How to Win Friends and Influence Putin

Repairing U.S.-Russia relations is possible. Too bad Washington keeps making them worse.

Russia's Prime Minister and President-el
Russia's Prime Minister and President-elect Vladimir Putin speaks in the State Duma lower house of parliament, in Moscow, on April 11, 2012. Putin said today Russia has beaten the economic crisis and called on political forces to unite as he prepares to return to the Kremlin next month. AFP PHOTO / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, as the ruble collapsed in value against the U.S. dollar and a full-blown financial crisis threatened to explode in Russia, news broke that President Barack Obama planned to sign a piece of legislation that essentially amounts to a declaration of war on Russia.

The evocatively titled Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, which was unanimously approved by the House and Senate, is short on common sense and long belligerent ultimatums and misstatements of recent history. The legislation names Russia “a threat to international peace,” accuses it of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and urges the president “to review the Treaty readiness of U.S. and NATO armed forces.” It demands that Russia cease destabilizing Ukraine, abandon the Crimean Peninsula (which it annexed in March, following the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych), withdraw its forces from Georgia (apparently referring to the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, under Russian control since the 2008 war), and even stop aiding Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. It designates Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia “major non-NATO allies,” and urges Obama to adopt more sanctions and visa bans against Russia.

Most ominously, the bill authorizes the president to “provide the government of Ukraine with necessary defense articles, services, and intelligence in order to defend its territory and sovereignty.” Without a hint of irony, it also “calls upon the Russian Federation to seek a mutually beneficial relationship with the United States based on respect for the independence and sovereignty of all countries,” as well as for “the reestablishment of a cooperative relationship between the people of the United States and the Russian people based on the shared pursuit of democracy, human rights, and peace.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking of the sanctions already imposed on Russia, declared in a press conference in London on Dec. 16 that “We do not want the people of Russia to be hurt here,” and “None of what we are doing is targeted specifically against the people.” The Ukraine Freedom Support Act sends another message entirely: the United States, through Ukraine, is bent on escalating its dispute with Russia — even to the point of armed conflict.

It should surprise no one that the response from Moscow has been less than conciliatory. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs got that message and called the Ukraine Freedom Support Act “hostile,” but said Russia would refrain from retaliating against the new legislation until it leads to concrete action on Obama’s part. In November, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had already accused the United States of seeking “regime change” in Moscow State Duma deputy Mikhail Emelyanov, however, spoke more forthrightly, warning that Russia “cannot calmly watch as the U.S. arms Ukraine with the most modern lethal weapons…. Judging by U.S. intentions, they want to turn Ukraine into a fighting platform against Russia.”

Russia had hardly been “standing by” in any case. Sanctions or no, Russia’s unprecedented $375 billion military build-up proceeds apace. Moscow continues sending its air force on provocative missions to probe NATO borders, with the Baltic countries scrambling their jets to intercept Russian planes a record 21 times — just in the week of December 8-14. For the second time this year, a near miss took place between a Russian military plane and a European civilian airliner. (Moscow disputes this.) Russia has twice conducted military exercises practicing a nuclear attack on Warsaw. And Russian warships and submarines have patrolled as far afield as Australia and the United States.

In August, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the inflammatory leader of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, even went so far as to predict a possible preemptive “Third World War,” to be started by President Vladimir Putin, and warned the “little dwarf states” of Eastern Europe that they faced “total annihilation” for allowing themselves to be used as (presumably NATO) bases for attacks on Russia. In other circumstances, such bellicose statements, reckless in the extreme, would have just caused heads to shake in Moscow and Washington. But in view of rising tensions between Russia and the West, they no longer seemed so entirely far-fetched,

The sanctions and the increasingly charged military stand-off between Russia and NATO member countries have done little to dent Putin’s popularity, which the respected Levada Center rates at 85 percent. A majority of Russians — 59 percent according to the center’s last poll, in November — believe their country is on the right track. Sanctions have convinced Russians that the West is out to get them — a trope with enduring historical resonance that Putin himself stressed in his Dec. 4 address to the Federal Assembly and his press conference of Dec. 18. The conclusion we can draw from the polls: Russians do not blame this turbulent state of affairs on their president, but on the United States and its “puppets” in the European Union — a view they have had relentlessly pounded into them by state-controlled airwaves. In any case, after four rounds of NATO expansion into formerly Warsaw-Pact and Soviet domains, the wellspring of Russian goodwill toward the West long ago ran dry.

