The Putin prob­lem

Obama heads to G-7 sum­mit fight­ing Rus­sian ag­gres­sion, need­ing Rus­sian sup­port.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEVEN MUF­SON steven.muf­son@wash­post.com

At the U.N. Gen­eral As­sem­bly meet­ing in Septem­ber, Pres­i­dent Obama pre­sented his list of “new dan­gers” con­fronting the world: the Is­lamic State, Ebola and Rus­sian ag­gres­sion in Ukraine. He seemed not to be pulling his punches. “We be­lieve that right makes might, that big­ger na­tions should not be able to bully smaller ones and that peo­ple should be able to choose their own fu­ture,” Obama said.

But eight months later, Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry was on his way to Sochi, Rus­sia, for a rare high-level meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin that fo­cused on is­sues such as lim­it­ing Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram and com­bat­ing Is­lamist ter­ror­ism even as the Rus­sian leader fanned the flames of cri­sis in eastern Ukraine. It was a mission that the ad­min­is­tra­tion had de­bated for months, with Obama and Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den fear­ing that it might be mis­in­ter­preted as an eas­ing of the U.S. po­si­tion on Ukraine.

The U.N. meet­ing and Kerry visit are book­ends of an Obama pol­icy on Rus­sia that has bounced from co­op­er­a­tion to con­fronta­tion and even­tu­ally to com­part­men­tal­iza­tion.

The shift­ing strate­gies re­flect a con­stant ten­sion— be­tween prin­ci­ple and prag­ma­tism, iso­la­tion and en­gage­ment— that has made it so dif­fi­cult for Obama to deal with Moscow on a se­ries of is­sues with­out seem­ing to go soft on the Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Ukraine’s Crimea re­gion.

Those ten­sions come to a head this week­end in Ger­many, where Obama is at­tend­ing a Group of Seven sum­mit that will be con­sumed by Ukraine, the pending Iran nu­clear deal, and the wars in Iraq and Syria. Each puts dif­fer­ent de­mands on Obama’s re­la­tions with Putin. On the first, Obama needs to con­front Putin; and, on the lat­ter two, progress isn’t pos­si­ble with­out, at least, tacit sup­port from the Rus­sian leader.

With the es­ca­la­tion of at­tacks last week by Rus­sian-backed sep­a­ratists on Ukrainian forces and the con­tin­ued for­ward po­si­tion­ing of heavy ar­tillery in vi­o­la­tion of cease-fire agree­ments, Rus­sia is leav­ing the G-7 lead­ers lit­tle choice. White House of­fi­cials said that Obama would not only sup­port ex­ist­ing sanc­tions but would also con­sider im­pos­ing more.

“It’s im­por­tant for Rus­sia to un­der­stand that, should it con­tinue to have fur­ther es­ca­la­tion in Ukraine, it could be faced with ad­di­tional con­se­quences,” the deputy na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Ben Rhodes, said in a con­fer­ence call with jour­nal­ists Thurs­day.

The G-7 meet­ing is a sym­bolic mo­ment. Af­ter the Cold War, the an­nual gath­er­ing of the lead­ers of the world’s ma­jor industrial na­tions had added Rus­sia and went from be­ing known as the G-7 to the G-8 — a ges­ture wel­com­ing Moscow into the wider com­mu­nity of na­tions and a trib­ute to the “Bill and Boris show” that fea­tured pres­i­dents Clin­ton and Yeltsin.

But when Putin seized Crimea last year, that vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional bor­ders set off alarms through­out Europe and in the United States. When the group of world lead­ers met in Bel­gium in June, Putin was left out.

This week­end’s gath­er­ing will again revert to be­ing the G-7, ex­clud­ing Rus­sia for only the sec­ond time in two decades. Yet, with re­newed vi­o­lence in eastern Ukraine, Moscow is en­sur­ing that its ab­sence will be pal­pa­ble.

“We haven’t been con­cerned with se­cu­rity in Europe in 30 years. We thought this was done,” said Michael McFaul, Obama’s for­mer am­bas­sador to Rus­sia, “and over the last year and a half we learned that’s not true.”

“We’re not back in the Cold War, but nei­ther are we in the strate­gic part­ner­ship we have tried to es­tab­lish,” said Jens Stoltenberg, sec­re­tary gen­eral of NATO.

