions deter serious foreign investment in Russia from most countries except China. Putin’s insistence on tight state control and on the renationalization of key sectors of the economy has suppressed innovation and diversification. Russia’s roads, rails, schools, and hospitals are crumbling. Its citizens have grown restive as promised infrastructure spending never appears, and their taxes and the retirement age are going up. Corruption remains rampant, and Russians’ purchasing power continues to shrink. In polls conducted in the country by the Levada Center last year, 59 percent of respondents supported “decisive, comprehensive change,” up from 42 percent in 2017. A staggering 53 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they wanted to emigrate, the highest number since 2009.

And we should add to that the constant and growing threat from China which, I believe, does not, at almost any level, accept that notion of Russian control over Siberia which the Chinese see as being Asian and, therefore, as being in their sphere of influence.

Victoria Nuland says that “The challenge for the United States in 2021 will be to lead the democracies of the world in crafting a more effective approach to Russia—one that builds on their strengths Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 13.56.35and puts stress on Putin where he is vulnerable, including among his own citizens … [I agree with her, but I have little hope for that happening so long as Donald J Trump is in power] … To call this “great-power competition” or “a new Cold War” would be to give Putin too much credit: today’s Russia pales in comparison to the Soviet adversary. Depicting Putin’s Russia as a peer or an invincible enemy denigrates the United States’ ability to deter and resist dangerous Kremlin policy. But the United States should not take this on alone. As in the past, it must mobilize its global alliances, shore up their internal defenses, and work jointly with others to rebuff Russian encroachments in hot spots around the world.” But the allies, including Canada, must be ready, willing and able to do their fair share, and Canadians must, finally, grow up (again, as we did in the 1940s) and recognize that, now, in 2020, we have, for 50 years, been a shirker, a weak sister, hiding, fearfully, behind America’s skirts.

Ms Nuland says, and I agree that “The effort should start among the democracies themselves. As the U.S. diplomat George Kennan counseled in his “Long Telegram” of 1946, when dealing with Moscow, “much depends on [the] health and vigor of our own society.” The first order of business is to restore the unity and confidence of U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia and end the fratricidal rhetoric, punitive trade policies, and unilateralism of recent years. The United States can set a global example for democratic renewal by investing in public health, innovation, infrastructure, green technologies, and job retraining while reducing barriers to trade. Free people around the world also need their leaders to provide a shot of inspiration and confidence in democracy itself … [and in an especially important bit she says that] … Moscow should also see that Washington and its allies are taking concrete steps to shore up their security and raise the cost of Russian confrontation and militarization. That includes maintaining robust defense budgets, continuing to modernize U.S. and allied nuclear weapons systems, and deploying new conventional missiles and missile defenses to protect against Russia’s new weapons systems. As the United States improves in areas in which Russia seeks or has gained an edge—hypersonic missiles, undersea weapons, cybersecurity, and anti-access/area-denial capabilities—it needs to do more to bring its allies along. For example, it should develop more of its high-tech weapons systems jointly with its allies, establish permanent bases along NATO’s eastern border, and increase the pace and visibility of joint training exercises. U.S. requests for targeted military investment would also lead to better burden sharing among NATO allies than has endless political hectoring.”  Victoria Nuland is correct. Russia is a threat to global (at least regional peace and security) and it needs to be contained. Renewed containment must be a US-led, allied effort. Canada must be part of this security renewal and that means, inter Screen Shot 2020-08-01 at 07.57.31alia, joining in a continental strategic trump flagballistic missile defence system. But before that can happen both Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau must be tossed on to the political trash heap, where both belong.

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