Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin's Regime

Table of Contents






Chapter Four: THE RESET

Chapter Five: RESET? WHAT RESET?



About the Author

© 2017 The Arizona Board of Regents on behalf of Arizona State University and its McCain Institute for International Leadership. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted by any means without permission in writing from the McCain Institute, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in news articles or reviews. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the McCain Institute or Arizona State University.

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Few bilateral relationships over the years have generated more debate and controversy than the one between the United States and Russia. The end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union gave many Americans and many Russians hope that better days were ahead. Ups and downs during the Boris Yeltsin years in the 1990s, however, were followed by the emergence of an unknown leader in Russia, Vladimir Putin, and uncertainty about the future of the relationship.

Named prime minister in 1999 and tapped to succeed Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000, Putin represented a sharp contrast from his predecessor: a young, sober, decisive leader who was determined to restore law and order within Russia, and Russia’s sense of pride and place on the global stage. Russians and Americans alike had great hopes. Putin was aided significantly by a sharply rising price of oil, which fueled Russia’s economic recovery, as well as his early takeover of nationwide television. His ability to control the means by which Russians got their news and information and the improvement in Russians’ standard of living established Vladimir Putin as the new Russian strongman.

Even as he succeeded to a degree in restoring Russian national pride, Putin also oversaw a vast crackdown on human rights inside Russia, launched military invasions against Russia’s neighbors, broke away parts of their territory, and became extraordinarily aggressive in launching cyber-attacks against western countries, including seeking to influence the U.S. presidential election in 2016. Putin’s actions made the much wished-for improvement in Russia’s relations with the West an impossibility, and instead ushered in the worst relationship between Russia and the West, and the United States in particular, in more than a quarter of a century.

Every American president since Putin’s rise to power has tried to work together with Russia. President George W. Bush launched a strategic dialogue that lasted right up until Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. Without any movement from Putin, President Barack Obama launched a “reset” with Russia that lasted until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Both presidents saw the bilateral relationship with Russia at the end of their terms in much worse shape than when they started. President Donald Trump entered office in 2017 also ready to improve the dynamics with Russia. But has Russia changed in such a way that would permit a better relationship with the United States? Early indications are, in fact, the opposite – even in the short time since President Trump took office, Russia has buzzed U.S. navy vessels in the Baltic Sea, ramped up fighting inside Ukraine, and allowed Syria to launch chemical weapons attacks from a Russian-controlled military base.

David J. Kramer’s book looks at the long sweep of U.S.-Russia relations and concludes that Putin’s leadership in the Kremlin makes an improvement in relations impossible. Indeed, the maintenance of an adversarial relationship with the West – and particularly the United States – is essential to Putin’s retaining his grip on power. He needs to perpetuate the myth that the West, NATO, the European Union – and the United States especially – pose a threat to Russia. This means that Putin’s Russia shares very few interests with the United States and certainly does not share the same values. That suggests that overtures by any American administration to improve relations will be seen as weakness and met with derision and opportunism.

Kramer draws upon a wealth of experience, both in and out of government. We worked together in the U.S. Department of State, where as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, Kramer had responsibility for policy toward Russia and Ukraine for nearly three years. Both before and after serving in government, Kramer has followed Russia closely, and led efforts in the NGO community to analyze trends in Russia and recommend courses of U.S. policy action. It was during his time at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, as Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy (2014-2017) that Kramer put together his reflections on Russia and wrote this book.

Consistent with the mission of the McCain Institute, Kramer takes a values-based approach to analyzing the situation in Russia and the challenges Putin poses for the United States and others. He does not mince words in his critical assessment of Putin’s leadership. Nor does he pull punches in reviewing mistakes made by both Republican and Democrat administrations. Just as importantly, he lays out a way forward that calls for a tough approach in dealing with Putin’s policies, while holding out hope for engagement with the Russian people.

Kramer’s book is both timely and insightful. It is must reading for those in government and for those who seek to understand more deeply the dynamics in U.S.-Russian relations. For U.S. policymakers, there are lessons to be learned from this book, mistakes not to be repeated, and well-argued recommendations worthy of serious consideration. As the Trump Administration becomes more firmly established, this book should generate intensive debate about the best way to approach this most challenging and dangerous relationship for the United States – the relationship with Putin’s Russia.


Kurt Volker

Executive Director, the McCain Institute for International Leadership

June 2017

Chapter 1:


Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, relations between Russia and the United States have gone through major ups and downs. By the end of the Obama administration, they reached low ebb, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the imposition of Western sanctions in response to that act of aggression, Russia’s military intervention in Syria, and Russian hacking aimed at interfering in the U.S. presidential election. With the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 have come many questions about the future of the relationship.

Will U.S.-Russia relations bounce back from their post-Cold War low point? Will newly-elected President Trump pursue a better relationship with Putin through cooperation with Moscow in the fight against ISIS or further reductions in nuclear weapons? Will Trump and longtime Russian President Vladimir Putin strike some kind of grand bargain? If so, what does that mean for Ukraine, Georgia and other countries along Russia’s borders? Will they be consigned to a Russian sphere of influence? Will the United States speak out amid the ongoing and ugly crackdown on human rights in Russia? Will the Trump administration reassure NATO allies that they can count on the United States?

These and other questions remain to be answered. In thinking about them, it is useful to learn from policies and approaches from the past. The policies of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, in particular, may offer insight into what is coming. By critiquing these past approaches in dealing with the Putin regime, I hope to suggest the way forward in handling the existential threat to the United States posed by Putin and his regime.

I come at this project having served all eight years in the George W. Bush administration, nearly three of those years as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, with responsibility for Russia and Ukraine, among other positions. I offer insights from my time in government, followed by my close observations of the Obama administration as an outsider. I also offer a roadmap for U.S. policy in Chapter Five.

Angela Stent’s The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2014) is an excellent book covering the various resets the United States has attempted with Russia over the years. Her book ends with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I cover the entire period through the end of the Obama administration and the election of Donald Trump as the next American president. I also offer more of a critique of U.S. policy during the Bush and Obama administrations. Whereas no one from the Bush administration has written a book on this subject, I expect a few books on U.S.-Russian relations to emerge from people who served under President Obama. My goal is not to beat them to the punch but to offer a different, and I expect more critical, perspective.

This is not a book about Putin or Russia, but writing on U.S.-Russian relations requires starting with an understanding of the kind of leader we are dealing with in Moscow.1 Accordingly, Chapter One begins with a description of how Putin became president after launching a brutal invasion of Chechnya as prime minister. This military operation followed four suspicious apartment bombings in September 1999 that killed nearly 300 people. The brutality of the Chechen operation would become a hallmark of Putin’s approach to dealing with other security challenges along the way. These include the roughly 10,000 killed in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine starting in 2014, the Russian missile used to down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in July 2014, and his military intervention in the Syrian civil war in which some half a million have been killed.

Putin is not one to worry about “collateral damage.” Nor does he abide by peace deals, whether the one signed to end the fighting in Georgia in 2008, the Minsk agreements for Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, or various ceasefires in Syria. He deals decisively and brutally with perceived domestic and foreign threats to his grip on power. Maintaining that grip is his number one priority, and he has demonstrated a readiness to do whatever is necessary to preserve it. His foreign policy is an extension of Russian domestic politics. Whether Putin is a brilliant strategist or a skillful tactician is, to some extent, beside the point. The bottom line is that he poses a threat to his own people, to his neighbors, and to the West. Ways to address that threat come in the final chapter.

Chapter Two begins by examining President George Bush’s interest in getting relations with Putin off to a positive start. He famously got a sense of Putin’s “soul” and established decent cooperation on counter-terrorism and arms control in the first year or two of his first term. Putin’s need to portray the United States and the West as enemies, however, impeded better relations[* *]and created points of tension, as highlighted by Putin’s Munich speech in 2007. Russia’s role on the global stage has increased significantly during Putin’s reign, fed by the rise in the price of oil. Putin oversaw the return of an assertiveness that restored Russia’s international standing, albeit not necessarily its reputation as a problem-solver. Indeed, tensions grew between Washington and Moscow during the Bush administration, and by the end of his presidency, Bush saw the relationship crater after Putin’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Yet that invasion didn’t stop President Barack Obama from seeking a “reset” with Russia and its president at the time, Dmitri Medvedev, as described in Chapter Three. Since the Bush administration hadn’t imposed any real consequences on Putin’s regime for what it did to Georgia, the Obama administration was loath to adopt a hard-line stance on Moscow. It instead extended an open hand, seeking Moscow’s cooperation on Iran, Afghanistan and, most importantly for Obama, arms control. The White House frequently oversold the policy’s success, and fundamental mistakes in the thinking behind the reset doomed it to failure after some initial success. By 2011, the reset was running out of steam, and in 2012 it came to an end when Putin formally returned to the presidency.

With Putin once again unambiguously in the Kremlin driver’s seat, relations were bound to suffer. Chapter Four describes in detail the deterioration in relations between the United States and Russia during Obama’s second term, marked by a worsening human rights situation inside Russia, Edward Snowden’s flight to Moscow and then, most notably, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The West’s response to this latter incident included the imposition of sanctions against the regime, and these were topped off by additional sanctions for Russia’s interference in the U.S. election in 2016. By the time Obama left office, relations between Russia and the United States were at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

Many questions surround Donald Trump’s election and intentions toward Russia, and this book looks at Trump’s campaign rhetoric on Russia and Putin, as well as his first month in office. Amid questions about the future of sanctions, Trump had not yet lifted them when this book went to print, much to the chagrin of officials in Moscow. Instead, there have been conflicting statements from various senior-level officials, as well as a U.S. cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield in April that elicited a negative reaction from the Kremlin. Against that backdrop, the book ends by offering a roadmap and concrete recommendations for what policy should be going forward, recognizing that these recommendations may be quite different from the policy pursued by the new American president.

In dealing with Putin, it is important to distinguish between his regime and Russia as a whole. Our problems are not with Russia or Russians, notwithstanding their seeming preference for strong leaders. Our problems are with Putin’s regime. We should stop seeing Putin as anything other than a paranoid, authoritarian leader who oversees one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. But we should not subscribe Putin’s thinking and actions to all Russians, even if he remains popular among them. There are many decent Russians struggling for a better future for their country. Not conflating them with the odious regime in the Kremlin is critically important. Moreover, recognizing them and their bravery offers hope for the future.

Nobody wants war with Putin’s regime, but calling for a strong stand against his egregious behavior is not tantamount to launching World War III. Pushing back against Putin’s threatening behavior and policies – against his own people, his neighbors, and others – is not only necessary but also the right, moral thing to do. Showing weakness or an over-eagerness for good relations creates openings that Putin exploits. We must stand true to our principles in dealing with the threat posed by Putin and demonstrate that there are consequences for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbors, upsetting the order that has preserved the peace in Europe for most of the past seven decades, attacking civilian centers in Syria and interfering in elections in the West, including here in the United States. Failure to push back on such actions will only invite their recurrence. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to Russians and others struggling under Putin’s repressive influence. Putin has gotten away with murder, literally and figuratively, and he must be made to understand that those days are over.

The very nature of Putin’s regime makes real cooperation between Russia and the United States virtually impossible, except perhaps on arms control and non-proliferation, though even there cooperation is far from automatic. Putin’s aggressive, bloody responses to perceived threats, internal and external, make him an unsavory interlocutor, to say the least. Under his rule, Russia does not fulfill the agreements it signs and frequently violates international norms. Putin and his regime perpetuate the narrative of an enemy from outside to justify his way of ruling at home, and they seek to discredit the West even as they exploit its openness and financial systems. Accordingly, Putin bears the bulk of the blame for the current state of affairs in U.S.-Russian relations.

American leaders can make matters worse, however, by approaching relations with Putin naively and by underestimating the threat posed by his regime. A clear-eyed understanding of the challenge Putin poses and a principled stand against his egregious behavior are essential if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.


1 A number of books have been published over the last few years that offer excellent perspectives on Putin and Russia. For more than two decades, I have learned from the one of the best, Lilia Shevtsova. Her books, including one with Sir Andrew Wood of Chatham House, Change or Decay: Russia’s Dilemma and the West’s Response (Carnegie Endowment, 2011) and Putin’s Russia (Carnegie Endowment, 2010), combined with her numerous articles in mostly Western outlets such as The American Interest, make her one of the sharpest analysts on the subject. Other books worth noting include Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin _](Brookings Institution Press, 2015) by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy; Mikhail Zygar’s [_All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin _](PublicAffairs, 2016); Walter Laqueur’s [_Putinism: Russia and its Future with the West (Macmillan, 2015); Arkady Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War (Penguin, 2016); Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon and Schuster, 2015); Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Penguin Publishing, 2012); Garry Kasparov’s Winter Is Coming (PublicAffairs, 2016); and Steven Lee Myers’s The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin _](Simon and Schuster, 2015). In addition, Edward Lucas’s [_The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West (Bloomsbury, 2009) remains a pathbreaking work for being one of the first to raise the alarm about Putin’s Russia.

Chapter Two:

Getting Away With Murder

The Rise of Vladimir Putin

During the first half of 1999, few people predicted that Vladimir Putin would be the next president of Russia. In fact, few people in Russia, let alone in the West, even knew who Putin was. Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s decision to choose Putin as his prime minister on August 9, 1999, left many observers scratching their heads. The two names mentioned most frequently that summer as the likely successors to Yeltsin, whose term as president was due to end the following year, were former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and then-Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. To Yeltsin and his close circle, both Primakov and Luzhkov were independent figures who could not be trusted to ascend to the presidency. Something needed to change.

Four bombings of apartment buildings in September 1999 did just that. The attacks on buildings in Buynaksk, Moscow (the location of two separate bombings), and Volgodonsk killed nearly 300 people and instilled panic throughout the country. Russian officials blamed Chechen separatists for the attacks and soon after invaded the North Caucasus region of Chechnya for the second time in five years.1 Putin, as prime minister, led the renewed campaign.

Suspicions linger to this day that elements of the government, especially factions of the Federal Security Service (FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet KGB), were behind the bombings, possibly along with oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a powerful player at the time who fled to London in late 2000.2 Recall that, before becoming prime minister, Putin was director of the FSB. Chechen fighters, usually never shy to claim credit for attacks, denied responsibility for these operations. Moreover, alert residents in Ryazan reported suspicious activity involving the planting of a bomb in an apartment building there; the local authorities swooped in before the bomb exploded. Several days later, the FSB stated that the whole incident was a “training exercise,” an explanation that convinced few people. What happened in Ryazan cast a suspicious shadow over all of the bombings.

So, too, did an announcement by Gennady Seleznyov, speaker of the Russian Duma, of a bombing of an apartment building in Volgodonsk — three days before it actually happened. Seleznyov made his statement on September 13, and the explosion occurred on September 16. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party and usually a supporter of the Kremlin, demanded an explanation from Seleznyov in the Duma — before his microphone was turned off.3

Putin, then prime minister, never publicly questioned the official story. Perhaps he knew who was really behind the bombings and didn’t want it revealed, or maybe he really was convinced that Chechens were responsible. Either way, he pledged to take decisive action, and did so by ordering Russian military forces once again into Chechnya. Whatever the truth behind the bombings and whether or not Putin knew who was responsible for them,[_ _]what is undeniable is that Putin benefitted from them politically; they turned the Russian political situation completely upside down. By the end of 1999, the political fortunes of Primakov and Luzhkov had faded.

For many both inside and outside Russia, the notion that factions of the ruling circle were behind the murders of nearly 300 Russians in staged apartment bombings is simply too ghastly and horrific to contemplate. If they were capable of doing that, what more might they do? Several Russians who tried to investigate what really happened — including Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, the first chair of the Public Commission for the Investigation of the Bombings, and Yuri Shchekochikhin, another member of that Commission, as well as former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko and award-winning journalist Anna Politkovskaya — were murdered. Yushenkov and Politkovskaya were shot and killed, Shchekochikhin died of a mysterious illness thought to be poisoning, and Litvinenko was tracked down in London and poisoned with polonium.

Putin was not a household name and was fairly new to the Moscow scene, having lived from 1990 to 1996 in St. Petersburg and before that as a KGB officer in Dresden.4 Putin had served in the KGB since 1975 and resigned with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel on August 20, 1991, the second day of an attempted coup led by elements of the KGB against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. He worked as a top aide to Mayor Anatoly Sobchak until the latter lost his reelection bid in 1996. Despite a history of overseeing questionable deals involving oil exports-for-food exchanges during his time in St. Petersburg (for which he almost lost his position5), Putin was recruited to Moscow to serve as Deputy Chief of the Presidential Property Management Department, headed by Pavel Borodin. In March 1997, he was tapped for the first of several positions in the presidential administration before being named head of the FSB in July 1998. He stayed in that position until he was chosen by Yeltsin to be prime minister in August 1999.

Putin did not have many ties with the Yeltsin family or the closed circle around the outgoing Russian leader. Instead he relied on a network of friends and contacts he had established both from his days in the KGB and FSB and from St. Petersburg. A number of them would become important players in their own right, and many would also become fabulously wealthy owing to their relationship with Putin.

Nobody, including Putin, predicted he would go from the KGB, where a good part of the time he occupied a less-than-exciting post in Dresden, to the Kremlin as the next leader of Russia. But in Putin, Yeltsin and his circle found a man whom they finally felt they could trust and who would act decisively. Before settling on Putin, Yeltsin had auditioned a series of prime ministers — Viktor Chernomyrdin, Sergey Kiriyenko, Primakov, and Sergei Stepashin — but none of them was able to reassure Yeltsin and his family that they would be secure post-presidency or that they were willing to do whatever was necessary to keep hostile forces from coming to power. Kiriyenko and Stepashin were viewed as too weak and Primakov as too threatening politically; Chernomyrdin, as a two-time prime minister, lacked the dynamism to lead Russia into its next period.

When Yeltsin announced his resignation six months before his term was to end on New Year’s Eve 1999, Putin, in one his first moves as acting president, granted all ex-presidents in Russia immunity from criminal and administrative investigations, a step especially important to Yeltsin and those around him.6 By that point Putin had already led a ferocious assault against Chechen positions, and his standing among Russians was rising rapidly. He cruised to victory in the March 2000 presidential election by demonstrating a readiness to use indiscriminate force against Chechen rebels, highlighted most memorably by his phrase, “We will wipe them out in the[_ _]outhouse.”7 Putin essentially has run the country — even while serving as prime minister a second time between May 2008 and May 2012 — ever since.

Both to Russians and to foreigners, Putin struck a sharply different chord from his predecessor. Yeltsin was erratic, drank too much, and was extremely unpopular by the time he stepped down. Putin was much younger, sober, and in control. Unlike Yeltsin, Putin has maintained a high level of popularity, largely attributable to the rise in the price of oil soon after he came to power, which propelled Russia’s economic resurgence and increased Russians’ standard of living. In the 1990s, oil averaged $18 per barrel, contributing to Russia’s economic woes during that decade and to Yeltsin’s unpopularity. In 2000, oil averaged a little more than $27 per barrel; by 2008, however, when Putin stepped down to become prime minister, oil had surpassed $91 per barrel. Russia’s GDP during that time grew an average of seven percent per year, and disposable incomes more than doubled.8

The contrast from the enervated state of affairs in the 1990s — a period of tremendous difficulty and economic and financial dislocation for most Russians — turned Putin into an admired leader. His reassertion of Russia as a regional, if not global, power restored a sense of pride among many Russians that “Russia was back.” That feeling had disappeared following the collapse of the USSR and the doddering days of Yeltsin, especially as many Russians were struggling simply to make ends meet. From the outset, Putin’s decisive reaction to the apartment bombings and his leadership over the renewed war in Chechnya elevated him in the minds of most Russians.

At the same time, Putin’s background in the KGB, his involvement in questionable deals in St. Petersburg, the origins of his rise to the presidency on the basis of suspicious apartment bombings in 1999 and the decisions he has made in that position since should always be on the minds of his Western counterparts.

As Vladislav Inozemtsev, professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, described it, “…[F]rom the very beginning of his meteoric rise in the late 1990s he wanted to become Russia’s (and presumably the world’s) richest man and to stay in power indefinitely. These two aims are closely interconnected, since to become rich in Russia one should have direct access to public funds and state property, and to stay safe one should control the rules of the game as long as possible. All along the way, Putin combined these two goals — whether by looting the St. Petersburg budget in the early 1990s, restoring state (but in fact his personal) control over Gazprom in the early 2000s, or appointing new ‘oligarchs’ to manage all state assets and quasi-state corporations.”9

Between the apartment bombings and the renewed war in Chechnya, much blood had been shed even before Putin assumed the presidency. Even if one does not subscribe to the conspiracy theory that FSB factions or others in Moscow were involved in the apartment bombings, one cannot deny that Putin came to power amid massive violence in Russia. And once in power Putin showed a willingness to use such violence against perceived enemies, especially in Chechnya, where there were tens of thousands of casualties, both combatant and non-combatant.

This background and experience have shaped Putin’s thinking and actions ever since. Putin showed no visible concern for the many innocent civilians killed during the fighting in Chechnya. He would adopt a similarly ruthless approach as Russia moved into Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015. Putin’s KGB training attuned him to look for and exploit others’ weaknesses. His friends and business partners from St. Petersburg connected him to seedy and criminal elements with whom he maintained contact even after moving to Moscow. Corruption in Russia certainly existed during the Yeltsin period (and during the Soviet era), but it ballooned under Putin. Rising oil prices fueled economic recovery, exponentially increasing the size of the pie to be divvied up among the Kremlin leader and his cronies.

Soon after being elected president, Putin went after several oligarchs, some of whom played critical roles in his rise to power. He seized nationwide television stations from Vladimir Gusinsky and Berezovsky. Given that most Russians get their news and information from TV, this move on Putin’s part was especially clever: The ability to control what Russians see has redounded to his benefit in tough economic times as well as during Russian military moves into neighboring states and Syria. Almost at the flick of a switch, Putin and his propagandists are able to change the narrative offered on television, rallying the nation’s citizens around patriotism as a way of deflecting their attention from the difficulties they may be experiencing at home. Their control over television also meant they could marginalize coverage of political opposition figures and even paint them and non-governmental organizations as “foreign agents” and enemies of the state. This control has been instrumental to Putin’s high levels of popularity and has enhanced his ability to maintain his grip on power.

Remembering Putin during the period from 1999 to 2000 helps in understanding his approach to governing for the past 18 years (counting his two stints as prime minister in 1999 and again from 2008-2012). It also can be useful in divining what kind of leader President Trump is likely to encounter during his term in office. Throughout his reign, Putin has demonstrated a readiness to do whatever is necessary to stay in power. Any threat — real or imagined — is dealt with decisively, whether it originates inside Russia or abroad. That includes dealing ruthlessly with political opposition figures, critical journalists, civil society activists, and even those living in neighboring states who seek deeper integration with the Euro-Atlantic community or a model different from that of Putin’s Russia.

Russian foreign policy, in turn, becomes an extension of Russian domestic policy, at least in the way Putin sees it, as Lilia Shevtsova has argued for years. In 2014 in Ukraine, for example, Putin could not stomach the prospect of a neighboring country’s citizens demanding deeper integration with the West and an end to corruption. Were Ukraine to succeed, Putin feared, others might see it as an attractive alternative to Russia’s corrupt authoritarianism, thus weakening his power. So when Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russian candidate, fled to Russia in February 2014, Putin invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea and then moving into the eastern part of the country’s Donbas region. Since then, nearly 10,000 Ukrainians have been killed trying to defend their nation against Putin’s aggression.

Putin’s record — stretching from Chechnya in his early presidency through Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015 — demonstrates a readiness to unleash Russian security and military forces against all of his perceived enemies, foreign and domestic. Among Putin’s domestic victims are journalists, opposition figures, activists, and critics, including Boris Nemtsov, assassinated yards from the Kremlin in February 2015, and Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with polonium in London in 2006.10 Geographic distance from Moscow provides no sanctuary from Putin’s wrath. Life inside Russia can be very dangerous as well, of course. Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza has been poisoned twice in Russia — and miraculously survived both attempts to kill him.11 Whether Putin ordered these attacks or not is to a large extent beside the point; he created the environment in which going after them was not only condoned but encouraged.

While a thuggish authoritarian president, Putin is not a totalitarian leader. Even if he had the desire, he lacks the means to exercise the kind of control over Russia that Josef Stalin, for example, had over the Soviet Union. Nor is Putin a dictator. Either label would overstate his power and that of the system he oversees. These days, it is virtually impossible to impose a dictatorship on a country as massive and unwieldy as Russia absent the willingness and ability to use the tools of mass murder that Stalin deployed. That said, while he is neither a totalitarian nor a dictatorial leader, Putin has fascist tendencies and massive amounts of blood on his hands. He is a serious threat to his own people, his neighbors and the international order. As Senator John McCain has said, Putin is a “murderer and a thug who seeks to undermine American national security interests at every turn.”12

And yet despite the damage and destruction Putin has left in his wake, most of the international community for the past 17 years has treated him with kid gloves. For years, it can be said, Putin has been able to get away with murder, literally and figuratively. Even when Putin critics are killed in other countries — the Litvinenko poisoning, for example — the Kremlin pays no price for such egregious actions; the United Kingdom took no steps in response to Litvinenko’s murder on its soil. Western leaders often have taken the position that Russia is too big and too important to isolate or punish. They argue it is better to engage with Putin than to treat him as a pariah.

At a certain point, however, even the most jaded in the West and in Russia have to ask when enough is enough. What more must Putin do for the international community to conclude that relations with Russia cannot return to a normal footing as long as he presides in the Kremlin? How many more neighbors does Putin have to invade, how many more Ukrainians and Syrians does Putin have to kill, how much worse does the crackdown inside Russia have to get before we say “enough,” before we realize that a strategic partnership with Russia under Putin is not possible? When do we come to grips with the fact that we actually have very few interests in common with Russia as long as Putin is at the helm? When will we understand, in other words, that Russia under Putin is a serious threat to our values, interests and allies?


Putin’s Interests vs. Russia’s Interests

Putin’s rise to power through ruthless means is of little interest to those in the West who wish to return to business as usual with Moscow. We have too many important regional and global challenges that require cooperation with Russia, they argue, to let Putin’s human rights abuses, invasion of neighbors, or support for like-minded leaders get in the way. The United States and Russia, they say, need to find areas of common interest and pursue them vigorously without letting our differences get in the way.

The problem with such thinking is that Putin’s interests often are not the same as Russia’s national interests. It is not in Russia’s interests, for example, to have the worst relationship with the West since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Nor is it in Russia’s interests to be subject to unprecedented sanctions imposed for the invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea, followed by sanctions connected to hacking in the United States. It is not in Russia’s interests to have all of its neighbors fear Russian aggression and the possibility of invasion. Nor is it in Russia’s interests to lose so many allies as a result of its aggressive actions and behavior. It is not in Russia’s interests, moreover, to have the country move in an increasingly authoritarian direction. And it is not in Russia’s interests for Russia to become one of the world’s leading kleptocratic regimes.13

And yet, even with all these problems, Putin remains popular among Russians; polls show his approval rating at roughly 80 percent. Much of this is attributable to Putin’s control over the media, especially television, which portrays him as Russia’s savior. Part of this is due to the lack of a viable alternative to Putin, a situation perpetuated by the opposition’s inability to unite and Putin’s success in suppressing any efforts by the opposition to generate support. And part of it is because Russians may be reluctant to reveal their true feelings about Putin to pollsters, leading some observers to believe that Putin’s high polling numbers conceal a shallowness of support.

In October 2014, during the 11th gathering of the Valdai Group, which brings Russia watchers and international analysts to Russia for high-level meetings, Deputy Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin told the group, “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” Volodin went on to say that “any attack on Putin is an attack on Russia.”14

Putin supporters have an interest in perpetuating such lines. But such thinking is unhealthy for the country, even dangerous. It reinforces the perceived need among Russians for a strongman to lead their country and turns Putin into an indispensable ruler, without whom the country would collapse. That sense of indispensability, in turn, gives Putin a green light to take whatever measures necessary to stay in power, even if those measures are not in the country’s overall interests.

One of the most egregious examples of how Putin’s decisions have hurt his own country’s interests can be found in his response to President Obama’s December 2012 signing of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which passed with huge bipartisan majorities in the U.S. Congress. The Act imposes sanctions on Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses. Putin retaliated by banning the adoption of Russian orphans by American citizens. Russian officials denied this step was a response to the Magnitsky Act but instead was due to several cases involving Russian children adopted by families in the United States, in particular the tragic death of Dima Yakovlev, a Russian adopted infant who died in an overheated car in Herndon, Va., in 2008.15

This explanation was nonsense, however, belied by threats against Ireland by the Russian ambassador to Dublin, Maxim Peshkov, if its parliament passed similar Magnitsky legislation; there had been no known cases of Russian children adopted by Irish citizens being abused or neglected.16 Putin’s ban on adoptions underscores his willingness to victimize the most innocent and helpless — in this case poor Russian orphans — to spite the United States. Given the low rate at which Russians adopt orphans in their own country, especially those with disabilities, Putin’s move caused terrible harm to Russian children. That certainly does not serve Russians’ interests.

Likewise, taking over nationwide television channels in Putin’s first two years as president was beneficial to Putin but not to the country. It deprived Russians of alternative views and sources of news and information and contributed to a build-up in the aura around Putin. Eliminating gubernatorial elections, as Putin did in the immediate aftermath of the Beslan hostage crisis in September 2004, did not help to build a more accountable system of government, and it certainly did nothing to address the terrorist challenges highlighted by the Beslan tragedy. Instead, it instilled among appointed local officials a sense that they were beholden to the Kremlin for their positions, not responsible to the constituencies in their regions. This benefitted Putin, but it certainly did not benefit the country.

In Chechnya, on top of prosecuting a brutal war there in 1999, Putin several years later hand-picked a monster, Ramzan Kadyrov, to take over responsibility for the North Caucasus republic soon after the assassination of his father, Akhmad, in 2004. Kadyrov has maintained a semblance of control over Chechnya by engaging in massive human rights abuses. Putin is Kadyrov’s biggest defender and supporter. But Kadyrov’s political ambitions have grown, causing friction between him and some of Russia’s security forces, highlighted most prominently by the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015; Kadyrov is suspected by some of having ordered Nemtsov’s murder.17 Having a leader like Kadyrov in power isn’t good for anybody.

Increasing the state’s role in the economy through a round of renationalization, most notably with the appropriated assets of Yukos in 2003, and favoring large state-owned enterprises over small and medium-size businesses, runs counter to the interests of the country, but these moves also increase Putin’s ability to exercise control.18 They also risk making Putin more accountable for the economic difficulties that may result, but his control over the media helps in deflecting that responsibility onto others — a potent reminder of how important were Putin’s early moves to take channels away from Gusinsky and Berezovsky. It has not been in Russia’s interests for Putin and his clique to block efforts at diversifying Russia’s economy, a problem highlighted by plunging oil prices in 2008 and 2014. Nor did Russia benefit from similar efforts to quash Medvedev’s efforts to modernize Russia’s economy, including through development of Skolkovo, which was to be Russia’s equivalent of Silicon Valley. When the price of oil was high, Putin’s stunting of diversification and modernization was less noticeable, but he bears responsibility for the country’s economic mismanagement.

Putin has returned to many Russians a sense of pride in their country for standing up to the West and reasserting Russia’s role in the world. But in the process he has benefitted himself enormously. A CIA study from 2007 cited in the New York Times estimated Putin’s wealth at $40 billion; others say the figure is closer to $70 billion.19 Whatever the true amount, Putin is unlikely to starve anytime soon. At the same time, the culture of corruption Putin benefits from and presides over places a heavy burden on Russia as a whole. As early as 2005, the INDEM Foundation, a research organization headed by Georgy Satarov, estimated Russians (both individuals and businesses) paid more than $300 billion annually in bribes, equivalent to more than 20 percent of the country’s GDP at the time and more than two and a half times what the government collected in budget revenues.20 The pervasiveness of corruption is not in Russia’s interests, and yet Putin has done virtually nothing to address it. On the contrary, it appears that he has reaped extraordinary personal benefit from it.

Nemtsov, the assassinated opposition leader, together with Vladimir Milov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and Olga Shorina, produced an independent white paper in 2011 entitled, “Putin. Corruption” that detailed the massive growth of corruption on Putin’s watch.21 Nemtsov, together with Leonid Martynyuk, produced a separate report on the scandalous corruption involved in Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, in which many of Putin’s cronies benefitted from non-competitive construction contracts.22 These reports may have played a role in Nemtsov’s assassination in February 2015.

In 2015, Adam Szubin, a senior U.S. Treasury Department official who oversaw the office that imposes sanctions, explained in an interview on the BBC program Panorama that the United States has known for “many, many years” that Putin was corrupt. He stated:

We’ve seen him enriching his friends, his close allies, and marginalizing those who he doesn’t view as friends using state assets. Whether that’s Russia’s energy wealth, whether it’s other state contracts, he directs those to whom he believes will serve him and excludes those who don’t. To me, that is a picture of corruption…. He supposedly draws a state salary of something like $110,000 a year. That is not an accurate statement of the man’s wealth, and he has longtime training and practices in terms of how to mask his actual wealth.23

Putin’s ill-gotten gains, at the same time, have made him a hostage of his own system. He cannot afford to surrender power, for doing so would place him at risk of being investigated, imprisoned and possibly stripped of all his riches. Even if he tires of running the country, as some analysts suspect he already has, Putin would risk serious problems by stepping down. This requires Putin to redouble his efforts to stay in power and go after any threat, however nascent or imaginary it may be. Thus his predicament requires him to search for predictability on the one hand even as he must continue to roll the dice on the other. That is not good for Russians.

His desire for predictability peaks during election time, when he seeks to ensure a satisfactory outcome before even a single ballot is cast. Opposition figures are harassed, and the government denies them the opportunity to hold rallies and meetings and refuses to register their parties and candidacies. Putin goes through the motions of holding elections to give himself a patina of legitimacy, but he minimizes their risk ahead of time as much as possible. The disunity among the Russian opposition over the years has inadvertently helped in this regard, but Putin himself has been the biggest obstacle to the emergence of a true opposition movement in Russia. Allowing the opposition to coalesce would undermine Putin’s search for electoral predictability. Denying Russians real choice and viable alternatives at the polls, to state the obvious, is not in the country’s interests, regardless of how popular Putin may be.

Putin’s roll-of-the-dice approach comes more in the foreign policy realm. His invasion of Ukraine, in particular, had as much to do with what was happening inside Russia as it did with Russian-Ukrainian relations. Russia’s economy was already slowing down by the start of 2014, and Putin’s popularity was also dropping, albeit not precipitously. By the standards of many leaders, Putin’s ratings — in the upper 50s to low 60s in early 2014 — were enviable, but for Putin they were cause for concern. Most authoritarian leaders want to ensure their numbers stay well above a bare majority, and Putin was no exception.

Moreover, fresh on Putin’s mind were the Arab popular movements in 2011 and the sizable protests in Russia in late 2011 and 2012 against his return to the presidency and parliamentary elections marked by widespread fraud and vote rigging. Two months after announcing on September 24, 2011, that he and Medvedev would switch positions, with Putin returning as president in 2012, Putin attended a martial arts match in Moscow and entered the ring at the conclusion of the fight to congratulate the winner, a Russian who soundly defeated his American rival. In a rare show of public disapproval, Putin was booed by many of the 20,000-plus crowd. Putin was stunned.24

Less than a month later, after the flawed Duma elections in December 2011, the largest protests in many years broke out on the streets of Moscow and other major Russian cities. Putin’s paranoia kicked into high gear, as he blamed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for “sending a signal” to the demonstrators.25 The protests continued into the spring of 2012, right up to Putin’s presidential inauguration on May 6. The protests, following close on the heels of his poor reception at the martial arts contest, pushed Putin to launch a nasty crackdown inside Russia.

Putin’s paranoia left him looking for ways to shake things up, much as the Yeltsin circle did in 1999. The Sochi Olympics, while instilling a sense of pride among Russians despite the massive corruption involved in them, were falling short of the goal of turning around Putin’s political fortunes. The Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine and Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to flee Kyiv for safety in Russia both startled Putin and provided him the perfect opening to rally Russia around the flag by means of the illegal takeover of Crimea and further moves into eastern Ukraine (though he denied Russia’s role in the latter).

And yet as Andrew Wood, writing in Chatham House’s report, The Russia Challenge, notes, “If there were such a thing as a pure national interest, Putin would never have gone in so deep over Ukraine. Crimea was risky enough. As things stand, he has invested so much, not least of course in eastern Ukraine, with so little to show for it in concrete gains for his country, that he is for now condemned to show himself indomitable.”26

By 2015, as Roderic Lyne writes in the same Chatham House Report, Russia “is no more diversified; has an economy in decline; is investing heavily in re-armament; rejects international law and the status quo in favour of disruption and confrontation; and has abandoned all thoughts of a strategic partnership with Europe, let alone with the United States.”27 None of the policies detailed in this assessment, with which I agree, was in Russia’s interests, but they did seem to serve Putin’s.


In Search of an Enemy

As early as January 2000, Putin as acting president signed his first national security concept paper, which complained about America’s tendency toward “unilateral solutions (primarily by the use of military force) to key issues in world politics in circumvention of the fundamental rules of international law.”28 Among the main threats in the international sphere cited in that paper, “the strengthening of military-political blocs and alliances, above all NATO’s eastward expansion,” was third on the list.29 In his first address to the Federal Assembly on July 8, 2000, Putin stressed that a “vertical of power” and “dictatorship of the law” were essential to run the country.30

Increasingly over the years, Putin has justified his way of governing by perpetuating the myth that the West, and the United States in particular, represent threats to Russia. The massive corruption at the root of Putin’s regime and his increasingly authoritarian means for governing necessitated the fabrication of this narrative.

