The Russian Question

Moscow may no longer be a superpower, but its revanchist politics are unsettling the international order. How should Donald Trump deal with Vladimir Putin?

From the mid-19th century until the mid-20th, the “German Question” was the
biggest and hardest question of geopolitics. The German Question, to put it simply, was whether or not a unification of German speakers under one rule would create a dangerously powerful state at the center of Europe. The answer to that question was decided in the end, as Otto von Bismarck had foreseen, by blood and iron. Two vast, catastrophic wars brought violence and destruction to the whole of Europe and finally left Germany defeated and divided. By the time of its reunification in 1990, demographic decline and cultural change had defanged Berlin sufficiently that the threat of a united Germany has receded. Germany still predominates over the European Union because of its size and economic strength. But it is no menace.

The same cannot be said of Russia, which has become more aggressive even as its economic significance has diminished. The biggest and hardest question of 21st-century geopolitics may prove to be: What do we do about Moscow?

Like the German Question, the new Russian Question is a function of the country’s Mittellage (“central situation”). Germany’s location was central in European terms. At its height, the German Reich extended from Koblenz to Königsberg, from the banks of the Rhine to the beaches of the Baltic. Russia today is central in global terms. It was the only one of the great European empires that extended into Asia over land rather than sea. The Soviet Union died an astoundingly peaceful death 25 years ago this month. Yet the Russian Federation still extends from Kaliningrad — as Königsberg has been known since its annexation by Russia in 1945 — all the way to Vladivostok, 4,500 miles and 10 time zones away.

In the 19th century, the tension between Russia’s westward-looking metropolises and its vast Asian hinterland furnished novelists and playwrights with wonderfully rich material. Ivan Turgenev and Fyodor Dostoevsky could debate which direction Russia should take, but no one doubted the existence of the West-East dilemma. Nor was it a purely geographical phenomenon. The institution of serfdom meant that until the 1860s — and in practice long after that — a Russian gentleman only had to take a ride through his estates to leave Europe far behind.

But Russia’s West-East dilemma today is fast becoming the central problem of international politics, not literature. On one side lies a China that long ago surpassed Russia in economic as well as demographic terms and increasingly aspires to military preeminence in Asia. On the other side of Russia lies a Europe that, for all its prosperity, has become politically introverted and excessively reliant on the United States for its defense.

In his most recent book, World Order, Henry Kissinger contrasted four evolving and incompatible conceptions of international order: American, European, Chinese, and Islamic. Russia’s place in this scheme of things is ambiguous. “From Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin, circumstances have changed, but the rhythm has remained extraordinarily consistent,” Kissinger wrote. Russia is “a uniquely ‘Eurasian’ power, sprawling across two continents but never entirely at home in either.” It has learned its geopolitics “from the hard school of the steppe, where an array of nomadic hordes contended for resources on an open terrain with few fixed borders.”

Russia, it might be inferred, is the power least interested in world order. President Vladimir Putin would no doubt deny that. He would argue that the best basis for order would be for the great powers mutually to respect their spheres of influence and domestic political differences. On the other hand, Russia is clearly the power most ready to exploit the new tools of cyberwarfare that Kissinger warned presciently about in 2014:

The pervasiveness of networked communications in the social, financial, industrial, and military sectors has … revolutionized vulnerabilities. Outpacing most rules and regulations (and indeed the technical comprehension of many regulators), it has, in some respects, created the state of nature about which philosophers have speculated and the escape from which, according to [Thomas] Hobbes, provided the motivating force for creating a political order.… [A]symmetry and a kind of congenital world disorder are built into relations between cyber powers both in diplomacy and in strategy.… Absent articulation of some rules of international conduct, a crisis will arise from the inner dynamics of the system.

That crisis has already arrived. As I write, the burning question of American politics is how far the Russian government was successful in its efforts to influence the outcome of November’s presidential election. That Russia tried to do this is no longer in serious dispute. Russian hackers successfully accessed the emails of the Democratic National Committee. WikiLeaks acted as the conduit. The resulting email dumps and leaks probably reinforced voters’ negative views of Hillary Clinton. Given Donald Trump’s narrow margin of victory in key swing states, one might claim that this was decisive — though no more or less decisive than all the other factors that made up the minds of crucial voters in an election where “everything mattered.” President Barack Obama now says that “when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections … we need to take action” and that “we will.”


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What remains debatable is how far the Trump campaign was aware that it was receiving assistance from Moscow. If so, was there some hidden quid pro quo? Writing in Slate back in July, Franklin Foer argued that Putin has “a plan for destroying the West—and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump.” In the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum called Trump a “Manchurian candidate.” The evidence for such claims is circumstantial at best. When he hired Paul Manafort as his campaign manager, Trump can hardly have been unaware of Manafort’s work for Kremlin crony Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt Ukrainian president between 2010 and 2014. Another former Trump campaign advisor with questionably close ties to Moscow was Carter Page, a vocal defender of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Proponents of the conspiracy theory also cite Trump’s description of NATO as “obsolete” and “expensive,” his desire to make a “great deal” with Putin if elected, and his repeated refusal to accept that Russia was behind the cybercampaign against his opponent — a campaign that he himself incited, if only jokingly, back in July.

