THE RUSSIAN REGIME rests on weak foundations. Russia’s population is set to shrink by one-third. With a GDP close to that of Spain and a standard of living less than half of our own, Russia relies heavily on energy exports for close to three-quarters of its export earnings and over half of its budget. Elites compete, often murderously, to strip these natural resource assets at the expense of ordinary Russians. They occasionally arrange rigged elections to retain access to them. To be able to engage in such theft with impunity, they also rely on repression. Since transparency that might expose corruption and asset-stripping is a vital threat, the regime has seized control of most national media, directly or via proxies. The regime has also assassinated journalists and political opponents in order to intimidate into silence those beyond its immediate control.
Russia’s current political system allows corrupt and incompetent leadership to remain in place unchallenged. Nonetheless, from time to time, large-scale tragedies that cannot be covered up take place, resulting in domestic political uproar. Events of this kind show that the Russian regime is politically brittle and vulnerable. The regime is economically vulnerable as well; like other such governments in the world, it is over-dependent on a single set of export products. It should come as little surprise that the Kremlin is aggressively promoting a nationalist, revisionist historical narrative that glosses over the numerous crimes of the Soviet system in which many of today’s Russian leaders cut their teeth.
Russia has intervened in Georgia, invaded and annexed Crimea, directed and funded a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine, intervened in support of the murderous Syrian regime, launched cyberattacks on the United States, used sophisticated information operations to interfere in the 2016 US elections, carried out at least two assassinations on British soil of regime opponents, undermined the international arms control regime, destabilized European democracies, and has made common cause with China to contest the pillars of the post-World War II international security order. Russia’s recklessness and international aggression have now reached a point where they require a firm Western response.
It is time that Western governments acknowledge and react to what the Kremlin and many Russians have long believed — that Russia and the West are in fact in a state of conflict. We need to make it clear to Moscow that neither we nor our allies will tolerate such threatening behavior any longer. We must make it clear to the Kremlin leadership that it can expect a series of decisive joint allied responses if its aggression continues. This means implementing an escalating series of measures that will isolate Russia until its behavior or leadership changes: Curb Russian organizations bent on destabilizing the West; escalate the limitations on Russian private and public entities’ access to Western capital markets; close off Russian access to the international financial system; and end Western complicity in the export, laundering and legalization of assets stripped by corrupt Russian elites.
Toughness is needed from our side. But pressure can be applied effectively only through clear channels for negotiation and dialogue. Since the United States and Russia control over 90 percent of the global stockpile of nuclear weapons, renewed talks on nuclear arms control are important. Existing agreements that limit such weapons are set to expire in two years’ time. Nor can the ice age that has descended over mutual relations be allowed to impede the exchange of vital counterterror information that can save lives in both Russia and the West.
Whether we want to or not, we also have to talk with Russia, a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council, and work with them, if we can, on a whole series of regional conflicts: North Korea, Syria, Iran’s nuclear program, peace in the Middle East, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the flow of heroin from South Asia to Europe. For all of these reasons, as in the Cold War, clear-eyed contacts with Russia need to continue.
Moscow should be under no illusions, however, that it can use cooperation over these issues to coerce Western concessions when it comes to defending our values and the rules-based international order that Russia currently seeks to overturn. An additional series of escalating sanctions must be imposed on Russia in order to bring the message home that business cannot continue in this manner. The time to acknowledge the renewed state of conflict that exists between Russia and the West has long passed. The United States and its allies must rally together in order to mount a decisive and full-throated defense both of one another and of the international system and the values embedded in it.
John R. Kasich is the governor of Ohio.