Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (C) attend a meeting on Russian air force's activity in Syria at the national defense control centre in Moscow, Russia, November 17, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (C) attend a meeting on Russian air force's activity in Syria at the national defense control centre in Moscow, Russia, November 17, 2015.
Alexei Nikolskyi / Reuters

The attacks by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Paris have forced a major rethinking of U.S. strategy in the Syrian conflict. A part of that rethinking must be U.S. President Barack Obama’s unwise decision to treat Russia as a legitimate partner in negotiations over Syria’s future.

At the G-20 meeting in Turkey this week, Russia quickly offered itself as a key partner in the fight against ISIS and the stabilization of Syria, and Obama again expressed his willingness to entertain that notion.

This is a grave mistake. Rather than being a constructive partner, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been engaged in a proxy war against the United States in Syria, despite Obama’s protestations to the contrary. And when an enemy wages war against the United States, it does not get to choose whether it is at war; its only choice is to win or lose. Right now, the United States is losing the proxy war in Syria—and a wider competition for regional influence—against Russia. And it will continue to do so without a dramatic shift in policy to confront Russian aggression.


In Syria, Putin professes that he wants to fight ISIS, but this is mere posturing. Even with new Russian strikes on ISIS-controlled areas in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks and the downing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, Russian forces have trained the large majority of its bombs on coalition-backed opposition fighters. Putin has also explicitly stated that he wants to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which directly contrasts with stated U.S. policy. Turkey, a NATO ally, has suffered repeated violations of its airspace as Russia pursues its offensive against Syrian opposition forces.

Russia is engaged in a shooting war against the United States’ clients to undermine U.S. policy. If that’s not a proxy war, what is? 

But this proxy war is only the most recent and dramatic front in a wider competition between the United States and Russia. Ukrainians overthrew former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was aligned with Putin, in 2013 and sought to reorient their country toward the West. In short order, Russia invaded Crimea—which it still illegally occupies—and fomented the ongoing civil war in the Donbass. Likewise, Russia illegally occupies the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions in Georgia, one of the most pro-Western countries in Eastern Europe. In fact, Russia has continued to seize more Georgian territory in recent months.

Russia also continues a campaign of provocations against NATO allies in northern and Eastern Europe, threatening their air and naval boundaries and putting civil aviation at risk. Meanwhile, Central and Eastern European countries—who suffered under Soviet domination—report that Russian propaganda in traditional and social media has become pervasive.

Russia has become so emboldened that it does not even demur from direct provocations against the United States. Last month, Russian ships and submarines operated near U.S. undersea data cables and Russian bombers buzzed the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, forcing it to scramble for fighters. And last week, it was revealed by Russian media—perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not—that the Russian military is developing an unmanned underwater vehicle capable of carrying nuclear payloads that is invulnerable to interception. A nuclear attack on U.S. port cities is the only reasonable rationale for such a weapon. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, October 20, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, October 20, 2015.
Alexei Druzhinin / Reuters


Putin may have a weak strategic hand—domestically, he faces demographic collapse and a fragile petro-economy—but he is able to play it well, and is winning. He is escaping his post-Ukraine international isolation, as witnessed during the Vienna talks on Syria and the opening of the United Nations General Assembly this past September. Putin has steadied the Assad regime in Syria, and has established Russia as a powerbroker in the Middle East for the first time since 1973.

Heads of state and ministers from countries as diverse as France, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey have trekked to Moscow for audiences in recent weeks. And Putin continues to consolidate his territorial gains in Ukraine and Georgia. At home, Putin’s popularity remains at near-record highs as his complete control of government institutions and the media enable him to whip up a nationalist frenzy. At the same time, he has continually wrong-footed Western leaders, dividing Europe and the transatlantic alliance in the process. And perhaps richest of all, from Putin’s perspective, is his humiliation of Obama and the United States. This is now, as it was during the Cold War, an end in itself for Russian policy, rather than a byproduct of or a means to achieve other policy goals.


Putin’s aggression serves many of his goals, all of which are antithetical to the United States. Most importantly, Putin wants to restore Russia as a global superpower. This is not surprising from a man who once said “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” A concomitant goal is the disruption of the U.S.-led international order of democratic capitalism. Although Putin lacks a viable ideological alternative, he is content to simply undermine the existing order.

Putin also intends to preserve his grip on power in Russia, and thus wants to stop global regime change in its tracks. Horrified at what he saw in Georgia, Libya, Serbia, and Ukraine, Putin intends to stop this trend before it reaches Moscow. Putin uses aggression and adventurism abroad in order to achieve glory and rally support at home, rather than adopting domestic reforms that would improve Russia’s economy and the lives of its ordinary citizens. 

