Wrestling With Putin

The last two decades of Russia policy have yielded terrible results. Are there any good options left?

National Journal
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Michael Hirsh
April 3, 2014, 5 p.m.

As they dealt with Vladi­mir Putin over the course of three Amer­ic­an pres­id­en­cies, U.S. of­fi­cials al­ways knew he was a guy who was hard to fig­ure out. The prob­lem is, they nev­erdid fig­ure him out. “When I looked in­to his eyes, all I saw was a pair of steely eyes look­ing back at me,” Sandy Ber­ger, Bill Clin­ton’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser, re­called re­cently about his first meet­ing with the young, en­ig­mat­ic Putin in the late ‘90s. “I cer­tainly didn’t see his soul.”

Ber­ger’s com­ment was a rhet­or­ic­al shot at Clin­ton’s suc­cessor, George W. Bush, who in­fam­ously de­clared that he had looked in­to Putin’s soul and liked what he saw. But while his­tory hasn’t been kind to that sen­ti­ment, the truth is that our cur­rent pres­id­ent’s re­cord on Rus­sia doesn’t look much bet­ter. Dur­ing the 2012 elec­tion, hav­ing spent much of his first term try­ing and mostly fail­ing to “re­set” re­la­tions with Mo­scow, Pres­id­ent Obama mocked his op­pon­ent, Mitt Rom­ney, for sug­gest­ing that Rus­sia was Amer­ica’s “No. 1 geo­pol­it­ic­al foe.” “The 1980s called,” Obama cracked dur­ing the third pres­id­en­tial de­bate. “They want their for­eign policy back.”

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Last month, the 1980s — ac­tu­ally it was more like the 1950s — sud­denly did call. Per­son­ally de­fy­ing Obama, who had tried to talk Putin down in a 90-minute phone call, the Rus­si­an lead­er ab­ruptly an­nexed Crimea and harked back to the Cold War in a speech to the Duma, ac­cus­ing Wash­ing­ton of pur­su­ing “its in­fam­ous policy of con­tain­ment.” Overnight it was as if the So­viet Uni­on had in­vaded Hun­gary, or Czechoslov­akia, all over again. Rom­ney roared back from polit­ic­al ob­li­vi­on to de­liv­er a glee­ful I-told-you-so on TV talk shows — as did Sarah Pal­in, who wrote on Face­book, “I saw this one from Alaska!”

Obama has since found him­self play­ing a des­per­ate game of catch-up. Dur­ing a week of speed-sum­mit­eer­ing with G-7 lead­ers in Europe, the pres­id­ent hast­ily donned the un­fa­mil­i­ar hat of “lead­er of the free world” and de­clared in a speech that the Ukraine crisis was “a mo­ment of test­ing for Europe and the United States, and for the in­ter­na­tion­al or­der that we have worked for gen­er­a­tions to build.” Mean­while, along with the crisis abroad, Obama faces double jeop­ardy at home: new dis­agree­ment with­in his own party about how to handle Putin, and an un­usu­ally uni­fied phalanx of Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion that casts Obama as a weak lead­er who in­vited Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion.

So what to do now? Putin is only 61, and as long as he re­mains in power, he is likely to con­tin­ue de­fy­ing and pro­vok­ing the United States. When it comes to Rus­sia, we are liv­ing in a new era “defined by ideo­lo­gic­al clashes, na­tion­al­ist­ic re­sur­gence, and ter­rit­ori­al oc­cu­pa­tion,” as Obama’s just-de­par­ted am­bas­sad­or to Mo­scow, Mi­chael Mc­Faul, wrote last month in The New York Times. As both Obama and his po­ten­tial suc­cessors, Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic, weigh new strategies, it’s worth ex­plor­ing some the­or­ies about why things went wrong over the past 20 years — the­or­ies that may shed light on how Wash­ing­ton could right its Rus­sia policy go­ing for­ward.

