The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
With a U.S.-Russian summit almost certainly in the offing, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump should act now to establish the right tone for relations between the two countries. In particular, he will want to move beyond the “Russia acts, the United States reacts” model of the past four years and encourage Russia to become less confrontational. It also stands to reason that Trump will want to accomplish all this without declaring (and then having to retreat from) red-line ultimatums or risking coming to blows with the Kremlin. The president-elect should start by working to understand the key drivers of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy and accepting them as hard realities, instead of wishing them away or pretending that Putin can be shamed into abandoning them.
During the Trump presidency, as in outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term, four factors will shape the strategic framework within which the U.S.-Russian bilateral agenda will unfold: the extent of Putin’s commitment to his ideological beliefs and to his self-imposed historic mission to restore what he considers Russia’s rightful place in the world; Putin’s perception of the domestic political imperatives of his regime’s legitimacy and survival; the degree of popular support for his foreign policy; and, finally, the U.S. reaction to Russia’s external behavior.
THE SOVIET FACTOR
Contrary to conventional wisdom, which Putin himself encourages, Russia’s foreign policy—and especially the country’s relations with the United States—is not made ad hoc in a fit of rage, pique, or petulance. Although tactical surprises are clearly Putin’s preferred method of foreign policy implementation, the ideological foundations of his strategy have been obvious and constant from virtually the first day of his presidency.
Although he has assiduously advertised himself as a Russian patriot (and may in fact consider himself one), this trait is relatively recent. Putin is, first and foremost, an ardent Soviet patriot. With his family history, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise.
Putin’s grandfather, a master chef, cooked for Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, as well as for the Moscow City Communist Party Committee. Putin’s father, who fought behind Nazi lines with the ruthless SMERSH sabotage and assassination units, was badly wounded in the defense of Leningrad. He later became a Communist Party organizer at a Leningrad factory. The young Putin came of age amid a steady stream of Soviet triumphs: Sputnik, the Gagarin space flight, and nuclear parity with the United States. He volunteered to work for the KGB in high school and was admitted into the party while still in college, which was no easy feat in the 1970s.
So when Putin called the demise of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” and “a genuine tragedy,” he was referring to the greatest personal tragedy of his life. During Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization, Major (and later Lieutenant Colonel) Putin was deployed in the German Democratic Republic, the Warsaw Pact country most insulated from the moral and intellectual foment of glasnost and perestroika. Putin’s most vivid memory from that time is an angry crowd surrounding the KGB residence in Dresden in November 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Inside, Putin and his colleagues were burning documents, expecting to be captured and lynched at any minute.
Putin has never bought into the West’s and Russian liberals’ rhetoric about there being no winners or losers in the Cold War. To Putin, the end of the Cold War was a humiliating defeat of a great and glorious state. It was the equivalent of what the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was for Germany. Hence, the overarching strategic objective of Putin’s policies, both domestic and external, is to recover and repossess the political, economic, and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state at its fall.
This Putin Doctrine, which I first outlined in Foreign Affairs in 2013, has guided the Russian president from the beginning of his tenure in 2000. In his first two presidential terms, from 2000 to 2008, Putin put into place the domestic part of his doctrine’s agenda: national politics, the courts, the media (television first and foremost), and what Lenin called the “commanding heights of the economy” were once again owned or controlled by the state.
After his return to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin shifted his attention to recovering the elements of geopolitical power that the USSR had lost. There were several reasons for this pivot, all of which continue to shape Putin’s policies today. First, Putin perceived the West as beset by economic and political problems, distracted by domestic ideological agendas, largely isolationist, and gripped by the breakdown of moral certainties. Second, although a great deal had been stolen or wasted, Russia’s $700 billion defense modernization program had finally begun bearing fruit, both in conventional and, even more important, strategic nuclear armaments.
After his return to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin shifted his attention to recovering the elements of geopolitical power that the USSR had lost.
But the most important reason for an activist foreign policy was that it had become a political imperative for the regime’s survival.
