A common thread throughout the two-plus years of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy, reflected in its National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, and a growing theme in much of the op-ed and think tank commentariat is the notion of great power competition between the United States on one side and Russia and China on the other. In the case of the latter, one can make a strong argument. Not only is Beijing seeking to flex its muscles in the Asia-Pacific region; it actively seeks to enhance its influence elsewhere around the world through the financing of projects under its Belt and Road Initiative and through soft power projection to hold up the Chinese model as an alternative to the democratic system of government.
Russia, by contrast, is not a great power by most major measurements, except when it comes to its nuclear arsenal and its geographical size. Russia’s GDP is less than $1.6 trillion, placing it between Spain and Italy in country rankings. Compare that to China, with a GDP of nearly $13 trillion, or to the United States, with a GDP of more than $19 trillion. Russia’s economy is stagnant, and its population is declining; the economies and populations in both the United States and China are growing. Under different leadership, Russia could be doing better, but under Vladimir Putin, Russia is stuck playing the spoiler role on the international stage. Declining powers can pose serious dangers, and Putin’s Russia is no exception.
That said, in portraying Russia as a great power and placing it alongside China, the Trump Administration and commentators inflate Russia’s importance and role in the world. To be clear, the Putin regime should be taken seriously, but not as a great power. Instead it should be viewed as a destructive force wreaking havoc around the world, through use of military force, interference in others’ politics, and spread of corruption. Putin poses a grave threat to many American interests, as evidenced by: his interference in our election in 2016; his invasion and occupation of parts of Ukraine and Georgia; his bloody intervention to save the murderous Assad regime in Syria; and his most recent deployment of a small contingent of forces to Venezuela to blunt any possible U.S. military moves to remove the discredited Nicolas Maduro from power.
Unlike the Chinese Communist Party, which seeks to project a positive image of its leadership and model around the world, the Kremlin more or less has abandoned efforts to boost its image. RT and Sputnik, its propaganda outlets, are more interested in denigrating other countries and their governments than they are in extolling the advantages of the Putin model. Western leaders, in other words, are in no position to hector Russia about human rights abuses, use of military force, and corruption—we are all guilty!
These are not the makings of a great power but of a destructive one. In pursuing such a strategy, Putin has weakened Russian national interests and spread his forces thin in ways that leave them vulnerable. Take Ukraine, where Putin has arguably done more to unite that country than any Ukrainian leader in the past two decades. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, a majority of Ukrainians favored joining NATO; in the past, that number was stuck in the low teens. Putin seems to have no clue how to withdraw his forces from Ukraine’s Donbas region, as Ukrainian forces have courageously staved off further territorial encroachment by Russia
Other neighboring states, especially Belarus, are increasingly nervous about possible next moves by Putin. Instilling fear in one’s neighbors is one way, albeit an incredibly negative one, to project power, but it is not the sign of a great power. With his ratings in Russia dropping to levels not seen in close to a decade, Putin is not dealing from a position of strength. A Putin feeling desperate may well pose a threat, but out of weakness, not greatness.
As long as there remain countries in Europe aspiring to join the European Union and NATO, the West will have a much stronger had for winning over and influencing countries on the continent. The European Union’s total distraction with Brexit and the rise of populist and anti-democratic parties, however, combined with the Trump Administration’s alienation of European allies and undermining of NATO and the EU as key institutions, weaken the West’s hand and create openings for Putin. For the West, the problem here can be found when it looks in the mirror, not in great power competition with Russia—though Putin is a skillful opportunist who taps into our self-inflicted wounds and exacerbates them.
In response to all this, the Administration unwisely overlooks problems in parts of Europe and the Middle East because it views relations through the prism of great power competition. It has gone completely quiet amid democratic rollback in Hungary and Poland, and it has even supported far-right and populist forces in Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had no business visiting Budapest last month, unless he was there to read the riot act to Putin pal Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s Prime Minister. Instead of bolstering our allies in Europe, we are contributing to their problems and have been complicit in their undermining of democratic institutions. By looking the other way amid authoritarian moves in certain EU member states, we blur the distinction between us and Putin’s unprincipled approach. Standing up for our values would go much further to bolster Europe and our friends in the Middle East as well as deflect Putin’s efforts there.
Syria is another example of Putin’s misguided power projection. His decision to send Russian forces to Syria in late September 2015 undoubtedly saved Assad, who was teetering on the edge at that time. Putin stepped in where the Obama administration failed to act. Assad is still in power and talk of his departure has largely disappeared. But Russia now owns responsibility for keeping Assad, who has the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands, in power. Between 200 and 300 Russian mercenaries in Syria were killed by U.S. airpower more than a year ago, and Russia never raised a stink about it, knowing they would lose any further showdowns there on the ground.
