Are we playing Vladimir Putin’s game? On Friday, amid what may be the worst confrontation between Russia and the West since the 1962 Cuban missile affair, the Russian president put in a surprise call to President Obama. The purpose of the call, apparently, was to raise the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis, though it remains unclear whether Putin wants to negotiate with the West or was just trying to ascertain Obama’s level of concern about further Russian encroachments on Ukraine—and possibly neighboring Moldova. Whatever the case, the White House seems to have been caught completely off-guard by Putin’s call, just as it was by Russia’s military take-over of Crimea last month.
There are now upwards of 30,000 Russian troops—some US estimates have run as high as 50,000—poised on Russia’s border with Eastern Ukraine (ostensibly for routine military exercises) and Putin spokesmen have been claiming ominously that ethnic Russians on the other side are being attacked by Ukrainian extremists. Putin reportedly repeated these claims to Obama, adding that similar violence was occurring in Transdniestria, a breakaway region of Moldova that borders Ukraine and is the home of a large Russian population. Over the past few days, US intelligence officials and Western analysts have warned of the possibility of Russian actions in both eastern Ukraine and Transdniestria.
Washington has described these threats as a radical shift in Russia’s relations with the West—a situation almost unimaginable as recently as early February, when Russia hosted the Sochi Olympics. In a lengthy op-ed piece in The New York Times last Sunday, Michael McFaul, President Obama’s former Ambassador to Moscow, asserted that Putin’s decision to annex the Crimea “ended the post-Cold War era in Europe,” an era he characterized by “an underlying sense that Russia was gradually joining the international order.”
But to anyone who has followed the Kremlin’s actions closely over the years, none of this should come as a great surprise. To the contrary, the recent events bear out longstanding policy aims of the Putin regime, whose senior members have changed remarkably little since Putin became president in 2000: for years, the Kremlin has worked to roll back US and European influence in post-Soviet states, and to rebuild its own suzerainty over like-minded regimes from Ukraine and Belarus to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Failure to recognize how deeply engrained these aims are, and how seemingly immune they have been to Western overtures, has severely undermined US efforts to address challenges from Russia effectively.
The Obama White House has exhibited a misguided optimism about Kremlin intentions ever since the introduction of the “reset” with Russia in 2009, which was intended to inaugurate a new era in US-Russia relations, following the cooling off that had occurred after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August of 2008. The new rapport, which Obama pursued with then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (Putin was at the time Prime Minister) was based on pragmatism and deal-making, rather than attempts to promote American values. The chief architect of the reset was McFaul, who served as Obama’s advisor on Russia in the National Security Council from 2008 to 2012 before becoming ambassador to Moscow, a post he has just vacated.
As McFaul and other Obama administration officials portray it, apart from a few hiccups like the 2008 invasion of Georgia, Moscow has spent much of the Putin years integrating itself with the West. Thus, they argue, after 9/11, the Russian government cooperated with the US on counter-terrorism; it allowed American military flights to Afghanistan to traverse Russian airspace; and it developed economic and energy ties with Europe. Since the “reset,” they maintain, Russia helped pressure Iran to give up its uranium enrichment program; it joined the World Trade Organization; and, until 2012, had in Medvedev a “moderate” in the Kremlin under whom—in McFaul’s words—the “policy of engagement and integration…appeared to be working again.” In recent months, Washington has also credited Russia with brokering a deal with Syrian President Assad to dismantle his chemical weapons program.
In fact, hardly any of these purported achievements holds up to scrutiny. Russia used the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an excuse to pursue its brutal suppression of Chechnya and expand its unaccountable security state, a process which, as I have noted, continues to this day. It has persisted in arms sales to Iran and provided crucial military hardware, along with diplomatic support, to the Assad regime in Syria. Regarding the Afghan conflict, it has long pressured Kyrgyzstan to expel the US from Manas air base—a crucial supply link for allied forces—which will in fact be closed this summer.
And while the US has been distracted with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Moscow has stepped up it aggressive efforts to establish a “Eurasian Union” with post-Soviet states like Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and most recently Ukraine, with the goal of creating a series of pro-Kremlin governments and re-establishing its hegemony in the region. Rather than an aberration, the 2008 invasion of Georgia was a clear part of this long-running strategy, just as Russia’s continuing moves in Ukraine are an extension of longstanding efforts to prevent the country from moving closer to the West—efforts stepped up considerably after the Orange Revolution in 2004.