THE PUTIN DOCTRINE ABROAD
Until 2012, the regime’s legitimacy (and Putin’s personal popularity at its core) had rested on economic progress and the growth of individual incomes. But by then the writing was on the wall: despite record-high oil prices, the toxic domestic investment climate was slowing the Russian economy to a crawl. After emerging from its own Great Recession, Russia would be lucky to grow at more than two percent a year even with oil prices shooting up again. Institutional reforms necessary to revive investment were—and are—out of the question: Putin’s political and likely personal nightmare is Gorbachev’s perestroika: liberal economic reforms that morph into a fatal political crisis.
Instead, in 2012, Putin made the most consequential choice of his political life. He began to shift the foundation of his regime’s legitimacy from economic expansion to what leading Russian political sociologist Igor Klyamkin has called “militarized patriotism.”
What followed this shift was the annexation of Crimea, a war against Ukraine, and intervention in Syria. The latter move is particularly indicative of Putin’s conviction that restoring Russia’s superpower pride by being able to win geopolitical games anywhere in the world is essential to his regime’s legitimacy. After all, even Kremlin propaganda could not have claimed that the defeat of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would threaten Russia’s “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity,” as Moscow stated after the pro-Russian regime in Ukraine had been overthrown by a popular uprising in February 2014. Yet, from the moment in October 2015 when Putin shook hands with Assad in the Kremlin live on national television and declared that “comprehensive assistance to the legitimate government of Syria” was the main goal of Russia’s military deployment there, he made the defense of Assad a non-negotiable domestic political imperative.
The Kremlin and state-controlled media have worked hard to support Putin’s project. Foremost among the narratives they push is that the country has gotten up from its knees and that, because it has become a leading international player, the West, unable to abide Russia’s new sovereignty, has declared war on the country. The motherland is in danger, but Putin will lead the nation through troubled waters, and the West—especially the United States—will fear and respect Russia again. Russian television, from which over 90 percent of Russians get their news, presents Putin’s foreign policy as an unbroken chain of brilliant successes.
But the reasons for the policy’s appeal are deeper and wider than mere skillful and near-monopolistic propaganda. A Soviet patriot to the core, Putin has founded militarized patriotism on something that the pro-democracy revolutionaries of the late 1980s and early 1990s tended to disregard: the deep-seated trauma resulting from the loss of their country’s exceptional status and mission. Millions of Russians had believed in their country’s ultimate purpose of being the counterweight, moral as well as military, to the United States, to save the world from tyranny, and to preserve peace on earth.
There is a classic Soviet poster from 1948. On it, a handsome and confident Russian soldier admonishes Uncle Sam. On his very broad chest is the Soviet Union’s highest military award, the gold star of the Hero of the Soviet Union, and in his hand is a volume of World War II history. The implication is clear: although the enemy is different, the outcome will be the same. Uncle Sam holds a nuclear bomb and a torch, about to set the world on fire. His ugly face is contorted by impotent hatred. The caption says: “Don’t you fool around!”
This is the national sensibility that Putin has brought back: the enemy, the loathing, the danger—and the pride. This mentality is Putin’s armor against economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. And if history is a guide, neither punishment is likely to alter the strategy of a regime that relies on patriotic fever and war hysteria as the principal means of legitimizing its rule—certainly not in the short, or perhaps even the middle, run.
Nor should we be especially hopeful about the “tripwire” deployment of NATO units on the alliance’s eastern flank. Tripwires are only as good as the transgressor’s perception of the consequences of tripping them. It is possible, of course, that Putin believes that the United States and NATO would go to war with Russia over, for example, a Crimea-like occupation of the Estonian border town of Narva, where ethnic Russians are a majority. Possible, but not probable. In fact, the tripwire may tempt Putin to roll the dice to pull off what would be the biggest domestic political coup yet: exposing NATO as a paper tiger.
UP THE DOMESTIC COST
There is a way to make Putin change course. It is to gradually reverse the regime’s sustaining political dynamic by turning its foreign policy, which today is by far the most powerful source of the Kremlin’s successes, legitimacy, and popular support, into a wellspring of doubt, embarrassment, and, finally, humiliation and remorse.
