The Smart Way to Deal With Putin’s Russia

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A week before my trip, on Oct. 7, James R. Clapper Jr., then the director of national intelligence, and the Department of Homeland Security issued the first official American statement that Russia was interfering in our election process. When I and my colleagues confronted Kremlin and Foreign Ministry officials with this, they (as expected) adamantly denied it. They launched into the Kremlin narrative, arguing that the United States is responsible for any problems in the Russian-American relationship. They denounced American policies on NATO enlargement, the Balkans, Libya, democracy in former Soviet states and Syria, to mention just a few.

Added to this, Russia’s state-controlled media was full of war talk: If Hillary Clinton was elected, Russia and the United States would be on the verge of war and Russians should prepare their bomb shelters. Really.

This reminded me of a lesson I took away from earlier dealings with Russians: They always know what they want, so you’d better know what you want or they will roll right over you. And in today’s Russia, the question is what does Vladimir Putin want, because he calls the shots on anything of consequence. And his goals are quite clear: unchallenged dominance at home; heavy influence over his neighbors; a weakening of Western institutions like NATO and the European Union; and “great power” influence in key regions like the Middle East.

Pardon the phrase, but it’s all about making Russia great again.

. . .

In other words, today’s challenge is not how to see Russia crushed again, as it was when the Soviet Union collapsed; it’s about constraining its worst tendencies as it revives. That requires showing unrelenting firmness on what matters most to the United States, creating space for like-minded Russians to push for integration into the global system and in the meantime remaining alert for issues on which American and Russian interests converge enough to permit at least limited cooperation.

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