The Russia/Ukraine Mess Is More Than Just Putin

A lot of people in the Washington foreign policy establishment are asking a simple question: what is Russian President Vladimir Putin thinking?

Only a select few within Putin's inner sanctum can provide a a good answer to that question, and even then, the answer would be less than definitive. Trying to analyze Putin's motives over the past four months, first in Crimea and now in eastern Ukraine, is about as complicated as determining why North Korea's Kim Jong-un likes NBA star Dennis Rodman so much (I don't see it). Putin's statements seem incongruous with what he is doing on the ground inside of Ukrainian -- on May 7, he claimed to have ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops back from the Ukrainian border only to have White House and Defense Department officials say that was nonsense.

There are, however, a few people in Washington who know a thing or two about Russian politics, Russian behavior in foreign policy, and why Moscow has proved to be so prickly with the United States since Putin resumed the presidency. Thomas Graham, Managing Director of Kissinger Associates and formerly President George W. Bush's top Russian official on the National Security Council, is one of those people. Paul J. Saunders, the Executive Director of the Center for the National Interest and a former Senior Adviser to the Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs during the George W. years, is another.

So when I was kindly extended an invitation by a friend to an event where both were speaking, I trekked my way to the National Interest offices in downtown Washington and jotted down a few notes on what they had to say about the whole U.S.-Russia-Ukraine-EU ordeal. It turns out that a few of the spectators in the room, like Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group and former Reagan national security adviser Bud McFarland, know a thing or do about Russia as well.


Here are the main takeaways that I got from the event:

1: The Obama Administration Is Closing Itself Off From Russia: Both Saunders and Graham were concerned about the Obama administration's response thus far to the Ukrainian crisis, and how the White House has chosen to deal with Russia more broadly. President Obama, Saunders said, is dismantling the very same communication mechanisms that have proved so useful for Washington and Moscow over the past several decades. The United States, for instance, has not had an Ambassador in Moscow since Michael McFaul retired last February, and Russian officials are supposedly not given the same access to their U.S. counterparts that they once received before the crisis in Ukraine broke open. If the U.S. objective is to find a peaceful and durable political resolution to this crisis -- as President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and Deputy National Security Adviser Antony Blinken all claim to want -- then diminishing diplomatic contact with Russian officials may not be the best course of action.

2- The U.S. Needs to Think About What It Wants to Do: Rather than simply managing crises over the short-term, the United States needs to be more organized and realistic when its deals with the Kremlin. Graham strongly advised officials in the White House and State Department to prioritize the issues that are most important for U.S. interests when interacting with the Russians. The U.S. is not going to get everything it wants from Moscow; because of this, there needs to be a trade-off and an arrangement with the Russians that best protects America's core national security interests. This may mean giving up on democratization or anti-corruption measures in favor of the hard-nosed power politics that realists care so much about. This is classic realism: give a little to get a little.

3- Russian Foreign Policy Is Not Just About Putin: The United States must understand that Vladimir Putin is not the all-powerful god that Americans like to portray him. Sure, he's powerful, and he no doubt calls the shots, but he is not the one man single-handedly guiding Russia's interactions with the rest of the world. There seemed to be a general consensus in the room that Russian foreign policy will remain constant even after Putin leaves the presidency (perhaps when he reaches the old age of 90). The style and approach may change, but the underlining rationale of the policy will remain intact. If this analysis proves to be correct, Washington is in for years of headaches, courtesy of Russia.

4- We Know What a Political Solution to the Ukrainian Crisis Looks Like: Any diplomatic resolution that winds down the conflict inside Ukraine must include a variety of pieces in what amounts to a jigsaw puzzle: decentralization of political power to the eastern regions; recognition by the Ukrainian Government of Russian as an official language; short and long-term financial aid from the U.S., EU, IMF, and World Bank to the Ukrainian Government; and enough assurances to Russia that will allow them to sign on to any deal (or at least not obstruct it). Pursue this course, and a settlement has a good chance of being agreed upon by all parties.

5- Germany Is Very, Very Important: The Germans not only have the strongest economy in Europe, but some of the best diplomatic channels that any European nation has to Putin and the Russians. In fact, Germany's economic and diplomatic heft may have been the key to Putin's endorsement of the May 25 Ukrainian presidential elections -- elections that he opposed as illegitimate only a few days prior. Putin's conciliatory statements over the past three days may be directed towards the German public as much as the western public at large. Republicans in the U.S. Senate seem to agree with the basic premise that German cooperation is crucial: a bill that Sen. Bob Corker and his Republican colleagues have proposed includes a provision that would make it U.S. policy to work with the Federal Republic of Germany on anything related to European security. This same bill also establishes a "U.S.-German Global and European Security Working Group," a bilateral forum that would flesh out the details at a high political level (the group would be given $5 million over three fiscal years to do its work).

6- NATO Must Figure Out What It's Mission Is: The NATO alliance has reached a moment of truth: either it continues to act as if its a political union promoting democratic governance and free markets in Europe and Eurasia, or it reverts back to the concept of military deterrence it was originally built for. Combined with NATO's almost complete dependence on the United States for its operating budget, manpower, heavy equipment, intelligence, and forward manpower capabilities, this is only one item on a long list of tough choices that the Alliance has to make.

Will the U.S. heed this advice? Even if it does, we all may still be asking the same question: what is Putin thinking?