Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
Whether or not the West’s sanctions against Russia have been a success depends to a considerable degree on what one thinks the sanctions were meant to achieve and how quickly. More than a year on, Crimea remains occupied, Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, and the longer-term goal of forcing the Kremlin to accept and abide by the accepted norms of international behavior remains out of reach. The Russian economy is suffering, but more because of low oil prices and structural economic weaknesses than the impact of sanctions, and Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have concluded that the costs are bearable.
So what now? Should the West simply be patient, or is it time for a change in strategy?
One of the reasons that the sanctions regime has not been more effective is that Moscow believes it can easily strike back at the West, dividing the allies and undermining their will to maintain the current restrictions. So long as Moscow believes an end to sanctions is on the horizon, it will not be tempted to enact any substantive change.
The West should ensure not only that it is as resistant as possible to Russian manipulation, but also that it is seen as such. Measures such as accelerating the development of the European Energy Union can minimize Russia’s ability to use its oil and gas supplies as leverage against the West. The energy union may not exist fully until 2030, but by simply giving it priority, Europe can communicate its commitment to denying Moscow markets and options. This is, after all, a war of signals and symbols as much as it is one of concrete action.
So long as Moscow believes an end to sanctions is on the horizon, it will not be tempted to enact any substantive change.
The rest of Russia’s leverage comes from propaganda and the buying of influence—especially through Moscow’s often-covert support for political movements abroad that undermine Western unity, from anti-federalist parties in Europe all the way to Texan separatists. It is crucial for the West to bring greater transparency to the flow of money into and out of Russia and to counteract Moscow’s information warfare. The latter will require not fighting propaganda with propaganda, but discrediting biased media, challenging outright lies, and cultivating a climate of skepticism toward Russian disinformation.
The West will also need to counter Russia’s political use of military force, from launching long-range bomber patrols in NATO airspace to Putin’s regular boasts about Russian nuclear capabilities. Contrary to recent hyperbole, these actions do not presage a military attack. Rather, they are meant to distract, dismay, and divide the West. Although NATO and EU resolve has been greater than Moscow seems to have expected, on- and off-the-record many politicians and observers wonder how long this can last.
Two can play at that game, however, especially because the Kremlin knows that NATO can outman, outmaneuver, and outgun Russia’s forces. The West could show its teeth more directly, making explicit that it is not in Russia’s interests to provoke a match of military capabilities. Beyond existing plans to pre-position U.S. heavy armor in the Baltic states, the West could establish a permanent NATO forward base in the region for a rotating force of U.S. and European combat troops. Likewise, Washington’s current plan to create a Europe-wide missile defense system by 2018 could be oriented away from a notional focus on Iran, especially in light of the recent nuclear deal, to explicitly include Russia. Although such a move would not, on its own, defend Europe against a full-scale Russian attack, it would be a symbolic statement about the extent to which Moscow is considered a genuine threat.
Given that Moscow seems to have a penchant for heavy-handed geopolitical games, perhaps the best tactic is to concentrate on its vulnerabilities. Above all, Russia is dependent on Western capital and financial systems, and Russia’s elites are globalized and eager to enjoy the security, facilities, and lifestyle of the West.
This is a war of signals and symbols as much as it is one of concrete action.
Although the Kremlin appears willing to let ordinary Russians pay the price of sanctions, it is hard to believe that the Russian elite will bear such burdens willingly. The first round of sanctions targeted not whole sectors of the Russian economy but key individuals responsible for the annexation of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine, blocking their ability to travel abroad and freezing their assets. Many more names could be added to the lists—every parliamentarian who voted for the annexation of Crimea, for example—and the sanctions could be made broader and more draconian, complemented by a more aggressive push to punish gangsters and kleptocrats. Adding the names of spouses and children to the lists poses legal challenges, of course, but would also end an obvious loophole, as potential targets of sanctions often transfer assets to relatives.
Of course, the tougher the line, the more the West plays into Putin’s own nationalist narrative: that Russia is a beleaguered fortress in a hostile world, and that to compromise with the West is to undermine the country’s sovereignty and betray its history and destiny. Backing Putin into a corner and alienating Russians who seek compromise with the West are dangerous moves. The West must balance confrontation with reassurance. After all, Russia needs support, both moral and political, as it adjusts to its new, reduced place in the global order.
One possible avenue of reassurance would be for Washington to restart the U.S.–Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission, a bid to reengage Russia in a multi-track negotiation process that emphasizes key areas, from the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to nuclear security, in which the two countries share real common interests. By seeking small but substantive agreements, and by eschewing some of the more alarmist Western rhetoric and symbolic snubs that play so badly in Moscow (think of the recent decision by Western leaders to decline an invitation to a military parade in Moscow’s Red Square celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II), it may be possible to edge toward a new era of positive engagement. It will be essential for the Washington to reconnect with Moscow as a pragmatic partner, not least because neither Russia nor the United States can find sustainable solutions to the crises in Syria or Ukraine on its own.
Western policy needs to be more imaginative and multivectored. The sanctions regime can be sharpened, but it needs to be supplemented by a range of additional measures if it is to have any measurable impact other than to accelerate the miserable and counterproductive slide into bickering and mutual suspicion.
By every objective standard, Russia is vastly weaker than the West. Its greatest strength, though, is that as an authoritarian state, it can mobilize a unified political will that an alliance of democracies cannot match. Western policy, therefore, needs to focus on those sanctions that will most affect the Kremlin—rather than on those that are easiest for the West to enact—and consider them part of a much broader strategy that not only provides Moscow with positive reasons to engage with the West, but also reduces its ability to retaliate. The real battle will ultimately be won in the hearts and minds (and perhaps bank accounts) of Putin and his closest cronies and allies.