The Washington Post asked an important question in an editorial late last week discussing the nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia: does his behavior in office disqualify him from being a strategic partner for the United States? When thinking about foreign policy we should remember Samuel Johnson’s admonition to James Boswell to “clear your mind of cant”. We cannot and should not jettison clear thinking based on stubborn facts.
Take for instance the calls by various pundits’ (and would-be pundits’) to resume cooperation and dialogue with Russia immediately and without conditions. These pundits argue that Russian aggression in Ukraine does not affect vital American interests and that Russia is fighting terrorism in Syria. Therefore there allegedly is a basis for such a dialogue and cooperation if we would only take Russia’s interests into account. (Not coincidentally, Russian officials like Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian political analysts also endlessly reiterate these same mantras.)
To be sure, there is no denying that Moscow and Washington’s awesome shared responsibility to manage their relations to prevent crises and nuclear war is no less an imperative today than it was during the Cold War. But for East-West dialogue to have value, it must be based on facts as well as truly common interests and perceptions. Genuine East-West dialogue, not to mention cooperation, cannot be just dialogue for its own sake.
Consequently, we must ask on what basis is dialogue and cooperation possible? Here we must consider the record, which is not encouraging. Indeed, Russian policy fully confirms Solzhenitsyn’s observation that “[v]iolence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence”.
Virtually no Russian analysis, whether by government officials or by Russian pundits, can admit that Russia committed aggression against Ukraine and continues to do so. For all the fanciful excuses they make, it is clear that neither the government nor the Russian “punditocracy” can accept the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine over any territory except as a matter of expediency.
This posture goes far beyond the revisionism that we have long known to rule the day in Russia: not only does Moscow seek to revise the post-1991 settlement in Europe by word and deed, Russian officials have also demonstrated that Moscow is utterly contemptuous of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all of its neighbors in Europe and Central Asia. If Ukraine, with whom Russia signed several solemn treaties guaranteeing its security, territorial integrity, and sovereignty, is not accepted as an independent state, no post-Cold War state is regarded by Moscow as a sovereign whose integrity is inviolate. Putin’s open calls for recreating states on the basis of Russian language use, or on the basis of some imaginary Russian ethnos, or on the basis of Russia’s historical affiliation with them, hardly inspires confidence in Russia’s fidelity to treaties and agreements bearing its signature. Neither does his penchant for stirring up conflicts on his country’s periphery, and then freezing them in such a way as to permanently cripple his neighbors. (Indeed, the destabilization of fragile states on its periphery has been a Russian modus operandi for centuries, so it is hardly surprising that Putin has merely updated this tactic as part of his overall strategy.)
When Russian elites speak about respecting Russian interests what they mean is returning to a Cold War like bipolarity in Europe and Eurasia where Washington (so they think) controls Western Europe and Russia gets to have its way with Eastern Europe and the former Soviet borderlands. Various Russian ambassadors, Lavrov, and Putin have frequently displayed this contempt for their neighbors’ sovereignty and integrity in their statements and behavior. Putin has admitted that the invasion of Georgia in 2008 was planned with separatists from as early as 2006, and the open source evidence shows that planning for similar operations against Moldova and Ukraine also began about that time.
Moscow also shows its contempt for international order and belief that it is constantly in a state of conflict with its interlocutors in countless other ways as well. Russia openly subsidizes political parties across Europe against their own governments (just as the Soviet Union did). It conspires with organized crime abroad to corrupt governments, businesses, media, and European political institutions, from Spain to the Balkans. It has even carried out political assassinations in Great Britain, Austria and Qatar, if not elsewhere. We need only examine Russia’s national security strategies and defense doctrines to see that Russian security policy openly takes as its point of departure the guaranteed hostility of every potential partner to it. Supposedly this hostility justifies conventional and nuclear threats made all over Europe and the CIS as well as repeated uses of energy blackmail despite contractual relationships among energy buyers and sellers.
Taking these realities into account, it’s clear that Russia can only be described as pursuing a policy of imperial conquest, and thus permanent war, as not one of the states surrounding Russia will willingly renounce its independence or territory.
Yet the continuation of peace and security in Europe based on the preservation of the post Cold War settlement of 1989-91 remains among the most vital of U.S. interests. Russia’s aggressions directly challenge that very order. It may not be a vital interest for Washington which particular party rules in Kyiv, but it is a vital American interest that Ukraine’s integrity and independence, which the U.S. assured in the 1994 Budapest accord, be upheld.
Despite President Obama’s cavalier dismissal of the concept of U.S. credibility, that concept is real. If the U.S. walks away from its security agreements in Europe, countries from Poland to Japan begin to doubt American credibility and willingness to live up to our commitments to them. Many of our allies will go off and make their own bilateral arrangements with various local powers, or else they will pursue their own independent course in matters affecting their vital interests. And as even Obama’s own National Intelligence Council understood that as early as 2012, is not a recipe for global stability. “The perception of U.S. disengagement or reduced interest is likely to produce an increased chance of interstate conflict,” it wrote. “A slipping capacity to serve as a global security provider would be a key factor contributing to instability.”
