December 6, 2022

Diplomatic Dreams of Russia

Guest Opinion
By Isiah Smith, Jr. | March 19, 2022

Russia’s unprovoked aggression in Ukraine has the West, and the rest of the world, scrambling to understand Putin’s motives and motivations. Churchill’s description of Russia rings as accurate today as it did in 1939, when he said, “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

The late humorist P.J. O’Rourke may well have been thinking of Russia when he wrote, “Jesus said to love your enemies; he didn’t say we shouldn’t have any.” We may have finally reached the belated point in our geopolitical life where we can no longer deny that Russia is, and perhaps always will be, America’s enemy. This might change after Putin leaves the world; presently, however, we delude ourselves if we think otherwise.

Suppose America, and the rest of the “free world,” move our governments forward and remain free and prosperous. In that case, we must ignore the ignorant bloviations emanating from the extreme right wing of the political spectrum about the monomaniacal Soviet Strongman’s imaginary “strength and brilliance.” Such uninformed, childlike chatter is as wrong as it is dangerous, which is to say, very.

As a recent Foreign Affairs magazine essay noted, successive U.S. presidents have entered office believing that, unlike their predecessors, they alone understood Putin. They alone held the key to opening Russia. It would only be a matter of time before they waved their magic wand across the globe and tamed the Russian bear. And each time, the results played out as they always have, with broken promises and tattered treaties and steady escalation of tensions between the two nuclear powers.

George W. Bush in 2001 looked into Putin’s eyes and, instead of seeing two black holes, thought he saw a soul. Bush claimed, “I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” Early in his presidency, Barack Obama believed he could stop a “dangerous drift” and reset relations with Russia. The less said about the dark comedy following the 2016 U.S. election the better.

Going back even further, even Reagan’s pithy “trust but verify” approach to the Soviet Union seems, in retrospect, quaint and ill-informed. Trust? Really?

It turns out only Mitt Romney got it right when he said in 2012, “Russia, this is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world’s worst actors.”

It brings to mind my 13-year-old daughter’s comment upon hearing self-styled “black conservatives” excoriate civil rights leaders: “Daddy, they’re just not like us.”

Putin has shown little interest in forging a mutually productive relationship with the West, unless it is on terms of his choosing. And now, in Ukraine, his ultimate objectives are incontrovertibly clear: He wants nothing more than to practice repression at home and aggression against countries that he still considers part of “Mother Russia.” He’s a man stuck in the inglorious past of his imagination.

After all of America’s efforts at diplomacy, Russia has remained an inscrutable and menacing nation that plays by its own rules, rules that not only disadvantage other countries, but its own as well. The West must jettison its romantic, misguided notion that customary diplomatic norms are ever in play in dealing with Putin.

See him as he is: a tyrant who ruthlessly murders opponents at home, attempts wars of conquest around the world (which almost always fail), and has no real interest in Western-style diplomacy. As long as Putin rules Russia, we will have to deal with him as an adversary. The United States must cease the practice of doing the same things repeatedly and expecting different results each time. That, according to Albert Einstein, is the way of insanity.

Everything I have said here paints a dark and dangerous portrait of the future of the world’s engagement with Russia under Putin. If diplomatic efforts are insufficient to move Putin, what is the solution?

In the February 23, 2022, issue of Foreign Affairs, Alina Polyakova and Daniel Fried offered this reasonable solution:

“The United States and its allies should first aim to craft a long-term policy toward Russia that is clear-eyed about Putin’s aspirations. To do so, they must look closely at the lessons learned since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.”

Too often, it seems to me, American presidents have treated the “Russian issue” as an issue of first impression. Every four (or eight) years we start anew, without regard to the lessons of the past, and a new Russia policy emerges. Unfortunately, this leads to the formulation of short-term solutions to address long-term problems.

Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski understood this problem intuitively. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, he warned the triumphant West that although “the Cold War did end in the victory of one side and in the defeat of the other,” the decisive outcome did not guarantee a smooth aftermath. Defeat had proved “politically unsettling” in Moscow and turned the wider region into “a geopolitical vacuum.” And as we know, nature abhors a vacuum.

Right up to the moment Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, most Russian “experts” were surprised. They shouldn’t have been.

They should have seen it coming.

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