By Paula J. Dobriansky & David J. Kramer

Vladimir Putin’s Russia poses a major threat to American interests and ranks near the top of the foreign policy/national security challenges facing the United States. Not since World War II has Europe faced a graver crisis. Should Russian aggression spread from Ukraine to a neighboring NATO member state, the United States would be confronted for the first time with Article 5 implications and the possibility of war with Russia. Moreover, the ongoing crackdown inside Russia reflects a dangerous regime that is both corrupt and authoritarian, while also paranoid and dysfunctional.

Putin’s regime poses a range of threats. It is, first and foremost, a threat to its own citizens through its ugly crackdown on human rights. It threatens its neighbors, as the invasions of Ukraine this past year and Georgia in 2008 illustrate. It has threatened Estonia through a cyber attack in 2007 and cut-offs of energy to and imports from Moldova, Georgia, Lithuania, and others. It threatens the West through its attempts to corrupt our institutions by using our financial system and buying up our assets while paying off influential voices. It threatens the United States in particular through its strident anti-Americanism, based not on ideology but on the cult of Putinism, which has reached a level worse than that of the Cold War. It threatens an already destabilized Middle East through its military and diplomatic support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the proposed delivery of sophisticated S-300 missiles to Iran. And it threatens global stability through increasing nuclear weapons saber-rattling in general. The world order itself is thus under assault from the Putin regime.

Russia’s regime also challenges many of the principles for which we stand and, left unchallenged, could pose an even greater threat in the future. And yet the approach adopted by President Obama would never lead one to conclude that this threat is a top priority of his Administration, notwithstanding the comments of the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who described Russia as an “existential threat.” Essentially, the White House has contracted out responsibility for dealing with Putin’s Russia to the Europeans, and in particular to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This marks an abdication of American leadership unprecedented since the end of World War II. It must be reversed.

When the Obama Administration entered office in January 2009, it inherited a troubled relationship with Russia. In August 2008, six months before, Russia had invaded Georgia, and relations between the United States and Russia came to a virtual standstill. The Obama Administration’s “reset” policy, one of its top foreign policy objectives when it came into office in 2009, sought to repair the relations between Washington and Moscow that had been damaged by the invasion of Georgia. And yet as the Administration winds down, relations between Moscow and Washington have plummeted to new lows following the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, levels far lower than those it inherited. 

Over the years, tensions in the relationship can be traced to differences over, inter alia: Russia’s anti-terrorism campaign in Chechnya (which included major human rights abuses); NATO’s campaign against Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and the subsequent recognition of Kosovo's independence; the arrest, on trumped-up charges, of Russia’s richest oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky; October 2003; a broader deterioration in the human rights situation inside Russia; the war in Iraq, which Russia vehemently opposed; the U.S. decision to leave the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty; NATO enlargement; and Putin’s perception that the U.S. government was behind the color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan—and that Russia was next on our list. Putin has perpetuated the myth that the West, and the United States in particular, represent an implacable threat to Russia.

Seeking to put Russia’s invasion of Georgia in the past, the Obama Administration’s “reset” with Russia was designed to pursue “win-win” approaches to various global problems, including Iran, Afghanistan, non-proliferation, arms control, and counter-terrorism. As part of its strategy, the Obama team made clear that Russia’s disturbing human rights situation would not be linked to other parts of the relationship.[1]  In addition, the Administration decided to center its policy on Russia at the expense of other countries in the region, leaving Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and other denizens of the post-Soviet space to the European Union to handle. And in fall 2009, the Obama Administration made adjustments to the missile defense system proposed by the Bush Administration, in part to curry favor, it hoped, with Moscow. 

Obama attempted to work out a mutually satisfactory relationship with then-President Dmitri Medvedev, believing that he was easier to deal with than Putin. Days before traveling to Moscow for his first visit as President in July 2009, Obama commented that then-Prime Minister Putin, by contrast, had “one foot in the old ways of doing business,” suggesting the Cold War, and “one foot in the new,” a comment that did not endear the American President to the Russian Premier. But Obama and his team believed that Medvedev was the real thing and that their support for him might tip the balance in Medvedev’s favor against Putin. That calculation proved mistaken.  

