Rethinking Putin’s Russia

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

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.

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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."

National Journal

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.

In an interview with National Journal, Brzezinski, the 86-year-old dean of Democratic foreign policy wise men, said that too few Russia experts in the government today have a historical memory of the "darker side" of Russian society and politics. "We don't have in the administration, on the strategic level, people with a good sense of history," Brzezinski said. "Very few people in the upper echelons were dealing with the Soviet times 25 years ago.… The younger ones who came up were dealing not with former Soviets but with a whole new generation. They didn't ask to what extent that generation internalized the earlier historical phase: the whole experience of the Second World War, the instability that followed, the brutality of the Soviets. And then this move toward nationalism."

A portrait of Vladimir Putin painted by George W. Bush at the former president's library in Texas. (Reuters/Brandon Wade)

While one of the main criticisms of the Bush administration was that it was overstocked with Cold Warriors who did not understand the nature of transnational terrorism after 9/11, some critics suggest that the Obama administration has the opposite problem: It is top-heavy with counterterrorism and counterinsurgency experts who didn't pay sufficient attention to traditional state-on-state conflict, and especially Russia.

Of course, McFaul and senior Obama administration officials vehemently disagree with the idea that Obama did not have enough advisers with a realistic assessment of Russia. "I wrote my first piece about Putin's dark side in 2000 in The Washington Post," McFaul said in an email from Stanford, where he is teaching again. "I have literally hundreds of pieces on that subject written before I joined the government. So I think there's a lot of 'data' to suggest that I didn't have some rosy view of Putinism, and I was the president's top Russian advisor for five years. He too, in my view, has a very accurate assessment of the man."

Senior Obama officials say that in an administration famous for its prolonged internal policy debates—over Afghanistan, over Syria—there has been one over Russia as well, just much quieter. Officials say they were well aware of the harsh anti-Western views of Putin's KGB-bred cronies, his move to autocracy, and his corruption and mischief abroad. Yet Washington, they say, had no choice but to continue what it considered the "experiment" of luring Russia into the global system because of Moscow's importance to so many U.S. initiatives around the world.

"Every conversation about policy is always about balancing American near-term requirements that are important—counterterrorism, Afghanistan, nuclear security, nonproliferation, for which we have to have a good relationship with Russia—while recognizing that coping with Putin's Russia was going to be difficult," says a senior administration official. James Steinberg, Obama's former deputy secretary of State, says the idea behind the reset was to "test what's possible." No one in the administration, Steinberg says, had any illusions that the policy would be "either we do everything with them or nothing. Which is what the previous administration wanted."

Indeed, at least based on what they have said and written, senior Obama administration experts on Russia can hardly be accused of being soft on Putin. Celeste Wallander, who succeeded McFaul as the senior Russia expert on the National Security Council, is a highly regarded analyst who said in 2005 that Russia was taking "essentially a 19th-century European great-power approach to security and diplomacy." Bill Burns, the current deputy secretary of State who was ambassador to Russia before McFaul, is considered to have a deep, realistic view of Russia that spans the Soviet era.

That said, even McFaul notes that academia is producing fewer Russia policy specialists than it once did—with potential repercussions for U.S. foreign policy. "At Stanford, I haven't taught a course on Russia for a long, long time," McFaul says. "That means we are not feeding in people with interests in Russia into the U.S. government." Stent, too, notes that the ranks of Russia experts in academia have thinned.

But it isn't just a better understanding of Russia that may be needed going forward in government and, by extension, academia. U.S. officials, asserts Brzezinski, have been slow to grasp the peculiar psychology of Putin himself: the would-be strongman who likes having himself photographed bare-chested or dropping opponents in judo matches; the iron leader with a savior complex. "There is very little in Putin's conduct that is purely in Russian history," he says. "A lot of it is strikingly similar to Hitler and Mussolini—that narcissistic megalomania, which becomes more acute the more people around you are kissing your behind."

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GOP strategists say the Ukraine crisis is crystallizing an emerging Republican critique of Obama's foreign policy going into 2016, one that is uniting the party's formerly warring factions, joining aggressive neoconservatives like John McCain with quasi-isolationists like Rand Paul. Most of them want a tougher line against Moscow, including NATO reinforcements and arms for the Ukrainian army, and a total reconsideration of planned U.S. defense cuts. According to former Romney senior adviser Dan Senor, the GOP's base and its policy intellectuals are converging behind a new argument that blames Obama for a global leadership "vacuum," one that invited both Putin's aggression in Crimea and his brazen arming of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. That word was exactly the one used by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a recent speech at the National Republican Congressional Committee's annual dinner. "We've decided to step back," Rice said of U.S. foreign policy. "We've decided that if we step back and lower our voice, others will lead, other things will fill that vacuum."

It isn't only Republican partisans who have taken a harsher stance than the president. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a surprise departure from her former "reset" language—and from her former boss, Obama—recently compared Putin to Hitler. Gelb, for his part, argues that the Obama administration remains somewhat naive in thinking that problems can be simply talked through, or that diplomatic pressure will be enough. "My concern is Obama's pattern of removing the military dimension from the table against aggressors," Gelb says. "Obama gratuitously gave Putin a free ride in Ukraine with his statement that we have no intention to help defend Ukraine other than the usual sanctions, diplomacy, and token arms. That's like saying, 'Here, take Ukraine.' "

To be sure, a get-tough-with-Putin posture carries no shortage of risks. It is well-known that Putin is incensed by anything that smacks of internal interference in Russia's affairs, like the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law named after a murdered Russian lawyer under which the U.S. government can penalize Moscow for human-rights abuses. He is likely to be even more determined now that the United States has applied new sanctions against his senior cronies. And he may respond to further pressure by stepping up his obstruction of U.S. interests around the world—whether the issue is Syria (where Putin is supplying Assad against the U.S.-aided rebels); Iran (where Moscow opposes too-stringent sanctions and is building a reactor); or missile defense (Putin pressured Obama to retreat from a missile-defense system, angering Poland and the Czech Republic).

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Obama's former State Department policy-planning chief, warned in an op-ed in The Washington Post recently against "redividing the globe along an East-West axis." Isolating Moscow, she said, would only "become a self-fulfilling prophecy that strengthens autocracy in Russia and increases the likelihood of Russia reverting to what the West considers a rogue state." Obama himself is wary of precisely that outcome, aides say, one reason he is playing down the Crimean annexation.

Meanwhile, Putin himself may already be concerned about his isolation, which is perhaps why he phoned Obama late last week seeking a negotiated solution. In fact, for all the hand-wringing over Obama and his predecessors' approach to Russia, some experts believe that Putin is acting mainly out of weakness, not strength. The West, in other words, really did win the Cold War, and the Ukraine crisis is only the backlash. "The fact is, people didn't expect this because they didn't think Putin would make this mistake. Russia is ultimately going to pay a bad price for this," says Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine.

In the end, Washington may undergo a replay, albeit on a smaller scale, of the once-raging Cold War debate over how harsh and militarized the "containment" of Moscow should be. Gelb, for one, thinks that because of the simultaneous existence of common global goals and conflicts with Russia, the new approach should be "a mix of containment and détente 21st-century style. We can't just give them a free hand to grab what they want, but we still have critical common interests." Such a balanced policy might just work, as long as we give up trying to look into Vladimir Putin's soul and open our eyes to the new reality he has created on the ground.