The U.S. Needs a Realistic Russia Strategy
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The suspected poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny underscores the dangers Russians face for speaking out against President Vladimir Putin. It’s also a warning to those currently protesting for democratic change in neighboring Belarus. So long as Putin remains at the helm, Russia will continue to pose a serious threat to democratic values, in its periphery and beyond.
A coherent strategy to confront this challenge will be essential for the next U.S. administration. It should include responding more directly to Putin’s provocations, raising the costs for Russian misconduct, and strengthening America’s relationships with its NATO allies. The U.S. shouldn’t rule out cooperation with Moscow in areas of mutual interest, but only when doing so demonstrably advances its own security.
Above all, Washington must send clear signals to Putin about the kinds of behavior the U.S. deems unacceptable. The Trump administration’s policies have instead been characterized by inconstancy. Since 2017, the U.S. has imposed sanctions against Russian individuals and some government entities for a range of actions, from conducting cyberattacks to meddling in Ukraine to poisoning a former Russian spy living in the U.K. Yet the impact of these measures has been blunted by Trump’s resistance to tougher penalties, his acceptance of Putin’s denial of interference in the 2016 election, and his push to welcome Russia back into the Group of Seven club of industrial nations.
More recently, Trump has refused to respond to intelligence assessments that Russian operatives paid bounties to Taliban fighters to kill U.S. troops. The U.S. should avoid a rush to judgment, but the president’s willingness to side with the Kremlin’s version of events, rather than that of his own intelligence agencies, is disturbing. At a minimum, the White House should suspend high-level communication with Moscow while it conducts a thorough investigation. If the deaths of American troops are traced back to Russian operatives, the U.S. should impose a cost that will make Putin regret those actions.
Meanwhile, Washington needs to push back against Putin’s efforts to divide NATO and subvert the U.S. political system. Military and diplomatic officials should remind their counterparts of America’s capacity to retaliate if Russia attempts to meddle in this fall’s election. The next administration should repair relationships with NATO partners and work with them on modernizing weapons systems. The U.S. should also reverse Trump’s decision to remove some 9,000 troops from Germany, which has cheered Russia at the expense of allies’ security.
As during the Cold War, the U.S. should look for ways to manage tensions and reduce the risks of catastrophic escalation. Russia lacks the economic power to compete with the U.S., but it possesses the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal and a larger military budget than any European country. Extending and strengthening the New START treaty, a bilateral arms-control agreement that’s due to expire next February, is critical for the security of both countries. Seeking collaboration in areas of shared concern — on climate change, say, or space policy — would also make sense.
Engaging with Putin, however, should not mean placating him. Consistent messaging, tougher deterrence measures and resolute support for allies are essential to a successful strategy. Continued drift will only embolden Putin and his operatives, to the detriment of America’s security and the world’s.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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