The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What are the policy trade-offs in containing Russia?

On trading off values for interests — and other values.

Vice President Biden offers his condolences to Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz upon the death of his brother, Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, at the Prince Sultan palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 27, 2011. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

By most foreign policy metrics, the Biden administration responded well to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The United States has led a coalition that has imposed powerful economic sanctions against Russia. These measures were sufficiently coordinated and far-ranging to surprise even Putin’s inner circle. The diplomacy at the United Nations has demonstrated that while not everyone is sanctioning Russia, few countries approve of what they are doing in Ukraine. The Biden administration has been exceptionally adroit in its sharing of intelligence with Ukraine. The arms transfers to Ukraine have also evened the balance of forces on the battlefield.

The result has been that Russia has had to radically scale back its initial war aims. While it could still wrest territory in Donbas, military analysts are suggesting that time is running out for Russia’s ability to wage any offensive operations. Meanwhile, Sweden and Finland look poised to join NATO, which seems like the exact opposite of Putin’s strategic aims.

It is easy to paint this as an example of an alliance of democracies defeating a brutal autocrat and bending the course of history toward freedom and self-determination. But it must be pointed out that part of this policy success has been due to the efforts of some less-than-fully-democratic nations. For example, Turkey has prevented Russia from sending any more warships into the Black Sea, which makes the loss of their Black Sea Fleet flagship all the more significant.

The point is that if the Biden administration wants to widen the coalition pressuring Russia, it will need to talk to more authoritarian countries and frame the conflict as a blatant violation of territorial sovereignty.

This brings me to my Post colleague Fareed Zakaria’s column last week. Zakaria argues that to keep the pressure up on Russia, the United States must compromise with some erstwhile autocratic allies. He echoes a forthcoming Council on Foreign Relations report: “the United States would improve relations with MBS [Mohammed bin Salman] and make more explicit pledges to protect Saudi Arabia in return for Saudi moves, from working to end the war in Yemen to recognizing Israel to taking more explicit responsibility for the murder of journalist and Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.” Indeed, Zakaria suggests expanding that deal to include other Gulf emirates as well as Israel.

I am less optimistic than Zakaria that such a grand bargain could be reached. A recent Wall Street Journal story noted that Salman does not want to discuss Khashoggi: “The 36-year-old crown prince ended up shouting at [national security adviser Jake] Sullivan after he raised the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The prince told Mr. Sullivan he never wanted to discuss the matter again, said people familiar with the exchange. And the U.S. could forget about its request to boost oil production, he told Mr. Sullivan.”

That said, Zakaria’s strategic point is worth considering. As I noted last month, “Great power politics requires deciding which threats merit the greatest focus … When a nuclear-armed state decides to invade a sovereign neighbor without any provocation in proximity to the most important strategic alliance for the United States, that threat has to take top priority.” By definition, that means that other issues might need to be de-emphasized in the short run.

I was fond of observing how the Trump administration always managed to take actions that ran counter to both American values and American interests. Those are the easy calls, however. In the case of Ukraine, U.S. officials need to prioritize certain values (unprovoked territorial aggression) over others (human rights, democracy).

I hope the Biden administration is conducting internal deliberations about what concessions it would be willing to make to engage in some transactional diplomacy with Saudi Arabia. As bad as Saudi behavior has been, Russia’s bad behavior has been worse and merits a priority of focus.

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