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Russia: Obama Re-Resets the Relationship

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"Russia is never as strong as it appears; Russia is never as weak as it appears. Its diplomacy is always relentless." ~ Ernest RENAN

Vladimir Putin's audacious moves on Ukraine continue to unsettle the White House. Not only did Obama fail to anticipate his boldness, the President and his advisers do not have a grasp of what is happening and why. Putin the Kremlin leader does not fit into any established category; his actions make no logical sense to them; and they have no idea what to expect next. In short, they are in intellectual disarray. That state of mind is not conducive to devising a coherent, credible counter strategy. So it is no surprise that reports are filtering out of the administration in dribs and drabs of an approach that barely holds together. By scattering the pieces on the pre-existing chessboard with one swipe of his arm, Putin has us scrambling to reassemble them into some recognizable shape.

The President's foreign policy team of course does have experience of willful players who are neither friendly, compatible nor cooperative with the United States. Some bear the United States ill-will. Indeed, it's a quite a long list ranging from the manifest bad guys like Ahmedinejad, Mullah Omer, Bashir Assad and Muammar Gadaffi to bothersome recalcitrants like Nuri al-Maliki, Hamid Karzai, Mohamed Mursi, and just about everyone in Pakistan to the occasionally mischievous and disobedient like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Egyptian Army (on odd days of the week) and -- previously -- Mr. Putin himself. Those in the first category, i.e. the enemies, presented little in the way of an intellectual challenge. Washington coerced them, threatened them, and/or isolated them -- in various mixes and with varying degrees of success. What Obama adamantly refused to do was to talk to them; that is to say, to conduct diplomacy on a basis that accepted them as facts of foreign policy life -- however disagreeable and problematic.

Moreover, all of these persons operated within that special diplomatic zone we designate as the Greater Middle East. It has two odd characteristics. One, it is there that America sees the greatest danger to its national security in the form of "Terrorism," spreading WMDs, propinquity to its ward Israel, and vulnerable energy hub of the world. The other peculiar trait is that for the past twenty years the United States has been the only great power (or putative great power) in the arena. China's stake has remained uni-dimensional: ensuring a stable supply of oil for its great economic leap forward. The European Union does little more than scurry behind and beneath Washington's skirts while showing no capacity whatsoever to marshal a political will commensurate with its interests. Russia, a strong and active protagonist in the old Soviet days, has till recently been licking its wounds, accepting its role as a sideline observer and only within the past year reentering the field of play selectively where opportunity and American blundering have created openings. Moreover, there was no compelling reason for Moscow to move assertively.

The Ukraine is a different story entirely. Here the stakes are of the traditional kind -- the word "new" as a qualifying adjective can be dispensed with. No new world order, new world disorder, new transnational forces or supranational entities. A bit of economic globalization does come into play -- but at heart this is a retro world that does not call out for disquisitions on "social media" for explanation or interpretation. Hence, it was at once illuminating and instructive that President Obama and his senior officials should complain that Putin's grab of the Crimea was return to the nineteenth century. Being somewhat weak on history, they actually meant that this did not conform to their conception of international politics post 1991 (Iraq and a few other places understandably excepted). Equally troubling, they could not imagine this happening in Europe (by contrast to the Forbidden Zone that is the Middle East) or that the miscreant should be a country that enjoyed the status of a G-8 member. Military invasion of a sovereign country to alter an internationally recognized boundary just wasn't in the cards. Putin's insouciant manner made the entire affair all the more alien and unpalatable.

What is the United States to do? The initial first weeks of huffing-and-puffing were predictable and quite natural. So, too, was the threatened imposition of penalties -- penalties of an economic nature. These have yet to materialize in any significant form, awaiting the cobbling together of a package agreeable to the European Union and the United States alike.

The third reaction has entailed a sensible piece of realism: engaging Russia, the Ukrainians, and the other Europeans in talks on how to stabilize the political future of the Ukraine so as to forestall later crises -- internal and perhaps external. Implicitly, this means a de facto acceptance of the Russian fait accompli in annexing the Crimea. Achieving that stability is an intricate and delicate process requiring time and patience -- even assuming that Putin sets a limit on how far Russian will meddle in the flammable Donetsk Basin.

The longer-term implications are still harder to spell out -- and the wider European order still harder to conceptualize. The Obama administration has just begun to face that challenge, in its own inimitable way. Let's look at the strands of thinking that are being spun.

One, there is much talk of "containment." This hallowed strategy is predicated on the premise that Russia under Putin is a rogue state that cannot be counted on to play by the rules. It is willful, unpredictable and ready to use military force to get what it wants. Obama reportedly has personalized this sentiment in judging that he never will have a "constructive" relationship with Mr. Putin. Therefore, the only way to proceed is to minimize the damage that the Kremlin can do (especially in Europe) and otherwise to ignore Putin. This attitude has met with approval by much of the foreign policy establishment. Former Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder sees this as the right strategy since "if you remain confident and raise the cost gradually and increasingly, that doesn't solve you Ukraine problem. But it may solve your Russia problem." Appointing as the new American envoy to Moscow John F. Tefft, who served previously as ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania -- all in "the near abroad" -- fits this mode of thinking.

Eventually, it is hoped, economic pressures will force Putin to come to terms with the West or, if not, make way for someone who will. Built into this calculation is the judgment that Russia will not retaliate by manipulating its exports of natural gas to the countries of Central and Western Europe whose economies are critically dependent on them. Given Russian revenue needs, this may well be an economic version of Mutual Assured Destruction. Some eager minds in Washington carry this line one step further in contemplating methods by which that import dependence could be sharply reduced quickly. That is nothing more than a fanciful dream, however. (Michael Brenner Energy In The Ukraine Sanctions Equation HP March 10,2014).

