“In the history of warfare I do not recollect a more fortunate retreat”, one of George Washington’s closest aides once said. The reference was to events in the late summer of 1776, when the Continental Army was being routed by the British in New York. General Washington was spent. He had exhausted himself riding up and down the lines at Brooklyn Heights, rallying dispirited troops. One of every five of his solders was sick from either dysentery or smallpox. Militia units were deserting in droves. There was heavy pressure from Congress to defend New York harbor.
Under cover of a dense early morning fog, however, the commander of the Continental Army pulled off a brilliant surprise retreat. Rather than seeing his forces decimated, his troops were saved to fight another day. It turned out to be a turning point in the war.
That example can inspire us today, as the U.S. considers how to respond to Russia—and the fraying global order.
The U.S. would be well-advised to resist the impulse to rashly respond to Russia’s intervention in Syria. For one thing, one should “never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake”, as Napoleon put it. If we’re lucky, Russian forces in Syria will meet a similar fate as the Soviets in Afghanistan. But it’s also urgent we regroup from the shambles that is the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. The Western-led world order is crumbling today. Our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, deep cuts to our defense budgets, a resurgent Russia, a rising China, the emergence of ISIS, and the staying power of a theocratic Iran, bent—with or without nuclear weapons—on regional hegemony all suggest a future where peace will be constantly threatened and our interests undermined at every turn.
We can’t solve this nexus of issues at once. Nor can we have high hopes that President Obama will suddenly grasp why so much is coming unraveled. But we can start a discussion about our larger aims, as Eliot Cohen suggested in these pages recently, and we can begin that by proposing that we manage a key problem at hand. We must end the insidious cycle whereby Russian President Vladimir Putin acts and we scramble to react. Playing whack-a-mole siphons precious resources and chips away at our reputation as a world leader. Putin has his agenda. It’s time we get back to ours.
Our vision ought to be straightforward. On the continent, we want a Europe whole and free, with a strong NATO and a stable, prosperous European Union. In the Middle East—current chaos notwithstanding—we want American primacy (not hegemony) in order to protect our economic and security interests and, where and when possible, to advance the cause of democracy and human rights. Equally straightforward: In both cases, Putin—a cunning opportunist and master of playing a weak hand strongly—has become far more than a mere annoyance. Putin wants to build Russia up by cutting America down. He needs his comeuppance. We need a strategy to contain him, and to prepare for improved relations with Russia once Vlad (our impaler) is gone.
What does such a strategy look like?
First, NATO: We must provide vigorous support for alliance members at risk—at the moment, the three Baltic states and Poland. The administration’s current plans are inadequate. Additional troops and tanks on a rotating basis are okay. Infinitely better, though, is a permanently based, brigade-size, multinational force across the Baltics. America and the West need real skin in the game.
In addition, we need to find ways to embed the Scandinavians in all of this, including non-NATO members Finland and Sweden. Both countries have been subject to a myriad of Russian threats the past several years. This past spring, the five Nordic defense ministers jointly pledged in a public declaration to strengthen military capabilities. Let’s capitalize on this initiative and work to promote deeper, regional political cohesion.
For its part, Poland needs permanent NATO bases. We must do everything we can to allay fears among Poles that the country may become one day “a buffer state” against Russian aggression. We need screaming red lines for article 5 and sub-article 5 threats for all NATO members. This requires very close consultation with our allies—most of all the Germans—who have been the least keen of all NATO members to move in this direction. All of this (plus ongoing NATO enlargement) must be part of the agenda for NATO’s summit in Warsaw next July. NATO’s doors must remain open for countries like Georgia, Montenegro, and Macedonia if we’re serious about a Europe whole and free, and if we want to get back to setting our agenda rather than perpetually reacting to an agenda determined by others.
Second, Ukraine: We need to extend robust economic, political, and military support for Kiev. Ukraine is not peripheral for Putin; it is at the core of his concerns. He can’t lose here and win at home—or anywhere else. We won’t drive him out anytime soon, but, as an element of our larger strategy, we can make his Ukraine adventure far more costly.
