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