Ag­gres­sive Rus­sian mil­i­tary ma­neu­vers have gal­va­nized Euro­peans, who Stoltenberg says must boost mil­i­tary spend­ing. NATO— which will hold its sum­mit next year in the Pol­ish pres­i­den­tial palace’s Col­umn Hall, where the War­saw Pact bind­ing the Soviet Union to­gether with its Eastern Euro­pean al­lies was signed in 1955 — has in­creased mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity in coun­tries bor­der­ing Rus­sia. On Fri­day, it be­gan a 17-na­tion naval ex­er­cise in north­ern Europe’s Baltic Sea, and start­ing Tues­day in Poland, it will launch a 10-day de­ploy­ment test for the al­liance’s new quick-re­ac­tion force.

The United States is also ro­tat­ing more forces through the Baltic states and Poland.

For the most part, though, what was an acute cri­sis last year has set­tled into a frozen con­flict, at best, testing U.S. and Euro­pean re­solve to main­tain — or toughen — eco­nomic sanc­tions. Rus­sia has tried woo­ing the Czech pres­i­dent and the lead­ers of Hun­gary and Greece, but Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel has led the push for keep­ing costly sanc­tions in place as long as Rus­sia fails to abide by the terms of the Minsk cease-fire agree­ment.

The cri­sis in Ukraine also has forced the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­ex­am­ine its Rus­sia pol­icy that be­gan six years ago with an op­ti­mistic “re­set” and that has be­come one in which the two lead­ers no longer speak to each other.

For months, an in­ter­a­gency pol­icy re­view has wres­tled with is­sues such as whether Rus­sia should be seen as a global or re­gional power and whether the United States should send lethal weapons to Ukraine. It also has grap­pled with how to com­part­men­tal­ize top­ics such as Iran, ter­ror­ism and the Is­lamic State, on which the United States might choose to con­tinue co­op­er­at­ing with Rus­sia even as it con­fronts the coun­try.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion even strug­gled for weeks over how to de­scribe the forces fight­ing the gov­ern­ment in eastern Ukraine, a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said. In the end, the ad­min­is­tra­tion stopped call­ing them Rus­sian-backed sep­a­ratists and started call­ing them “com­bined Rus­sian-sep­a­ratist forces” — an ef­fort to shame Rus­sia pub­licly into chang­ing its be­hav­ior rather than hop­ing to keep Rus­sia’s di­rect in­volve­ment quiet and let­ting Putin choose a face-sav­ing exit.

Obama shows lit­tle in­cli­na­tion to talk to Putin him­self; even be­fore the Ukraine cri­sis, Obama can­celed a visit to Moscow in 2013 af­ter Rus­sia granted asy­lum to Ed­ward Snow­den, who re­vealed clas­si­fied se­crets about the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency’s far­reach­ing sur­veil­lance pro­gram.

But cur­rent and for­mer White House of­fi­cials say that Obama has been in­ti­mately en­gaged in U.S.-Rus­sia re­la­tions. He helped ne­go­ti­ate de­tails in the teleme­try chap­ter of the Strate­gic Arms Re­duc­tion Treaty, or START, when Dmitry Medvedev was Rus­sia’s pres­i­dent. Last fall, he dis­agreed with se­nior Demo­cratic Party ex­perts on Rus­sia — in­clud­ing for­mer deputy sec­re­tary of state Strobe Tal­bott, Bi­den and for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Zbig­niew Brzezin­ski — who over din­ner at the White House urged Obama to send lethal arms, such as an­ti­tank weapons, to Ukraine to raise the con­flict’s cost to Rus­sia.

A for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said that one of the ques­tions he has heard Obama ask on is­sues in­clud­ing Ukraine was: If it’s not go­ing to be ef­fec­tive, why do it?

That rea­son­ing, along with Merkel’s agree­ment, has stiff­ened his de­ter­mi­na­tion not to send weapons to Ukraine. Do­ing so, he has said, would not be enough to de­feat Rus­sian and Rus­sian­backed forces in Ukraine, and it would only risk es­ca­lat­ing the fight­ing.

More­over, Obama tends to see Rus­sia in terms that he laid out in a news con­fer­ence at The Hague in March 2014. He called it “a re­gional power that is threat­en­ing some of its im­me­di­ate neigh­bors— not out of strength but out of weak­ness.”

But Obama also has come un­der crit­i­cism from some Rus­sia ex­perts who say that with that com­ment and oth­ers, he need­lessly has an­tag­o­nized Putin and over­es­ti­mated the speed with which eco­nomic sanc­tions would, as Obama put it af­ter last year’s G-7 meet­ing, give Putin “a chance to get back into a lane of in­ter­na­tional law.”