One way or an­oth­er, it’s clear that too much Amer­ic­an hope­ful­ness about a changed post-Cold War Rus­sia has pre­vailed for too long. Putin’s oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea happened sud­denly, but it was in fact the cul­min­a­tion of a Krem­lin polit­ic­al philo­sophy years in the mak­ing. Ukraine’s polit­ic­al tur­moil last year was ig­nited by Putin’s brazen bid to get now-ous­ted Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych to renege on his pledge to join the European Uni­on, and in­duce him in­stead to join a “Euras­i­an Eco­nom­ic Uni­on” (based on what Putin called “the best val­ues of the So­viet Uni­on”). This ef­fort by Putin to counter the in­cur­sions of the West re­flec­ted an ethno-Rus­si­an am­bi­tion that runs deep in the sens­ib­il­ity of the coun­try’s popu­lace, which may help ex­plain the Rus­si­an auto­crat’s 80 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ings at home fol­low­ing the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea.

Some schol­ars have ar­gued that, through its own policies, Wash­ing­ton only en­cour­aged this Rus­si­an mis­trust of the West go­ing all the way back to the 1990s. In the dec­ade after the So­viet Uni­on’s col­lapse, the United States offered up a lot of poor eco­nom­ic ad­vice to Rus­sia. Cit­ing the coun­sel of their West­ern-trained ad­visers, both former So­viet lead­er Mikhail Gorbachev and his suc­cessor, Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Bor­is Yeltsin, con­fid­ently pre­dicted a brief trans­ition to a mar­ket eco­nomy. It all went hor­ribly sour: Privat­iz­a­tion of the former com­mun­ist pro­duc­tion sys­tem quickly de­gen­er­ated in­to the un­fair seizure of old state as­sets by party ap­par­at­chiks-turned-ol­ig­archs with in­sider con­nec­tions. Com­ing at the same time as the West pushed east­ward — ab­sorb­ing one after an­oth­er former So­viet satel­lite in­to NATO or the European Uni­on — the eco­nom­ic res­ults were so dev­ast­at­ing that con­spir­acy the­or­ies sprang up in Rus­sia al­leging that the ad­vice had been just an­oth­er Amer­ic­an plot.

This mis­trust of Amer­ica helped pro­pel the polit­ic­al rise of Putin, who came to power by prom­ising he would per­mit no fur­ther dis­in­teg­ra­tion of the old Rus­si­an em­pire. Since then, the United States has ten­ded to en­cour­age Rus­si­an sus­pi­cions by gen­er­ally treat­ing “Rus­sia as heir to the USSR’s policies and ob­ject­ives,” Leslie Gelb and Di­mitri Simes, two highly re­spec­ted for­eign policy ana­lysts, wrote in an art­icle in The Na­tion­al In­terest last year. The United States and Europe, they ar­gued, have cre­ated “an im­pres­sion that the West’s top pri­or­it­ies, long after the Cold War, in­clude not merely con­tain­ing Rus­sia but also trans­form­ing it.”

The pat­tern of mis­read­ing Rus­sia was not con­fined to the 1990s. Fol­low­ing Sept. 11, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion may have mis­un­der­stood Putin in at least one cru­cial re­spect. “He had ex­pec­ted that in re­turn for sup­port­ing the U.S., at least in the be­gin­ning of the war on ter­ror, we would re­cog­nize a Rus­si­an sphere of in­flu­ence,” says An­gela Stent, a former So­vi­et­o­lo­gist at Geor­getown Uni­versity. We did not, of course, re­cog­nize such a sphere. And, all the while, Putin’s power in­side Rus­sia was grow­ing based on a re­sur­gence of na­tion­al­ism.

But if some be­lieve that the United States was too high-handed to­ward Rus­sia dur­ing the 1990s and early 2000s, there is also a view that Obama went too far in the oth­er dir­ec­tion — by tak­ing too ac­com­mod­at­ing a pos­ture to­ward Rus­sia dur­ing the early years of his ad­min­is­tra­tion. One spe­cif­ic mis­take may have been in­vest­ing too much hope in Dmitry Med­ve­dev, who suc­ceeded Putin as pres­id­ent in 2008. “I think a prob­lem in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is that the re­set was very much pre­dic­ated on the re­la­tion­ship between Med­ve­dev and Obama, even though they un­der­stood that strings were be­ing pulled by Putin. Med­ve­dev did ap­pear to be young­er, not a product of the Cold War,” Stent says.

