Monday, September 1, 2014

Finding Common Ground With Putin

When the Crimean crisis broke out this past winter, the White House's favorite talking point, at the time, was that Vladimir Putin needed an "exit ramp". The Obama Administration either believed - or was trying to spin - the Russian stealth invasion of Crimea as impulsive act on the part of Putin. All that was needed to resolve the crisis was to provide some face saving measure for Russia. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined in the "Putin-doesn't-know-what-he-is-doing" chorus.

Six months later, the conflict in Ukraine opened a new front this past week and over the weekend Putin called for negotiations  on the "political organisation of society and statehood for southeastern Ukraine." It is quite clear that Putin's actions were never the result of impulsive or irrational behavior. He is an opportunist who saw the chance to expand the territory of the Russian Federation and took it. It is also clear that Obama and Europe are the ones who need an "exit ramp".

As many have noted, the Ukraine is a split country. North, Central and Western Ukraine is linguistically Ukrainian and wants to forge closer ties with Western Europe. In Eastern and Southern Ukraine, the Russian language dominates and the local population wants to maintain their ties with Russia. The only way to have a sustainable solution is to formulate an accommodation that both regions find acceptable. It could be dividing the country or it could be an independent Ukraine that does not join the European Union (EU) and has trading relationships with both the West and Russia. Forcing Putin to back down won't address the underlying problem of  the "two Ukraines".

Besides, sanctions will not work. As Diane Feinstein noted during her recent appearance on Meet The Press, "Russians are very brave and very long suffering. And they will tough out any economic difficulty." Russians view the expansion of the EU to include the Ukraine as an existential threat to their security and national identity. Thus, they are willing to pay a much higher price than Americans - whose interest in this conflict is yet to be defined - or the Europeans who have already shown a great reluctance to impose sanctions.

Pursuing tougher sanctions will only exacerbate the economic misery of the Eurozone. Countries like Italy -whose only bright economic spot is exports - stands to lose billions in trade with Russia. The Ukraine has been dependent on billions in aid and cheap energy from Russia. Its economy is in tatters and will require vast amounts of reforms and aid. In other words, the EU is imposing sanctions that will damage the already suffering Eurozone over acquiring a new member with deep economic problems. Pure madness.

The EU is a failed project. This fact will become very apparent as soon as the United Kingdom leaves it. Once Britain replaces its EU membership with a free trade agreement and demonstrates that it is possible to enjoy the benefits of trading with Europe without the suffocating effects of a political union, other countries will follow suit. In other words, the United States finds itself in a confrontation with Russia - at a time when it needs to focus on the rising threat of ISIS- over backing the expansion of a failed project. Again, pure madness.

Almost a quarter century from the fall of the Soviet Union and the United States has yet to reassess its overall foreign policy and it is still stuck in viewing the world through the lens of the Cold War. America has mindlessly expanded NATO and now finds itself committed to the defense of several Eastern European countries whose strategic importance to the United States is unclear. While Americans wrestle over whether to send boots on the ground back into Iraq - a critical region in terms of the global economy because of its oil resources - were are committed to sending boots on the ground to defend Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Americans also seem stuck in viewing foreign policy through simplistic caricatures. For years the Left blamed America's troubles on the global stage on  George W. Bush's confrontational, "unilateral" style. Their remedy was electing a cool intellectual, widely popular around the globe. Six years later and it is clear that the election of Obama did not bring flowering peace and stability around the world.

The Right also indulges in caricatures. They believe that having a tough talking, no compromise president openly identifying our geopolitical opponents - as Mitt Romney did in 2012 -  will result in countries around the world abandoning the pursuit of their national interests and bowing to the American will. And then there is the ever present tendency to compare every foreign policy crisis to the Nazis in the 1930s. What Peter Hitchens described as:
"There is this curious template in discussing foreign policy after WWII. And usually what it means is that the person who is making the argument says: 'He is Hitler. You are Neville Chamberlain and I am Winston Churchill, hear me roar'."
We must rid ourselves of the caricatures, old templates and find a new, more sophisticated and adult way to analyze foreign policy crises. After almost a century of being a superpower, the sometimes naive and simplistic American foreign policy assessments by our political and pundit class is no longer charming but bordering on incompetence.

Despite the claims by Republicans that Romney "was right about Putin", he is not. Russia is not our top geopolitical threat. At least not yet. The ideology of fundamentalist Islam is the biggest threat to our security and interests around the world. Russia could become a threat if we continue on the same confrontational course we are on. But we still have time to change the dynamics of our relationship with Putin.

During her interview, Senator Feinstein suggested that the United States directly talk to Putin instead of relying on sanctions. The Senator is absolutely correct. Not only should we negotiate with Putin to find an accommodation satisfactory to the two Ukraines, we  should also engage Putin in helping to fight radical Islam.

Sounds crazy? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on several occasions has stated that Russia faces the same threat from radical Islam as Israel, the United States and Europe. There is an avenue to find common ground with Putin and perhaps develop a new relationship with Russia that is not mired in Cold War stereotypes.