Our new era is one defined by ideological clashes, nationalistic resurgence, and territorial occupation – an era in some ways similar to the tragic periods of confrontation in 20th-century Europe.
The decision by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to annex Crimea ended the post-Cold War era in Europe. Since the late Gorbachev-Reagan years, the era was defined by zigzags of cooperation and disputes between Russia and the West, but always with an underlying sense that Russia was gradually joining the international order. No more.
Our new era is one defined by ideological clashes, nationalistic resurgence, and territorial occupation – an era in some ways similar to the tragic periods of confrontation in 20th-century Europe. And yet there are important differences, and understanding the distinction will be critical to a successful U.S. foreign policy in the coming decades.
We did not seek this confrontation. This new era crept up on us, because we did not fully win the Cold War. Communism faded, the Soviet Union disappeared and Russian power diminished. But the collapse of the Soviet order did not lead smoothly to a transition to democracy and markets inside Russia, or Russia’s integration into the West.
Some Russians pushed forward on this enormous agenda of revolutionary change. And they produced results: the relatively peaceful (so far) collapse of the Soviet empire, a Russian society richer than ever before, greater protection of individual rights and episodically functioning democratic institutions.
But the simultaneity of democracy’s introduction, economic depression and imperial loss generated a counterrevolutionary backlash – a yearning for the old order and a resentment of the terms of the Cold War’s end.
Proponents of this perspective were not always in the majority. And the coming to power of an advocate of this ideology – Putin – was not inevitable. Even Putin’s own thinking changed over time, waffling between nostalgia for the old rule and realistic acceptance of Russia’s need to move forward.
And when he selected the liberal, Western-leaning Dmitry A. Medvedev as his successor in 2008, Russia’s internal transformation picked up the pace. Though Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 isolated Russia for a time, its integration into the existing international order eventually regained momentum.
In my first years in government, I witnessed Medvedev cooperating with President Barack Obama on issues of mutual benefit – a new START treaty, new sanctions against Iran, new supply routes through Russia to our soldiers in Afghanistan and Russian membership in the World Trade Organization. These results of the “reset” advanced several U.S. vital national interests. The American post-Cold War policy of engagement and integration, practiced by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, appeared to be working again.
When Putin became president again in 2012, this momentum slowed, and then stopped. He returned at a time when tens of thousands of Russians were protesting against falsified elections and more generally against unaccountable government. If most Russians praised Putin in his first two terms, from 2000 to 2008, for restoring the state and growing the economy, some (not all) wanted more from him in his third term, and he did not have a clear response.
Putin was especially angry at the young, educated and wealthy protesters in Moscow who did not appreciate that he (in his view) had made them rich. So he pivoted backward, instituting restrictions on independent behavior reminiscent of Soviet days. He attacked independent media, arrested demonstrators and demanded that the wealthy bring their riches home.
In addition to more autocracy, Putin needed an enemy – the United States – to strengthen his legitimacy. His propagandists rolled out clips on U.S. imperialism, immoral practices and alleged plans to overthrow the Putin government. As the ambassador in Moscow, I was often featured in the leading role in these works of fiction.
The shrill anti-Americanism uttered by Russian leaders and echoed on state-controlled television has reached a fanatical pitch with Putin’s annexation of Crimea. He has made clear that he embraces confrontation with the West, no longer felt constrained by international laws and norms, and was unafraid to wield Russian power to revise the international order.
Putin has made a strategic pivot. Guided by the right lessons from our past conflict with Moscow, the United States must, too, through a policy of selective containment and engagement.
The parallels with the ideologically rooted conflicts of the last century are striking. A revisionist autocratic leader instigated this new confrontation. We did not. Nor did “Russia” start this new era. Putin did. It is no coincidence that he vastly weakened Russia’s democratic institutions over the last two years before invading Crimea, and has subsequently moved to close down independent media outlets during his Ukrainian land grab.
Also, similar to the last century, the ideological struggle between autocracy and democracy has returned to Europe. Because democratic institutions never fully took root in Russia, this battle never fully disappeared. But now, democratic societies need to recognize Putin’s rule for what it is – autocracy – and embrace the intellectual and normative struggle against this system with the same vigor we summoned during previous struggles in Europe against anti-democratic governments.
