Presidents Obama and Putin meet at Putin's dacha in 2009. Despite Putin's recent aggressiveness, we need to maintain communication.
Presidents Obama and Putin meet at Putin’s dacha in 2009. Despite Putin’s recent aggressiveness, we need to maintain communication.

By: Harry C. Blaney, III

There is little doubt that President V. Putin does not learn from experience and that, when he makes a major mistake, he doubles down on it and makes even more dismaying acts of aggression. What he has gained with his recent mistakes, however, has been overshadowed by all that he and Russia have already lost. With time, both are likely to lose even more.

Even as he earns praise from an enraptured media and a nationalistic citizenry, he is losing massively on the global scale. The early limited sanctions still have a bite, and the new ones will have even more impact. Yet, more must be done both to contain Putin’s aggression and to formulate a long-term strategy that will direct the Russian government and people towards a more rational, democratic, and open society. Our aim should be to help create a more responsible state that addresses the many global challenges we face. No one can guess when this transition will take place, but it must occur.

The debate about what to do about any new aggression that Putin might contemplate has, so far, ranged from the right-wing hawks to those that simply want us to turn our backs on the situation. The former almost seems to urge putting some NATO troops on the ground and sending massive large scale weapons that can come back to haunt us; the latter wants us to ignore Putin. Both are unrealistic and counterproductive. There are, however, a number of things the West can do beyond tough sanctions. They need to be, though, truly effective and proportionate to the context.

What we need to avoid is a direct confrontation between Russian forces and US/NATO forces. But, in order to do this, both sides have to practice restraint. We need to communicate better with each other. Obama and Kerry have been calling Putin and his aides, but they mostly get lies and increased provocations in response. Obama’s strategy has, from the start, been to find a modus vivendi, but Putin seems to not understand how this all works. In fact, he seems impervious to the possibility of a major cataclysm.

Some voices (including a recent Washington Post editorial) have argued that we need to act aggressively, and to “not shrink from the destabilization of Putin’s regime.” I think that emphasis is misdirected, self-defeating, and counterproductive. Putin now enjoys 80% approval ratings and there is little likelihood that he will be forced from power in the near future. Indeed, sadly, he has so far consolidated his power at home and abroad by using force against those who openly question his authority. Killing people does not seem to be beyond his toolkit. His application of authoritarian power at home mimics, in a more subtle way, the old Communist Party under Stalin and some of his successors.

While I strongly agree that Putin’s behavior is wrong and destructive, America’s response needs to be multi-level and measured so as to disincentivize further misbehavior. At the same time, we need to adapt a long-term strategy of drawing Russia back into a community of cooperative and open states. We need to carefully differentiate our response to Putin as different from our response to the Russian people, many of whom desire a more open and responsive, and less corrupt, society. In that effort we need to help them as best we can: support civic society, increase contact with the West, and support humanitarian efforts.

We can’t forget that Putin, as part of a policy of increased authoritarian rule, has ginned up a super-nationalistic and anti-American rhetoric. We should not play his game, even while imposing more sanctions. We need to make it clear that we are on the side of the Russian people, who deserve a more humane life. We need to continue to talk to Putin and other Russian officials for the sake of peace and to prevent war, just as we did with Stalin and his Soviet leaders during the Cold War.

In this context, we need to urge balanced added defense investment within NATO and added support for key problem countries (especially Ukraine). Further, as to the long-term stability, security, and peace of Europe, we would be better served by strengthening our cooperation with Europe. The EU needs also to step up its support for Eastern European countries, and send help to Ukraine in the form of trade, investment, and military supplies. Yet, NATO and the EU still need to address the economically stagnant EU member countries. They need to help other Eastern European nations with economic growth and raw military aid. This would be a better approach than a simple undifferentiated punishment of Russia.

As a former “policy planner,” I can’t avoid the issue that Putin might just be crazy enough to press his advantage and invade Ukraine in some guise. His troops are ready and the Ukrainian forces still remain weak and poorly equipped. They are said to have the ammunition they need, but not the experience or confidence to confront and invasion by Russian Special Operations and armored divisions. Nor are NATO forces ready to be properly deployed or calmly handled or in sufficient strength.

So, what can be done? There only appears to be Ukraine’s armed forces which, weak as they are, will bear the brunt of a full Russian invasion. This means mass deaths and widespread destruction of civilians. When faced with this reality, a decision maker must ask: will acting in ways that will increase and prolong mass suffering be a good stratagem?

The other side of the argument has been that arming the Ukrainians acts as a deterrent to a full invasion. One thing is clear: we need more major assistance that can give the new Ukrainian government a capability to fortify its economy, fight corruption, and strengthen its military capabilities.

In short, these are tough choices with uncertain outcomes. Those who simply urge a high-stakes arming of the Ukrainians, and those who would simply turn their back on Ukraine, might both end up in a bad situation depending on Putin’s actions. My own view is that we do need to do more than we are currently, but we must refrain from actions that might provoke an aggressive foolishness, leave Ukraine bare or devastated, or Russia on the border of a NATO member state.

These outcomes will have a profound impact on regional and global security if the Ukraine situation worsens and the state collapses. The EU will have to rethink its own security as never before and NATO will have to reevaluate its capacity and strategy. We do not want to see a new Cold War, but we also don’t want to embolden Putin on his quest to recreate the old Soviet Empire.

The question we need to ask is: what does all of this mean for the West, and what does it mean for Russia’s future role in global affairs?

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