Give Putin a Way Out

With Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border, the talk of war is getting louder. But it doesn’t have to happen.

Massed on Ukraine's border today stand 20,000 Russian troops, some apparently wearing a blue peacekeepers' uniform with the "MC" insignia. This could be seen as a replay of April, when Russia positioned 45,000 men on the frontier, which after a tense stand-off was reduced to only 1,000 personnel by June. But today the pro-Russian separatists aren't ascendent; they're losing badly to the Ukrainian military. With the rebels' backs to the wall in the almost-encircled cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, there plainly is a risk of a Russian "peacekeeping" intervention, as Moscow's request for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the humanitarian situation in east Ukraine suggests.

How should Western policymakers deal with the risk of a Russian intervention, assuming military responses remain off the table? In short: give Vladimir Putin a way out, combined with sanctions configured to deter, not punish.

To date, this has been a conflict of coercive communication as much as fighting on the ground: Russia's threatening troop movements apparently aimed at coercing Kiev into accepting an autonomous eastern Ukraine have been met by Western sanctions aimed at coercing Vladimir Putin to de-escalate.

Yet while Putin's coercive measures haven't worked in persuading the Ukrainian military to halt its successful offensive, neither are the West's sanctions working in persuading Putin to cease Russian interference in eastern Ukraine (nor did they work previously in Crimea).

Calling on the European Union to stop pandering to domestic interests and get tough by closing the loopholes in the level 3 sanctions is just more of the same. It will not likely change the pattern of reciprocal escalation.

The pathology of this crisis tells us that anti-Russian (or more specifically, anti-Putin) sanctions -- be they after the annexation of Crimea, after clear evidence of Russian support to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, or after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 -- have only had the effect of boxing the Russian president into a corner, with nowhere to go but accept political humiliation. Or punch back even harder.

Putin's not one to throw in the towel; he's a fighter and is plainly not prepared to lose face by de-escalating in response to Western sanctions, having invested himself so personally in the issue. The additional sanctions of late July had virtually no effect -- Russia continued to fire artillery into Ukraine, and essentially blamed the shoot-down of MH-17 on Kiev and the West.

If the West realistically wants Putin to de-escalate, he needs to be given a way out that does not involve overtly backing down in the face of Western sanctions. That is critical, given that the Ukraine crisis for him seems to be as much about regional security as consolidating domestic power (his poll ratings are at an all-time high).

In this light, the risk of further sanctions is that the West marginalizes better options, specifically the role of the United Nations, or perhaps other organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (a group that also includes Russia) in mediating the conflict, which could offer Putin a face-saving way out.

Why not take Russian statements of alarm at the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine at face value (or call their bluff, depending on your interpretation) and back an international monitoring force under the U.N. or OSCE to deploy to eastern Ukraine?

But if further sanctions are forthcoming, they must be configured in such a way that they have trigger points: say, if Moscow were to send in a "peacekeeping" force unauthorized by the U.N., or to directly engage Ukrainian troops in ground combat. To be a genuine deterrent, the sanctions must be clear and pegged to future actions, thus helping to block off modes of Russian behavior.

To date, however, sanctions have rather been used to try and achieve a change in Russian behavior after a proscribed event, which is far more a punishment than a deterrent. That's satisfying if you want to see Russia punished for the downing of MH-17, but it serves little purpose if the goal is to deescalate this conflict. Sanctions demanding that Putin reverse a course of action require him to do something which he would see as humiliating; sanctions that warn of consequences only require him not to do that thing.

Further, any future sanctions need to send a message that they will have an immediate short-term impact. The current level 3 sanctions may well hit Russia hard eventually, and may already even be priced in by markets in the short term, but they nonetheless seem to be considered by Putin as a longer-term problem that can be bargained away in any future deescalation plan.

If the West is serious about stopping naked Russian aggression against a sovereign state, but nonetheless recognizes Moscow's own interests in this conflict, it should put its money where its mouth is by reconfiguring its sanctions to be a deterrent rather than a punishment, and look to the U.N. or OSCE to seek a real international peacekeeping or monitoring force that gives Putin a face-saving way out. Otherwise Western policymakers will be left with two unsavory options, should Russia intervene further in eastern Ukraine: either effectively to accept a fait accompli, as in Crimea, or react with half measures that only further provoke a Russian president who feels he can only fight his way out of the corner he's been boxed into.



An Administration With Its Head Cut Off

The White House is running around from crisis to crisis without a game plan, much less a strategy. But leading from behind can actually work if you do it right.

It's just not fun anymore to critique the Obama administration's foreign policy -- it's like picking on the Chicago Cubs. Except the Cubs aren't consistently bad and their mistakes haven't accrued lasting damage to our country. 

Remember when the president frequented the trope of the Bush administration driving the country into a ditch? Sorry, but the Obama administration has driven American foreign policy Thelma-and-Louise-style off a cliff. It will take dramatic changes from a new administration to restore credibility in American judgment and competence.

