Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin ended their months-long silence this week with a face-to-face meeting that Secretary of State John Kerry called “genuinely constructive [and] very civil.” Many of the Republican presidential candidates have been blasting Obama’s approach to Putin, calling any discussion with the Russian leader a sign of U.S. weakness. But the productivity of Monday’s meeting shows that Obama’s move to treat his Russian counterpart as an equal – not a subordinate power who can be easily ignored – is more sound than anything the GOP candidates are proposing.
The relationship between Obama and Putin is undeniably fractured, and that was on display at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday. During his remarks, Obama boasted that sanctioning Russia has “led to capital flight, a contracting economy, a fallen ruble, and the emigration of more educated Russians.” Putin, who hadn’t addressed the General Assembly for 10 years prior, accused the West of creating turmoil in the Middle East, saying, “I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize now what you’ve done? But I am afraid no one is going to answer that. Indeed, policies based on self-conceit and belief in one’s exceptionality and impunity have never been abandoned.”
Ouch! Shots were certainly fired.
The verbal fisticuffs on display were an obvious clash of world visions, but there’s no denying Putin has the upper hand in Syria and Ukraine: Russian troops are supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s annexation of Crimea and refusal to withdraw support of rebels there has internally displaced nearly 1 million people. Sanctions, while they have hurt Russia’s economy, have not reversed Putin’s damaging involvement in the region. And in Syria, while Washington wants President Bashar al-Assad gone, Putin has sent in troops and arms to make sure he stays in power.
If Washington wants any say in Putin’s next moves, it has to engage him as the world partner he wants to be recognized as. As Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst with the Institute for the Study of War’s Middle East Security Project told Voice of America, Putin wants Russia to be the second superpower behind the United States. And Putin has demonstrated the lengths he will go to assert his regional power. While sanctions have hurt Russia’s economy and economic credibility, Putin has been willing to watch his country suffer rather than back down from what he sees as America’s encroachment on his geopolitical influence. He has sent Russian troops to fight in Ukraine in a proxy war that has sent many home in body bags, laid to rest in funerals shrouded in secrecy.
But to hear the GOP candidates explain it, Putin shouldn’t be respected as a powerbroker. All Washington has to do to end Russia’s expansion and destructive regional influence is to be aggressive with Putin, they say. A little tough talk or military might will eventually bend him to America’s will.
As president, Carly Fiorina, for instance, says she wouldn’t talk to Putin at all. Intimidating him with military exercises in the Baltic Sea, a troop build-up in Germany and development of a missile defense program in Poland would be enough, she said at the last GOP debate: “Vladimir Putin will get the message.” She neglected to acknowledge that Washington has already deployed more than 3,000 troops to the Baltics for NATO exercises, as well as sent 750 tanks and other fighting vehicles. Putin and Obama have gone months without speaking, but Russian troops are still in Ukraine. Fiorina’s approach won’t work.
Donald Trump thinks he can chat his way onto Putin’s good side. His silly declaration that a friendly relationship with the Russian leader would get Putin to give up Edward Snowden, who lives there under asylum while facing U.S. espionage charges, is as clueless as George W. Bush’s assertion in 2001 that he got a sense of the ex-KGB officer’s soul by looking into his eyes. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who recently called Obama “naively optimistic” about his ability to negotiate with Putin on Syria, wrote last year in The Washington Post that banning Russia from any international body unessential to ending the conflict in Ukraine, including the Group of Eight, would help bring Putin in line. Well, Russia was kicked out of the G-8 less than a week later and Russian troops are still in Ukraine.
In fact, neither tough talk nor isolation has ended the violence in Ukraine or forced Putin to reverse his expansionism. Republican discourse on Putin doesn’t respect that Russia is a regional power whose moves the West cannot always counter. Washington doesn’t have the option of ignoring Putin or working around him in Syria; he is already there and so are his troops. And Ukraine is not merely a debate talking point for Putin; it is sacred land he feels never should have been partitioned away from Russian soil. Unless America and Europe are willing to sacrifice the blood of their soldiers for Ukraine (neither is and Putin knows it), talk of bolstering their military presence in eastern Europe means nothing to Putin.
None of the GOP tough talk addresses what Putin wants: regional influence. Syria, like Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, Moldova and Georgia’s autonomous regions, is an area of instability that Putin sees as an opportunity to expand his sphere of influence. Russia’s presence in Syria does pose a geopolitical risk to America’s military position in the Middle East. But treating Russia as if it should have no long-term role in influencing the outcomes in Syria or Ukraine is bad foreign policy.
What will work is engaging Putin and viewing him as an equal partner, no matter how much we despise him. Even Ronald Reagan, who is mythically viewed by contemporary Republicans as the USSR slayer, engaged his Soviet counterparts in summits and even began calling Mikhail Gorbachev “my friend.” For all of his “Evil Empire” rhetoric, Reagan realized that drawing a close to the Cold War meant viewing his Soviet counterparts as equals, not taunting them with tough talk that got neither nation anywhere.
Washington doesn’t have to stand by and let Putin do what he wishes in Ukraine and Syria. But Obama – and potentially his successor – does have to sit with Putin and negotiate peaceful outcomes in the Ukraine and Syria. Obama’s meeting with Putin on Monday was an excellent first start. As NBC News reports, Obama and Putin agreed to explore a political resolution in Syria and initiate conversations between their militaries to de-escalate the country’s conflict. This is exactly what Putin wants: to be a powerbroker.
GOP hardliner talking points of keeping Putin isolated and threatening him with military deployments when he already has soldiers on the ground establishing his geopolitical influence are foolhardy and ignore that reality. Obama did the right thing by meeting with Putin one-on-one Monday. A President Fiorina, Rubio, Graham, Trump — or any other candidate — would be wise to follow suit.