Yet this controversy is generating more heat than light. First, there is nothing new about Russian attempts to influence Western elections: Such “psychological operations” were conducted by intelligence agencies on both sides of the Cold War. New technology has perhaps made them easier to conduct and more effective, but they remain (unlike, say, biological warfare) within the pale of international law. Second, in an election characterized by a general lack of restraint, Trump may simply have exploited an unlooked for but not unwelcome advantage. If another foreign government had supplied a liberal website with embarrassing emails hacked from Republican accounts, would the Clinton campaign have averted its gaze? Third, nothing Trump has said during the election binds him to be Putin’s confederate, as he made clear to Bill O’Reilly on Fox News in April. “I think I would possibly have a good relationship [with Putin],” Trump said. “I don’t know.… I have no idea, Bill. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.”

The real question we need to ask is why the Russian government was so eager to influence the election in Trump’s favor. The answer to that question is not as obvious as might be thought. It is that Russia urgently — one might even say desperately — needed a friendlier president than Clinton would have been. Moscow’s meddling in American politics reflects not its strength, nor its strategic sophistication, but its weakness and dependence on Cold War tactics such as psy-ops.

Russian communists and supporters hold portraits of Joseph Stalin as they lay flowers at his grave to mark the 137th anniversary of Stalin's birth on Dec. 21. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

A new era, but what era?

It did not have to be this way. Twenty-five years ago, the dissolution of the Soviet Union marked not only the end of the Cold War but also the beginning of what should have been a golden era of friendly relations between Russia and the West. With enthusiasm, it seemed, Russians embraced both capitalism and democracy. To an extent that was startling, Russian cities became Westernized. Empty shelves and po-faced propaganda gave way to abundance and dazzling advertisements.

Contrary to the fears of some, there was a new world order after 1991. The world became a markedly more peaceful place as the flows of money and arms that had turned so many regional disputes into proxy wars dried up. American economists rushed to advise Russian politicians. American multinationals hurried to invest.

Go back a quarter century to 1991 and imagine three more or less equally plausible futures. First, imagine that the coup by hard-liners in August of that year had been more competently executed and that the Soviet Union had been preserved. Second, imagine a much more violent dissolution of the Soviet system in which ethnic and regional tensions escalated much further, producing the kind of “super-Yugoslavia” Kissinger has occasionally warned about. Finally, imagine a happily-ever-after history, in which Russia’s economy thrived on the basis of capitalism and globalization, growing at Asian rates.

Russia could have been deep-frozen. It could have disintegrated. It could have boomed. No one in 1991 knew which of these futures we would get. In fact, we got none of them. Russia has retained the democratic institutions that were established after 1991, but the rule of law has not taken root, and, under Vladimir Putin, an authoritarian nationalist form of government has established itself that is notably ruthless in its suppression of opposition and criticism. Despite centrifugal forces, most obviously in the Caucasus, the Russian Federation has held together. However, the economy has performed much less well than might have been hoped. Between 1992 and 2016, the real compound annual growth rate of Russian per capita GDP has been 1.5 percent. Compare that with equivalent figures for India (5.1 percent) and China (8.9 percent).

Today, the Russian economy accounts for just over 3 percent of global output, according to the International Monetary Fund’s estimates based on purchasing power parity. The U.S. share is 16 percent. The Chinese share is 18 percent. Calculated on a current dollar basis, Russia’s GDP is less than 7 percent of America’s. The British economy is twice the size of Russia’s.

Moreover, the reliance of the Russian economy on exported fossil fuels — as well as other primary products — is shocking. Nearly two-thirds of Russian exports are petroleum (63 percent), according the Observatory of Economic Complexity. Russia’s relative economic weakness has been compounded by the steep decline in oil, gas, and other commodity prices since 2014 and by U.S. and EU sanctions imposed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea that same year.

President Barack Obama and then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chat at Putin's residence in Novo Ogaryovo, Russia, on July 7, 2009. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Is Putin to blame?

Who is to blame for the recent steep deterioration in relations between Russia and the United States? When, in fact, did it begin? Four years ago, Barack Obama ridiculed Mitt Romney for characterizing Russia as America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” To this day, Obama’s view remains that Russia is weak, not strong. As he told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in March, “[Putin is] constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he’s not completely stupid. He understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished. And the fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop up [Bashar al-] Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player.” He went even further in his end-of-year press conference, calling Russia “a smaller country … a weaker country” that does not “produce anything that anybody wants to buy.”

