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From Russia, With Great Power Competition

People have interestingly different views of Russia policy. Eve Fairbanks, for example, is outraged by the Bush administration's coddling of Vladimir Putin. The Washington Post op-ed page has been known to express the same sentiment. Frankly, I used to say this, too. And I believe I've heard similar sentiments from friends who work on post-Soviet issues. These days, I tend to see things differently. Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal says we should return to treating Russia as an enemy of the United States. Mario Loyola agrees. And, obviously, any liberal who thinks Bush should get tougher on Putin is going to have to grapple with the fact that they find themselves agreeing with Mario Loyola . . . a pretty damning critique of any position.

In both instances, the complaints naturally blend concerns about Putin's authoritarian tendencies with complaints about his geopolitical views -- in particular, willingness to sell stuff to Iran and Venezuela and so forth. Anatol Lieven's convinced me that this needs to be put into the context of America's policy toward Russia. This started out with expansion of NATO into Central Europe. It continued with NATO expansion into the Baltics -- former Soviet Republics that have been in the Russian sphere of influence since the 18th century or some such. Then we helped sponsor the overthrow of Russia-friendly governments in Ukraine and Georgia and started talking about adding those countries to NATO.

Now I won't deny that there's something to be said on behalf of all of these policies. They do, however, come with a price. If you want to pry countries out of Russia's sphere of influence and make them formal military allies of the United States, any responsible and patriotic Russian government is going to take alarm and seek countermeasures, including an uncooperative attitude toward Iran. We're then faced with a question of priorities: Do we care more about Iran, or do we care more about Ukraine? Do we care more about nuclear proliferation, or do we care more about anti-Putin Russians? There's an obvious deal to be cut here -- NATO membership for the Baltics is a done deal, but we can return Russia's "near abroad" to Russia in exchange for Russian cooperation on Iran and North Korea, or else we can have a series of standoffs across a wide Eurasian arc. Some would call this appeasement and, frankly, the shoe fits decently. It strikes me, however, as preferable to either going to war with Iran or to having Iran build a nuclear bomb.