Russia is a unique civilization containing a complex worldview. What kind of foreign policy should the United States adopt in respect to Vladimir Putin’s regime? Part Five (and final) of a series.
A new American administration, a bold, revanchist Russia, and a world awash in instability. The Russian will to power and seemingly endless drive for conquest has quite a history of terrifying the West. In this, the portrait of 2017 might be that of 1944, 1952, or 1980 - periods in which Soviet Russian expansionism and saber-rattling stoked fears of world war among Westerners. Oftentimes these ‘crisis points’ are preceded by eras in which U.S. administrations neglect foreign policy in the course of tackling domestic problems (recall President Bill Clinton’s 1992 quip: “It’s the economy, stupid.”)
Yet Americans have a way of staring down hostile empires and coming out on top. They do so by electing warriors to the Presidency. Just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940, Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, and Ronald Reagan in 1980 each faced rivals across the ocean, so too does President-Elect Donald Trump. And just as those three leaders clawed their country’s way to supremacy with an iron will and a canny eye, so too must POTUS Forty-Five chart a clear path that maintains American hegemony — and leaves Vladimir Putin in the cold.
Putin’s regime increasingly looks like that of a latter day tsar. An authoritarian, he governs with the blessing of the Russian people under a simple, timeworn agreement: security at home, glory abroad. A calculating, ever-wary, ex-KGB man, what we know of Putin echoes the style of Joseph Stalin — whose suspicious nature bordered on the paranoid, and whose every move was made only after careful consideration of how the West would respond. Putin’s chary eye for Western domestic politics recalls Stalin’s geopolitical chess match with America. Yet Putin lacks the vast legions of the Red Army, the wealth and territory of the old Soviet Empire, and the security Stalin made for himself following his purges of the Communist Party.
Putin’s relative weakness limits his ability to project power abroad. Despite his gains in Ukraine and Syria (where his forces fought weak foes with outdated arms), he remains unready to face down the United States and NATO. A conventional war with the West would prove unpopular with Russians, as well; his popularity rests on easy victories, not in all-out battle which could see his country crippled. Yet Russians expect Putin to continue frustrating the West and rebuilding military strength. Thus he finds himself risky gambit: win victories against the West, without engaging America in a costly war.
As Putin’s victories in Ukraine and Syria largely rest on President Obama’s unwillingness — and not inability — to engage with substantive military force, President-Elect Trump will enter office with some critical advantages over Russia: military power, and the ability to project it via strategic alliances in the Middle East and Europe; and the opportunity to obtain first-mover geopolitical advantage.
The Russian and American militaries are set up for different kinds of war. The U.S. has for years fought guerillas in the Middle East, and has refined unconventional warfare to complement its conventional doctrines. Having been in the battlefield nearly nonstop for decades, the American military is hardened for conflict with a land power. Russia’s military, on the other hand, is smaller in size and scope: technologically sophisticated, but limited to local conflicts within reach of a handful of bases scattered in puppet states (e.g. Syria). It was built with the purpose of fighting small, short wars and defending its borders with area-access/area denial systems.
A key fault in the Obama Doctrine is its reactive nature. A skeptic of American exceptionalism, Obama has allowed many of the world’s instigators to operate without fear of retaliation. This has allowed Putin’s regime to define U.S. foreign policy more closely than have American policymakers. With Russian forces fortified in Ukraine, Obama’s failure to act on his tough words has done more to legitimize Putin’s conquests than would a United Nations recognition of Russia’s new borders.
President Trump would be wise to seize the reins of the Russo-American relationship from the Kremlin. Putin thrives when he wins staring contests with America. A carefully-worded overture of friendship, the encouragement of corporate investment in Russia, and a state invitation to Washington, D.C. to explore recognition of the Crimean annexation via a free referendum would do much to take the wind out of Putin’s sails — both at home, and as leader of America’s foes abroad. But President Trump must couple this détente with muscle. He could do this in a number of ways:
- U.S. support for the Free Syrian Army should be increased to full military cooperation with the objective of destroying the Islamic State, and removing Bashar al-Assad from power.
- NATO’s commitment to preserving mutual defense should be reaffirmed by a Trump tour of the Baltic states, and the movement of a 5,000-strong brigade to the region.
- The Republican-led Congress must pass a substantial defense budget increase, signalling to the world that U.S. leadership is back.
- Lastly, the White House should explore options for expanding energy independence, and weaning Western Europe off of Russian natural gas/petroleum imports, possibly via the world’s first transatlantic pipeline.
2017 doesn’t need to be a year of gloom for the United States. But it takes real leadership to achieve the kind of victories Americans have fought for and won in decades past. President Trump is up to the challenge.