The situation in Ukraine took the US and Europe by surprise and has exposed some vulnerabilities in the transatlantic alliance. Should the US and Europe see this as opportunity to refocus and strengthen their ties?
Absolutely. The “pivot towards Asia” may sound appealing, but it is unlikely to reap dramatic benefits and, more to the point, should not be at the expense of the USA’s existing relationship.
Ukraine is facing a dire economic crisis due to years to corruption and mismanagement and will undoubtedly need help beyond the $17 billion already pledged by the IMF. Beyond funds, Kiev will need assistance in putting the pieces of good governance together. Who is going to provide the assistance necessary for a sustainable Ukraine?
The honest answer is that it depends on what kind of deal eventually emerges to end this conflict. Should Moscow end up dominant, it is unlikely to be keen on Western governance models being applied. Ultimately, though, whether it ends up supported by the IMF or Moscow, Ukraine must do what it has failed to do for 25 years: build a working, law-based state in which corruption and inefficiency are no longer the norm.
Do the May 25 elections have any bearing on this conflict at all or is the outcome already pretty clear?
A great deal depends on the elections, mainly because until Ukraine has a stable and legitimate leadership able and willing to negotiate with Moscow, the conflict will continue. Although the new president may end up failing to provide this leadership, at least the elections open a window of opportunity.
The US and the EU have imposed numerous sanctions on Russia. Are they the most effective means of dealing with the Kremlin and what effects are they having on the people on the ground? Is Putin likely to retaliate?
The sanctions are definitely the best approach, although there is scope to supplement them with other means. On the ground, beyond a slight slip in the ruble’s value, the impact seems slight but I know from my own conversations many in the elite are dismayed by the possibility that they will be widened—and it is through the elite than real pressure can be put on Putin. He has, after all, no meaningful responses that will not ultimately hurt him more.
Some things are clearly lost in translation between Western governments and the Kremlin. In a recent FP article you mention that in order to understand Putin, it is crucial to understand the notion of “an empire built on the basis of civilization.” Can you elaborate on this? Will the West be able to wrap their heads around this concept and is there hope for a more steady relationship if they do?
Putin is increasingly imperialist, but this does not mean recreating the tsarist or Soviet empires; he is interested in creating an empire that spans ethnic and cultural Russians, not bringing other peoples under his rule. Part of the reason for this is to defend Russians and their distinctive culture and identity from “corruption” by Western, outside influences. Understanding this is crucial for handling Putin: historically the West has tried to reshape Russian laws and values and this is the backlash. The key thing will be to concentrate on Russian government policies, especially abroad, and do not seem to be threatening its identity.
In the media and in cyberspace Russia is conducting an information war at home and abroad. Is it working?
It is working at home to a considerable extent, but abroad it only works insofar as we let it, but failing to adequately to challenge the spin and the lies. If Russian media outlets abroad peddle lies, then this ought to be addressed, not least through their licenses.
Where do you see the fault lines in Putin’s strategy?
Russia is weak. So far Putin has leveraged chutzpah and brinkmanship to give it a role out of proportion with its economy, its soft power, even its military strength. Ultimately, though, he has failed to invest in the future, especially infrastructure and diversification away from oil and gas, and already the impacts of this omission are looming. Putin’s new imperialism and adventurism will cost him money—from sanctions, subsidies for client states, armament and lost investment—and that will eventually sink him as the elite and the masses alike resent the price they will be expected to pay.
Given our long-term interests, where should US policy towards Russia go from here?
One of the key drivers of Putin’s aggressive policies is a belief that the West—especially the US—is neither serious nor resolute. The assumption is that Moscow has a pretty free rein, at least within post-Soviet Eurasia, so long as it is willing to endure a few months’ pressure and criticism. Then, the West will extend an olive branch and all will be back to normal. Future policy needs to maintain a difficult balance between being resolute in defense of US interests and values and not playing into Putin’s narrative that Washington is out to humble Moscow. Russia needs to be held to the same standards as any other power, neither granted special favors nor put under extra scrutiny. If, for example, the US is willing to turn a blind eye to the lack of democracy in China or Saudi Arabia, why should it make a fuss about unrepresentative practices in Russia? Above all, though, the policy must be open, tough-minded and consistent.
Open in that Washington should mean what it says. Too often it has been prone to empty rhetoric, and every time policy fails to live up to language, Moscow becomes even more convinced that it can ignore what the Americans say, assume they are liars or hypocrites.
Tough-minded in that there must be a willingness to call Putin’s bluff when need be—and to mean it. Putin’s great strength has been his preparedness to break the rules and face down those who would defend them. In the short term, this means confrontational relations, but in the longer term it will show Moscow that it cannot rely on the White House always backing down.
Finally, consistent in that this must be a policy backed by a consensus within Washington and applied over not just months but years. If Putin feels that he need only wait for changing winds on the Hill or a new administration and everything will be open to renegotiation, then he will be tempted to adventure.
Mark Galeotti is a Professor of Global Affairs at New York University's Center for Global Affairs.