These goals may drive Putin, but he’s also taken Obama’s measure and has found him to be a leader who is unusually accommodating to Russia’s designs. When Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, then-Senator Obama ludicrously called on both sides—not just Russia—to exercise restraint. As president, Obama declared the “reset” with Russia just months later. In September 2009, he cancelled missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for nothing. He negotiated the New START treaty, which allowed Russia to expand its nuclear forces, while requiring the United States to reduce its own. 

In a hot mic moment, Obama was caught promising then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev “more flexibility” toward Russia after the 2012 U.S. presidential election. In 2013, he jumped at Putin’s lifeline in the form of a framework on ending Syria’s chemical weapons program so that he could avoid enforcing his own red line on intervention.


Little wonder, then, that Putin felt he could spark a proxy war against the United States in Syria with impunity. Obama’s appeasement of Putin has only emboldened him, encouraging him to raise the stakes in Russia’s competition with the United States. But Putin doesn’t speak the language of diplomacy and conciliation; he speaks only the language of strength and force. Thus, only a new policy of across-the-board confrontation can raise the costs for Putin and force him to back down.

First, as always, comes security. With its partners, the United States should establish a no-fly zone and safe haven at least in southern Syria near Israel and Jordan, for which former CIA Director David Petraeus, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—all former Obama cabinet officials—have called. Washington should also increase its support for Syrian opposition forces. 

In Ukraine, the United States should have provided anti-armor and other advanced weapons requested by the government long ago; and it should do so now. The United States should also provide Ukraine with the intelligence it needs to anticipate attacks originating in Russian territory. Some critics of bipartisan calls for increased military assistance to Ukraine say that the Ukrainian army, even with such assistance, could not resist a full-blown Russian invasion alone. This may be true, although it overlooks the substantial defensive lines that Ukraine has built around the Donbass. More importantly, the main point is to deter an invasion, not to defeat it. By raising the costs of further Russian aggression, Washington should seek to change Putin’s calculus about further escalation in Ukraine.

An activist holds a tablet with a picture of the lifeless body of a Russian pilot of a war plane shot down by Turkey, in front of the Turkish embassy in Moscow, Russia, November 24, 2015.
An activist holds a tablet with a picture of the lifeless body of a Russian pilot of a war plane shot down by Turkey, in front of the Turkish embassy in Moscow, Russia, November 24, 2015. 
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters
The United States’ NATO allies need even more assistance. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russian military maneuvers to test NATO’s resolve have become a regular occurrence. Russia performs snap exercises of up to 100,000 troops, and Russian ships and planes aggressively buzz coastlines and capitals. To demonstrate resolve and embolden its allies, NATO should delegate authority to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) to initiate counter-force exercises with the NATO Response Force.

Until recently, SACEUR could only mobilize troops with the consent of all 28 members of NATO. Although newer authorities allow the SACEUR to mobilize NATO troops while a collective decision is forthcoming, this system still puts an unnecessary brake on counter-force exercises that are not a prelude to war. By devolving authority to SACEUR to mobilize exercises, Russia’s provocative maneuvers would invite regular responses. The message to Putin would be clear: NATO is steadfast and will match—if not overmatch—any show of force from Russia.

Alongside these new authorities, NATO should also bolster its assets across the alliance. Sending NATO battalions to each of the Baltic countries would minimize their isolation. Placing a Special Operations Forces detachment in Estonia would help thwart any Russian efforts to destabilize that country. A permanently deployed brigade of armor in Poland would give NATO ground forces significant additional firepower. And permanently basing a squadron of U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter jets in Romania would expand air-planning options for SACEUR. 

Where the permanent presence of U.S. troops is not practicable, Washington should determine which countries should receive additional placement of AEGIS Ashore missile defense batteries and radars. The United States should look to upgrade all current and future AEGIS Ashore batteries to include anti-air warfare capability capable of dealing with intermediate-range weapons, and should also consider the installation of new Patriot missile deployments. Other types of early-warning sensors, missile defense systems, and signals-intelligence posts could also be established. All such efforts would serve to reassure NATO allies and demonstrate that Washington has skin in the game.

The United States must also address Russia’s flagrant violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a bedrock of stability in Europe for nearly three decades. New, non-compliant Russian missiles threaten virtually all of Asia and Europe, particularly if they are stationed in Kaliningrad. U.S. allies may soon have to account for these Russian nuclear capabilities when dealing with—and perhaps making concessions to—the Kremlin.

The Obama administration should stop tip-toeing around Russia’s violations. Most immediately, it should upgrade its capabilities. United States Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has laid out options that include active defenses, counter-force capabilities, and countervailing strike capabilities. All three capabilities warrant a program of record and robust funding in Obama’s 2017 budget request. In the longer term, the United States must begin a sustained diplomatic initiative to explain that it is Putin who wants to vitiate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, as former Secretary of Defense Gates has recently stated. If Putin does not change course soon, the United States will leave the treaty; Washington will never allow our nation to be the only one in the world that refrains from developing a new class of weapons.