Yet Med­ve­dev’s in­ter­lude was brief, and it was soon clear that Putin was go­ing to be back in charge. In the view of Zbig­niew Brzez­in­ski, Jimmy Carter’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser, U.S. of­fi­cials bought in­to their own press about Obama’s trans­form­at­ive powers and the won­ders of glob­al in­teg­ra­tion — and wished Rus­sia in­to a more be­nign place than it really was. In­stead, with its broken eco­nomy and polit­ic­al sys­tem, and 20 years of pent-up an­ger over what So­viet re­vanchists and Pu­tinis­tas con­sidered West­ern per­fidy in ex­ploit­ing Rus­sia’s weak­ness after the Cold War, it was be­com­ing something very dif­fer­ent.

In an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al, Brzez­in­ski, the 86-year-old dean of Demo­crat­ic for­eign policy wise men, said that too few Rus­sia ex­perts in the gov­ern­ment today have a his­tor­ic­al memory of the “dark­er side” of Rus­si­an so­ci­ety and polit­ics. “We don’t have in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, on the stra­tegic level, people with a good sense of his­tory,” Brzez­in­ski said. “Very few people in the up­per ech­el­ons were deal­ing with the So­viet times 25 years ago.”¦ The young­er ones who came up were deal­ing not with former So­vi­ets but with a whole new gen­er­a­tion. They didn’t ask to what ex­tent that gen­er­a­tion in­tern­al­ized the earli­er his­tor­ic­al phase: the whole ex­per­i­ence of the Second World War, the in­stabil­ity that fol­lowed, the bru­tal­ity of the So­vi­ets. And then this move to­ward na­tion­al­ism.”

While one of the main cri­ti­cisms of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion was that it was over­stocked with Cold War­ri­ors who did not un­der­stand the nature of transna­tion­al ter­ror­ism after 9/11, some crit­ics sug­gest that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has the op­pos­ite prob­lem: It is top-heavy with coun­terter­ror­ism and coun­ter­insur­gency ex­perts who didn’t pay suf­fi­cient at­ten­tion to tra­di­tion­al state-on-state con­flict, and es­pe­cially Rus­sia.

Of course, Mc­Faul and seni­or Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials vehe­mently dis­agree with the idea that Obama did not have enough ad­visers with a real­ist­ic as­sess­ment of Rus­sia. “I wrote my first piece about Putin’s dark side in 2000 in The Wash­ing­ton Post,” Mc­Faul said in an email from Stan­ford, where he is teach­ing again. “I have lit­er­ally hun­dreds of pieces on that sub­ject writ­ten be­fore I joined the gov­ern­ment. So I think there’s a lot of ‘data’ to sug­gest that I didn’t have some rosy view of Pu­tin­ism, and I was the pres­id­ent’s top Rus­si­an ad­viser for five years. He too, in my view, has a very ac­cur­ate as­sess­ment of the man.”

Seni­or Obama of­fi­cials say that in an ad­min­is­tra­tion fam­ous for its pro­longed in­tern­al policy de­bates — over Afgh­anistan, over Syr­ia — there has been one over Rus­sia as well, just much quieter. Of­fi­cials say they were well aware of the harsh anti-West­ern views of Putin’s KGB-bred cronies, his move to auto­cracy, and his cor­rup­tion and mis­chief abroad. Yet Wash­ing­ton, they say, had no choice but to con­tin­ue what it con­sidered the “ex­per­i­ment” of lur­ing Rus­sia in­to the glob­al sys­tem be­cause of Mo­scow’s im­port­ance to so many U.S. ini­ti­at­ives around the world.

