A new plan of action is needed to respond to one of our greatest geopolitical threats, Russia. Too often, the past Administration focused their Russia strategy on making empty statements and on seeking to deploy the pressure of sanctions in an attempt to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations, a position of weakness instead of strength. The very first action the Obama Administration took was to remove the Bush missile shield from Poland and the Czech Republic, followed by accepting a defective ICBM agreement. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been encouraged to test the United States’ resolve, and has followed up with a series of aggressive actions in Eastern Europe. A strategy based on actions which are firm and clear, rather than words, is all that will deter Russia from further aggression.
A quick look at Russian history helps contextualize Vladimir Putin’s motivations. A constant theme in Putin’s foreign policy has been his desire to regain formerly conquered territories in a throwback to the “golden age” of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great. Under Czarina Catherine, who reigned from 1762-1796, Russia achieved its greatest territorial extent, including the Baltics, modern-day Belarus and Ukraine, and a third of Poland after its partition in 1795. This spread Russian culture, including its language and Slavic immigrants, to these conquered territories. Protection of the populations of Russian speaking Slavs living in these now independent countries is used as justification by Putin for his recent invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, his interference in the Balkans and the Trans-Caucasus, and his threats to the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
It is also important to look at what has not worked in deterring Russian aggression. Putin’s boldness has been encouraged by a series of foreign policy blunders committed early in President Obama’s Administration. In a 2009 speech in Moscow, in the aftermath of Russia’s hostile actions in 2008, driving South Ossetia and Abkhazia into “frozen conflict zones” and disputed status, President Obama called for a “reset” to U.S.-Russian relations, declaring that “Americans and Russians share common interests that form a basis for co-operation.” He called for “a fresh start between the Kremlin and the White House.”
These actions were followed by President Obama’s infamous statements during his 2012 re-election campaign, where in a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, President Obama was caught on a hot mic saying that he would have “more flexibility” to negotiate with Russia on important issues such as missile defense after he won re-election. President Medvedev responded that he would pass the message along to Vladimir Putin, who at the time was the prime minister of Russia, waiting to re-ascend to the Russian presidency. During the third presidential debate, President Obama mocked Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s tough stance on Russia, declaring that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” a statement applauded at the time by Democrats. I wonder how these same Democrats felt about Crimea?
President Obama’s statements and actions have made any United States, NATO or Western European threats appear empty. This emboldened President Putin to test the U.S. and Europe in 2014 by invading Ukraine and occupying the Crimean Peninsula. The Obama Administration reacted with feeble and unconvincing statements of condemnation, and imposed sanctions on Russia. Interestingly, after Russia has appeared to have hacked into the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election, folks on the left rose up to denounce Russian aggression. Where have they been? Where were they in 2009?
We need to undertake a careful assessment of our interests in the region and the threat to them posed by an aggressive Russia. Then we can articulate a strategy based on protecting these strategic interests. First, the U.S. needs to make clear that we stand behind NATO and in unison with our allies in Central and Eastern Europe. This could be accomplished by following through on recent proposals to hold NATO exercises in the Baltic states and Poland, as well as by discussing reinstating the missile shield removed by President Obama. Second, we need to narrowly but clearly define the areas where there is alignment with Russian actions. While we do not agree with Russia’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, we are allied in seeking the extermination of ISIS.
I am hopeful that President Trump will be able to refocus our policy toward Russia to protect our vital interests and assure peace and stability in the region.
*Francis Rooney is the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 19th congressional district. He serves on the Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and previously served as U. S. Ambassador to the Holy See under George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.