Putin did not dare to point the finger at China, which in reality poses a more serious long-term challenge to Russia, or at Iran, which Moscow worries could stir up trouble in the North Caucasus. Either country likely would have pushed back forcefully against such Russian rhetoric. In identifying Europe, NATO, the European Union and the United States, Putin smartly fingered countries and entities that would go out of their way to disabuse Putin and Russians of the notion that they were threats. Putin knew that he would not pay a price for blaming the West.

After coming to power, Putin and those around him began to focus on consolidating power and eliminating threats, initially prioritizing domestic ones. Yukos founder and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his Yukos energy company in October 2003 were the highest-profile victims. But indigenous threats were not enough: Putin needed to portray the West as an even bigger danger.

The very search for phony external enemies — namely the West — was itself a disservice to Russia’s national interests. In looking abroad for a foreign villain, Putin was pushing Russia toward a confrontational approach with the West at a time when the West was not interested in reciprocating the hostility. Russia’s interests were not served by such a policy — but Putin’s were.

And yet, Putin did not consistently hold a negative view of the West. In his annual address to the Federal Assembly in 2004, for instance, he stated: “The expansion of the European Union should not just bring us closer geographically, but also economically and spiritually…. This means new markets and new investment. Generally it means new possibilities for the future of Greater Europe.”31 In that speech, notably, Putin did not dwell on the threat posed by NATO enlargement, even though eight countries, including the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, joined less than two months before.

The “Color Revolutions” in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and, less so, Kyrgyzstan (2005) spooked Putin. He attributed these movements to outside forces — specifically the United States — and worried that he and Russia were next. Such concerns contributed to his sense that the United States and Europe were more interested in spawning regime change than in working collaboratively with Moscow. These insecurities came despite the spike in the price of oil, which boosted Russia’s economy and standard of living for most Russians — and benefitted him politically.32

The 2010 and 2014 Russia military doctrines, a foreign policy document released in 2010 and other official statements reflected Putin’s growing paranoia toward the West. According to the 2010 military doctrine, the top dangers to Russia were NATO’s enlargement and its efforts to take on “global functions carried out in violation of the norms of international law.”33 Other dangers included deployment of foreign (i.e., American) troops in states bordering Russia and strategic missile defense, which would “undermin[e] global stability and violat[e] the established correlation of forces in the nuclear-missile sphere.” The 2010 foreign policy document, leaked to Russian Newsweek a few months later, made the same points, albeit in a slicker fashion.34 It clearly laid out a vision of a Russian sphere of influence to counter the “unilateral actions” of the United States on issues such as missile defense and NATO enlargement.

In the 2014 military doctrine (released in early 2015), the number one “external military risk” to Russia was “the build-up of the power potential of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and vesting NATO with global functions carried out in violation of the rules of international law, bringing the military infrastructure of NATO member countries near the borders of the Russian Federation, including by further expansion of the alliance.” It went on to identify “deployment (build-up) of military contingents of foreign states (groups of states) in the territories of the states contiguous with the Russian Federation and its allies, as well as in adjacent waters, including for exerting political and military pressure on the Russian Federation,” an obvious reference to NATO forces in the Baltic states and in NATO’s eastern front. 35 As Keir Giles noted in the Chatham House report on Russia, “…[T]he emphasis in the Military Doctrine on regime change both on Russia’s borders and internally, and on information war, is new. Russia has brought limited intervention and information warfare back into its arsenal for bringing recalcitrant neighbours to heel — or replacing their governments with ones more amenable to Russia’s aims.”36

Putin’s need to portray the West as an enemy stemmed from his difficulty in handling a series of crises. In addition to the war in Chechnya, in August 2000 Putin faced the sinking of the Kursk submarine in the Barents Sea, which killed all 118 sailors on board; he showed little urgency or interest in the sailors’ plight, staying on vacation until it was too late to help and spurning Western offers of assistance. Two years later, in October 2002, nearly 50 armed Chechens seized the Dubrovka Theater in downtown Moscow. At least 170 people, including 133 hostages, were killed in the incident, most of whom died from exposure to a mysterious chemical agent used by Russian forces as part of a bungled rescue attempt. Two years after that, on the first day of school in September 2004, heavily armed Islamic militants seized a school in Beslan and took some 1,200 children hostage. Another poorly executed rescue effort there ended with 334 people killed, 186 of them schoolchildren.

In the aftermath of Beslan in 2004, Putin, in a reference clearly aimed at the United States, declared:

Some would like to tear from us a ‘juicy piece of pie.’ Others help them. They help, reasoning that Russia still remains one of the world’s major nuclear powers, and as such still represents a threat to them. And so they reason that this threat should be removed.37

On top of his poor handling of these domestic crises, Putin seemed helpless as Georgia and Ukraine experienced their “color revolutions.” Putin refused to believe that Georgians and Ukrainians, on their own, were capable of leading revolutions in their respective countries that resulted in leadership changes. They had to have been led by the United States.

Disagreements with the United States and Europe over NATO enlargement, Iraq and missile defense played into this narrative of Western malfeasance. Promoting an antagonistic relationship with the West allowed Putin to justify the measures he was taking domestically, which, as he explained it, were necessary to protect Russia from hostile external forces. As long as Russians’ standard of living continued to improve, he wanted leeway to conduct affairs of state as he saw fit. Most Russians seemed willing to go along with this arrangement, but it is hard to see how it served their genuine interests in the long-term. Remember that Putin’s number one priority was and is staying in power.

Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 terrified all of Russia’s neighbors into thinking that they might be the next victim of Russian aggression. Instead of winning over his neighbors by presenting Russia as an attractive model for others to emulate, Putin repelled fellow leaders, and not just among countries formerly part of the Soviet Union. Finland and Sweden are giving serious consideration to joining NATO as a protective measure. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine boosted support in that country for joining NATO just above the 50 percent mark for the first time. (Putin paradoxically has done more to unite Ukraine than any Ukrainian leader.) None of this is in Russia’s interests, and yet Putin shows no signs of reversing or reconsidering his decisions.

While Putin does not seem intent on invading all of Ukraine and taking responsibility for running the country, he appears to want to destabilize it as much as possible and make it unattractive and unappealing to the West. He is doing so through great loss of life — roughly 10,000 killed in the fighting as of January 2017 — along with more than 1,500,000 displaced from their homes. How is destabilizing a neighbor the size of Ukraine and engendering anti-Russian sentiment among its population in Russia’s interests?

Similar to his reactions to the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, Putin feared that the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2013-14 might spread to Russia or, at a minimum, present Russians with an attractive model that would compete with Putin’s authoritarian system. He has forced several neighbors into joining the Eurasian Economic Union, a collection of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. If given a choice, it is likely that at least some of these states would opt not to join, but Putin has made them an offer they can’t refuse (to borrow a phrase from a movie appropriate in describing Putin, The Godfather). The invasion of Ukraine triggered sanctions from Europe and the United States, a reflection of the price Russia has been paying for Putin’s adventurism.

Putin’s support for Syria is another example of Putin’s interests and Russia’s interests not necessarily coinciding. Seeing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad on the brink of collapse in the summer of 2015, Putin intervened militarily and propped him up. Putin’s decision to launch indiscriminate bombings of Sunni areas in Syria, on top of saving an unpopular Alawite murderer in a predominantly Sunni country, risked antagonizing the Sunni Muslim population in Russia. The vast majority of Russia’s attacks in Syria have targeted non-Islamic State sites, revealing that Putin is less interested in going after the threat posed by ISIS than in propping up a like-minded leader (more on this in Chapter Four).

For each of these examples, Russian media played a key role in propagating the Kremlin line. The paucity of independent media, deepened by Putin’s decision early on to take over nationwide television and go after opposition newspapers and more recently websites, has facilitated the promotion of stories and narratives that benefit Putin’s interests.

Each of these examples, in addition to advancing Putin’s interests ahead of his country’s, also placed Putin at cross-purposes with the West. By violating his own people’s political rights and civil liberties, as well as his neighbors’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, Putin exacerbated tensions between Russia and the West. His supporters argue that he was standing up for his country’s interests; his critics, more accurately, describe his actions being aimed at self-preservation through deflection and projection of blame. This author subscribes to the more critical interpretation and argues that Putin’s actions, driven more by what serves his personal interests than by what serves Russia’s, make it nearly impossible to see how Russia and the West can establish any partnership and serious cooperation.

As Roderic Lyne puts it, “Putin’s own language, which at times verges on the paranoid, reveals a defensive mentality. To justify his authoritarian control and aggressive tactics on Russia’s periphery, he has painted a picture of Russia as a victim and target of Western attack over the centuries….”38 In the same Chatham House report, James Sherr states: “It is time to abandon the notion that the Kremlin is concerned about anybody’s welfare other than its own. As the leaders of the Ukraine insurgency themselves lament, they are but pawns in a bigger game. In this struggle, Moscow does not care whether its ‘compatriots’ flourish or starve. It does not care about Western goodwill unless it can be used against the West.”39

It is possible that Putin himself cannot distinguish between what is best for him and what he thinks is best for his country. Over the years, he may have developed a messiah-like complex that he, and only he, can save and protect Russia. He may actually believe Volodin, who said, “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” If that is the case, Russia is in for a difficult period, and the West, demonized as it is by Putin, has a tough road ahead, too.


Putin the Strategist vs. Putin the Tactician

Some observers argue that Putin has a grand strategy and is carrying it out successfully. For the first dozen or so years of his rule, Putin was more of a tactician. To the extent that he had a strategy, it was a “counter” or “anti” strategy: to block the West from its objectives, such as extending NATO and EU membership to some of Russia’s neighbors, recognizing Kosovo’s independence or establishing a missile defense system in Europe. Putin sought to blunt efforts by the West to support indigenous Russian civil society groups and painted such support as flagrant interference in Russia’s internal affairs. He also wanted to end Western “interference” in the internal affairs of Russia’s neighbors, including fomenting revolutions to overthrow pro-Moscow regimes. He did not offer an attractive alternative model to other states, nor did he subtly appeal to their leaders to draw closer in their relations with Moscow.

Instead, Putin initially used pressure and scare tactics, including shutoffs of energy in the middle of winter, to try to ward off Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in particular from closer ties to the Euro-Atlantic community; then he resorted to cyber-attacks in Estonia in 2007 and brute military force, first in Georgia in 2008 and then in Ukraine in 2014. The failure of the West to impose any consequences for his actions until the invasion of Ukraine fed his willingness to deploy whatever means necessary to advance his, though not necessarily Russia’s, interests.

Over the years Putin’s goal has not been to reconstitute the USSR, despite his claim that its collapse was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.40 Putin does not want responsibility for running these countries. At the same time, he does want a sphere of influence to ensure that these states do not challenge the system he oversees in Russia and to avoid the spread of Western influence and presence in the region. If it takes destabilizing his neighbors so that they become unattractive to Western suitors, then he is willing to do so, even though having unstable states along Russia’s borders is not in Russia’s national interests.

In cracking down on opposition forces and civil society in Russia, as well as ordering cyber-attacks against Estonia and the invasion of Georgia a year later, Putin’s thinking morphed from a tactical approach into a strategy. He sought to show that Western countries were feckless and that their criticism of his governing style and policies was hypocritical. He appeared less interested in promoting Russia’s image and more interested in tarnishing the image of the West. Given his own zero-sum way of thinking, however, what worked to his and Russia’s advantage could only come at the detriment of the West.

Putin sought to sow divisions between and among EU and NATO allies and between the United States and Europe. He exported corruption to the West to vitiate Western institutions and principles. He launched a propaganda campaign that sought to manipulate public opinion in the West. That eventually led to full-fledged interference in other countries’ elections, including in the United States in 2016. Putin has skillfully exploited indecisiveness on the part of Western leaders and has seemed resolute by contrast, coming to the “aid” of Russian-speakers in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, and his ally in Damascus in 2015.

In short, Putin moved from playing defense for the first five to six years of his rule to going on offense ever since. Sometimes, his actions have been ad hoc rather than the next step in a clearly articulated strategy. But taken together they form a pattern of Russian behavior that reveals a Kremlin leader willing to take big risks and ready to respond to various crises when friends are in trouble.

In addition, Russia’s military build-up, sizable military exercises, buzzing of NATO aircraft, and threats against European states that host missile defense sites were designed to show everyone that Russia was not just a “regional” power to be taken for granted. Putin’s ability to prove that Russia was “back” on the world stage after limping through the 1990s, when it was often ignored on the international scene, helped solidify his grip on power domestically. Putin has played a weak hand skillfully, while Western leaders often have played their relatively stronger hand badly.

To some extent, the debate over whether Putin is a strategist or tactician, while interesting, is academic. Similarly, arguing whether we are back in another Cold War is beside the point. It’s more important to focus on Putin’s actions and behavior, and therein lies more than enough reason to be concerned. The fact remains that Putin is a serious threat to Russians who disagree with him, to neighbors who want to pursue a more Western-oriented path, and to an international community that seeks greater stability and security. The sooner we recognize that reality, the sooner we can devise an effective strategy for countering the threat posed by Putin and his regime.


1 The first Chechen War was from 1994-1996.

2 Four books worth noting on this topic are: two by David Satter, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) and The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); John Dunlop, The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule (New York: Ibidem, 2014); and Alexander Litvinenko and Yuri Felshtinsky, Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within (New York: Liberty Publishing House, 2002). Also, see Scott Anderson, “None Dare Call It a Conspiracy,” GQ (September 2009) http://reprints.longform.org/putin-conspiracy-banned-story-anderson As for Berezovsky, he was found hanged in his home in March 2013; much speculation has surrounded his death, see Ian Cobain, “Boris Berezovsky inquest returns open verdict on death,” Guardian, March 27, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/27/boris-berezovsky-inquest-open-verdict-death and David Barrett and Rob Mendick, “Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky found dead in his bath,” Telegraph, March 23, 2013. He had sought exile in London after his relationship with Putin quickly soured. He was granted political asylum in 2003. His fall from grace in Moscow is ironic given that Berezovsky undoubtedly played a key role in bringing Putin to power.

3 David Satter, “The Unsolved Mystery Behind the Act of Terror That Brought Putin to Power,” National Review, August 17, 2016. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/439060/vladimir-putin-1999-russian-apartment-house-bombings-was-putin-responsible

4 The Soviet-era name Leningrad was still in use when Putin first moved to St. Petersburg.

5 Marina Sal’ye, a leading democratic activist and member of both the St. Petersburg and Russian parliaments, led a commission that looked into these contracts overseen by Putin. Her commission recommended Putin be censured and removed from his post as deputy to Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, though no action ultimately was taken along those lines. Karen Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy, pp. 107-108, 124-125.

6 Celestine Bohlen, “Yeltsin Resigns, Naming Putin as Acting President to Run in March Election,” New York Times, January 1, 2000. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/01/01/world/yeltsin-resigns-overview-yeltsin-resigns-naming-putin-acting-president-run-march.html

7 Robyn Dixon, “Chechen War Propels Putin to Front Ranks,” Los Angeles Times, January 1, 2000. http://articles.latimes.com/2000/jan/01/news/mn-49592

8 Anders Åslund, “An Assessment of Putin’s Economic Policy,” CESifo Forum 9 (2), 2008.


9 Vladislav L. Inozemtsev, “Russia’s Putin and Putin’s Russia: How They Work and What We Should Expect,” in Daniel S. Hamilton and Stefan Meister, eds., The Eastern Question Russia, the West, and Europe’s Grey Zone (Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins SAIS/Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, 2016), p. 93. https://dgap.org/en/article/getFullPDF/28038

10 Andrew E. Kramer, “More of Kremlin’s Opponents Are Ending Up Dead,” New York Times, August 20, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/21/world/europe/moscow-kremlin-silence-critics-poison.html

11 Andrew E. Kramer, “Putin Critic, Who Said He Was Poisoned in 2015, Falls Into Coma,” New York Times, February 6, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/06/world/europe/russia-vladimir-kara-murza-putin.html

12 “Statement by SASC Chairman John McCain on President Trump’s Phone Call with Vladimir Putin,” January 27, 2017 http://www.mccain.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/press-releases?ID=C9F10A81-5E01-4937-9395-64533976169F.

13 In Transparency International’s latest rankings, Russia dropped to 131 out of 176 countries surveyed. https://www.transparency.org/country/RUS

14 “‘No Putin, No Russia,’ Says Kremlin Deputy Chief of Staff,” Moscow Times, October 23, 2014. https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/no-putin-no-russia-says-kremlin-deputy-chief-of-staff-40702

15 Will Englund, “Russians say they’ll name their Magnitsky-retaliation law after baby who died in a hot car in Va.,” Washington Post, December 11, 2012. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2012/12/11/magnitsky-retaliation-man-baby/?utm_term=.c1679e2b1e04

16 “Under Child Adoption Threat, Ireland Scraps Magnitsky List,”[* *]Moscow Times, May 2, 2013. https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/under-child-adoption-threat-ireland-scraps-magnitsky-list-23751

17 Shaun Walker “Boris Nemtsov murder: Chechen chief Kadyrov confirms link to prime suspect,” Guardian, March 8, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/08/boris-nemtsov-five-suspects-appear-in-court-over-opposition-leaders-killing

18 “According to the latest government list, Russia has approximately 4,100 state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which play a prominent role across much of the Russian economy. The public sector accounted for a considerable share of economic activity with revenues of at least 71 percent of GDP, expenditures of at least 68 percent of GDP, and an estimated surplus of 3 percent of GDP in 2014…. The Russian government appears to be increasing state control over the country’s leading economic institutions as the economy continues to weaken,” according to the U.S. Commercial Service, Department of Commerce. https://www.export.gov/article?id=Russia-Competition-from-State-Owned-Enterprises

19 Peter Baker, “Sanctions Revive Search for Secret Putin Fortune,” New York Times, April 27, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/27/world/sanctions-revive-search-for-secret-putin-fortune.html See Stanislav Belkovsky, among others, for higher estimates.

20 Steven Lee Myers, “Pervasive Corruption in Russia Is ‘Just Called Business,” New York Times, August 13, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/13/world/europe/pervasive-corruption-in-russia-is-just-called-business.html

21 V. Milov, B. Nemtsov, V. Ryzhkov, O. Shorina, “Putin. Corruption. An independent white paper” (2011), translated by Dave Essel. http://www.putin-itogi.ru/putin-corruption-an-independent-white-paper/

22 Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk, “Winter Olympics in the Subtropics” (2013), translated by Kerkko Paananen.


23 “BBC Panorama: Putin ‘masks his actual wealth’—US Treasury,” BBC, January 26, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35413669

24 Will Englund, “Putin booed by Russian fight fans in rare public show of disapproval,” Washington Post, November 21, 2011. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/putin-booed-by-russian-fight-fans-in-rare-public-show-of-disapproval/2011/11/21/gIQAxUOrhN_story.html

25 David M. Herszenhorn and Ellen Barry, “Putin Contends Clinton Incited Unrest Over Vote,” New York Times, December 8, 2011. More on this in Chapter Three. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/09/world/europe/putin-accuses-clinton-of-instigating-russian-protests.html

26 Keir Giles, Philip Hanson, Roderic Lyne, James Nixey, James Sherr and Andrew Wood, The Russian Challenge, Chatham House (June 2015), p. 67. Chatham House’s Report is one of the finest on the subject. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

27 The Russian Challenge, p. 15. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

28 “The National Security Concept of the Russian Federation,” January 10, 2000. http://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/official_documents/-/asset_publisher/CptICkB6BZ29/content/id/589768

29 Ibid.

30 “Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation,”

July 8, 2000. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/21480

31 “Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation,” May 26, 2004.


32 The price of oil tripled in real terms between 1998 and 2004.

33 “Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation,” February 5, 2010. http://www.sras.org/military_doctrine_russian_federation_2010

34 See Owen Matthews, “Putin Backs a Major Thaw in Russian Foreign Policy,” Newsweek, June 12, 2010. http://www.newsweek.com/putin-backs-major-thaw-russian-foreign-policy-72929 I wrote a piece reacting to the leaked document: “Russia’s ‘new’ stance remains anti-West,” Washington Post, June 22, 2010. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/21/AR2010062103696.html

35 “Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation,” December 25, 2014. http://rusemb.org.uk/press/2029

36 The Russian Challenge, p. 62. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

37 “Address by President Vladimir Putin,” September 4, 2004. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/22589

38 The Russian Challenge, p. 24. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

39 The Russian Challenge, p. 45. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

40 “Putin Deplores Collapse of USSR,” BBC, April 25, 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4480745.stm

Chapter Three:

Looking Into Putin’s KGB Soul

Kosovo and NATO Enlargement

Toward the end of the Clinton administration, from late March until mid-June 1999, several months before Putin became prime minister, NATO forces bombed Serbian targets to stop the war on Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population. Serbia was one of Russia’s closest allies at the time, and the NATO action soured relations between Moscow and the Alliance as well as between Moscow and Washington. Coming toward the end of Boris Yeltsin’s second term, the U.S.-led operation left Russia feeling like an impotent, second-rate power.1 For years, Russian officials and analysts cited the bombing campaign as an example of aggression carried out by NATO and the United States without approval from the United Nations Security Council, which Russia, with its veto power, never would have granted in the first place.

“Many Russians — including critics of the Kremlin,” Angela Stent writes in her book, “view Kosovo as the critical factor that decisively ended both the Clinton and Putin resets. They consider the Kremlin’s role in 1999…as one of the darkest chapters in Yeltsin’s foreign policy.”2 This major irritant in relations lingered during the Bush administration, especially when the dispute over whether to recognize Kosovo independence, which it declared unilaterally in February 2008, renewed the split between Washington and Moscow.

NATO enlargement, whose first wave in 1999 included Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, left a similarly sour taste in the mouths of Russian officials and the elite. The enlargement of the Alliance and the bombing campaign against Serbia were a one-two punch to Russia’s international standing; the West seemed to be exploiting Moscow when it was weak and distracted by domestic challenges. The closer NATO moved toward Russia’s borders, the more the Kremlin hyped the “threat” NATO enlargement posed to the country’s national interests. This was reflected in Russian military doctrines and was often mentioned by Russians in and out of government as inconsistent with understandings connected to German reunification.3

As Andrew Wood noted in the Chatham House report:

There are many in the West who have been seduced by the Russian line that Moscow has been betrayed by the West over the years, and in particular by the enlargement of NATO…. It is certainly the case that Moscow has built up a grievance narrative over the years, including over NATO enlargement, and that this narrative has satisfying force for many Russians. That is a fact, irrespective of the truth of the tale, just as it was a fact that many Germans in the interwar years believed in the legend of the Stab in the Back.4

Russia also opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the intervention in Libya by the United States, France and the United Kingdom in 2011, but the bombing of Serbia in 1999 and the enlargement of NATO arguably were of greater concern to Russian officials and their supporters. These issues, along with resentment toward the Clinton administration for its support for “shock therapy,” a form of economic reform that made life for many Russians more difficult, colored Russians’ attitudes toward Washington for years. They also contributed to the sense among the Yeltsin crowd that they really needed to shake things up domestically. Yeltsin looked helpless in the face of an increasingly aggressive West. Russia needed a strong leader who could put an end to such reckless actions. Soon after, Vladimir Putin emerged on the national scene.

The first foreign encounters with the new Russian leader were marked by hope and optimism. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was the first official from Washington to meet with Putin in Moscow two months into his stint as acting president. “I found him a very well-informed person, a good interlocutor, obviously a Russian patriot who seeks a normal position with the West,” she said of Putin following a three-hour meeting.5 President Bill Clinton, who had met Putin twice when the latter was prime minister in 1999, met with the newly-elected Russian president during a visit to Moscow in June 2000. One U.S. official described their meeting as “businesslike,” “congenial” and “easygoing.”6

President George W. Bush was eager to get off to a good start with Putin, too, despite Republican criticism during the 2000 presidential campaign that the Clinton administration and Vice President Al Gore, Bush’s rival in that election, had over-personalized relations with Yeltsin and given Russia bad advice on economic reform. Given the Republican critique of U.S. policy toward Russia under Clinton, the expectation was that a new Republican administration would take a harder line, especially on issues like corruption and the war in Chechnya, which had resumed in the fall of 1999.7

In a foreign policy speech in November 1999, candidate Bush, not yet the Republican nominee, said this about Russia and its lack of democracy:

Dealing with Russia on essential issues will be far easier if we are dealing with a democratic and free Russia. Our goal is to promote, not only the appearance of democracy in Russia, but the structures, spirit, and reality of democracy. This is clearly not done by focusing our aid and attention on a corrupt and favored elite. Real change in Russia — as in China — will come not from above, but from below. From a rising class of entrepreneurs and business people. From new leaders who will build a new Russian state, where power is shared, not controlled.8

On Russia’s invasion of Chechnya, Bush took a hard-line approach. “Even as we support Russian reform, we cannot excuse Russian brutality,” he said in the same November 1999 speech. “When the Russian government attacks civilians — killing women and children, leaving orphans and refugees — it can no longer expect aid from international lending institutions.”9 At the time there was debate about whether to support loans Russia was seeking both from the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Export-Import Bank. This author argued that both should have been held up because of Russia’s actions in Chechnya. The Clinton administration did indeed suspend its support for both loans, but denied it was because of Chechnya.10 On Russia’s neighbors, Bush backed U.S. support for “links to the wider world” for Russia’s neighbors. “Just as we do not want Russia to descend into cruelty, we do not want it to return to imperialism,” he warned.11


Looking into Putin’s Eyes

After becoming president, Bush took a different approach in his first meeting with Putin in Ljubljana, Slovenia, on June 16, 2001. “My goal at the summit had been to cut through any tension and forge a connection with Putin,” Bush writes in his autobiography.12 Bush asked him about the cross Putin’s mother had given him, which Putin had had blessed in Jerusalem. Putin explained that the cross had been saved in a fire at his dacha, rescued by a firefighter. It was that story that led Bush to offer his famous assessment of Putin, for which the new American president was roundly criticized as sounding naïve about the former KGB agent, who undoubtedly had studied Bush’s own strong religious beliefs:

I looked the man [Putin] in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country. And I appreciated so very much the frank dialogue.13

That answer, uttered before 9/11, reflected Bush’s determination to find a way to work cooperatively with his Russian counterpart — despite the Kremlin’s brutal handling of the situation in Chechnya, which Bush had criticized during the 2000 presidential election campaign, and questions about the four apartment bombings in Russia in 1999 that killed roughly 300 people and propelled Putin to power. To a degree, Bush’s overture paid off a few months later, as Putin was the first foreign leader to call the White House after the terrorist attacks on September 11; Bush talked with him the next day. Ten days later, Putin agreed to open Russian airspace to American military planes heading to Afghanistan and gave his blessing for American bases in several Central Asian countries needed for military efforts in Afghanistan. Even though Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were independent states, much was made of Putin’s support for their willingness to host these bases.

In the Ljubljana meeting, Bush alerted Putin that the United States would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to free the way for development of a missile defense system. Both also agreed to reduce the two countries’ strategic nuclear warhead stockpiles, a deal codified the following year under the Moscow Treaty. Relations between Bush and Putin were off to a decent start.

At the same time, the fact that Bush did not raise any concerns in that meeting about the Russian leader’s brutal, anti-democratic behavior in Chechnya might have given Putin the impression that he would not be questioned about how he treated his own people in the future. Not surprisingly, the internal situation in Russia deteriorated during Putin’s reign: several figures investigating the 1999 apartment bombings died under mysterious circumstances; Russia’s richest oligarch was arrested in October 2003; there was increasing pressure on journalists and activists who challenged Putin; moves were made to crowd out the political opposition during the Duma elections in 2003 and 2007; and Putin critics were murdered in cold blood, like Alexander Litvinenko in London from polonium poisoning and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, both in 2006. These trends grew even worse after Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012 following a four-year interregnum as prime minister. “In the years ahead,” Bush would later write, “Putin would give me reason to revise my opinion.”14

Michael McFaul, a professor at Stanford University who would later become President Obama’s top Russia adviser and ambassador to Moscow, was critical of Bush’s initial soft approach on Russian human rights. Bush risked leaving Putin with the impression that the United States only cared about missile defense and not press freedom and the Russian army’s behavior in Chechnya, McFaul said in a New York Times story from 2001. “I can understand the strategy on rapport, but it went too far,” McFaul was quoted as saying. “I think there is plenty of good reason not to trust President Putin. This is a man who was trained to lie.” He took Bush to task for a “rookie mistake, saying in his first meeting that he was ‘trustworthy.’”15 McFaul’s later boss, Barack Obama, would make similar mistakes (more on that in Chapters Three and Four).

Early on, Bush and Putin found some issues on which they could cooperate: confronting the Taliban threat in Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and promoting trade (though this last issue was handled less than smoothly, given the controversy over “Bush legs” — see below). In the summer of 2001, Putin had even expressed an interest in Russia’s joining NATO — albeit on his terms.16 He repeated this idea in broad terms a year later during a press conference with NATO Secretary General George Robertson.17

Pavel Felgenhauer, a respected military analyst, dismissed the seriousness of Putin’s interest. “It’s political,” Felgenhauer said. “Russia cannot join NATO; everybody knows that…. Russia’s saying it wants to join NATO, NATO says anyone can apply, but of course it’s all nonsense. The West just wants to be nice to Mr. Putin. He knows it won’t happen.”18 Still, as late as 2004, as the three Baltic states joined NATO, Putin insisted that relations with the Alliance were “developing positively” and he had “no concerns about the expansion of NATO.”19 This is worth keeping in mind when critics of NATO enlargement undeservedly cite it as the main reason for tensions between Moscow and Washington.

In a visit to the United States in November 2001, Putin and Bush determined not to let Bush’s plans to leave the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty sour their evolving bilateral relationship.20 During that visit, Bush invited Putin to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where Bush said in his toast, “We are seeing a historic change in relationship between Russia and the United States. Usually you only invite friends to your home, and I feel that is the case here.”21 A few months later, in May 2002, Bush flew to Moscow to sign the treaty on nuclear arms reductions.22 Forgotten was the Republican Party’s criticism of Clinton administration policy on Russia. Bush thought he was developing a constructive relationship with Putin, and that thinking led him to withhold criticism of Russia’s deteriorating human rights situation.

His reticence to criticize Russia on human rights included Chechnya. The Chechen “foreign minister,” Ilyas Akhmadov, planned a visit to the United States to meet with officials in the Bush administration a month before Bush was to travel to Moscow. The meeting with Akhmadov was originally to have taken place inside the main State Department building in Foggy Bottom, but the location of the meeting was moved at the last minute to a building on the nearby campus of George Washington University. That the meeting was happening at all was a source of concern among senior U.S. officials for its impact on U.S.-Russian relations, and so the top leadership at State ordered that it occur outside the Department. I was one of three State officials — none of us above the office director level — to meet with Akhmadov. In the scheme of things, the decision to move the venue was not terribly significant, but it was a sign of the administration’s readiness to smooth over potential sources of tension.

In the Moscow meeting between Bush and Putin, despite their public praise for each other for signing a 475-word agreement in record time (the shortest arms control accord in history), there were some issues that caused friction, including most prominently Russia’s decision to ban the import of American chicken, known in Russia as “Bush legs.” As recounted in Peter Baker’s book Days of Fire, Putin accused the United States of exporting inferior poultry to Russia. “I know you have separate plants for chickens for America and chicken for Russia,” Putin charged. Dumbfounded, Bush got a firsthand look at the paranoia of the KGB-trained leader.23

It did not take long for the friction to turn into real disagreements between the two leaders. The rising tensions were the result of an accumulation of issues: Russia’s anti-terrorism campaign in Chechnya (that included major human rights abuses); the arrest of Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky in October 2003; a broader deterioration in the human rights situation inside Russia, including the elimination of the election of governors in 2004 in response to the Beslan tragedy (see below); the war in Iraq; the U.S. decision to leave the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; NATO enlargement (it was now politically expedient for Putin to raise the issue); and Putin’s perception that the U.S. was behind the various “color revolutions.” As early as November 2003, soon after the arrest of Khodorkovsky, Bush, in a conversation with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, understood that going after Russia’s richest man was a decisive — and disturbing — move on Putin’s part.

The Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 had already elevated to power Mikheil Saakashvili, soon to be a Putin nemesis. The presidential elections in Ukraine scheduled for the fall of 2004 were also making the Kremlin nervous, given that Viktor Yanukovych, then-prime minister under President Leonid Kuchma, faced a serious challenge from opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko became seriously ill following a mysterious poisoning on September 6, 2004, though he recovered ultimately to defeat Yanukovych in a repeat round of elections in December 2004 following massive protests in Kyiv’s Maidan and a judicial invalidation of the original run-off vote.24

A few days before Yushchenko’s poisoning, the hostage crisis in Beslan claimed 334 lives. Already suspicious about the role of the United States in the Rose Revolution, Putin delivered remarks in the immediate aftermath of Beslan in which he charged that “some would like to tear from us a ‘juicy piece of pie.’” That speech marked the real beginning of Russian finger-pointing at Washington. From that point on, even with a reelection victory under his belt from earlier in 2004, Putin was more interested in blaming the West, and the United States in particular, than in cooperating with it. As argued in Chapter One, Putin was in search of an outside enemy that, he would argue numerous times, threatened Russia’s way of life. He would come to use this outside threat to justify his crackdown inside Russia. Eventually, it would lead him to take action beyond Russia’s borders, too.

By the time Bush and Putin met in Bratislava, Slovakia, in February 2005, weeks after Bush was sworn in for his second term, areas of contention between the two leaders were crowding out areas of cooperation. In his Second Inaugural address the month before, Bush focused on the “Freedom Agenda,” a theme that did not sit well in the Kremlin. “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” Bush declared. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”25 Russia, it was clear, was not a country where freedom was expanding. Russia’s leader already suspected the United States might be angling for a color revolution in Russia.26 Bush’s Second Inaugural address did not allay these anxieties.

The Bratislava meeting was the first between the two leaders after Beslan and Bush’s reelection. It became the first real test for Bush’s Freedom Agenda. In their session, Bush decided to raise his growing concerns about the situation inside Russia. These concerns included the post-Beslan elimination of elected governors, the Khodorkovsky arrest and growing restrictions on political rights and civil liberties. Recounting his meeting with Putin, Bush writes:

I raised my concerns about Russia’s lack of progress on democracy. I was especially worried about his arrests of Russian businessmen and his crackdown on the free press. ‘Don’t lecture me about the free press,’ [Putin] said, ‘not after you fired that reporter.’27

Putin had been referring to CBS News anchor Dan Rather, fired after a controversy involving allegedly fraudulent documents concerning Bush’s service in the Air National Guard. As recounted by Peter Baker, Putin countered Bush’s criticism by saying, “You talk about Khodorkovsky, and I talk about Enron. You appoint the Electoral College and I appoint governors. What’s the difference?”28 Putin’s response to Bush’s criticism went on for roughly 100 minutes. In a joint press conference after their meeting, a Russian questioner asked Bush about the firing of journalists in the United States. It clearly had been pre-arranged by the Russian side.

The Bratislava meeting was one of the most contentious between the two leaders (at least until Bush’s encounter with Putin in Beijing in August 2008 as Russian troops were moving into Georgia). Putin’s lengthy retort in Bratislava to Bush’s concerns about human rights worked in one sense: it marked one of the last times Bush raised with his Russian counterpart directly and in a serious way his concerns about Russia’s domestic situation. With one exception, that is.

That came in July 2006, as Russia was hosting the G8 meeting in St. Petersburg. Pressure was on Bush to meet with Russian democracy and human rights activists and to speak out on Putin’s increasingly anti-democratic moves. In Days of Fire, Peter Baker describes some of Bush’s characterizations of Putin in meetings with other Western leaders. “He’s not well-informed,” Bush told the Danish prime minister. “It’s like arguing with an eighth-grader with his facts wrong.” To the visiting prime minister of Slovakia, Bush said, “I think Putin is not a democrat any more. He’s a tsar. I think we’ve lost him.”29 After his visit to Russia in 2006, Bush told British Prime Minister Tony Blair, “I left St. Petersburg more worried about Russia than ever.”30

While in St. Petersburg, Bush voiced little criticism publicly about where Putin was taking Russia. But we can see clear signs of the extent of Bush’s concerns in the fact that he did meet with Russian activists despite the Kremlin’s best efforts to keep it from happening. As the New York Times reported at the time, the meeting with the activists “in effect served as something of its own public rebuke” to Putin.31 Russian officials had threatened to pull the security detail and police escort from Bush’s motorcade if he went ahead with the meeting with the activists; they also blocked the travel of some Moscow-based activists to St. Petersburg. Putin clearly did not want the meeting to happen, but Bush refused to back down. Throughout his presidency, Bush thrived on meetings with human rights and democracy advocates fighting for a better future for their country, and he was not going to allow Putin to keep him from such a session in St. Petersburg.

Two months before Bush’s visit to St. Petersburg, Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a speech in Vilnius, Lithuania, in which he rebuked the Russian government for its crackdown on human rights and its use of energy supplies as “tools of intimidation and blackmail.”32 Only a few paragraphs of Cheney’s speech were focused on Russia, but they were the ones that made the headlines. Cheney undermined the effectiveness of his critique of Russia, however, by traveling from Vilnius to Astana, Kazakhstan, where he praised that country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, a leader with a poor human rights record. Nonetheless, if Putin’s dressing down of Bush in Bratislava in February 2005 was supposed to completely silence the United States on human rights, it didn’t have the full intended effect. Between Cheney’s speech in Vilnius and Bush’s meeting with Russian activists, the American administration was taking a more critical approach, albeit one far less than Russian and American human rights groups sought.


