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Obama and Russia

David Satter

One of the most serious challenges facing Barack Obama will be finding a way to keep an aggressive Russia under control.

Internal developments in Russia are extremely worrying. The Russian economy is beginning to unravel under the impact of collapsing oil prices, and changes to the Russian Constitution are planned that will probably return Vladimir Putin to office and make him president for life. At the same time, Russia is threatening to target American anti-missile installations in Eastern Europe with short-range missiles and, more important, to interfere with them electronically, which is unquestionably the action of a hostile power.

Under these circumstances, President Obama, in dealing with Russia, must try to avoid traditional American mistakes. In most cases, the learning curve for an American president in relation to Russia takes up his entire term in office. Obama may not have that luxury. The following are some basic principles for dealing with Russia that can help to cut the learning period short.

  1. Don’t treat the Russian leader as a “friend.” U.S. policy toward Russia must be based on principles, not personalities. It is not possible to “charm” Russian leaders into ignoring what they regard as Russia’s national interest, and the attempt to do so at the expense of our principles will destroy our moral capital with the Russian people. Under President Clinton, the emphasis on Boris Yeltsin as the symbol of “democracy” led the U.S. to ignore Russia’s complete criminalization—and to become complicit in it, in the eyes of Russians. President Bush’s supposed friendship with Putin freed Putin to build an authoritarian regime and pursue a genocidal war in Chechnya without fear of U.S. political pressure or moral censure.
  2. Don’t assume sincerity. The moral standards Russians cite in political situations don’t actually concern them. They defended the right of the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians to secede from Georgia but leveled Grozny when it was a question of Chechnya trying to secede from Russia. They denounce the U.S. anti-ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe while facilitating the threat from Iran against which the systems are intended to defend. As for the passionate denunciations of Western encirclement, Russians understand that NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine poses no military threat but are loath to give their real reason for opposition—which is that the example of democracy in former Soviet republics could inspire demands for democracy in Russia itself. For seven decades, the need to feign belief in Soviet ideology turned Russia into a nation of actors. President Obama should keep this in mind when confronted with Russian “outrage” over some aspect of Western behavior.
  3. Don’t treat Russia’s national interests and the interests of its rulers as identical. Russia’s core geopolitical interests are identical to those of the U.S. Like the U.S., Russia is threatened by the rising power of China, Islamic fanaticism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Cooperation with the West, however, is not in the interests of the small group that monopolize Russia’s power and wealth. Fearing their own people, they require not friends but enemies. Only with the help of real or imagined enemies can they distract ordinary Russians from the massive corruption that is all around them and organize support for an authoritarian regime. Unfortunately, the enemy of choice is the U.S.
  4. Don’t listen to “realists.” Self-described “realists” have suggested that Russia be given a free hand in the former Soviet republics in return for cooperation on issues that are vital to U.S. and Western security. This call to make a “deal,” in addition to its blatant immorality, ignores the fact that it makes sense to reach an understanding only with those who will keep their side of the bargain. The fact that the Russians are seeking to deny the former Soviet republics their rights as sovereign nations is all the indication one needs that an unenforceable “gentleman’s agreement” to cooperate with the West will be violated the minute it ceases to be to Russia’s advantage. The rejection of a moral framework for relations, meanwhile, will set the stage and help provide the justification for new and more outrageous Russian demands in the future.
  5. Base policy on fundamental values. The U.S. needs to defend decent values in its relations with Russia. This means taking a strong stand on such issues as political assassinations (both inside and outside Russia), the squandering of innocent life in hostage situations and the right of former Soviet republics to make their own alliances. Russian leaders try to convince their citizens and themselves that Western leaders have no principles. This is a dangerous illusion because it encourages aggression. The world cannot afford a new round of Russian-inspired conflict. But only if Russia is convinced that the West has principles and is ready to defend them will it hesitate to use force in any situation in which it feels that force can be effective. Defending our principles, because it encourages restraint, is also in Russia’s long-term interest. It is the only way to preserve the possibility that Russia will one day take its deserved place as a part of the Western world.

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