Nor has the Kremlin made much progress in adopting western standards of rule of law at home. Though the Obama administration championed Russia’s entry into the WTO during Medvedev’s presidency, Medvedev never achieved the substantial political or economic reforms he talked about and continued to be a pawn of Putin, without an independent power base. This became all too clear when Putin announced in September 2011 that he would be replacing Medvedev as the Russian president in 2012.
And with the West mostly looking the other way, the Russian government has been consistently ruthless in crushing political dissent. As long ago as 2003, Putin put oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in prison for supporting a political party that posed an alternative to Putin’s United Russia. And the Kremlin has been relentless in its efforts to silence Alexey Navalny, the opposition blogger who has exposed widespread corruption among Putin’s circle. Some of these persecutions continued, largely unnoticed, even as the world was watching this winter’s Olympics in Sochi.
To be sure, the White House inherited the perception that the Kremlin was moving toward the West in part from George W. Bush, who famously declared that he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw “his soul” (presumably that of a nascent democrat). But did it really take Russia’s invasion of Crimea for the White House to finally realize that Putin is an authoritarian hegemon who has long been moving away from Europe and building Russia’s domination of its “near abroad?” McFaul tells us that “Mr. Putin’s own thinking has changed over time,” and that, with Crimea, “Mr. Putin has made a strategic pivot.” But the Russian president has not veered from the course he set out on as far back as 1999, when as prime minister he made the decision to unleash a crippling war on the republic of Chechnya. As Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian analyst and editor of the quarterly journal Russia in Global Affairs, recently observed:
While McFaul eventually mastered diplomatic protocol, he had no power over the turn of events in Russian politics and bilateral relations. The circumstances when he was appointed ambassador to Russia changed completely by the time he had arrived….McFaul’s ambassadorship was the symbolic end of the era when America believed it could influence Russia’s trajectory.
It may be unfair to blame the Obama administration for being caught by surprise by Russia’s Crimea grab, which many experts failed to predict (though The Wall Street Journal has reported that US intelligence agencies had indications that Putin might be planning a military takeover of Crimea as far back as December). But it is dismaying to consider that the White House remains under the delusion that Russia’s actions mark a sudden departure from past practices.
The US and its European allies seem to have accepted Moscow’s annexation of Crimea as a fait accompli because there is little they can do to force it to take the humiliating step of withdrawing from the region. The goal now is to prevent Russia from further incursions into Ukraine, particularly the east and southeast areas of the country, where many ethnic Russians live.
There are many reasons why such an intervention would be inadvisable for the Kremlin. As Swedish economist Anders Aslund pointed out Tuesday in the Moscow Times, Russia can ill afford the economic damage already caused by its military aggression in the Crimea, which he estimates at one to two percent of GDP for 2014. Stock prices have fallen, along with the value of the ruble, and investors, both Russian and foreign have begun withdrawing their investments from the county. Meeting in Brussels this week, President Obama and other Western leaders have suspended Russia from the Group of Eight and declared their intention to introduce further, as yet unspecified, economic sanctions against Russia if it takes military action in mainland Ukraine.
Yet by failing to recognize Moscow’s larger regional aims, the West may be underestimating the Kremlin’s readiness to take advantage of a situation that has offered new opportunities to exert its influence, and that has played well at home. In recent weeks, Putin’s inner circle of siloviki from his hometown of St. Petersburg, several of whom have been targeted by the new US sanctions imposed this month, have closed ranks around their leader. And polls show that, among the Russian population at large, Putin’s popularity is at a new high. (Russians typically rally around their leader when their military forces are deployed, as they did in the past during the conflicts with Chechnya and Georgia.)
To prevent further Russian aggression, the United States and its European allies should be prepared to inflict broad sanctions against the Kremlin’s energy and financial sectors, rather than only against certain Russian officials. But Western leaders may also need to take a larger strategic view of the situation and shore up NATO military defenses in the Baltic states and Poland, while giving more robust support to democrats in Kiev and other vulnerable governments in the region.
During a news conference early this week in Brussels, Obama responded to those who claim he has been naïve about Putin by dismissing Russia as a “regional power” that poses no risk to the security of the United States. But this assessment seems more like a justification for allowing the Kremlin to call the shots than a true statement of reality. A Russian demarche into eastern Ukraine, and possibly Moldova, would threaten the security of all the newly independent states of Europe and, by implication, that of the US as well. The Kremlin can only be deterred if the West, recognizing that Putin’s main goal is to project Russia’s power and influence upon the former Soviet empire, begins to anticipate Kremlin threats with resolute engagement of its own. As a report from the Carnegie Moscow Center observed: “For the rest of the world, dealing with Russia in the next few years will mean dealing directly with Vladimir Putin, and it will not be easy.”