Sanctions have been useful, but they need to be expanded and sustained. As NYU Professor Mark Galeotti has argued, sectoral sanctions are fine and good, but we should also target more members of the Kremlin’s inner circle, including preventing their spouses and children from vacationing or studying abroad. A step in this direction is much more likely to put pressure on Putin directly.
We also need to help train and begin seriously to arm Ukrainians who are fighting valiantly for their country. Hostilities have died down in the country’s east for the time being as Russia focuses on Syria, but, as we well know from various other precedents, a frozen conflict—and make no mistake, that’s where the Minsk protocol is taking the Donbas—is more a perpetual standoff than a lasting peace. With Putin looking elsewhere, we ought to take the opportunity to put Ukraine’s fighting forces on the best possible footing going forward. It’s very true that the Ukrainian armed forces, even after several rounds of reforms, are not in particularly good shape, and by some accounts they are still riddled with Russian spies. But that only means that the fixes won’t be easy—not that they should not be attempted.
Yes, Putin will probably respond, and there will be an escalation ladder. Peaceniks in Europe will be out in large numbers, bankrolled in part by Moscow, as they have been in the past. EU capitals will hardly be inclined to confrontation from the get-go. We’ll need to horse trade, and this will include helping Europeans with their migration crises. But not taking this opportunity to build up Ukraine’s defense capacities would be a strategic blunder of the first order. Our approach has to be the stuff of a long game. Ukrainians know this, and appear to be ready for it. We mustn’t leave them hanging.
Third, in the realm of ideas and in the information war, it’s imperative that we stop fretting about how we respond to Russian propaganda. Here, too, let’s focus on our agenda and on the narratives we want to advance. Putin is popular, or so it’s said. So was Mussolini, for a time. The way to deflate Russia’s malign nationalism is to end Putin’s string of perceived victories—Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and other instances where he thumbs his nose at the West—and show Russians what it looks like when a petty tyrant goes on a losing streak. And we must get Russians talking to Russians about all of this. Let’s nurture our ties not only to Russian liberals but also—more importantly—to Russian nationalists, who may well in due course turn against Putin and consider a more pragmatic approach in their relations with the West.
Let’s look for cleavages. Let’s drive wedges in Mr. Putin’s ruling class. It’s what a broad coalition of anti-Communist Russian broadcasters working for Radio Liberty did brilliantly during the Cold War. In the information space, we need to work with our European allies. Our joint efforts require the use of multiple platforms—web, radio, television, social media—and creative and compelling programming. (Take note: Putin’s RT, like our very own Donald Trump, knows how to entertain.) And when we’re fully prohibited from working inside the country, as is sure to happen in due time, let’s get back to beaming into Russia from the outside.
Fourth, speaking of narratives, the sprawling kleptocracy Putin presides over may well be the Achilles heel of his regime. Corruption is not merely a byproduct of his authoritarianism: Kleptocracy is at the heart of how the Putinist system gets things done. The personal enrichment of the Kremlin leader and of those closest to him needs to be documented and fully exposed. Russians need to know the extent to which Putin and his cronies are looting their country—financially, culturally, and spiritually. And to get this piece completely right, we need to tackle the Western enablers, too: Putin and his fellow kleptocrats can only do what they do because Western banks, high-flying real estate firms in places like London and New York, and financial institutions knowingly handle dirty money. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of the Kleptocracy Initiative, a project funded and led by the publisher of The American Interest.)
None of this can happen over night. And even if we manage to deliver 100 percent on what I have outlined above, there will still be an immense amount to do to continue advancing a coherent vision for Europe and the Middle East. Dealing with Putin’s Russia, however, is a necessary first step—a clearing of the heavy brush.
In the summer of 1776, Washington would not have had a prayer to prevail had his famous retreat not taken place in the context of a larger vision and plan. To get where we need to be, we must place our foreign policies once again in a larger view of things. If we keep floundering without a compass or a map—or a clue of where we want to end up—our endless reactive tactics will grind us down until, for the West, there’s nothing but confusion and disarray left.