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A Better Russia ‘Reset’

by John R. Bolton

We need a foreign policy equipped to deal with the Putin regime

Moscow’s military takeover of Crimea, its continuing threat to Ukraine, and its disdainful response to token Western sanctions all bode poorly for other, now-independent former Soviet republics, and for European peace and security generally. Moreover, as Russia successfully dismembers and re-annexes portions of a neighboring country on northern Europe’s great plain, the lessons are clear: The forces of global stability, led by the United States, are weakening, and prospects for the predators are rising.

While the West’s responses to Russia’s aggressiveness in Ukraine thus far have been weak and ineffectual, there are many more-robust alternatives available, such as significantly expanding economic sanctions and repositioning North Atlantic Treaty Organization military assets to Poland and the Baltic republics. Raising the economic costs of the Crimea annexation to levels far beyond the current pinprick sanctions could dissuade Moscow from undertaking further land grabs in Ukraine or other former Soviet territories. Increased NATO military capabilities in states abutting Russia would dramatically increase the prospective cost of hostile behavior toward these countries, and deter Vladimir Putin from acting elsewhere as he did, with impunity, in Ukraine. The United States in particular could do far more to demonstrate both strength and resolve in opposing Moscow’s aggression. At press time, pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine were locked in a standoff with the Ukrainian government, with little response from the president besides an expression of “grave concern.” 

Doubtless there are other steps the West could take. But as we consider such steps, however worthy they may be, we must not get lost in a tactical forest. Instead, we should recognize that we have entered into a new phase in relations with Russia. Under President George W. Bush, Washington hoped to establish a “new strategic framework” with Moscow, a post–Cold War relationship that emphasized common interests against international terrorism and rogue states seeking weapons of mass destruction. Moscow had its chance to enter this new strategic framework but chose not to. Under President Barack Obama, who vigorously pressed his policy “reset” button to overcome the deterioration in U.S.–Russian relations, the idea of strategy all but disappeared in a fog of rhetoric about “common interests” and negotiation. We need not relitigate this history to conclude that Russia is pursuing its own national interests, not conveniently accommodating itself to ours.

We should rather be urgently reassessing how to conduct relations with Moscow, a rethinking that is, unfortunately, essentially certain not to happen during what remains of Obama’s term. His near-total inattention to Ukraine for the past five years is entirely consistent with his general indifference to threats to American national security worldwide. His flaccid response to Putin’s adventurism — whining about violations of international law and imposing trivial sanctions — does not foreshadow bolder strategic thinking.

What should be the broad elements of a new U.S. strategy toward Russia? What are the conceptual underpinnings required to protect our interests, and those of friends and allies, as Russia pursues its new brand of adventurism?

First, we must remember that competition and conflict between major powers is inevitable. Obama says derisively that the Ukraine crisis is not “some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia.” Indeed it is not. It is instead a return to the 19th century — and the thousand prior centuries of human history, which neither Obama nor his ideological cohort understands any better. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson was naïve to say, “There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace.” And Obama was naïve to say, in 2009, “More than at any point in human history, the interests of nations and peoples are shared. . . . In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game.”

Moreover, recent months are not simply an aberration in the seamless spread of global democracy. By capturing Crimea, Russia has put to rest for the foreseeable future the idea that it is prepared to become a truly Western nation. Putin’s popularity is near all-time highs. The Western foreign-policy establishment’s favorite former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, has hailed Putin’s coup de main. Pro-Russian sentiment in southern and eastern Ukraine, long dormant, is now rising, and not just because Mother Russia has undoubtedly sent in  “outside agitators.”

Moreover, the knee-jerk resort to diplomacy is no panacea. Negotiation, like all human activity, has costs as well as benefits, which must be weighed carefully, particularly when dealing with authoritarian states. In Ukraine, as in so many other cases (including failing or failed Middle Eastern negotiations over the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the war in Syria, and Iran’s nuclear-weapons program), too many Americans, including those in the Obama administration, reflexively ask, “What can it hurt” to try diplomacy? The answer is that the very act of negotiation can affect the course of events, as can the timing, scope, number of parties (bilateral or multilateral), and duration of negotiations. The potential costs and benefits of proposed talks must be compared with those of the available alternative uses of national power and persuasion. None of that changed because of Woodrow Wilson, and most assuredly none of that has changed because of Barack Obama.