Putin’s 2007 Munich Speech

The next big test in the relationship came February 12, 2007, during the Munich Security Conference, where Putin delivered his harshest assessment to date of the United States.33 “This conference’s structure allows me to avoid excessive politeness and the need to speak in roundabout, pleasant but empty diplomatic terms,” Putin said at the opening of his remarks. “This conference’s format will allow me to say what I really think about international security problems.”34 And that he did. Putin described the dangers of a “unipolar world.” Extended excerpts are needed to represent the thrust and tenor of Putin’s message.

It is world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.

And this certainly has nothing in common with democracy. Because, as you know, democracy is the power of the majority in light of the interests and opinions of the minority.

Incidentally, Russia — we — are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.

I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world. And this is not only because if there was individual leadership in today’s — and precisely in today’s — world, then the military, political and economic resources would not suffice. What is even more important is that the model itself is flawed because at its basis there is and can be no moral foundations for modern civilization.

…Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems. Moreover, they have caused new human tragedies and created new centers of tension. Judge for yourselves: wars as well as local and regional conflicts have not diminished…. And no less people perish in these conflicts — even more are dying than before. Significantly more, significantly more!

Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force — military force — in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. As a result we do not have sufficient strength to find a comprehensive solution to any one of these conflicts. Finding a political settlement also becomes impossible.

We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way[* *](emphasis added). This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?

In international relations we increasingly see the desire to resolve a given question according to so-called issues of political expediency, based on the current political climate.

And of course this is extremely dangerous. It results in the fact that no one feels safe. I want to emphasise this — no one feels safe! Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them. Of course such a policy stimulates an arms race.

The force’s dominance inevitably encourages a number of countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, significantly new threats — though they were also well-known before — have appeared, and today threats such as terrorism have taken on a global character.35

Putin went on to call for a new “architecture of global security,” while lamenting the demise of the Adapted Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which was signed in Istanbul in 1999 but from which Russia suspended its commitment in 2007 (even though the treaty has no provision for a state to suspend its adherence). He noted NATO member states’ reluctance to ratify the treaty until Russia withdrew its forces from occupied parts of Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and Moldova (Transnistria). But he lied in saying that Russia was withdrawing its army from Georgia, “even according to an accelerated schedule.” They were not withdrawing at all, let alone on an accelerated schedule. He went on to say, “We resolved the problems we had with our Georgian colleagues, as everybody knows.” Having participated in efforts during my time in the State Department to salvage the CFE Treaty, I know for a fact that this is not true. Similarly, Putin dissembled in claiming that NATO was stationing “frontline forces” on Russia’s borders, including American bases with up to 5,000 troops.

The United States and other parties made efforts to find a reasonable compromise with Moscow to keep Russia under the CFE Treaty. But Kremlin officials in 2007, consistent with Putin’s Munich speech, clearly were in a mood to smash something emblematic, in their eyes, of the 1990s period of Western exploitation of Russia’s weakness (the CFE Treaty was adapted in 1999). So the Western efforts to keep Russia within CFE were futile; the Kremlin decided to use it to demonstrate that they were adopting a more assertive role in their relations with the West.

Putin also slammed efforts to transform the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) into a “vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign policy interests of one or a group of countries.” He rejected what he claimed were efforts to interfere in the “internal affairs of other countries” and to “impos[e] a regime that determines how these states should live and develop.” Such interference, he added, “does not promote the development of democratic states at all. On the contrary, it makes them dependent and, as a consequence, politically and economically unstable.”

Putin also dredged up an old trope — NATO enlargement — contradicting what he had said in the past on the subject:

I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them. But I will allow myself to remind this audience what was said. I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr. Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: ‘the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.’ Where are these guarantees?

Putin concluded his remarks in the same vein in which he began them:

We very often — and personally, I very often — hear appeals by our partners, including our European partners, to the effect that Russia should play an increasingly active role in world affairs.

In connection with this I would allow myself to make one small remark. It is hardly necessary to incite us to do so (emphasis added). Russia is a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years and has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy.

We are not going to change this tradition today. At the same time, we are well aware of how the world has changed and we have a realistic sense of our own opportunities and potential. And of course we would like to interact with responsible and independent partners with whom we could work together in constructing a fair and democratic world order that would ensure security and prosperity not only for a select few, but for all.

I was in Washington during the Munich conference, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Munich and was scheduled to be the leading American speaker the next day. I was not involved in the internal deliberations between Gates’s delegation in Munich and those in Washington about how to respond to Putin’s broadside; I learned about it afterward. As Gates said in his remarks, the decision was made not to respond to Putin in kind, but to take the high road. “One Cold War was quite enough,” Gates stated.36 Gates described Russia as a “partner in our endeavors,” and White House spokesman Tony Snow said Russia was a “valued ally.”37 In choosing not to engage in tit-for-tat verbal attacks, the Bush administration decided that Russia remained too important on issues such as non-proliferation, especially with respect to Iran, missile defense (where we and Russia had major differences), Kosovo (which Russia refused to recognize) and counter-terrorism to risk a rhetorical fight.

I understood and respected the decision, but, had I been consulted, I would have recommended a different approach. I believed then, and continue to believe to this day, that Putin’s Munich attack warranted a firm reply making clear that the United States would not stand for such language. The response need not have stooped to Putin’s level, nor gone on to the same length and degree Putin did, but Putin’s words merited a sharp rejoinder. Saying simply that we neither needed nor wanted another Cold War fell short, in my view. Putin would never say the same things about China or Iran that he uttered about us. And the fact that we swept it under the rug sent him the wrong signal. We needed to stand up to Putin’s bullying — which, at that point, was largely rhetorical. Not doing so meant that Putin would test us to see what more he could get away with.

Indeed, three months later, Putin compared the United States to the Third Reich. “We do not have the right to forget the causes of any war, which must be sought in the mistakes and errors of peacetime,” Mr. Putin said at the May 9 commemoration marking the 62nd anniversary of the end of World War II. “Moreover, in our time, these threats are not diminishing. They are only transforming, changing their appearance. In these new threats, as during the time of the Third Reich, are the same contempt for human life and the same claims of exceptionality and diktat in the world.”38 That, too, the Bush administration let pass without a real response, and that also was a mistake. Putin undoubtedly viewed American officials’ reluctance to take him on as weakness; he saw an inch and decided to try for a yard and more — of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine starting in 2014.

Throughout its eight years, the Bush administration paid quite a bit of attention to the Eurasian region, to the great annoyance of Russian officials. Many U.S.-Russian bilateral meetings, including ones in which I personally participated, were devoted to discussion of Russia’s neighbors, both their right to determine their own future and Russia’s sense that it had special interests in the region. Bush’s support for NATO Membership Action Plans (MAP) for Ukraine and Georgia was a source of considerable tension between Washington and Moscow. Bush developed especially close ties with Saakashvili, and a major road in Tbilisi is named after the American president for his support of Georgia.

American support for Kosovo independence and for a missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic added to the friction between Washington and Moscow. On top of that, by 2007, especially with Putin’s Munich speech, U.S.-Russian relations were strained over the deteriorating human rights situation inside Russia, Russian heavy-handedness toward its neighbors (including a winter 2006 gas shutoff to Ukraine), increasingly bellicose rhetoric coming from Russian officials including Putin, the situation in Iraq, and NATO enlargement. By 2007, things had changed for the worse from the promising start in 2001 and that very first meeting between Bush and Putin in Ljubljana, Slovenia.


Speaking Out on Putin

I was stunned when I opened the June 1, 2007 New York Times to see my name on the front page, above the fold. “Administration Rebukes Putin on His Policies,” the headline declared.39 I was a mere deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs at the time, with responsibility for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. I had given a speech the night before to the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs, in which I took the regime of Vladimir Putin to task for its treatment of its own people and its aggressiveness toward its neighbors. 40

The National Security Council (NSC) had cleared the speech, as had the State Department, though senior leadership at the NSC was unhappy with it. I spoke three months after Putin’s Munich tirade and a few weeks after he compared the United States to the Third Reich in his World War II commemoration remarks. A month before my speech, Russia ignited a feud with Estonia over the removal of a Soviet-era war memorial from downtown Tallinn to a military cemetery; Russia launched a cyber-attack against Estonia in response.41 The controversy sparked riots in the streets of Tallinn, which many suspected were instigated by Russia, and attacks on the Estonian embassy in Moscow. The cyber-attacks were a new challenge to NATO, of which Estonia was a member. As one NATO official said, “If a member state’s communications center is attacked with a missile, you call it an act of war. So what do you call it if the same installation is disabled with a cyber-attack?”42 And yet, when all was said and done, NATO took no action against Moscow in response to the attack.43

The day before my Baltimore speech, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the United States of restarting a dangerous new arms race with its plans for a missile defense system in Europe and then implicitly threatened to block the United States and Europe in their diplomatic efforts to secure recognition for Kosovo independence.44 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice characterized Lavrov’s comments as “ludicrous.”45 The rhetoric, in other words, between the United States and Russia was heating up, so I figured my remarks would be consistent with the trends at the time. My speech was delivered a month before the President planned to host Putin at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine; this was perhaps the main reason the NSC was not too pleased with my remarks.

Still, I wondered why my speech merited front-page news treatment, especially given that the New York Times reported that “Mr. Kramer’s comments appeared to continue a diplomatic tactic by the White House in which the harshest messages are sometimes delivered by lower-ranking officials, to preserve greater latitude for senior policy makers in dealing with their counterparts.”46 The same day as my speech, Secretary Rice, in her own remarks delivered in Potsdam, Germany, described the American-Russian relationship as one of “cooperation and competition, of friendship and friction.”47 But I received greater billing in the Times that day than she did (the only time I can ever claim to have earned that distinction). In contrast to the NSC’s reaction, Secretary Rice, I was told, was not bothered at all by my remarks or the coverage they received.

I decided to take on Putin more frontally, which marked really the first time since Putin’s comments in Munich that a Bush administration official laid down some markers on Putin in a speech devoted solely to Russia. I sensed that within the administration, certainly in the State Department but also at the Pentagon and inside the vice president’s office, there was a desire to get tougher with Putin than we had been. Disagreements on how to handle Russia existed for several years between the NSC on the one hand and the State and Defense Departments on the other. As Angela Stent accurately described it in her book, The Limits to Partnership, “The interagency process on Russia/Eurasia was becoming dysfunctional.”48

The Presidential Checklist, designed by NSC staff and Putin’s advisors to keep the bureaucracies in Moscow and Washington focused on concrete deliverables, generated resentment within the various departments in Washington, as it seemed to let process overwhelm substance. Missing was an overarching view of Russia, a clear understanding of the increasingly authoritarian trends there, and the best ways to respond to the Russia challenge.

Despite being accused by some critics of taking a “hectoring and finger-wagging” approach to Russia,49 the Bush administration largely gave Putin a pass for his creeping domestic crackdown and muscle-flexing toward his neighbors, culminating in the August 2008 Georgia war. I served all eight years in the Bush administration and wish the criticism that we took a tougher line were true. I wish, for example, that we had taken a tougher line after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, or after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya the same year. I regret that we did not speak out more on the killing of so many Chechens during Russia’s second invasion of that region (a criticism that the Clinton administration deserves, too, since the first invasion and the start of the second happened on its watch). I wish we had been more outspoken about the murderous and kleptocratic nature of the Putin regime. Perhaps if we had taken a tougher line things would have turned out somewhat differently.

Instead, the Bush administration largely stayed silent as Russia’s internal situation deteriorated and as Russia became more aggressive toward its neighbors. Bush’s exchange with Putin in Bratislava in February 2005 and his meeting with the activists in St. Petersburg in July 2006 were the exceptions rather than the rule. At the end of the day, the fact that I, a mere deputy assistant secretary, voiced criticism did not make a difference. Even Vice President Cheney’s speech in 2006 stood out among a general reluctance on the part of the administration to speak out on Russia. That reticence likely gave Putin a green light to do what he wanted.

In my Baltimore speech, I offered this summary of Bush administration policy toward Russia at that particular point in time, May 2007: “cooperate wherever we can; push back whenever we have to. If you’re looking for a bumper sticker of our Russia policy, that’s it.”50 That phrase basically captured U.S.-Russian relations during the Bush administration.


Trying to Salvage the Relationship

Reflecting that “cooperate wherever we can; push back whenever we have to” approach, President Bush sought to improve relations toward the end of his term. In the fall of 2007, he ordered Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to lead the “2+2” process with their respective Russian counterparts. Those meetings, in October 2007 and March 2008, largely focused on American plans for a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Plans for NATO Membership Action Plans (MAP) for Georgia and Ukraine had not yet crystalized by October 2007 and were not a dominant issue at the March 2008 meeting either. Kosovo came up in the discussions, but largely on the margins.

Instead, the sessions sought to dispel Russian suspicions that the missile defense system would pose a threat to Russia. My sense, having attended both meetings, is that the Russians knew the system was no threat to them. But they were displeased with the fact that the United States was engaging with Poland and the Czech Republic, two countries formerly under Soviet control, on military issues. That was more than Moscow could stomach. The design and plans for the missile defense system had nothing to do with Russia; they were focused on blunting a potential threat from Iran or other rogue actors. Russia was essentially overlooked in the process, and that did not sit well in Moscow. Russian officials were also of a mind to treat the United States as a threat. The 2+2 meetings started eight months after Putin’s Munich speech; striking an agreement with Washington would not have been consistent with the Kremlin’s narrative at that point.

There was little enthusiasm for the 2+2 meetings on the American side as well. Neither Rice nor Gates wanted to go for the second meeting in March 2008, but Bush was trying to persuade NATO member states to offer a MAP for Georgia and Ukraine.51 That issue was sure to annoy Putin, and Bush wanted to do everything he could to soften the blow in case NATO went ahead with the MAP offers. Both 2+2 meetings yielded the same result: no agreement or progress between the two sides. Less than two weeks after the second 2+2 meeting, Bush traveled to Bucharest for the NATO summit, where he unsuccessfully pushed for a MAP for Georgia and Ukraine. Bush was unable to budge German Chancellor Angela Merkel from her firm opposition to such a move, though the two agreed on strong language in the NATO communiqué stating that Georgia and Ukraine would become members of NATO.52

From Bucharest, Bush proceeded to Sochi to do what he could to salvage the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship by meeting with both Putin and incoming President Dmitri Medvedev. It was Bush’s first encounter with the soon-to-be Russian president.

In the press availability after their Sochi meeting, Bush said of Putin, “We worked very hard over the past years to find areas where we can work together and find ways to be agreeable when we disagree. And I think we’ve done a pretty good job of it. It’s been a remarkable relationship,” he added, in a case of serious overstatement. 53 The two leaders issued an 11-page “U.S.-Russia Strategic Framework Declaration,” covering a range of issues from security and Iran to the WTO, energy and climate change.54 A year later, Obama and Medvedev would issue their own joint statement following their first meeting in London, remarkably similar to the one signed a year before by their predecessors.55

In his two terms as president, Bush met face-to-face with Putin more than 40 times. In addition to Washington, Putin had been to Crawford, Texas and Kennebunkport, Maine. Cooperation focused on counter-terrorism, the Taliban challenge in Afghanistan, Iran and non-proliferation. Three Iran-related resolutions were passed in the United Nations Security Council during the Bush administration with Russian support. Russia played an important role in the early days of military action in Afghanistan, but its value on addressing the Taliban challenge wore off as relations became strained. Progress was made on Russia’s joining the World Trade Organization, a step completed under the Obama administration. In President Bush’s estimation, the rise in the price of oil changed Russia and Putin. The Russian leader “became aggressive abroad and more defensive about his record at home,” Bush writes.56 While U.S. policy during Bush’s eight years bears some responsibility for tensions in the U.S.-Russian relationship, by the time Bush exited the White House the main cause was Putin’s growing assertiveness at home and abroad.


Getting Away with Invading Georgia

Did NATO’s decision in April 2008 to reject a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for both Ukraine and Georgia increase the likelihood of a Russian invasion of Georgia a few months later? In Decision Points, George W. Bush wondered whether Russia would have invaded if NATO had approved a MAP for Georgia.57 Ronald Asmus, in his insightful book, A Little War That Shook the World, argued that the failure to extend a MAP to Georgia painted a bigger bullseye on it. I agree with Asmus. Russian officials were so fixated on the three letters — MAP — that they assumed victory when that was rejected and didn’t pay much attention to the forward-leaning language in the Bucharest Communiqué that Georgia and Ukraine would become members of the Alliance.58

German and French leaders worried that offering MAP to Ukraine and Georgia would antagonize Russia. That German Chancellor Merkel strongly disliked President Saakashvili did not help Georgia’s cause. Russian leaders knew all of this and interpreted NATO’s decision against MAP as demonstration of its lack of interest in Georgia. Russian leaders concluded they could get away with military moves against the Caucasus country. They were right.

The West should have seen the war coming. Russia turned the push to recognize Kosovo independence into a call for similar recognition for South Ossetia and Abkhazia. U.S.-led military exercises in Georgia were matched by Russian exercises along the Russian-Georgian border. Russia threatened military action if Georgia moved against Abkhazia following Russia’s shoot-down of a Georgian unmanned aerial vehicle in late April. Secretary of State Rice traveled to Tbilisi in July to warn Saakashvili against falling for Russian provocations and told him that “no one will come to your aid” if he launched military activity against Russia.59

There also were plenty of signs of an increasingly bold and aggressive Russian foreign policy. The cyber-attack against Estonia in 2007 was Russia’s first act of aggression, albeit not in the traditional way of thinking, against a NATO member state in the post-Cold War era, though not the first act of aggression against a neighbor since the break-up of the USSR in 1991. After all, the frozen conflicts in Georgia and Moldova and the ongoing presence of Russian troops on those countries’ territories constitute much earlier Russian violations of the concepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia has not paid a price for these abuses, nor is it even treated as the aggressor in these conflicts.

On the contrary, Russia holds seats at the table in the 5+2 talks on Transnistria, the Minsk Group process on Nagorno-Karabakh, the Geneva process on Georgia’s separatist regions and, later, the Normandy format on Ukraine. In none of these does the West treat Russia as the main problem in the conflicts; instead Russia is treated as a potential broker of a solution. In other cases, Russia has used energy and trade as weapons, as with the winter gas shut-offs to Ukraine in 2006 and again in 2009. It has also thrown its economic weight around with Lithuania (a NATO member) and Moldova, much smaller countries that bore the brunt of Russian economic and trade heavy-handedness.

Instead of pushing back against Russian misbehavior, the West has sought to bring Russia into the fold, by welcoming it into the G8 and the Council of Europe, establishing the NATO-Russia Council, making it a member of the World Trade Organization and treating it like a normal member of the Euro-Atlantic community.

Putin views such entreaties as a sign of weakness on the part of the West. He infers that we need the relationship with Moscow more than he needs ties with us. We forfeit our leverage by giving Putin the impression that he can wait us out, either on sanctions related to Ukraine or in seeking Russian help in solving problems like Syria. Whether Putin truly holds a weak hand or not, we play our own cards poorly by appearing desperate and in need of Russia for solutions. This deepens the failure on the part of the West to demonstrate to Putin that there are real costs for outrageous behavior.

In the case of Georgia, Russia paid no price for its invasion. Part of this was due to the fact that Saakashvili acted carelessly in response to Russian and South Ossetian provocations in early August 2008. He gave the Russians the pretext they were looking for by shelling Russian positions and South Ossetian villages, though those actions by no means justified Putin’s response. While Bush had a close relationship with the Georgian leader, a number of European leaders, most notably Germany’s Merkel, kept their distance from him. Russia was looking for an opportunity to move against Saakashvili, whom Putin hated, and when he did, Saakashvili was not able to tap into a reservoir of support among European counterparts.

The intervention of French President Nikolas Sarkozy did not help Georgia’s interests. Sarkozy was more interested in quickly putting the brief conflict behind him, hence his hastily written “Peace Plan.” The plan was badly flawed, and Russia has anyway ignored it, maintaining troops in the secessionist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and paying no price for doing so.

Another reason Russia emerged from the war scot-free had to do with the short duration of the conflict. Some 40,000 Russian forces overwhelmed the outnumbered and outgunned Georgian side, albeit with significant losses, including nearly three dozen Russian military planes shot down. Had the fight dragged on, as Russia’s more recent invasion against Ukraine has, there might have been an opportunity to mobilize a stronger Western response.

As it was, the U.S. flew Georgia troops stationed in Iraq back to Georgia on U.S. military aircraft and sent several ships into the Black Sea. Fighting broke out August 7, and Georgian troops were flown back on August 10; the ceasefire was announced August 12. In addition, NATO suspended cooperation in the NATO-Russia Council, until foreign ministers decided to resume formal dialogue in March 2009.60 These steps were not completely irrelevant — and may have encouraged Russia’s pursuit of a rapid ceasefire deal — but Russia’s invasion was over in five days.

The fact that Bush was in his final months in office and was bogged down in both Iraq and Afghanistan did not help in rallying an effective Western response. Bush did not want the localized conflict in the Caucasus to turn into a broader clash involving the United States. As recounted in Peter Baker’s Days of Fire, there was no appetite in Washington for a muscular response.61

In addition, Bush was in Beijing for the Olympics, along with Putin, when the fighting broke out. “I’ve been warning you Saakashvili is hot-blooded,” Bush said in confronting Putin. As Bush tells it, Putin retorted by saying, “I’m hot-blooded, too.” “No, Vladimir,” Bush replied, “You’re cold-blooded.”62

Much more could be said about the invasion, but this is not the book to re-litigate the Russian-Georgian War.63 The main point to draw for present purposes is that, just as it paid no penalty for its cyber-attack against Estonia a year before, Russia paid no price for its actions against Georgia. The West imposed no sanctions against Moscow, nor did it seek to isolate Russian leaders outside of a brief suspension of the NATO-Russia Council. Russia was not even suspended from the G8. The Bush administration did suspend high-level contacts with Russia and pulled a civilian nuclear agreement with Russia from U.S. Senate consideration, but approval of that agreement was unlikely anyway in Bush’s last few months.

National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley claimed, in an interview with Angela Stent for her book, that “the Russians needed to understand that they could not get away with something like invading Georgia.” 64 But that, in fact, is exactly what happened: Russia got away with invading a neighbor without any real consequences or penalties. As journalist Arkady Ostrovsky argued years later, “Russia got away with the Georgia war cost-free, which ultimately contributed to Russian confidence that its later incursions into Ukraine would succeed.”65

Keeping in mind these precedents, one should not be surprised by Russia’s refusal to comply with the Minsk ceasefire provisions in the invasion of Ukraine (to be covered more thoroughly in Chapter Four). Russia possibly surmised — in the case of Ukraine, this time, incorrectly — that it could once again get away with violating a neighbor’s sovereignty and territorial integrity at little or no cost. To be clear, while Russia has paid a price in the form of sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine, none of these sanctions was actually imposed for its failure to comply with the Minsk ceasefire agreements. Had the West exacted consequences on Russia for its invasion of Georgia in 2008, Moscow might well have thought twice before moving into Ukraine in 2014.

During his final 18 months in office, Bush sought to close out relations with Russia on a positive note with the 2+2 process and his April 2008 visit to Sochi. But his efforts clashed with Putin’s need and desire to hold up the United States and NATO as Russia’s greatest threats. Even though he was moving to the prime minister’s office, Putin was not done running his country. Perpetuating an anti-American narrative would be important for his eventual return to the presidency. Bush, by contrast, was term-limited and on his way out, exhausted from 9/11 and everything that followed from it, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His efforts to leave U.S.-Russian relations in decent shape were shattered by Russia’s invasion of Georgia.

On January 19, 2009, Bush called both “my friend Vladimir” Putin and Medvedev. With the former, he recounted the “many fond memories” the two leaders shared.66 Putin wished Bush well, but the damage had already been done in the relationship — both the personal and bilateral. “[G]iven what I’d hoped Putin and I could accomplish in moving past the Cold War,” Bush explained, “Russia stands out as a disappointment in the freedom agenda.”67 The Georgia conflict marked the lowest point in relations between the United States and Russia since the end of the Cold War — that is, at least until Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, came to office to see his own “reset” policy give way by the end of his second term to an even lower point in U.S.-Russia relations.


1 Lilia Shevtsova, Yeltsin’s Russia (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999), p. 91.

2 Stent, The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), pp. 159–160.

3 Russian officials claim the United States promised not to move NATO’s borders eastward toward Russia during negotiations over the reunification of East and West Germany. The best refutation of this claim is my brother Mark Kramer’s article, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” The Washington Quarterly, April 2009. http://dialogueeurope.org/uploads/File/resources/TWQ%20article%20on%20Germany%20and%20NATO.pdf.

4 Keir Giles, Philip Hanson, Roderic Lyne, James Nixey, James Sherr and Andrew Wood, The Russian Challenge (Chatham House, June 2015), p. 66. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

5 Jane Perlez, “A 3-Hour Talk With Putin Leaves Albright Encouraged,” New York Times, February 3, 2000.


6 Patrick E. Tyler, “Clinton and Putin Meet at Kremlin with Wide Agenda,” New York Times, June 4, 2000. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/04/world/clinton-and-putin-meet-at-kremlin-with-wide-agenda.html.

7 See the report issued in September 2000 by the Speaker’s Advisory Group on Russia, “Russia’s Road to Corruption: How the Clinton Administration Exported Government Instead of Free Enterprise and Failed the Russian People.” https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=umn.31951d02724878x;view=1up;seq=7 This author participated in and contributed to the group’s initial efforts but did not associate his name with it when it was released. The timing of the report left little doubt that it was meant to harm the electoral prospects of Vice President Gore.

8 http://www.4president.org/issues/bush2000/bush2000foreignpolicy.htm.

9 Ibid.

10 See my article “Blood and war form the true IMF audit: It is Russia’s war in Chechnya that should delay loans, rather than questions over financial safeguards,” Financial Times, December 7, 1999.

11 http://www.4president.org/issues/bush2000/bush2000foreignpolicy.htm.

12 George W. Bush, Decision Points (New York: Crown, 2010), p. 195.

13 “Press Conference by President Bush and Russian Federation President Putin,” June 16, 2001. http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/06/20010618.html

14 George W. Bush, Decision Points, p. 196.

15 Jane Perlez, “Cordial Rivals: How Bush And Putin Became Friends,” New York Times, June 18, 2001. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/18/world/cordial-rivals-how-bush-and-putin-became-friends.html?utm_content=socialflow&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social

16 “Putin Urges NATO Changes,” CNN.com, July 19, 2001. http://www.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/europe/07/18/russia.putin/ In 2010, the Contemporary Development Institute, set up by then-President Dmitri Medvedev, argued that NATO membership should be a goal for Russia in the 21st century. “Russia in the 21st Century: The Shape of the Desired Tomrrow,” Contemporary Development Institute (2010). www.riocenter.ru/files/Obraz_gel_zavtra.pdf

17 “Joint Press Conference with NATO Secretary General George Robertson,” November 11, 2002.


18 Peter Baker, “Russia in NATO? For Now, Just Talk,” Washington Post, August 12, 2001. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2001/08/12/russia-in-nato-for-now-just-talk/7ea8da94-e642-4db1-9033-fae20af99389/.

19 As quoted in “The Fog of Wars: Adventures Abroad Boost Public Support at Home,” The Economist, October 22, 2016. http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21708880-adventures-abroad-boost-public-support-home-fog-wars.

20 Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (New York: Doubleday, 2013), p. 177.

21 Ibid.

22 David E. Sanger, “Nuclear Arms Treaty: The Accord,” New York Times, May 14, 2002. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/05/14/world/nuclear-arms-treaty-accord-bush-putin-sign-pact-cut-nuclear-warheads-weapons-can.html

23 Peter Baker, Days of Fire, p. 200.

24 Many suspect Russian security services had a role in Yushchenko’s poisoning. It was not the last time that they would be suspected of such foul play.

25 George W. Bush, “Second Inaugural Address,” January 20, 2005. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=58745

26 “Putin Tells the Russians: ‘We Shall Be Stronger,’” New York Times, September 5, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/05/world/europe/putin-tells-the-russians-we-shall-be-stronger.html?_r=0

27 George W. Bush, Decision Points, p. 432.

28 Peter Baker, Days of Fire, p. 383.

29 Ibid, p. 471.

30 Ibid, p. 473.

31 Jim Rutenberg and C.J. Chivers, “Bush Meets Activists upon Arrival in Russia,” International Herald Tribune, July 14, 2006.


32 “Vice President’s Remarks at the 2006 Vilnius Conference,” May 4, 2006. https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2006/05/20060504-1.html

33 “Putin’s Prepared Remarks at 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy,” February 12, 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/12/AR2007021200555.html

34 Ibid., and “Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy,” February 10, 2007. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/24034

35 Forgive the length of the excerpts of Putin’s remarks, but I think it’s important to see them in their full glory.

36 Thom Shanker, “Gates Counters Putin’s Words on U.S. Power,” New York Times, February 11, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/us/11cnd-gates.html

37 “Press Briefing by Tony Snow,” Febuary 12, 2007. https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2007/02/20070212-3.html

38 Andrew E. Kramer, “Putin Cites Third Reich in Veiled Criticism of U.S.,” New York Times, May 9, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/09/world/europe/10cnd-russia.html

39 Thom Shanker, “Administration Rebukes Putin on His Policies,” New York Times, June 1, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/01/washington/01russia.html

40 David J. Kramer, “Remarks to the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs,” May 31, 2007. http://2001-2009.state.gov/p/eur/rls/rm/85874.htm. I remain grateful to my then-State Department colleague Michael Gonzalez for his help in crafting the remarks.

41 Steven Lee Myers, “Russia Rebukes Estonia for Moving Soviet Statue,” New York Times, April 27, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/27/world/europe/27cnd-estonia.html

42 “A Cyber-riot,” Economist, May 10, 2007. http://www.economist.com/node/9163598

43 Since then, cyber-attacks traced to Russian intelligence raised havoc with Ukraine’s Central Election Commission in 2014, power grids in Ukraine and other neighboring states, and the Democratic National Committee and other groups in the United States in 2016.

44 Thom Shanker, “Administration Rebukes Putin on His Policies,” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/01/washington/01russia.html

45 RIA Novosti, “Russian Officials Tout Iskander MIRV As 21st Century ABM Buster,”[* *]May 30, 2007.


46 Thom Shanker, “Administration Rebukes Putin on His Policies,” New York Times, June 1, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/01/washington/01russia.html.

47 Ibid.

48 Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership, p.137.

49 Samuel Charap with Laura Conley, Peter Juul, Andrew Light, and Julian Wong, “After the Re-set,” Center for American Progress (July 2009), p. 42. The then-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, in a speech to the Center for American Progress, noted how “Russians believed that Americans were too quick to lecture and preach, and prone to double standards.” He went on to say, “Russians, in my experience, generally contain their enthusiasm for the preachy and patronizing tone which we have sometimes employed on these matters, but that doesn’t mean that we should shy away from expressing our concerns. And far more importantly than what Americans think, it is deeply in the self-interest of Russians and their future to address all of those challenges.” https://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/issues/2009/07/pdf/russia_report.pdf

50 David J. Kramer, “Remarks to the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs.” http://2001-2009.state.gov/p/eur/rls/rm/85874.htm

51 Peter Baker, Days of Fire, covers the thinking and process behind the MAP issue well on pp. 585-587.

52 It is important to note the full language on this issue in paragraph 23: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO. Both nations have made valuable contributions to Alliance operations. We welcome the democratic reforms in Ukraine and Georgia and look forward to free and fair parliamentary elections in Georgia in May. MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership. Today we make clear that we support these countries’ applications for MAP. Therefore we will now begin a period of intensive engagement with both at a high political level to address the questions still outstanding pertaining to their MAP applications. We have asked Foreign Ministers to make a first assessment of progress at their December 2008 meeting. Foreign Ministers have the authority to decide on the MAP applications of Ukraine and Georgia.” “Bucharest Summit Declaration,” April 3, 2008.

53 Peter Baker, “No Pact, but Bush, Putin Leave a Map,” Washington Post, April 7, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/06/AR2008040600282.html

54 “U.S.-Russia Strategic Framework Declaration,” April 6, 2008. https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2008/04/20080406-4.html

55 “Joint Statement by President Dmitri Medvedev of the Russian Federation and President Barack Obama of the United States of America,” April 1, 2009. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/joint-statement-president-dmitriy-medvedev-russian-federation-and-president-barack-

56 George W. Bush, Decision Points, p. 435.

57 Ibid.

58 Ronald Asmus, A Little War That Shook the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

59 Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership, p. 170.

60 Marcel de Haas, “NATO-Russia Relations after the Georgian Conflict” (Atlantische Commissie, April 2009) https://www.atlcom.nl/ap_archive/pdf/AP%202009%20nr.%207/De%20Haas.pdf

61 Peter Baker, Days of Fire, p. 604.

62 George W. Bush, Decision Points, p. 435. Also, Peter Baker, Days of Fire, p. 603.

63 For more on this, in addition to Asmus’ book, see Svante Cornell and S. Frederick Starr, The Guns of August 2008: Russia’s War in Georgia (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2009) as well as the European Union’s three-volume, 1,500-page report, Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, September 2009.

64 64 Stent, p. 175.

65 Arkady Ostrovsky, “For Putin, Disinformation Is Power,” New York Times, August 5, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/06/opinion/for-putin-disinformation-is-power.html?_r=0

66 Peter Baker, Days of Fire, p. 634.

67 George W. Bush, Decision Points, p. 435.

Chapter Four:

The Reset

Before Reset, There Was Tough Talk

One of Senator Barack Obama’s first statements on Russia as a presidential candidate offered criticism of the March 2008 Russian presidential election in which Dmitri Medvedev replaced Vladimir Putin.

Yesterday, Russians went to the polls to elect a new president and begin the process of a peaceful transition of power in the Kremlin. Against the backdrop of hundreds of years of autocratic rule, Dmitri Medvedev’s election as Russia’s next president may appear to represent progress. Against the backdrop of Russia’s more recent experiment with democracy, this election was a tragic step backwards. Medvedev won easily in part because a very popular Putin selected him, but also in part because genuine opposition candidates were not allowed on the ballot, Kremlin-loyal television networks flooded the airwaves with positive coverage of Medvedev, and the entire state apparatus was mobilized to produce votes for Putin’s candidate. The election was the least competitive in Russia’s post-communist history” (emphasis added). 1

In that very same statement, Obama also expressed a willingness to work with the new Russian leader:

The United States, however, will need to work with President Medvedev on a range of issues of common concern, such as preventing weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists, addressing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, reducing our nuclear arsenals, and securing stable supplies of oil and gas from Russia. But engagement with President Medvedev and his government must not lead us to turn a blind eye to democratic erosion inside Russia. On the campaign trail, Medvedev himself hinted that he wanted to strengthen the rule of law, independent media, and Russia’s embrace of political freedom. All true friends of the Russian people should encourage him to keep his word” (emphasis added). 2

One should always be careful about over-analyzing presidential campaign talk, but the statement above is revealing in three respects. In describing Medvedev’s election as a “tragic step backwards” and as “the least competitive” since the end of the USSR, Obama staked out a tough line, arguably tougher than that of the Bush administration at the time. Bush, after all, was preparing to travel to Sochi in early April to meet with both Medvedev and Putin; blasting the former’s election victory would have set an awkward tone for the meeting. Obama also vowed that engagement with Medvedev must not lead to “turn[ing] a blind eye to democratic erosion inside Russia.” And yet that is exactly what Obama did in his first term as president. Finally, Obama indicated his readiness to work with Russia on a range of issues, including counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and Iran. That line in his statement may have laid the first stone in the foundations of the “reset” policy that would follow Obama’s victory in the November 2008 election.

From his critique of Medvedev’s election in March 2008, Obama would not return to the subject of Russia in a significant way again until July 23, when he cited the growing tensions between Russia and Georgia. In that statement, Obama sided largely with Georgia, but certain phrases left him open to criticism from the Republican side. “Over the last several weeks,” he said in the very opening of his July 23 statement, “Russia and Georgia have been engaged in a steadily more dangerous confrontation over two secessionist regions of Georgia — South Ossetia and Abkhazia.” He went on to say, “All parties — Russia first and foremost — must now reduce tensions, avoid the risks of war, and reengage in peaceful negotiations.”3

The next month, in a kind of competition with Republican presidential nominee John McCain to see who could sound tougher in response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Obama maintained a hard line. “No matter how this conflict started, Russia has escalated it well beyond the dispute over South Ossetia and has now violated the space of another country,” Obama declared on August 11, four days after the start of the fighting. “Russia has escalated its military campaign through strategic bombing and the movement of its ground forces into the heart of Georgia. There is no possible justification for these attacks.” He went on to say:

Let me be clear: we seek a future of cooperative engagement with the Russian government, and friendship with the Russian people. We want Russia to play its rightful role as a great nation, but with that role comes the responsibility to act as a force for progress in this new century, not regression to the conflicts of the past. That is why the United States and the international community must speak out strongly against this aggression, and for peace and security. 4

That same day, McCain issued his own statement:

What the people of Georgia have accomplished in terms of Democratic governance, Western orientation and domestic reform, is nothing short of remarkable. That makes Russia’s recent actions against the Georgians all the more alarming. In the face of Russian aggression, the very existence of independent Georgia and the survival of its democratically elected government are at stake.5

On August 26, both candidates condemned Russia’s recognition of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. McCain stuck with his hard line: “Moscow’s action deserves condemnation from the entire international community, and Russia must understand that its violations of international law carry consequences.”6 Obama similarly talked tough:

Russia’s government must respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia and other independent states. Its refusal to do so calls into question its commitment to the responsibilities of membership to organizations such as the OCSE and the Russia-NATO Council, its application to join the WTO and the OECD, and makes it impossible for Congress to enact the civil nuclear agreement. If Russia’s government continues to violate the norms and practices of the international community, the United States and our allies must review all aspects of relations with Russia…. Russia’s recent choices — not American or European decisions — are threatening this potential and reminding us all that peace and security in Europe cannot be taken for granted.7

It is worth noting that in that same August 26 statement, amid heightened tensions with Russia over Georgia, Obama offered a hint of what would be in store under his presidency. “Let us be clear, no one wants to see another Cold War with Russia. The United States and Russia have many mutual interests, and Russia has the potential to become a critical stakeholder in the international system (emphasis added).”8 It was this approach that Obama adopted upon assuming office in January 2009.

