To­ward a U.S.-Rus­sia sum­mit

Rather than cor­ner Putin, Trump should of­fer him a se­cu­rity part­ner­ship

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Dan Ne­grea Dan Ne­grea is a New York pri­vate eq­uity in­vestor.

Rus­sia is a de­clin­ing economic power that plays an out­sized role in world af­fairs ow­ing to its nu­clear arse­nal and ag­gres­sive be­hav­ior. Rus­sia re­mains re­sent­ful over the Soviet Union’s col­lapse and NATO’s ex­pan­sion to its bor­ders. Know­ing that time is not on its side, Rus­sia may en­gage in risky ac­tions to prop up its po­si­tion in the near term, and these ac­tions could lead to war. In the in­ter­est of peace, Pres­i­dent Trump should in­vite Pres­i­dent Putin to a se­ries of sum­mit meet­ings and give Rus­sia the op­por­tu­nity to be­come Amer­ica’s part­ner in se­cu­rity. In ex­change, Rus­sia must act con­struc­tively in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs.

The Soviet Union dis­in­te­grated in 1991. Newly con­sti­tuted Rus­sia ex­per­i­mented with democ­racy and a mar­ket economy, but it was tough go­ing. In the 1990s, its gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP) fell by close to 40 per­cent and in­fla­tion was very high. Mil­lions were pushed into poverty.

Dur­ing this dif­fi­cult tran­si­tion pe­riod, NATO ex­panded to­ward Rus­sia’s bor­ders. De­void of nat­u­ral bar­ri­ers, Rus­sia re­lies on strate­gic depth for its defense. Be­fore the fall of the Soviet Union, the dis­tance from the near­est NATO bor­der to Moscow was al­most 1,000 miles. Af­ter NATO ex­pan­sion, it nar­rowed to 400 miles.

Rus­sia’s in­ter­ests were also ig­nored when NATO im­posed regime change in Ser­bia, Iraq and Libya, coun­tries with his­toric ties to Rus­sia. When the

West sup­ported Rus­sian demo­cratic forces, Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties viewed this as at­tempted regime change in the Krem­lin it­self.

Mr. Putin as­sumed the pres­i­dency in 2000 and largely re­versed ear­lier steps to­ward democ­racy and a mar­ket economy. He built his le­git­i­macy on a strat­egy of economic growth and na­tion­al­ism.

He was lucky on the economic front. Oil and gas make up 16 per­cent of Rus­sia’s GDP, 52 per­cent of its bud­get, and more than 70 per­cent of its ex­ports, and oil climbed in the 2000s from $24 to $100 per bar­rel. Mr. Putin used the money to re­duce poverty and mod­ern­ize the mil­i­tary.

Mr. Putin cre­ated a nar­ra­tive of Mother Rus­sia be­ing threat­ened by the West, and promised to de­fend her and give Rus­sians back their pride. He of­fered his coun­try­men easy mil­i­tary vic­to­ries against Ge­or­gia and Ukraine and the cap­ture of the Crimea. In­ter­ven­tion in Syria made Rus­sia look like a world player. And he “stood up to the West” by in­ter­fer­ing in its do­mes­tic elec­tions and ha­rass­ing NATO planes and ships. With a job ap­proval rat­ing above 80 per­cent, and firm con­trol over the gov­ern­ment and se­cu­rity forces, Mr. Putin is ef­fec­tively pres­i­dent for life.

The fu­ture, how­ever, is not promis­ing. Oil has been hov­er­ing around $50 per bar­rel and Rus­sia’s GDP con­tracted in 2016. Sanc­tions im­posed af­ter the in­va­sion of Ukraine con­tinue to take their toll. Long-term de­mo­graphic trends could re­sult in a 25 per­cent de­crease in Rus­sia’s pop­u­la­tion by 2050.

Rus­sia’s geostrate­gic po­si­tion is vul­ner­a­ble. It has no valu­able al­lies and its neigh­bors are mostly ad­ver­saries. In the East, it faces eco­nom­i­cally as­cen­dant China and tech­no­log­i­cally su­pe­rior Ja­pan; in the South, ris­ing Is­lam; and in the West, NATO, whose defense ex­pen­di­tures are 10 times higher than the Krem­lin’s.

Know­ing that long-term trends are against Rus­sia, Mr. Putin may take risky mil­i­tary gam­bles in the short term to shore up his po­si­tion at home and project strength abroad. Per­son­ally, Mr. Putin has ab­sorbed the les­son that af­ter regime changes in Ser­bia, Iraq and Libya, their lead­ers were killed or im­pris­oned — he doesn’t want to be next.

Amer­ica should try to re­verse the cur­rent trend to­ward pro­gres­sively worse relations with Rus­sia. To avoid a mil­i­tary con­flict sparked by mis­cal­cu­la­tions, Amer­ica should choose to en­gage and com­mu­ni­cate with Rus­sia rather than to iso­late it. Mr. Trump should have a se­ries of sum­mit meet­ings with Mr. Putin and of­fer him an Amer­i­can part­ner­ship in se­cu­rity.

Mr. Trump will have no il­lu­sions about his coun­ter­part. In­ter­nally, Mr. Putin’s po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents are rou­tinely as­sas­si­nated and free me­dia are si­lenced. Ex­ter­nally, Rus­sia in­vades and un­der­mines its neigh­bors, and plays the spoiler on the world stage. Still, past Amer­i­can pres­i­dents worked with Stalin and Mao, who mur­dered mil­lions, Brezh­nev, who in­vaded Cze­choslo­vakia and Afghanistan, and Deng Xiaop­ing, who or­dered the Tianan­men Square mas­sacre.

En­gage­ment and firm­ness are not mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive. Mr. Trump needs to be very clear that Amer­ica will not tol­er­ate the in­va­sion or sub­ver­sion of NATO mem­bers, in­clud­ing sab­o­tag­ing their demo­cratic pro­cesses. Sim­i­larly, provoca­tive Rus­sian ac­tions near NATO ships and planes must stop. Be­yond this, there is room to ne­go­ti­ate.

Mr. Trump can re­as­sure Mr. Putin that Amer­ica is not seek­ing regime change in Rus­sia or fur­ther NATO ex­pan­sion near its bor­ders. Mr. Trump can of­fer help in lift­ing most of the sanc­tions in ex­change for peace in East­ern Ukraine. But some sanc­tions must re­main in place to re­flect the Crimea co­nun­drum: Mr. Putin will never give it back, and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity will never rec­og­nize its seizure. The sum­mits will help Mr. Putin do­mes­ti­cally with the op­tics of Rus­sia be­ing treated again like the great power it con­sid­ers it­self to be. In ex­change, Mr. Rus­sia must act con­struc­tively on Iran, ISIS, Syria and Afghanistan.

We should of­fer Mr. Putin a climb-down strat­egy rather than cor­ner him, risk a mis­cal­cu­la­tion, and find our­selves in a nu­clear war. Will this new re­set suc­ceed? We don’t know. But Amer­ica must try, again and again, for the sake of world peace.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY HUNTER

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