The second, critical strand being woven into this strategy is to forge an international consensus to isolate Russia. Some in the administration use the term "pariah." They hold out Iran as the model where it is believed that sustained political isolation and economic strangulation have forced Tehran to bend the knee on the nuclear issue. Even China, some believe, can be enlisted into the coalition. A grave weakening of Russia, they postulate, could be viewed in Beijing as serving China's aim of becoming the dominant power on the Eurasian continent. How this notion is reconciled with the United States' own concerns about such an evolution has yet to be thought through.

Naturally, the administration will have to consider the implications of worsening relations with the Kremlin on issues such as Syria, the Iranian nuclear negotiations, the supply/exit lines for American troops that still run through Russia, and the future of Afghanistan where Washington has invested $1 trillion and massive amounts of political capital. The Obama White House will try to maintain a modicum of cooperation on these issues on a pragmatic basis. In principle, doing so is in the interests of both parties. The modalities of such collaboration, though, cannot fail to be adversely affected by the deterioration in overall relations that inexorably will result from a steady tightening of American pressure intended to force Putin to change his attitude toward Ukraine, other former republics of the USSR and the general neighborhood.

A strategy of containment/isolation/selective cooperation will require sustained and subtle management. Yet there are signs that Obama views it through a quite a different optic. He apparently is dedicated to not allowing the Ukraine crisis and the Russia issue from dominating his time and foreign policy agenda. At the height of the Geneva negotiations last week, the President made a point of concentrating his noon briefing on the latest enrollment numbers for Obama Care and his minimum wage proposals. This conforms to his long established pattern of devoting himself only sparingly and intermittently to any one issue. The President's public remarks convey the impression of his being offended that Putin's egregious actions should intrude upon his precious political space -- almost as if Vladimir Putin had some sort of obligation to make life easier for Barack Obama, as does an ally like David Cameron or Francois Hollande. Studiously downplaying the Russia "issue" is the logical concomitant of this attitude.*

Compartmentalization has been a feature of Obama foreign policy over the past five years. So, too, has been an aversion to grand strategy. Diplomatic finesse has been distinguished by its absence as well. They seem slated to remain the marked traits of the White House approach in the future -- Ukraine and Putin notwithstanding. We await the consequences.

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Vladimir Putin has offered his own conception of how relations between the West and Russia should be structured. In a long address to the Russian parliament immediately after the seizure of the Crimea he laid out a bill of particulars indicting the United States and its allies for is violating of various agreements reached between 1990 and 1999 (the Yeltsin decade) while stressing the slights that Moscow had suffered. He placed particular stress on NATO's expansion highlighted by public invitations to Georgia and Ukraine to join. That recitation of history a la the Kremlin was prelude to an implicit formulation of how matters of mutual interest should be addressed.

The principal points were these:

  1. All states should accept and act in accordance with the same rules governing international behavior, especially those pertaining to the use of force.
  2. No state can be exempted from the requirement that the use of force can be legitimated only via the mechanisms of the United Nations Security Council.
  3. Russia expects respect from "our western partners" who since 1991 have treated it not as "an independent, active participant in international affairs," with "its own national interests that need to be taken into account and respected," but as a backward or dangerous nation to dismiss and "contain."*
  4. Russian national interests are rooted in its history which has forged the country's national identity. Recognizing that cardinal fact conforms to the wishes of the Russian population of the Crimea and is essential to establishing on a firm footing the long-term security of the region.
  5. Reminding "Europeans, and especially Germans," about how Russia "unequivocally supported the sincere, inexorable aspirations of the Germans for national unity," he expects the West to "support the aspirations of the Russian [russkii] world, of historical Russia, to restore unity." The same principle was observed in Kosovo.
  6. Russian views should be solicited and considered on matters where its national interests are engaged.
  7. Those matters are not defined as present everywhere where one finds contention in the world since there is no ideological component to West-Russia strategic relations as during the Cold War. This means that Moscow is little concerned when the United States acts unilaterally to destabilize so-called "leftist" governments in Latin America; banners of Che Guevara will not be draped over Kremlin walls in protest. But Russia is acutely sensitive to American interventions in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and parts of the Middle East -- as well as the European "near abroad."

The Putin worldview, so articulated, carries with it the seeds of potential frictions with the West beyond the Crimea. It promises a hardnosed promotion of Russian national interest. However, it does not presume the kind of implacable, across-the-board conflict that was the hallmark of the Cold War.

What this boils down to is an invitation to play the classic game of realpolitik (minus traditional warfare) accompanied by a set of guidelines as to how the game should be conducted. Americans may have an instinctive aversion to realpolitik -- but this is in fact the game the United States has been playing for the past 75 years. The expressed hope that the "New World Order" ushered in by the Cold War's end, along with the interdependencies of globalization, would render it obsolete have been only partly realized. Indeed, over a large swath of the globe the United States has continued to follow the dictates of power politics. Its modus operandi has governed just about everything that we have been doing across the Islamic world for more than decade. Now we are faced with the question of whether to accept that logic along Russia's western frontier or try to ignore the Kremlin's doings until they change their way of thinking so as to accommodate us.

*Washington's attitude toward Russia over the past twenty years was put succinctly in the climactic scene of The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: "there are two kinds of people in the world -- those with loaded guns and those who dig." The last person in the world you want to call a 'digger" to his face is Vladimir Putin -- certainly not when you haven't bothered to check what weapons are within his reach.