Russian President Vladimir Putin told NBC’s Megyn Kelly this month that in using power, you “must be ready to go all the way to achieve the goals.” Now, it seems, Putin has gone all the way too far.
Putin’s aggressive use of covert action to settle scores hit an international tripwire after the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the quiet British cathedral town of Salisbury. An outraged Britain was joined Thursday by France, Germany and the United States in condemning the use of the banned Soviet-era toxin known as Novichok.
A joint statement denounced the attack as “the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War” and called it “a breach of international law” that comes “against the background of a pattern of earlier irresponsible Russian behavior.” That strong language warrants action by NATO and the United Nations.
The Trump administration, after a year of mealy-mouthed, temporizing statements, also announced sanctions Thursday against Russia’s “malicious cyberattacks.” The sanctions, targeting five Russian organizations and 19 people, will have little practical effect beyond those already in place. What matters is that President Trump finally seems to have eased, at least for the moment, his dubious defense of Putin. “It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it,” he said of the poisoning. “. . . We’re taking it very seriously.”
So how can the United States and its closest allies alter Putin’s behavior, if they’re truly serious about holding Russia to account? The answer, say several former senior CIA officials, is to use America’s network of alliances to put Russia under strain. Putin has been playing a weak hand well, but the high cards remain in Western hands.
Russia’s greatest vulnerability is its dependence on sales of oil and gas. Here, the United States is uniquely positioned for payback. Consider the ways in which Trump could stress Russia on the energy front.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visits Washington next week. “MBS,” as he’s known, has a quiet deal with Moscow to limit oil production sufficiently to keep prices above $60. If MBS truly wants to reciprocate Trump’s friendship, he should suspend this oil deal to punish Russia for its unacceptable actions.
A united front should include the United Arab Emirates, which has also cultivated a relationship with Moscow as well as Washington. The UAE’s military leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, should stand with his American friends now. And Qatar, with one of the world’s biggest gas reserves, can appease Trump and show the West that it’s a reliable friend by playing the energy card as well — offering Russia’s gas customers deals that are too good to refuse.
Russia’s outrageous behavior in Syria should be on the table, too. Moscow betrayed the Syrian Kurds, its longtime allies, when it withdrew its forces in January from the Afrin enclave and allowed Turkey to attack Kurdish forces there. The slaughter of civilians in Afrin has been almost as grim as in Ghouta, east of Damascus. Incredibly, when asked about chemical weapons use in Syria, Putin told Kelly: “One wants to say, ‘Boring.’ ”
Russia has been getting a pass for the Syria carnage, thanks partly to its manipulation of Turkey and its quiet liaison with Israel. But this back-channel hedging of bets needs to stop. If the United States is serious about altering Russian behavior, it must organize a new coalition of the willing. For NATO allies and Israel, participation should be mandatory.
Putin seems to think he has found the sweet spot of deniability. Kelly pressed him about last month’s indictment of 13 Russians, led by Putin’s oligarch pal Yevgeniy Prigozhin, for meddling in the U.S. election. Putin responded contemptuously: “I have heard about some of them . . . but they are just individuals, they do not represent the Russian government. . . . There are some names, so what?”
Putin used the phrase “so what” nine times during the interview. That’s his tell. He thinks he can get away with it, based on his experience over the past 18 years in power. He hacks political campaigns around the world and insists he’s blameless because, as he told Kelly, “the Internet is yours.” He cynically manipulates the battlefield in Syria, causing thousands of civilian deaths there, and pretends he has a peace plan. When he gets caught cheating, he throws up his hands in mock innocence.
By his reckless actions, Putin has sharply raised the price of his admission to the club he needs to join if his dreams of a revived Russia aren’t come crashing down around him. Putin says he wants to talk. Okay, let’s talk. But first, Putin needs to start cleaning up the mess he has created.