Can we all agree that Vladimir Putin is no friend of the West?
That much should be obvious after his encroachments into Ukraine back in 2014 and Georgia in 2008, his country’s unceasing cyber-attacks on the United States, and his gaming of the recent ceasefire in Syria to bomb a U.N. aid convoy. On that last one, the Russians say they aren’t responsible, a claim believed by precisely no one and rightly so. For Moscow, diplomacy is often just a vehicle for deception in the pursuit of its objectives, and too often the target of that deception is the United States.
This has led to discontentment within the Obama administration, where some are worried President Obama isn’t doing enough to challenge Putin. On Thursday, anonymous officials vented their frustration to the Daily Beast, most of them likely from the State Department (the military remains far more skeptical of another intervention). “Of course we are concerned about how far Russia will go,” one of them said. “And just as worrisome is what this is doing to U.S. credibility.”
A far more important test than “credibility” is whether getting rougher with Putin serves our national interests. So does it? Let’s acknowledge that it does in at least one area: cyber-security. The Russians have been relentless in their hacking attempts, and with some success, penetrating computers at the Pentagon, voter databases, and political party servers. This is a pattern, an alarming one, yet the White House’s response has been to tiptoe through the tulips, with homeland security advisor Lisa Monaco acknowledging in July that “we have to be very clear we will respond,” but only to a really serious cyber-attack.
That doesn’t quite cut it. It’s well within our national interests to guard against malicious hackers, and with so much information online, the government needs to do more to ensure our privacy against Russian snoops. And if these hacks really aren’t being coordinated with the Kremlin (highly unlikely), then Putin needs to crack down on them.
The problem is most Washington officials who want a more belligerent approach to Putin aren’t primarily concerned with cyber-security; their real hang-up is Syria and its labyrinthine civil war that’s seen America side with the rebels, Russia side with the regime, and both countries inch towards each other before pushing apart again like matching magnet poles. “Anyone who thinks ISIS can be defeated without solving the failed state in Syria is ignoring the last 25 years of American foreign policy,” one official told the Beast.
It’s true that the anarchy in Syria has provided ISIS with a major opening. But problems abound with that anonymous quote: (1) the Syrian Civil War isn’t a Rubik’s Cube that can be “solved,” but rather a competing mess of factions with interests running perpendicular to our own; (2) even if Syria could be wrapped up, it wouldn’t be worth the resulting risk of a conflict with Russia that could escalate into a greater war; and (3) even if it was worth risking war, all the solutions on the table still involve arming the Syrian rebellion, which is shot through with jihadists.
Let me be bold here and suggest that starting a war with Russia and running guns to al-Qaeda are not within our national interest.
What’s needed now is not more prodding in Syria, where Putin may very well become trapped in his own Vietnam, nor escalation in Ukraine, but rather a resolution to learn from history. Putin is personally responsible for his nation’s conduct, yes, but one factor that rallies his countrymen behind his reckless actions was the expansion of NATO eastwards during the 2000s, done against the Kremlin’s wishes. Major geopolitical decisions like this must be made with Moscow in mind—not because of any fear or wish to capitulate to a defiant adversary, but rather because Russia, however corrosive it can be, is an international player and a regional power. This is simply a reality check. American policy must accept and work with the world as it exists, rather than how they imagine it might be.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that the Russian bear’s claws aren’t as sharp as we might think. In our post-Cold War world, economic power has begun to eclipse military power, something China understands and Russia does not. The Russian economy is in the doldrums, having contracted in every quarter since summer 2014. This comes courtesy of “drill, baby, drill” fracking, which turned America into a petro-power at gas-rich Russia’s expense. It’s also thanks to Western sanctions passed after the annexation of Crimea, which—while they haven’t exactly devastated the Russian economy—have left their mark.
And that’s the final point to be made. Why won’t the United States stand up to Russia? The answer is that we already have, and are.