The West Needs a Russia—Not a Putin—Policy

The West Needs a Russia—Not a Putin—Policy

The West Needs a Russia—Not a Putin—Policy

Demonizing Putin is not a policy. It’s an excuse for the absence of one.


Even before the latest phase of the war in Ukraine, the narrative surrounding Western policy toward Moscow has focused on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Such an approach ignores the reality that Putin acts rather as the adjudicator, and ultimate stabilizer, of the country’s fractious political elite. Nevertheless, recent reporting on Russia has remained fixated on Putin, effectively dismissing the rest of society and institutions as inept and insignificant.

In March 2014, following the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger wrote in The Washington Post that “the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” Unfortunately, this assessment has become only more pertinent since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February. As a result, the very possibility of a policy based on and directed toward Russia, not Putin, has seemingly faded from Western public “debate.” This approach, beyond skewing our perception of the more fundamental problems we face vis-à-vis US-Russia relations, allows the West to march blindly ahead without considering its own role in the current state of troubled relations.

Washington has a history of adopting confrontational foreign policy stances toward individual leaders (admittedly often less-than-savory characters), rather than toward strategic objectives that support or defend US national interests. This has been the case with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Moammar El-Gadhafi in Libya, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. These three countries continue to suffer political, economic, and humanitarian challenges, which therefore raises the question: What has Western policy achieved?

While many in the West like to believe that the values we hold dear and that form the basis of our societies are universal, the reality is quite different. As such, by demonizing leaders who don’t adhere to our principles, we often end up misunderstanding different cultures and how their societies produced such individuals and elevated them to positions of power.

While a policy solely directed toward an individual leader does indeed make for an easy-to-digest narrative for domestic audiences, it often undermines strategic US interests and regional stability, ultimately limiting our room for maneuver. By characterizing leaders whom we dislike as the embodiment of evil (or even the proverbial Hitler) and ourselves as the benevolent democratic crusader, we not only delude our own populations, but engage in diplomatic malpractice too.

While support amongst Russians for the 2022 invasion of Ukraine remains harder to assess from a sociological perspective (although indicators point toward a general acceptance of the conflict), the example of Crimea’s annexation offers a salient point of reference. Studies have demonstrated that most Russians view the annexation of Crimea as a positive event; so too, in fact, do a majority of Crimea’s residents, according to Western-funded research surveys.

Reportedly, Putin was being pushed by hard-line members of the political elite to go even further in 2014, along the lines of what’s unfolding across eastern and southern Ukraine today. While in the West, Crimea’s annexation was a clear breach of international law, for many Russians it was a “reunification” and historically justified. Clearly, our problems aren’t limited to Putin, but rather in our overall relations with Russia.

Indeed, Putin has been at the helm of the Russian state for over 23 years, during which time he’s increasingly silenced domestic opposition and engaged in a more assertive foreign policy. However, as my colleagues Anatol Lieven and George Beebe wrote in Responsible Statecraft: “Far from being the Stalinist autocrat often portrayed in the West, Putin has generally operated more like the strong chairman of a squabbling board of directors, maintaining his own position by balancing one elite faction against another.”

Furthermore, it is important to remember that Putin came to power following almost a decade of post-Soviet economic, political, and societal collapse. During this period, Washington was deeply involved in Russian affairs under President Boris Yeltsin, as the former professed a desire to help the Russian state and its people transition to liberal democracy and a market economy. However, such actions were increasingly viewed from within Russia as damaging not only to the country itself but also to Russian-American relations moving forward. An insightful few in the US observed this trend and tried to warn that Washington’s complicity in Yeltsin’s bombing of the parliament in 1993, the war in Chechnya in 1994, and the financial crisis in 1998 were paving the way for a leader representative of this budding perspective. Therefore, Putin today is rather a useful bellwether of the political elites thinking in the largest, resource-rich and nuclear-equipped state on earth.

The centuries-long experience of Russia, not simply Putin’s “imperial delusions,” have produced specific national interests that today’s governing elite view as vital. The importance of domestic stability and the power of the state, both preserved through Russia’s sovereignty, are two such interests. Much like those in the West, Russians are strongly opposed to perceived interventions in their domestic political processes.

With regards to the crisis over Ukraine, Moscow’s unwillingness to tolerate an anti-Russian government, let alone a pro-NATO one, is explained not only by historical, psychological, and fraternal factors, but also long-standing security concerns. The invasions of Russia in 1812 by Napoleon’s Grande Armée and in 1941 by Nazi Germany have resulted in a hyper-sensitivity to potential threats on its extensive border, especially from the direction of Europe. While in no way excusing Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, Americans should at least be able to understand these permanent national interests given Washington’s own Monroe Doctrine, which views any intervention by external powers across North and South America as potentially threatening to US national security. A doctrine those on the political right increasingly allude to when discussing perceived Chinese encroachments into the Western Hemisphere.

The lack of any clear rules of engagement, like those between the USSR and the US following the Cuban missile crisis, and the withering away of arms control agreements are just two examples of the strategic dangers currently facing US-Russia relations. With a dearth of Russia experts within the US national security apparatus, rapidly diminished access to the country itself, and the dramatic deterioration in diplomatic engagement across the board such hazards are only likely to deepen.

Unfortunately, to deal with these issues it appears that some in the West are instead betting on the weakening and subsequent disintegration of Russia, a contingency which holds immense dangers and little promise. An alternative fantasy is a regime change in Moscow that brings to power a Russian leader who would abandon the war in Ukraine, cheerfully ceding regional influence to the United States and NATO. As challenging as it may be for some in the West to appreciate, the reality is that the Russian leader who will one day replace Putin will likely be even more nationalistic, militaristic, and unpredictable—not some imaginary liberal democrat currently in exile.

As Thomas Graham, senior director for Russia on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, recently explained in these pages, once the full-scale fighting in Ukraine has ended, “a new opportunity could emerge” for US-Russia relations. However, this will be possible only if Washington treads “cautiously but purposely in the pursuit of American interests in a region Moscow considers essential to its status as a great power.”

Russia, in one form or another, has been there long before Putin and will most likely remain there long after he has gone. Therefore, Western commentariat and policy makers alike need to begin considering what a future Russia policy might look like, instead of holding their breath in hopes that brave Ukrainian sacrifices will render the need for such thinking obsolete.

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