But it’s not just goodwill that is diminishing. It’s the prospect for peace between Russia and the West. It requires little effort to imagine an accident leading to outright conflict: A Russian bomber could collide with a European civilian airliner in or near NATO airspace. Russian and NATO submarines could accidentally crash in international waters. A technological glitch could prompt either Russia or the United States to conclude the other has launched its nuclear missiles, which would necessitate “using them or losing them” — a frightening dilemma the Soviet Union faced when it almost mistook the 1983 NATO exercise Able Archer for an actual attack. Such a catastrophic, improbable eventuality would be considerably reduced if the two countries had retained even basic relations of trust.

Or, as has been credibly suggested, Putin could decide he has nothing to gain by even minimally cooperating with the West. Needing to distract his people from ever direr economic straits, he could foment separatist sentiment in, say, the majority-Russian Estonian town of Narva and send in his “little green men,” thereby chancing an armed confrontation with NATO. The latter might seem fanciful, and we should all hope it is. But no one predicted that Russia would re-acquire Crimea last March through a stealth occupation.

The real question, though, is will Putin, having invested all his political capital in returning the Crimean Peninsula to Russia, publicly surrender to U.S. lawmakers and announce that his annexation was a huge blunder? Will he issue a tender apology to the Ukrainian leadership in Kiev and withdraw support from separatists in the Donbass? Will he hand over the keys to the Kremlin and hop the next train back to his hometown, Saint Petersburg? Or will he otherwise slip away into the night, after having wished his successor Godspeed?

Ha. Not likely. Putin was elected to a six-year term in 2012. Short of a palace coup or popular uprising (both implausible), the probability of his relinquishing his grip on power ahead of schedule is minuscule. If we accept that Putin is not going anywhere soon, we find ourselves in need of a political solution, a way of crafting a relationship with Russia that allows for (and, here, a Cold War-era phrase comes to mind) “peaceful coexistence” with the West. Some analysts have already taken on the work of imagining this possibility: Carter administration National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in addressing the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Washington Post, Samuel Charap in an essay for this magazine, and I twice in The Atlantic.

Broadly speaking, this is what the United States and Europe need to offer, in writing, to Russia: Ukraine will remain neutral and not join NATO.

That’s not all that much to ask. Given the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, odds are infinitesimal that NATO would seek to induct Ukraine, and yet the alliance’s 2008 Budapest declaration promised that one day it would. Moreover, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada has just passed legislation abolishing the country’s “non-bloc” status, established by law in 2010. The legislature also made entering the Western military alliance a national goal. NATO leaders should disabuse Ukrainians of these hopes. Not doing so, and fast is irresponsible and pointlessly provocative.

Russia has mooted the matter and been rebuffed. In November, the Kremlin requested a “100 percent guarantee” that Ukraine not join NATO, presumably in exchange for helping foster peace in the Donbass — an overture towards ending the crisis that no one explored. In his March address on the unification of Russia and Crimea, Putin justified Russia’s actions in light of eventual NATO expansion. Indeed, NATO and European Union membership have mostly gone hand in hand — it is hardly unreasonable that the Russian leadership considers this possibility of Ukraine joining the alliance credible. The author of the containment policy, George Kennan, warned in the 1990s that the then-planned expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders would result in a “new cold war, probably ending in a hot one,” and kill chances for democracy in the country. He was at least partly right. God forbid he should prove fully so.

