Understand Putin and Russia, but Look after Our Own Interests

March 6, 2014

I recommend reading Sean Kay’s latest contribution to WOTR, not because I agree with all of it but because I think those of us who believe that a realistic approach to the Ukraine crisis does call for renewed commitment to and U.S. leadership of NATO need to consider the opposing arguments.

I agree with Sean that we should be careful at this point not to provide Putin with additional motivation for his aggressive behavior.  In one form or another, Crimea is likely to become more thoroughly linked to or even part of Russia.  Putin’s position on Crimea contains a mix of legitimate interests and outrageous bullying: Russia does have a right to its naval base in Crimea, but it does not have the legal right to blockade Ukrainian naval vessels or to occupy Ukrainian territory, even if the Russian troops do not wear Russian uniforms.

I disagree with the inference that past NATO decisions are to blame for Putin’s actions.  I agree that it was not wise in 2008 for the United States to “insist” that Georgia and Ukraine will become NATO members.  However, I disagree that we should give Russia a veto over that decision in the future.  If we had done that with the Baltic states, they might by now be captives of a new Russian empire, not given the choice of joining the EU and orienting themselves toward the West.

I have great respect for the potential of the Russian people and Russia itself.  However, that potential is out of reach with the form of leadership provided by Putin.  I understand that Putin’s nationalistic approach is rooted in a basic, post-Cold War desire to hold Russia together (in the 1990s I suggested in Washington discussions of the post-Cold War futures that Russia would eventually go through a period of authoritarian-style leadership based on the desire to keep Russia from coming apart at the seams; Putin has extended this model to include expansion of Moscow’s control beyond Russia’s borders).  But understanding these root causes does not mean that we should accede to Putin’s aspirations for the future. That is not in our interest.

Finally, I find Sean Kay’s approach too dependent on his strong advocacy of the U.S. pivot to Asia, and his recommendation that the United States leave the leadership of NATO up to our European allies.

There is little doubt about the importance of Asia for U.S. interests.  The importance of strengthening ties in the region and managing the vital relationship with China is clear.

However, it is my judgment that the United States will be a stronger, more credible player in Asia if it is also perceived as having a solid power foundation based on transatlantic cooperation.  The United States cannot lead in Asia having abandoned leadership in the transatlantic area.  We should, as Sean recommends, encourage the Europeans to take the lead as much as they are inclined and capable of doing, but the fact is that the United States remains the key source of Western leadership in Europe.  That, for better or worse, is the current reality.

That is why I believe that it will be important at the NATO summit in September (or before, if it is moved up) to reaffirm the American commitment to the alliance, and expand transatlantic cooperation to include diplomatic, economic and financial as well as military instruments of security.

U.S. and Western policies certainly need to provide an “off ramp” for a way out of this crisis.  But that off ramp should not at the bottom have a green light for Putin.


Stanley R. Sloan retired as Senior Specialist in international security policy for the Congressional Research Service. Since then, he has taught courses on American power and transatlantic relations at Vermont’s Middlebury College.


Photo credit: Pavel Kazachkov