Don’t isolate Russia | Tom Switzer

Putin currently graces the cover of Time, Newsweek, Der Spiegel and The Economist, together with a host of lesser publications. Always unfavourably of course, with the possible exception of Time where the headline is “Cold War II” and the subhead “The West is losing Putin’s dangerous game”.

In the midst of this stampede, it’s refreshing to find authors who take a longer view. Two popped up today, both writing in conservative publications and from a realist standpoint.

In “Don’t Isolate Russia” over at The American Conservative, Tom Switzer implores us to “think clearly and, if necessary, coldly, about the underlying cause of the Russia-Ukraine standoff, which sparked the military blunder.”

It [the West] has repudiated the implicit agreement between president George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990-91 that the Atlantic alliance would not extend into Eastern Europe and the Baltics, a region that Russia has viewed as a necessary zone of protection long before Stalin appeared on the scene. In so doing, the West has taken no account at all for Russian susceptibilities and interests.

For Moscow, unlike Washington and Brussels, Ukraine is a matter of intense strategic importance: it covers a huge terrain that the French and Germans crossed to attack Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries: [ . . .]

Since the collapse of Soviet communism, Western liberals and neo-conservatives have declared the demise of power politics and triumph of self-determination. But Putin’s calculations are based on an old truth of geopolitics: great powers fight tooth and nail when vital strategic interests are at stake and doggedly guard what they deem as their spheres of influence.

This is unfortunate, but it is the way the world works, and always has. Imagine how Washington would respond if Russia had signed up Panama in a military pact, put rockets and missiles in Cuba, or helped bring down a democratically elected, pro-U.S. government in Mexico.

In The National Interest, Dmitri Trenin considers Russia’s likely security strategy now that the West appears to have definitively turned against it.

Russia is learning to live in a new harsh environment of U.S.-led economic sanctions and political confrontation with the United States. More than five months after the change of regime in Kiev, which ushered in a new era in Moscow’s foreign policy and its international relations, a rough outline of Russia’s new security strategy is emerging. It is designed for a long haul and will probably impact the global scene.

The central assumption in that strategy is that Russia is responding to U.S. policies that are meant to box it in and hold it down—and back. The Kremlin absolutely could not ignore the developments in Ukraine, a country of utmost importance to Russia. The armed uprising in Kiev brought to power a coalition of ultranationalists and pro-Western politicians: the worst possible combination Moscow could think of. President Putin saw this as a challenge both to Russia’s international position and to its internal order.

Taking up the challenge, however, meant a real and long-term conflict with the United States.

This burgeoning, open-ended conflict is tragically unnecessary. Whatever one may think of Putin, Russia during his time has been a predictable actor on the international stage. The few times (such as with Georgia in 2008 and the Ukraine now) when it did come into conflict with the west shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. Its concerns were openly telegraphed well before troubles erupted.

Now, however, particularly in the wake of MH17, we in the west seem to have abandoned even the pretence of dealing with Russia as a respectable nation, much less as an equal. They are instead being treated as a pariah.

I see that as unreasonable but regardless of one’s view of Putin and Russia, dealing with anyone in this fashion is counterproductive. It merely ensures misunderstandings, heightened tensions, and a hardening of one’s opponent’s attitudes.[1]

The sanctions will not make Putin back off. He also knows that if he were to step back, pressure on him will only increase. The Russian elite may have to undergo a major transformation, and a personnel turnover, as a result of growing isolation from the West, but the Russian people at large are more likely to grow more patriotic under outside pressure—especially if Putin leans harder on official corruption and bureaucratic arbitrariness. If the Kremlin, however, turns the country into a besieged fortress and introduces mass repression, it will definitely lose.

It is too early to speculate how the contest might end. The stakes are very high. Any serious concession by Putin will lead to him losing power in Russia, which will probably send the country into a major turmoil, and any serious concession by the United States—in terms of accommodating Russia—will mean a palpable reduction of U.S. global influence, with consequences to follow in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere.

I don’t agree that any “serious concession” by the US would necessarily affect it negatively. Done well, it might actually boost their international mana; after all, concerns about its growing unilateralism have been around for awhile, not only amongst its enemies but also amongst its friends. In any case, the important point is that this risk wasn’t forced upon them, it was assumed voluntarily, much like the war in Iraq.

Aggressive steps publicly taken are usually a one-way ratchet. The cost of stepping back, particularly in a political system as dysfunctional and intensely adversarial as that in the US, is just too high. The value this simple truth ought to place on considered prudence has unfortunately yet again been cast aside in the heat of battle.

Update: David Stockman, Director of the Office Of Management And Budget (OMB) under Reagan, covers the same territory a lot less diplomatically.


1 Sometimes sweet reasonableness is no longer a useful tool, as with Hitler in the 30s. However, it would have been very useful indeed 15-20 years before when Germany and its people could still have been brought safely back within the community of nations.


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