international analysis and commentary

A new way of communicating: what to do about Russia after the Crimean referendum


Given the strong cultural prevalence of Russian speakers in the province, if a free and fair election had been held, Crimea might well have voted to secede from Ukraine anyway. But President Putin has left nothing to chance; Crimean voters have literally cast their ballots under the eyes of Russian troops. Voting under the barrel of a gun could only produce one outcome: Crimea will either formally join Russia or emerge as a Russian enclave, much like Abkhazia or South Ossetia in Georgia, effectively crippling the precarious Ukrainian state and securing Russia’s access to a warm water sea port.

This is truly the point of no return. From here on out, if President Putin were to back down, his days would be numbered. At the grandest strategic level, this means the Russian President has set sail on a Slavophile path: Russia has definitively turned away from the West, and will now gravitate towards China and other countries ultimately unhappy with the old, creaky, Western-dominated order. How in the world is the United States supposed to respond to this momentous shift, when the usual either/or hackneyed American responses of war or doing nothing both seem so entirely unsuited to the situation at hand? The answer must lie in remembering how others dealt with the Russian bear, under even more difficult circumstances.

Communicating with Putin
The superb film 13 Days chronicles the Cuban Missile Crisis, proving especially good at illustrating the tremendous real world pressures the Kennedy team found themselves under as the world drifted perilously close to nuclear Armageddon. In one telling moment, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is portrayed as yelling at some hawkish admiral, who does not remotely understand President Kennedy’s twin-peaked desire to be firm with the Russians, all the while exercising clear restraint.

A sleep-deprived McNamara histrionically bellows, “Don’t you understand, President Kennedy is using the naval blockade of Cuba to communicate directly with Chairman Khrushchev, using a new vocabulary that has never been seen before!” Such a vocabulary is precisely what is called for now. The remainder of this crisis is all about America and the West communicating through its policy actions with President Putin, making it clear what will and will not be allowed so fatal missteps are avoided.

We have to accept that there is nothing any of us can do to in the medium-term to upend the outcome in Crimea. A military contest over Crimea is a non-starter. It is entirely clear that in terms of interests Russia will always care more about Ukraine than the far-away United States or closer European states, and will thus be prepared to do and risk more to achieve favorable outcomes there.

Finally, there is absolutely no appetite – even in America – for any sort of deeper commitment to the region in general. The March 11 Pew Research numbers on American attitudes to Ukraine make for startling reading: by a 2-1 margin, 56% of those Americans polled are against the country getting too involved in Ukraine, with only 26% being in favor of taking a firm stand with the Russians. This contrasts with Russian poll numbers out on March 14, showing that Putin’s popularity (which at 71% is at stratospheric levels that President Obama can only dream about) has hit a three-year high. In other words, the Russian public cares a great deal about Ukraine, and we do not. But if we are to communicate effectively with the Kremlin, that does not mean we should sit back and do nothing. Realism is not isolationism.

We have a built-in red line here, which we must impress upon friends and enemies alike, that America takes deadly seriously: The line is of course that of NATO membership. By any means possible in the near term, America must find ways of buttressing allies in Poland, the Baltic States, Romania, and Bulgaria. From the American perspective this is primarily about communicating that line with Russia; the rest of the crisis is trivia.

Concretely, first the US should resurrect its old plan to install a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. The Russians will complain about this; tough luck. The system is practically designed to intercept putative long-range Iranian missiles rather than having anything to do with Russia’s arsenal. However, the conspiratorial Russian psyche (echoing that of most central and eastern Europeans) does not believe this; all the better, as a communication of our unflagging determination to defend our allies.

There is a second step to be taken in the military realm: NATO should announce its intention to deploy Western troops to the Baltic, Polish, Bulgarian, and Romanian borders. This is a crystal-clear message of martial intent that Putin is unlikely to miss.

Third, it is time to call upon the President’s powers of oratory. The White House must use the bully pulpit, scheduling a prime time speech to flatly announce these measures, and America’s unswerving commitment to its Article V treaty obligations to its European allies.

Fourth, and most importantly, America must start upon the long march of using the bounty of the shale revolution to knobble Putin’s Russia. Russia finds itself a one-crop economy, wholly dependent of the spot price of oil and natural gas. As of 2012, the Kremlin needs the Brent oil price to be north of $117 a barrel just to balance the federal budget. This is Russia’s jugular vein, just as oil and gas production are emerging as a wholly unexpected area of American strength. By 2015, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts America will produce 14 million barrels per day, on a par with Saudi Arabia. Washington must use its new bounty in a nakedly realist manner to bolster friends and to savage enemies.

Much has been written about how it will take years for American exports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) to affect Russia economically, and that it is resource-driven Asia and not Europe which will first swoop up new American oil and gas exports. These are odd reasons not to begin the process, as realism is almost always about playing the long game; we have the time.

Oil is a global market. If significantly more is produced over time, the global price is bound to fall. This hits Putin where he lives, directly impacting the oligarchs who keep him in power, and damaging a Russia wholly dependent on oil and gas to maintain even the veneer of great power status.

We should encourage Poland and our other Central and Eastern European allies to build LNG terminals capable of processing gas from America. Crucially such a supply would definitively limit Russian influence amongst America’s allies, all the while using energy to bind the Western alliance ever more closely together. President Obama must immediately green light all the LNG export terminals he can (there has been a backlog), do away with the antiquated ban on oil exports, and make it clear that energy policy has now become a major new tool in an evolving American foreign policy.

This realist agenda moves us forward from the intellectually sterile days where the options of going to war or simply doing nothing were the compass points of American foreign policy thinking. Best of all, it unequivocally communicates to the Russians what America and the West will not tolerate, while making it clear that over time Putin’s actions have led America to use its great economic might against his fragile country. In other words, we should speak softly in the short run, louder in the long run, and make it clear we still continue to wield a very big stick. Putin does not need nuance; he needs to be talked to in realist terms.