How Do You Solve a Problem Like Putin?

Russia’s cyberattacks and its aggression in Syria and Ukraine have created a climate of concern leading up to the US presidential election, but, rather than give in to hysteria, the next administration must consider policy approaches that manage the relationship with Russia and are focused on common interests, a professor of political science said at the Atlantic Council on November 3.

The next administration should “do business [with Russia] in the sense of fight ISIS in Syria and deal with the Iranian nuclear problem,” according to Michael Desch, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. “In both cases, people can be unhappy with the details of these business relationships, but the fact of the matter is, in a number of important cases Russia and the United States have had more common than opposing interests.”

Russia continues to fight alongside Syrian government forces against both US-backed Syrian rebels and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The United States, too, is waging a war against ISIS. Ultimately, the fight against ISIS “is going to involve a solution with Russia, in the end,” said Steven Lee Myers, a correspondent with the New York Times.

Desch and Myers spoke at a conference, “New Dawn: Russia and the West after the US Presidential Elections,” hosted by the Atlantic Council, the Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the Charles Koch Institute, in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania. The conference focused on various avenues for the next administration’s strategy to address Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

John Haines, the co-director of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said that there is no question that Russia is an adversary, but “the issue is the nature of the engagement.” According to Haines, the constant vilification of Russian leaders had led to a worsening of relations. “In any business negotiation, you have to have a counterpart. If you don’t have one or if you don’t respect your counterpart, you are unlikely to yield anything,” he said.

Myers said that every US president in recent history has had to grapple with US-Russia relations. He asserted that “we can manage a relationship, I think we have to, but we can’t assume that it’s all in our hands to fix.”

The ongoing concern regarding cyber hacking related to the US presidential election has exacerbated the antagonism between the United States and Russia. On October 7, the White House officially accused Russia of interfering in the US presidential election through cyber hacking. “[The cyberattack] fits with Russia’s approach to undermining stability around the world and in the United States in particular,” said Miriam Elder, the world editor for Buzzfeed News. “It questions the basis of democracy as such,” she added. 

“I think there’s no question now that Russia has intervened in some way,” said Myers, but “I do think it’s been whipped up for partisan reasons.”

“We need to keep it a little bit in perspective,” he added.

The question of how to deal with a newly belligerent Russia will be an issue regardless of the next administration in Washington, according to Myers. However, he said, “what outcome it takes will of course depend on the election.” He described how both Republicans as well as Democrats use Russia and the idea of Russia to suit their own needs and undermine the other.

Where Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton will likely pursue an approach to Russia similar to that of the Obama administration, according to Myers, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump sees potential engagement with Russia through the lens of a business arrangement.

Ultimately, “foreign policy is rarely a decisive factor, I think, for most people,” said Myers. Desch described how, in the grand scheme of things, Russia will not feature prominently in electoral considerations. “Russia pales compared to terrorism, free trade, or climate,” he said.

However, if Russia’s belligerence and interference in US interests continue, the next administration’s approach to Russia could involve the use of more sanctions. While there are a series of sanctions on Russia already for its annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine, panelists debated the efficacy of sanctions and whether they are the right political tool to use against Russia for other matters.  

While sanctions are a useful foreign policy and “a political tool which helps us to increase our leverage against other states,” ideally forcing the Kremlin to reconsider its actions, according to Emma Ashford, a research fellow at the CATO Institute, thus far, sanctions on Russia have produced minimal effects and no political deterrence.

Sergey Aleksashenko, a nonresident senior fellow for Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution, said Putin is focused on hard power, not soft power. “If you want [Putin] to understand you, use hard power,” he said.

With regard to additional sanctions for Russia’s role in the conflict in Syria, Ashford said “it seems like those sanctions will be largely symbolic.” Though they would send a message of US disapproval, sanctions are unlikely to change any Russian policy or the way that they implement policy, Ashford said.

The idea of sanctions to halt Russian aggression in Syria is “particularly contentious because there is disagreement about whether or not sanctions should be the tool,” according to Elizabeth Rosenberg, senior fellow and director of the energy, economics, and security program at the Center for a New American Security. “Any amount of sanctions won’t stop what is going on with the damage and destruction in Aleppo,” she added.

Ashford said that sanctions only work as part of a broader strategy that includes diplomacy, trade, and military pressure, but cautioned that too many sanctions can cut opportunities for diplomacy and engagement. However, according to David Kramer, the senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, “sometimes diplomatic solutions aren’t there.” He referenced US Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to forge a ceasefire with Russia in Aleppo. The ceasefire has been suspended indefinitely.

Aleksashenko was skeptical about the effectiveness of sanctions. Though he said they are effective as a message, their usefulness is declining as the Russian economy improves.

Rosenberg argued that sanctions were never intended to collapse the Russian economy. However, “sanctions are most effective when they happen to, by design, coincide with other economic pressure points,” she said.

While “Putin feels the pressure of sanctions,” according to Aleksashenko, they have become a propaganda tool. Ashford described how the sanctions have had a counterproductive political effect in that the rising costs in food, gas, and other amenities in Russia are turning the Russian people against the West and Western style of governance. “It has probably drawn the Russia people more closely behind Putin,” Ashford said.

According to Kramer, sanctions have not been as effective due to a failure of policy making, not the sanctions themselves. He said, “the problem is not with the sanctions, the problem is failure to ramp up the sanctions.” Kramer focused on the issue of Russia’s presence in Ukraine claiming, “to help Ukraine, you need to tighten pressure on Russia.”

Rosenberg added that “it is not a failure of sanctions, but rather a failure of maintenance,” which has led to their declining economic impact.

While sanctions imposed by the United States are maintained indefinitely, though not updated, the European Union must renew sanctions every six months.

Kramer insisted that sanctions must be consistently tightened in a show of force, however Ashford questioned whether the focus on sanctions in Russia is in the long-term interests of the United States, and called for a cost-benefit analysis of US engagement in resolving the crises in Ukraine and Syria.

According to Kramer, “we have an absolute interest in helping the Ukrainians stop Putin.” He claimed that if the United States does not respond in Ukraine, Russia could direct its aggression elsewhere, potentially invading a NATO ally. If the United States fails to respond in defense of an ally, NATO would be rendered ineffective, Kramer said.

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.