In presidential debates in the fall of 2008, both Obama and McCain continued their tough line toward Russia.9 For the most part, Obama’s public position during the better part of that year did not hint at a policy of serious engagement with Russia should he win the election in 2009, but after his victory in November 2008, there was already some talk within his team about a “reset” with Russia. Obama had moved from staking out a hawkish position only a few months before to one where he made it clear he was interested in working with his soon-to-be Russian counterpart. What changed?

The main explanation is the failure of the Bush administration to impose any sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Georgia. This led the Obama team to conclude against taking a tougher line than its predecessor. Since Russia invaded Georgia on Bush’s watch, it made little sense to punish Russia retroactively in the beginning of a new American administration. As one former senior Obama administration official told me in an interview, “By the time we arrived, coercive steps were too late.”10

The only bilateral step the Bush administration took came on September 8, when it notified Congress that it was withdrawing from U.S. Senate consideration the so-called 123 Agreement on peaceful nuclear cooperation; the reality is that that agreement was not going to be ratified that year anyway. 11 Leading up to the summer of 2008, Russian officials concluded that they could get away with lots of mischief-making — and they were right. The invasion of Georgia took Russian misbehavior to a whole new level, but even then Moscow did not suffer any consequences.

By indicating early on its desire for better relations with Moscow, the Obama administration was essentially signaling its readiness to sweep Georgia under the rug. In Moscow, it was read as yet another instance — after the cyber-attack against Estonia, withdrawal from the Adapted CFE Treaty, and Putin’s Munich speech — in which Russian actions went unchallenged.

And that — the inability to understand how its rhetoric and policy were being read in the Kremlin — was one of the biggest shortcomings of the reset policy. As the former official said, “We never thought of the reset as us needing them,” except, the official noted, on arms control. To be fair, given that the Bush administration did virtually nothing to penalize Russia for its invasion of Georgia, the Obama administration’s decision to reset relations with Russia was not necessarily the wrong thing to do at the time. However, the way it was done and the timing of it — so soon after Russia invaded Georgia — were flawed and sent the wrong signal to Moscow.


Early Days of the Reset

Vice President Joseph Biden was the first senior official who used the word “reset” in a formal setting at the Munich Security Conference on February 7, 2009. 12 At the very end of his remarks, Biden had this to say:

The United States rejects the notion that NATO’s gain is Russia’s loss, or that Russia’s strength is NATO’s weakness. The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our Alliance. It is time — to paraphrase President Obama — it’s time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia (emphasis added). 13

Biden cited the need to work together on the rising threat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, securing loose nuclear weapons and countering their spread, and advancing arms control. “We will not agree with Russia on everything,” he noted, citing the refusal of the United States to recognize the independence of the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the first reference to Georgia in months from the Obama team. Biden went on to reject “any nation having a sphere of influence” and stressed the right of states to “make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.” Despite disagreements, Biden stressed, the United States and Russia can “disagree and still work together where our interests coincide. And they coincide in many places.”14

Over the next two-plus years, the administration followed through on the broad areas laid out in Biden’s speech. Arms control was the main feature of the reset policy and resulted in the New START Treaty in April 2010, the first such agreement since the Bush-Putin Moscow Treaty of 2002. Obama resubmitted the 123 Agreement for congressional consideration. And he and his team hoped for follow-on agreements with Moscow on reducing nuclear weapons. Biden also noted cooperation with Russia on fighting extremist forces in Afghanistan, and the Northern Distribution Network was deepened to reduce dependency on Pakistan for moving supplies for American forces stationed in the region.

Biden’s extended hand to Russia was met with approval from a number of Europe’s key states. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in her own remarks at the same Munich Security Conference at which Biden spoke, said, “We need to find ways to incorporate Russia.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy added, “I don’t believe that modern Russia constitutes a military threat to the European Union and NATO. We should act accordingly.”15 The attitude toward Russia, in other words, reflected a desire in much of Europe and the United States to return to business as usual, despite the fact that less than a year before Russian tanks and troops had invaded Georgia.

While there was empathy for Georgia’s difficult situation, there was little love for that country’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Merkel, in particular, had a bad relationship with him, as manifested when George Bush tried to press for MAP for Georgia and Ukraine in April 2008. In certain European capitals, there was a sense that Saakashvili had needlessly provoked the Russians, or had fallen into a trap they had set. In contrast to the reaction in the western part of the continent, states closer to Russia’s borders such as the three Baltic countries, Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania were less enthusiastic about the reset.

Two days after Biden’s Munich speech, in his first press conference as president, Obama reinforced his vice president’s extended hand to Moscow. “I’ve mentioned this in conversations with the Russian President, Mr. Medvedev, to let him know that it is important for us to restart the conversations about how we can start reducing our nuclear arsenals in an effective way so that — so that we then have the standing to go to other countries and start stitching back together the nonproliferation treaties that, frankly, have been weakened over the last several years.”16

A few weeks later, Obama reinforced the centrality of nuclear weapons reductions in his effort to reestablish good ties with Russia. In a press availability following a meeting with UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Obama stated:

We’ve had a good exchange between ourselves and the Russians. I’ve said that we need to reset or reboot the relationship there. Russia needs to understand our unflagging commitment to the independence and security of countries like a Poland or a Czech Republic. On the other hand, we have areas of common concern. And I cited two examples: the issue of nuclear nonproliferation and the issue of terrorism. And at this point, I think we probably have some potential common concerns on the world economic front, as well. So my hope is, is that we can have a constructive relationship where, based on common respect and mutual interest, we can move forward.17

A month after Biden’s Munich speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, with a gag gift of a “reset” button during their first meeting in Geneva. Instead of “perezagruzka” for “reset”, “peregruzka” appeared on the gag gift — which means “overload” or “overcharge.” The New York Times recounted the March 6 exchange:

“We worked hard to get the right Russian word,” Mrs. Clinton said, handing the button to Mr. Lavrov. “Do you think we got it?”

“You got it wrong,” he replied, explaining that the Americans had come up with the Russian word for overcharged.

“We won’t let you do that to us,” she said quickly, with a full-throated laugh.18

The gag gift backfired and became associated with Clinton in a negative way in both Russia and the United States. To some, it suggested that the new American administration didn’t know what it was doing. To others, the mistranslation to “overload” more accurately summed up the relationship that would unfold than would the term “reset.”

Notwithstanding that mistake, U.S.-Russian relations continued to move forward. Obama held his first meeting with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, in London on April 1. The two issued a joint statement promising a “fresh start.”19 The Obama-Medvedev statement bore striking similarities to the statement issued by their immediate predecessors almost exactly a year before.20

“Reaffirming that the era when our countries viewed each other as enemies is long over, and recognizing our many common interests,” the Obama-Medvedev statement declared, “we today established a substantive agenda for Russia and the United States to be developed over the coming months and years. We are resolved to work together to strengthen strategic stability, international security, and jointly meet contemporary global challenges, while also addressing disagreements openly and honestly in a spirit of mutual respect and acknowledgement of each other’s perspective.”21

The statement was heavy on strategic arms control issues and even lofty in its nuclear reduction ambitions. “We committed our two countries to achieving a nuclear free world,” it stated, “while recognizing that this long-term goal will require a new emphasis on arms control and conflict resolution measures, and their full implementation by all concerned nations.”22 It referenced “new possibilities for mutual international cooperation in the field of missile defense” and raised the need to cooperate on the challenge posed by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. It welcomed the resumption of activities under the NATO-Russia Council and expressed “interest in exploring a comprehensive dialogue on strengthening Euro-Atlantic and European security, including existing commitments and President Medvedev’s June 2008 proposals on these issues.”23 It mentioned U.S. support for Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization.

Nowhere, however, did the Obama-Medvedev joint statement mention Georgia. This glaring omission did not go unnoticed in Moscow. Russian forces had invaded that country less than a year before, and yet Obama and his administration made it clear they were interested in moving forward, not looking back. Officials in Moscow derived several different lessons from this experience.

First, they understood that their move against Georgia had cost them nothing with either the Bush or the Obama administrations, and so they began to think that they could get away with other such operations if the need arose. Second, they decided to beef up and modernize Russia’s military to ensure there would not be a repeat of its relatively poor performance against Georgia if force were needed again. Despite the economic crisis of 2008, Russia had the financial means to devote additional resources to its armed forces against the day when they might once again be needed for muscle-flexing.

The Obama administration paid insufficient attention to these developments. Instead, the president became fixated on arms control and reducing the number of nuclear weapons. A few days after his meeting with Medvedev in London, Obama traveled to Prague, where he delivered a speech on “the future of nuclear weapons in the 21st century.” In that speech Obama laid out his approach for reducing warheads and stockpiles. “[W]e will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year,” he said. “President Medvedev and I began this process in London, and will seek a new agreement by the end of this year that is legally binding and sufficiently bold. And this will set the stage for further cuts.”24

Both in his meeting with Medvedev in London and in his Prague speech a few days later, Obama focused the relationship with Moscow on arms control and reduction. He devoted little attention to the declining conditions for democracy and human rights in Russia or to Russia’s neighbors.

One exception to this, however, came in Obama’s July 7, 2009 speech in Moscow at the New Economic School. In that speech, Obama very skillfully wove in concerns about Russia’s political path. He began with an explanation for why he sought a reset policy with Russia:

To begin with, let me be clear: America wants a strong, peaceful, and prosperous Russia. This belief is rooted in our respect for the Russian people and a shared history between our nations that goes beyond competition….

In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries. The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chess board are over…. [A]ny world order that tries to elevate one nation or one group of people over another will inevitably fail. The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game; progress must be shared.

That’s why I have called for a reset in relations between the United States and Russia. This must be more than a fresh start between the Kremlin and the White House, though that is important, and I’ve had excellent discussions with both your President and your Prime Minister. It must be sustained effort among the American and Russian people to identify mutual interests and expand dialogue and cooperation that can pave the way to progress.25

He went on to say, “I believe that on the fundamental issues that will shape this century, Americans and Russians share common interests that form a basis for cooperation. It is not for me to define Russia’s national interests, but I can tell you about America’s national interests, and I believe that you will see we share common ground.” Obama listed cooperation in five areas: reducing the spread of nuclear weapons, defeating extremists, global prosperity, democratic governance and advancing international order. These last two points are worth further study.

In stressing “democratic governments that protect the rights of their people,” Obama elaborated:

By no means is America perfect. But it is our commitment to certain universal values which allows us to correct our imperfections, to improve constantly, and to grow stronger over time. Freedom of speech and assembly has allowed women and minorities and workers to protest for full and equal rights at a time when they were denied. The rule of law and equal administration of justice has busted monopolies, shut down political machines that were corrupt, ended abuses of power. Independent media have exposed corruption at all levels of business and government. Competitive elections allow us to change course and hold our leaders accountable. If our democracy did not advance those rights, then I, as a person of African ancestry, wouldn’t be able to address you as an American citizen, much less as a President. Because at the time of our founding, I had no rights — people who looked like me. But it is because of that process that I can now stand before you as President of the United States.

So around the world, America supports these values because they are moral, but also because they work. The arc of history shows that governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not. Governments that represent the will of their people are far less likely to descend into failed states, to terrorize their citizens, or to wage war on others. Governments that promote the rule of law, subject their actions to oversight, and allow for independent institutions are more dependable trading partners. And in our own history, democracies have been America’s most enduring allies, including those we once waged war with in Europe and Asia, nations that today live with great security and prosperity.

Now let me be clear: America cannot and should not seek to impose any system of government on any other country, nor would we presume to choose which party or individual should run a country. And we haven’t always done what we should have on that front. Even as we meet here today, America supports now the restoration of the democratically elected President of Honduras, even though he has strongly opposed American policies. We do so not because we agree with him, we do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not.

Obama’s message was clear without being hectoring or condescending: Russia suffered from serious shortcomings in the area of democracy and human rights. Obama also met with some of Russia’s leading opposition figures and appeared before a civil society meeting the same day as his New Economic School speech, though there he offered praise for the steps the Russian President had taken “so that civil society groups can play a more active role on behalf of the Russian people.”26 Such praise was premature, at best.

Nonetheless, Russian civil society activists and human rights defenders welcomed Obama’s comments and his attendance at the civil society meeting. Those activists hoped that what they heard was a precursor to renewed U.S. commitment to these issues under a new president. Regrettably, that would be the last time Obama would raise concerns about Russia’s democratic backsliding until 2013, a silence of four years that was deafening and demoralizing to those same activists.27

But Obama’s New Economic School speech also touched on Russia’s invasion of Georgia by stressing the importance of sovereignty of states:

State sovereignty must be a cornerstone of international order. Just as all states should have the right to choose their leaders, states must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policies. That is true for Russia, just as it is true for the United States. Any system that cedes those rights will lead to anarchy. That’s why we must apply this principle to all nations, and that includes nations like Georgia and Ukraine. America will never impose a security arrangement on another country. For any country to become a member of an organization like NATO, for example, a majority of its people must choose to; they must undertake reforms; they must be able to contribute to the alliance’s mission. And let me be clear: NATO should be seeking collaboration with Russia, not confrontation.

…America seeks an international system that lets nations pursue their interests peacefully, especially when those interests diverge; a system where the universal rights of human beings are respected, and violations of those rights are opposed; a system where we hold ourselves to the same standards that we apply to other nations, with clear rights and responsibilities for all.

There was a time when Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin could shape the world in one meeting. Those days are over.28

Just as Obama went silent on democracy and human rights concerns after his Moscow speech, he rarely returned to the subject of the centrality of state sovereignty during the rest of his term in office. He never visited a country in Eurasia other than Russia (not including the Baltic states). That, too, was noticed by officials in Moscow, who likely saw this lack of attention as giving the green light for their rough treatment of non-NATO neighbors. It also unsettled people living in countries bordering Russia. Those fears would play out most spectacularly in Ukraine in 2014.


What the Reset Accomplished

The key to any chance of success for the reset policy rested on the personal relationship between Obama and Medvedev. Only four years separate the two leaders in age, both have law degrees and both were viewed as starkly contrasting with their immediate predecessors. At one point in 2010, it was estimated that Obama met with or spoke to Medvedev more than he did with any other leader in the world. Obama took Medvedev to Ray’s Hell Burger in Virginia for lunch during the latter’s visit to Washington in June 2010, underscoring the informal rapport between the two. It is hard to imagine Putin going to such a place with his American counterpart.

Looming over the Obama-Medvedev relationship was Prime Minister Putin. Ever since he switched places with Medvedev in the spring of 2008, many viewed Putin as the real power behind the throne. Obama had an awkward meeting with Putin during his visit to Moscow in July 2009. Obama contributed to that awkwardness by stating in an interview a few days before traveling to Russia that Putin had “one foot in the old way of doing business.”29 This, in turn, led Putin to deliver a 90-minute lecture to Obama during their July 7 meeting.

Nevertheless, the chemistry between Obama and Medvedev paved the way for three main achievements: the New START Treaty in 2010, the Northern Distribution Network for Afghan transit (which had started under Putin and Bush) and another, tougher United Nations Security Council resolution on Iran — part of broader cooperation between Russia and the United States that ultimately led to the Iran nuclear deal in 2013. In addition, the U.S. supported Russian accession to the World Trade Organization as part of an effort to bring Russia into rules-based organizations. Finally, both sides supplemented their government-to-government ties with civil-society and private-sector interaction, part of what became known as a “dual-track” approach.

In their July 2009 meeting in Moscow, Obama and Medvedev agreed to create a U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission, to be led by Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov. This commission was not all that different from the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission under Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin; nor was it so different from the Presidential Checklist under Presidents Bush and Putin. This latest commission, which was petering out in the second Obama term, was disbanded after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Cooperation between Russia and the United States on Afghanistan was important, with some 70,000 containers of supplies transiting Russian territory by the end of 2012.30 Russia’s Rosoboronexport was under contract with the Pentagon for purchase of Mi-17 helicopters; this deal became very controversial after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for creating a dependency on Russia and paying directly into Russian state coffers. The UN Security Council resolution on Iran in June 2010, the fourth such resolution passed (the other three were done during the Bush administration), marked a ratcheting up of pressure jointly by Moscow and Washington on the regime in Tehran.

The New START Treaty was Obama’s most important accomplishment under his reset policy. It also gave Russia an issue on which it was more or less equally matched with the United States. The treaty, which caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550 and strategic delivery vehicles at 700 per side, was signed by Obama and Medvedev in Prague in April 2010. It was ratified by the U.S. Senate eight months later in a 71-26 vote, over objections from some Republicans about its potential impact on the development of missile defense systems and nuclear weapons modernization.

In the fall of 2009, Obama altered Bush administration plans for deployment of missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic and put forward instead a “Phased, Adaptive Approach” for missile defense in Europe.31 Announced clumsily on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, this new direction on missile defense was derided in Warsaw and Prague, where neither government was consulted on the change despite having spent significant political capital to generate support for the Bush deployment plan. Later, the Czech government withdrew from the missile defense project altogether amidst bitter feelings about the way the Obama administration handled the issue.32

In the summer of 2009, a week after Obama’s visit to Moscow, 22 leading[_ ]Central European figures published a letter warning Obama about his reset policy in the Polish newspaper[ Gazeta Wyborcza_]. “Our hopes that relations with Russia would improve and that Moscow would finally fully accept our complete sovereignty and independence after joining NATO and the EU have not been fulfilled,” they wrote. “Instead, Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods.” While the signatories noted that their countries welcomed the idea of a reset, especially as countries living closest to Russia — “obviously nobody has a greater interest in the development of the democracy in Russia and better relations between Moscow and the West than we do,” they wrote — they also perceived a “nervousness in our capitals.” They urged the United States not to make “the wrong concessions to Russia.”33 The Obama administration’s announcement on the missile defense system two months later fulfilled some of their worst fears.

Missile defense would remain a thorny issue for all concerned. The Central Europeans saw it as an opportunity to host American forces on their territory as a way to boost their defense profile and add insurance against any potential threats from Russia. Other Europeans viewed it as an unnecessary provocation of Russia and a leftover irritant from the Bush days. Moscow claimed that missile defense was a threat to Russia’s nuclear weapons capability, even though briefings from American military and intelligence officials explained in the clearest terms how this was not the case (see Chapter Two). Russian officials throughout 2011 warned about measures they would take to counter the missile defense system, including placement of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad; they even threatened withdrawal from New START.

In a comment during a bilateral meeting in Seoul with Medvedev on March 12, 2012 — two months before Medvedev would return formal power to Putin — President Obama was overheard on an open microphone saying, “This is my last election…. After my election I have more flexibility.” Medvedev replied that he would convey the remark to Putin.34 Obama’s open-mic moment became an issue in that year’s American presidential campaign, with Republican nominee Mitt Romney accusing the president of being soft on Russia. The candid remarks also lent credibility to those who criticized Obama for coming across as wanting and needing Putin’s approval more than he should have.

To supporters and even architects of the reset policy, the United States accomplished what it set out to do: advance arms control and reductions, support efforts in Afghanistan, work together on the Iran challenge, continue cooperation on counter-terrorism and develop a dual-track approach that included civil society. “We were not seeking good relations with Russia for the sake of having good relations,” one former senior official told me. “We were interested in advancing U.S. interests and to do that we needed Russia on a number of issues.”35

Michael McFaul, one of the architects of the reset policy who served as senior director and special assistant to the president on the National Security Council from the beginning of Obama’s first term until becoming ambassador to Russia in early 2012, explained the thinking behind the reset in an interview in the November 2015 issue of Columbia University’s Harriman magazine:

The essence of the reset is that it wasn’t a strategy about Russia, per se; it was integrated with other issues we were working on. In our assessment, our interests overlapped with the Russians on most big security and economic issues, and the argument for the reset was that if we had Russia with us, it would make it easier to achieve our objectives. We sought to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, to develop our supply routes to Afghanistan, to increase trade and investment in the world, and to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world, which was the one issue directly related to Russia. For the rest we had our own strategy, our coda, and if Russia was with us, with respect to the strategy for achieving each objective, it would be easier.36

Throughout much of 2010, especially with the signing of the New START Treaty in April and Medvedev’s U.S. visit in June, the Obama administration touted the reset policy as a major foreign policy success story.37 Obama himself bragged that he and Medvedev had “succeeded in resetting” relations between the erstwhile Cold War foes.38 In a speech at the Center for American Progress in Washington, then-Under Secretary of State and former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow William Burns, stated, “At the beginning of 2010, we are in a significantly better place with Russia than we were at the beginning of 2009. Many challenges and difficulties remain, and we have a great deal of work to do together to widen and strengthen the base of cooperation, but we’ve made a promising start.” Burns ended that speech with this: “[F]or the first time in a long time, the possibilities before us outnumber the problems. That is a very good thing for Russians and Americans, and for the entire world.”39

In a “Reset Fact Sheet” issued on the eve of Medvedev’s June visit to Washington, the White House declared: “In one of his earliest new foreign policy initiatives, President Obama sought to reset relations with Russia and reverse what he called a ‘dangerous drift’ in this important bilateral relationship. President Obama and his administration have sought to engage the Russian government to pursue foreign policy goals of common interest — win-win outcomes — for the American and Russian people.”40 Regrettably, there was no attribution to the Russian regime and its invasion of Georgia in 2008 for that “dangerous drift.”

Obama himself touted his policy’s success. “By any measure, we have made significant progress and achieved concrete results,” he said in a joint press conference with Medvedev on June 24, 2010, citing advances on non-proliferation, cooperation in dealing with North Korea and Iran, countering violent extremism and deepening economic relations. “Because 20 years after the end of the Cold War,” Obama added, “the U.S.-Russian relationship has to be about more than just security and arms control. It has to be about our shared prosperity and what we can build together.”41

A number of analysts outside the administration bought into the success of the policy. New START was the object of special praise. As reported in the New York Times, Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, called it “the first truly post-cold-war nuclear arms reduction treaty.” Richard Burt, a former chief START negotiator who heads a disarmament advocacy group called Global Zero and represents clients from the region at McClarty Associates, said that the two presidents “took a major step toward achieving their goal of global zero.”42

More broadly, “the reset represents a substantive change in U.S. foreign policy, not just a rhetorical shift,” said Samuel Charap in April 2010, while he was with the Center for American Progress. “The reset should become a foundation for building future U.S.-Russia relations,” he added. He described the reset as an effort to “move ahead in search of solutions to vital security concerns.”43 One of the reset policy’s biggest cheerleaders early on, Charap also argued that a “thorough stock-taking of the administration’s Russia policy shows engagement has yielded clear dividends. Indeed, New START itself demonstrates the remarkable improvement in U.S.-Russia relations that has taken place since President Obama’s inauguration.”44

As late as the fall of 2011, when the reset policy had lost much of its momentum and even officials inside the Obama administration were no longer touting it as they had been only a year before, another staunch reset defender, Matthew Rojansky, then with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argued that “even the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency won’t undo the most important accomplishments of the U.S.-Russia ‘reset.’”45 That statement did not stand the test of time.

By the middle of 2011, the reset had largely run out of steam. All that could be accomplished with Medvedev largely had been by then. But to those who were hoping that the reset had more to offer, September 24, 2011, was a dark day. That was when Medvedev announced that he and Putin would switch places again: Putin would return to the presidency and Medvedev would return to the prime minister’s position. The presidential election the following March was anti-climactic in many respects, as it simply affirmed the September announcement without real debate or discussion. That announcement in fact did spell the end of the reset policy. There was no hope that Obama would be able to establish the same kind of rapport with Putin as he had with Medvedev, and Obama’s earlier disparaging comments would not be forgotten by the Russian leader. Yet the reset policy suffered from serious flaws even before Putin’s formal return. His resumption of presidential powers merely pounded the final nail in the reset coffin.


The Reset: Flawed from the Outset

In her book The Limits of Partnership, Angela Stent provides a thorough description of the origins of the reset and the twists and turns it followed over the first few years of the Obama administration.46 She notes how the Russian side interpreted the reset as a “course correction, an admission that the American side was responsible for the deterioration in bilateral ties.”47 Indeed, Russian officials did not think there were any mistakes on their side that they needed to correct.

During a May 9, 2009 event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, roughly two months after Clinton presented him with the mislabeled reset button as a gift, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked by Russian expert Toby Gati, “What is the lesson of Russian foreign policy for the last 20 years, and what do you have to reset?” Lavrov’s response was telling: “Lessons, what lessons we would draw, I never thought of this, frankly. I don’t have time to draw lessons. I will do this when I retire.”48 Russia, in other words, had nothing it needed to reset in the minds of officials in Moscow.

Therein lies the first and earliest mistake of the reset policy: the eagerness of Obama administration officials to repair relations with Russia came across to officials in Moscow as weakness on the part of the United States. This over-eagerness created the impression that the United States wanted and needed the relationship with Russia more than Russia needed it. For example, it seemed the United States was more interested in having Russia become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) than Moscow was.49

Obama’s emphasis during his presidential campaign in 2008 on nation-building at home and ending two wars started by his predecessor already gave those in Moscow the impression that the Obama administration would be less engaged on foreign policy and more on other priorities. It did not take long for Moscow to view Obama as a weak leader, and that perception stayed largely the same throughout his eight years in office.

When the administration turned to Russia, it began by announcing the reset mere months after the Georgia invasion. This reinforced Moscow’s belief that Washington needed better relations more than it did. Washington’s apparent desperation to return to business as usual must have been most welcome news in Moscow.

That Russia paid no price for its invasion of Georgia — for which the Bush administration shares blame, as noted already — bolstered the sense in Moscow that Washington recognized Russia’s importance and needed its help on a range of issues. It also fed feelings of impunity in the Kremlin. That sense of impunity would come back to haunt U.S.-Russian relations again in 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine.

The administration’s policies and actions — among others, the botched reset button gag gift, the alteration of the missile defense plans for Central Europe and Obama’s remarks about having more “flexibility” after the 2012 elections — gave critics the impression that the United States was making concessions while Putin was holding firm. Moreover, the administration’s extolling of the reset as one of its major foreign policy successes overinflated the importance of Russia in overall U.S. foreign policy.

Even before Obama reversed himself over the chemical weapons “red line” in Syria in 2013 (more on that in Chapter Four), he had telegraphed to Putin and the world the limits on the exercise of U.S. military power and issues that the administration would not pursue in a serious way, such as democracy and human rights. Putin’s perception of Obama as a weak leader emboldened him. (This is not to say that Putin’s sense of freedom of movement is solely a result of Obama’s actions; the Georgia invasion passed without consequence on George W. Bush’s watch.)

There is also another possibility that must be considered: that Obama’s race factored into Putin’s thinking. Racist comments about the American president were not uncommon on Russian billboards and Russian media, and such remarks were rarely condemned by the Kremlin. Such scurrilous comments could have been at the very least condemned, if not sanctioned, by the Kremlin, which exerts strong control over Russian media.

The second mistake: the Obama administration assumed that Medvedev, president of Russia from 2008-2012, was a partner with whom the United States could work and that the United States could tip the political balance between Medvedev and Putin in the former’s favor by boosting his standing and working closely with him. The frequency with which Obama spoke and met with Medvedev and the informal nature of their relationship inadvertently painted a bullseye on the Russian president. Indeed, such an approach probably weakened rather than strengthened Medvedev in Putin’s eyes.

This was especially true when it came to the March 17, 2011 vote in the United Nations Security Council on Resolution 1973 concerning Libya, which established a “no-fly zone” and authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians during that country’s civil war.50 Russia was one of five countries that abstained during the vote. Soon after Medvedev was criticized for failing to veto the resolution, which American and other Western countries interpreted expansively as justifying deployment of the military forces that would ultimately help bring the regime of longtime madman leader Muammar Qaddafi to a bloody end. Russia was furious with the West for taking advantage of Russia’s abstention, and Medvedev paid a political price for ostensibly being in charge at the time. Six months later, he and Putin announced that they would switch jobs. (More on this in Chapter Four)

In addition, Russian officials, after initially welcoming Obama’s decision to alter Bush’s missile defense plans for Central Europe, began to think they had been double-crossed as Obama moved ahead with his Phased Adaptive Approach.51 To the more hardline crowd in Moscow, Obama was taking advantage of the “soft” Medvedev much the way Bill Clinton was seen as having exploited his relationship with the drunk and doddering Boris Yeltsin.

Obama also over-personalized the relationship,52 something his advisers promised he would not do. “I’m delighted to welcome my friend and partner, President Medvedev, to the White House,” Obama said on June 24, 2010, after taking the Russian leader to Ray’s for a burger. He continued:

[W]hen I came into office, the relationship between the United States and Russia had drifted — perhaps to its lowest point since the Cold War. There was too much mistrust and too little real work on issues of common concern. That did not serve the interests of either country or the world. Indeed, I firmly believe that America’s most significant national security interests and priorities could be advanced most effectively through cooperation, not an adversarial relationship, with Russia. That’s why I committed to resetting the relationship between our two nations, and in President Medvedev I’ve found a solid and reliable partner. We listen to one another and we speak candidly. So, Mr. President, I’m very grateful for your leadership and your partnership” (emphasis added).53

Such language no doubt raised suspicions in certain circles in Moscow that the relationship was growing too close, and that the American president was exploiting his Russian counterpart.

As Angela Stent notes in her book, “The Obama administration had come into office believing that improving the U.S.-Russian relationship could help to ‘empower’ Medvedev. The two presidents had worked on the most difficult issues in the bilateral relationship together; but the reality was that Putin had continued to run Russia throughout the Medvedev interlude.”54

Third, essential to the Obama administration’s reset with Russia was pursuit of “win-win” approaches to various global problems, including Iran, non-proliferation, arms control, and counter-terrorism. The problem with this approach is that Putin and Russian officials simply don’t think in “win-win” terms; international politics is a zero-sum game. Any gain for the United States on the international scene would come at Russia’s expense, and wins for Russia, according to their way of thinking, would come at America’s expense. No amount of persuasion from Washington was going to disabuse Russian officials of this approach. Talk of “win-win” even made Russian officials suspicious of their American counterparts, leading them to conclude that the Obama administration was trying to sell them a false bill of goods. Putin’s KGB background rendered him inherently suspicious of the United States; “win-win” talk was not going to get him to drop his guard.

Fourth, the reset badly damaged America’s reputation as a beacon for liberal values; the Obama administration looked the other way as Putin confidently launched the worst crackdown in human rights in Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. To be fair, the Bush administration had looked the other way, too, as described in Chapter Two, though the decline in the human rights situation was significantly worse on Obama’s watch. And while the real crackdown came after Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, even under Medvedev the human rights situation had been deteriorating.

After his July 2009 Moscow speech, which, to be sure, skillfully raised human rights issues, Obama kept silent about Russian human rights abuses for some time. In fact, it took Russia’s 2013 passage of legislation banning “homosexual propaganda” and Moscow’s warm welcome for Edward Snowden, who stole massive amounts of classified data while serving as a contractor at the National Security Agency, for Obama to criticize his Russian counterparts about the deteriorating internal situation in Russia and to cancel a planned bilateral meeting in St. Petersburg with Putin on the margins of the September 2013 G20 meeting.

Obama said nothing about the controversial Duma elections in December 2011, leaving it to his Secretary of State to voice American concerns; Clinton, to her credit, was clear in condemning them, much to Putin’s annoyance.55 (Her comments, in fact, stuck in Putin’s craw right up to her 2016 American presidential election campaign.) At the time, Putin accused Clinton of instigating the largest protests in Russia’s post-Cold War history. “She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” Putin claimed. “They heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work.”56

But the fact that the President of the United States said nothing and left the criticism to his Secretary of State did not go unnoticed in Moscow; civil society activists and opposition leaders were very disappointed by Obama’s deafening silence. Similarly, Obama failed to condemn the May 2012 crackdown and arrests of protestors (who started their demonstrations immediately after the Duma elections in December 2011) in what became known as the Bolotnaya case.57

In 2012, when Putin signed “foreign agent” legislation into law containing pejorative language reminiscent of the Soviet era, Obama stayed silent. That same year, when Russia expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from Russia, not only did Obama continue his silence, but his administration announced Russia’s decision, making Moscow’s task easier.58 There was no pushback or retaliation for kicking USAID out of Russia, and a number of programs funded by the U.S. government soon after had to close down. The shameful way the Obama administration handled this situation — there was no anticipation, for example, that such a development could set a precedent elsewhere — heightened Putin’s sense that his American counterpart was weak and that he could push America around.

One could draw a link between these periods of silence: the fact that Obama said nothing about the Duma elections may have led Putin to conclude that he would remain mute while Russian security forces went after the Bolotnaya protestors. And if Obama said nothing about the Bolotnaya matter, maybe he would also look the other way while Russia dredged up the “foreign agent” law and expelled USAID. The floodgates were opening, and Obama said nothing until the deluge was overwhelming.

Whether these events are connected in this way or not, Putin got away with fraud and abuse during parliamentary elections without paying any price with respect to the United States, and he achieved the same result in going after demonstrators in the spring of 2012, passing the “foreign agent” legislation, and reducing the American presence inside Russia. Of course, all this might have happened even if Obama had spoken out; Putin’s number one concern is to deal decisively with any challenge to his grip on power, no matter the international reaction. But a more outspoken American president might have given Putin cause to pause before acting, or mitigated the degree to which the FSB went after average Russians, NGOs and USAID.

[_Fifth, the public and repeated rejection of the notion of linkage — in which senior administration officials in the early days of the reset policy made clear that Russia’s declining human rights situation would not affect other parts of the bilateral relationship — made the faults of the reset even worse. _]59 The Obama team was the first administration to state such an approach publicly, even if others had pursued it out of the public eye. In going public with this line, the administration signaled to Putin that he could engage in any human rights abuses he deemed necessary without worrying about spillover effects on the overall relationship with Washington. This was precisely the wrong signal to send. The Obama administration’s opposition to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act — until the legislation passed Congress by huge bipartisan majorities in late 2012 — further undermined any sense that the White House cared about the declining human rights situation in Russia (more on this in Chapter Four).60

Sixth, the administration neglected Russia’s neighbors by pursuing essentially a Russia-only policy in the region. Whether one liked or disliked the reset, it was a clearly articulated policy for dealing with Russia. But there was no comparable policy for the other states in the region. Instead, for all intents and purposes the administration delegated responsibility for those states to the European Union through its Eastern Partnership Initiative.61 Until Russia invaded Ukraine senior Obama administration officials paid little attention to that country — the second largest after Russia — and other states in the region were similarly ignored.

Georgia, the most pro-American country in the region by far, was marginalized under Obama. In contrast to George W. Bush’s admittedly over-personalized relationship with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Obama completely de-personalized relations. Moreover, Obama never traveled to any of Russia’s non-NATO neighboring states during his whole eight years in office. His unwillingness to visit Ukraine as a demonstration of American solidarity after Russia’s invasion is a particular source of shame and a real missed opportunity (more on this in Chapter Four).

The lack of any concerted U.S. policy toward the rest of the region de facto consigned those countries to a Russian sphere of influence and betrayed their hopes and aspirations to identify more closely and integrate with the West. Exacerbating matters was the administration’s announcement in late 2011 that the United States would “pivot” to Asia, leaving Putin to infer that he could have his way with his neighbors while Washington shifted its geographic focus. The consequences of this mistake would play out most spectacularly in 2014 in Ukraine.

Appearing before the Armed Service Committee on December 6, 2016, at a hearing on “Emerging U.S. Defense Challenges and World Wide Threats,” Brookings Institution Scholar Robert Kagan devoted much of his testimony to the threat posed by Putin’s Russia. He also aptly criticized the reset policy of the Obama administration.

Its early attempt to ‘reset’ relations with Russia was a first blow to America’s reputation as a reliable ally, partly because it came just after the Russian invasion of Georgia and thus appeared to be almost a reward for Russian aggression; partly because the ‘reset’ came at the expense of planned programs of military cooperation with Poland and the Czech Republic that were jettisoned to appease Moscow; and partly because this effort at appeasement came just as Russian policy toward the West, and Vladimir Putin’s repressive policies toward the Russian people, were hardening.62

I joined others in warning the administration early in 2009 to be careful in pursuing the reset. In an op-ed in the[_ Washington Post_] that March, I advised against going silent on the deteriorating democracy and human rights situation inside Russia, ignoring Russia’s neighbors by letting the European Union take point, and dropping the Bush administration’s plans for a missile defense system in Europe.63

Regrettably, the administration ignored this advice and misplayed its hand on other problem areas as well. It did little, for instance, as Russia beefed up and modernized its military in ways threatening to its neighbors and to NATO allies. It never developed an effective strategy to counter the impact of Russian propaganda from outlets like RT and Sputnik on Russian and Western audiences. And it woke up late to the polluting effects of Russian corruption, Putin’s most effective export to the West.

