Toothless Gestures Won’t Stop Putin

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There’s no need to wait for the absentee ballots:

Vladimir Putin

has been comfortably elected to his fourth term. With 77% of the vote, the Russian president has little to fear from domestic opponents.

He doesn’t have much to fear from international opponents either, judging from the muted reaction to the chemical-weapons attack on a Russian ex-spy in Salisbury, England. Since

Mr. Putin

attacked the former Soviet republic of Georgia late in the George W. Bush administration, the West’s response to his provocations has resembled the reaction to Japanese aggression in the 1930s: deplore, denounce and disarm.

Mr.

Putin

is unimpressed. So, for that matter, is

Xi Jinping.

America’s incoherent Russia policy is offering China dangerous lessons about what works on the international stage.

The problem is not so much that Western leaders are pusillanimous as that they failed to internalize the dramatic changes in world politics since 2008. As President

Obama

read beautiful speeches about the responsibility to protect, the inviolability of international borders, the arc of justice, and the evils of chemical weapons, the Kantian international order he thought he was upholding yielded to something darker and more Hobbesian.

Disregarding

Mr. Obama’s

noble sentiments, Mr. Putin merrily conquered Crimea, invaded Ukraine’s Donbas region, helped

Bashar Assad

fight one of the ugliest and deadliest campaigns since World War II, regained Russia’s position in the Middle East that

Leonid Brezhnev

had lost for the Soviets in the 1970s, and used the hapless Secretary of State

John Kerry

as a diplomatic punching bag. Meanwhile his agents revived old Cold War networks in Europe, used Russian finance as an instrument of subversive state power, and helped plunge the U.S. into a profound crisis of self-doubt by meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.

It isn’t just Mr. Putin. The trio of revisionist powers includes Russia, China and Iran, along with camp followers like Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea and Syria. Together they have upended the global balance of power.

Now the West faces tough-minded opposition from people who consider massacres in Syria and attempted murders in Salisbury as merely moves on a chessboard.

Don Corleone

has moved into our gated community, and stern letters from the homeowners association won’t make him change his ways. Lectures and symbolic sanctions are worse than useless. What’s needed is a horse’s head in somebody’s bed.

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The Trump administration’s record on Russia is decidedly mixed. But it has come closer to a policy for curbing Mr. Putin’s ambitions over the long term than Mr. Obama’s policies or anything our European allies could do on their own. Raising the military budget, modernizing America’s nuclear forces, and encouraging NATO countries to follow suit are more consequential than all the toothless gestures of disdain and disapproval Europe’s diplomats can muster. And the biggest geopolitical blow the West has struck against Russia since Mr. Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia is something most European elites hate: America’s fracking-driven energy boom.

Still, more must be done. President

Trump,

like his two most recent predecessors, came into office thinking he had a magic formula to charm Mr. Putin. Worse, he has allowed the “Russiagate” controversy to fester, heightening America’s domestic divisions and making Mr. Putin appear stronger than he is.

Mr. Putin does not worry about looking evil, but he can’t afford to seem weak. This provides an opening: Russia is, in fact, much weaker than the West, and there are ways the U.S. can bring this reality home to Mr. Putin, and, more important, the Russian public.

What would that horse’s head under the bedsheets look like? It needn’t involve shedding blood. The U.S. does not need NATO’s permission to negotiate defense treaties with countries Russia cares about, such as its neighbors in the Caucasus. Bringing military and diplomatic pressure to bear in Syria and beyond would leave Russia with deeply unattractive alternatives in the Middle East.

It would be a mistake, however, to personalize the Russia problem.

George Kennan

warned more than 70 years ago that Moscow’s expansionary policy was driven more by its history and culture than by

Marx

ist dogma. Russia without Marx is still Russia; Russia without Putin will not turn into Denmark.

The question is whether the U.S., now divided and distracted, can play a tough game. Does

Mr. Trump

understand that America can’t be great again unless Russia is constrained? Does he understand that a strong stand on Russian aggression is vital to his own political future? Are Democrats serious enough about Russian behavior to support a strong response if the White House proposes it? The stakes are high.

Appeared in the March 20, 2018, print edition.



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