Toward a strategy for dealing with Russia

President Vladimir Putin’s Russia presents a unique challenge to the Western-backed world order. Putin believes that Russia’s power, position, and history mean that it cannot be treated as just another country. He wants the West and his neighborhood to think about how Russia might be negatively affected before they make decisions on security or economic issues in which Moscow has a stake. And if Putin deems that a decision puts Russia at risk, he wants the same right Russia has in the United Nations Security Council—the right of a veto.

The West clearly doesn’t accept this, but right now does not know how to respond. We cannot simply adapt strategies used for dealing with other countries, nor are past precedents for dealing with Russia itself of much value. Russia today is an entirely new challenge. Even a strategy of just waiting Putin out and hoping for someone else to come along is not an option. Putin is not an anomaly. His perspectives are deeply ingrained in Russian society. Any successor will be as staunch a defender of Russian interests as he is.

So what is to be done? We need to chart out a new relationship with Russia. That is a long-term proposition, but a strategy to achieve that must begin with the current crisis over Ukraine, the crucible in which these broader disputes are now raging.

The strategy toward Russia should be:

1. Realistic

Realistic means recognizing that there are some concessions Russia will never make and that we will never make. Most importantly, Russia will never renounce its annexation of Crimea. We must therefore decouple the Crimea issue from negotiations about eastern Ukraine, and focus on eastern Ukraine while leaving Crimea to the longer term. Until then, we should deal with Russia’s annexation of Crimea as we did with the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states after World War II: we never formally recognize it. Meanwhile, we keep the sanctions regime specifically tied to Crimea firmly in place.

There are also limits to concessions that Russia will make in eastern Ukraine. Russia does not want a Western-backed government in Kyiv to rule a stable Ukraine. So even if it pulls back its forces, Moscow will not forfeit its capacity to aid the rebels. Russia will want to retain the ability to independently enforce any de-weaponization or de-militarization agreement for the east. The West will have to find ways to deal with Russia’s support for the rebels.

2. Incremental

We thus need to focus our negotiations on incremental demands and rewards rather than “grand bargains.” We should put the big issues of Ukraine’s political and territorial configurations and future status vis-à-vis NATO and the EU to one side. Our first objective is to persuade the Russians that there is a benefit to changing their behavior. Right now, the Russians can only conclude that sanctions, particularly U.S. financial sanctions, are forever and so have no incentive to change their behavior. We need to make clear that the United States and the EU moved to sanction Russia because of its violation of the accords that we all agreed to. If we find a mutually acceptable solution to the current standoff, sanctions would be lifted; and, at some point, economic and trade relations would be restored.

We should recognize that Moscow also cares about Russia’s status as a global great power. Putin knows that Russia’s position as a major power is diminished if it is sanctioned and ostracized not just by Europe and the United States, but others as well. So the West needs to make it clear that respect for Russia now and in the future is contingent on its current behavior in Crimea and Ukraine, not on its past status. And we also need to get support for this position from outside the transatlantic alliance.

3. Flexibility

The third element of a strategy will be creating a structure to deal with Russia over the long-term, in the same way we have established a mechanism for negotiating with Iran through the “P5+1.” Clearly we cannot use the U.N. in this case. The Germans and others have proposed the idea of using the OSCE, which has the advantage of bridging the divide between the EU and NATO and bringing in the United States. But a smaller, focused grouping, representing the United States, EU, NATO, and principal national players like France, Germany, Poland, and the U.K. could also be considered. Whatever we do, we need to be careful not to lock ourselves into positions and mechanisms that we may not be able to get out of, or become ends in themselves. We need to make sure that we can react to what Russia and Putin do and be ready to change course if necessary.

We will also have to be prepared to let each side portray any kind of progress as their victory. The West can say their initiatives worked. The Russians can say, “See, we held out long enough for them to see they need us.”

4. Unified

Unity is the most critical element in any strategy for dealing with Russia. We have to make it meaningful. Shoring up unity in the EU, NATO, and in transatlantic relations will be a permanent dilemma given prevailing political and economic tensions. The United States in particular will have to be willing to compromise on positions and persuade, not force, its allies to take key decisions they are not ready for. We will have to tailor outreach and initiatives to individual fragile or frontline states in Europe and Russia’s neighborhood—Greece, Cyprus, the Balkan states, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and others. We will also have to work closely with the EU on the revision of the European neighborhood policy to address countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and further afield in Central Asia, that either want to associate more closely with the EU or maintain ties with the West in the face of Russian pressure.

In sum, dealing with Russia and working toward a solution in Ukraine will require us to throw out all previous playbooks. Facing up to the realities of Russian’s foreign policy goals are only the first step. Realism, incrementalism, flexibility, and unity are the pillars for building a new strategy.