Walter Russell Mead has written a number of powerful commentaries on Russia and the United States in recent months. It is hard to disagree with his observations. Russia does face myriad geopolitical, political, and socio-economic challenges to its ability to sustain itself as a great power. Its interests do not align with ours on most critical global issues, including world order; nuclear-weapons reductions; Iran, Syria, and the broader Middle East; energy security and climate change; and now Ukraine. Putin in recent months has proved much more adept than Obama at advancing his country’s interests. Talk of partnership rings hollow.
What requires more thought is Mead’s conclusion. He sees a major zero-sum geopolitical contest unfolding, pitting Russia against the United States. Washington, he argues, should abandon its policy of seeking better relations and push back against Russia. Most urgently, in his view, the administration needs to rethink its policies on Ukraine and Syria to take into account Russia’s unrelenting opposition—and Mead would surely argue that the dramatic events in Kiev and the collapse of the Syrian negotiations only reinforce the urgency. But he has not yet suggested what the pushback would entail in detail and what it should aim to achieve. What, in other words, should the United States do, to what ends, at what cost, and with what chances of success? Is pushing back a wise or sufficient approach?
On Ukraine and Syria, the United States has been quick to castigate Moscow for the dangerous turns in events. But the hard truth is that no enduring political solutions will emerge that do not at least minimally satisfy Moscow, given its interests and the resources it is prepared to expend. For that reason, confronting it—pushing back—might have to be part of our approach, but in the end, like it or not, we will have to cooperate with Russia in finding sustainable balances of interests. We cannot succeed if we reduce our Russia policy to pushing back.
The question is what would constitute reasonable balances from the standpoint of our interests. Those balances will reflect the resources that we and Russia are prepared to devote to Ukraine and Syria. These resources in turn will reflect the priority we each assign those matters in our respective foreign policies.
With regard to Ukraine, there is a gaping asymmetry of interests. Ukraine is a top priority for Russia for historical, security, and psychological reasons. Moscow is prepared to pour in considerable resources—primarily financial and political at the moment, but we should not rule out the use of force in extreme scenarios—to achieve its minimal goal of preventing Ukraine from entering the European Union’s normative sphere, through an Association Agreement or other instrument, while holding out the possibility of reaching its maximal goal of bringing Ukraine into Putin’s ambitious Eurasian Union. For the United States, Ukraine has hardly been a priority so far. Policy has drifted, and the resources the United States has applied have been negligible, with moralistic rhetoric taking precedence over purposeful action. The recent events in Kiev are foremost the consequences of Yanukovich’s gross blunders, the defiance of the streets, and Europe’s mediation, not American resolve.
But the United States should make Ukraine a higher priority. Although the roots of the crisis are domestic, the way in which outside forces have engaged highlights the underlying reality: The crisis is fundamentally about the structure of European security and economic relations. The United States has a high stake in the outcome. In particular, it has an interest in the emergence of a strong, prosperous, independent Ukraine as a fundamental building block of that structure. How does such a Ukraine emerge from the current chaos?
The exhilarating turn in Kiev should not blind us to the fact that the crisis is far from over. It has rather entered a new phase, in which issues of political power, economic viability, and national unity still loom large and in which Russia retains great incentive and considerable resources to challenge the current victors in Kiev. Our policy must look beyond the moment to the reality that Ukrainians will need considerable time and space to sort out their political differences and master the economic problems. Ukrainians will progress most rapidly without undue external interference. In these circumstances, one of our key goals should be to remove Ukraine as an immediate stake in a bitter geopolitical contest between Russia and the West. To that end, the United States and the European Union should be prepared to sit down with Russia to discuss how to manage the Ukrainian question—and recent events might incline Moscow to be more receptive to such talks. (The Ukrainians should also participate. This is not, as critics will inevitably charge, a new Yalta, an attempt to decided Ukraine’s fate over the heads of Ukrainians, although it is decidedly an effort to establish a framework within which they can make their own decisions about their future.)
For talks to succeed, the United States and the European Union will have to raise their level of engagement at least momentarily, particularly on the economic front, to maintain pressure on Moscow to help defuse the crisis. Nevertheless, the goal of talks should be finding a reasonable and sustainable balance of interests, which might prove to be a neutral, independent Ukraine within its current borders, guaranteed by Russia, the European Union, and the United States. We would thus ensure that Ukraine is not pulled back into Russia’s orbit, although we would have to abandon rhetoric about Ukraine’s “European choice” (let elections make that choice). At the same time, Moscow would ensure that Ukraine was not pulled into the European Union’s sphere of influence. Geopolitical rivalry would, of course, continue, but it would play itself out over a longer period in a less dangerous fashion, and the Ukrainians would be put at the center of decisions about their future.
As for Syria, there is less of a gap in interests. Both the United States and Russia share an interest in limiting the spillover consequences of the conflict and in preventing terrorists with ambitions to attack the United States, Europe, and Russia from using Syria as a base and training ground. The sticking point—and a formidable one—is the nature of the political solution: The United States seeks regime chance; Russia is adamantly opposed, particularly to efforts to effect the change by outside force.
The critical difference, however, has been in the resources Washington and Moscow have been prepared to devote to advancing their respective interests. Moscow has stood fast behind Assad, making it clear that it will back him in international forums, provide him the wherewithal to make gains on the battlefield, and not pressure him to negotiate those gains away, particularly in talks with a weak group of opposition forces of dubious legitimacy inside Syria. Meanwhile, Washington has dithered, unwilling to take risks for, or provide serious resources to, the forces it claims to support. Rhetoric has once again taken precedence over action, with the wistful thought that somehow Washington should be able to shame Moscow into supporting our position on Assad’s future. (When was the last time anyone shamed Putin into doing anything, let alone into giving up a geopolitical gain?) Under these circumstances, any balance of interests will tend toward Moscow’s position.
To shift the balance, the United States will have to arm at least some part of the opposition. But it must do that with great care to produce the military stalemate essential to fruitful negotiations. It must provide sufficient arms to convince Assad—and Moscow—that he cannot make further gains on the battlefield, while limiting the support so that the opposition entertains no illusions of a battlefield victory. The goal of negotiations—under U.S., Russian, and UN auspices—should be the cessation of hostilities and the elaboration of a political process, not necessarily a political transition, that will allow Syrians to create a stable political order that is non-threatening to its immediate neighbors and that begins an effort to contain and eliminate the terrorist threat. Once again, the negotiated solution should be guaranteed by both the United States and Russia. And once again, geopolitical rivalry will not cease, but it will proceed in a less perilous way.
Both these proposed settlements are sure to draw charges of appeasement from the anti-Russian circles that dominate the debate of U.S. Russia policy in Washington today. But in neither Ukraine nor Syria are maximal goals achievable, especially given the risks and costs the American public is now prepared to accept and the resources Moscow is prepared to expend. A pragmatic approach, however—one conscious of our priorities and of the limits to our resources and public support—could produce a compromise among forces in Ukraine and Syria and between Russia and the United States. This balance would still allow for a future rich with possibilities, including for the advance of our interests.