This analysis from Heritage Foundation is the best I’ve read.
The policy recommendations are good, though it is much better to support a Baltic-Black Sea alliance than it is to expand NATO’s role.
Aside from that, one very slight disagreement with “Since at least the 17th century, Russia has been torn—and has oscillated—between viewing itself as a basically Western nation or as a great and imperial power that embodies values apart from those of the West and has historical license to control its neighbors”.
The only thing which has oscillated is the West’s perception of Russia.
Read the story here or my notes below:
At the core of the U.S. failure has been an unwillingness to assess the nature of the Russian regime realistically and to base its policy on that assessment. Too often, the U.S. has relied on wishful thinking. . . .
Since 1991, U.S. policymakers, scholars, and journalists have largely operated under the assumption that post-Soviet Russia was on a bumpy and faltering, yet real road to democracy. This assumption has blinded observers to the reality that Russia was on a successful road to becoming a kleptocratic autocracy. Of course, this regime has not succeeded in modernizing the Russian economy, reversing its catastrophic demographic collapse, or fostering the creation of widespread wealth. But since the mid-1990s, Russia has not been journeying haltingly toward freedom. Instead, its leaders, in particular Vladimir Putin, have intelligently and systemically directed it toward becoming what it now is: a functioning, well-developed tyranny.
The U.S. failure to recognize Russia’s direction of travel and its destination has led the U.S. to adopt a strategy based fundamentally on the belief that the best way to foster democracy in Russia was to engage with it. Russia was invited into international organizations that nominally required its members to be wealthy democracies, when in fact Russia was neither. The arrival of Dmitry Medvedev as Russia’s president in 2008 was taken as a serious advance of Russian democracy and a harbinger of better things to come, not as the head fake it actually was.
. . . . U.S. concessions did not improve U.S.–Russian relations; instead, they convinced the Russians that the U.S. was willing to accord Russia an equality of status and a regional role that Russia’s actual achievements did not merit.
The engagement strategy sought to treat Russia as the U.S. hoped it would become, not as it actually was, in the belief that this was the best way to ensure that Russia made progress. In practice, all this strategy did was enable Russia’s move to autocracy and, far more importantly, encourage the U.S. to excuse Russia’s failures. . . .
By this way of thinking, pointing honestly to Russia’s human rights abuses or its wars in Chechnya and Georgia was an impediment to the development of democracy in Russia, because by pointing out the negative, the U.S. failed to accentuate the positive. This is a textbook example of the soft bigotry of low expectation. . . .
Russia’s apologists argue, vociferously, that the U.S. was responsible for the deterioration in U.S.–Russian relations. . . . This argument assumes that Russia has a right to exercise a neo-imperial control over its neighbors and that those neighbors have no corresponding right to determine their own destiny. What the Russian regime could not tolerate is quite simple: any independent sources of power on its borders or inside them that could resist the regime’s will. . . .
Since at least the 17th century, Russia has been torn—and has oscillated—between viewing itself as a basically Western nation or as a great and imperial power that embodies values apart from those of the West and has historical license to control its neighbors in the name of increasing its power and advancing its concept of civilization. . . .
Russia is a problem that will be with the West for a very long time, although its urgency will wax and wane. . . . the problem ultimately comes back to Russia’s view of its own national identity and role in the world.
. . . the gap between appearances and reality is large. While American policymakers need to recognize the reality of Russian autocracy and hostility, they should not give Russia too much credit. The fundamental reality is that time is not on Russia’s side. It has made a geopolitical splash for reasons that are as simple as they are fragile: Russia has many weak neighbors. It benefitted from the high price of oil. It faced little effective Western pushback, and as an autocracy it is capable of mobilizing force and subversion in ways that Western democracies find difficult. Yet none of its actions since the mid-1990s have added in any enduring way to its strength. The path to world power does not lie in crushing Chechnya, occupying slices of Georgia, or taking Crimea. These are not assets. They are liabilities.
Russia is a declining power with feet of clay in every way except for the size and geopolitical centrality of its territory, its energy resources, its nuclear arsenal, the modern portion of its conventional armed forces, and above all its willingness to attack, subvert, and play the spoiler. If not for these factors, Russia would be of only very limited significance to U.S. policy. It can play what is fundamentally a weak hand because it is regionally strong and acts stronger than it is, while the U.S. and Europe have cared little, done less, and shown less will. Russian weaknesses would come into play if the West pressed its advantages.
