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How the West should respond to Putin

This seems to be the week that pundits offer their plan for what to do in Ukraine. We need to think bigger.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko — much like a hungry lion looks at a wounded gazelle — in Minsk on Wednesday. (Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin)

As the latest iteration of the Minsk agreement to set a cease-fire was signed in Ukraine — in honor of Julia Ioffe, let’s call it Revenge of the Minsk — now appears to be the time for Western pundits and commentators to do some stock-taking and solution-offering.

The New York Times editorial board is pretty somber, noting: “Ukraine is Mr. Putin’s war. Mr. Putin has been offered a far better deal than he deserves.” That pales next to the Economist, however:

Look at the world from his perspective, and Mr Putin is winning. For all his enemies’ machinations, he remains the Kremlin’s undisputed master. He has a throttlehold on Ukraine, a grip this week’s brittle agreement in Minsk has not eased. Domesticating Ukraine through his routine tactics of threats and bribery was his first preference, but the invasion has had side benefits. It has demonstrated the costs of insubordination to Russians; and, since he thinks Ukraine’s government is merely a puppet of the West (the supposed will of its people being, to his ultracynical mind, merely a cover for Western intrigues), the conflict has usefully shown who is boss in Russia’s backyard. Best of all, it has sown discord among Mr Putin’s adversaries: among Europeans, and between them and America.

Other Russia-watchers might disagree, but that assessment does seem to reflect the general mood in Washington right now. The chatter from foreign policy folk is that the West is really bad at countering Putin’s toxic cocktail of paramilitary force, Big Lie propaganda and feints toward compromise to try to divide Europe from the United States.

In response, western analysts have offered their policy alternatives on Ukraine, which boil down to “make Ukraine a viable independent entity.” Which I support and all, but it strikes me that the debate of arming Ukraine is a sideshow from the much more important strategic debate about What To Do About Russia. Indeed, looking over the brand-new National Security Strategy, there’s clearly a change in tone about Russia, but no real articulation of what should be done beyond sanctions.

So, are there any strategic steps that can be taken to cope with the unique challenge that Putin poses? Yeah, I think there are.

The most important part of any macro-response to Putin is to make it absolutely clear to him and the rest of the Russian elite that any effort on their part to divide the United States and Europe is gonna fail. No, actually, the signal should be that any effort by Moscow to fracture the West will backfire and create an even more united West.

How to do this? The best way to send signals that coalitions are going to remain durable is to institutionalize them.Remember, the problem is less that the West is actually fracturing than that Putin perceives it will fracture. Steps toward institutionalization on a number of policy dimensions can send the appropriate signal that this won’t work.

Sooo…. if I was advising President Obama, here are the steps I’d be taking to handle a threat from Putin that doesn’t look like it’s going to subside anytime soon:

  1. Create a pathway for Sweden and Finland to join NATO. Putin needs a Security Dilemma 101 class right damn now, which means he needs to know that offensive actions will trigger balancing coalitions. Finland and Sweden are the two most significant countries in Europe not in NATO. Over the past year, these Scandinavian countries have taken steps toward closer NATO ties. At a minimum, form an exploratory committee with them to see what NATO membership would entail.
  2. Finish negotiating TTIP. As I said earlier this week, the real existential threat to Putin is the economic appeal of the West. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will increase that allure — not to mention provided a much-needed boost to euro zone economies.
  3. Start building CoCom II. The economic companion to NATO during the Cold War was the Coordinating Committee that imposed a strategic embargo on the Soviet Union. To be clear, I don’t think we’re quite at Cold War II territory yet. That said, setting up a CoCom-like structure to manage the current sanctions — as well as potential future sanctions — does signal to Russian plutocrats that without some serious changes in Russian behavior, Western economic pressure is not going away. Furthermore, this CoCom could also be used to handle other tasks, such as coordinating against Russian cyberattacks.
  4. Pay attention to Moldova. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about where else in Europe Putin can make mischief. His softest target is Moldova, a small, weak country that already has a Russian irredentist problem. So start bolstering Moldovan capabilities before a problem arises.
  5. Play the long game of a frozen conflict in Ukraine. Yes, Ukraine is very important to Putin, and yes, Russia will be ready to inject more men treasure into the conflict to get its way. You know what, though? The West has a hell of a lot more resources than Russia. So beyond the IMF deal, take the necessary steps to ensure that Ukraine is on the right economic and political path. It is likely that Putin will counter with more efforts to subvert the Ukrainian state. But this is one dimension of statecraft where the West has an advantage. So press it.

What do you think?