Opinion | Richard North Patterson

We need a real Russia policy — one with teeth, and pause

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s success in Ukraine threatens further aggression.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s success in Ukraine threatens further aggression.AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool

Why Russia wanted America to elect Donald Trump is no mystery. During the campaign, Trump served as an apologist, if not an advocate, for the brutal autocrat Vladimir Putin. More recently, Trump revealed classified intelligence information to the Russian foreign minister, and fired the FBI director responsible for investigating Russia’s intrusion in the 2016 election.

The sole remaining mystery is where our policy toward Russia goes from here.

The need for clarity and coherence is inescapable. In the last decade, Russia has invaded Georgia, annexed Crimea, destabilized Ukraine, menaced the Baltic states, partnered with the Assad regime in war crimes against Syrians, meddled in European elections in order to undermine NATO and the European Union, and conducted cyberwarfare meant to influence our election. Through ruthlessness and calculation, Putin’s Russia has taken on Western democracy.


So what must America do? Responding rashly or unpredictably is dangerous. Vacillating invites more adventurism. Treating Putin as a strategic partner would betray the post-World War II democratic order, which, at its best, helped spread democracy and global cooperation. Our imperative is a resolute but judicious effort to confront the Russian challenge in a way that promotes stability, human rights, and self-determination.

This requires core principles: consulting with our allies before dealing with Russia; establishing the will and resources to deter Russian aggression; empowering the State Department to conduct vigorous diplomacy; supporting viable governments who share our interests — in particular, those that respect their own people; combating Russian propaganda that portrays Western democracies as its moral equivalent — specifically, acknowledging our own history of mistakes and interventions, while rejecting parity with a state that intimidates its neighbors, jails its opponents, and murders dissidents wherever they may be found.

Globally, what does this entail? Start with Europe, where America must improve on the tepid and grudging support for liberal democracy which Trump evinced last week in Brussels. Variously, he dunned our NATO allies for more money without expressly committing to a common defense; cold-shouldered the EU; and offered an indulgent view of Russia at odds with Europe’s reality.


By doing so, he sowed an uncertainty which serves no one but Russia and other enemies of Western democracy. Going forward, America should reassert our support for the EU and its spirit of regional and trans-Atlantic cooperation — including, critically, in the area of counterterrorism, the better to combat horrors such as the recent slaughter in Manchester.

While we should be cautious about provoking Russia by expanding NATO near its borders, we should strengthen the alliance where it exists. We should maintain NATO deployments in Poland to symbolize that resolve. We should uphold the right of NATO members in the Baltics — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — to be democracies free from Russian intrusion. And we should make clear — not as an exercise in saber rattling, but to deter aggression — that attacking NATO forces would be costly.

Especially thorny is Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of Crimea violated the principle of border security that turned Europe from the cradle of world wars to a haven for peace and cooperation. Putin’s success threatens further aggression; quite reasonably, he may assume that the rewards will exceed the consequences and, in particular, that the West will not protect Ukraine militarily. Thus we should strengthen Ukraine’s military defenses while maintaining stringent sanctions against Russia’s vulnerable economy, seeking a diplomatic solution that renders Ukraine more secure.


The tragedy in Syria is even more complex. In hindsight, America’s failure to enforce Barack Obama’s “red line” encouraged Russian and Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad’s stratagem of slaughtering his way to security, fueling the mass migration that now destabilizes Europe.

But America need not further abet humanitarian disaster. Here Trump was right — Assad’s chemical warfare justified a military response. So do other atrocities, such as phosphorus and barrel bombs, which Trump has not addressed. Russia should know that, while we seek to avoid armed confrontation, we will not countenance the most terrible of war crimes.

Syria is no longer a viable country; Russia is embedded there, as is Iran, Turkey, and forces from Sunni Muslim states. Tough talk alone will not induce Putin to abandon Assad. Our only recourse is working with Russia and the others to seek an interim solution — if there is one — that provides zones of safety administered by the predominant ethnic group.

Beyond that, we must expel the Islamic State from eastern Syria — alone. Russia is no partner against terrorism: Its military operations in Syria were directed against Assad’s opposition, not ISIS; its indiscriminate and deliberate slaughter of civilians creates terrorists; its Iranian allies support terrorism throughout the region. Trump’s fantasy of partnership is moral and geopolitical idiocy.

Nor should we barter our moral standing in some cynical grand bargain with Putin — trading our sanctions over Ukraine for deposing Assad or striking a nuclear arms deal; or granting Russia a sphere of influence over its neighbors in exchange for concessions elsewhere. Decency is not a bargaining chip, nor are other countries. Rather, we should work within those limited areas — circumscribing nuclear arms, confining cyberwarfare — where we might find common interests.


Finally, a sound Russian policy ends at home. We must make our own society fairer. We must counter cyberwarfare and fake news. And we must investigate Russia’s intrusion in our democracy, wherever the truth may lie — an imperative made more urgent by Russia’s blatant intrusion in the French election, and Trump’s disturbing dispatch of James Comey. Anything less, and we begin to resemble Russia more than any American should want.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.