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Change tack: Don’t embolden Putin to continue his charade

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President Donald Trump sees his attempt to build constructive ties with Vladimir Putin and enlist Russia to take on global security challenges as extraordinary. Yet American leaders have been trying to get Putin to manage Russia as a responsible international stakeholder for nearly two decades. Their failures hold a key lesson for the way ahead.

President Trump’s three immediate predecessors thought they could find common ground with Putin.

{mosads}President Barack Obama congratulated himself  and Putin in 2013 for shedding “a Cold War mindset” in order to advance mutual prosperity and security while helping “lead the world to a better place.” Nearly three years later, Obama reflected that he had “invested a lot in good relations with Russia.” Around that same time, we now know Putin’s intelligence officers were installing malware on computers in the U.S. as part of an attack on America’s 2016 presidential election.


President George W. Bush hosted Putin in 2007. There, he described Putin as a “consistent, transparent, and honest” counterpart with whom the United States could work to improve U.S.-Russia relations and address international problems.

President Bill Clinton stood alongside Putin in Moscow in 2000 after the latter first ascended to the presidency in Russia. President Clinton committed the United States to achieving “good, stable” ties with a “strong and prosperous and free” Russia that shared some common interests with the United States.

All three presidents desired a positive relationship with Russia that kept the peace. They all hoped Russia would adopt a useful international role. They thought Putin was a man with whom they could do business and cajole with cooperation toward these ends.

The American investment in Putin has been a disaster. Putin has spent nearly 20 years undermining prospects for positive U.S.-Russia ties, exacerbating existing international problems while generating new ones, and destroying the path to a free and prosperous Russia.

Where have U.S. presidents gone wrong? In short, they did not treat Putin as he is.

Putin sees global affairs as a zero-sum game wherein the United States must lose if Russia is to win. He harbors ambitions that end with a dominant Russia expanding its influence and a weak United States contracting inwards. He is out to secure his own regime and parochial interests at home. He also wants a freer hand to advance a vision for the world that suits his brand of authoritarianism.

Putin has proven adept at feigning interest in cooperation with the United States, on occasion, while at the same time taking steps to target, undermine and dismantle the foundations of America’s freedom, security and prosperity. He views and operates against the United States and its allies as enemies.

Consider Russia’s track record since 2000. Russia has invaded multiple sovereign nations along its border. It continues to illegally occupy territory in Europe, where America has significant economic and security interests. It is positioning itself to threaten the defense of NATO states and partners. It has launched unprecedented attacks in attempts to interfere with the basic functioning of U.S. and allied democratic systems. It has employed information operations that strike at the credibility of fundamentals undergirding the West.

Putin’s Russia has deployed chemical weapons in a targeted attack in England. It has given Iran and North Korea cover for pursuing weapons of mass destruction programs. It supports Taliban forces fighting the United States in Afghanistan, while its Syria campaign empowers al Qaeda and Iran. It has developed advanced weapons in violation of treaty obligations. It has used energy and military industry resources as geopolitical weapons aimed at U.S. allies and partners.  

These are not random or isolated acts. They represent the lengths to which Putin and a revisionist Russia will go to upend order in pursuit of their malign aims.

President Trump has met with Putin three times and had numerous phone calls with him. Throughout these engagements, including in Helsinki, President Trump expressed his desire to improve relations with Russia and find ways to cooperate with Putin for the sake of peace.

The threat now is that Putin will be further emboldened by the perception that he can continue the charade with another American president. President Trump does not have to end up where his predecessors did. But he must change tack.

The president should adopt a simple maxim in dealing with Putin: confront, do not conjoin. Confronting Putin’s aggression will require President Trump to convince his adversary — in both word and deed — of the following. The United States will not relinquish its leadership role in the world. The United States will always maintain an overwhelming military advantage and Russia will lose any arms race. The United States will defend itself, its allies and its partners against Russian assaults. The United States will ensure that a hostile Russia faces serious, debilitating costs for its adventurism.

These principles must animate U.S. policy decisions. President Trump cannot cede the future of the Middle East — a region where vital American interests are at stake — to Putin. He must continue rebuilding and modernizing America’s defense capabilities. He must neutralize the effects of Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. He must eschew “arms control” agreements that constrain the United States and favor Russian objectives. He must continue enhancing deterrence against Russian warfare in Europe. He must increase sanctions pressure limiting Putin’s access to resources. He must protect the institutions that anchor free societies.

President Trump still has at least another two-and-a-half years to deal with Putin and his regime. Planning is under way for the next meeting. We know what the same old approach will bring. A shot at a different outcome must start with the president taking a marked, consistent departure from his predecessors’ dealings with Putin.

Maseh Zarif is the director of external relations at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. He previously served as an adviser to the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives on national security and foreign policy affairs. Follow him on Twitter @masehz.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump Foreign policy of Vladimir Putin Russia under Vladimir Putin Russia–United States relations Vladimir Putin

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