Despite the hopes of the Soviet regime then and Putin’s regime now, the West is not on its last legs. The anti-European, pro-Russian French nationalist whom Putin supported lost badly in France’s elections this spring. Whatever deal Putin sought or thought he had with President Trump, the power of American institutions and long-term American interests in the success of certain values—including the rule of law, human rights, democracy, and the prosperity these generate—is likely to prevail, which will not help Putin. Neither Putin’s aggression abroad nor his repression at home will fix a stalled Russian economy still dependent on oil, gas, and other raw material exports, or a political system rooted in staggering corruption organized from the top.
Russians now recognize (and criticize) the early and mid-1980s as the period of zastoy (stagnation). But after several high-growth (i.e., high-oil price) years, Russia seems to be winding up in a similar place. Perhaps as a result, also like in the mid-1980s, thoughtful Russians may be recognizing, some even saying in public, that their country cannot go on like this; that Russia needs to modernize; and that for this to occur, Russia needs more, not less, rule of law at home and more, not less, access to foreign capital and technology. Russia therefore needs more constructive relations with the West, including the U.S. The Russians who feel this way are right. Experience suggests that Russia must choose between modernization and aggression.
Russia hands at the State Department and National Security Council are analyzing the cuts in embassy and consulate staffing, and probably considering whether retaliation makes sense. The professionals can work out the options, as I and my colleagues on the old Soviet Desk did in the 1980s. I hope their recommendations are taken. But, ultimately, it’s not the response to the immediate provocations that matters most. Our specific response in 1986 to the Soviets pulling all Russian employees from Embassy Moscow was not all that important. What was important was that the Reagan administration understood the nature of the Soviet Union and developed a policy to deal with it—a policy that (as carried out by the pros of the imagined and maligned “deep state”) worked.
A sound Russia policy would mean resisting Russian aggression and helping others resist it; identifying areas of potential cooperation, without expecting too much or rewarding Russia for its cooperation in areas of supposed mutual interest; stabilizing the relationship where possible, including by keeping up dialogue, civilian and military; and looking to a better future relationship with a better Russia. We deal with the Russia we’ve got. But let’s remember that Putin’s Russia is not the only possible Russia. We have learned the benefits of keeping up contacts with Russian society generally, including with democracy-minded dissidents, who may not always remain in the shadows, and with reform-minded potential future leaders.