Other flaws in the reset policy included the public and repeated rejection of linkage, which gave Putin a green light to crack down domestically without paying a price in his relationship with Washington. Since May 2012, with Putin’s return, Russia has experienced the worst crackdown in human rights in decades. The concept of “win-win” was alien to Putin, who sees the world in zero-sum terms and perceived such an approach as indicating a lack of resolve on the part of the U.S. government. On numerous occasions, such as on the decision in September 2009 to revamp the Bush Administration’s plans for missile defense in Eastern Europe, the Obama Administration created the impression that it wanted and needed better relations with Moscow more than Moscow needed good relations with the United States. The Obama White House’s neglect of Russia’s neighbors, reinforced by its announced “pivot” to Asia that implied a distancing from Europe, gave Putin the impression that he could lean on his neighbors without any consequence from Washington. 

Arms control has been a major focus with Russia, culminating in the New Start Treaty concluded in 2010. The Administration also touted Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, the Northern Distribution Network for Afghanistan, and joint efforts on Iran, as accomplishments resulting from the reset policy. The hope all this generated for follow-on arms control agreements and a flourishing partnership proved unfounded, even before Putin’s September 2011 announcement that he would return to the presidency the following spring. Bilateral relations had already lost their momentum, in part due to differences over Syria, reaction to the Arab revolutionary movements (especially the UN resolution on Libya, in which Putin felt Russia had been duped into abstaining while the West used the resolution passed in the Security Council to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi), missile defense (Obama’s concessions on that in September 2009 turned out only to whet Putin’s appetite), and growing Russian pressure on its neighbors. When Putin declared in September 2011 that he would swap places with Medvedev, he all but ended Washington’s dwindling hopes for better bilateral relations.

Legislation passed by the Russian parliament criminalizing “homosexual propaganda,” the granting of asylum to Edward Snowden, and a broad crackdown inside Russia led President Obama in the summer of 2013 to cancel a summit with Putin ahead of the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia. Attention soon turned to developments in Ukraine, however, starting in late 2013, which presented the biggest challenges to the U.S.-Russian relationship since the collapse of the USSR. 

The ongoing crackdown inside Russia reflects a dangerous regime that is both corrupt and authoritarian, while also paranoid and dysfunctional.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, starting in February 2014 in Crimea, marks the first annexation of one European country’s territory by another since World War II and threatens the normative order and geostrategic stability in Europe. In one stroke, Putin thumbed his nose at the Helsinki Accords of 1975, the Paris Charter of 1990, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, and other agreements and commitments that had kept the peace in Europe for decades. The post–Cold War order lay in shambles, and many worried that, if Putin’s brazen act were left unchallenged, other authoritarian regimes would think they, too, could aggress without consequence against their neighbors. If not stopped in Ukraine, too, Putin might move on to other neighbors.

The imposition of Western economic sanctions against the Putin regime and key members of it in response to the invasion of Ukraine deserves modest praise; those sanctions, however, have been reactive and insufficient. At the same time, Obama’s unwillingness to provide Ukraine with the lethal means to defend itself, despite overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress for doing so, has been a major source of disappointment. Concerns that providing military assistance to Ukraine would lead to an escalation of the conflict in which Russia would have an advantage are misplaced. Putin is sensitive to the possibility of more casualties, evidenced by his decree classifying all such information; his worst fear is the possibility of armed conflict with the United States, and thus he is much more likely to back down if he sees the U.S. government stepping up and flexing some military muscle.

Instead, regrettably, the naïve belief among a number of European leaders that they can and should return to business as usual with Moscow is not helped by a sense that President Obama is no longer paying much attention to the crisis, distracted by ISIS, negotiations with Iran, and domestic concerns. While Putin may be operating from a weak base, he thinks that, compared to leaders in the West, including the American President, he is stronger and can outlast the sanctions. 

More than 6,400 Ukrainians have lost their lives and more than 1.5 million have been displaced because of Russia’s invasion. Yet Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Sochi in May 2015 to meet with Putin, raising new concerns that the Obama Administration may be seeking Russian help on Syria and Iran at the expense of dealing with the Ukraine crisis. His travel to Russia contradicts the isolation of Russia that President Obama bragged about in his January State of the Union speech.[2] After the visit, Russian officials portrayed it as a signal that the United States has finally understood that it had been on the wrong path. 

Putin had done nothing to merit a visit by a U.S. Secretary of State; after all, he has continued supporting forces fighting in eastern Ukraine in violation of the Minsk ceasefire agreement struck in February and has built up Russian forces along the border with Ukraine in preparation for a possible full-scale invasion. He and his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, have offered no solutions and instead demand that the West, not Russia, change its policies and lift sanctions. They have wooed certain European leaders, especially from Greece, Hungary, Cyprus, and the Czech Republic, with the goal of buying their resistance to extending EU sanctions on Russia. In his press conference after meeting with Putin, Kerry never mentioned Crimea, implicitly criticized Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in response to a journalist’s question, and offered platitudes such as saying he was “privileged to spend many hours” with Putin and Lavrov. His trip to Sochi made the Obama Administration look weak and desperate and conveyed an impression that we need Russia more than Russia needs us.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine threatens the normative order and geostrategic stability in Europe.