Yet this is a very different tone from the one the Obama administration took back in March 2009, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, symbolically pressed a “reset” button. (Appropriately, as it turned out, the Russian translation on the button was misspelled by the State Department so that it read “overcharged.”) Nor was the reset a complete failure. A year later, the United States and Russia reached an agreement to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons (the so-called New START deal).

One answer to the question of what went wrong is simply Putin himself. Having made my own contribution to the “blame Putin” literature, I am not about to exonerate the Russian president. I vividly remember the tone he adopted in a speech I heard at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, where he gave (as I wrote at the time) “a striking impersonation of Michael Corleone in The Godfather—the embodiment of implicit menace.”

Nevertheless, it is important to remember what exactly Putin said on that occasion. In remarks that seemed mainly directed at the Europeans in the room, he warned that a “unipolar world” — meaning one dominated by the United States — would prove “pernicious not only for all those within this system but also for the sovereign itself.” America’s “hyper use of force,” Putin said, was “plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.” Speaking at a time when neither Iraq nor Afghanistan seemed especially good advertisements for U.S. military intervention, those words had a certain force, especially in German ears.

Nearly 10 years later, even Putin’s most splenetic critics would be well-advised to reflect for a moment on our own part in the deterioration of relations between Washington and Moscow. The Russian view that the fault lies partly with Western overreach deserves to be taken more seriously than it generally is.

Putin and President George W. Bush speak during a conference at Putin's summer retreat in Sochi, Russia, on Apr. 6, 2008. (Photo by ARTYOM KOROTAYEV/Epsilon/Getty Images)

Is the West to blame?

If I look back on what I thought and wrote during the administration of George W. Bush, I would say that I underestimated the extent to which the expansion of both NATO and the European Union was antagonizing the Russians.

Certain decisions still seem to me defensible. Given their experiences in the middle of the 20th century, the Poles and the Czechs deserved both the security afforded by NATO membership (from 1999, when they joined along with Hungary) and the economic opportunities offered by EU membership (from 2004). Yet the U.S. decision in March 2007 to build an anti-ballistic missile defense site in Poland along with a radar station in the Czech Republic seems, with hindsight, more questionable, as does the subsequent decision to deploy 10 two-stage missile interceptors and a battery of MIM-104 Patriot missiles in Poland. Though notionally intended to detect and counter Iranian missiles, these installations were bound to be regarded by the Russians as directed at them. The subsequent deployment of Iskander short-range missiles to Kaliningrad was a predictable retaliation.

A similar act of retaliation followed in 2008 when, with encouragement from some EU states, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia. In response, Russia recognized rebels in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and invaded those parts of Georgia. From a Russian perspective, this was no different from what the West had done in Kosovo.

The biggest miscalculation, however, was the willingness of the Bush administration to consider Ukraine for NATO membership and the later backing by the Obama administration of EU efforts to offer Ukraine an association agreement. I well remember the giddy mood at a pro-European conference in Yalta in September 2013, when Western representatives almost unanimously exhorted Ukraine to follow the Polish path. Not nearly enough consideration was given to the very different way Russia regards Ukraine nor to the obvious West-East divisions within Ukraine itself. This was despite an explicit warning from Putin’s aide Sergei Glazyev, who attended the conference, that signing the EU association agreement would lead to “political and social unrest,” a dramatic decline in living standards, and “chaos.”

This is not in any way to legitimize the Russian actions of 2014, which were in clear violation of international law and agreements. It is to criticize successive administrations for paying too little heed to Russia’s sensitivities and likely reactions.

“I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” President Obama told the New Yorker’s David Remnick in early 2014. The very opposite was true. He and his predecessor badly needed advisors who understood Russia as well as Kennan did. As Kissinger has often remarked, history is to nations what character is to people. In recent years, American policymakers have tended to forget that and then to wax indignant when other states act in ways that a knowledge of history might have enabled them to anticipate. No country, it might be said, has had its character more conditioned by its history than Russia. It was foolish to expect Russians to view with equanimity the departure into the Western sphere of influence of the heartland of medieval Russia, the breadbasket of the tsarist empire, the setting for Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, the crime scene of Joseph Stalin’s man-made famine, and the main target of Adolf Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa.

One might have thought the events of 2014 would have taught U.S. policymakers a lesson. Yet the Obama administration has persisted in misreading Russia. It was arguably a mistake to leave Germany and France to handle the Ukraine crisis, when more direct U.S. involvement might have made the Minsk agreements effective. It was certainly a disastrous blunder to give Putin an admission ticket into the Syrian conflict by leaving to him the (partial) removal of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons. One of Kissinger’s lasting achievements in the early 1970s was to squeeze the Soviets out of the Middle East. The Obama administration has undone that, with dire consequences. We see in Aleppo the Russian military for what it is: a master of the mid-20th-century tactic of winning victories through the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

Left: Free Syrian Army fighters fire an anti-aircraft weapon in Aleppo on Dec. 12. (Photo by AFP/Getty Images); Right: Far-right Ukrainian activists attack the office of the pro-Russian movement "Ukrainian Choice" in Kiev on Nov. 21. (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

What price peace?

