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How Not to Bring Putin to His Knees

Upset with the invasion of Crimea and Russian sabre-rattling, President Obama announced he will pump up NATO, at least in those countries bordering Russia, and Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Russia to go no farther. With all due respect to both Obama and Kerry, they are going about it all wrong.

Here’s a modest proposal: First of all, Russia’s economy has been stagnating. Rather than threaten sanctions, it would be wiser to offer economic incentives—perhaps offering Russia $7 billion dollars in immediate financial relief over the next six months or so. Businesses might then continue to encourage Moscow to rejoin the international community by offering new investments that would effectively double that cash infusion.

Obama also errs with tough rhetoric toward Russia. Whatever his frustration at Putin’s behavior, it’s important to treat the Russian people with respect, and that means their democratically elected leader. Rather than condemn the Kremlin, Obama should offer an outstretched hand and ask Putin to unclench his fist.

The Russian military is formidable, and we must recognize Russian rights in the region. It is clear they see U.S. military deployments as a provocation, and so perhaps it is time to cut back naval deployments in and around Russia. If Russian forces shadow or swarm American ships, the best course of action would be simply to withdrawal those American ships in order to resolve any misunderstandings. After all, Russia has never acted aggressively toward any neighboring state, unless of course, its interested dictated it needed to act in such a way. It’s also important to consider that, even if Russia maintains links to separatist groups in Abkhazia, Ossetia, or Crimea, in each case people there act autonomously. Many states bordering Russia act irrationally, and so as we push forward with our diplomacy, it’s important to keep allies like Poland, Georgia, and Estonia in the dark.

Greater people-to-people exchanges might also encourage better understanding. Perhaps having the State Department pay to send U.S. sports teams over to Russia would pay dividends. They might also send scientists who could attend conferences there. Retired diplomats like Thomas Pickering might continue Track II exchanges, and write about how to conduct diplomacy in the New York Review of Books. We’ve got to be mindful of our rhetoric. No matter how often Putin and his Kremlin minions ridicule or condemn the United States, it is important that we recognize that to call Putin ‘evil’ will only justify his actions further.

Setting the right agenda for talks is also crucial. Worrying about Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missile program will hamper the important business of diplomacy, and so Obama should leave that completely off the table. Nor, if Russia works on nuclear warhead triggers, should Obama worry. Indeed, if international agencies appear ready to report Russian misbehavior, it would be ideal to encourage them to keep such findings under wraps in order to enable diplomacy to succeed. Likewise, as we create a framework with Russia, it is best to keep that preliminary deal secret so that if Russia cheats a little, Congress won’t use that in a way that could hamper further dialogue and diplomacy.

You might think such advice may sound both silly and fantastic. And you’d be right. Under no circumstances, would such a soft approach convince Putin to change his behavior.

Perhaps then it’s worth asking why Obama, Kerry, the State Department, and so many journalists and academics endorse such a ridiculous strategy as the proper course of action to resolve the Iranian challenge.


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