We now find the same modus operandi in Syria. By announcing a partial withdrawal of its forces Russia, Putin has signaled to Bashar al-Assad that Russia will not underwrite his campaign to restore his unquestioned power over all of Syria. At the same time, the Kremlin has managed to retain its air and naval bases in perpetuity, and will get to station its most potent air, air defense, and naval weapons at these outposts to create an anti-access and area defense zone in the Eastern Mediterranean, successfully keeping NATO at arms’ length. Even as some of its forces are withdrawing, Russian forces are expanding the infrastructure of their bases and adding new capabilities.
Meanwhile Russia has also forged several alliances with regional players beyond just Assad to ensure that it plays a pre-eminent role in the Levant for years to come. Most notable of those has been its blossoming relationship with the Syrian Kurds, in the guise of the PYD, an organization which recently set up a special interest section in Moscow. The PYD, readers should remember, were a Soviet creation, used to funnel funds from friendly Syria to the rabidly Marxist PKK inside NATO-member Turkey during the Cold War. Plus ça change, it seems. After a Russian plane was shot down by Turkish forces late last year, Vladimir Putin has found it hard to forgive and forget. Keeping a low-intensity conflict between the Kurds and the Turks simmering serves his purposes just fine. And the PYD may yet do double duty, keeping Syria a permanently weak state, vulnerable to continued Russian influence. Even as Russia proclaimed its partial withdrawal, the PYD proclaimed the creation of a federal Kurdish state on the Syrian territory it controlled.
In Syria we see some of the same tactics and objectives that we see in Europe: the fragmenting of states through proxy wars in order to destabilize them and force Washington to treat with Moscow as it is an equal player in that region. It bears repeating: neither in Syria nor in Europe does Russia have an interest in stability, or in preserving the status quo. As Robert Legvold, one of our most distinguished experts on Russian foreign policy, observed years ago, “Russia wants status, not responsibility.” And in the Middle East, the distinguished historian Niall Ferguson has equally tellingly observed that, “Russia, thanks to its own extensive energy reserves, is the only power that has no vested interest in stability in the Middle East.”
Arms control is the other major cluster of issues that most deeply engages Russo-American relations. Here, too, the record is no less depressing. Russia unilaterally walked out of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, revoked its agreement at the 1999 Istanbul OSCE Conference to remove its forces from Moldova and Georgia, and has openly violated the INF treaty. By both rhetoric and action, by both its military exercises and its weapons procurements, Russia makes clear that the use of nuclear weapons in war is intrinsic to its strategy.
Neither are the U.S. and Russia comfortably aligned against terrorism. Pre-existing cooperation existed more on paper than in fact, as the Tsarnaev brothers’ case (where Russia stonewalled U.S. investigators) showed. Moreover, Russia’s attitude to terrorism is murky, duplicitous and self-serving at best. Russian-backed provocateurs in Ukraine set off several bombs across Odessa and Kharkiv oblasts. Russia’s security apparatus in the North Caucasus regularly “disappears” people in the region as part of its campaign there, regularly fanning the flames of Jihad. It arms Hezbollah. and we recently learned that it has been sharing weapons and intelligence with the Taliban since 2013. Finally, many Western analysts have argued that Moscow had concentrated its attacks on pro-American forces in Syria rather than striking ISIS, despite Putin making a lot of hay about a common front against the terror group at his grandiose UN speech (and many times thereafter).
Russia, of course, openly wants dialogue and cooperation—dialogue and cooperation in solving problems it is in part exacerbating. “Just ask us, we can help,” the Kremlin is saying. But in truth, there is no hand extended here. The false promise of cooperation against terrorism, to name just one example, is being used as a wedge issue in undermining European consensus on sanctions against Russia for failing to observe the Minsk II agreement on Ukraine—another agreement that Moscow violated even before the ink was dry. There is no modus vivendi to be found with this regime. A mafia state through and through, the logic of its foreign policy is that of the shakedown. Give ground today, and there will be more demands tomorrow.
What we have available to us right now in engaging with Russia is, at best, what diplomats call “an exchange of views”. Russia continues to play a double game to obtain the status it craves, and is likely to ask for more as soon as its current set of demands is met. The burden of proof for more closely engaging with Russia falls squarely upon the shoulders of those advocating for further rapprochement: how would accepting Russia’s terms and conditions for dialogue form a meaningful basis for the establishment of a rule-based order in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond? Unfortunately, based on the facts at hand, it will be a difficult thing for these people to prove.