Yet I remain to be convinced that the correct response to these errors of American policy is to swing from underestimating Russia to overestimating it. Such an approach has the potential to be just another variation on the theme of misunderstanding.

It is not difficult to infer what Putin would like to get in any “great deal” between himself and Trump. Item No. 1 would be a lifting of sanctions. Item No. 2 would be an end to the war in Syria on Russia’s terms — which would include the preservation of Assad in power for at least some “decent interval.” Item No. 3 would be a de facto recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and some constitutional change designed to render the government in Kiev impotent by giving the country’s eastern Donbass region a permanent pro-Russian veto power.

What is hard to understand is why the United States would want give Russia even a fraction of all this. What exactly would Russia be giving the United States in return for such concessions? That is the question that Trump’s national security team needs to ask itself before he so much as takes a courtesy call from the Kremlin.

There is no question that the war in Syria needs to end, just as the frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine needs resolution. But the terms of peace can and must be very different from those that Putin has in mind. Any deal that pacified Syria by sacrificing Ukraine would be a grave mistake.

President Obama has been right in saying that Russia is a much weaker power than the United States. His failure has been to exploit that American advantage. Far from doing so, he has allowed his Russian counterpart to play a weak hand with great tactical skill and ruthlessness. Trump prides himself as a dealmaker. He should be able to do much better. Here is what he should say to Putin.

First, you cannot expect relief from sanctions until you withdraw all your armed forces and proxies from eastern Ukraine.

Second, the political future of Ukraine is for the Ukrainians to decide, not for outside powers.

Third, we are prepared to contemplate another plebiscite in Crimea, given the somewhat questionable nature of its cession to Ukraine in the Nikita Khrushchev era, though credible foreign representatives must monitor the vote.

Fourth, we are also prepared to discuss a new treaty confirming the neutral, nonaligned status of Ukraine, similar in its design to the status of Finland in the Cold War. Ukraine would renounce future membership of either NATO or the EU, as well as membership of any analogous Russian-led entity such as the Eurasian Customs Union. However, such a treaty would need to include guarantees of Ukraine’s sovereignty and security, comparable with the international treaty governing the status of Belgium in 1839. And this treaty would be upheld in a way that Obama failed to uphold the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 — by use of force if necessary.

Fifth, in return for these concessions, the United States expects Russia to participate cooperatively in a special conference of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to establish a new and peaceful order in North Africa and the Middle East. The scope of this conference should not be confined to Syria but should extend to other countries in the region that are afflicted by civil war and terrorism, notably Iraq and Libya. It should consider questions that have lain dormant for a century, since the Sykes-Picot agreement drew the borders of the modern Middle East, such as the possibility of an independent Kurdish state.

With a bold proposal such as this, the Trump administration would regain the initiative not only in U.S.-Russian relations but also in international relations more generally. Crucially, it would parry Putin’s aspiration for a bilateral relationship, as between the superpowers of old — a relationship to which Russia, for all its oil and weaponry, is no longer entitled. And it would bring to bear on the problem of Middle Eastern stability the two European powers that have an historic interest in the region and an Asian power — China — that has a growing reliance on Middle Eastern energy.

The Russian Question itself can be settled another day. But by reframing the international order on the basis of cooperation rather than deadlock in the Security Council, the United States at least poses the question in a new way. Will Russia learn to cooperate with the other great powers? Or will it continue to be the opponent of international order? Perhaps the latter is the option it will choose. After all, an economic system that prefers an oil price closer to $100 a barrel than $50 benefits more than most from escalating conflict in the Middle East and North Africa — preferably conflict that spills over into the oil fields of the Persian Gulf.

However, if that is the goal of Russia’s strategy, then it is hard to see for how much longer Beijing and Moscow will be able to cooperate in the Security Council. Beijing needs stability in oil production and low oil prices as much as Russia needs the opposite. Because of recent tensions with the United States, Russia has been acquiescent as the “One Belt, One Road” program extends China’s economic influence into Central Asia, once a Russian domain. There is potential conflict of interest there, too.

In the end, it is not for the United States to solve the Russian Question. That is Russia’s challenge. But by re-establishing the Kissingerian rule — that the United States should be closer to each of Russia and China than they are to one another — the Trump administration could take an important first step toward cleaning up the geopolitical mess bequeathed it by Barack Obama.

Top image credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Niall Ferguson is the author of Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist, which recently won the Arthur Ross Book Prize of the Council on Foreign Relations.