Obama’s Leverage Over Putin

This president has more nonmilitary options than his predecessors had for responding to Moscow’s aggression.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin gestures during his meeting with Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in Putin's Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on March 5, 2014.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
March 6, 2014, 4 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama is not the first Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent to be con­fron­ted by pro­voca­tions and mil­it­ary ac­tions from Mo­scow. All 12 pres­id­ents since World War II have faced such chal­lenges. But Obama is one of the first to have a broad range of po­ten­tially bit­ing non­mil­it­ary re­sponses to em­ploy — a meas­ure of how much Rus­sia has been in­teg­rated in­to the world’s fin­an­cial sys­tem since the fall of the Ber­lin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

It is why Amer­ic­an poli­cy­makers are so con­vinced that Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin has mis­cal­cu­lated by dis­patch­ing troops to Crimea. And why you hear over and over again from the White House and State De­part­ment that Putin does not seem to un­der­stand the in­ter­con­nec­ted­ness of the 21st-cen­tury world.

“What we see here are dis­tinctly 19th- and 20th-cen­tury de­cisions made by Pres­id­ent Putin to ad­dress prob­lems, de­ploy­ing mil­it­ary forces rather than ne­go­ti­at­ing,” says a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, speak­ing on back­ground. “But what he needs to un­der­stand is that in terms of his eco­nomy, he lives in the 21st-cen­tury world, an in­ter­de­pend­ent world.”

The of­fi­cial ad­ded poin­tedly: “You may have no­ticed his eco­nomy is not in the greatest of shape. The ruble has taken a sig­ni­fic­ant hit…. He de­pends on good trade re­la­tions with all of us, not­ably with Europe. And it is go­ing to be very dif­fi­cult for him to main­tain those good re­la­tions with the out­side world while he is us­ing his mil­it­ary forces to threaten and in­tim­id­ate a neigh­bor.” An­oth­er seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, not­ing that the ruble has fallen 8.3 per­cent so far this year, calls the Rus­si­an eco­nomy “really quite vul­ner­able” be­cause of its in­teg­ra­tion in glob­al mar­kets.

That vul­ner­ab­il­ity is a re­l­at­ively new state of af­fairs for Mo­scow. “The So­viet Uni­on was eco­nom­ic­ally isol­ated. It did not par­ti­cip­ate in glob­al trade to any sig­ni­fic­ant de­gree,” says Jef­frey Mankoff, a former ad­viser to the State De­part­ment on Rus­sia and now deputy dir­ect­or of the Rus­sia and Euras­ia Pro­gram at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies. “It had an un­con­vert­ible cur­rency. And cer­tainly the level of trade and in­vest­ment flows between the So­viet Uni­on and the West was ex­tremely lim­ited. Today, that is ob­vi­ously dif­fer­ent.”

In­deed, it was a mat­ter of great frus­tra­tion to many Cold War pres­id­ents that their non­mil­it­ary op­tions for ad­dress­ing So­viet ag­gres­sion were so few. When the USSR in­vaded Hun­gary in 1956, Dwight Eis­en­hower did little more than com­plain to the United Na­tions. When So­viet troops crushed the Prague Spring in Czechoslov­akia in 1968, Lyn­don John­son, sim­il­arly, went to the U.N. Neither was will­ing to risk a broad­er war to halt the So­viet in­va­sions. John Kennedy made the same cal­cu­la­tion when the Ber­lin Wall went up in 1961. As did Ron­ald Re­agan in Septem­ber 1983, when the So­vi­ets shot down an un­armed South Korean ci­vil­ian plane that had veered in­to their air­space. Re­agan pro­claimed it a “crime against hu­man­ity” and an “act of bar­bar­ism.” But his ac­tions were weak when con­tras­ted with his words. All Re­agan did was can­cel an agree­ment on co­oper­a­tion on trans­port­a­tion and re­af­firm an ex­ist­ing ban on any land­ings in the United States by the So­viet air­line Aer­o­flot.

The dy­nam­ic began to change when the Cold War ended and Rus­sia could no longer keep its trad­ing with­in the former Comin­tern coun­tries of the East­ern Bloc. Start­ing in 1989, Mo­scow des­per­ately wanted to turn the G-7 in­to the G-8, and the mes­sage from the West was that the price of ad­mis­sion in­cluded shifts to­ward genu­ine demo­cracy and eco­nom­ic in­teg­ra­tion. Re­forms began. And by 1991, the an­nu­al al­lied sum­mits were be­ing called “G-7 Plus One.” At the Den­ver sum­mit in 1997, Rus­sia was re­war­ded for join­ing the Par­is Club of cred­it­or na­tions with full mem­ber­ship in what then be­came the G-8.

That gave George W. Bush new op­tions in 2008, when Rus­sia in­vaded parts of Geor­gia. He chose not to use any that would hurt Mo­scow, in­stead send­ing hu­man­it­ari­an aid to Geor­gia and sus­pend­ing NATO mil­it­ary con­tacts with Rus­sia and a pending ci­vil­ian nuc­le­ar agree­ment. But even with this re­strained re­sponse, the Rus­si­an eco­nomy shrank by 8 per­cent between 2008 and 2009, tak­ing a hit far worse than the rest of the world suffered that year. “A lot of Rus­si­an of­fi­cials and mem­bers of the elite were caught off guard by just how vul­ner­able to glob­al fin­an­cial pres­sures they ac­tu­ally were,” Mankoff told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

Six years later, Obama has even more op­tions. Be­cause most of the Rus­si­an elite and the ol­ig­archs shel­ter their money in European banks, sanc­tions could tar­get them, in­clud­ing freez­ing their as­sets and block­ing their travel. In­deed, the first sanc­tions an­nounced Thursday af­fected visas. Trade, en­ergy, and mil­it­ary co­oper­a­tion also could be cur­tailed. And, after all their struggles to join the G-8, the Rus­si­ans may be pretty lonely at this year’s sum­mit in June if Obama and oth­er West­ern al­lies boy­cott the meet­ings in So­chi.

But U.S. poli­cy­makers may find that some things haven’t changed since the 19th cen­tury. Al­though Mo­scow may be more con­scious of its eco­nom­ic vul­ner­ab­il­ity than it once was, it is still driv­en primar­ily by what it views as Rus­sia’s na­tion­al in­terests. His­tor­ic­ally, Rus­si­ans have seen Ukraine as far more im­port­ant than Geor­gia — and they were will­ing to take the eco­nom­ic hit for their in­cur­sion there. Ad­di­tion­ally, they can usu­ally count on European lead­ers be­ing re­luct­ant to fol­low Wash­ing­ton’s lead on sanc­tions, be­cause European coun­tries are more vul­ner­able than the United States to Rus­si­an sanc­tions against them.

So, for now, Amer­ic­an of­fi­cials are ad­vising pa­tience, in­sist­ing that time is not on Rus­sia’s side. “With time, they will find them­selves fur­ther isol­ated from the in­ter­na­tion­al in­sti­tu­tions, [and] there will be a fur­ther im­pact on their eco­nomy,” says one seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial. But, he adds, “that is go­ing to take a little while for them to see.”

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