April 28, 2014 / 3:00 PM / 5 years ago

U.S. v Russia: Searching for Kennan

Nina Khrushcheva

No matter how counterintuitive it may seem, Washington needs to stop lecturing Russian President Vladimir Putin if it wants to resolve problems with him.

In George Kennan’s celebrated 1946 “long telegram,” the diplomat and scholar explained why Russia’s conduct was so often duplicitous. Kennan might well have been writing about Putin when he laid out the West’s problems with the Kremlin leaders’ behavior. Being annoyed with them wouldn’t help, Kennan advised, since their conduct was based on a fierce Russian nationalism complicated by a serious streak of insecurity about Moscow’s position in the world, evident whenever Joseph Stalin felt the Soviet Union was not receiving the respect he believed it was due.

We see this pattern in Putin’s conduct today. He insists that the United States “treats Russia like the uninvited guest at a party,” freely interfering in his country’s affairs, which he won’t tolerate — no matter the cost. Confronted with his outright hostility, the West seems at a loss as to how to deal with the bellicose Kremlin.

The United States is incensed that Putin is lying to achieve his goals. The most recent example, and a masterful exercise of ad hoc logic, is Putin’s claim that Russia’s annexation of Crimea last month has been justified by Ukraine’s renewed military actions against the pro-Russian militants in the its eastern regions.

The Crimeans, Putin said, “otherwise would have witnessed the same events as eastern Ukraine and surely even worse… If Russia had not rendered real support…, it would have been impossible to organize a civilized process of the expression of people’s will there.”

Pro-Russian masked militias running around with guns and taking over buildings is a civilized process! Move over another George Orwell. But understanding that Russia is a propaganda state is not to going to solve the crisis. The United States still seems to think that shaming Putin will somehow make him suddenly change his mind. President Barack Obama, speaking from Japan during his trip to Asia, accused Putin of failing to abide by “the sprit or the letter” of the week-old Geneva agreement to de-escalate the Ukrainian crisis.

Vice President Joe Biden was even tougher during his recent Kiev trip. Russia, he said, must “stop talking and start acting.”

In Putin’s view, however, it is the West that doesn’t abide by the agreement. The more Biden promises financial support to Kiev’s elections, scheduled for May 25, the more he confirms Putin’s conviction of U.S. meddling. If Washington announces it’s going to influence votes, why can’t the “green men” — suspected Russian militants who foster pro-Russia attitudes in the Ukrainian east — in Donetsk, Lugansk or Kharkiv? If the Kiev government can’t get rid of its own radicals — like the nationalist political group the Right Sector, which is still occupying buildings on the Maidan — why does the Kremlin need to call its own radicals to surrender?

The United States, Putin insists, continually advances its own agenda — “using slogans of spreading democracy… to gain unilateral advantages and ensure their own interests.” During his 15 years in power, he can cite the invasion of Iraq, widespread National Security Agency spying and the U.S. drone program. Why can’t Russia pursue its own interests in the same way?

Washington rejects Putin’s thinking, for a number of reasons. For starters, it could return the world to the pre-1991 Cold War dynamic, when two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, faced off. To circumvent this situation, the White House mistakenly treats the Ukrainian crisis as if it could be resolved in a matter of days, at most months. It’s as if a tee ball team were going up against hardball pros, pretending they are all paying the same game.

It could be years, however, before Putin leaves the Kremlin, so the United States needs to decide now on its short- and long-term objectives.

Obama may insist that Russia is nothing more than a regional power. But wishfully limiting Moscow’s influence doesn’t make Moscow less capable of wreaking havoc around the world.

Consider: In the last year, Russian military spending went up almost 5 percent, while global defense spending overall declined.

If Russia were only a regional power, it could be contained. The West would be able to isolate it, as Iran has been since the 1979 Iranian revolution, as well as North Korea.

All Russian international financial accounts and businesses could be frozen, for example, and Russians’ travel to Europe banned. This economic isolation might push Russians to take care of Putin on their own.

Yet, as has proved true with the Iranian government, convincing Russians to turn against the Kremlin may not be easy. Not because they necessarily support Putin’s policies — his current nationalist popularity over Crimea’s annexation is unlikely to last — but because national pride and support of the government usually flares up when other nations try to undermine it.

A larger problem for Washington is that Europe has been inconsistent in its efforts to sanction Putin. Russia and the European Union remain key trading partners, with Moscow supplying at least 25 percent of the continent’s oil and gas.  So the European Union is worried about pressing Moscow too hard.

For the short term, Washington has been unable to convince the EU to uniformly enforce tough, targeted sanctions — not only against select Russian businesses and people, but also against whole economic sectors, such as energy or trade. It such sanctions were passed, the argument goes, the resulting jittery Russian markets could restrain Putin’s appetite for more of Ukrainian territory.

In addition, far more North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces could be tethered closely to Eastern European and Baltic countries to balance against the roughly 40,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian eastern border.

The White House, however, is wrong to assume that the May 25 Ukrainian presidential election, economic sanctions or even beefed up NATO forces will force Putin’s into existential retreat. Like so many Russian leaders before him, Putin is determined to be recognized as a world power by any means necessary — whether that means destabilizing Ukraine, or any other country, through military threats, oil and gas price manipulation or using his veto power on the United Nations Security Council.

I was Kennan’s last research assistant at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. We talked a great deal about the U.S. role in the world. Though he had designed the  U.S. containment policy against Russia — neither full appeasement nor total regime change — Kennan always insisted that the greatest American strength is when it exercises “the power of example.” He regularly cited Washington’s crucial ability to project a positive image to the rest of the world.

The problem today is that many nations don’t see the U.S. worldview as positive and sunny. Though Russians are unlikely to support Putin in his Ukrainian adventure for the long term, they don’t want to be lectured by the United States either.

Obama, even while engaged in his historic visit to Asia, couldn’t avoid addressing his Russia stand-off. I suggest he reread Kennan,  for it is clear that Putin, like Soviet leaders of old, wants to be acknowledged and respected.

Even though Putin is now saying he does not want to talk with the West, why doesn’t Obama visit Moscow for a frank man-to-man conversation? They can discuss mutual — or competing — geopolitical interests, or even mistakes.

For the sake of all other nervous nations on the Russian periphery, it’s a policy worth trying.

PHOTO (TOP): President Barack Obama meets with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Los Cabos, Mexico, June 18, 2012. The leaders are in Los Cabos to attend the G20 summit. REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (INSERT 1): George Kennan, 1947. WIKIMEDIA/Commons

Slideshow (5 Images)

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a live broadcast nationwide phone-in, in Moscow, April 17, 2014. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

PHOTO (INSERT 3): A barricade is set up in front of the seized office of the SBU state security service in Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, April 10, 2014. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

PHOTO (INSERT 4): President Barack Obama speaks about the crisis in Ukraine from the White House in Washington, March 17, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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