Michael McFaul, in comments reported in August 2016 in the Washington Examiner, said, “I think the reset was a great success for as long as it lasted, and that’s a crucial distinction.” But in hindsight, he said, the United States should have adjusted once it was clear that conditions on the ground had changed. “Two things happened, Putin came back, and there were demonstrations on the street in Russia, and he became paranoid and needed America to become the enemy again,” McFaul said. “And that’s when the reset ended.”64


Putin Bears Most of the Blame

To be fair to Obama and his administration, the biggest share of the blame for the tense state of affairs between Russia and the United States lies with Putin, Russia’s leader since assuming the presidency of that country in 2000 (even accounting for the four years Putin served as prime minister while Dmitri Medvedev was president). He is the leader of a massively corrupt regime whose highest priority is to stay in power at any cost. In many respects, Putin has become a hostage of his own regime and cannot afford to surrender power without risking everything he has gained and stolen over the years.

Putin pursues policies that serve his own interests and those of the clique around him, not necessarily to the benefit of Russia as a nation. He adopts virulent anti-Western and anti-American themes in his rhetoric, and his pliant presenters on state television parrot lines that the United States, NATO and the European Union are threats to Russia. He invades his neighbors as needed to stem the momentum of popular movements which, he fears, will spread to Russia itself, and which, in his mind, were fomented by the United States. He seeks to damage Euro-Atlantic unity, sow divisions within the European Union and NATO, and discredit the Western model to show that it is no better than the model he has created in Russia.

Domestically, Putin has created an environment in which the murder of opposition leaders and journalists is condoned if not encouraged. Nor are regime critics who flee abroad safe from the Kremlin’s wrath (see Chapter One). Putin, in other words, is a dangerous leader whose regime poses an existential threat to the United States, and with whom strategic partnership is not possible. Both the Bush and Obama administrations ignored early but clear warning signs of these dangers.

The United States and the West are in a crisis today because of Putin, not because of us. Neither NATO enlargement over the years, nor the European Union’s more recent outreach to its eastern neighbors, nor supposed American hectoring of Russia on its human rights record (neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration actually did this, as explained above), nor treating Russia as a lesser power suffices to explain the current state of affairs. The arguments of those who make such claims need to be confronted head-on, for the facts refute their case.65 This is not to argue that American policies have been perfect; indeed, some policies from the American side have made matters worse or have reflected a poor understanding of the situation in Moscow, as noted above. But the bulk of the responsibility for the current tensions lies with Putin and those around him.

That said, Obama bears responsibility for overestimating Medvedev and failing to grasp who Putin really was, what motivated him, and how powerful he remained even when Medvedev was sitting in the Kremlin. Fundamentally, the Obama administration didn’t understand the challenge it faced in Putin. As noted previously, Putin’s number one objective is to stay in power no matter the cost, even at the risk of harming Russia’s interests or of souring relations with the United States.

Putin’s formal return to the presidency in 2012 was driven by his lack of confidence in Medvedev’s ability to sustain the corrupt, authoritarian regime Putin had built up over the years. The ill-gotten accumulation of wealth and assets of Putin and his clique are threatened by any domestic liberalization or any Westward drift by Russia’s neighbors. Accordingly, he determined that closer ties between Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova with Euro-Atlantic institutions threatened his own interests at home. If those countries could become more integrated with the West, more democratic and successful economically, then they (in particular Ukraine) risked becoming alternatives to the model Putin created in Russia. He also believed that the populations in those countries were incapable on their own of desiring their governments to embody values like the rule of law, freedom from corruption and greater liberalization. Popular movements in Russia and among its neighboring states could only have been the work of the West — and in particular the United States.

At the same time that Putin was attributing outsized influence in the region to the United States, he saw Obama as a weak leader whom he could exploit. Instead of being deterred from engaging in further aggressive acts, Putin kept testing the resolve of the international community and the United States — and continues to do so to this day. “Don’t appear too eager to work together. Don’t flatter Putin with high-level attention. Strength and resolve were the only language Putin would understand,” Clinton wrote in her memoir, Hard Choices. 66

By 2011, the reset was winding down. Early differences over Syria, reaction to the Arab revolutionary movements (and especially the controversial UN resolution on Libya, in which Putin felt Russia had been duped into abstaining), missile defense and growing Russian pressure on its neighbors started drowning out what were arguably positive achievements from the first two years of Obama’s tenure. Putin’s decision to resume the presidency in 2012 ended Washington’s dwindling hopes for better bilateral relations. By then, the reset was history. During Obama’s second term, relations with Russia would plunge even lower, to their worst levels since the break-up of the USSR.


1 “Obama Statement on Russian Presidential Elections,” March 3, 2008. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=91094

2 Ibid.

3 George Bush, Barack Obama, John McCain, “Official Statements on Russia-Georgia Conflict,” November 9, 2008. http://www.sras.org/official_statements_on_russia_georgia_conflict

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 “Statement from Senator Obama on Russia’s Decision to Recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as Independent States,” August 26, 2008. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=91055

8 Ibid.

9 See Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership, p. 214.

10 Conversation with the author, May 2016.

11 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “Statement on U.S.-Russia 123 Agreement,” September 8, 2008. https://web.archive.org/web/20080909041435/http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2008/09/109256.htm

12 Two years earlier at the Munich gathering, Putin blasted the West and the United States in particular.

13 “Remarks by Vice President Biden at 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy,” February 7, 2009. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/remarks-vice-president-biden-45th-munich-conference-security-policy

14 Ibid.

15 Craig Whitlock, “‘Reset’ Sought on Relations With Russia, Biden Says,”[* *]Washington Post, February 8, 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/07/AR2009020700756.html

16 “President’s News Conference,” February 9, 2009. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=85728

17 “Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Brown after Meeting,” March 3, 2009. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-obama-and-prime-minister-brown-after-meeting

18 Mark Landler, New York Times, March 6, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/07/world/europe/07diplo.html

19 “Joint Statement by President Dmitri Medvedev of the Russian Federation and President Barack Obama of the United States of America,” April 1, 2009. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/joint-statement-president-dmitriy-medvedev-russian-federation-and-president-barack-

20 “U.S.-Russia Strategic Framework Declaration,” April 6, 2008. One senior official acknowledged to me that the Obama team relied on the Bush statement in drafting the new version. https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2008/04/20080406-4.html

21 “Joint Statement by President Dmitri Medvedev of the Russian Federation and President Barack Obama of the United States of America,” April 1, 2009 https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/joint-statement-president-dmitriy-medvedev-russian-federation-and-president-barack-

22 Ibid.

23 Medvedev’s ideas for a new European security architecture never went anywhere. That is a good thing, as they would have gutted the existing mechanisms and worked to Russia’s favor.

24 “Remarks by President Barack Obama In Prague As Delivered,” April 5, 2009. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-barack-obama-prague-delivered

25 “Remarks at a Graduation Ceremony at the New Economic School in Moscow, Russia,” July 7, 2009. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=86379&st=&st1

26 “Remarks at the Parallel Civil Society Summit in Moscow,” July 7, 2009. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=86382&st=&st1

27 This silence was not unique to Russia. In general, despite the Moscow speech and similar praiseworthy speeches in Cairo and Accra, Ghana — both in 2009 — Obama evinced little interest in matters involving democracy and human rights issues globally.

28 “Remarks at a Graduation Ceremony at the New Economic School in Moscow, Russia,” July 7, 2009. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=86379&st=&st1

29 Peter Baker, “Preparing for Trip to Russia, Obama Praises Putin’s Protégé, at Putin’s Expense,” New York Times, July 2, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/03/world/europe/03moscow.html

30 Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership, p. 231.

31 “Fact Sheet: U.S. Missile Defense Policy A Phased, Adaptive Approach for Missile Defense in Europe,” September 17, 2009. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/fact-sheet-us-missile-defense-policy-a-phased-adaptive-approach-missile-defense-eur

32 Judy Dempsey and Dan Bilefsky, New York Times, June 15, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/16/world/europe/16shield.html

33 “An Open Letter to the Obama Administration from Central and Eastern Europe,” July 16, 2009. http://www.rferl.org/a/An_Open_Letter_To_The_Obama_Administration_From_Central_And_Eastern_Europe/1778449.html

34 “Obama tells Russia’s Medvedev more flexibility after election,” Reuters, March 26, 2012. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-nuclear-summit-obama-medvedev-idUSBRE82P0JI20120326

35 Conversation with the author.

36 Masha Udensiva-Brenner, “From Stanford to Spaso House: In Conversation with Michael McFaul,” Harriman (Fall 2015). http://www.columbia.edu/cu/creative/epub/harriman/2015/fall/from_stanford_to_spaso_house.pdf

37 See, for example, Desmond Butler, “White House points to success as Medvedev visits,” San Diego Tribune, June 24, 2010. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-white-house-points-to-success-as-medvedev-visits-2010jun24-story.html and Paul Richter, “Washington Prepares for Russian President’s Visit,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2010. http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jun/24/world/la-fg-us-russia-20100624. As reported in the latter, “As the Obama administration prepares for the visit Thursday of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, officials are citing improved relations with Russia as one of their big foreign policy successes.” Further on, it cites the New START agreement as “a major milestone.”

38 Obama, Medvedev ‘Reset’ US-Russia Relations,”[* *]CBS News, June 24, 2010. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/obama-medvedev-reset-us-russia-relations/

39 William J. Burns, “The United States and Russia in a New Era: One Year After ‘Reset,’” April 14, 2010. https://2009-2017.state.gov/p/us/rm/2010/140179.htm

40 “U.S.-Russia Relations: ‘Reset’ Fact Sheet,” June 24, 2010. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/us-russia-relations-reset-fact-sheet

41 “Remarks by President Obama and President Medvedev of Russia at Joint Press Conference,” June 24, 2010. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-obama-and-president-medvedev-russia-joint-press-conference

42 Peter Baker and Ellen Barry, “Russia and U.S. Report Breakthrough on Arms,” New York Times, March 24, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/world/europe/25start.html

43 Samuel Charap and Sam Greene, “A Year after the Reset: Achievements and Outlook in U.S.-Russia Relations,” April 21, 2010. http://carnegie.ru/2010/04/21/year-after-reset-achievements-and-outlook-in-u.s.-russia-relations/cr8h

44 Samuel Charap, “Assessing the “Reset” and the Next Steps for U.S. Russia Policy,” Center for American Progress, April 24, 2010. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2010/04/14/7718/assessing-the-reset-and-the-next-steps-for-u-s-russia-policy/

45 Matthew Rojansky, “No Need to Reset the Reset,” New York Times, September 26, 2011. https://fsi.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/Rojansky-_No_Need_to_Reset_the_Reset_-_NYTimes.com.pdf

46 See especially Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership, pp. 211-234.

47 Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership, p. 212.

48 “Russia-U.S. Relations: Perspectives and Prospects for the New Agenda,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 7, 2009. http://carnegieendowment.org/files/0507_transcript_lavrov.pdf

49 Russia became the 156th member of the WTO in August 2012 after concluding agreements in December 2011.

50 “Security Council Approves ‘No-Fly Zone’ over Libya, Authorizing ‘All Necessary Measures’ to Protect Civilians, by Vote of 10 in Favour with 5 Abstentions,”[* *]March 17, 2011. http://www.un.org/press/en/2011/sc10200.doc.htm

51 “Fact Sheet: U.S. Missile Defense Policy A Phased, Adaptive Approach for Missile Defense in Europe,” September 17, 2009.


52 Michael McFaul, Obama’s senior director for Russia on the National Security Council, made this argument in numerous meetings in Washington think tanks.

53 “Remarks by President Obama and President Medvedev of Russia at Joint Press Conference,” June 24, 2010. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-obama-and-president-medvedev-russia-joint-press-conference

54 Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership, p. 251.

55 For Putin’s reaction, see David M. Herszenhorn and Ellen Barry, “Putin Contends Clinton Incited Unrest Over Vote,” New York Times, December 8, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/09/world/europe/putin-accuses-clinton-of-instigating-russian-protests.html and more recently Michael Crowley and Julia Ioffe, “Why Putin Hates Hillary,” Politico, July 25, 2016. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/clinton-putin-226153 Clinton’s remarks can be found here: “Remarks at the OSCE First Plenary Session,” December 26, 2011. http://www.osce.org/mc/85930?download=true “We have serious concerns about the conduct of those elections,” Clinton said at a ministerial gathering in Vilnius, Lithuania of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Independent political parties, such as PARNAS, were denied the right to register. And the preliminary report by the OSCE cites election day attempts to stuff ballot boxes, manipulate voter lists, and other troubling practices. We’re also concerned by reports that independent Russian election observers, including the nationwide Golos network, were harassed and had cyber attacks on their websites, which is completely contrary to what should be the protected rights of people to observe elections, participate in them, and disseminate information.” The author attended the meeting and was positively impressed by Clinton’s candor.

56 David M. Herszenhorn and Ellen Barry, New York Times, December 8, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/09/world/europe/putin-accuses-clinton-of-instigating-russian-protests.html

57 For more on the December protests, see Ellen Barry, “Rally Defying Putin’s Party Draws Tens of Thousands,” New York Times, December 10, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/11/world/europe/thousands-protest-in-moscow-russia-in-defiance-of-putin.html, and for more on the crackdown in May 2012, see Michael Birnbaum, “A year into crackdown in Russia, protesters try again,” Washington Post, May 5, 2013.


58 “On Russian Decision to End USAID Activities in Russia,” September 18, 2012. https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/09/197846.htm I was president of Freedom House at the time and was dumbfounded at the poor handling by the administration of Russia’s decision to expel USAID.

59 Linkage here refers to the concept that the internal situation inside another country, including human rights abuses, can adversely affect the relationship with the United States in other areas and limit the ability of the two countries to cooperate.

60 The Act imposes visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses, including the detention and murder of Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

61 This EU initiative involved Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. While explicitly not intended to be a stepping-stone to EU membership, it sought to develop Association and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with interested states — and would become the source of the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2013-14.

62 “Testimony of Dr. Robert Kagan Before the Senate Armed Services Committee,” December 6, 2016. http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Kagan_12-06-16.pdf

63 David J. Kramer, “The Obama Team Should Rein in Russia’s Expectations,” Washington Post, March 6, 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/05/AR2009030502825.html

64 David M. Drucker, “Examining Politics Podcast: Former ambassador says Putin loves Trump, probably hacked Dems,” Washington Examiner, August 18, 2016. http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/examining-politics-podcast-ambassador-on-putin-loving-trump-likely-behind-hacking-dems/article/2599620

65 See various writings by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Cohen, for example.

66 Rebecca Shabad, “Clinton says she warned Obama to not trust Putin,” The Hill, June 10, 2014. http://thehill.com/policy/international/208773-hillary-clinton-warned-obama-about-putins-true-agenda

Chapter Five:

Reset? What Reset?

The Arab World Erupts

The Obama administration’s reset policy was already winding down well before the end of his first term and before Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012. One might even point to the June 2010 arrests of 10 Russian spies in the United States, which came three days after Obama hosted Medvedev in Washington, as the beginning of the end. Anna Chapman and nine of her colleagues were exchanged for four Russians who had been jailed in Russia for alleged spying for the United States. The arrests generated more curiosity than outrage at the time, but they were nevertheless a sign of rougher times ahead.

In 2011, the movements in the Arab world that led to the removal of several longtime authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya were seen in Moscow as the work of the United States.1 In fact, except in Libya, the West had nothing to do with these homegrown popular uprisings. They emerged among populations that had grown tired of their corrupt, brutal leaders. U.S. policy at the time was confused at best, unsure whether to support the popular waves sweeping across the region or to stand by longtime American allies against unprecedented democratic aspirations in the Arab world. It became clear that the position of the United States and other outside powers was largely irrelevant. Whether or not Washington wanted to see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stay in power, for example, Egyptians did not, and he was soon forced out, as were other leaders in the region.

Libya was different. There a popular movement led to the end of the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, but French, British and American forces actively intervened under UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of military force in Libya. That intervention prevented a bloodbath in the city of Benghazi. A few months later, Western military forces helped destroy Qaddafi’s army, leading to his capture and killing at the hands of Libyan opposition forces.

At the time of the vote on the UN resolution, Putin, then prime minister, criticized President Medvedev for abstaining in the Security Council. “The resolution is defective and flawed,” Putin declared during a visit to central Russia. “It allows everything. It resembles medieval calls for crusades,” he said. Medvedev countered his premier’s criticism, saying, “I think we all need to be careful in our evaluations. In no way is it acceptable to use expressions that in essence lead to a clash of civilizations, such as crusades and so forth — this is unacceptable,” Medvedev told Kremlin reporters.2

Both Medvedev’s decision to abstain in the UN and his response to Putin may have been fatal to any hopes had to stay on as president. Almost exactly a month before Qaddafi was captured, Putin and Medvedev announced they would switch positions.

The displacement of leaders in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen and an ongoing civil war in Syria heightened concerns in Russia that a domino effect of toppling authoritarian leaders could spread to Eurasia. Preventing that became a driving force behind Putin’s support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to keep him in power. Moreover, a paranoid Kremlin saw America’s hand behind the regime change movements throughout the Middle East, just as it did in 2003-04 with the Rose and Orange Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. The paranoia in the Kremlin reached fever pitch when protests broke out in December 2011 in Russia itself; again, Putin’s circle saw the United States as having played a role.


While the Crackdown Inside Russia Worsens

Indeed, internal developments in Russia, especially Medvedev’s September 24 announcement that he and Putin would switch places, exacerbated the decline in relations between Washington and Moscow. Having insulted Putin on the eve of his trip to Moscow in July 2009 by suggesting that the Russian leader had one foot in the Cold War, Obama was not well positioned for a promising relationship with Putin. Any hope that Medvedev could retain influence in his return to the prime minister position was quickly shattered by the crackdown launched immediately after Putin’s inauguration.

The arrests of the protestors in Bolotnaya Square were a precursor to more ugliness. The demonstrations started in December 2011 over Duma elections that month that were widely believed to be fraudulent.3 The protests, which involved tens of thousands of average Russians shouting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” continued through May right up until the eve of Putin’s inauguration, when authorities decided enough was enough. Over the course of a few days that month, more than 500 protestors were arrested. Other arrests over the next few weeks and months were intended to scare average citizens from participating in such demonstrations in the future — and in that respect they succeeded. The protests in those few months between 2011 and 2012 were the largest Russia experienced since the break-up of the USSR, but the country has not seen anything like them since.

The Russian human rights ombudsman at the time, Vladimir Lukin, argued that “there were no riots on Bolotnaya Square” and “innocent people were subjected to criminal sanctions.”4 His calls for leniency and amnesty for those arrested, as well as denunciations from the international community, fell on deaf ears. Putin and his circle were determined not to let another manifestation of popular protest occur in Russia again. Mobilization of the population scared them, and they blamed outside forces, as Putin did with Hillary Clinton, for instigating the crowds (see Chapter Three). Putin opted not to attend a nuclear security summit Obama was hosting 10 days after replacing Medvedev as president, unconvincingly arguing that he had to focus on naming his new cabinet; instead, he sent Medvedev to Washington for one last swan song. The more likely truth was that Putin was peeved at what he saw as U.S. support for the protestors and was in no mood to serve as guest for an initiative — nuclear security — that was important to Obama.

Putin stayed home to focus on preventing a recurrence of the demonstrations that shook the Kremlin. Using the patina of legitimacy provided by parliamentary action, he orchestrated the passage of laws that severely limited participation in “unauthorized” protests. The puppet Duma and Federation Council passed many other laws significantly curbing the population’s basic rights to freedom of assembly, association and speech. The “foreign agent” law was introduced two months after Putin was sworn in for a third term as president and became law that November. It requires non-governmental/non-profit organizations that receive foreign donations and engage in “political activity” to register and declare themselves as foreign agents.5 “Political activity” was to be interpreted in any way the authorities chose and covered organizations involved in everything from election-monitoring and political party training to environmental causes and health support.

Against this backdrop, Michael McFaul, who had been Obama’s senior director and special assistant for Russia and Central Asia and one of the architects of the reset policy, was set to assume the post of U.S. ambassador in Moscow. McFaul’s nomination had run into resistance from conservative senators, and so I joined with Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Robert Kagan in writing an op-ed in the Washington Post advocating for his confirmation. “McFaul is a renowned Russia expert, a strong proponent of democracy promotion (he recently wrote a book on the subject) and deserves the Senate’s support,” we wrote.6

McFaul’s background as a democracy promotion advocate was well known to Russian officials, too, and his arrival in Moscow soon after the turmoil in the Middle East and the protests in December 2011 in Russia added to the Kremlin’s paranoia. It did not take long before Russian officials and propagandists targeted McFaul, accusing him of trying to spawn a similar revolution in Russia itself.

McFaul’s cause was not helped by a meeting he hosted as ambassador on January 17, 2012, with Russian civil society and opposition figures. This meeting, for Deputy Secretary William Burns, was long planned but coincided with McFaul’s first week on the job. That evening, state-owned Channel One launched a vicious attack on McFaul, wondering whether he had arrived to foment a revolution. The show used McFaul’s own words against him, noting that McFaul himself had touted that he is a specialist on revolutions.7

While the timing of the meeting McFaul hosted was not the ideal way to start his new position, it was necessary in order to accommodate Burns’ schedule. Moreover, meeting with such activists and opposition leaders is normal for any American ambassador. The attacks on McFaul had obviously been prepared even before he arrived in Moscow; Russian officials simply had been looking for a pretext to deploy them. Now, McFaul tweeted far too much for my taste while serving as ambassador — I say that as one who does not use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or any social media — but nothing he did merited the abysmal treatment he and his family received while representing the United States in Moscow. Moreover, the administration back in Washington should have been more outspoken in his defense. After all, he was the ambassador representing this country. McFaul lasted a little more than two years in the posting, leaving right as Russia was seizing Crimea.

The attacks on McFaul were only part of the story. As noted in Chapter Three, Russian authorities expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in September 2012, and its exit led to the demise of a number of international and local organizations. The Duma sought to restrict Internet freedom in the name of “combatting extremism,” recriminalized slander, broadened the definition of treason and in 2013 passed a law outlawing “homosexual propaganda.”

Whereas it took Obama until the summer of 2013 to draw a line in the sand with Putin, the U.S. Congress did so the year before by passing the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. Known as the Magnitsky Act, the new legislation replaced the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, enacted nearly four decades before to deprive the Soviet Union of normal trade preferences because of restrictions on the emigration of Soviet Jews. Even though Russia placed no restrictions on such emigration and was certified as meeting the conditions under the Jackson-Vanik amendment annually, there was never sufficient support to lift the application of the law. Swapping it out for the Magnitsky legislation became the only way to repeal Jackson-Vanik, and by huge bipartisan majorities — 92-4 in the Senate and 365-43 in the House — the Act was passed in December 2012 and signed by President Obama that same month.

The administration and others had opposed the legislation, arguing instead for a clean graduation of Russia from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment without replacing it with the Magnitsky Act.8 U.S. officials claimed the legislation was unnecessary and would upset the reset policy. And yet with Putin’s return to the presidency in May 2012, the reset was already history for all intents and purposes. The White House’s argument that the Act was unnecessary was never convincing, since the administration showed little interest in sanctioning Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses.

On March 12, 2012, I participated in an event sponsored by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) on Capitol Hill, along with Bill Browder, the head of Hermitage Capital for whom Sergei Magnitsky worked, FPI’s Ellen Bork and Tom Malinowski, the Washington Director for Human Rights Watch. Ambassador McFaul, in town on a visit, joined us halfway through the proceedings and spoke against the Magnitsky Act.9 The U.S.-Russia Business Council also actively lobbied against it. I was president of Freedom House at the time and advocated for the legislation. The law provided accountability for the gross human rights abuses committed in Russia in the absence of any hope of justice being done inside the country.

After Obama signed the bill, Putin responded by signing a bill banning adoption of Russian orphans by American citizens: the Dima Yakovlev Law, named after a Russian orphan who had been adopted by an American couple and who died tragically while under their care in Virginia.10 The law was clearly in response to the Magnitsky Act, though Russian officials denied any connection, claiming it was because of the poor care given to Russian orphans by Americans.11 In fact, the vast majority of some 60,000 Russian orphans adopted by Americans over the past two decades, many of whom had disabilities, were welcomed into loving homes. While a caring people, Russians tended not to adopt their own orphans in great numbers, and so American citizens filled an important gap.12 Moreover, the Russian ambassador in Dublin threatened the Irish government with a similar adoption ban (as mentioned in Chapter One).13

On January 17, 2017, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Yakovlev Law violated the rights of dozens of prospective adoptive parents in the United States and ordered Moscow to pay compensation. In response to that ruling, Mikhail Fedotov, the head of Russia’s presidential human rights council, acknowledged that the law “was passed in response to unfriendly steps by the U.S. and the law was an answer to the United States’ so-called Magnitsky Act.”14

Some have portrayed the Magnitsky Act and the Yakovlev Law as morally equivalent tit-for-tat measures; this is absurd and offensive. Passage of the Magnitsky Act was strongly supported by Russian civil society and human rights activists, as well as a number of Russian opposition leaders. They included the late Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Kara-Murza, a brave activist and opposition leader poisoned in May 2015 in Moscow and again in February 2017. The Magnitsky Act was passed to show solidarity with those struggling for rule of law, accountability and justice in Russia. The Yakovlev Law, by contrast, was an example of the Russian leader’s spite and victimized the most defenseless and vulnerable segment of his own population — orphans. Such an unconscionable act should never be placed on the same moral plane as the Magnitsky bill.


Russia Factors into U.S. Politics — as Does Edward Snowden

The U.S. presidential election of 2012 featured strongly divergent views when it came to Russia. “Russia, this is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe,” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in a CNN interview in late March of that year. “They — they fight every cause for the world’s worst actors.”15 That interview came soon after Obama’s famous exchange in Seoul with Medvedev, picked up on a hot mic, in which the American president said he would have more “flexibility” in dealing with Russian President Putin after the U.S. election. Throughout the campaign, Romney strongly criticized Obama’s handling of Russia. He opposed the New START agreement signed between Russia and the United States as well as the White House’s changes to the Bush administration’s missile defense plan in Europe, among other issues.

During their October 22 debate in Boca Raton, Florida, Romney’s earlier comments about Russia were the subject of a back-and-forth between the two candidates. “Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that Al Qaeda is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaeda,” Obama said. “You said Russia, in the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

“First of all,” Romney replied, “Russia I indicated is a geopolitical foe. Not…It’s a geopolitical foe, and I said in the same — in the same paragraph I said, and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. Russia does continue to battle us in the UN time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin. And I’m certainly not going to say to him, I’ll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election, he’ll get more backbone.”16 Developments after the 2012 U.S. election vindicated Romney’s claims.

Not until Putin signed into law the ban on “homosexual propaganda” in 2013 did Obama speak out on Russia’s deteriorating internal situation. “I’ve been very clear that when…you are discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country,” Obama said in a taped interview on August 7, 2013, with Jay Leno on NBC’s The Tonight Show. “And I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.”17 During a press conference on August 9, 2013, Obama returned to the subject, stating, “Nobody is more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia.”18

Obama was right to criticize the passage of this law, but he sent the wrong signal by having stayed silent for four years when Putin took other steps in his domestic crackdown in Russia. In addition, Kremlin propagandists jumped on Obama’s reaction to this specific issue, citing it as support for the West’s promotion of “decadent” behavior — code for a pro-gay agenda. Putin was the defender of “traditional values,” they claimed, and even won accolades from certain conservative American figures such as Franklin Graham for “protecting Russian young people against homosexual propaganda.”19 Driven by their mutual hatred for gays, they found a hero in Putin despite his appalling human rights record and anti-American views.

Obama’s criticism of the anti-gay legislation in Russia came a month and a half after Edward Snowden, a contractor with the National Security Agency, flew to Moscow on June 23 after escaping the United States with information about the National Security Agency and other spy operations. Putin’s decision to grant Snowden refuge in Moscow left Obama no choice but to cancel a bilateral meeting with Putin in Moscow ahead of a G20 meeting in St. Petersburg in early September 2013. The Russian government’s handling of Snowden factored more heavily into Obama’s decision to cancel the meeting with Putin than did deteriorating developments inside Russia. The cancelation of the meeting was the first time such a decision had been taken by either side since the Nikita Khrushchev-Dwight Eisenhower meeting in 1960 over the U-2 spy plane incident.

As recounted in Stent’s The Limits of Partnership, relations were rapidly deteriorating from late August to early September 2013.20 Obama called for a “pause” in relations to “reassess where it is that Russia’s going, what our core interests are….” He then personalized his decision in unusual terms:

“I’ve encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues — with mixed success…. I don’t have a bad personal relationship with Putin. When we have conversations, they’re candid, they’re blunt; oftentimes, they’re constructive. I know the press likes to focus on body language and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is, is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive.”21

Obama’s last claim that his conversations with Putin had been “productive” was not convincing in the least. Indeed, by the end of that summer, after several years of silence on what was happening inside Russia and now with Edward Snowden on display in the Russian capital, Obama had had enough — and the reset, while barely on life-support before, was history. Except, that is, for a brief pause over how to handle the crisis in Syria and the issue of Assad’s chemical weapons. On that, Russia and the United States worked together, but cooperation on that issue failed to produce a lasting revival in relations.


Red Line in Syria – Erased

Obama drew a line in the sand in 2012 for Syria in which he threatened a military response if Assad used chemical or other weapons of mass destruction against his own people.22 Assad crossed that line with a poison gas attack in the summer of 2013.23 After hemming and hawing, Obama decided against moving militarily in response to Assad’s action. The decision was greeted with a mixed reaction in the United States and Europe. Those who did not want to get drawn into another conflict in the Middle East praised Obama’s cautious reserve; those who saw America’s credibility at stake condemned him for failing to follow through on his warning.

Obama’s reversal on Syria contributed to Putin’s impression that he was dealing with an indecisive and weak American counterpart. Putin, in turn, stepped in to bail Obama out of an awkward situation by offering to cooperate in removing and dismantling Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Administration officials touted this collaboration as yet another success for the reset policy, even though the word “reset” was barely uttered by U.S. officials by that point.

But Putin wasn’t content with working together with the United States. He penned an op-ed in the New York Times on September 11, 2013, that rejected the very idea of using military force in Syria. “A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism,” Putin warned. “It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

He went on to remind readers, “Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” This point, it is worth noting, didn’t seem to stop Putin from ordering the invasion of Ukraine a few months later. He went further:

It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us.’

But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.

Putin ended his piece with a slam against the notion of American exceptionalism.

My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is ‘what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.’ It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.24

Several years later, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg, Obama stood his ground, arguing that he made the right decision in not resorting to military force against Assad:

I’m very proud of this moment. The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus has gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to push the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was about to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.25

The reality is that Putin had outplayed Obama on the Syrian problem and insulted America in the process. Obama’s failure to follow through on his Syria red line told Putin that the United States would not necessarily make good on its threats or promises, and it arguably left him feeling that he could get away with moves closer to his borders without paying any price from the U.S. as well. This proved in part to be a miscalculation, as Obama joined other Western leaders in imposing sanctions on Putin for his invasion of Ukraine half a year later. Nonetheless, Putin likely concluded that Obama lacked the resolve to exercise American leadership, leaving a vacuum for Putin to fill not just in Ukraine but later in Syria, through his military intervention in support of Assad in late September 2015. As James Nixey has argued in Chatham House’s report on Russia:

The majority view among the Russian elite is that the United States has a weak president who does not believe in American power but rather is committed to managing American decline — a man who had voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and who in 2013 failed to respect his own ‘red line’ over the use of chemical weapons in Syria (even though Congress bore more responsibility for this decision). Putin could not fully protect Syria from the non-military Western response, but he did make Barack Obama look weak while also saving him from unpopular military action against Bashar al-Assad through a Kremlin-brokered deal. This was a key turning point in Moscow’s attitude. Having faced down the United States and prevented regime change in Damascus, it then felt able to act more confidently.26

From Sochi Olympics to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Preparations for the 2014 Sochi Olympics commanded the focus of officials in Moscow in the run-up to the games. Some $50 billion had been spent to prepare the Black Sea city for the Winter Games in February. Despite the massive corruption that characterized construction efforts,27 the games were a matter of pride for many Russians and an example of Russia’s triumphant return to the global stage. Perhaps hoping to build on the goodwill engendered by the upcoming event, in December 2013 Putin released imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky after he had served ten years in a politically motivated case. The move, however, did not win Putin any accolades, nor did his release of two members of the controversial music group Pussy Riot. Few Western leaders opted to attend the Sochi Games because of Russia’s declining internal situation and the simmering crisis in Ukraine. Indeed, Russian forces would invade Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula soon after the Olympic torch dimmed in Sochi.

The spark for the Ukraine crisis came a few months before violence erupted. Russian officials belatedly awoke to news of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Summit, to be held in Vilnius in November 2013. In the past, Putin and other Russian officials expressed little opposition to deeper ties between the EU and its neighbors; NATO was a much bigger concern. But the Vilnius summit suddenly focused their attention, and Moscow proceeded to pressure Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia against signing Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements and Association Agreements with the EU. Lost amid the focus that would follow on Ukraine was the fact that Russian pressure on Armenia persuaded that country’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, to reverse course on September 3.28 Compared to the reaction that would follow in Ukraine, in Armenia the response was relatively mild, reflecting that country’s longstanding dependence on Russia for security guarantees.

Russian pressure on Georgia and Moldova, by contrast, was unavailing. But in Ukraine, that country’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, caved to Russian pressure less than two weeks out from the Vilnius Summit.29 The reaction among Ukrainians, however, triggered a protest movement that ultimately led to Yanukovych’s fleeing power. Had Russia not pressured — and bribed — Yanukovych, none of the subsequent events would have happened. Had Moscow let Ukraine sign the agreements with the EU, Yanukovych might still be president of that country. Had Russia respected the sovereign right of another country to choose with whom it wishes to sign agreements, then thousands of people’s lives would have been spared, beginning with those lost in the protests that broke out on the Maidan in central Kyiv. Instead, thinking it could bully its way around and exaggerating the impact the agreements would have on Russia, Moscow forced its will on Kyiv — and sparked a revolution in the process.

“This is a disappointment not just for the EU but, we believe, for the people of Ukraine,” Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said in a statement regarding Yanukovych’s reversal on signing the agreements.30 Many Ukrainians agreed with her. They turned out in the thousands in downtown Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities to demand that Yanukovych change his decision. His refusal to budge led them to call for his resignation. Similar to the protest that turned into the Orange Revolution less than a decade before, Ukrainians turned out in bitterly cold weather again, not knowing how the situation would play out. Unlike the demonstrations of 2004, however, the Revolution for Dignity turned bloody.

Whereas Ukrainian forces refused orders to use violence against the protestors in 2004, Ukrainian special forces carried out Yanukovych’s orders to shoot to kill. Whether they had Russian help in using such force remains unclear. One of the biggest disappointments following the departure of Yanukovych and the emergence of a newly elected leadership in Kyiv has been the failure to bring to justice those responsible for the murders of the “Heavenly Hundred,” the term used to describe the Ukrainians who were shot and killed while defending their country against outside pressure.31

To Moscow, the protests were instigated and fomented by the West. Those espousing this view argued that Ukrainians on their own were incapable of launching such a movement, despite the fact that they had done so before in 2004. They pointed to the appearances of Republican Senator John McCain (Arizona) and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy (Connecticut) in downtown Kyiv in the middle of December, where McCain declared, “We are here to support your just cause: the sovereign right to determine [Ukraine’s] own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.” Added Murphy, “Ukraine’s future stands with Europe, and the U.S. stands with Ukraine.”32

They also cited U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s visit around the same time, in which she waded into the crowd of protestors to demonstrate U.S. support for their cause.33 Their visits were perfectly proper, even if they gave Russian conspiracy theorists ammunition. It was critical for the United States and its representatives to stand with the people of Ukraine when they so bravely and insistently demanded that their country’s future was in Europe.

In a strong statement on December 10, Secretary of State John Kerry declared:

The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kyiv’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity. This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy…. We put the government [of Viktor Yanukovych] on notice about our concern…. ®espect for democratic principles, including freedom of assembly, is fundamental to the United States’ approach to Ukraine…. For weeks, we have called on President Yanukovych and his government to listen to the voices of his people who want peace, justice and a European future. Instead, Ukraine’s leaders appear tonight to have made a very different choice.

We call for utmost restraint. Human life must be protected. Ukrainian authorities bear full responsibility for the security of the Ukrainian people. As church bells ring tonight amidst the smoke in the streets of Kyiv, the United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They deserve better.34

Obama, by contrast, stayed silent until February 19, when protestors began to be killed, aside from a brief mention in his January 28, 2014 State of the Union speech.35 He let Kerry, Nuland and others do the talking for the administration. This lack of presidential attention reflected a larger problem with U.S. policy. Up until the protests in Ukraine, Washington paid little attention to the states in the region aside from Russia. Yanukovych was not an easy person to deal with, and Vice President Biden deserves enormous credit for the time and energy he devoted to helping Ukraine, especially after the Euromaidan movement. Indeed, his very last foreign policy trip in January 2017 was to Kyiv to show solidarity with Ukrainians.

That Obama never visited any of Russia’s neighbors other than the Baltic states and Poland, however, exposed a lack of interest on his part toward the region and was interpreted by Moscow as an opening to exploit. While Obama finally commented in February 2014 on the terrible violence used by Yanukovych forces against the protestors in Maidan,36 it was not until Russian forces moved into Crimea that Obama spoke up in any serious manner. But by then it was too late in many respects.

The use of force against largely peaceful protestors in February 2014 sealed Yanukovych’s fate. The foreign ministers from Poland, Germany and France, along with Russian special envoy Vladimir Lukin, helped forge an agreement on February 21, 2014 between Yanukovych and three opposition leaders — Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok — that called for early presidential elections and a shifting of powers away from the presidency.37 The United States was not present at the negotiations, though it remained in close consultation with its European partners.

