Over the last few months of the election, In Theory will be asking policy experts to weigh in on the critical questions our presidential candidates should be addressing — but often aren’t. This week we’re discussing how to handle an authoritarian Russia.
Over the course of the past two presidential administrations, Russia has emerged as a reoccurring foreign policy problem. Vladimir Putin — a product of Soviet-era authoritarianism — has maintained a firm grasp of power over the country and its neighbors, militarily intervening in former Soviet satellites such as Georgia and the Ukraine. He’s also thwarted President Obama’s foreign policy in Syria, siding against U.S.-backed rebels to protect the embattled Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
The two main schools of thought seem to argue for either containment or increased engagement. Hillary Clinton has admitted to (and in fact, bragged about) having a strained relationship with the Russians. As secretary of state, she once told the president that the “reset” period for Russian relations was over, advocating to take more action in Syria in opposition to Putin. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has consistently expressed admiration for Putin and developed policies that would benefit Russia in such a way that some pundits have called Trump “The Siberian Candidate.”
As the election plays out, the Russian government seems more and more willing to clamp down on its own citizens, aggress upon other countries in its region and meddle in U.S. affairs. What is the best approach for the next administration?
David J. Kramer is senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration.
The next president should recognize that Russia under Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian, kleptocratic regime that poses a serious threat to our values, interests and allies. We should contain and deter Russian aggression by reassuring our NATO allies that we will defend them, fulfilling the collective-defense guarantees of Article 5 and reaffirming our support for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and aspirations of Russia’s neighbors to join NATO or the European Union. We must also support those living inside Russia who are struggling for a better, more democratic future.
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.