The vagaries of negotiation and the persistence of national interests used to be well understood. In Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson quotes a British ambassador to Moscow in the 1950s, Sir William Hayter, on Russia’s concept of diplomacy:

Negotiation with the Russians does occur, from time to time, but it requires no particular skill. The Russians are not to be persuaded by eloquence or convinced by reasoned arguments. They rely on what Stalin used to call the proper basis of international policy, the calculation of forces. So no case, however skillfully deployed, however clearly demonstrated as irrefutable, will move them from what they have previously decided to do; the only way of changing their purpose is to demonstrate that they have no advantageous alternative, that what they want to do is not possible. Negotiations with the Russians are therefore very mechanical; and they are probably better conducted on paper than by word of mouth.

Acheson himself said of Moscow’s diplomats: “Theirs is a more primitive form of political method.” And this characterization of “diplomacy” applies far more broadly than just to the Muscovite Rus.

Second, although we need a reinvigorated NATO, we must recognize that we may not get it. Russia’s seizure of Crimea constitutes an existential threat to NATO, and the alliance’s response to date is not encouraging. NATO’s European members rejected President Bush’s 2008 proposal to put Georgia and Ukraine on a clear path to membership. Four months later, Russia invaded Georgia. Today, Europe is even more dependent on Russian oil and gas supplies, and its political leaders are even less resolute than before.

If Europe steps up to its NATO responsibilities, much is possible. If Europe remains weak and fearful, however, then even steps like expanding American oil and gas exports will mean little. Continued NATO vacillation will mean that the Baltic states become truly defenseless (rather than merely extraordinarily difficult to defend, as they are now), and that the prospect of reviving the 2008 membership proposal for Georgia and Ukraine will be lost, perhaps forever.

The Europeans now have a choice: They must either support an effective NATO, capable of maintaining transatlantic peace and security, or be prepared for U.S. support for NATO to evaporate under rising isolationist pressures. It is painful and unfortunate to discuss NATO’s future in the midst of an isolationist revival here, but in truth we cannot be more European than the Europeans. We cannot protect countries on the Russia–NATO frontier without European material and logistical cooperation. Of course, Washington has also been delinquent, especially under Obama. All NATO members need substantial defense-budget increases; if that means cutting domestic welfare and entitlement programs, so be it.

Third, whatever happens with NATO, Washington must reassess the Russian nuclear threat. Deriding Russia as merely a “regional power” acting from weakness rather than strength, as Obama did, may satisfy a misplaced sense of superiority, but it vastly underestimates both Russia’s nuclear and its conventional capabilities. Even mere “regional powers” can work their will in their own backyards when confronted with international apathy or weakness. More to the point, Russia’s nuclear capabilities remain second only to ours.

Obama erred badly by abandoning U.S. national missile-defense programs in Poland and the Czech Republic and by cutting missile-defense research and development. Moscow is modernizing its nuclear and ballistic-missile capabilities, and China’s nuclear arsenal is also growing rapidly. Given recent Russian and Chinese belligerence, we should consider going beyond President Bush’s rationale for withdrawing from the 1972 ABM Treaty (to develop limited national missile-defense capabilities against rogue states), by expanding the scope of national missile defense to counter threats larger than just the likes of Iran and North Korea. While we need not move immediately to Reagan’s original notion of comprehensive national-defense capabilities, we should fashion a scalable program with the potential to reach that point ultimately. Moreover, Washington should immediately serve notice of withdrawal from the New START treaty, truly a relic of Cold War thinking, since we no longer face a bilateral nuclear threat environment and our capabilities are aging. We should also reject the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty unequivocally, and resume limited underground nuclear testing to assure the safety and reliability of our nuclear stockpiles. Supporters of Obama’s Ukraine policy argue that Russia is acting out of weakness rather than strength. The foregoing steps would, at a minimum, test that proposition, because Russian weakness and budgetary constraints would inevitably and rapidly become clear if Russia tried to keep up with us.

Of course, much more must be done than is outlined here. Most fundamentally, America needs a national debate on the future of its relations with Russia and the wider world. Our politicians have not provided either effective leadership or strategic thinking for the past five years, and that must change. While no substantial improvement in America’s utterly inadequate current performance on the foreign-policy stage is likely while Obama remains president, we can at least restart the debate.

– Mr. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Surrender Is Not an Option.

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