The deal was badly received by the mass of protestors in the streets. It lasted less than a day, as Yanukovych fled Kyiv for Russia. Claims that the opposition in Ukraine launched an illegal coup are simply not true; Yanukovych fled. Yes, he was under tremendous pressure, for which he bears responsibility, but the opposition was not scheming to seize power through force. Moreover, the force that was used was against protestors; Yanukovych bears responsibility for that, too. He was a terribly corrupt leader who was moving his country under Russia’s thumb. He deserves, along with those who worked for him, to put on trial for his role in the murders of the protestors, as well as for the massive corruption in which he engaged.

Yanukovych’s decision to flee caused panic in the Kremlin. If Ukrainians could force out their leader — with American help, of course, according to the Kremlin’s version of events —the same thing could happen in their country, surmised officials in Moscow. Accordingly, Russia needed to stop the revolution in Ukraine from spreading further. It needed to stop the feeling spreading rapidly throughout Ukraine that the people could demand better from their government. Invading Crimea became the first step in that effort.

I deliberately avoid using the word “plan” above to describe Putin’s decision to invade and then annex Crimea. This is not to say that there were no plans drafted for such a situation. There are many scenarios thought up by military, intelligence and diplomatic teams for a variety of eventualities — but that is different than saying such designs were in the works, simply waiting for the right moment. There is the famous 10-page document published by the Ukrainian website “Dzerkalo tyzhnia” on Moscow’s plans to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit.38 The document notwithstanding, the invasion of Crimea was, I believe, an impulsive one on Putin’s part, one that could well have relied upon designs reflected in that document. But that’s different than saying Russia intended on invading Ukraine through Crimea no matter what. I think the decision was done more out of a sense of panic than of grand strategy.

To be sure, Putin wants to prevent his neighbors from integrating more closely with the West and slipping out of Moscow’s grasp. As already argued, he fears their success as democratic states could set them up as an alternative model from that of his corrupt system in Russia. No country would worry Putin in this regard more than Ukraine. It is also worth recalling that Putin told President Bush in Bucharest in April 2008, “George, you have to understand that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given by us.”39

The invasion of Ukraine was not the first time Russia resorted to military means to keep its neighbors in check (see Georgia 2008); Russia has used economic and energy tools as weapons against its neighbors as well (see the cyber-attack against Estonia in 2007). None of this is to minimize the threat Putin poses to his neighbors and others. It is simply to argue that Putin sometimes is more of an opportunist and tactician than a grand strategist. Either way, he’s dangerous and needs to be contained.

There is one more point worth emphasizing: NATO enlargement had nothing to do with Putin’s decision to invade Crimea and then eastern Ukraine. Nobody in 2013-14 was talking about enlarging NATO to include Ukraine. The issue at the time that triggered a reaction from Moscow was Ukraine’s intention to sign agreements with the European Union, not with NATO. Suggestions otherwise must be roundly rejected. As Andrew Wood has written, “It does not at all follow, however, that accepting Ukraine into NATO was ever a real possibility in 2013 or that a promise now never to do so would be a viable part of a settlement negotiated between Russia and the Western powers and forced on Ukraine. To take that approach would in any case be to admit Moscow’s right to decide Ukraine’s future, by force if need be.”40


The U.S. Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

This book is not the place to rehash the details of Russia’s invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea, followed by its invasion and ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Suffice it to say that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, starting in late February 2014 in Crimea, marks the first annexation of one European country’s territory by another since World War II and threatens the entire order and stability in Europe. In one stroke, Putin thumbed his nose at the Helsinki Accords of 1975, the 1997 Russia-Ukraine Friendship Treaty, the Paris Charter of 1990, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, and other agreements and commitments that had kept the peace in Europe for nearly seven decades. The post-Cold War order was torn to shreds, and the concern was that if Putin’s brazen act was left unchallenged other authoritarian regimes would think they, too, could get away with aggression against their neighbors. If not stopped in Ukraine, Putin might move on to other neighboring states.

As the situation in Crimea was really heating up, on February 28 Obama issued the following warning:

Over the last several days, the United States has been responding to events as they unfold in Ukraine. Throughout this crisis, we have been very clear about one fundamental principle: The Ukrainian people deserve the opportunity to determine their own future. Together with our European allies, we have urged an end to the violence and encouraged Ukrainians to pursue a course in which they stabilize their country, forge a broad-based government and move to elections this spring.

I also spoke several days ago with President Putin, and my administration has been in daily communication with Russian officials, and we’ve made clear that they can be part of an international community’s effort to support the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward, which is not only in the interest of the people of Ukraine and the international community, but also in Russia’s interest.

However, we are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine. Russia has a historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties, and a military facility in Crimea, but any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe.

It would represent a profound interference in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people. It would be a clear violation of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine, and of international laws. And just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic Games, it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world. And indeed, the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.

The events of the past several months remind us of how difficult democracy can be in a country with deep divisions. But the Ukrainian people have also reminded us that human beings have a universal right to determine their own future.

Right now, the situation remains very fluid. Vice President Biden just spoke with Prime Minister — the Prime Minister of Ukraine to assure him that in this difficult moment the United States supports his government’s efforts and stands for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic future of Ukraine. I also commend the Ukrainian government’s restraint and its commitment to uphold its international obligations.

We will continue to coordinate closely with our European allies. We will continue to communicate directly with the Russian government. And we will continue to keep all of you in the press corps and the American people informed as events develop (emphasis added).41

I penned an op-ed in the March 1, 2014[_ Washington Post_] in which I laid out what was at stake:

President Obama faces the gravest challenge of his presidency in figuring out how to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How he responds will define his two terms in office, as well as determine the future of Ukraine, Russia and U.S. standing in the world. After all, if the authoritarian tyrant Vladimir Putin is allowed to get away with his unprovoked attack against his neighbor, a blatant violation of that country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, then U.S. credibility, already damaged by Obama’s poor handling of Syria, will be down to zero. Allies won’t believe in us, enemies won’t fear us and the world will be a much more dangerous place.42

I ended the op-ed with the following observation: “Putin’s actions in Ukraine should make clear to all that as long as he is in power, Russia will remain a threat to freedom and to many of America’s interests.”

I also argued for the following steps to be taken:

  • {color:#000;}Imposing sanctions against Russian state-owned banks and financial institutions;
  • {color:#000;}Widening application of the 2012 Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act against an array of Kremlin officials, including Putin;
  • {color:#000;}Terminating all negotiations with Russia on a possible trade agreement or promoting business;
  • {color:#000;}Calling an emergency NATO meeting to reassure NATO allies that border Ukraine and initiate mobilization of forces to be ready for any developments;
  • {color:#000;}Sending U.S. military ships to the Black Sea for any contingencies;
  • {color:#000;}Pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against its neighbor, even though Russia will obviously veto it; and
  • {color:#000;}Joining other Group of Eight members in expelling Russia and announcing the cancellation of Obama’s plans to visit Sochi, where Putin was to host this year’s G-8 meeting in June.

At the time, some observers were calling for deployment of U.S. forces to western Ukraine and the capital, Kyiv; others called for immediately offering NATO membership to Ukraine. I cautioned against such steps, worrying that they could lead to divisions within NATO. But I also argued that Obama should also “not telegraph to Putin what U.S. limits are in responding to Russia’s aggression…. Let Putin wonder how far the United States and NATO might go in responding to his military attack.”43

Some of the recommendations, or variations of them, in fact were carried out. The sanctions imposed against Russia went beyond my initial suggestion of state-owned banks and financial institutions. Russia also was suspended from the G8 and has not been invited back since.

The downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in July 2014, in which 298 passengers and crew were blown out of the sky by a Russian-supplied Buk missile over Ukrainian territory, aroused outrage in the West. That deadly attack solidified the push to impose sanctions in Europe. A Dutch-led investigation released in September 2016 concluded that the surface-to-air missile system used to shoot down the Malaysian airliner was brought in from Russia and returned to Russia the same night.44

The imposition of Western economic sanctions against the Putin regime and key members of it in response to the invasion of Ukraine deserves praise. Through a series of executive orders, Obama imposed sanctions on Russia.45 On the negative side, however, those sanctions have been too reactive and insufficient. When first imposed, none of the sanctions was linked to Russian fulfillment of the Minsk agreements — two accords signed first in September 2014 and then again in February 2015 — because the bulk of the sanctions were done before the agreements were signed. But the sanctions have become linked to the second accord, which calls for Russian withdrawal of its forces and materiel from Ukrainian territory, restoration of control of the border to Ukraine, elections according to Ukrainian law and more autonomy for the disputed regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, among other steps.46 That link to Minsk should be severed, since Russia has failed to comply with any of the conditions laid out in the agreement. As I have argued in the[_ American Interest_], the West should scrap the Minsk Agreement because it’s simply not working.47

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the sanctions have had an impact on individual Russian oligarchs tied to Putin and the Russian economy more broadly. In its Russia Economic Report in April 2015, the World Bank noted that economic sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine “dramatically increased the costs of external borrowing for Russian banks and firms.” It added, “Together with the financial sanctions imposed on Russia in late July, which have restricted the access of Russia’s largest state-connected banks and firms to Western international finance markets, this all but extinguished investment.” The impact of sanctions is “likely to linger for a long time,” the report said.48

Putin responded to the sanctions imposed by Western countries by blocking the import of food and agricultural products from those countries into Russia. That step wound up hurting average Russians more than the sanctions imposed by the West, as it drove up the price of food higher than the rate of inflation.49 Many observers believe that both the sanctions imposed and the threat of additional sanctions kept Russia from advancing further into eastern Ukraine militarily.50 Of course, the resistance offered by Ukrainian forces played an even bigger role in stopping further Russian encroachment.

The impact of sanctions was enhanced significantly by the drop in the price of oil by nearly half since 2013, well before Russian forces launched into Ukraine. Assessing the true impact of the sanctions economically is as difficult as it is to determine what effect they had on slowing Russia militarily. According to a report in the Washington Post from 2015, “The Western sanctions are having a substantial economic effect, even if they may not be the main drivers of Russia’s overall slowdown. Some of Russia’s biggest banks, hit by borrowing restrictions from the West, have limited their lending at home and turned to the government for aid. State-controlled Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil producer, also was sanctioned and has sought billions in state loans.”51 Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, asked about the impact of the Western sanctions in December 2014, said: “Our economy, probably, has lost tens of billions of dollars.”52

Supporters of the sanctions, including this author, must recognize that they have given Putin a bogeyman to blame for Russia’s economic difficulties. Putin has been able to point the finger at the West for causing hardships for Russians, and the proof that he has succeeded in this gambit is reflected in his continuing high level of support among Russians. For critics of the sanctions, the question they never seem to answer is what they would do in place of them.53 They criticize sanctions for either being ineffective, rallying Russians around Putin, or causing hardship for Western businesses. But they also don’t seem to have alternatives to offer, and doing nothing as Russia invades Ukraine is not a serious option.

It took Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 for the West to impose sanctions against Moscow, but some three years on, despite the fact that Russian aggression against Ukraine continues, Western resolve is wavering. The corporate communities in Europe and the United States want sanctions against Russia related to Ukraine lifted and business to return to normal. The European Union’s need to renew sanctions every six months creates openings for Putin to try to hive off waffling member states from necessary consensus for renewal. And the election of Donald Trump in the United States raises questions about America’s steadfastness on sanctions, though they remain in place at the time this book went to press.

All in all, Obama deserves credit for maintaining unity with Europe and other democracies in imposing sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea. Lifting these measures would be a huge mistake, since Putin has done nothing to warrant such a reward. In addition, the Obama administration provided roughly $1.5 billion in humanitarian and reform assistance to Ukraine since 2014, a significant amount of aid for which the United States deserves credit.54

At the same time, Obama should have imposed tougher unilateral measures, since it is easier for the United States to take additional steps without having to rally agreement among 28 member states, as the EU needs to do. The White House confused means and ends: the goal should be doing whatever is necessary to get Russia out of Ukraine, not maintaining unity with the EU at the cost of settling on the lowest common denominator on sanctions. Unity with Europe is a means, not an end. It is very important to try to maintain unity, but unity should not be confused with the ultimate goal.

In addition, the West has been having the wrong discussion about sanctions since they were imposed initially. Instead of ratcheting up sanctions for Russia’s failure to withdraw from Ukraine and respect that country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Europeans have been debating every six months whether to renew them. This reassures Putin that he need not worry about worse measures from the West and even tells him, given divisions within the EU on the issue and now with Trump in the White House, that he can wait out the Europeans and Americans. That there is virtually no discussion in Europe about tougher sanctions, combined with the possibility that Trump might lift American sanctions, sends the wrong signals to Moscow.

Beyond sanctions, Obama bears responsibility for his refusal to provide Ukraine with the lethal means to defend itself, despite overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress for doing so. Ukrainians desperately sought anti-tank missiles, specifically Javelins, to help them fend off Russian tanks. They never asked for American soldiers to fight their battles for them. But the Ukrainian military in 2014 was ill-prepared to defend the country against Russian forces. Provisional leaders in Kyiv — during the period after Yanukovych fled but before elections brought Petro Poroshenko to the presidency — opted not to fight to protect Crimea, a controversial decision that meant an easy takeover by Russian forces of the peninsula. Indeed, Russian forces’ initial move was so cost-free that it likely influenced Putin to try his luck in eastern Ukraine. There Russian forces ran into two problems they did not encounter in Crimea — a local population less willing to fall under the Russian thumb and Ukrainian forces, both military and private militias, that drew the line against further encroachment.

The cost has been extraordinary for Ukraine: approximately 10,000 Ukrainians killed, more than 1.5 million displaced from their homes and incalculable damage to the country’s economy. There have been significant though uncertain numbers of casualties on the Russia side as well, despite the Kremlin’s denial that Russian forces are even present in eastern Ukraine. Putin, of course, initially denied that they were in Crimea, too, until he admitted otherwise. “We had to take unavoidable steps so that events did not develop as they are currently developing in southeast Ukraine,” Putin said in a televised call-in with the nation April 17, 2014. “Of course our troops stood behind Crimea’s self-defense forces.”55 In December 2015, he also acknowledged the presence of special forces in the Donbas region. “We never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere,” he declared, trying to draw a distinction between regular Russian troops and such specialists.56

Amid the fighting that began in the spring of 2014, there were increased calls for the United States to help Ukraine defend itself. Newly elected Ukrainian President Poroshenko, in a speech before a joint session of Congress in September 2014, requested such assistance. “Blankets and night-vision goggles are important, but one cannot win a war with blankets,” Poroshenko said. This comment in particular reportedly annoyed Obama in a meeting the two had later that same day.57 “These young boys,” Poroshenko added, “underequipped and often unappreciated by the world, are the only thing that now stands between the reality of peaceful coexistence and the nightmare of a full relapse into the previous century and a new Cold War.”58

The Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Ukraine relinquished its Soviet-inherited nuclear weapons in exchange for pledges by the other signatories — Russia, Great Britain and the United States — to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, placed additional responsibilities on the American side.59 With overwhelming bipartisan support, Congress on several occasions passed resolutions and even legislation calling for the United States to provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine.60 Most of Obama’s cabinet, including the vice president, secretary of state, secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supported such a move. But Obama himself refused, concerned that providing such assistance would risk escalation with Russia.61 Obama’s stubborn refusal on this issue abandoned Ukrainians in their greatest time of need; a number of Ukrainians expressed regret for having surrendered their nuclear weapons based on the Budapest Memorandum.62

Obama’s decision also led Putin to conclude that he need not fear strong pushback from the Ukrainian side with American help. The symbolism of the United States providing such assistance to Ukraine would have had a significant impact on Moscow and its calculations. There certainly was a need for longer-term investment in Ukraine’s self-defense, but Ukraine’s long-term outlook would be altered absent short-term support in the form of Javelins and other systems. The economic sanctions undoubtedly had an impact on Russian decision-making, but had Obama agreed to provide lethal assistance he might have saved some Ukrainian lives, too. He also might have helped end the conflict that continues to this day.

Not until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 did Putin start to pay a price for his aggressive actions. Sanctions imposed by the European Union, the United States, Canada and other countries for Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity stand in stark contrast to other instances of egregious misbehavior by Russia that have gone unchallenged. For years, the Kremlin has been able to commit acts of aggression and muscle-flexing against its neighbors, as well as an ugly crackdown on human rights inside Russia itself, with virtual impunity.

The murder of Boris Nemtsov on February 27, 2015, shot and killed on a bridge just steps from the Kremlin, was a terrible blow to Russia’s opposition and civil society, as well as to his family, friends and admirers in the West. To this day, there has been no progress in holding accountable those who ordered his assassination, though those arrested for the actual killing have been put on trial.63 Nemtsov was an incredibly brave individual who was not afraid to take on Putin and the Kremlin. I knew him as a friend. A close colleague of his and another close friend of mine, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was mysteriously poisoned a few months later in Moscow but miraculously recovered and courageously returned to Russia numerous times to continue his activism. Tragically, he was poisoned a second time in early February 2017 and is back in the United States recuperating. 64 And yet they and others like them provide hope that one day Russia will see a brighter, better future.


Isolation of Russia — Not for Long

In his January 20, 2015 State of the Union speech, President Obama took credit for leading the campaign to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. “…[I]t is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.”65 Russia was suspended from the G8, and meetings between Western officials with Putin and other senior officials became rare. The White House even discouraged business leaders from attending the 2014 St. Petersburg Economic Forum and ended the Bilateral Commission.66

But a few months later in 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to travel to Sochi in May to meet with Putin flew in the face of the isolation of Russia Obama bragged about in his State of the Union speech. The next month, in June 2015, Western business leaders returned to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum.67 Other European leaders were also itching to restore contact and communication with Russia’s leader. After he led the imposition of sanctions in 2014, Obama spent less time on Ukraine than he should have. Biden took on responsibility for helping Ukraine, but he was not the president, and that fact was not lost on the Kremlin.

Obama met with Poroshenko in Washington in September 2014, but he never traveled to Ukraine to show American solidarity, as previously noted. Both Moscow and other capitals read this lack of interest — the result of a focus on ISIS, negotiations with Iran and domestic concerns — as indicating that the Ukraine situation didn’t merit the highest level of attention in Washington. Obama seemed content to contract out responsibility for resolving the Ukraine situation to German Chancellor Merkel and French President François Hollande. Putin may have been operating from a weak position, but he thought, compared to leaders in the West, including the American president, that he was stronger and could outlast the effects of the sanctions.

Kerry’s ill-advised trip to Sochi in May 2015 to meet with Putin raised new concerns that the Obama administration was seeking Russian help on Syria and Iran at the expense of dealing with the Ukraine crisis. The day before Kerry’s arrival in Sochi, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement blasting the United States. “Russian-U.S. relations are passing through a difficult period caused by targeted unfriendly actions by Washington,” the statement said. “The White House groundlessly blamed Russia for the Ukrainian crisis, which in fact was largely provoked by the United States itself. In 2014, the Obama administration chose the path of scaling back bilateral relations, proclaimed a course of isolating Russia on the international arena and demanded that those states that traditionally follow the lead of Washington support its confrontational steps.”68 After the visit, Russian officials portrayed it as a signal that the United States had finally come to understand that it was on the wrong path. I slammed the trip at the time.

“Putin has done nothing to merit a visit by the U.S. Secretary of State,” I wrote in May 2015. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have “offered no solutions for the Ukraine crisis and demand that the West, not Russia, change its policies and lift sanctions.”69 In his press conference after meeting with Putin, Kerry never mentioned Crimea, implicitly criticized Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in response to a journalist’s question and offered platitudes, saying he was “privileged to spend many hours” with Putin and Lavrov.70 His trip to Sochi made the Obama administration look weak and desperate and bolstered the notion that we needed Russia more than Russia needed us — the same problems that afflicted the reset policy in the first term.

“If Russian officials are serious about solving the Ukraine crisis (and that would require fully withdrawing from Ukraine and respecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity), let them come to us. They know what they need to do — they simply refuse to do it,” I wrote at the time. “Instead of contracting out to Merkel responsibility for solving the Russia-Ukraine crisis and meeting with Putin, the White House should lead the effort in providing massive financial assistance to Ukraine and the military means for Ukraine to defend itself, while ramping up sanctions on Putin’s regime…. Obama seems to have lost interest in Ukraine and Europe more broadly, and Putin senses that. John Kerry’s visit to Sochi isn’t going to fix that problem. It may even create new ones.”71

Kerry would travel to Russia several more times — December 2015 as well as March and July 2016 — to meet with Putin in futile efforts to negotiate an end to Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. During those trips, Kerry was distracted by other issues — the Iran negotiations and the horrendous situation in Syria — and others traveling with him worried that he would strike a deal that would be disadvantageous to Ukraine in exchange for Russia’s cooperation on those other issues. While Russia did help on the Iran deal, it fueled the Syria crisis. Kerry embarrassed the United States by his constant travel to meet with Lavrov and occasionally with Putin, making this country look pathetic in its pursuit of Russian agreement. Lavrov and Putin toyed with Kerry, and at the end of the administration Kerry had nothing to show for his desperate attempts to strike a deal with the Kremlin. As one former administration official put it, “There are opportunity costs for trying and failing.”72

In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic in February 2016, Obama made the situation worse. Indeed, it was hard to believe that a sitting president would make such remarks, essentially letting Putin know he had a green light to do whatever he wanted in Ukraine, that Russia’s interests there were greater than those of the United States. Obama was careless in his comments, which were disheartening to many Ukrainians. It is worth repeating an excerpt from that interview, in which Goldberg started by citing the argument to Obama that “Vladimir Putin watched you in Syria and thought, He’s too logical, he’s too rational, he’s too into retrenchment. I’m going to push him a little bit further in Ukraine” (emphasis in original).

Obama didn’t much like my line of inquiry. ‘Look, this theory is so easily disposed of that I’m always puzzled by how people make the argument. I don’t think anybody thought that George W. Bush was overly rational or cautious in his use of military force. And as I recall, because apparently nobody in this town does, Putin went into Georgia on Bush’s watch, right smack dab in the middle of us having over 100,000 troops deployed in Iraq.’ Obama was referring to Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, a former Soviet republic, which was undertaken for many of the same reasons Putin later invaded Ukraine — to keep an ex-Soviet republic in Russia’s sphere of influence.

‘Putin acted in Ukraine in response to a client state that was about to slip out of his grasp. And he improvised in a way to hang on to his control there,’ he said. ‘He’s done the exact same thing in Syria, at enormous cost to the well-being of his own country. And the notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence. Russia was much more powerful when Ukraine looked like an independent country but was a kleptocracy that he could pull the strings on.’

Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.

‘The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,’ he [Obama] said (emphasis added).

Goldberg asked Obama whether his position on Ukraine was realistic or fatalistic.

‘It’s realistic,’ he said. ‘But this is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for. And at the end of the day, there’s always going to be some ambiguity.’ He then offered up a critique he had heard directed against him, in order to knock it down. ‘I think that the best argument you can make on the side of those who are critics of my foreign policy is that the president doesn’t exploit ambiguity enough. He doesn’t maybe react in ways that might cause people to think, Wow, this guy might be a little crazy’ (emphasis in original).

‘There is no evidence in modern American foreign policy that that’s how people respond. People respond based on what their imperatives are, and if it’s really important to somebody, and it’s not that important to us, they know that, and we know that,’ he said. ‘There are ways to deter, but it requires you to be very clear ahead of time about what is worth going to war for and what is not. Now, if there is somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it. The idea that talking tough or engaging in some military action that is tangential to that particular area is somehow going to influence the decision making of Russia or China is contrary to all the evidence we have seen over the last 50 years.’73

The reaction in Kyiv to Obama’s comments was disbelief. The reaction in Moscow was a sense of satisfaction. When the Obama administration left office in January 2017, Russian forces remained in Ukraine, continuing their aggression and killing of Ukrainians, and Russia never came close to abiding by the Minsk agreements. Obama never visited Ukraine as president. Biden, by contrast, traveled to Kyiv during his last week in office, solidifying the credit he has received for his interest in and support for Ukraine. Kerry traveled once to Kyiv during the same period in which he made four trips to Russia. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and National Security Council Senior Director for Russia and Central Asia and Special Assistant to the President Celeste Wallander (who technically did not have responsibility for Ukraine on the NSC) deserve credit for their hard work on this portfolio as well. Obama may have labored hard behind the scenes to keep unity with the EU on sanctions, but his public posture was disappointing, to say the least, and sent the wrong signals to Moscow and other capitals.


Beyond Ukraine, Relations Sink to New Lows: Syria and Hacking

On several occasions, Putin and Russian military leaders talked about targeting NATO countries for hosting components of the U.S.-led missile defense system and using tactical nuclear weapons to deter hostile acts.74 Russian talk of using nuclear weapons, while perhaps more bluster than real, was reckless and alarming and could not be lightly dismissed. It was a sign of how badly relations between Moscow and the West had declined. The military build-up in the exclave region of Kaliningrad, which lies between Poland and Lithuania, to include deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander-M ballistic missiles and other major forces, has rattled neighboring states.

Beyond threatening European states, Putin’s air force has dangerously and repeatedly buzzed NATO military planes and launched numerous incursions into other countries’ airspace. On a number of occasions, Russian planes, with their transponders turned off, came perilously close to crashing into NATO ships or aircraft.75 Russian ships and submarines also provocatively encroached on other nations’ waterways. Russian muscle-flexing — as manifested in large military exercises, especially Zapad 2013, and in modernization of the Russian armed forces and nuclear weapons capability — reflected a militaristic and threatening posture from the Kremlin not seen since Soviet times.

Putin’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria in late September 2015 exacerbated what were already bad ties between Moscow and Washington. Filling a void left by Obama’s decision not to do anything beyond provide humanitarian relief and minimal support to certain opposition forces, Putin sided unambiguously with Syrian leader Assad, whose grip on power was slipping. Russia’s intervention arguably kept Assad in power and revealed Putin to be a man who comes to the aid of Russia’s friends — in contrast, as Russian media frequently pointed out, with Obama. Obama warned that Russia’s effort to prop up Assad “is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.”76

The manner in which Russia intervened, ostensibly to help defeat ISIS but in reality to target other forces opposed to Assad, including ones trained by the United States, caused further rifts. Russia was not seeking to defeat ISIS; instead its goal was to keep Assad from falling from power out of concern that his removal could lead to a renewed domino effect and chaos in Syria. The vast majority of Russian strikes targeted not ISIS but any perceived sources of opposition to Assad. Russian bombings were both indiscriminate (similar to methods Russia used against Chechnya) and deliberate in targeting civilian centers and hospitals. According to various estimates, Russian strikes killed more Syrian civilians than did ISIS.77 Russia also supported Assad and his forces in their use of massive violence against cities such as Aleppo. When a humanitarian convoy seeking to help embattled civilians in Aleppo was hit by aircraft flown either by Syrian or Russian pilots, Western leaders suggested Russia was guilty of war crimes.78

Obama’s warning that Putin would find himself in an unenviable position in Syria tracks with other comments in which he gratuitously slighted Russia. “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength but out of weakness,” he said in late March 2014 as Russian forces were accelerating their moves into Ukraine. “They don’t pose the number one national security threat to the United States,” Obama said in a news conference.79 Obama argued that Russia doesn’t produce anything that people want to buy. “I do think it’s important to keep perspective. Russia doesn’t make anything,” Obama said in an interview with the[_ Economist_] in August 2014.80 The problem with such comments is that he was insulting Russians and their country, not merely Putin. Such criticisms may even have helped Putin in maintaining his high levels of support. Even when Obama directed his fire at Putin for “slouching in his chair like a bored schoolboy,” the criticism was gratuitous.

Putin may find himself in a quagmire in Syria at some point, but by the end of Obama’s second term that was not the case. Instead, Putin’s image became that of a strong leader who acted decisively in contrast to Obama’s indecisiveness and unwillingness to aid forces with whom the United States is aligned. That image fed the impression that Putin was winning and playing a relatively weak hand skillfully compared to Obama, who was playing a stronger hand badly. Instead, as noted above, the visits and meetings between Kerry and Lavrov made the United States look desperate and foolish. American officials were chasing after Russia, and Russia was essentially giving the United States the middle finger. The Kremlin’s invitation to the new Trump administration to attend Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan three days after the U.S. presidential inauguration poured further salt on the wounds felt by the outgoing Obama administration. All of the outreach and overtures from the Obama administration related to Syria failed. Indeed, they unintentionally boosted Putin’s standing in the global community and diminished that of the United States.

As if things between Washington and Moscow were not bad enough, Russian hacking into Democratic National Committee emails as well as the emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, starting as early as 2015, blew up into a scandal in the summer and fall of 2016, just as American voters were deciding whom to elect as their new president. According to FBI Director James Comey, the Russian hackers also achieved “limited penetration of old R.N.C. [Republican National Committee]” computer systems that were “no longer in use.”81 The Russians, according to a U.S. Intelligence Community report issued in January 2017, released only what they found from the Democratic emails, not the Republicans, through WikiLeaks and other Kremlin-friendly outlets.82 That suggested that not only were the Russians seeking to discredit the U.S. political and electoral system but that they were also trying to hurt the candidacy of Hillary Clinton while helping Donald Trump. During the presidential debates and in other settings, Trump refused to accept that Russian security agencies were behind the hacking despite briefings indicating precisely that conclusion. It was not until early January 2017, after he had secured victory in the November election, that he acknowledged the possibility that Russia “and others” were involved.83

One of the biggest questions to emerge from the hacking was why the Obama administration did not take action sooner against those responsible. On December 29, just a few weeks before he was to depart from office, Obama and his team launched a series of measures responding to the attacks, sanctioning the FSB and the GRU, Russia’s security and military intelligence agencies, as well as several individuals involved. In addition, in response to harassment of American diplomats living in Russia, the administration forced the closure of two Russian compounds and expelled 35 Russian intelligence operatives.84 For the most part, the reaction in Congress was that the steps taken by the Obama administration were too little, too late.85 President-elect Trump’s team had a different reaction. “I will tell you that even those who are sympathetic to President Obama on most issues are saying that part of the reason he did this today was to quote ‘box in’ President-elect Trump,” Kellyanne Conway told CNN. “That would be very unfortunate if politics were the motivating factor here. We can’t help but think that’s often true.”86

In an op-ed for Politico Europe immediately after the sanctions were announced, I argued that more should have been done, but I also welcomed the measures taken by the Obama administration, late though they may have been.87 From the time in July 2016, when reports first emerged of hacking into the Democratic National Committee, I joined with other leading foreign policy experts in arguing:

The foreign attack was an assault on the integrity of the entire American political process. Instead of focusing on who may have benefited and who was damaged, the investigation should focus on discovering the facts concerning the role of Russian intelligence in the hacking, whether others were involved, and the role of WikiLeaks in disseminating the stolen information.88

Russia’s hacking into American computer systems was not a unique event. Spying is one of the oldest trades in the world, and every country does it to one degree or another. What made the situation different in 2016, however, was the fact that Russian security agencies “weaponized” the material they stole by releasing it through WikiLeaks and other Kremlin-friendly outlets. That proved Russian intent to influence the election, a move that should generate outrage in the United States and not be encouraged by any American political leaders. It warrants serious and credible investigation by both the Congress and law enforcement authorities. And Russia needs to pay a price for its actions; otherwise, Moscow and other capitals will view the United States as an easy target from which it will not likely suffer any consequences.


Obama Goes Out Swinging

Following Trump’s election on November 8, it became clear that Russia was biding its time, waiting for the Obama administration to leave office. The Kremlin sought to exclude the Obama administration from Moscow’s efforts to work out a peace deal on Syria and deliberately scheduled a meeting on the crisis in Astana, Kazakhstan, for January 23, three days after the Obama team was gone. Russia hoped that the new American administration would attend, but it sent the U.S. ambassador in Astana to observe, as it did not have a team in place to be represented in a more formal manner.

But the Obama team did not go quietly, as evidenced by the sanctions imposed for the hacking and mistreatment of American diplomats living in Russia, as well as Obama’s decision a week before leaving office to renew the Ukraine-related sanctions until March 2018 (a step Trump could undo by similar executive authority).89 In addition, on January 9, 2017, the Treasury Department added seven more names to the Magnitsky list for gross human rights abuses, including most notably State Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin.90

In closing this chapter, it is fitting to look at remarks from both Putin and Lavrov in separate interviews from 2016. In a September interview with Bloomberg’s John Micklethwait, Putin was asked whether he would have done anything differently in his relationship with the West. His answer was revealing:

No, there is nothing I would have done differently. I think it is our partners who should have done many things differently. When the Soviet Union ceased to exist we welcomed our Western partners with open arms. Just remember what it took us to disclose our wiretapping systems in the US Embassy in Moscow. Nothing like that was done in return. You think the CIA does not have any taps listening to us? Of course it does. Moreover, it started working even harder in that respect.

We, for instance, put an end to the flights of our strategic aviation along the US border, while the United States never did so. We conducted no flights for ten years, but the United States never stopped, they kept flying. Why? We said we were ready to create a new system of European security with the participation of the United States. Instead, NATO began to expand, moving closer to our borders: one step, then another one.

We said we needed to address the issues concerning the ABM systems together, preserving or updating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The United States unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty and launched an intensive construction of anti-ballistic missile defence system as part of their strategic nuclear forces transferred to the periphery, and started constructing missile deployment areas in Romania and, subsequently, in Poland.

Initially, as you remember, it was done with the reference to the Iranian nuclear threat, but then an agreement with Iran was signed, including by the United States. The agreement has already been ratified, so there is no more threat, however, the construction of the missile deployment areas is still on-going. So the question is: against whom? Back then we were told, ‘We are not against you.’ We responded, ‘But then we will have to modernise our strike systems.’ ‘Do what you want, we will think it is against somebody else.’ So that is what we are doing. Now, when we have made some progress, our partners have begun to worry, ‘How come? What is going on over there?’ Why did they give us such an answer back then? Probably because nobody believed we were capable of doing this.”91

In a news conference in Moscow in January 2016, Lavrov was asked about the chances for a reset in Russian-U.S. relations in the last year of the Obama administration. His answer, too, was noteworthy:

This question should not be addressed to us. Our bilateral ties had plunged extremely low against the backdrop of wonderful personal relations between former US President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin. When Barack Obama became President and after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested a reset in our relations, this reflected the fact that the US side itself had realized an abnormal situation when Russia and the United States are not jointly addressing problems that cannot be solved without them. That time period was considered abnormal. We responded very constructively to a reset in our relations. We said that we praised the new administration’s decision to correct the mistakes of their predecessors. We achieved numerous positive results, including the New START Treaty, Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization and a number of agreements on various conflict situations. But, for some reason, all this began to disintegrate rather quickly. Currently, everyone, including our US colleagues, is telling us that the Minsk Agreements on Ukraine should be fulfilled, and that everything would normalize immediately. They are saying that sanctions would be lifted overnight, that lucrative prospects for Russia-US cooperation on much more pleasant issues (and not just the resolution of crises) would immediately open up, and that a constructive partnership program would evolve in no time at all.

We are open for equitable and mutually beneficial cooperation with everyone. Of course, we don’t want anyone to build their policies on the assumption that Russia, rather than Ukraine, should honor the Minsk Agreements. The documents state expressly as to who should fulfill them. I hope the United States knows this well. In any event, our latest contacts with US Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as contacts between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Presidential Aide Vladislav Surkov, show that the US side knows all about the essence of the Minsk Agreements. In effect, everyone understands everything. Kiev perceives the decision to extend the Western sanctions as the West’s consent to Kiev’s non-compliance with the Minsk Agreements. This fully confirms the developments in the Ukrainian corridors of power. So, why should they fulfill these agreements when the West agrees that Kiev doesn’t necessarily have to do it?…

Russia’s relations with the Obama Administration began to cool off long before the events in Ukraine, and the same can be said about the end of the period associated with a reset in our bilateral relations. Let’s recall how it all happened. First, after we, at long last, secured the consent of our Western partners for acceptable terms regarding Russia’s accession to the WTO, the US side realized that the preservation of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment did not meet their interests because they would lose their privileges and benefits linked with Russia’s WTO membership. They moved to abolish this amendment. But the Americans would not be themselves if they simply abolished the amendment and said that, from now on, our cooperation will return to a normal track. They invented the Magnitsky Act, although I’m sure that we have not seen the end of the Magnitsky case. I hope very much that everyone will learn the truth. It’s appalling that a provocation was staged, and that they took advantage of the man’s death. Nevertheless, this was done, and you know who had lobbied this act. The Magnitsky Act immediately replaced the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. This happened at a time when there was no crisis in Ukraine, although they are now trying to accuse us of violating OSCE principles. Everything that is happening between the West and Russia is explained by the fact that Russia has allegedly failed to honor its obligations, and that it doesn’t respect the European order, which evolved after the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, etc. All these attempts aim to justify the containment policy and to find a pretext for continuing this policy. In fact, this policy never ended.

After the Magnitsky Act, we witnessed an absolutely exaggerated response to the Edward Snowden story. Snowden showed up in Russia against our will. We didn’t know about this, but his passport was cancelled while he was still in mid-air. He was unable to leave Russia because of the decisions made in Washington. We had no choice but to allow him to stay in Russia for safety reasons, considering the fact that the US side did not conceal the criminal charges brought up against him. We did this just to uphold his right to life.

President Obama called off his visit to Russia, an all-out scandal flared up, the FBI, the CIA and the Department of State made dozens of telephone calls, and the two presidents maintained direct contacts. They told us that our relations would be undermined, unless we let Snowden go. Although the US side called off the visit, President Obama attended the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg. By the way, we accomplished an important task there and agreed on the principles of chemical disarmament in Syria.