And, as before, the Kremlin has both the intention and capacity to undermine governments and states, using instruments like the military, money, media, the secret police and energy.
These similarities recommend certain policy steps. Most important, Ukraine must succeed as a democracy, a market economy and a state. High on its reform list must be energy efficiency and diversification, as well as military and corruption reforms. Other exposed states in the region, like Moldova and Georgia, also need urgent bolstering.
Also, as during the 20th century, those states firmly on our side must be assured and protected. NATO has moved quickly already, but these efforts must be sustained through greater placement of military hardware in the front-line states, more training and integration of forces, and new efforts to reduce NATO countries’ dependence on Russian energy.
And, as before, the current regime must be isolated. The strategy of seeking to change Kremlin behavior through engagement, integration and rhetoric is over for now. No more membership in the Group of 8, accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or missile defense talks. Instead there must be sanctions, including against those people and entities – propagandists, state-owned enterprises, Kremlin-tied bankers – that act as instruments of Putin’s coercive power. Conversely, individuals and companies not connected to the government must be supported, including those seeking to take assets out of Russia or emigrate.
Finally, as during World War II and the Cold War, the United States and our allies can cooperate with Putin when our vital interests overlap. But this engagement must be understood as strictly transactional, and not as a means to pull Russia back into accepting international norms and values. That’s how he will see this engagement. So should we.
At the same time, many important differences distinguish this new confrontation in Europe from the Cold War or interwar eras. Most help us. A few do not.
For one thing, unlike Communism or even fascism, Putinism has little appeal beyond Russia. Even inside Russia, brave civil society leaders still defy autocracy, war and nationalist fervor, and have managed to mobilize tens of thousands against Putin’s intervention, while a larger but quiet section of society will lament the advent of this new era.
I met these silent skeptics – in government, business and society – every day in my last job. Citizens rally round the flag during crises, and propaganda works. But Putin’s nationalism is fueled primarily by a crude, neo-Soviet anti-Americanism. To continue to spook Russians about American encirclement and internal meddling will be hard to sustain. They are too smart.
Second, Putin’s Russia has no real allies. We must keep it that way. Nurturing Chinese distance from a revisionist Russia is especially important, as is fostering the independence of states in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Another difference is that Russian military power is a shadow of Soviet might. A new global conflict is unlikely. But Russia’s military can still threaten Russian border states, so Europeans must bolster their defenses, and Western governments and companies must stop assisting Russia’s military modernization.
One obvious difference is that the Internet did not exist during the last standoff. Recent Kremlin moves to cut off citizens from independent information are disturbing, but the communications revolution ensures that Russians today will not be as isolated as their grandparents.
Greater exposure to the world gives Russians a comparative analysis to judge their situation at home. This is a powerful tool, which needs to be nurtured through educational exchanges, peer-to-peer dialogues and increased connectivity between the real Russian private sector and its international partners.
But there are two important differences that weaken our hand. First, the United States does not have the same moral authority as it did in the last century. As ambassador, I found it difficult to defend our commitment to sovereignty and international law when asked by Russians, “What about Iraq?” Some current practices of U.S. democracy also do not inspire observers abroad. To win this new conflict, we must restore the United States as a model.
Second, we are enduring a drift of disengagement in world affairs. After two wars, this was inevitable, but we cannot swing too far. As we pull back, Russia is pushing forward. Leaders in Congress and the White House must work together to signal that we are ready to lead the free world in this new struggle.
The United States – together with Russians who want to live in a prosperous and democratic Russia – will win this new conflict in Europe. Over the last century, democracies have consolidated at a remarkable pace, while autocracies continue to fall. Especially in educated, rich, urban societies like Russia, democracy eventually takes hold. A democratic Russia will not always define its interests as we do, but will become a more stable partner with other democracies.
We cannot say how long the current autocratic government in Russia will endure. But a sober, realistic strategy to confront this new threat will help to shorten the tragic era we just entered.