The problem boils down to the nature of the Putin regime. Since coming to power 17 years ago (initially as prime minister) by ordering brutal force against Russia’s region of Chechnya, Putin has demonstrated a ruthless willingness to do whatever is necessary to stay in power. Any threat — real or imagined — is dealt with decisively, whether it originates inside Russia or abroad.
Since returning to the presidency in May 2012 after a four-year stint as prime minister, Putin has launched the worst crackdown on human rights in Russia in decades. Critics, journalists and opposition figures are regularly harassed and arrested — even killed, as happened to Boris Nemtsov just yards from the Kremlin in February 2015.
In Ukraine, Putin couldn’t stomach the prospect of citizens demanding an end to corruption and deeper integration with the West. Were Ukraine to succeed, it might pose a threatening alternative to Putin’s corrupt authoritarianism in Russia. So he invaded Ukraine in late February 2014, starting with the annexation of Crimea. Since then, nearly 10,000 Ukrainians have been killed trying to defend their country against Putin’s aggression. The next American president should provide lethal military assistance to help Ukrainians defend themselves.
Putin also intervened to prop up the murderous Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the vast majority of Russian military strikes there have hit non-Islamic State targets. He threatens countries that host NATO’s missile defense system or that want to join NATO or the European Union. To justify his way of governing, he and his propagandists demonize the United States, perpetuating the myth that the United States is the biggest threat to Russia. His zero-sum way of thinking, demand for recognition of a Russian sphere of influence, interference in elections in other countries (even attempting to meddle in U.S. elections) and support for like-minded authoritarian leaders mean that Putin’s interests and ours are almost diametrically opposite.
The next U.S. administration should recognize that the nature of the Putin regime precludes real partnership between the United States and Russia and vastly limits areas of cooperation. Increasing engagement will not change that — both George W. Bush and Barack Obama tried and failed — and even risks appearing desperate, which Putin would exploit as weakness on our part.
We should stay true to our values and restore the notion of “linkage” by making clear that Putin’s mistreatment of his own people — and his neighbors — will adversely affect our bilateral ties. The next administration should implement more aggressively the Magnitsky Act for gross human rights abuses and maintain — even ramp up — sanctions against Russia for its ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. And we should make sure that Putin’s best export — corruption — does not pollute our own way of doing business.