Russian history is quite unambiguous: the higher the patriotic pitch, the greater the risk of disappointment and reversals. Some of the sharpest regime changes have followed foreign policy and military setbacks.The liberal revolution from above was launched by Alexander II after defeat in the Crimean War (1853–56). The 1905 revolution exploded in the wake of the disastrous Russo-Japanese War. The catastrophe of World War I contributed hugely to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Nikita Khrushchev was ousted in 1964 after the Cuban Missile Crisis retreat in 1962. And Gorbachev’s perestroika was prompted in large measure by the quagmire of the war in Afghanistan (1979–88).
Putin knows his history. He is not (yet) a mad autocrat who believes in his own invincibility. Where he senses the possibility of defeat or a Pyrrhic victory with casualties above what Russians are willing to tolerate, he might begin to adjust his policies. Even Putin’s paragon of decisive and patriotic leadership, Joseph Stalin, intoxicated as he was with his triumph in World War II, abandoned his plans for Soviet-type states in Greece and Northern Iran after the Truman Doctrine was put in place.
Where Putin senses the possibility of defeat or a Pyrrhic victory with casualties above what Russians are willing to tolerate, he might begin to adjust his policies.
Once the strategy of ratcheting up the domestic political costs of Putin’s foreign policy is set, the tactics are not hard to figure out.
For one, no matter what Putin tells international audiences about defeating the Islamic State (ISIS), the key goal of his involvement in Syria has been presented domestically as the restoration of the legitimate government of Assad. As a result, preventing such a “restoration” is the first step toward forcing Putin to make a hard choice: between increasing Russian support for Assad, risking greater Russian casualties and thus raising domestic political costs, or seeking ways to distance himself (gradually and with as little loss of face as possible) from Damascus. This could be accomplished by using drones and cruise missiles to hit the Syrian military’s airfields, bases, and artillery positions where no Russian troops are present, as Obama’s former Middle East adviser Dennis Ross advocated in The New York Times; launching limited U.S. cruise missile strikes to “punish” Assad (as recommended by the Center for American Progress); or by a combination of these and other measures.
In Ukraine, as in Syria, the Kremlin will not stop the war unless domestic political costs begin to rise significantly. Russia’s battlefield superiority over the Ukrainian defenders, as well as its relatively modest casualty count, stem mainly from the deadly effectiveness of its “steel rain” artillery barrages and its dominance in electronic warfare. Sending Ukraine defensive anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, and sophisticated radars to pinpoint Russian artillery and tank positions, as well as bolstering Kiev’s ability to protect its battlefield and government communications against Russian penetration and hacking, could begin to change the current battlefield dynamic. This, like measures in Syria, would force Putin to face a choice between increasing Russian deployment—and thus casualties—or seeking a genuine peace agreement that would restore Ukraine’s sovereignty and control over its borders.
No doubt these measures risk aggravating U.S. relations with Russia and prompting Russian countermeasures. Yet the real strategic choice the United States faces today is no longer between a more activist (and thus, presumably, riskier) policy as advocated, for instance, by Ross or the Center for American Progress, on the one hand, and ostensibly safer policy of greater accommodation of Moscow, as spelled out by, among others, Kissinger Associates Managing Director Thomas Graham and Kennan Center Director Matthew Rojanksy. The choice is between two increasingly dangerous options: confront Putin now or see him emboldened to the point where he attempts to destabilize or even directly invade a member state on NATO’s eastern flank.
The current combination of mild economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure is not enough to change Putin’s foreign policy strategy in the near future. The only way to do so is to degrade his domestic support by increasing his domestic political costs. Where and how to confront, contain, and reverse current Russian foreign policy is less important than recognizing that the ultimate strategic goal is to force Putin to shift the foundation of his regime’s legitimacy from the external to the internal: away from an increasingly risky foreign policy and toward a policy to jump-start Russian economic growth through institutional reforms that would improve the investment climate and decrease tensions with the United States.