In conjunction with these new security measures, the United States must expand its intelligence assistance to Central and Eastern European countries. Let it never be forgotten that Putin was once a KGB spy. Today, he uses a vast network of informants and agents to influence and undermine former Warsaw Pact countries. In fact, Russia spends more on its intelligence services than the entire governmental budgets of a number of former Warsaw Pact members, including Albania, Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, and Latvia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia November 24, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi, Russia November 24, 2015.
Maxim Shipenkov / Reuters
Fortunately, the United States has preeminent counterintelligence capabilities that it can deploy to turn off this spigot of intelligence and influence. Washington should bring vetted members of these countries’ intelligence services to the United States for operational and analytic tradecraft training in an effort to professionalize their services and counteract Russian activities. Congress has signaled that it is ready to work with Obama on this front; together they should move quickly to devote more resources and assertive tactics to this counterintelligence initiative. 

The United States should increase its economic pressure on Putin significantly. Individualized sanctions against regime cronies should reach many more Russian elites, as well as their spouses and children. Furthermore, the United States should enact direct and secondary sanctions against Russia’s energy sector, especially its refining industry, which is antiquated and dependent on a steady flow of spare parts from Western nations. Sanctions affecting other industry sectors should also be seriously considered, with their possibility clearly communicated to the Kremlin and foreign investors alike. Additional sanctions should be given a deterrent quality by making them contingent on destabilizing actions by Russia. For instance, sanctions could extend to individuals and entities involved in Russia’s sale of the S-300 air-defense system to Iran or the inking of new major weapons deals with Assad.

This economic-pressure campaign extends to helping the United States’ regional allies. Many European countries depend heavily on Russia for oil and gas. Thanks to the U.S. energy renaissance, it is now in a position to break Russia’s stranglehold by exporting more oil and liquefied natural gas, if only Congress would cooperate by lifting the oil-export ban and expediting permits for liquefied natural gas facilities. Even if a total repeal of the oil-export ban isn’t in the cards, Congress can strategically lift the ban for bilateral exports to key European allies.

Lastly, the long arm of U.S. law should be deployed against Russia. Russia is rife with official and semi-official corruption that can be exposed and prosecuted. The Department of Justice’s ongoing case against the notoriously corrupt global soccer organization, FIFA, is a good start. Russia is scheduled to host the World Cup in 2018, a winning bid that was almost certainly greased with bribes and kickbacks. The investigation should explore this angle quickly to provide adequate time to move the World Cup elsewhere.

And this investigation should only start the effort to focus prosecutorial resources on Putin’s worldwide corruption racket. Just recently, the World Anti-Doping Agency exposed systemic cheating by Russian athletes, who were helped along by the Russian government in a scheme involving massive fraud and bribery. The world can expect similar wrongdoing to be found in all areas where the Russian government has an interest, from bids to host the Olympic games, to appointments to international chess associations, to the distribution of government contracts. The United States can take the lead in this effort, but Washington must also urge its Western European allies to join in and build the anticorruption and prosecutorial capabilities of the Eastern European countries most vulnerable to Putin and his oligarch cohorts.

Similarly, Congress can craft laws in the tradition of the Helms–Burton Act and the Alien Tort Claims Act to open U.S. courts to victims of Russian aggression, theft, and war crimes. The prospect of costly litigation and reputational harm would discourage private investment in and trade with Russia and illegally occupied territories like Crimea, turning Russia’s own economy of corruption against itself. A multitude of lawsuits against the Kremlin and its cronies will also delegitimize and expose Russia’s brutal tactics in Syria and the Caucasus, which raise the specter of genocide against Sunni Muslims. The face of Putin’s autocratic rule will not look pretty in the harsh light of a U.S. courtroom. 

Finally, assertive diplomacy must be a part of U.S. policy toward Russia. The Department of State should create a new “country-at-risk” designation that would entitle nations under threat from external destabilization to a basket of U.S. and NATO assistance programs, including the intelligence assistance described above. This basket of assistance could also include programs aimed at helping these nations diversify their industrial bases and their sources of energy to be less dependent on trade with Russia. The overall effect of the new designation would signal increased commitment from the United States, and indicate to Putin that any escalation by Russia would automatically invite greater Western engagement.

The United States should also energize its public diplomacy and information strategies. It could take the lead in funding translation services to make Western media available in Russia. The United States needn’t create content. Unlike in Russia, robust debate and diverse viewpoints already exist in U.S. media. The United States simply needs to ensure that this content is disseminated widely in Russia and Eastern Europe to provide a counter-narrative to Russian-controlled media and an example to the Russian people of what free media looks like.

No doubt some will say these policies are unduly provocative. Yet Putin’s provocations have continued unabated for more than seven years. Putin is very consciously challenging the United States and the U.S.-led international order, and is now waging a proxy war against it. It is well past time for the West to recognize his challenge, rise up to it, and move to win the proxy war. Otherwise, Washington may find itself in a genuine war against a nuclear peer.

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