Ukraine was another pretext. The righteous indignation over the alleged violation of the Helsinki principles by Russia is not the only thing linked with the Ukrainian crisis (although everything began with Kosovo, air strikes against Yugoslavia, etc.). This reflected the irritation of those who backed the coup as it didn’t produce the desired results…. We also realize that this world (with its brutal clashes of interests) which is emerging from the age of the West’s total domination and still has a long way to go towards a more stable system that would have several centers of power, rather than one or even two…. We understand that the United States wants to have as few rivals as possible, even among countries that compare with it in terms of size, influence, military might and the economy….To answer your question, I would like the United States to reset its relations with the entire world, to initiate an all-out reset in relations, so that all of us would gather and reaffirm our commitment to the UN Charter and its principles, including non-interference in domestic affairs, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and the right of nations to self-determination, the right of peoples to choose their own future without foreign interference.

We have already mentioned an example when the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to establish diplomatic relations in the mid-1930s. The US side insisted that this ceremony be formalized by an exchange of official letters between each nation’s foreign ministers. At the demand of the US side, these letters stipulated a mutual pledge not to interfere in the domestic affairs of partners, not to undermine their political and economic systems. This is what the United States demanded from the USSR in the 1930s. These letters were exchanged at the time and are currently posted on the Foreign Ministry website.

Some time ago, we suggested to the United States that we reaffirm these principles in our relations, but the US side shied away from this discussion. I repeat, this reset would be quite timely.92

By the time Barack Obama ended his second term in office, U.S.-Russian relations reached their lowest point since the break-up of the Soviet Union, worse even than after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. While Obama deserves criticism for his policy, the constant problem and obstacle posed to efforts by Bush and Obama to develop productive relations between Moscow and Washington is Vladimir Putin. To blame everything on Obama lets Putin off the hook. With the Trump administration in office, we may find out soon enough that yet another attempt at a kind of “reset” will crash and burn, because Putin and his entourage still sit in the Kremlin.


1 See, e.g., Margarete Klein, “Russia and the Arab Spring: Foreign and Domestic Policy Challenges,” German Institute for International and Security Affairs (February 2012). https://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/comments/2012C03_kle.pdf

2 Alexei Anishchuk, “Russia’s Medvedev raps Putin’s Libya ‘crusade’ jibe,” Reuters, March 21, 2011.


3 Ellen Barry, “Rally Defying Putin’s Party Draws Tens of Thousands,” New York Times, December 10, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/11/world/europe/thousands-protest-in-moscow-russia-in-defiance-of-putin.html

4 “Lukin: There Were No Riots on Bolotnaya Square,” HRO.org, February 7, 2012. http://hro.rightsinrussia.info/archive/right-of-assembly-1/may-2012/lukin/no-riots

5 http://asozd2.duma.gov.ru/main.nsf/%28SpravkaNew%29?OpenAgent&RN=102766-6&02

6 David J. Kramer and Robert Kagan, “Give the Next Russian Ambassador a Powerful Tool to Guard Human Rights,” Washington Post, October 11, 2011. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/give-the-next-russian-ambassador-a-powerful-tool-to-guard-human-rights/2011/10/11/gIQAgzjucL_story.html?utm_term=.7d50943322b3

7 Однако с Михаилом Леонтьевым, ПЕРВЫЙ КАНАЛ, January 17, 2012. https://www.1tv.ru/news/2012-01-17/102215-analiticheskaya_programma_odnako_s_mihailom_leontievym

8 Brookings Institution Senior Fellow and former senior State Department official Steven Pifer made this case in “Burying the Magnitsky Bill’s Message,” Brookings Institution, June 29, 2012. https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/burying-the-magnitsky-bills-message/ I argued the opposite at the time in “The State of Human Rights and Rule of Law in Russia: U.S. Policy Options,” Freedom House, December 14, 2011.

https://freedomhouse.org/article/state-human-rights-and-rule-law-russia-us-policy-options See also “As Russia Joins Trade Bloc, Cold War Law Hampers U.S.,” Washington Diplomat, July 2012.

http://www.washdiplomat.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8413:as-russia-joins-trade-bloc-cold-war-law-hampers-us&catid=1489:-july-2012&Itemid=502 and “Meet the New Boss: Supporting Human Rights in a Third Putin Term,” event, The Foreign Policy Initiative, March 12, 2012.


9 “Meet the New Boss: Supporting Human Rights in a Third Putin Term,” March 12, 2012. http://www.foreignpolicyi.org/content/meet-new-boss-supporting-human-rights-third-putin-term

10 Ellen Barry, “Russian Furor Over U.S. Adoptions Follows American’s Acquittal in Boy’s Death,” New York Times, January 3, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/04/world/europe/04adopt.html

11 Will Englund and Tara Bahrampour, “Russia’s ban on U.S. adoptions devastates American families,” Washington Post, December 28, 2012. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/russia-set-to-ban-us-adoptions/2012/12/27/fd49c542-504f-11e2-8b49-64675006147f_story.html?utm_term=.93b122608bc9. The name of the law derives from the tragic case of a young Russian orphan who died of heat stroke four months after being adopted when his new father left him in a parked car for nine hours.

12 To illustrate this point, look at Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg. According to a report in the Moscow Times, the number of Russian orphans adopted by Russian citizens in St. Petersburg is falling: “In 2014, 213 children were adopted by Russian parents. In 2015, that number dropped to 166. By 2016, only 108 children were adopted by Russians.” “Foreign Adoptions Drop in St. Petersburg,” Moscow Times, January 24, 2017. https://themoscowtimes.com/news/foreign-adoption-drops-in-st-petersburg-56909

13 David J. Kramer, “The Magnitsky Act Is the Right Thing to Do,” in Why Europe Needs a Magnitsky Law: Should the EU Follow the US?, edited by Elena Servettaz (2013). http://magnitskybook.com/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/kramer.pdf

14 “Human rights official: Dima Yakovlev adoption law may be revised after ECHR decision,” Tass, January 17, 2017. http://tass.com/politics/925477

15 “Romney: Russia is our number one geopolitical foe,” CNN, March 26, 2012. http://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/26/romney-russia-is-our-number-one-geopolitical-foe/

16 Presidential Debate, Lynn University, Boca Raton, FL, October 22, 2012. http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-22-2012-the-third-obama-romney-presidential-debate

17 Christi Parsons, “Obama criticizes Russia’s new anti-gay law in Leno interview,” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 2013. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/aug/07/nation/la-na-pn-obama-leno-russia-snowden-20130807

18 “Remarks by the President in a Press Conference,” August 29, 2013. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/09/remarks-president-press-conference

19 Miranda Blue, “Franklin Graham Praises ‘Gay Propaganda’ Law, Critizes US ‘Secularism’ In Russia Visit,” Right Wing Watch, November 2, 2015. http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/franklin-graham-praises-gay-propaganda-law-critizes-us-secularism-in-russia-visit/

20 Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership, p. 270-271.

21 “Remarks by the President in a Press Conference,” August 9, 2013. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/09/remarks-president-press-conference

22 “We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation…. We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that [_there would be enormous consequences _]if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons” (emphasis added). “Obama Warns Syria Not to Cross ‘Red Line,’” CNN, August 21, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/20/world/meast/syria-unrest/

23 See Joby Warrick, “More than 1,400 killed in Syrian chemical weapons attack, U.S. says,” Washington Post, August 30, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nearly-1500-killed-in-syrian-chemical-weapons-attack-us-says/2013/08/30/b2864662-1196-11e3-85b6-d27422650fd5_story.html?utm_term=.b54636bf5673.

24 Vladimir Putin, “A Plea for Caution from Russia,” New York Times, September 11, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/12/opinion/putin-plea-for-caution-from-russia-on-syria.html

25 Jeffrey Goldberg, “‘The Obama Doctrine’: The Atlantic’s Exclusive Report on the U.S. President’s Hardest Foreign Policy Decisions,” The Atlantic, March 10, 2016 http://www.theatlantic.com/press-releases/archive/2016/03/the-obama-doctrine-the-atlantics-exclusive-report-on-presidents-hardest-foreign-policy-decisions/473151/

26 Keir Giles, Philip Hanson, Roderic Lyne, James Nixey, James Sherr and Andrew Wood, The Russian Challenge, Chatham House (June 2015), p. 51. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

27 See “Putin. Itogi: Winter Olympics in the Subtropics,” a report produced by the late Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk, http://www.putin-itogi.ru/winter-olympics-in-the-subtropics/. In it they conclude: “The Winter Olympics in Sochi are a personal project of Putin’s. He thought (and probably still does) that the Olympic Games would be his triumph, and that the participation of athletes from all over the world would be an indisputable recognition of his leadership both in Russia and in the world.

“Subsequent events have demonstrated that instead of a triumph, the preparations for the Olympics have been an utter disgrace. It has become increasingly clear that the Sochi Olympics are an unprecedented scam involving both representatives of Putin’s government and oligarchs close to the establishment.

“This is a scam on a scale that outdoes Nikita Khrushchev’s reckless scheme to plant corn in the Russian Arctic or Leonid Brezhnev’s plans to reverse the tide of rivers in Siberia.

“In effect, the Sochi Olympics have highlighted the main flaws of Putin’s system in a nutshell: Lawlessness, corruption, high-handedness, cronyism, incompetence, and irresponsibility.”

28 Robert Coalson, “News Analysis: Armenia’s Choice Stirs Competition Between Moscow, EU,” RFE/RL, September 4, 2013.


29 David Herszenhorn, “Facing Russian Threat, Ukraine Halts Plans for Deals with E.U.,” New York Times, November 21, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/22/world/europe/ukraine-refuses-to-free-ex-leader-raising-concerns-over-eu-talks.html

30 Ibid.

31 Philippa H. Stewart, “No closure for Ukraine’s heavenly hundred,” Al Jazeera, November 21, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/11/closure-ukraine-heavenly-151119064326022.html

32 Will Englund, “In Ukraine, Sens. McCain, Murphy address protesters, promise support,” Washington Post, December 15, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/in-ukraine-us-sens-mccain-murphy-address-protesters/2013/12/15/be72cffe-65b0-11e3-997b-9213b17dac97_story.html?utm_term=.7f459d874e72

33 “Top U.S. official visits protesters in Kiev as Obama admin. ups pressure on Ukraine president Yanukovich,” CBS News, December 11, 2013. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-victoria-nuland-wades-into-ukraine-turmoil-over-yanukovich/

34 Secretary of State John Kerry, “Statement on Events in Ukraine,” December 10, 2013. https://2009-2017.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2013/12/218585.htm

35 “In Ukraine,” Obama said in his only reference to the situation there, “we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country’s future.” President Barack Obama, “State of the Union Address,” January 28, 2014. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/28/president-barack-obamas-state-union-address

36 Obama said on February 19: “The United States condemns in strongest terms the violence that’s taking place there…. We have been deeply engaged with our European partners as well as both the Ukrainian government and the opposition to try to ensure that violence ends. We hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protestors in an appropriate way, that the Ukrainian people are able to assemble and speak freely about their interests without fear of repression…. [W]e expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint and to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protestors. We’ve said that we also expect peaceful protestors to remain peaceful and we’ll be monitoring very carefully the situation, recognizing that along with our European partners and the international community there will be consequences if people step over the line.” Carrie Halperin, “Obama Reacts to Unrest in Ukraine,” video, New York Times, February 19, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/europe/100000002722297/obama-reacts-to-unrest-in-ukraine.html

37 “Agreement on the Settlement of Crisis in Ukraine,” Guardian, February 24, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/21/agreement-on-the-settlement-of-crisis-in-ukraine-full-text

38 “О комплексе мер по вовлечению Украины в евразийский интеграционный процессБольше читайте здесь,” ZN.UA, August 16, 2014. http://gazeta.zn.ua/internal/o-komplekse-mer-po-vovlecheniyu-ukrainy-v-evraziyskiy-integracionnyy-process-_.html

39 Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership, p. 168.

40 The Russian Challenge, p. 66. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

41 “Statement by the President on Ukraine,” February 28, 2014. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/02/28/statement-president-ukraine

42 David J. Kramer, “U.S. foreign policy comes home to roost with Russia’s action in Ukraine,” Washington Post, March 1, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/us-foreign-comes-home-to-roost-with-russias-action-in-ukraine/2014/03/01/10be38bc-a18d-11e3-b8d8-94577ff66b28_story.html?utm_term=.a8d88a81e837

43 Ibid.

44 Somini Sengupta, “Dutch Inquiry Links Russia to 298 Deaths in Explosion of Jetliner Over Ukraine,” New York Times, September 28, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/29/world/asia/malaysia-air-flight-mh17-russia-ukraine-missile.html

45 See Executive Order 13660, 13661, 13662 and 13685.

46 “Ukraine ceasefire: New Minsk agreement key points,” BBC, February 12, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31436513 Here are the key points of the February 2015 plan, as summarized by the BBC:

1. Immediate and full bilateral ceasefire

2. Withdrawal of all heavy weapons by both sides

3. Effective monitoring and verification regime for the ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons

4. From day one of the withdrawal begin a dialogue on the holding of local elections

5. Pardon and amnesty by banning any prosecution of figures involved in the Donetsk and Luhansk conflict

6. Release of all hostages and other illegally detained people

7. Unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid to the needy, internationally supervised

8. Restoration of full social and economic links with affected areas

9. Full Ukrainian government control will be restored over the state border, throughout the conflict zone

10. Withdrawal of all foreign armed groups, weapons and mercenaries from Ukrainian territory

11. Constitutional reform in Ukraine, with adoption of a new constitution by the end of 2015

47 David J. Kramer, “The Best Ways to Help Ukraine,” American Interest, April 28, 2016. http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/04/28/the-best-ways-to-help-ukraine/. I argued then: “…Minsk is a terribly flawed deal: It does not mention Crimea at all, which Russia illegally annexed in March 2014; it refers to ‘foreign’ forces instead of ‘Russian’ forces, which continue to invade Ukraine and engage in hostilities; and it unfairly imposes on Ukraine the need to pass special legislation and a constitutional amendment for elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, regions which Russian occupying forces currently control….

“Indeed, Russia has not fulfilled a single condition under Minsk…. Minsk isn’t working. As the invading party, Russia bears full responsibility for this failure, not Ukraine….

“To say that the Minsk deal is the only game in town, the constant refrain of Western diplomats, is both lazy and defeatist, as well as unfair to Ukraine. Russia has proven to be an untrustworthy interlocutor (not just on Ukraine) and continues to deny, absurdly, that it even has forces on Ukrainian soil, making it pointless to conduct further negotiations with Moscow. Nor is it reasonable to continue to pressure Ukraine to fulfill conditions under Minsk when Russia refuses to uphold any. It is time to come up with a better game.

“Accordingly, the EU and United States, along with Canada, Japan, and other countries that have sanctioned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, should replace Minsk with a one-sentence pronouncement:

Sanctions against Russia will remain in place — and will be increased over time — unless and until Russia withdraws its forces and weapons from Ukraine (including Crimea), respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and returns to Ukraine those citizens it kidnapped from Ukrainian territory.

“This should not be a negotiation with Vladimir Putin. This should be a declaration. Western leaders must be clear that Ukraine remains the victim of Russia’s ongoing aggression, and sanctions against the Putin regime must stay in place until it leaves Ukraine in peace, however long that may take.”

48 The World Bank in the Russian Federation, “Russia Economic Report: The Dawn of a New Economic Era?”, No. 33 (April 2015).

49 As I wrote in “In Russia, Survival of the Most Corrupt,” in the[_ American Interest_] in June 2016, “The sanction that has most affected average Russians, however, is the one Vladimir Putin himself put in place: the ban on the import of Western agricultural and other goods in retaliation for Ukraine-related sanctions. Putin’s move produced a spike in food prices higher than the rate of inflation, and Russians are spending a higher percentage of their income on food these days than they have in decades. Russians are also having difficulty paying for medications and health care, according to recent reports.” http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/06/13/in-russia-survival-of-the-most-corrupt/

50 Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates and a former senior director for Russia on the George W. Bush National Security Council, commented to NPR, “Western sanctions imposed on the Kremlin in 2014 may very well have forestalled more aggressive Russian action in Ukraine.” Lucian Kim, “How To Salvage U.S.-Russia Relations: One Expert’s Take,” NPR, January 18, 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/01/18/510437906/how-to-salvage-u-s-russia-relations-one-experts-take.

51 Michael Birnbaum, “A year into a conflict with Russia, are sanctions working?” Washington Post, March 27, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/a-year-into-a-conflict-with-russia-are-sanctions-working/2015/03/26/45ec04b2-c73c-11e4-bea5-b893e7ac3fb3_story.html?utm_term=.7cb2f25c7153

52 Katya Golubkova and Gabriela Baczynska, “Rouble fall, sanctions hurt Russia’s economy: Medvedev,” Reuters, December 10, 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-medvedev-sanctions-idUSKBN0JO0SR20141210

53 Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution, a widely respected expert on the Russian economy, has been a consistent critic of Western sanctions but to the best of my knowledge never says what he would do instead. See, e.g., Clifford G. Gaddy, “One year of western sanctions against Russia: We still live in different worlds,” Brookings Institution, March 9, 2015. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2015/03/09/one-year-of-western-sanctions-against-russia-we-still-live-in-different-worlds/

54 “Fact Sheet: U.S. Assistance to Ukraine since February 2014,” June 15, 2016. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/06/15/fact-sheet-us-assistance-ukraine-february-2014

55 “Putin admits Russian forces were deployed to Crimea,” Reuters, April 17, 2014. http://uk.reuters.com/article/russia-putin-crimea-idUKL6N0N921H20140417

56 Shaun Walker, “Putin admits Russian military presence in Ukraine for first time,” Guardian, December 17, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/17/vladimir-putin-admits-russian-military-presence-ukraine

57 http://www.wsj.com/articles/ukraine-leader-calls-for-more-western-military-aid-1411055160

58 Ibid.

59 While not a treaty, the Budapest Memorandum led to Ukraine’s de-nuclearization, a huge achievement. See Robert McConnell’s excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal on the obligations the Budapest Memorandum imposed on the United States with respect to Ukraine. Philip Shishkin and Jeffrey Sparshott[, _]“Ukraine to Get More U.S. Aid, but Not Weapons,” _Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2014. http://www.wsj.com/articles/keep-americas-word-againand-protect-ukraine-1484007466

60 See, e.g., U.S. House Resolution 162, “Calling on the President to provide Ukraine with military assistance to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” 114th Congress, March 23, 2015. https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-resolution/162/text The resolution “strongly urges the President to fully and immediately exercise the authorities provided by Congress to provide Ukraine with lethal defensive weapon systems to enhance the ability of the people of Ukraine to defend their sovereign territory from the unprovoked and continuing aggression of the Russian Federation.” Congress passed other resolutions calling for the same action, but to no avail. The Stand for Ukraine Act, introduced in December 2016, has yet to pass either Chamber of Congress.

61 See Philip Shishkin and Jeffrey Sparshott, “Ukraine to Get More U.S. Aid, but Not Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2014. http://www.wsj.com/articles/ukraine-leader-calls-for-more-western-military-aid-1411055160 For various statements from senior U.S. officials in support of providing lethal assistance, see the following:

  1. Ashton Carter, at his confirmation hearing in 2015 to be secretary of defense: “I incline in the direction of providing them [the Ukrainians] with arms, including, to get to what I’m sure your question is, lethal arms.” Luis Martinez, “Defense Secretary Nominee Supports Arming Ukrainian Military,” ABC News, February 4, 2015. http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/defense-secretary-nominee-supports-arming-ukrainian-military/story?id=28723371
  2. Secretary of State John Kerry in Kyiv, February 2015: “We want a diplomatic resolution, but we cannot close our eyes to tanks that are crossing the border from Russia and coming in to Ukraine. We can’t close our eyes to Russian fighters in unmarked uniforms crossing the border.” “Kerry: U.S. ‘cannot close our eyes’ to Russian fighters in Ukraine,” transcript, PBS.org, February 5, 2015. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/kerry-u-s-close-eyes-russian-fighters-ukraine/
  3. Vice President Joe Biden in a speech to the International Support Conference for Ukraine on April 28, 2015: “And that’s why we continue to provide Ukraine with security assistance, so that Ukrainians and your military can secure their territory and borders and defend themselves against Russian aggression.” “Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden to The Ukrainian Rada,” December 9, 2015. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/12/09/remarks-vice-president-joe-biden-ukrainian-rada and in a speech to the Brookings Institution on May 27, 2015: “Much of the debate in Washington has been focused on whether we should provide additional defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine. That’s a debate worth having and continues. And my views are somewhat known on that….” Vice President Joe Biden, “Remarks on the Russia-Ukraine Conflict,” Brookings Institution, May 27, 2015. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/20150527_biden_transcript.pdf
  4. General Joseph Dunford, at his confirmation hearing for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an exchange with Senator Roger Wicker, who asked: “He also mentioned the need for anti-tank missiles. I think your testimony earlier today is that is a reasonable request on the part of the president of Ukraine, and it will be necessary for him to get those in order for him to defend his country. Was that your testimony?”

General Dunford: “Senator, it was. From a military perspective, those kind of capabilities in my judgment would be necessary for him to deal with both Russian aggression and the separatism issue he’s dealing with in Ukraine…. from a military perspective, I think it’s reasonable that we provide that support to the Ukrainians and frankly without that kind of support they’re not going to be able to protect themselves against Russian aggression.” General Joseph Dunford, “Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Confirmation Hearing,” video, C-SPAN, July 9, 2015. Relevant portion begins at 48:00. https://www.c-span.org/video/?326956-1/joint-chiefs-staff-chair-confirmation-hearing

62 This included Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko: “Poroshenko regrets Ukraine formerly gave up its nuclear weapons,” Euromaidan Press, August 24, 2014. http://euromaidanpress.com/2014/08/24/poroshenko-regrets-ukraine-formerly-gave-up-its-nuclear-weapons/ and “Ukraine president calls his country’s 1994 decision to give up nukes a mistake,” Fox News, April 5, 2016. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2016/04/05/ukraine-president-calls-1994-decision-to-give-up-nukes-mistake.html.

63 “Boris Nemtsov murder trial begins at Moscow military court,” BBC, October 3, 2016. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-37538549

64 “Moscow Embassy Says U.S. Monitoring Condition Of Hospitalized Kremlin Critic,” RFE/RL, February 3, 2017. http://www.rferl.org/a/vladimir-kara-murza-us-monitoring-condition/28277435.html

65 “Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address,” January 20, 2015. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/20/remarks-president-state-union-address-january-20-2015

66 “Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney,” May 1, 2014. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/05/01/press-briefing-press-secretary-jay-carney-512014 Asked during a White House press briefing whether the administration was “asking, seeking, urging U.S. CEOs, presidents, top leaders of business not to attend” the economic forum in St. Petersburg, Press Secretary Jay Carney, answered: “…[O]bviously administration officials are having those conversations in keeping with our current approach to Russia and what Russia has been doing in Ukraine. So I can confirm that those conversations are taking place…. And we obviously have those conversations — or not “we,” not me — but others in the administration have those conversations to provide clarity and information to U.S. businesses…. I think these are just informational conversations and making clear that we don’t think it’s appropriate given the flagrant violations of a sovereign nation’s territorial integrity and its consistent efforts to further destabilize Ukraine, that it’s the appropriate thing to do.”

67 Andrew E. Kramer, “Despite Tensions, U.S. Company Officials Attend Russian Economic Forum,” New York Times, June 18, 2015 https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/business/international/despite-tensions-us-company-officials-attend-russian-economic-forum.html

68 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, “Comment by the Information and Press Department on the Visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry,” Facebook post, May 11, 2015. https://m.facebook.com/MIDRussia/posts/635488839883894

69 David J. Kramer, “John Kerry’s Sochi Misadventure,” American Interest, May 14, 2015. http://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/05/14/john-kerrys-sochi-misadventure/

70 Michael Birnbaum and Carol Morello, “No Breakthrough in Sochi as Kerry Meets Putin,” Washington Post, May 12, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/no-breakthroughs-as-kerry-putin-meet-in-sochi/2015/05/12/29b4857a-f811-11e4-a47c-e56f4db884ed_story.html?utm_term=.0d7c35ce4620

71 David J. Kramer, “John Kerry’s Sochi Misadventure.” http://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/05/14/john-kerrys-sochi-misadventure/

72 As noted at a private meeting which the author attended.

73 Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic (April 2016). http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/

74 Julian E. Barnes, “NATO Accuses Russia of Loose Talk on Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/nato-accuses-russia-of-loose-talk-on-nuclear-weapons-1455392401

75 Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr, “Russian fighter jet makes ‘unsafe’ intercept of US aircraft,” CNN, September 8, 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/07/politics/russia-us-jet-intercept/

76 Alistair Bell and Tom Perry, “Obama warns Russia’s Putin of ‘quagmire’ in Syria,” Reuters, October 3, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-airstrikes-idUSKCN0RW0W220151003

77 “Russian Forces Surpasses ISIS in Killing Syrian Civilians,” Syrian Network for Human Rights, August 18, 2016. http://sn4hr.org/blog/2016/08/18/25798/

78 Anne Barnard and Michael Gordon, “Aid Convoy Is Hit in Syria as Cease-Fire Falters and Bombings Resume,” New York Times, September 19, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/20/world/middleeast/syria-aid-john-kerry.html and Michael Gordon and Somini Sengupta, “John Kerry Calls for War Crimes Investigation of Russia and Assad Government,” New York Times, October 7, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/us/politics/john-kerry-russia-syria-assad.html

79 Scott Wilson, “Obama dismisses Russia as ‘regional power’ acting out of weakness,” Washington Post, March 25, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/obama-dismisses-russia-as-regional-power-acting-out-of-weakness/2014/03/25/1e5a678e-b439-11e3-b899-20667de76985_story.html

80 “An Interview with the President,” Economist, August 2, 2014. http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2014/08/barack-obama-talks-economist

The[_ Economist_][*:*] “What about the people who are just outright difficult? Russia being the obvious example at the moment. You tried to ‘reset’ with Russia. Angela Merkel spent the whole time telephoning Vladimir Putin. To what extent do you feel let down almost personally by what’s happened?”

Mr Obama[*:*] “I don’t feel let down. We had a very productive relationship with President Medvedev. We got a lot of things done that we needed to get done. Russia I think has always had a Janus-like quality, both looking east and west, and I think President Putin represents a deep strain in Russia that is probably harmful to Russia over the long term, but in the short term can be politically popular at home and very troublesome abroad.

“But I do think it’s important to keep perspective. Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking. And so we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents….I think history is on our side (emphasis added).”

81 David E. Sanger and Matt Flegenheimer, “Russian Hackers Gained ‘Limited’ Access to R.N.C., Comey Says,” New York Times, January 10, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/10/us/politics/russia-hack-hearing-clapper-rogers-brennan.html

82 Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution,” January 6, 2017. https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf

83 Stephen Collinson, “Trump: ‘I think it was Russia’,” CNN, January 11, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/11/politics/donald-trump-press-conference-highlights/ “I think it was Russia,” Trump said. Putin “should not be doing it. He won’t be doing it. Russia will have much greater respect for our country when I am leading it than when other people have led it.”

84 “Statement by the President on Actions in Response to Russian Malicious Cyber Activity and Harassment,” December 29, 2016. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/12/29/statement-president-actions-response-russian-malicious-cyber-activity

85 This was the reaction from both Democrat and Republican members. See, e.g., reaction from both Democratic Senator Ben Cardin and Republican Senator Tom Cotton: “Cardin Statement on White House Announcement of Russia Sanctions Following U.S. Cyber Attacks,” Cardin for Maryland, December 29, 2016. https://www.cardin.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/cardin-statement-on-white-house-announcement-of-russia-sanctions-following-us-cyber-attacks and “Cotton latest to say Obama’s Russia sanctions over hacking overdue, ‘too late’,” Fox News, January 1, 2017. http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/01/01/cotton-latest-to-say-obamas-russia-sanctions-over-hacking-overdue-too-late.html

86 Daniella Diaz and Eli Watkins, “Conway wonders if Russian sanctions were intended to restrict Trump,” CNN, December 29, 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/29/politics/donald-trump-russian-sanctions-white-house-lisa-monaco-cnntv/

87 David J. Kramer, “Now, really crank up heat on Russia,” Politico Europe, December 30, 2016. http://www.politico.eu/article/russia-sanctions-obama-putin-trump-gop-turn-up-heat/

88 “Open Letter: Congress Must Investigate Russian Interference in the Presidential Election,” War on the Rocks, July 29, 2016. https://warontherocks.com/2016/07/open-letter-congress-must-investigate-russian-interference-in-the-presidential-election/

89 “Notice — Continuation of National Emergency with Respect to Ukraine,” January 13, 2017. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/13/notice-continuation-national-emergency-respect-ukraine

90 “Magnitsky-related Designations; Counter Terrorism Designations,” Office of Foreign Assets Control, U.S. Department of Treasury, January 9, 2017. https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20170109.aspx

91 John Micklethwait, “Putin Discusses Trump, OPEC, Rosneft, Brexit, Japan,” transcript,[* *]Bloomberg, September 5, 2016. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/52830

92 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference on Russia’s diplomacy performance in 2015,” January 26, 2016. http://www.mid.ru/en/press_service/minister_speeches/-/asset_publisher/7OvQR5KJWVmR/content/id/2032328

Chapter Six:

A New Approach For Dealing With Putin’s Regime

Questions Accompany the New President

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Donald Trump expressed admiration for the leadership of Vladimir Putin and spoke about his desire to work with Russia in fighting ISIS. He hinted at the possibility of lifting sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and even signaled that he might recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

When President Obama sanctioned Russia for its hacking and harassment of American diplomats, Trump responded by saying “it’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.”1 When Putin the next day opted not to retaliate with tit-for-tat sanctions, Trump tweeted praise of the Russian leader: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin),” Trump wrote. “I always knew he was very smart!”2 After his inauguration January 20, Trump downplayed Putin’s reputation as a “killer” in an interview with Fox News. “There are a lot of killers,” Trump responded, “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”3

Questions about contacts between representatives of the Trump campaign and Russian officials and intermediaries continue to shadow the new president and his administration. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, resigned after the media revealed he had had contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak at the same time the Obama administration was announcing sanctions on the Putin regime for its email hacking in the U.S. election.4 Speculation spiked a week after Trump’s inauguration that the new president was prepared to lift sanctions on Russia. That possibility elicited a strong reaction from leaders in the U.S. Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who told Politico, “I’m against lifting any sanctions on the Russians. If there’s any country in the world that doesn’t deserve sanctions relief, it’s Russia.”5

As this goes to print, President Trump has yet to lift any sanctions on the Putin regime. Nor has he met with his Russian counterpart. Officials in his administration, during their confirmation hearings, made strong statements about Russia, citing it as a major threat, supporting arms for Ukraine, and calling for the continuation of sanctions until Russia withdraws from Ukraine. The new ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, in her first remarks before the international body, slammed Russia for its recent “aggressive actions” in eastern Ukraine.6 And yet, given Trump’s own comments about Putin, the new administration has sent conflicting signals on its Russia policy.

What policies should the new administration adopt toward Putin’s Russia? Should the arrival of a new occupant in the White House be an opportunity for yet another reset, albeit under a different name? Should it soften the relatively hard-line approach adopted by the Obama administration since 2014 (in contrast to its first five years, starting with the reset)? Should Trump wipe the slate clean and start anew, as he and his Vice President Mike Pence have suggested at times?7

In the remaining pages, I offer a strategy for how to handle relations with Moscow for the foreseeable future. I lay out both what should not be done and what should be done by way of policy, as well as the thinking and logic behind that policy. What I call for may not resemble the plans of Trump, I realize, but it is the policy I believe the United States should follow regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

I start from the premise that we must acknowledge the reality that Putin is a threat. As a logical follow-on to that, constructive relations with the Putin regime are simply not possible — unless we compromise our interests and our values. Not only does Putin not share our values but there is little overlap between our two governments when it comes to national interests. By its very nature, the Putin regime, as described in Chapter One and in subsequent detail in other parts of this book, must maintain the notion that the United States is a threat to Russia.

Putin wants Russia to be treated and respected like a world power. He also wants a sphere of influence along Russia’s borders. He wants to be able to crack down on his own population whenever necessary, using any means necessary. He wants to weaken Western institutions and expose them as being no better than the system he has in place in Russia. He wants to meddle in other countries’ politics and elections. And he wants to be able to do all of this while being allowed to sit at the G8 table, among other places — in other words, he wants to be accepted and sought after by the international community.

To some extent, Putin’s goals have been achieved, notwithstanding the sanctions imposed for his invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s isolation ended, as I argued in Chapter Four, when John Kerry flew to meet with him in Sochi in May 2015; other Western leaders have welcomed the Russian leader to their capitals or visited him in Russia. Some have called for a lifting of sanctions; others argue that Russia is too important and too big to be ostracized. At the top of everyone’s list of questions for Trump is how he will handle Putin.

At the same time, one has to wonder how sustainable Putin’s policy is. On his watch, Russia has failed to diversify or launch true economic modernization, encouraged a growing role for the state in the economy, scared its neighbors, and given new purpose to NATO. As a result of his actions, NATO has mobilized forces closer to Russia’s borders — albeit not in a threatening manner — a development that never would have happened had Putin not invaded Ukraine. Accusations of Russian involvement in war crimes in Syria do not help the country’s image either.

All this suggests that the situation in Russia may be more fragile than many observers assume. As we learned from the 2011 revolutions in the Arab world, these regimes seem stable — until they are not. As Andrew Wood noted in the Chatham House report, “…[T]he present regime may not last forever, and may indeed face a serious crisis in the foreseeable future….”8 Elsewhere Wood argues, “Putin is well aware that others who have seemed secure and popular have lost power suddenly, completely, and often enough fatally.”9

That is even more reason why complying with Putin’s goals and desires in the vain search of improved bilateral relations would be a dangerous fool’s errand for any American president. It would hurt U.S. national security interests, damage our principles, and sell out our friends and neighbors. It would lead to greater instability in Europe and beyond, and it would tip the global balance of power in favor of authoritarian regimes like the one in Moscow. It would entail surrendering the leadership position the United States has successfully and proudly occupied since the end of World War II. Finally and most plainly, it would be the wrong thing to do, setting in motion the erosion of the Western system of democracy and sweeping under the rug the terrible damage Putin has caused in the world.

The Putin regime is not to be trusted, plain and simple. After all, Putin has failed to comply with ceasefire deals after invading Georgia (the Sarkozy Plan in 2008) and Ukraine (the two Minsk agreements in 2014 and 2015), and after launching his military intervention in Syria in 2015. Russia has also cheated on the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.10 It flouts its commitments as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, and it tries to undermine the very essence of these entities. This failure to abide by commitments destroys any reliability Russia may have as an interlocutor and underscores the futility of Western efforts to engage in negotiations with a partner that will not respect its agreements. As James Nixey writes in the Chatham House report:

The inclination, for new Western leaders in particular, is to give the Kremlin the benefit of the doubt or attempt a Nixon-in-China-like breakthrough, which continually inhibits progressive understanding of and learning from the relationship. The facts show that Russia’s leadership has unleashed hackers on Estonia; invaded and annexed part of Georgia; and cut off gas to, invaded and annexed part of Ukraine. Trust has been lost and the Helsinki Accords are in shreds. Moscow’s word is now worth nothing, and there are no longer grounds to give it the benefit of the doubt (emphasis added).11

Putin’s misbehavior is not limited to his foreign policy; his ugly crackdown on human rights inside Russia must not be overlooked. Moreover, as argued in Chapter One, Putin operates on the basis of what is in his best interests, not necessarily what is in the best interests of Russia. That makes it especially challenging for the United States to pursue dialogue with the Putin regime on the basis of mutually beneficial national interests. Thus, we should stop seeing Putin as anything other than a paranoid, authoritarian leader who oversees one of the most corrupt regimes in the world, perpetuates the nonsense that the West is a threat, and seeks to undermine the principles and foundations of the liberal international order.

Nor should we forget how Putin came to power — under suspicious circumstances involving the apartment bombings in 1999 and the loss of thousands of lives in Chechnya. We should recognize that he pursues foreign policy as an extension of Russian domestic politics. He does not care about his own population’s human rights and only cites concern about the welfare of Russian-speaking and ethnic Russian groups elsewhere when it serves his politically expedient purposes.

With this perspective in mind, the best approach is a policy rooted in strong pushback and containment, not an eagerness to get along. In arguing for such an approach, I am not calling for cutting off diplomatic ties. We have proven in the past, during Soviet times and under Putin, that we can discuss certain issues where our interests overlap even amid strong disagreements in other areas. These include nuclear non-proliferation, arms control, and counter-terrorism. But even on these issues, we should not kid ourselves into thinking that our definitions of these challenges, let alone the solutions to them, will align.

Whereas Russia helped in reaching the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, it has sold the Iranian regime advanced missile defense systems and other technology and weapons and is working closely together with Tehran to support the murderous Assad regime in Syria. Russia has much less influence over North Korea, but the Kim regime’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program capable of reaching the United States has not discouraged Russia from launching a new ferry between North Korea and Russia. Putin has shown little appetite for any new arms reductions since the signing in 2010 of the New START Agreement. And anyway, Putin has suggested he does not feel bound by the limitations of agreements Russia has signed in the past.

Putin’s treatment of all opposition to Syria’s Assad as terrorists shows us that he has very different answers to the question of who is a terrorist — as well as the question of how to handle them. Indeed, Russia takes a blowtorch-like approach to dealing with those it deems terrorists, showing little regard for collateral damage, as demonstrated in Chechnya. Russia’s record on non-proliferation is suspect, as evidenced by its relationship with Iran. On balance, discussing these issues with Moscow is acceptable as long as we stay true to our principles and interests and recognize the inherent differences in Putin’s and our ways of thinking.