. . . . differences between today’s Russia and the Soviet Union are immense. In the aftermath of the Second World War and during the decline of the European empires, Communism was—regrettably—an appealing ideology for many. Today’s Russia has no wide ideological appeal. It is too assertively Russian to appeal to others. Putin’s hatred of the West has a broader appeal, but is not unique to him, and those who share it—such as the Islamists—frequently detest Putin as well. . . .
Russian gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013, before the energy price crash, was just over $2 trillion, approximately the size of Italy’s economy. The energy sector accounts for up to 30 percent of Russia’s GDP, which makes it particularly vulnerable, financially and socially, to energy price declines. . . .
Yet just because Russia is far weaker than the Soviet Union does not mean that the U.S. should ignore facts. As long as Russia openly and avowedly defines itself against the U.S. and the Western order, a rivalry is inevitable. . . .
Putin’s primary goal is to stay in power. For that reason, he has murdered, driven abroad, imprisoned, or bribed the domestic opposition, and therefore views the possibility of a Western-aligned Georgia or Ukraine as a threat. He does not fear their power or worry that they will be the avenue for a Western attack. He worries that they will give the Russian people ideas. . . .
Putin correctly assesses that time is not on his side. . . . Therefore, one essential element of U.S. comprehensive strategy toward Russia is to be calm, and to commit clearly and credibly to defending its allies and interests. In a situation in which one side believes that force works, ambiguity is a dangerous strategy. . . .
Precisely because it has no great need for day-to-day ideological consistency and no democratic accountability, it can play the spoiler extremely effectively. For example, it welcomes Edward Snowden and plays the role of friend of the Internet, while simultaneously launching cyber attacks and practicing online censorship. . . .
U.S. strength rests in the long-run competitive economic and political superiority of its system, which is precisely Russia’s weakness. Of course, this does not eliminate the need for short-term U.S. responses and initiatives as part of a long-term strategy of trying to match U.S. strengths against Russia’s weaknesses. But in many areas, the U.S. can afford—and should want—to play defense. . . .
The Putin regime’s fundamental weak points are that it:
– Lacks wide ideological appeal outside Russia;
– Has no coherent economic strategy that can address its long-run problems; and
– Relies on the appearance of strength, on having or inventing a run of successes, and on repression to remain in power.
Thus, the basis of a U.S. comprehensive strategy toward Russia is to play on its lack of ideological legitimacy by emphasizing its reliance on repression, to employ policies that increase the costs to Russia of Russian actions that the U.S. finds undesirable, and to make it harder for the regime to project an appearance of strength and success by placing Russia in positions where it must pay these costs or give up.
When Americans think about comprehensive strategy toward Russia, they often return to the policy of containment. This is not a helpful approach. . . . The U.S. approach should instead be to seek to impose costs on Russia—reputational, rhetorical, economic, financial, and military costs. . . . Russia will always be able to gain a short-term advantage by doing something, such as invading Ukraine, that the U.S. cannot immediately counter. But the long-term cost of such victories for Russia will be high, and the U.S. can and should make them higher. . . .
The long-run prospects for the Russian economy are bleak. Russia is a failed, corrupt petrostate with a rapidly aging population. Russia’s economy is deteriorating. It was slowing significantly before the rapid fall in energy prices and is expected to contract by 4 percent in 2015. Capital flight has accelerated, and the ruble’s depreciation has increased inflation to double digits. . . .
There is a fundamental asymmetry between the values of the U.S. and the values of its adversaries. While the U.S. values its citizens, economic prosperity, and institutions, U.S. adversaries value leadership survival above all. The U.S. should develop precise means to credibly threaten what its adversaries value and deploy both passive and active defenses to remove the benefits adversaries might gain by attacking the U.S. or its allies. . . .
Russia has rarely, if ever, signed an arms control treaty that it did not violate. Russia is in violation of the Helsinki Final Act, the Istanbul Commitments of 1999, the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, an agreement to remove its military from Georgia and Moldova, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Budapest Memorandum, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Russia is possibly in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as interpreted by the United States. The U.S. should itemize, publicize, and emphasize all of these violations and refuse to negotiate additional agreements or renew previous agreements until the original Russian violations are corrected. . . .