How Should the U.S. Deal With Vladimir Putin?

Russia's wily president has outmaneuvered Western leaders for years. Is Barack Obama next?
Graffiti in Moscow of Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Pawel Kopczynsk/Reuters)

Days after his ally Viktor Yanukovich was ousted as Ukraine's leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a 150,000-troop Russian military exercise on Ukraine's border. The fall of Yanukovich—and Putin's potential response to it—has reignited a debate in Washington over how to respond to the assertive Russian leader.

For Obama administration officials, Vladimir Putin is a concern but not a threat. Any talk of renewed Cold War-like Russian-American rivalry, they say, is reckless and counterproductive. “This is a world where we need to work with the Russians,” a senior State Department official said on Tuesday. “This is not about the United States versus Russia.”

For Republicans, Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign declaration that Moscow was Washington’s “number-one geopolitical foe” is being proven correct. Now is the time, they say, to confront Putin. “Romney’s analysis of the Russian threat was actually spot on,” said Nile Gardiner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former Romney advisor. “That has been demonstrated amply over Ukraine, Syria, and Russia as well.”

Experts say Putin is still determined to include Ukraine in Russia’s self-declared “sphere of influence.” And he will continue to re-assert Moscow’s place on the world stage by obstructing American diplomatic efforts in Syria, Iran, and other countries.

“Putin’s vision is not to restore the Soviet Union but to restore Russian greatness,” said Kathryn Stoner, a Stanford University professor and expert on Russia. ”It’s the Russian empire, which is a very clear political and economic system.”

Stoner called that system “Putinism” and described it as a complex mix of de facto authoritarianism at home and anti-American obstructionism abroad. It is by no means a Soviet-scale threat to the United States. But experts describe it as a controlling, culturally conservative system that Putin actively promotes to counter what he sees as a degenerate and decadent West.

“They’re definitely setting themselves up in opposition to the United States,” said Fiona Hill, an expert on Putin at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Being the leaders of a conservative coalition of countries who oppose gay rights and gay marriage and those who want to see less of a role for the church, more of a secular society.”

Gardiner, the former Romney advisor, criticized President Barack Obama for not expressing a Ronald Reagan-style message of “America advancing the cause of freedom” as a counterweight to Putin. He said an “ideological war” was underway and Putin is winning. Opponents of the United States are inspired by Putin, he said.

“Putin is viewed by American adversaries and competitors as someone who has stood up to American influence and gotten away with outflanking the United States,” he said. “Adversaries take note of this and they sense weakness and that’s dangerous. Dissidents also take note.”

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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