There are three fundamental mistakes in the Obama White House's (for it is there that all national security policies are made in this administration) understanding of the world. The first is that if the United States steps back, other states will step forward and undertake the work we would like to have done. The second is that big ideas are a hindrance to managing international crises -- and they don't even bother to ask the higher-order question: "Why is this happening?" The third, (which ought to be impossible given the second misconception) is the sublime confidence to believe they know better than the countries immediately affected by crises.

The reality is that when the United States steps back, the states we want to have engaged in solving problems tend to step back even further, and the states that do not share our interests are more likely to see -- and take -- opportunities to act. Because the Obama administration does not have a theory of why events are occurring, they treat each event as unconnected to -- or, rather, without effect on -- the judgments and actions of others. And because they know best, they don't allow themselves to be persuaded by appeals from countries more directly concerned with the course of events than the United States might be.

So we lecture the Egyptians on authoritarianism, the Bahrainis on respect for minorities, and the Israelis on the need for peace with Palestinians. But as former CENTCOM commander Gen. James Mattis points out, we have no opinion on the underlying threat posed by political Islam -- the Obama White House doesn't even recognize it as the issue animating governments throughout the Middle East -- or a strategy to deal with it. The result is that we are unwilling to solve problems, and allies feel we undercut their efforts. We miss rare and important opportunities to advance interests and align allies to better manage our common challenges.

In addition to the Obama administration's misconceptions, there is, of course, the aggravating factor of insisting that any foreign policy choice other than their own is, as Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes would spin it, an overreaction. The Iraq War is still the dominant narrative in U.S. foreign policy, and the White House understands such language invokes isolationist reflexes that can shield the president from criticism over doing too little. But there is a difference between making sound policy and political communications. The White House's aggressive efforts on this front actually cement the public belief that our range of choices is binary: direct U.S. military involvement or nothing. In truth, what Obama foreign policy desperately needs is more supple involvement and less telescoping down to military options. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they need "smart power."

That does not mean Secretary of State John Kerry ricocheting off to whatever crisis blares from the day's newspaper headlines. It means identifying the problem and arraying the means available to us to achieve our objectives. As King's College Prof. Lawrence Freedman argues so persuasively in his recent book, strategy creates power by using the means available to us more effectively than others can. Very often those means will not be those of the U.S. government; they will be setting allies up to be successful, and encouraging civic groups outside government control or international institutions. But these means can only be effectively harnessed to the government's purpose when the government influences how others think about the problem. The only way to lead from behind is through the power of developing a common understanding and the practical matter of quietly assisting allied efforts. Developing a common vision often requires allowing ourselves to be persuaded by others' views and it often requires supporting efforts by others even when we are not persuaded of their argument. But this is no less than we very often expect of them in support of our policies.

Take the war in Gaza. The administration has made a set of choices that aid Hamas. Surely that cannot have been President Obama's objective. Yet the White House's choices have served to delegitimize the Palestinian Authority with its own people; revive Hamas's fortunes as the resistance to Israel; alarm regional allies who are threatened by Iranian-sponsored violence; undercut efforts by Egypt to reassert itself as a regional mediator; marginalize regional allies motivated to act against jihadists in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine; further isolate Israel internationally; and shift moral responsibility for civilian casualties from Hamas (which uses civilians as human shields to launch missiles) to Israel (for engaging in defensive and necessary warfare).

Imagine instead that during the tense run up to this latest Gaza war, the Obama administration had a better hold on the greater forces at work in the Middle East: the crisis of governance and how that is being manipulated by political Islam. Imagine it had thought its way through the difficult dilemmas posed by democratization where militant Islamists have been the main vehicle for political dissent. Imagine it had sought out the views of countries that have supported our interests: Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, on how they view the challenge and what we could do to help them. Imagine if we facilitated cooperation among them by filling gaps in their capabilities. Imagine if we weren't shaken from defending their efforts by utterly predictable setbacks that can happen in imperfect democracies. Imagine we provided help without visibly swooping into take all the credit for what is achieved, instead praising them for making the world safer for Americans and for their own people. That is what leading from behind would look like, effectively practiced; it's called coalition warfare. It would protect and strengthen our allies, punish jihadists, constrain Iranian malignity, build cooperation among disparate American security partners, and incentivize Islamists toward political practices democratizing states can manage.

The president and his White House staff contend they are making smart long-term choices. But six years into this administration, what we are seeing now is the consequence of the president's long-term choices: an international order in which our friends are cowed and our adversaries emboldened. If President Obama wants a legacy larger than ending two wars to America's profound disadvantage, he needs to reconsider some fundamental beliefs about how international relations work. It is a tall order, but unless he does, his administration will continue lurching from crisis to crisis without success.

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