“Every con­ver­sa­tion about policy is al­ways about bal­an­cing Amer­ic­an near-term re­quire­ments that are im­port­ant — coun­terter­ror­ism, Afgh­anistan, nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity, non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, for which we have to have a good re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia — while re­cog­niz­ing that cop­ing with Putin’s Rus­sia was go­ing to be dif­fi­cult,” says a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial. James Stein­berg, Obama’s former deputy sec­ret­ary of State, says the idea be­hind the re­set was to “test what’s pos­sible.” No one in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, Stein­berg says, had any il­lu­sions that the policy would be “either we do everything with them or noth­ing. Which is what the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion wanted.”

In­deed, at least based on what they have said and writ­ten, seni­or Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­perts on Rus­sia can hardly be ac­cused of be­ing soft on Putin. Celeste Wal­lander, who suc­ceeded Mc­Faul as the seni­or Rus­sia ex­pert on the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, is a highly re­garded ana­lyst who said in 2005 that Rus­sia was tak­ing “es­sen­tially a 19th-cen­tury European great-power ap­proach to se­cur­ity and dip­lomacy.” Bill Burns, the cur­rent deputy sec­ret­ary of State who was am­bas­sad­or to Rus­sia be­fore Mc­Faul, is con­sidered to have a deep, real­ist­ic view of Rus­sia that spans the So­viet era.

That said, even Mc­Faul notes that aca­demia is pro­du­cing few­er Rus­sia policy spe­cial­ists than it once did — with po­ten­tial re­per­cus­sions for U.S. for­eign policy. “At Stan­ford, I haven’t taught a course on Rus­sia for a long, long time,” Mc­Faul says. “That means we are not feed­ing in people with in­terests in Rus­sia in­to the U.S. gov­ern­ment.” Stent, too, notes that the ranks of Rus­sia ex­perts in aca­demia have thinned.

But it isn’t just a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of Rus­sia that may be needed go­ing for­ward in gov­ern­ment and, by ex­ten­sion, aca­demia. U.S. of­fi­cials, as­serts Brzez­in­ski, have been slow to grasp the pe­cu­li­ar psy­cho­logy of Putin him­self: the would-be strong­man who likes hav­ing him­self pho­to­graphed bare-ches­ted or drop­ping op­pon­ents in judo matches; the iron lead­er with a sa­vior com­plex. “There is very little in Putin’s con­duct that is purely in Rus­si­an his­tory,” he says. “A lot of it is strik­ingly sim­il­ar to Hitler and Mus­solini — that nar­ciss­ist­ic me­ga­lo­mania, which be­comes more acute the more people around you are kiss­ing your be­hind.”

GOP strategists say the Ukraine crisis is crys­tal­iz­ing an emer­ging Re­pub­lic­an cri­tique of Obama’s for­eign policy go­ing in­to 2016, one that is unit­ing the party’s formerly war­ring fac­tions, join­ing ag­gress­ive neo­con­ser­vat­ives like John Mc­Cain with quasi-isol­a­tion­ists like Rand Paul. Most of them want a tough­er line against Mo­scow, in­clud­ing NATO re­in­force­ments and arms for the Ukrain­i­an army, and a total re­con­sid­er­a­tion of planned U.S. de­fense cuts. Ac­cord­ing to former Rom­ney seni­or ad­viser Dan Sen­or, the GOP’s base and its policy in­tel­lec­tu­als are con­ver­ging be­hind a new ar­gu­ment that blames Obama for a glob­al lead­er­ship “va­cu­um,” one that in­vited both Putin’s ag­gres­sion in Crimea and his brazen arm­ing of Bashar al-As­sad in Syr­ia. That word was ex­actly the one used by former Sec­ret­ary of State Con­doleezza Rice in a re­cent speech at the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee’s an­nu­al din­ner. “We’ve de­cided to step back,” Rice said of U.S. for­eign policy. “We’ve de­cided that if we step back and lower our voice, oth­ers will lead, oth­er things will fill that va­cu­um.”

