The Administration seems to be of two minds regarding Vladimir Putin. One camp sees him as a Russian strongman we can work with. Another views him as a menace that, if ignored, will eventually fade away. Neither camp has been able to prevail, the result: policy paralysis, a stalemate unlikely to be broken until the next president moves into the Oval Office.
The new president, willingly or not, cannot afford to let the current ambivalence prevail for another four years. He or she will have to take Moscow seriously and develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with Putin.
At that point, Putin will have big problems. While his dominance over the Russian state might linger for some time, his capacity to make a mess on the world stage will rapidly shrink.
There is a thread of the American polity that finds Putin palatable. Brad Stapleton, a visiting fellow at CATO, argues that the U.S. ought to engage the Russian leader “to convince Putin that Russia has more to gain through cooperation rather than confrontation with the West.” And a recent Foreign Affairs survey of experts found that most respondents felt Washington should be working with Moscow to address ISIS and the quagmire in Syria.
Arguments for this realpolitik approach bump up against a long list of bad behavior from Putin. He has led Moscow to gobble up parts of Georgia and Ukraine, support the unsavory Assad regime in Syria, use energy blackmail on Europe, and launch an aggressive “soft power” campaign that includes everything from bribes to disinformation. It is really hard to paint Putin and company as good guys.
Following the spectacular failure of the Administration’s much-ballyhooed “Russian reset” and reversals on so many foreign policy fronts, the White House has little appetite for trying to cozy-up to the Kremlin again. On the other hand, it has no appetite for bumping heads. Instead, the president and his team mostly settle for publicly chastising Putin. Aside from sitting on the sanctions imposed after the outbreak of the war in the Ukraine, they’ve done little other than talk.
Rumors of the administration preparing a new Russian strategy have banged around Capitol Hill for months, if not years, but its publication seems nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, Pentagon grumblings over American inertia are getting louder.
But even if the government rolled out a plan tomorrow, it probably wouldn’t make much of difference. New pronouncements from this president with little more than a year left in office wouldn’t carry much weight in Moscow or other world capitals.
That sets the stage for the next administration, which will have to have a serious plan for dealing with Putin. The U.S. has significant interests at risk in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and Putin has increasingly thick fingers in all those pies.
What is not needed is strategy that looks like Cold War redux. This is not Round 2 of a superpower struggle.
But a real strategy must get to the core of what makes Putin a problem—and that’s his ability to mess with Europe. The next White House must make Moscow’s meddling largely irrelevant to the peace, prosperity, and freedom of the transatlantic community.
There are three main pieces to a substantive plan. It starts with a robust, free-market U.S. energy policy. That has to be paired with serious efforts to rollback Russian soft power, countering its plentiful propaganda and exposing its corruptive practices which destabilize other regions and nations. And, of course, the U.S. needs to demonstrate its resolve to defend the transatlantic community—that includes everything from invigorating our nuclear modernization and missile defense programs to rebuilding the U.S. troop presence in Europe.
This is not a strategy about restoring the American uni-polar moment (if there ever was one). This is about putting a petty dictator in his place.
This piece was first published by Forbes. Read the original and more at http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamescarafano/2015/12/10/putins-days-are-numbered/