What are America’s objectives with Russia? Most chatter about the Trump-Putin summit focuses on their personalities and Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. We at Providence, as Christian “realists” and Americans, prefer to identify strategic goals that enhance American security and global equilibrium.
Here are what we believe the American president should seek at this summit and beyond:
1. Russia’s four-year-long military intervention in separatist areas of eastern Ukraine has become an endless morass for Vladimir Putin. He should be given a face-saving process for withdrawal. Expanded arms shipment to Ukraine should be implied if not directly threatened. American broadcasts to domestic Russian audiences of Russian losses in Ukraine, which are not officially recognized, should also be implied. The Russian seizure of Crimea must not be recognized. Crimea’s occupation should be treated like the 50-year Soviet occupation of the Baltics (i.e., never affirmed) but not precluding negotiations on other topics.
2. Putin should understand that America will sustain its commitments to the Baltics, with or without wider NATO involvement. Any direct Russian intrusion in the Baltics, he should understand, would resemble Afghanistan more than Ukraine or Crimea. Ongoing urban warfare and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) would entangle Russia in conflict, potentially for years, amid permanent estrangement with most if not all of the West.
3. The United States will more than counter Russian expansion of non-strategic nuclear weaponry. Putin should be offered a new zero option, contingent on his compliance with already existing arms control treaties.
4. As in eastern Ukraine, Russia does not want to remain militarily embroiled in Syria indefinitely. Russia could be offered a determining voice on Bashar al-Assad’s successor and security for its naval base under a federated Syrian state with a coastal Alawite autonomous zone. In exchange, Russian and Iranian ground and air forces should leave Syria, as will US forces eventually.
5. Russia’s short-term rapprochement with China, congealed around opposition to America, will not be indefinite, as Putin knows. China’s growing strength ensures that Russia at some point will need America as a counterbalance. America should be clear with Russia that we stand against any threatening hegemon. As America aligned with China against the Soviet Union, so America could align if needed with Russia, but only if Russia facilitates collaboration with America.
6. To keep all options open for neutralizing North Korea’s nuclear program, America desires Russian acquiescence to any potential military action. Any such action is aimed exclusively at North Korea’s regime and does not aim at Russian interests, Putin should know. America has no aim to absorb North Korea directly into our sphere of influence nor to base US forces in what is now North Korea. We also should be clear that America will not withdraw from South Korea. Russia should understand that America’s presence in Korea is a counter to China that potentially serves Russia’s long-term interest.
7. America as America must challenge Putin on human rights abuses, the ongoing subversion of the rule of law in Russia, and his regime’s penchant for assassinating opponents at home and abroad. We should also make clear that American advocacy of causes of the Western cultural left that are not rooted in core human rights will end within Russia. Russian interference in future American elections will prompt American inference in Russian internal political processes, technologically and otherwise, a game that ultimately accrues to our advantage, Putin must be made to understand.
America should approach Russia with confidence. We are a stable and growing republic with a global network of alliances. Russia is demographically and economically declining, with no meaningfully loyal friends, and ruled with an iron fist sustained by generating fear of imagined enemies at home and abroad. Her notion of greatness rests on imagination and nostalgia, while America’s looks to concrete reality and the future.
But Russia has nuclear weapons and must be handled carefully. The old adage, paraphrased by Putin himself, that Russia is never as strong or weak as believed, is largely true. Putin must be both warned and reassured. American democracy will long outlast his mode of kleptocratic authoritarianism. Our continued vitality is the best long-term rebuke to Russian fantasies about revived empire.
America should also consider that Putin, for all his crimes, may be the least offensive current option for Russia. After him, what? And in the centuries-long parade of Russian tyrants, he’s not the very worst. He is a product of his nation’s history just as our regime is the fruit of ours. His fear of Anglo-American democracy, rooted in the east’s historic unease with Western liberties and energy, nurtured by Renaissance and Reformation, is an unintended compliment that should bolster our spirits.
Photo Credit: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump speaking at APEC summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, on November 11, 2017. By Kremlin, via Wikimedia Commons.