President Putin’s landslide victory in Russia’s presidential election was achieved against the lackluster competition of a group of mediocre candidates from which the sole serious opponent had been excluded; amid plausible allegations that his security services had tried to poison two Russians in England by the use of a chemical nerve agent banned under international law; and with the overwhelming support of Russian news media that reported the attempted murders as a Western plot to weaken and embarrass Russia. It ought to be possible to win a landslide victory in such circumstances without resorting to ballot-stuffing. But according to several reports, that was done too. And, of course, Putin fought the election as a tough patriotic czar who had reintegrated Crimea into Russia, reestablished a strong Russian presence in the Middle East, prevented the European Union from swallowing Ukraine whole, and made Russia feared again, rather than despised, with a massive and technically advanced military buildup. Certain parallels spring to mind.
Is the Russian president sitting pretty, therefore? Too many Western commentators are inclined to treat Putin with a kind of admiring hostility, denouncing him as a lawless despot while grudgingly admitting that the West has no effective way of responding to his ruthless tactics in Ukraine, in the Middle East, in legally sanctioning Russian state murders abroad. It is not the case, of course, that the West has no means of responding to these things. We could selectively murder FSB agents in retaliation for their murders in Western countries, for instance, or quietly transfer large sums of money to the bank accounts of jihadists operating in Russia’s northern Caucasus. We don’t do such things because we want to uphold the international rules that make us all safer in the long run, because we hope to draw Russia back into working within those rules, and because we don’t feel sufficiently threatened as yet.
That prudence should not be mistaken for weakness, however. In early February, U.S. forces in Syria inflicted heavy losses, an estimated 200 dead, on Russian combatants who had attacked a U.S. force and its Kurdish allies. The U.S. has downplayed this incident but not denied it, and the Russians have likewise not complained. Whatever was intended by either side, the U.S. demonstrated that it would respond with deadly force if it needed to do so.
That said, most responses to Russian lawlessness will naturally be “peaceful” and/or economic unless Putin becomes ever more reckless. They will likely be such measures as reinforcing NATO troops in the Baltic states; making modern weapons available to Ukraine against Russia’s continuing aggression; giving far more resources and a freer hand to Western media agencies such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the BBC World Service to counter Putin’s propaganda apparatus; holding Russia to account, before international agencies, for unlawful use of chemical weapons; and imposing economic sanctions on Russian companies and individuals, especially Putin cronies, in Western markets.
These sanctions are usually thought to fall short of what’s necessary to change the behavior of the Russian state. But that criticism underestimates both the serious weaknesses of the Russian state and economy and the West’s ability to exploit them, as Ronald Reagan did in the early 1980s. Consider the following:
One. Putin has lost Ukraine. Though the Kremlin controlled the whole of Ukraine three years ago through a pro-Kremlin government, it now has only a poor mini-statelet in the Donbass region, for which it pays heavily in blood and treasure. We should remind the Russian public of that repeatedly.
Two. Russia is now losing troops in Syria and gaining relatively little in terms of Russian interests apart from a warm-water port in the Mediterranean. That is useful but comes at a high cost — especially since the main beneficiary of Russian intervention is Iran, which in the long term is more likely to be an enemy of Russia than its friend.
Three. Some strategists regard European reliance on Russian energy supplies as a potential weapon. Doubtless, in the event of an all-out war, that’s true. In all lesser circumstances, however, it is a weapon that breaks in the hand of whoever uses it. Even to talk up its potential is to encourage its potential customers to diversify their suppliers, as many are now doing.
Four. Russia is increasing its military (to 4.5 percent of its GDP) at a time when the Russian economy and tax revenue are suffering from the sustained fall in oil prices and the impact of Western sanctions. This is the same combination of contradictory policies that brought the USSR to its knees (though defense spending was far higher in the 1980s).
America and its allies should pursue hard-headed policies against Putin.
We should hope for a fall in Putin’s popularity that prompts a less antagonistic policy toward the West. For that to happen, America and its allies should pursue the hard-headed policies sketched above but be prepared to move toward cooperation if Putin ever signals a less aggressive approach. That’s exactly what Reagan successfully did between 1981 and the Geneva and Reykjavik summits with Gorbachev.
But there are obstacles in the way of trying to repeat this success. Trump in his election campaign plainly wanted a U.S.–Russia deal with Putin even at the risk of fracturing the Western alliance. That wasn’t original to Trump; both Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama aimed at the same thing less candidly. But it’s a foolish policy, doomed to be disappointed. As it happens, Trump was frustrated in his original intentions, and his administration gradually moved toward a conventional conservative-Republican foreign policy. This is to the good, but it is an approach that lacks a presidential voice, because Trump still — with the belated exception of the latest poisonings — refuses to condemn Russia’s condemnable conduct.
In Europe, Germany under its new government — a coalition government with a Christian Democratic majority but with left-wing Social Democrats running foreign policy — is a worrying prospect. The new foreign minister has just described Putin’s Russia as a “difficult partner” but a necessary one, and said Germany will not impose serious sanctions in response to the Salisbury poisonings since they are a “bilateral” Anglo–Russian matter, not something for NATO or the EU. That retreat from Germany’s signature of last week on the joint U.S.-U.K.-Franco-German declaration reflects deep currents in German political culture that unite commercialism, pacifism, and anti-Americanism in a foreign policy that resembles the “Common European Home” theme long advanced in Russian foreign policy. Germany has also resisted the European Union’s pressure to cancel the Nordstream Two project, which Central European states regard as a threat to their energy supplies. Washington and other U.S. allies will have to work hard to bring Germany on board with any kind of new containment policy.
Putin may have won his rigged election, but he needn’t win his competition with the West — if we respond with seriousness and unity.