Russian diplomacy seeks to make additional inroads in the Middle East, with ties improving with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and most notably Turkey, a NATO member. Beyond arms sales, however, Moscow has little to offer these countries. The general disengagement of the United States from the region and our abandonment of human rights concerns in the face of brutal leaders in Cairo and Riyadh make Putin’s job easier and risk alienating the frustrated populations in the region, who see little difference between our approach and that of Putin.
In Venezuela, Moscow is propping up another murderous leader in Maduro. But Venezuela, far from Russia, is not the same as Syria, where Putin’s forces have greater ability to project power. Putin cannot resist trying to stick America in the eye in the Western Hemisphere, as a turnabout-is-fair-play for his sense that we have been doing that to him in his “near abroad.” But Russia is not a decisive player in Venezuela—unless we wrongly elevate it into such a role.
Adamantly averse to regime change amid color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia and the removal of Qaddafi in Libya in 2011 for fear that such change might give his own population ideas, Putin is content to align himself with like-minded, bloody, authoritarian leaders. That should make any sense of competition between the United States and Putin’s Russia easier for us, if we consistently make it clear that we stand with democratic forces and human rights and the rights of states to choose their own way forward, not with bloodthirsty dictators.
Adding to the confusion over the Administration’s policy and attitude toward Russia is the contradictory rhetoric coming from most senior officials, and from the President himself. During the 2016 election campaign and even as President, Trump frequently asks, “Wouldn’t it be great if we and Russia got along?” The answer to that is yes, of course. But it’s the wrong question to ask. The better question is, “Can we and Russia get along as long as the Putin regime is in power without sacrificing our values, interests, and other countries?” The answer there is equally obvious: No! Moreover, Trump’s desire for better relations with his Russian counterpart and his unwillingness to fault Putin for virtually anything cloud the rest of his Administration’s approach in dealing with Russia.
Many of the Administration’s actions in pushing back on Putin are praiseworthy. Despite concerns in its very first week that it would lift sanctions against Russia, the Administration has maintained and even ramped up sanctions, thanks largely to congressional pressure to do so. It has provided lethal military assistance to Ukraine and Georgia to help those countries defend themselves against further Russian aggression, something President Obama refused to do. The United States, together with NATO allies, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has beefed up its military presence in countries close to Russia, a move started under the Obama Administration.
The Trump Administration is boosting liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to Europe, denting Russia’s share of the market there. It has strongly pushed for cancelation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany that would make an existing pipeline running through Ukraine obsolete, causing serious financial harm to Ukraine to the tune of $2 billion per year in transit fees.
All of these actions are laudable and represent a firm pushback against the Kremlin. They have been accompanied by tough rhetoric from a range of Administration officials who have not been shy in criticizing Putin’s regime, whether for its human rights abuses, its violations of its neighbors’ sovereignty, or Russia’s interference in other countries’ elections, not least the U.S. elections in 2016 and 2018. Vice President Mike Pence visited Estonia and Georgia in 2017, demonstrating solidarity with those frontline states.
But these actions are undermined by President Trump’s rhetoric. In 2012, President Obama told then-Russian President Medvedev that he, Obama, would have more “flexibility” after winning re-election when it came to dealing with Russia. Obama’s comments, picked up by an open mic, were not meant for public consumption, but critics rightly jumped all over him for making them. Trump says such things all the time, intended for public consumption, but few of his supporters push back.
When an Administration’s actions and rhetoric do not align, there is no clear, coherent policy. The 2017 National Security Strategy may portray Putin’s Russia as a great power competitor, but the President himself does not seem to agree, at least with the notion that Putin is a competitor. From his absolution of Russia for its interference in the 2016 election to his embarrassing performance in Helsinki during his meeting with Putin in July, Trump is on a different page from the rest of his Administration when it comes to Russia and Putin.
The President and his entire Administration need to get on the same page when it comes to dealing with Russia. They should not exaggerate Russia’s position into some great power competition; at the same time, they should recognize the serious threat Putin poses, from invading his neighbors and use of cyber-attacks to interference in our politics, support for like-minded murderous dictators, and violations of various arms control agreements. The Administration also should not forget Putin’s human rights abuses and the murders and poisoning of Kremlin critics both inside Russia and on other countries’ territory, including Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal last year, both in the United Kingdom. Suspicions surround the death of Mikhail Lesin, a former Russian official under Putin, whose body was found in a Washington, DC hotel in November 2015.
In short, Putin is a real threat, but not on a great power scale.