Since coming to office, the Obama Administration has failed to understand the challenge it faces in Putin. Putin’s central objective is staying in power no matter the cost, even at the risk of harming Russia’s interests and at the expense of relations with the United States. His return to the presidency in 2012 turned on his lack of confidence in Medvedev to sustain the corrupt, authoritarian regime Putin had built up over the previous eight years. Any domestic liberalization or institutional reform, and any tolerance for Russia’s neighbors to pursue closer ties with the West, threatened the plutocratic accumulation of wealth by Putin and his clique. Accordingly, he determined that closer ties between Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova with Euro-Atlantic institutions threatened his own interests at home. If those countries were to become more integrated with the West, more democratic and successful economically, they (in particular Ukraine) risked becoming alternatives to the model Putin created in Russia.  He also believed that the populations in those countries were incapable on their own of wanting rule of law, an end to corruption, greater liberalization, and leadership that represented those desires. Popular movements at home and in his neighboring states therefore had to be the work of the West, in particular the United States.

To justify his way of governing, Putin has needed to perpetuate the myth that the West, and the United States in particular, represent threats to Russia. As far back as his speech following the Beslan hostage crisis in 2004 and continuing with his Munich speech in 2007, Putin has hyped the threat of outside powers. Russia’s 2010 Military Doctrine cites NATO enlargement as the greatest military danger, a theme repeated in the Military Doctrine Putin approved in December 2014.

To be clear, neither NATO enlargement over the years, the European Union’s more recent outreach to its eastern neighbors, supposed American hectoring of Russia on its human rights record (neither the Bush Administration nor the Obama Administration actually did much of this), nor the U.S. treating Russia as a lesser power explains the current state of affairs. The problem is Putin. But the reset policy of the Obama Administration has not made matters better.

A better way forward requires that we learn from our mistakes, especially those of the current Administration. For starters, we should stop seeing Putin as anything other than a paranoid authoritarian leader who oversees one of the most corrupt regimes in the world; he is not going to change his stripes. The crackdown on human rights in Russia is the worst since the Andropov days of the early 1980s. Most recently, the Russian parliament approved legislation banning “undesirable organizations” from the country, without defining what that entails. This follows the “foreign agent” law passed in 2012 that conjures up pejorative language from the Soviet era, arrests and investigations of critics and opposition figures, including Alexsei Navalny, and the tragic assassination of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov on February 27, 2015, just yards away from the Kremlin. 

Beyond the abysmal domestic situation, Russia’s foreign policy under Putin has posed major challenges to the West, as already enumerated above. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that Putin, despite high levels of popular support, is invincible. He himself has placed his country in a precarious position by pursuing policies against Ukraine that have led to Russia’s isolation as a pariah state; by failing to diversify Russia’s economy (a problem that mushroomed with the significant decline in the price of oil); and by insisting on increases in defense spending at a time when the country cannot afford them. Under Putin’s watch, Russia’s economy has fallen into crisis: By the end of 2014, the value of the ruble had dropped by roughly half, capital flight was more than twice that of 2013 (totaling $151 billion in 2014), inflation and interest rates were up, and hard currency reserves had fallen below $400 billion (by mid-March 2015 they totaled roughly $350 billion). Even with the ruble and the Russian stock market being decent performers in 2015, Russia’s economy is not out of the woods by any means. 

Because of Western sanctions, Russian companies are unable to refinance the massive debt they owe to Western banks—roughly $140 billion in 2015 alone. Russian banks are therefore turning to the government for bailouts, further draining foreign currency reserves. The retaliatory sanctions Putin put in place—banning food and agricultural imports from countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia—have driven price increases for food and staples significantly higher than the overall rate of inflation. The drop in the price of oil contracts accounts for much of Russia’s current problems, but Russia’s economic situation at the end of 2014 was far worse than it was at the start of the year, due mainly to Putin’s decisions (or lack thereof). Corruption drains anywhere from $300-$500 billion a year out of the economy. Putin’s disappearance from the political scene for 11 days this past March raised speculation of infighting within the Kremlin but also highlighted that, for all the bravado Putin pours forth, he oversees a fragile system that may soon fall to pieces. 

