Stop calling Russia weak

Perhaps ironically, it became more popular to call Russia weak in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. President Obama said it, the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan supposedly said it, and European military experts said it, among others. In their Foreign Affairs article last month entitled “Paper Tiger Putin,” Brandon Valeriano and Ryan C. Maness flesh out this argument, opening with the assertion that: “Russian President Vladimir Putin is not as strong as he might seem.” Unfortunately, the contention that Putin is weak is wrong and dangerously underestimates his power.

Although the Russian economy has stagnated—currently accounting for only about 2 percent of world GDP, compared to almost 3.8 percent in 2008—Russia remains an essential supplier of oil and gas to Europe. And although Russia may appear militarily weak from Washington’s perspective, it is dominant in its region. I doubt that any Georgian or Ukrainian politician sees Russia’s invasions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Crimea as indications of weakness. President Putin has instigated a bloody conflict in Eastern Ukraine that has destabilized political life in the country and slashed economic activity by 20 percent.

Similarly, I doubt that NATO countries—which, in the face of Russian aggression, have boosted military spending, reactivated defense plans, and reinforced alert systems—would call Putin’s Russia weak. From where they sit, it is President Putin’s apparent strength that has forced them to rethink contemporary European stability and security.

Getting our policy prescriptions right

After wrongly asserting that Putin is “not as strong as he might seem,” Valeriano and Maness deliver the wrong recommendations. They call on Europe and its allies to invest in alternative energy sources and cyber defenses, contending that such an approach would “lead to continued stability in the international system despite Russia’s use of force.” They add: “Pushing a confrontation between the West and Russia will only lead to a demonstration of the West’s own weaknesses.”

It is true that Russia depends on oil exports: last December, the ruble collapsed in a matter of days due to plummeting oil prices. But at the moment, there are no viable technological alternatives to oil as the main energy source for cars or airplanes. Yes, investment in alternative energy is important, but doing so will not truly alter Putin’s calculus or shape his behavior.

What would have an effect is stronger oil and gas sanctions—including banning the export of LNG technologies and new service contracts, as well as blocking European financing of Gazprom (a restriction the U.S. has already imposed). Such sanctions would deprive Russia of petrodollars and would limit Putin’s ability to promote populist domestic policies and aggressive foreign ones. Even the rather soft sanctions against the state-controlled oil giant Rosneft—which prevented certain technology transfers in the oil sector—induced it to put on hold one out of five development projects.

Putin seems to believe that Russia, which possesses less soft power than the West, can use hard power to get what it wants in today’s world. It would be a mistake to expect that he would not challenge the territorial integrity of another country in Europe or Asia, or that he would not obstruct the West’s ongoing efforts vis-à-vis Iran, Syria, or North Korea. Having run Russia for 15 years, Putin has likely learned that his counterparts in Western Europe are not prepared to use hard power to stop his exploits.

The need for a nontraditional response

Twelve weeks have passed since the second Minsk agreement was signed, and the military situation in Eastern Ukraine has quieted. While this is a positive development, we cannot declare the crisis over. Unfortunately, it seems most likely that another territory with non-specified status will emerge in Europe, opening the door for yet another frozen conflict in the region.

In the short run, the current situation in Ukraine is in some sense understood on all sides: Ukraine is able to concentrate on its reform agenda efforts; Russia can keep Donbass hostage and maintain its ability to destabilize Ukraine at any moment; Europe can relax a bit as the threat of military spillover subsides; and the United States hopes to just forget about the whole headache.

But that approach would be a major strategic mistake for the U.S. and Europe. In the wake of the 2008 Georgian war, the West made the grave error of letting down its guard. Going this direction again means undermining European and American principles. At the same time, it undermines our very global security system, which rejects the use of force as an instrument of conflict resolution and forcible changes of the state borders via military intervention. By accepting the status quo in Ukraine, the West suggests to the world that it will not prevent Putin from imposing his narrative across Russian borders. More broadly, it risks demonstrating that it is the rule of force—not of law—that reigns in the world today.

Tacitly supporting a return to business as usual in Ukraine makes life easier for the U.S. and Europe. But the West’s reliance on traditional methods of diplomacy is a mistake in dealing with Putin, who has clearly decided to employ nontraditional forms of international relations.

The West needs a nontraditional response to Russia’s nontraditional foreign policy. If leaders in Europe and the U.S. believe Putin is weak—as Valeriano and Maness propose—they should demonstrate that fact to the world and to the Russian president himself. We have yet to see that kind of clear demonstration.