Until Moscow is willing to do its part, Washington should avoid pointless dialogue and instead push back firmly against Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
The following open letter was signed by 33 foreign-policy experts, whose names and affiliations appear below.
The authors and signers of the open letter calling for a “rethink” of America’s Russia policy that was published in Politico Magazine on August 5 include people we know, like and respect. We agree that U.S.-Russia relations are in a poor state. But we disagree strongly about the reasons why and what should be done in response. Our colleagues’ arguments require forceful response.
We are a bipartisan group of former diplomats, military and intelligence professionals, and experts who have worked on Russia issues for decades. We believe firmly that now is not—as the letter’s authors suggest—the time for another reset with Moscow. Rather, the actions and behavior of Vladimir Putin’s regime pose a threat to American interests and values, requiring strong pushback.
While the United States is not blameless for the current state of U.S.-Russia relations, the authors fail to make clear that the main responsibility lies with the Putin regime. Since President George H.W. Bush, every American administration has tried to establish good relations with Russia. But since Putin came to power, the Russian side has not reciprocated these overtures in a serious, sustained way. Putin is more interested in portraying the United States as Russia’s greatest enemy—to justify his repressive control at home—than he is in improving bilateral relations.
By arguing that it is the United States and not Russia that needs a “change of our current course,” the authors of the open letter get it exactly backward and give Putin too much leeway to continue his dangerous and reckless behavior.
The authors urge the United States to engage with Russia through “a serious and sustained strategic dialogue that addresses the deeper sources of mistrust and hostility and at the same time focuses on the large and urgent security challenges facing both countries.” They also argue in favor of the restoration of normal diplomatic contacts between the two countries to minimize “misperceptions and miscalculations.” But there has been no shortage of U.S.-Russian dialogue, including about nuclear capabilities. And U.S. representatives have regularly engaged their Russian counterparts on Afghanistan, Iran, Ukraine, Syria, nuclear issues and more. We have full diplomatic relations, even if both sides have engaged in tit-for-tat expulsions reducing the size of each other’s embassy staffing.
The lack of results is not for lack of trying. It’s hard to negotiate with the other side when Moscow refuses to admit that its forces invaded Crimea and Donbas and still are present there; is complicit in shooting down a civilian airliner resulting in the deaths of 298 passengers and crew; lies about interfering in America’s 2016 elections; commits human rights abuses in Syria and props up the murderous Assad regime there; and kills Russian critics in Western countries with highly dangerous radioactive and chemical agents. Until Putin is ready to address his complicity in these actions, further dialogue won’t go very far. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to do “normal” diplomacy when the Russians use their diplomatic posts for troublemaking, not for clearing up misperceptions.
The authors also argue for a more flexible, targeted sanctions regime that can be eased “quickly in exchange for Russian steps that advance negotiations toward acceptable resolutions of outstanding conflicts.” But what are “acceptable resolutions” to outstanding conflicts? Ruling out NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia? Consigning Crimea to Russian control? Ignoring the ugly human rights situation inside Russia? Any “rethink” involving such trade-offs is not worth pursuing.
The authors declare it “unwise to think that we have no choice but to stick with current policy.” That, of course, assumes there is a current policy, but under the current administration, there is merely confusion, not a coherent strategy. Some of the current administration’s actions are laudable—providing lethal military assistance to Ukraine, beefing up the American military presence in the Baltics and Poland, maintaining sanctions under congressional pressure—while others, like the recently announced withdrawal of American troops from Germany, play into Putin’s hands. Trump’s posture toward Putin and refusal to confront or even criticize the Russian leader on anything—from election interference to alleged Russian bounties against American soldiers in Afghanistan—undercut any claim that the United States is taking too hard a line against Moscow.
America’s ability to bring about change in Russia might be very limited. But to resign ourselves to dealing with Russia “as it is, not as we wish it to be,” as the authors argue—that is, accepting Russia’s repression, kleptocracy and aggression—would provide no incentive for Putin to change. Instead, it would convey an over-eagerness on the American side for better relations, which Putin would exploit.
Such a stance also runs counter to America’s values, interests and principles, and, just as importantly, fails to keep faith with the Russian people as their patience with the regime runs thin. Putin’s poll numbers have declined over the past year, protests have risen up in the Far East, and the recent nationwide vote needed to be rigged to enable Putin to serve potentially 16 more years. Putin feels he needs to stimulate and exploit nationalist sentiment to maintain his grip on power. But contrary to the letter writers’ claim that “Russia, under Vladimir Putin, operates within a strategic framework deeply rooted in nationalist traditions that resonate with elites and the public alike,” only 3 percent of Russians consider the United States an enemy, according to a Levada Center survey from earlier this year. Putin increasingly is out of touch with the Russian people.
• Recognize the Putin regime’s corruption, aggression toward neighboring states, increased muscle-flexing and repression at home as threats.
• Work with our allies, especially NATO and the European Union, to contain and confront this threat.
• Differentiate the Russian regime from the Russian people writ large, and prioritize support for civil society and those who, at great risk to themselves, are advocating for their fundamental rights.
• Maintain, even enhance, sanctions unless and until Putin withdraws all his forces from Ukraine, including Crimea; does the same in Georgia; stops Russian cyberattacks and interference in a provable way in our elections and domestic politics; ends arrests of Americans in Russia on spurious charges; and stops human rights abuses against the Russian people.
• Target Russian corruption by keeping dirty Russian money out of the United States, where it pollutes our financial, real estate and other markets.
• Bolster Russia’s neighbors through military, diplomatic and economic support, and back those interested in pursuing a Euro-Atlantic orientation.
• Work with the Russian government on arms control and nonproliferation, but recognize that Moscow has violated a number of agreements on those issues in the past.
America should signal our readiness to work with a Russian government only when it is clear that Moscow doesn’t view the United States as the enemy and is interested in doing its part to change its policies and behavior to advance relations. Until that time, we must avoid pointless, endless dialogue that never resolves problems and instead push back firmly and consistently against Putin’s threatening actions. This entails closer cooperation with our allies in containing Putin, tougher sanctions, greater support for Russia’s neighbors, clear backing for Russian civil society and stronger measures against Russian corruption (which the open letter fails to mention). The letter writers argue that we should “strive to put the relationship on a more constructive path.” If only Putin were interested in the same thing.
John HerbstDirector of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic CouncilFormer U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and to Uzbekistan
Ben HodgesLt. Gen. (Ret.), former commander, U.S. Army EuropePershing chair in strategic studies, Center for European Policy Analysis
Jonathan KatzFormer deputy assistant administrator, Europe and Eurasia bureau, USAIDDirector of Democracy Initiatives, German Marshall Fund of the United States
Ian KellyFormer U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and to Georgia
John KornblumFormer U.S. assistant secretary of State for European & Eurasian affairsFormer U.S. ambassador to Germany
David J. KramerFormer assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and laborSenior fellow, Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, Florida International University
David A. Merkel, former deputy assistant secretary of State for European & Eurasian affairsFormer director, National Security Council
Kurt VolkerFormer U.S. ambassador to NATO and U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiationsDistinguished fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis
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