We should stop seeing Putin as anything other than a paranoid authoritarian leader who oversees one of the most corrupt regimes in the world; he is not going to change his stripes.

If we accept the premise that the Putin regime is a threat to its neighbors, to the West, and to its own people, we need to fashion a different approach to Russia that involves several elements. First, we must contain Russia’s opportunities for making mischief by ramping up sanctions to include Putin and his top circle on the visa ban and asset freeze lists. This might require unilateral U.S. sanctions given reluctance among some Europeans to toughen their measures. Financial sanctions against all Russian banks and expulsion from the SWIFT system should be on the table unless Moscow dramatically changes course in Ukraine. Such action worked at least to bring Iran to a negotiating table and could have a similar effect on Russia. The Obama Administration has confused tactics (maintaining unity with the European Union) with objectives (getting Russia out of Ukraine and helping Ukraine succeed); that confusion needs to be rectified.

We must also support reform-minded forces inside Russia. Difficult as it may be to provide support, there are still Russians who look to the United States for help, financially and morally. We should not assume that the cause inside the country is hopeless.

We should also bolster Russia’s neighbors and beef up the defense of NATO allies along Russia’s borders. Supporting the neighboring states in their efforts to liberalize and reform their economies—and thereby strengthening their independence and viability—is one of the best ways to respond to Putin’s aggression. This should also include the prepositioning of equipment and the forward-deployment of U.S. forces, consistent with the Polish Government’s intention to put this on the agenda at the NATO Warsaw Summit in 2016. Putin must know that aggression against other states in the region will incur serious consequences, and that aggression against any NATO member states will be met by NATO military forces consistent with obligations under Article V.

We should also support Ukraine, in particular, in several specific ways: by providing military aid to help it defend itself; by backing Ukraine in its overall reform campaign and specifically in its debt restructuring efforts; by leaning on private-sector lenders to show flexibility in debt repayment; by refusing ever to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea; and by maintaining sanctions against the Putin regime as long as Russia occupies Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.

We also need to stop telegraphing to Putin what we won’t do, such as no military aid to Ukraine. It is wise to avoid gratuitous clarity in diplomacy, a technique at which Putin himself is a master. We must also avoid importing corruption from Russia that infiltrates and infects our own systems. We should therefore clean up our own systems by enforcing anti-corruption measures and exposing those on the Kremlin payroll.

We should encourage the diversification of energy supplies in Europe and unleash exports of American energy, notably crude oil, by amending the atavistic 1975 ban. This would go far in dealing Putin’s energy-dependent economic engine a major blow.

We must coordinate a coherent counter to the Russian propaganda campaign by funding fact-based journalism that is interesting and accessible to audiences inside Russia and to populations along its borders. This will require beefing up funding for broadcasting into Russia and neighboring states.

We would also be wise to accelerate development of a missile defense system, especially in light of the Kremlin’s rhetoric on the use of nuclear weapons. Such a system should not focus solely on rogue threats but should cover the possibility of reckless action by Russia (as noted in chapter 7.3.)

As long as Putin fabricates the line the West threatens Russian sovereignty, any significant form of strategic partnership with the Putin regime is impossible.

Cumulatively, these policy changes amount to a major effort that requires coordination, phasing, and careful interagency and transatlantic cooperation. Above all, it requires strong American leadership, steady engagement from the President, and coordination with our allies. We do not advise total disengagement from officials in Moscow, but we need to be modest in our expectations, and we must avoid the appearance of chasing after Russian officials. There remain areas where interests overlap, such as non-proliferation, the Arctic, and counter-terrorism, but we must recognize that we do not share many common interests nowadays. Indeed, our overtures toward Moscow need be designed more to prevent harm than to advance the good. Putin’s Russian regime views the United States, democracy, NATO, the European Union, and the West more broadly as threats to its survival. As long as Putin fabricates the line the West threatens Russian sovereignty, any significant form of strategic partnership with the Putin regime is impossible.

The truth, of course, is that the West had no interest in picking a fight with Russia. It turned to sanctions over Ukraine reluctantly and in response to clear Russian aggression. But our misreading of Russia made things worse; a more candid assessment of reality must become the basis of a more coherent and clearer strategy on how to deal with that reality. That is a development that must start with a new Administration in January 2017.

(36) Linkage refers to the concept that the internal situation inside another country, including human rights abuses, can adversely affect the relationship with the United States in other areas and limit the ability of the two countries to cooperate.