Some have argued that U.S. officials should have serious discussions with their Russian counterparts on cyber issues and even seek an agreement on rules of the road in this area. Such efforts are likely to prove fruitless given Russia’s refusal to abide by other agreements. Even after the Obama administration imposed sanctions in December 2016 for Russia’s unprecedented hacking during the 2016 U.S. election, the payoff for Moscow — disruption of an American election — was much greater than the price it paid. Moreover, Russia is also meddling in other countries’ elections, including ones in France and Germany in 2017. We need to play hardball with Moscow on this issue if we want to prevent a repeat of Russia’s hacking in the future.

Some might wonder whether a containment approach is tantamount to seeking regime change in Russia. That should not be U.S. policy, but not because it is not desirable. In fact, we should want a different leadership in Russia, one that:

  • {color:#000;}respects the rights of its own people;
  • {color:#000;}fights corruption rather than promotes and exports it;
  • {color:#000;}respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors;
  • {color:#000;}condemns rather than engages in gross human rights abuses and possible war crimes at home and in places like Syria; and
  • {color:#000;}recognizes that good relations with the West require it to abide by international norms and standards.

The reality, however, is that effecting such a change in regime in Russia is beyond our means. Besides, it ought to be up to Russians themselves to determine their own leadership. Efforts by outside powers to force regime change would merely bolster support for Putin and his circle — and likely fail. As noted in Chatham House’s The Russia Challenge report:

The West has neither the wish nor the means to promote, or for that matter to prevent, regime change in Russia. But Western countries need to consider the possible consequences of a chaotic end to the Putin system.12

Whereas I would argue that we have the “wish” for regime change, we do not have the means, and we should not waste precious time and effort trying to bring such a situation to fruition. Should Putin drop dead tomorrow or suddenly be removed from the presidency somehow, however, we should be preparing for scenarios in which unexpected change in Russia poses new challenges for the West.


Acknowledging the Threat

Before outlining what we should and should not do in policy terms, we must acknowledge that Putin’s Russia poses an existential threat to the United States and the Western world. A review of the track record, much of which has been described in previous chapters, shows us that Putin has:

  • violated on a wide scale the human rights of his own people,
  • invaded his neighbors,
  • intervened militarily to prop up the murderous Assad regime in Syria and allegedly committed war crimes against civilians in that country,13
  • agreed with the mullahs to construct new nuclear reactors in Iran and deliver sophisticated S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems,
  • threatened the world with Russia’s nuclear weapons capability,14 and
  • challenged NATO states and others with provocative military flights, submarine maneuvers, and dire warnings about hosting missile defense sites.

In short, Putin poses a serious threat to U.S. and Western interests. That has certainly been the view of a number of America’s top military officials. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, in his July 2015 confirmation hearing to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia. And if you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”15

The day before that, Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Deborah James gave an interview after a series of visits and meetings with U.S. allies across Europe in which she said, “I do consider Russia to be the biggest threat.”16 Air Force General Paul Selva, in his confirmation hearing the same week to be vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued, “Russia possesses the conventional and nuclear capability to be an existential threat to this nation should they choose to do so.”17

Their comments predate Putin’s military intervention in Syria and targeted hacking in the United States. Those actions only heighten the sense of threat posed by Putin and his regime. The testimony in early 2017 from various Trump cabinet officials during their confirmation hearings offers similar views.

To address this challenge, the United States needs to develop a tougher policy of containment and pushback that includes reviving American leadership, ramping up sanctions on the Putin regime, bolstering Russia’s neighbors, standing up to Russia’s human rights abuses, engaging with the Russian people, investigating Russian corruption and cleaning up our own act.

As James Nixey argues in the Chatham House report:

Every signal before and after the Ukraine crisis has indicated a reluctance by the West to act to defend its own interests against Russia’s encroachment. The West has been too timid…. Russia may have the greater interest in Ukraine. But the West has an even bigger interest in preserving the post-Cold War environment. If that is dismantled, it is conceivable that NATO and the EU could collapse too…. Unchallenged, this course will not change. But the fact that Russia’s foreign policy ambitions are clearer than ever suggests that the West now has an opportunity to counter them and ultimately improve the situation.18

In the same report Andrew Wood makes the case for wider sanctions against the Putin regime “in response to further aggressive Russian actions.”19

Not since World War II has Europe faced a graver crisis than it does now as a result of Putin’s aggression. The Middle East is in terrible turmoil—not only because of Putin, to be sure, but in part owing to his actions there. Should Putin try his luck against a neighboring NATO Member State, the United States would be confronted with Article Five implications. No sane person wants to risk such a scenario. Nor does anyone want to risk having any conflict spiral downward into a nuclear war. Thus, the key is to minimize approaching any of these possibilities.


What NOT to Do

Before knowing what to do, we need to know what not to do. We should not make Putin’s life any easier as long as he engages in actions and behavior that run counter to the interests of the United States and its allies. Putin only understands strength and decisiveness; he exploits weakness and rushes into vacuums created by a lack of U.S. and Western leadership. He must understand that violations of neighbors’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, interference in other countries’ elections, war crimes and gross human rights abuses will incur serious costs, whether through sanctions or some other form of punishment and isolation.

The failure to impose consequences for earlier egregious actions emboldened Putin, convincing him that he could continue to push the envelope against the West. The silence on his crackdown on human rights in Russia gave him a green light to extend his repressive measures further. While he underestimated the West’s readiness to impose sanctions for his invasion of Ukraine, that act of aggression might have been avoided entirely had he been made to think twice after the cyberattack on Estonia or his invasion of Georgia. Moreover, the failure to ratchet up sanctions for his invasion of Ukraine has enabled him and Russia to adjust to them. Life would be more difficult for him if the West had been regularly increasing penalties for his defiance of agreements and international norms.

Absent Russia’s complete withdrawal from Ukraine, for example, easing sanctions should be out of the question. Such a move would once again let Putin off the hook and embolden him to undertake the next reckless adventure. Thus the West should hold the line on Ukraine-related sanctions until Russia withdraws all of its forces from Ukrainian territory, returns Crimea to Ukrainian control, and stops meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs. Similarly, Moscow must pay a price for its hacking related to the American presidential election. Those sanctions should not be undone either. Finally, the United States should not ease up on implementing sanctions related to the Magnitsky Act for gross human rights abuses. Doing so would only pave the way for more such abuses. As Chatham House’s report argues, “Putin must not be accommodated for fear that any successor would be even worse. This accommodation has already failed.”20

Nor should we abandon those Russians who are struggling for a better future for their country. Many Russians do not support Putin and his policies. Some of them depend on outside funding for their organization’s activities in the absence of domestic sources of support; this need is even harder to satisfy in the wake of the foreign agent legislation. The West, however, should not preemptively cut off funding for such groups out of concerns that continuing support might put them in danger. Let the Russians seeking such assistance decide themselves the extent of their danger. They know the risks better than we do.

We need to remember to distinguish between Putin and Russians more broadly when we voice our disagreements. Our problem is with Putin and his regime, not with all Russians. As Andrew Wood rightly points out in the Chatham House report, “[I]t is essential to remember that Putin and his circle are not the same as Russia and its people, and that their interests do not necessarily coincide. Ways should be sought to expand Western communication with the latter.”21

Similarly, we should not remain silent about Russia’s deteriorating human rights situation. How the Putin regime treats its own people tells us a lot about how it will behave abroad. We cannot condemn the latter while staying silent on the former. Doing so would demoralize those inside Russia who look to the United States for moral and political solidarity. They do not want Americans to pursue regime change in their country, but they also do not want us to enable Putin’s behavior and import his corruption. At the same time, we should never engage in moral equivalency, as President Trump did in his February 2017 interview with Fox News.22

We should not consign Russia’s neighbors to a Russian sphere of influence through any grand deals, accommodation, trade-offs or general neglect. President Obama’s reckless comments to The Atlantic in February 2016 essentially did just that (see Chapter Four), and fears about what the Trump administration might do are making Ukrainians, Georgians and others very nervous. Some Russians yearn for a Yalta II agreement in which the Trump administration would grant Putin free rein to do as he pleases in his neighborhood in exchange for empty Russian pledges of partnership in fighting ISIS or promises of nuclear arms cuts.

We should not be cutting deals with Moscow about other countries over the heads of their leaderships. To do so would be to sell out the people in those countries who are striving to forge deeper ties with the West and to reduce dependency on Moscow. It would abandon the decades-old goal of a Europe whole, free and at peace. It would alienate those populations from the United States. None of that would advance U.S. interests.

We should stop obsessing over whether we are entering a New Cold War. That is a debate, frankly, not worth having, and it distracts us from where our focus should be: on Putin’s actions and behavior and how we should address them.

The new Trump administration should avoid appearing to want good relations with Moscow more than the Putin regime wants good relations with us. The over-eagerness of past administrations to get along with Russian leaders has weakened what should be a stronger position for the United States bilaterally. It sends the wrong signals to Putin that he can hold out for better offers from Washington. And it demoralizes Russians who don’t support Putin, as well as our allies who are struggling to stand up to the Russian leader’s actions.

We should never telegraph to Putin what we won’t do in our policy, such as Obama did when he publicly refused to provide military assistance to Ukraine. It is wise to avoid gratuitous clarity in diplomacy; alerting Putin to the limits of U.S. policy enables him to find ways to accomplish his goals without risking confrontation with the United States. As argued before, it is better to leave Putin wondering what the American leader might do rather than reassure him about what won’t happen.

We should not personalize relations with the Russian leader. Both Bush with Putin and Obama to a much stronger degree with Medvedev made this mistake. Trump should not delude himself into thinking that he, unlike his predecessors, knows how to negotiate with Putin and can develop a good relationship with him. Putin will exploit Trump’s seemingly desperate desire to be liked, turning it to Russia’s advantage. Interactions with Putin must not be treated as a popularity contest but must be handled in a very straightforward manner.

We should set aside any concern that a tough approach toward Putin will drive Russia into the hands of China. While the Sino-Russia relationship has always deserved careful monitoring, it should not become a justification for treating Russia with kid gloves. Beijing and Moscow have looked upon each other warily for decades; there is no love or trust between the two. Even Russian military sales to China are not sufficient grounds to upgrade the risk of a Russia-China alignment for the United States. Beijing knows that a brighter future lies in forging constructive relations with Washington, not Moscow. At the same time, we should also abandon all wishful thinking that Russia and the United States can work together to contain and deter China. Moscow’s concerns about Beijing are real, but it does not want to be seen as working with the United States against China. The same logic, by the way, applies to the arguments of those who hope to turn Moscow against the regime in Tehran.


What We SHOULD Do: Elements for a New Strategy

Those are the things we should not do. That naturally begs the question: what should we do? In broad strokes, a more effective U.S. strategy for dealing with Putin’s Russia would require strong American leadership, steady engagement at the presidential level and coordination with our allies, along with a clear understanding of why past policies have failed. This is not an argument for never talking with officials in Moscow; issues like de-conflicting U.S. and Russian military efforts in the Middle East do not necessarily require engagement at the presidential level and can be delegated to professionals in the military and diplomatic corps.

Moreover, we need to be modest in our expectations from such engagement and should keep it limited. We should be clear that, with our values so diametrically opposed, we do not share many common interests and do not see any value in a strategic partnership as long as the Putin regime remains in power.

Putin’s Russia views the United States, democracy, NATO, the European Union and the West more broadly as threats to its survival. Putin’s number one goal is to stay in power, and so he fabricates the notion that the West is a threat to Russia to justify his authoritarian ways. Seeking better relations with Putin’s Russia is not a goal worth sacrificing our principles and interests.

The new strategy should include these fundamental elements:23

Recognize that American leadership is essential to any hopes of pushing back on Putin’s aggression. Quite simply, there is no substitute for American leadership in dealing with Russia. Even as Putin tries to drive wedges between and among European states, it is with the United States with which he most wants to deal. He wants to be viewed and treated as an equal. The United States, of course, should coordinate its approach in dealing with Russia with its allies in Europe, Asia and Canada, but it must take the lead.

U.S. leadership will be especially important in addressing Russia’s violations of arms control treaties (including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) and ceasefire deals in Ukraine, Syria and, let’s not forget, Georgia, as well as other commitments such as the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. Similarly, the United States needs to respond to Russian muscle-flexing in the Middle East and other potential theaters in the Western Hemisphere and the Arctic. No one wants military conflict with Moscow, but the United States is the only Western country that can stand up in a serious way to Putin’s bullying; doing so with NATO allies and others will make an even greater impression on Moscow.

Contain Russia to prevent and preempt further aggressive behavior on the part of Putin. This can be accomplished by ramping up sanctions to include Putin and his top circle on the visa ban and asset freeze lists for continued violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and for any other such egregious behavior. Sanctions lose their effectiveness over time if they are not ratcheted up. The U.S. Treasury Department and the intelligence community presumably have gleaned more information since I last served in government on the whereabouts of the assets and bank accounts of various top Russian officials. Lopping a few zeros off their net worth would be a very precise way of letting them know that there are consequences for Putin’s misbehavior.

In addition, the United States should not hesitate to impose unilateral U.S. sanctions if some Europeans continue to show a reluctance to toughen their own measures. Financial sanctions against all Russian banks and expulsion from the SWIFT system should be options unless Moscow dramatically changes course in Ukraine. Expelling Russia from SWIFT obviously would be a big step, but it would be misguided not to consider it as an option. The Central Bank of the Russian Federation is another possible target, as are the defense, mining, engineering and energy sectors in Russia; Gazprom and its senior leadership should be added to the list as well. The United States should also ban Western firms and financial institutions from participating in any Russian privatization or bond offerings. Allowing their involvement in such activities automatically benefits the Russian state, freeing up resources for it to engage in destructive actions. The United States should include on its sanctions list all members of the Russian parliament who voted in favor of the annexation of Crimea. Congress should pass legislation codifying existing sanctions and calling for more measures so that such steps are not left to mere executive orders, which can be undone on a presidential whim.

Bolster Russia’s neighbors and beef up the defense of NATO allies along Russia’s borders. We must bolster NATO and the EU, Western institutions that have kept the peace in Europe more or less for the past seven-plus decades. As a member of the former, we must reassure allies that Article Five means that an attack against one is an attack against all. Deployments of battalions to the three Baltic states and Poland are important moves in this direction; this includes a battalion from the United States to Poland. NATO should intensify regional military exercises and training with an emphasis on territorial defense.

The United States and its allies should reaffirm NATO’s Open Door Policy as reflected in Article 10 of the Washington Treaty. Washington must make clear that Russia has no de facto veto over any states’ desire to join the Alliance — or the European Union, for that matter — even if membership for aspiring states like Ukraine and Georgia is not in the cards any time soon. Similarly, we should ramp up military training and assistance to non-NATO frontline states, such as Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova.

This should include providing Ukraine with military aid, increased training and intelligence to help it defend itself against further Russian aggression, as bipartisan majorities in the U.S. Congress have called for repeatedly. We should also support Ukraine in its overall reform campaign and describe those fighting Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions not as “separatists” but as Russian forces and their proxies. It is important to remember that there had been no separatist movements in the Donbas region, or Crimea for that matter; Russia manufactured these movements where none previously had existed.

Supporting Russia’s neighbors in their efforts to liberalize and reform their economies — thereby strengthening their independence and viability — is one of the best ways to respond to Putin’s aggression. This will require sustained engagement with those countries, as well as our understanding that, as we try to help them succeed, Moscow will simultaneously try to destabilize them and sabotage our efforts. We should reaffirm support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbors, their Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and their development of democratic, rule-of-law-based foundations. High-level visits from Washington to Kyiv and other capitals in the region, including by the president, should be part of this agenda.

As part of a broader military modernization, the United States should accelerate development and installation of NATO’s missile defense system, with various parts based in a number of European countries. While ostensibly designed to deal with threats from Iran, the system will also entail stationing U.S. military personnel, detailed to the missile defense program, on allied soil, thus reassuring our partners. The system will also serve as an indirect response to the Kremlin’s reckless nuclear weapons rhetoric.

Russia’s economy remains heavily dependent on energy exports. Therefore we should also encourage Europe to further diversify its energy supplies, unleashing U.S. energy exports and fracking to aid in this task. Expanding America’s share in the energy market should keep oil prices under control, reducing the income available to Putin to make trouble. We should oppose development of Russian-dominated pipelines like Nord Stream II, which is meant to isolate Ukraine and other transit nations like Poland. These steps would highlight Putin’s failure to diversify and modernize Russia’s economy.

Support democratic, reform-minded forces inside Russia. Throughout this book, I have argued that the United States should have devoted more attention over the years to the deteriorating human rights situation inside Russia. A new strategy for dealing with Putin’s regime must elevate democracy and human rights concerns in importance. After all, the way Putin treats his own people mirrors how he behaves in foreign policy: with utter disregard for loss of innocent life (see Chechnya and Syria) and a determination to demonize and destroy his enemies wherever they may be found (in London or elsewhere). The United States should restore a policy of “linkage,” making it clear that the way Russian authorities treat their own people will affect broader U.S.-Russian relations.

U.S. officials at the highest levels, including the president, should meet regularly with Russian dissidents and activists — both during trips to Russia and when those activists come to the United States — to demonstrate support for them. Such meetings should not be relegated to the level of assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor but must be part of any senior official’s agenda, no matter his or her portfolio. At the same time, it is important for senior U.S. officials to speak out against Putin’s attempts to stifle dissent[_ _]and restrict the Russian people’s fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly.

We should raise specific cases of those improperly imprisoned, arrested and harassed, and bring attention to the plight of those intimidated and mistreated. We should demand justice for the murders of Boris Nemtsov, Anna Politkovskaya, Paul Klebnikov and others, and demand that justice be delivered not only to those who pulled the trigger or delivered the poison but to those who ordered their murders as well. And justice should be done on behalf of the twice-poisoned Vladimir Kara-Murza. We must never forget that human beings are suffering because of Putin’s rule. Our voices must be raised on their behalf.

To back up this rhetoric, the United States should more aggressively implement the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, which imposes sanctions on those who commit gross human rights abuses in the absence of accountability and justice inside Russia. We should recall that many Russian democracy and human rights activists, along with regime critics, strongly support such measures. The United States should press other countries to pass and implement similar legislation. To date, only Estonia and the United Kingdom have done so, though the European Parliament has passed several non-binding resolutions calling for such measures; Canada is also moving to adopt the legislation.

With so many Russians arguing and struggling for a better, more liberal society, we in the West should not assume that the cause inside the country is hopeless. Even with the restrictive foreign agent legislation, Russian organizations still look to the United States for financial and moral help. Accordingly, we need to find innovative ways to provide material and technical support to domestic civil society groups and grassroots initiatives that are working to support democracy, respect for universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, and free and fair elections.

Moscow is a signatory to a number of treaties and organizations that require Russia to respect fundamental human rights. The reality, of course, is that the Kremlin ignores these commitments — and its citizens’ human rights. As fellow members and signatories of such organizations and treaties, the United States and its allies need to press Russia to live up to its international commitments. Not doing so will enable Russia and like-minded states to eat away at the integrity of these organizations and the principles they embody.

Prevent the importation of corruption from Russia. As I have already noted, corruption is Putin’s greatest export, but the West bears responsibility for importing it.24 Western democracies must do a better job of cleaning up their own systems by enforcing anti-corruption measures and exposing individuals and groups on the Kremlin payroll. This should include tracing illicit financial flows to prevent Russian kleptocrats from investing and parking ill-gotten funds in the West or engaging in money-laundering.

All democracies should follow the American lead in banning foreign funding for political parties. In November 2014, France’s Marine Le Pen publicly confirmed that her right-wing National Front Party received $10 million in Russian money.25 That should be not just a source of shame and embarrassment but illegal as well. Instead Le Pen, an outspoken critic of sanctions against the Putin regime, performed better in the recent presidential elections than any other far-right candidate in modern French history.

With passage of the Global Magnitsky Act in late 2016 (a bill that, unlike the 2012 Magnitsky Act, includes corruption as the basis for imposing visa sanctions and asset freezes on those suspected of such involvement), the United States now has additional tools to root out this cancerous problem. It also should join forces with partners in Europe in enforcing international court verdicts involving Russian corruption and asset-stripping, such as the decisions involving the Yukos energy company by the European Court for Human Rights and a Dutch arbitration court.26 Enforcement of such verdicts reinforces the rule of law, recovers assets stolen by the Putin regime and hits the Kremlin in its wallet, hopefully discouraging future bad behavior.

Washington should support and develop partnerships with local journalists and NGOs to investigate and expose the widespread kleptocracy in Russia and press for greater enforcement of existing laws. If the Russian people were more aware of the extent of corruption and how far beyond their stated means officials are living, they would be more likely to demand accountability and transparency, especially in tough economic times for the average citizen. As part of this effort, Washington should emphasize the connection between pervasive government corruption and human rights abuses. The more corrupt officials in a regime become, the more likely they are to crack down on fundamental freedoms and engage in other abuses to avoid risking the loss of their ill-gotten gains. We should also underline the fact that the problem of Russian corruption will inhibit the overall bilateral relationship.

The Department of Justice and FBI should enhance cooperation with European sister agencies to investigate and prosecute Russian organized crime and corruption and aggressively pursue cases like the recent investigations into FIFA, professional soccer’s global governing body.27 Russian corruption connected to the International Olympic Committee warrants thorough investigation by outside authorities, given that Russian agencies will never do a proper investigation of their own as long as the current powers are in place in the Kremlin.

Neutralize Russian propaganda. The United States should not respond to Russian propaganda by engaging in counter-propaganda, though it should knock down particularly outrageous lies coming from Kremlin-funded outlets. Instead, we should fund fact-based journalism throughout the Eurasia region that is interesting and accessible to audiences inside Russia and to populations along its borders. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Current Time program is a step in this direction, though much more should be done.28 More funding for RFE/RL and Voice of America is important, but support should go to Russian-language media initiatives in the region as well. Programming must be able to attract viewers, though ratings are not the sole objective. Reaching the elites in Russia and in other countries often is more important than seeking a broad-based audience (though this goal should not be overlooked).

The United States can also counter growing anti-European and anti-American sentiment by beefing up American public diplomacy, people-to-people exchanges and education programs, though the impact of such efforts is less likely to be felt in the shorter term. For a more immediate impact, the United States, together with European partners whose funding might be easier to arrange, should support individual citizen journalists and training for investigative reporters. This requires walking a fine line: we don’t want to tarnish the good work of enterprising journalists by creating the impression that their work is on behalf of foreign groups or governments. At the same time, their efforts to expose corruption, human rights violations and infringements on political and civil liberties by the Russian government might never get off the ground without outside support.

Western governments need to do what they can to preserve the shrinking space for internet freedom in Russia. Freedom House and other organizations have been cataloguing the growing pressure from the Russian government on bloggers, social media users, websites and internet providers.29 While Russians still get most of their news from TV, using the internet more for social purposes, the fact that authorities are cracking down suggests growing concern on their part that web-based outlets could play an increasingly important role in providing alternative sources of information.

When it comes to RT and Sputnik, the West should stop treating their employees as real journalists. They are paid not to report the news objectively but to impart Kremlin-driven propaganda aimed at denigrating Western countries and institutions by offering “alternative views and news.” They are the real purveyors of “fake news.” The Kremlin takes advantage of the openness and tolerance of Western countries to deploy divisive rhetoric and phony reporting in an effort to discredit everything for which the West stands.

Employees of RT and Sputnik should not be allowed to cover State Department, White House or Congressional press briefings. Russian state funding for these outlets should be targeted for seizure when the Russian government loses court rulings and is ordered to pay compensation, as happened in the Yukos case (a verdict that is being appealed). Their hate-mongering hosts, such as Channel One’s Dmitri Kiselyov, espouse vehement anti-Western rhetoric and demonize Putin critics; Kiselyov once famously threatened to reduce the United States to radioactive ash. 30 The EU rightly includes Kiselyov on its sanctions list, and the United States should follow suit, given that he and those like him are responsible for creating a dangerous atmosphere in which Putin opponents are attacked and in some cases killed.

Critics of such an approach worry that it would invite retaliation by Russian authorities against genuine American journalists based in Moscow. At the risk of sounding glib, that is a risk we will have to take. Others say this hard-line stance inflates the importance of RT and Sputnik and would give them more attention than merited by their current low ratings. Ratings are beside the point; their fake stories often go viral, and those who circulate their nonsense often forget to check the original source of the material. Expelling them from official venues will help delegitimize their work and make it clear to others that appearing on their shows and taking money from them, as the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, did in December 2015, is not okay.

What Next?

Following through on these recommendations will not fix the problems in U.S.-Russian relations overnight. Indeed, the problems will not go away as long as Putin and his regime are in power. Even a successor to Putin might feel a need to view the West as a threat to justify and legitimize his grip on power. The minds of many Russians already have been polluted by the steady drumbeat of anti-American rhetoric on Kremlin-controlled Russian television. Undoing that damage will take time.

While U.S.-Russian relations might remain strained for a long time, preventing this tension from exploding into full-blown confrontation is in everyone’s interests. But we must not do this at the expense of sacrificing Russia’s neighbors to a Russian sphere of influence, swallowing our concerns about the appalling human rights situation inside Russia or appearing weak and irresolute. Ukrainians, Georgians and others need to know the United States is a friend. Russian liberal activists need to be reassured that America supports their aspirations and stands on principle. And Putin needs to see that American leadership is back. Putin respects and backs down in the face of Western, especially American, strength and decisiveness. The new American administration must show more of that without gratuitously picking fights with the Kremlin.

The Trump administration has an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of its predecessors. Past misunderstanding of the situation in Russia, wishful thinking about Dmitri Medvedev and underestimating Putin are mistakes that should not be repeated. We must recognize the threat posed by Putin as the starting point for U.S.-Russian relations. That is not to say that we can never cooperate selectively with Russia, but we must realize that our values will never intersect and that we share fewer interests than we might like as long as Putin remains in power. Seeking better bilateral ties with Moscow at the expense of our values and interests and those of our friends and allies would do vastly more harm than good for the United States and the liberal international order. The Trump administration needs to understand that to avoid committing the errors of the past — or making new ones of its own.


1 “Trump responds to sanctions against Russia, says it’s time to ‘move on’,” Fox News, December 29, 2016. http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/12/29/obama-orders-sanctions-against-russia-expels-operatives-in-response-to-hacking.html

2 Karoum Damirjian, “Trump praises Putin’s response to sanctions, calls Russian leader ‘very smart!’,” Washington Post, December 30, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/12/30/trump-praises-putins-response-to-sanctions-calls-russian-leader-very-smart/?utm_term=.c437567334b3

3 “Preview: Trump Tells O’Reilly He ‘Respects’ Putin in Super Bowl Interview,” Fox News, February 4, 2017. http://insider.foxnews.com/2017/02/04/preview-bill-oreilly-donald-trump-super-bowl-interview

4 Greg Miller, Adam Entous and Ellen Nakashima, “National security adviser Flynn discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador, despite denials, officials say,” Washington Post, February 9, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/national-security-adviser-flynn-discussed-sanctions-with-russian-ambassador-despite-denials-officials-say/2017/02/09/f85b29d6-ee11-11e6-b4ff-ac2cf509efe5_story.html Flynn was fired not for those contacts but because he misled Vice President Mike Pence about them.

5 Mark Hensch, “McConnell warns Trump: Don’t lift Russia sanctions,” The Hill, January 27, 2017. http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/316595-mcconnell-warns-trump-dont-lift-russia-sanctions

6 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/02/world/europe/nikki-haley-trump-ukraine-russia-putin.html?_r=0.

7 Pence redeemed himself by delivering a strong speech defending the NATO Alliance and criticizing Russia at the Munich Security Conference. Kevin Liptak, “Pence: US will hold Russia accountable,” CNN, February 18, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/18/politics/pence-munich-russia-foreign-policy/ and “Vice President Pence Remarks at Munich Security Conference,” video, C-Span, February 18, 2017. https://www.c-span.org/video/?424248-1/vice-president-pence-remarks-munich-security-conference.

8 Keir Giles, Philip Hanson, Roderic Lyne, James Nixey, James Sherr and Andrew Wood, The Russian Challenge, Chatham House (June 2015), p. 69. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

9 Ibid., p. 67.

10 See William Schneider, “Arms Control: The Lesson of Russia’s Serial Treaty Violations,” Hudson Institute, September 16, 2014. https://hudson.org/research/10613-arms-control-the-lesson-of-russia-s-serial-treaty-violations

11 The Russian Challenge, p. 52. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

12 Ibid., p. 71. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

13 See UN special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura in Julian Borger and Kareem Shaheen, “Russia accused of war crimes in Syria at UN security council session,” Guardian, September 26, 2016,https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/25/russia-accused-war-crimes-syria-un-security-council-aleppo Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the EU, Save the Children and Amnesty International in Laura Smith-Spark, “UN human rights chief warns of war crimes in Aleppo,” CNN, October 21, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/21/middleeast/syria-aleppo-un/index.html and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the UN head of humanitarian aid and Samantha Power in Mahmoud Eskaf, “Syria: UN accuses Russia of war crimes in Idlib, Aleppo,” Middle East Observer, October 29, 2016. https://www.middleeastobserver.org/2016/10/29/syria-un-accuses-russia-of-war-crimes-in-idlib-aleppo/

14 See, for example, Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons to keep Crimea: Ian Johnston, “Russia threatens to use ‘nuclear force’ over Crimea and the Baltic states,” Independent, April 1, 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-threatens-to-use-nuclear-force-over-crimea-and-the-baltic-states-10150565.html

15 Phil Stewart and David Alexander, “Russia is top U.S. national security threat: U.S. Gen. Dunford,” Reuters, July 9, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-dunford-idUSKCN0PJ1YR20150709

16 Andrea Shalal, “U.S. Air Force leader sees Russia as ‘biggest threat’,” Reuters, July 8, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-airforce-idUSKCN0PI2VE20150708

17 Marcus Weisgerber, “Russia, Not ISIS, Greatest Threat to US, General Says,” Defense One, July 14, 2015. http://www.defenseone.com/politics/2015/07/russia-not-isis-greatest-threat-us-general/117733/

18 The Russian Challenge, p. 52. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

19 The Russian Challenge, p. 66. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

20 The Russian Challenge, p. 9. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

21 The Russian Challenge, p. 68. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150605RussianChallengeGilesHansonLyneNixeySherrWoodUpdate.pdf

22 “Preview: Trump Tells O’Reilly He ‘Respects’ Putin in Super Bowl Interview,” Fox News, February 4, 2017. http://insider.foxnews.com/2017/02/04/preview-bill-oreilly-donald-trump-super-bowl-interview

23 Some of the recommendations in this section are derived from work this author did elsewhere, including: Choosing to Lead: American Foreign Policy for a Disordered World, The John Hay Initiative, 2015, pp. 121-132, co-authored with Paula Dobriansky; the paper on Russia of the Democracy and Human Rights Working Group (convened by The McCain Institute): “Making the Case for Human Rights in Russia,” McCain Institute, July 20, 2016. https://www.mccaininstitute.org/working-group-making-the-case-for-human-rights-in-russia/; and the Friends of Ukraine initiative organized by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation.

24 Marius Laurinavicius, “Kleptocracy: Russia’s Most Successful Export,” Kleptocracy Initiative, January 30, 2017, http://kleptocracyinitiative.org/2017/01/kleptocracy-russias-most-successful-export/

Oliver Bullough, “Stage Hands: How Western Enablers Facilitate Kleptocracy,” Kleptocracy Initiative, May 2, 2016, http://kleptocracyinitiative.org/2016/05/stage-hands-how-western-enablers-facilitate-kleptocracy/

“Who Owns What Where? British Antigraft Push And Ex-Soviet Elites’ Lavish Properties,” RFE/RL, May 12, 2016, and http://www.rferl.org/a/britain-transparency-offshore-london-real-estate-former-soviet-elites/27731386.html

Mike Eckel, “Russia In 2015: Undaunted, Navalny Pushes Corruption Agenda Even More Aggressively,” RFE/RL, December 30, 2015. http://www.rferl.org/a/navalny-pushes-corruption-agenda-even-more-aggressively/27457420.html

25 Vivienne Walt, “French National Front Secures Funding From Russian Bank,” Time, November 25, 2014 http://time.com/3605080/russia-france-national-front/ and Helen Fouquet, Gregory Viscusi and Henry Meyer, “Le Pen Struggling to Fund French Race as Russian Bank Fails,” Bloomberg, December 22, 2016. https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2016-12-22/le-pen-struggling-to-fund-french-race-after-russian-backer-fails

26 David J. Kramer, “The West Should Take on the Putin PR Machine,” Washington Post, October 23, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-west-should-take-on-the-putin-pr-machine/2015/10/23/16fdd26c-7442-11e5-8248-98e0f5a2e830_story.html

27 Susanna Kim, “FIFA Investigation: What You Need to Know,” ABC News, May 25, 2015. http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/fifa-investigation/story?id=31332200

28 “Current Time Expanding In Eastern Europe,” RFE/RL, May 19, 2015. http://pressroom.rferl.org/a/current-time-expanding-in-eastern-europe/27026069.html

29 “Freedom on the Net 2016,” Freedom House (November 2016). https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2016/russia

30 — “Russia is threatening to turn USA into radioactive ash: with English subtitles,” YouTube video, published March 16, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkMT_oLempE


Over the years, I have written many op-eds, articles, chapters, memos and reports – some of them were even compiled into a short book with my dear friend Lilia Shevtsova in Crisis: Russia and the West in the Time of Troubles in 2013. But this book is the first I have ever written on my own. Even though it is relatively short in length, it proved long in coming. To produce it, I relied on a great network of friends and colleagues for support, expertise, insights, ideas, and help, though at the end of the day, I bear sole responsibility for the contents of this book. Some will like it, others will not, but I hope it stimulates healthy and constructive debate on the ever-important subject of U.S.-Russian relations.

Over the years, I have benefitted enormously from being colleagues with and knowing some of the finest people in the field. I also have been fortunate to have worked at some of the leading think tanks and activist organizations, including: Center for Strategic and International Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, German Marshall Fund of the United States, and Freedom House. I also had the distinct privilege of serving nearly eight years at the State Department in the administration of President George W. Bush; during that time I met many extraordinary, hard-working public servants.

It was during my recent two-plus years at the McCain Institute for International Leadership when I was able to focus on this research and writing project. I’m deeply grateful to the team there, led by Kurt Volker, its Executive Director. I also want to single out Chasta Piatakovas, my office-mate and colleague, for all of her support. I also had a series of first-rate interns who were extremely helpful during various phases of this project: Isabel Linzer, Stacy Ndlovu, McKenzie Smith, Guillaume Biganzoli, Lindsay Bass, Will Rappaport, and Elicia Shotland (with special thanks to Elicia for going through the whole draft). Betsy Gehring, Liz Fontaine, Nicole Brown, and Laura Chuckray have also been great with their support.

I’m most grateful to my editor, Daniel Kennelly, for his utmost professionalism and keen eye. My sincere appreciation as well to two longtime friends and colleagues, Robert Otto and Arnold Horelick, for reading the draft and offering incredibly useful feedback. The wonderful cover is the work of the very talented Fred Matamoros.

I am now based in Miami with Florida International University and its Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. I am grateful to the university’s leadership for enabling me to launch this new chapter in my life after many years in Washington. At FIU, I will remain very much engaged on Ukraine, Russia and Eurasia along with human rights and democracy issues through the Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy.

I will always be grateful to my late, dear parents, Alton and Eunice Kramer, for their love and support. While they both passed away long before I ever thought of writing a book, they firmly believed that the education of their five sons was the best investment they could ever make. And last but certainly not least, to Eddie, for whom words cannot fully capture my appreciation for being there with me every step of the way, I dedicate this book.

About the Author

David J. Kramer joined Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs as a Senior Fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy in May 2017. Before moving to Miami, Kramer worked in Washington, DC for 24 years, most recently with the McCain Institute for International Leadership as Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy; he remains an Affiliated Senior Fellow with the McCain Institute. Previously, he served for four years as President of Freedom House. Prior to that, he was a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Kramer served eight years in the U.S. Department of State during the administration of President George W. Bush, including as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs (responsible for Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus affairs as well as regional non-proliferation issues); Professional Staff Member in the Secretary’s Office of Policy Planning; and Senior Advisor to the Undersecretary for Global Affairs. He also was Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy in Washington.

Before joining the U.S. Government, Kramer was a Senior Fellow at the Project for the New American Century, Associate Director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Assistant Director of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, all in Washington. Kramer also has been an Adjunct Professor at the Elliott School for International Affairs at The George Washington University. A native of Massachusetts, Kramer received his M.A. in Soviet Studies from Harvard University and his B.A. in Soviet Studies and Political Science from Tufts University.

Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin's Regime

In his first book, “Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin’s Regime,” David J. Kramer traces the rise of Vladimir Putin and the U.S.-Russia relationship over the course of the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He argues that the Putin regime is a serious threat to the United States and the Western world and that the United States needs to develop a tougher policy of containment and pushback. Indeed, he writes very nature of Putin’s regime makes real cooperation between Russia and the United States virtually impossible, except perhaps on arms control and non-proliferation, though even there cooperation is far from automatic. Putin’s aggressive, bloody responses to perceived threats, internal and external, make him an unsavory interlocutor, to say the least. Under his rule, Russia does not fulfill the agreements it signs and frequently violates international norms. Putin and his regime perpetuate the narrative of an enemy from outside to justify his way of ruling at home, and they seek to discredit the West even as they exploit its openness and financial systems. Accordingly, Putin bears the bulk of the blame for the current state of affairs in U.S.-Russian relations. Kramer is the former Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, and was previously President of Freedom House, and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. He is currently a Senior Fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.

  • Author: McCainInstitute
  • Published: 2017-08-08 15:35:14
  • Words: 62013
Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin's Regime Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin's Regime