Dealing with Russia: Bringing the outlaw state to justice
Over the summer, the Kremlin has poisoned Alexei Navalny, beaten up and incarcerated other dissidents, stonewalled any progress on negotiations over its invasion of Ukraine, made nuclear threats and probed NATO allies within their air spaces and territorial waters and stepped up its cyber war against the U.S. and Europe. This last action can be seen in its intensified efforts to intervene in the U.S. presidential election. Indeed, Russia is so heavily invested in President Trump’s victory that Russian English language media is running articles using tropes and memes coming out of the Trump campaign. Yet Moscow has committed all of these acts with remarkable impunity.
Undoubtedly, it continues to act like an outlaw state because there is no posse or marshal to bring it to justice. But such a reckoning is long overdue and decidedly in Western interests. Western attempts to refrain from acting in Belarus and, in effect, appease the Kremlin have predictably failed. Russia has taken over Belarus’s media. Its troop are exercising with Belarusian forces on the frontier with Poland, and there are reports of Russian paratroops in Belarus. Moscow also has announced a standby reserve ready to enter Belarus if necessary. And, despite the lack of Western intervention, Russia, many of whose elites believes that Belarus is not really an independent state, is demanding that the U.S. and Europe refrain from “intervening” as it has.
Thus, it does no good to say, as has German Chancellor Angela Merkel, that the next step is up to Russia and that “the world will wait” for Russia’s answer. That demand is tantamount to waiting for Godot.
Instead, we would do well to recognize, as has Norbert Roettgen, head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, “In this context diplomatic rituals are no longer enough.” Indeed, Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, stated that this episode signified the end of the German idea of strategic partnership with Russia.
The U.S. too has been far too passive about Belarus, Russian interference in our elections and the Navalny poisoning. President Trump’s obsession with not reporting intelligence about interference is well known, but Russia’s outlaw-like behavior creates a situation that cries out for significant reprisals against its actions. Indeed, pressure is building from Congress and in Europe on Germany to terminate the Nord Stream II gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that would then ship gas to Germany and throughout Central Europe. This pipeline, as many have argued, would only facilitate Russian efforts to use gas as a weapon to subvert German and Central European institutions while raking in huge sums of money.
This is the least that should be done because all of these actions are only part of Russia’s long-term war against the West and its own people. Even stronger punishments and sanctions should also be considered, such as intensifying practical military and other forms of support for Ukraine.
Russia has hitherto behaved in this fashion because it has paid little or no price for it. Russian President Vladimir Putin and those around him repeatedly make clear their contempt for Europe and their belief that while Europe is decadent and weak, Russia is “rising from its knees” under his leadership. Yet at the same time, all these figures hide large sums of money in the West, buy expensive real estate there and send their children to be educated there. They know that neither they, nor their money, nor their families are safe in Putin’s Russia and that also includes Putin, much of whose money is in Switzerland, according to the Panama Papers.
Despite supposed “expert” analyses that it was not in Putin’s interest to poison Navalny, the revelation of the use again of Novichok, a chemical used in 2018 to poison a defecting spy and his family, and that killed innocent Britons in 2018, shows that these killings and other outlaw-like behavior are ordered from the top. As Sergei Pugachev, one of Putin’s former close confidants who fled Russia, noted, “Everything that belongs to the territory of the Russian Federation, Putin considers to be his.” Thus we are dealing with both the classic patrimonial Muscovite autocracy with an imperial vocation and a state resembling a criminal syndicate.
Clearly, appeasing this behavior will not work, for it only confirms the Kremlin’s assessment of Western weakness and its own strength. Appeasement merely perpetuates the belief that Russia can act this way because it incurs no cost for doing so and can thereby demonstrate its superiority to foreign and domestic audiences.
Therefore, terminating Nord Stream II and hitting Putin and his entourage in the pocketbook by imposing even more draconian sanctions than now exist is in not only our interests but those of our allies and the cause of international order. It does not suffice merely to recognize evil, give the malefactors another lecture and revert back to business as normal. For, as the evidence of Russian behavior shows, there is no normal or usual in business with Russia.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is also a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.
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