Russia presents a challenge to the United States on multiple fronts- the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe and the Arctic region. American foreign policy for the next President will be predicated upon three fronts: dealing with Islamic terrorism, Russia, and Chinese ambitions in Asia and, by proxy, North Korea.
The United States, under Obama and Clinton, based their policy on Russia on engagement in the hopes that true democratic reforms would evolve. The whole “reset” nonsense was predicated upon this belief, but they did not count on Putin’s strong arm tactics. Instead, a more “Reaganesque” policy is needed. Russia does not have the relative industrial advantages which the Soviet Union had. Russia is not a major economic power and their only means of economic leverage is energy. According to the World Bank, their economy was roughly the size of Italy’s, but that was before the decrease in oil prices.
Further, outside Russia, Putin’s regime lacks fundamental ideological appeal. They have no coherent long term economic strategy and Putin’s Russia relies on a position of the appearance of strength which plays well in the homeland and is appealing to Russia’s nationalist instincts. What Putin fears most is not hostility from the United States, but hostility from the Russian people. The United States cannot highlight every abuse by Russia, but it should highlight the major abuses. The shooting down of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine- possibly by Russians or a Russian missile- is one such example that should have made the Russian people think twice against their leader, but we failed to capitalize on that fact.
Economic and strategic pressure must be brought to bear on Russia. Because of their dalliance in the Ukraine, sanctions were slapped on Russia, but there are cracks on the European front. Europe must be reassured of solidarity in this area. The economic sanctions in place right now deter Russia from diversifying its economy and little else. It is a start, but it could go even further.
How would economic pressure work? Regarding existing sanctions, they need to be strengthened and we must make sure there is no cheating. There are legal loopholes as concerns the European Union that need to be plugged. Because 30% of Russia’s economy is dependent on the energy sector, that is their biggest leverage device. They have not been averse to cutting off supplies from oil pipelines to Europe. Support for the trans-Caspian pipeline would eliminate a major Russian threat against European energy supplies. The sanctions against Russia have hurt European exports and the United States should become an alternative market for European goods.
One of the biggest sticks the US now possesses is energy. We have the ability, with the correct domestic energy policy, to become a net exporter of energy. Europe would seem the most logical and strategic market for that energy. Although not an immediate step, it would make sense for US foreign policy overall and reduce any Russian geopolitical advantage in the long run. Further, Russia responded to sanctions by banning imports of food from the United States and several European countries. Besides hurting themselves, it may also be a violation of commitments they made contingent upon their entry into the WTO. The SWIFT network which controls international messages between banks can be used as an additional stick against Russia. Threatening exclusion should they threaten a Baltic state, Scandanavia, or NATO ally would seriously make them think twice because if one was to follow through, it would seriously hamper and complicate Russia’s ability to complete bank transactions.
On the strategic front, the United States can start by withdrawing from the seriously flawed START treaty which does nothing but give Russia a strategic advantage. This treaty would require the US to withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from Europe while Russia would move their’s behind the Ural Mountains. Unfortunately, even from there they present a real danger and threat against Europe. In the same vein, the United States should definitely reconsider and actually place a missile defense system in Europe, not only to thwart Russian designs, but also Iranian. The Czech Republic is likely the best area and strengthening US-Czech relations must be a major priority.
After Ukraine and possibly Moldova, Russia will set it sights on the Baltic states. It is imperative that the United States and its NATO allies pre-position assets in that area before Russia dallies in the region. Additionally, these states are particularly vulnerable to Russian energy blackmail. Ensuring that they have a safe and reliable alternative to Russian energy is an important aspect of any Russian policy.
Of course, their most visible action in Europe is the Ukraine. Instead of oscillating between positions, the United States should arm Ukraine with defensive weapons first with a deadline for removal of Russian assets from the country. If they fail to comply with verification, then the sale of offensive weaponry should ensue. The same is true in Georgia which provided a template for future Russian aggression in Europe. The lack of a strong Western response only emboldened Russia to move in the Ukraine.
Putin and Russia are relying on the United States taking its eyes off Europe and their designs. They are hoping that we will devote the bulk of our foreign policy to fighting Islamic terrorism. This must not happen. Russia must be made aware that their aggressive actions in Europe will have consequences and the “If-Then” scenarios should be forcefully spelled out to Putin. That requires a reset to the reset button without the visual props.
Elsewhere, their actions in the Arctic must be met on a tit-for-tat basis. That would involve non-NATO states like Finland and Sweden to cooperate with US measures in the area. They must realize that Russian intervention in the Baltic states is a threat to them also. There is ample evidence that Russian sympathizers are embedded in Western European media already. They must be brought out into the open. Putin has an extensive propaganda apparatus that he uses to his advantage. It explains why he is so “respected” in Russia.
In the Middle East, Russia’s only reason for supporting the Assad regime in Syria is access to the naval base at Tarsus which gives him unfettered access to the Mediterranean Sea. Here, the United States can actually use a carrot by allying with Russia to remove the immediate threat of ISIS in the region and the orderly transition of a new government in Syria by easing Assad out of power and replacement with another government. After the territorial integrity of Syria is restored through the establishment of safe zones and a residual force to make sure another ISIS does not pop up, then Syrian refugees should be repatriated from Europe. Europe and Russia cannot culturally and safely withstand the influx of Muslim refugees from this area. Policies regarding refugees has always been repatriation before relocation and that must be stressed first and foremost. In short, the United States can and has lived with a Russian naval base in Tarsus.
We should also strengthen ties with Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. These are former Soviet republics where there are still ties to Moscow. They must- through trade, defense and diplomacy- be made aware that their integrity and recognition as independent nations lies with closer working relations with the West, not Russia.
Finally, the United States has no beef with the Russian people but with the actions of its leader. Putin’s philosophy of governance is rooted in a Cold War mentality and he plays on the Russian nationalistic tendencies. But when those tendencies spill beyond their recognized borders into neighboring countries in an attempt to reconstruct the Soviet Union geographically, if not politically or economically, then it ceases to be nationalistic in nature and is simply aggressive. His motivation is not a desire to protect Russian-speaking minorities in neighboring states. These are power plays hiding behind the guise of a fake national pride. Instead of treating the Putin regime as some benign threat with the use of visual props, the next President should adopt a clear, convincing and steadfast policy of thwarting and rolling back Russian aggressive actions, especially in Europe. We are better positioned economically, militarily, and strategically to do so. Russia could rejoin the collection of non-rogue nations through proper behavior when and if they demonstrate they are serious and willing to do so.