Rethinking Putin's Russia

U.S. policy toward Moscow hasn't worked for two decades. How can we fix it?
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Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

As they dealt with Vladimir Putin over the course of three American presidencies, U.S. officials always knew he was a guy who was hard to figure out. The problem is, they never did figure him out. "When I looked into his eyes, all I saw was a pair of steely eyes looking back at me," Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton's national security advisor, recalled recently about his first meeting with the young, enigmatic Putin in the late '90s. "I certainly didn't see his soul."

Berger's comment was a rhetorical shot at Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, who infamously declared that he had looked into Putin's soul and liked what he saw. But while history hasn't been kind to that sentiment, the truth is that our current president's record on Russia doesn't look much better. During the 2012 election, having spent much of his first term trying and mostly failing to "reset" relations with Moscow, President Obama mocked his opponent, Mitt Romney, for suggesting that Russia was America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe." "The 1980s called," Obama cracked during the third presidential debate. "They want their foreign policy back."

Last month, the 1980s—actually it was more like the 1950s—suddenly did call. Personally defying Obama, who had tried to talk Putin down in a 90-minute phone call, the Russian leader abruptly annexed Crimea and harked back to the Cold War in a speech to the Duma, accusing Washington of pursuing "its infamous policy of containment." Overnight it was as if the Soviet Union had invaded Hungary, or Czechoslovakia, all over again. Romney roared back from political oblivion to deliver a gleeful I-told-you-so on TV talk shows—as did Sarah Palin, who wrote on Facebook, "I saw this one from Alaska!"

Obama has since found himself playing a desperate game of catch-up. During a week of speed-summiteering with G-7 leaders in Europe, the president hastily donned the unfamiliar hat of "leader of the free world" and declared in a speech that the Ukraine crisis was "a moment of testing for Europe and the United States, and for the international order that we have worked for generations to build." Meanwhile, along with the crisis abroad, Obama faces double jeopardy at home: new disagreement within his own party about how to handle Putin, and an unusually unified phalanx of Republican opposition that casts Obama as a weak leader who invited Russian aggression.

So what to do now? Putin is only 61, and as long as he remains in power, he is likely to continue defying and provoking the United States. When it comes to Russia, we are living in a new era "defined by ideological clashes, nationalistic resurgence, and territorial occupation," as Obama's just-departed ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, wrote last month in The New York Times. As both Obama and his potential successors, Republican and Democratic, weigh new strategies, it's worth exploring some theories about why things went wrong over the past 20 years—theories that may shed light on how Washington could right its Russia policy going forward.

* * *

One way or another, it's clear that too much American hopefulness about a changed post-Cold War Russia has prevailed for too long. Putin's occupation of Crimea happened suddenly, but it was in fact the culmination of a Kremlin political philosophy years in the making. Ukraine's political turmoil last year was ignited by Putin's brazen bid to get now-ousted President Viktor Yanukovych to renege on his pledge to join the European Union, and induce him instead to join a "Eurasian Economic Union" (based on what Putin called "the best values of the Soviet Union"). This effort by Putin to counter the incursions of the West reflected an ethno-Russian ambition that runs deep in the sensibility of the country's populace, which may help explain the Russian autocrat's 80 percent approval ratings at home following the annexation of Crimea.

Some scholars have argued that, through its own policies, Washington only encouraged this Russian mistrust of the West going all the way back to the 1990s. In the decade after the Soviet Union's collapse, the United States offered up a lot of poor economic advice to Russia. Citing the counsel of their Western-trained advisors, both former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, confidently predicted a brief transition to a market economy. It all went horribly sour: Privatization of the former communist production system quickly degenerated into the unfair seizure of old state assets by party apparatchiks-turned-oligarchs with insider connections. Coming at the same time as the West pushed eastward—absorbing one after another former Soviet satellite into NATO or the European Union—the economic results were so devastating that conspiracy theories sprang up in Russia alleging that the advice had been just another American plot.

This mistrust of America helped propel the political rise of Putin, who came to power by promising he would permit no further disintegration of the old Russian empire. Since then, the United States has tended to encourage Russian suspicions by generally treating "Russia as heir to the U.S.S.R.'s policies and objectives," Leslie Gelb and Dimitri Simes, two highly respected foreign policy analysts, wrote in an article in The National Interest last year. The United States and Europe, they argued, have created "an impression that the West's top priorities, long after the Cold War, include not merely containing Russia but also transforming it."

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The pattern of misreading Russia was not confined to the 1990s. Following September 11, the Bush administration may have misunderstood Putin in at least one crucial respect. "He had expected that in return for supporting the U.S., at least in the beginning of the war on terror, we would recognize a Russian sphere of influence," says Angela Stent, a former Sovietologist at Georgetown University. We did not, of course, recognize such a sphere. And, all the while, Putin's power inside Russia was growing based on a resurgence of nationalism.

But if some believe that the United States was too high-handed toward Russia during the 1990s and early 2000s, there is also a view that Obama went too far in the other direction—by taking too accommodating a posture toward Russia during the early years of his administration. One specific mistake may have been investing too much hope in Dmitry Medvedev, who succeeded Putin as president in 2008. "I think a problem in the Obama administration is that the reset was very much predicated on the relationship between Medvedev and Obama, even though they understood that strings were being pulled by Putin. Medvedev did appear to be younger, not a product of the Cold War," Stent says.

Yet Medvedev's interlude was brief, and it was soon clear that Putin was going to be back in charge. In the view of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, U.S. officials bought into their own press about Obama's transformative powers and the wonders of global integration—and wished Russia into a more benign place than it really was. Instead, with its broken economy and political system, and 20 years of pent-up anger over what Soviet revanchists and Putinistas considered Western perfidy in exploiting Russia's weakness after the Cold War, it was becoming something very different.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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