In this increasingly click-addled world, we don’t just suffer from Trump Derangement Syndrome, we also suffer from Putin Derangement Syndrome. Russia is seen not just as a world power vying for influence, or as an adversary of the West, but as a villain. And there’s a crucial difference.
Turning international politics into a morality play tends to obscure more than it enlightens, and tends to corner people into making mistakes. This is not to say that states should only pursue realpolitik; I believe in a values-driven foreign policy. But values-driven foreign policy should be undertaken on the basis of a correct and dispassionate assessment of what is actually the case, not manichaeanism.
Let’s get a few things straight. It is true that Russia is, on balance, a malevolent influence in world politics. Putin’s Russia seeks to return to the Soviet Union’s former superpower status, and it seeks to do this by undermining institutions that are crucial to the well-being of the world. Putin’s Russia doesn’t play by the rules by which Western countries usually play. For example, it uses propaganda and hacks in an attempt to influence elections around the world (although to be fair, countries meddling in one another’s internal politics is nothing new).
Vladimir Putin is the Lionel Messi of international politics. The man has been around for longer than almost any of the other world leaders, and he plays the game extremely well. Putin doesn’t just engage in power politics, but he is trying to create out of sheer will an ideological alternative to Western liberal democracy, which you might call populist-traditionalist authoritarian caudilloism.
We should be aware of all of this.
But here’s the thing: The best response to Putin is not to try to do the opposite of everything he says or to try to frustrate him at every turn. Instead, we must look at every specific situation and deal with that situation on its own terms.
Take, for example, what’s happening in Syria. As disgusted as you and I might be at Putin’s actions there, it remains the case that now Russia holds most of the cards in the country, and that some version of the Assad regime is the only plausible alternative to an Islamist dictatorship. Maybe at the beginning of the war some non-mythical moderates could be cobbled together to run the country in some vaguely ethical way, but Assad and Putin (and Iran) killed all those guys (or they radicalized out of disgust) and now all that’s left is Assad, al Qaeda, and ISIS. The ship has sailed.
Similarly, Russia’s increasingly reckless cyberattacks against Western institutions must not be allowed to stand. President Barack Obama always refused to make Putin play a price for his attacks, which led to him only increasing the pace of the attacks. Russia must pay a price for cyberwarfare high enough that it will deter it from further actions. In particular, Putin depends on his oligarch clique for power; putting financial and personal pressure on his allies so that they make him understand that his self-aggrandizing stunts only hurt them seems like a clever thing to do.
Any encroachment on NATO and threats on NATO must be confronted forthrightly to show that the Western alliance still holds — in Eastern Europe as everywhere else. Let’s have more shows of force around Eastern Europe. Let’s put more troops and defenses in the Baltic states. Let’s train those countries to respond not just to unconventional states but to Ukraine and Crimea-style “murky war” so as to try to deter any such actions.
“Putinism” can and must be confronted, but it must be confronted through demonstrating the superiority of liberal democracy and the rule of law to strongman rule. That’s easier said than done.
Yes, Mitt Romney has been vindicated: Russia is America’s number one geopolitical antagonist. That being said, too many Washington Democrats and Republican hawks suffer from a case of Putin Derangement Syndrome that makes them forget how international power politics operates and makes them want to embark on an anti-Russia crusade. The prudent way to deal with Russia is not to look at Russia as an enemy but to look at each theater, each case, and assess it on the merits. It’s harder to turn into a slogan, but the reality is that sometimes confronting Russia is a good idea, and sometimes it’s not. Let’s keep that in mind.