“I talked to a Rus­sian ac­quain­tance who said if we could get back to peace­ful co­ex­is­tence, that would be an im­prove­ment,” said An­gela Stent, a Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor and a for­mer State Depart­ment and Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Coun­cil of­fi­cial. “Peace­ful co­ex­is­tence” is the phrase coined by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1953 to re­duce ten­sions among com­mu­nist and cap­i­tal­ist blocs.

Rus­sia has, even dur­ing the Ukraine cri­sis, con­tin­ued to help iden­tify and de­stroy Syria’s stock­piles of chem­i­cal weapons. But many Rus­sia ex­perts say that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion un­der­es­ti­mated Putin’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to fuel the Ukraine con­flict, even though it was not in Rus­sia’s in­ter­est.

“He’s not a chess player — he plays check­ers. That’s why we’re sur­prised. We thought he was play­ing chess,” said Derek Chol­let, a for­mer as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of de­fense for in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity af­fairs who is now at the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund.

As the con­flict in Ukraine drags on, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has been more ready to openly point to Rus­sia’s di­rect par­tic­i­pa­tion.

“One other ef­fec­tive tool that we’ve seen quite re­cently is mak­ing clear that there are Rus­sians op­er­at­ing in Ukraine and that some of those Rus­sians are be­ing killed,” Charles Kupchan, se­nior Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil direc­tor for Euro­pean af­fairs, said in a con­fer­ence call Thurs­day. “The pres­ence of Rus­sian troops in eastern Ukraine is some­thing that the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment has tried to deny, but the more ev­i­dence and the more public ev­i­dence there is of that pres­ence, the more pres­sure there is on Vladimir Putin.”

Tak­ing the mea­sure of Putin has been the real cen­ter of Rus­sia pol­icy. When Medvedev was pres­i­dent, the two coun­tries agreed on a new START, U.N. res­o­lu­tions on Iran and North Korea, membership in the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion, new sup­ply routes to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and eco­nomic lib­er­al­iza­tion. “We were get­ting big stuff done,” said McFaul, the for­mer am­bas­sador.

But then Putin de­clared his can­di­dacy to run for pres­i­dent again. Andhe con­demned the U.S. and NATO air at­tacks on Libya, railed against what he called U.S. in­ter­fer­ence in his re­elec­tion bid and took is­sue with the no­tion of U.S. ex­cep­tion­al­ism. Putin was par­tic­u­larly an­gered by McFaul’s ef­forts to en­cour­age “civil so­ci­ety,” the peo­ple and groups in­de­pen­dent of the gov­ern­ment.

The last time that McFaul met Putin, dur­ing Kerry’s pre­vi­ous visit to Moscow two years ago, Putin told Kerry that the United States was naive to think it could foster Rus­sian op­po­si­tion groups. “He was pretty blunt about it. He looked right at me,” McFaul re­called. “He didn’t use my name but said, ‘ We know what your em­bassy is do­ing here in its sup­port for the op­po­si­tion, and we don’t ap­pre­ci­ate it.’ ”

Yet many Rus­sia ex­perts say that if naivete was in­volved, it was the be­lief that Putin, who in­vaded Ge­or­gia when Ge­orge W. Bush was pres­i­dent, would not seek to keep other neigh­bor­ing states in Moscow’s or­bit.

At this point, ex­perts say that Obama and his for­eign pol­icy team no longer hope for co­op­er­a­tion or demo­cratic re­form in Rus­sia. “I think they’re more con­cerned about Rus­sians do­ing mis­chief, rather than a pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tion to what we’re try­ing to achieve,” said Thomas Gra­ham, a man­ag­ing direc­tor at Kissinger As­so­ciates who was NSC direc­tor for Rus­sia un­der Bush. He cited the need to keep Rus­sia in agree­ment with other pow­ers for an Iran ac­cord.

Be­yond that, though, Gra­ham added: “There are no ex­pec­ta­tions for the re­la­tion­ship. They just don’t want things to blow up be­tween now and the end of the term.”

The shift­ing strate­gies re­flect a con­stant ten­sion

... that has made it dif­fi­cult for Obama to deal with Moscow.

DMITRY LOVETSKY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A bust of Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in the garb of a Ro­man em­peror. Rus­sia has again been ex­cluded from the G-7 meet­ing.

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