The time to stop enlargement talk is now. In any case, opposition to Ukraine’s membership is strong in Berlin and Paris. This matters: Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty stipulates that countries may be invited to join only by “unanimous agreement.” Such will not be forthcoming. The issue needs to be formally taken off the table. To forestall the “Ukraine scenario” from befalling other former Soviet states, NATO would also need to foreswear — in writing — further expansion to the east.

Resolving the status of Crimea poses graver problems. Putin recently compared the peninsula’s relationship to Russia with that of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for Jews and Muslims — a puzzling assertion to say the least, given that the territory only belonged to Russia from when Catherine the Great conquered it from the Ottoman Empire in 1783 until 1954, when Soviet premier Khrushchev “gave” it to Ukraine. Still, it might take a Holy Land-like international mandate to solve the Crimean conundrum: The United Nations needs to oversee a new, totally transparent referendum on the peninsula’s status. Both Russia and the West would have to agree to be bound by its results.

In return for a guarantee of neutrality for Ukraine and carrying out a transparent, binding new referendum on Crimea, Moscow would have to cease supporting separatist insurgents in the Donbass, verifiably withdrawing whatever personnel and materiel it has in the region. (The Kremlin still denies open involvement in eastern Ukraine, though in a Dec. 18 press conference Putin acknowledged the presence of Russian “volunteers.”) Russia would also have to re-commit to the provisions of the September Minsk Protocol that established a cease-fire between the rebels and the government in Kiev and to respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty. And if Ukraine opts to join the European Union, Russia must let it do so.

To give Russia incentive to agree to halt support for Donbass separatists and allow a second referendum in Crimea, the United States and the European Union can offer a prompt end to economic sanctions and visa bans.

Previous iterations of such a proposed accord have received no serious consideration. It’s worth asking why. Can the United States really have learned nothing from its decades of Cold War experience in dealing with the Kremlin? Has Washington entirely dispensed with diplomacy in favor of issuing ultimatums, even when dealing with the only country on Earth possessing a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the United States — and the world? Can U.S. policymakers still fail to perceive the damage done to relations with Russia by the United States’ unilateral withdrawal, in 2002, from the landmark 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow, and by four rounds of eastward NATO expansion? Can the United States truly believe its flagrant transgressions of international law — for starters, its unprovoked invasion and occupation of Iraq and its hundreds of lethal drone strikes across the Islamic world, to say nothing of its history of supporting bloody dictators in Latin America and elsewhere — have done nothing but breed cynicism about its motives abroad? Can the White House not see that talk of “American exceptionalism” sounds myopic and delusional to other countries, and runs up against their national pride?

More to the point, what are the United States and the European Union really willing to risk for Ukraine, when Russia occupied Crimea without Ukrainian troops there firing a single shot in its defense? Let’s recall, as well, that when Russia helped insurgents seize part of Ukraine’s east, perhaps a million of that region’s population fled not to Kiev-controlled territory, but into Russia itself.

Now is the time for the United States and the European Union — specifically, Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande — to launch a new diplomatic overture to Russia. The combined effect of sanctions and record low oil prices are leading to a scenario for an economic doomsday: a government so starved of hydrocarbon revenues it cannot pay salaries and pensions; a private sector with no credit options either at home or abroad; a devalued currency making prohibitively expensive the dollar- and euro-purchased food imports Russia relies on. This may provide Putin with ample objective grounds for reaching an agreement. As unpalatable as it will be to Western leaders, they will have to deal with him to get it.

It’s unfortunate that instead policymakers and legislators in Washington seem to be pushing relations with Russia in the opposite direction. The latest in the West’s assault on Russia, the belligerent Ukraine Freedom Support Act that Obama himself signed, only makes the inevitable and necessary reconciliation with Russia all the more difficult. And that’s the last thing Russia, or the United States, or Ukraine need right now.


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