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America needs policies toward Russia that have sharper edges

America needs policies toward Russia that have sharper edges
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Now is not the time for one more reset of our policies toward Russia, but rather the adoption of a robust and reinvigorated strategy. Our approach for Moscow needs to be one that leverages all elements of United States national power and international alliances, while also entirely unafraid of directly confronting Vladimir Putin and his inner circle.

These differences Washington has with Moscow are with the kleptocracy, not the people of Russia. This distinction matters. We can appreciate the culture and history of Russia, and still disagree with the regime. Treating them as one and the same only strengthens the Kremlin.

We must realize that Russia under Putin is not a formidable giant. There is certainly the debate as to whether he is more of a political actor or better responsive to operational developments. In all likelihood, he is pursuing a concerted strategy and attempting to shape the environment, and taking the opportunities created by events on the ground. Regardless, it is in the interests of the United States to approach his behavior simply as it is, and not allow paranoia or conspiracy to guide our strategy.

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Putin views Russia as a great power and believes the west should treat it as such. Even were it to receive that recognition, Moscow could still seek to weaken and undermine the west. He wants to undermine alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, as Putin fears their solidarity threatens the sovereignty of Russia.

Yet Moscow is not a monolithic actor. It has competing bases, diverging interests, and in many ways resembles the Soviet Union power structure than appears at first glance. This is where Putin uses his internal everage and influence to great effect. He creates the outcomes he desires, bends structures to his ends, and plays groups off one another.

Confronting Putin will not take another reset, but rather a strategy with sharper edges. Washington has to be prepared to carry out the conflict with Moscow covertly across the intelligence community, which is very much a “take the gloves off” moment. Our leaders must not be afraid to exploit schisms inside the regime or to establish new ones. Naming and shaming, pointing out the wealth of Putin and his cronies, and revealing private conversations or relationships must be on the table.

The only rules by which we must abide is American law. Beyond that, the intelligence community must be authorized to take the fight to Russia as was done for the Cold War. It means countering its activity, damaging its interests, and shaping environments hostile and resistant to its inroads. If Wagner Group forces are truly disconnected from the Kremlin, then they are fair game for Syria. If any oligarchs abuse our financial institutions to launder their money, those access points must be closed and the assets frozen. If Moscow exploits differences among our alliances, Washington must be unafraid to do the same to the relations of Russia.

Diplomacy toward Moscow must move beyond consultations. We have to take on our more muscular posture. This is not about better conveying our positions. It is about bolstering the people of Russia with our support and assistance even if it is one step removed to ensure domestic protection. It is about highlighting the disparities and contradictions from the practices and behaviors of Moscow. This means getting foreign service officers out of the embassy and into the country. If our diplomats are harassed, some similar expulsions of diplomats from Russia should occur.

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Our alliances must also be reinvigorated. We must listen to our partners and their positions, and be prepared for discord over Russia. What they bring to confront Putin is not based solely on defense. Energy politics is also a real threat, and we must work to support the countries subject to Moscow turning off the oil and gas taps. We must stand with Berlin and Paris when they condemn the poisoning of Russia critics such as Alexei Navalny, which the current administration has yet to do. We should also back our Scandinavian partners against measures of force.

Our strategy toward Russia must not be only escalatory. There must be off ramps for better behavior and incentives like there are many punishments and disincentives. Sanctions provide nothing but punitive measures. Tying the removal of sanctions, or showing restraint in adding more, to concrete actions offers key incentives for better behavior. Putin is not going to lead forever, and we must set conditions for the country after his era. If Russia wants to be treated like a great power, it must realize that there are great power stakes, great power rules, and great power sacrifices.

Joshua Huminski is director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs for the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.