It isn’t only Re­pub­lic­an par­tis­ans who have taken a harsh­er stance than the pres­id­ent. Former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton, in a sur­prise de­par­ture from her former “re­set” lan­guage — and from her former boss, Obama — re­cently com­pared Putin to Hitler. Gelb, for his part, ar­gues that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­mains some­what na­ive in think­ing that prob­lems can be simply talked through, or that dip­lo­mat­ic pres­sure will be enough. “My con­cern is Obama’s pat­tern of re­mov­ing the mil­it­ary di­men­sion from the table against ag­gressors,” Gelb says. “Obama gra­tu­it­ously gave Putin a free ride in Ukraine with his state­ment that we have no in­ten­tion to help de­fend Ukraine oth­er than the usu­al sanc­tions, dip­lomacy, and token arms. That’s like say­ing, ‘Here, take Ukraine.’ “

To be sure, a get-tough-with-Putin pos­ture car­ries no short­age of risks. It is well-known that Putin is in­censed by any­thing that smacks of in­tern­al in­ter­fer­ence in Rus­sia’s af­fairs, like the Mag­nit­sky Act, a 2012 law named after a murdered Rus­si­an law­yer un­der which the U.S. gov­ern­ment can pen­al­ize Mo­scow for hu­man-rights ab­uses. He is likely to be even more de­term­ined now that the United States has ap­plied new sanc­tions against his seni­or cronies. And he may re­spond to fur­ther pres­sure by step­ping up his ob­struc­tion of U.S. in­terests around the world — wheth­er the is­sue is Syr­ia (where Putin is sup­ply­ing As­sad against the U.S.-aided rebels); Ir­an (where Mo­scow op­poses too-strin­gent sanc­tions and is build­ing a re­act­or); or mis­sile de­fense (Putin pres­sured Obama to re­treat from a mis­sile-de­fense sys­tem, an­ger­ing Po­land and the Czech Re­pub­lic).

Anne-Mar­ie Slaughter, Obama’s former State De­part­ment policy-plan­ning chief, warned in an op-ed in The Wash­ing­ton Post re­cently against “re­div­id­ing the globe along an East-West ax­is.” Isol­at­ing Mo­scow, she said, would only “be­come a self-ful­filling proph­ecy that strengthens auto­cracy in Rus­sia and in­creases the like­li­hood of Rus­sia re­vert­ing to what the West con­siders a rogue state.” Obama him­self is wary of pre­cisely that out­come, aides say, one reas­on he is play­ing down the Crimean an­nex­a­tion.

Mean­while, Putin him­self may already be con­cerned about his isol­a­tion, which is per­haps why he phoned Obama late last week seek­ing a ne­go­ti­ated solu­tion. In fact, for all the hand-wringing over Obama and his pre­de­cessors’ ap­proach to Rus­sia, some ex­perts be­lieve that Putin is act­ing mainly out of weak­ness, not strength. The West, in oth­er words, really did win the Cold War, and the Ukraine crisis is only the back­lash. “The fact is, people didn’t ex­pect this be­cause they didn’t think Putin would make this mis­take. Rus­sia is ul­ti­mately go­ing to pay a bad price for this,” says Gideon Rose, the ed­it­or of For­eign Af­fairs magazine.

In the end, Wash­ing­ton may un­der­go a re­play, al­beit on a smal­ler scale, of the once-ra­ging Cold War de­bate over how harsh and mil­it­ar­ized the “con­tain­ment” of Mo­scow should be. Gelb, for one, thinks that be­cause of the sim­ul­tan­eous ex­ist­ence of com­mon glob­al goals and con­flicts with Rus­sia, the new ap­proach should be “a mix of con­tain­ment and détente 21st-cen­tury style. We can’t just give them a free hand to grab what they want, but we still have crit­ic­al com­mon in­terests.” Such a bal­anced policy might just work, as long as we give up try­ing to look in­to Vladi­mir Putin’s soul and open our eyes to the new real­ity he has cre­ated on the ground.

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