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Order from Chaos

Empty words: Republican non-proposals for dealing with Putin

We knew well before the first Republican presidential debate on August 6 that most of the GOP candidates don’t like Vladimir Putin or President Obama’s reset policy—instead, they advocate getting tough with Moscow. Perhaps the second debate on September 16 will give them a chance to describe more fully how they would deal with the Kremlin.

Villainizing Putin

It’s clear that Republican candidates don’t think much of Putin or the Russian leadership in general. Jeb Bush led off his Europe tour in June with a blast aimed at Moscow, calling Putin “a bully” and the Kremlin “corrupt.” Carly Fiorina termed the Russian president one “bad dude.” 

Republican candidates show equal disdain for Obama’s 2009 reset, in part because Hillary Clinton implemented it as secretary of state. Never mind that the reset produced a treaty capping the number of Russian strategic nuclear weapons that could strike the United States, Moscow’s agreement to increased pressure and an arms embargo on Iran, and Russian facilitation of logistics support for American fighting troops in Afghanistan. The improvement in relations could not be sustained, but that does not diminish achievements that advanced key U.S. interests.

The policy answer that most Republican candidates offer is to get tough. Marco Rubio in May said he would “roll back Russian aggression.” Scott Walker proposed “standing firm against the Russian threat.” Ben Carson says the United States “must be resolute” and lead “from a position of strength.” Fiorina “wouldn’t speak to Vladimir Putin. I would act instead.”

The outlier appears to be the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump. He said that, if elected president, he’d have a “great relationship” with Putin—indeed, such a great relationship that Putin would happily hand former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden back to U.S. authorities. (Trump did not explain why Putin—a former KGB officer who presumably understands the value of defectors and knows what returning a defector would mean for the possibility of getting defectors in the future—would do that.)

How strong is Russia?

To be sure, Russia under Putin has moved in a disturbing direction in recent years, steadily rolling back the rights of civil society and the small and shrinking political opposition. Moscow has behaved egregiously in using military force to seize Crimea and conduct an undeclared war in eastern Ukraine. More broadly, it has launched a policy of military intimidation as it seeks to undermine the security order that has brought peace and prosperity to much of Europe.

For all its capacity to make trouble, however, Russia faces big challenges. Its unreformed and corrupt economy makes little that the world wants to buy, so natural resources are its main export. Its demographic situation is a disaster. And Putin has embraced a policy of Russian nationalism in a country where other ethnicities comprise nearly 30 percent of the populace.

One can certainly find fault with the Obama administration’s response. The White House has timidly stuck to a policy of no lethal military support for Ukraine. And Washington can and should do more to reinvigorate NATO in the face of a less predictable Russia.

Wanted: More than platitudes

It would be nice, however, to see a bit of sophistication in the policy approach that Republican candidates advocate. Yes, the West must resist Moscow’s aggression. But it should be recognized that Russia, with its thousands of nuclear warheads, is the only country that could physically destroy America. That gives a reason to talk. And there are issues—stemming nuclear proliferation, preventing the return of chaos to Afghanistan, and countering international terrorism—where U.S. and Russian interests coincide, where cooperation makes sense for both countries even if they have profound differences on other questions.

A long-term and sustainable policy toward Russia—one which Washington can persuade its allies in Europe and Asia to follow—must entail a mix of deterrence, constraint, and engagement.

It would be nice…to see a bit of sophistication in the policy approach that Republican candidates advocate.

The United States and NATO should take steps to deter any Russia aggression against an alliance member. Among other things, that means strengthening NATO’s conventional force presence in the Baltic and Central European region.

The West must also act to constrain Russia’s ability to pressure its neighbors. That means financial and military assistance to bolster vulnerable states such as Ukraine and make them less susceptible to Moscow’s mischief-making and attempts at destabilization.

But Washington and the West should also be ready to engage with Russia where key interests converge and should make clear that, if the Kremlin alters its egregious misbehavior, relations between Russia and the West can improve. One area for urgent discussion: with NATO and Russian military forces increasingly operating in close proximity to one another, it makes sense to discuss measures that would reduce the chance of accidents or miscalculation.

Such a policy toward Russia requires balance, nuance, and an ability to talk while pushing back. A debate among ten candidates may not be the place to expect such a complex presentation. But one hopes that some of the candidates will take other opportunities to demonstrate that their policy toward the world’s other nuclear superpower would be based on more than platitudes. 

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