Here is a prediction: Vladimir Putin is on a course to fail as president of the Russian Federation. Do not expect failure this year or even next. However, it is as inevitable as was the overthrow of party leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 and the implosion of the Soviet Union less than three decades later.
The reason is the fatal flaw in autocratic rule: the inability to keep powerful centrifugal political forces in check forever. Despite Putin’s popularity—which is transient—and his huge electoral majority in the Duma, irreversible political, economic, social and cultural forces are at work. One reason that these forces have not yet reached a critical mass has been Putin’s uncanny ability to outsmart the West in foreign policy that has played well with Russians so far. But Putin is living on borrowed time much as his predecessors in the old Soviet Union were.
Some in America will assert it was Ronald Reagan’s strategy to spend the Soviet Union into oblivion that triggered its demise. That is simply untrue. The geriatric leadership in the Kremlin and a series of “living dead” oligarchs promoted the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev. After having held various senior ministerial appointments, Gorbachev understood that only massive reform could correct the corrupt and brittle Soviet political-economic system. That reform ended the USSR.
Putin is approaching two decades in power. While the annexation of Crimea and the relatively low cost, high leverage military support of Bashar al Assad have certainly restored national prestige among Russians, the what next question has not been answered. As the Syrian civil war becomes bloodier and the charge of war crimes over the bombing and killing of unarmed UN aid workers attempting to bring humanitarian support to the beleaguered city of Aleppo during a truce grows stronger, President Barack Obama’s prediction of a Russian quagmire comes closer to realization.
Frozen conflicts are not in Russia’s long-term interest. Of course, while the short-term aim of preventing Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO because of contested borders is working, the long-term economic damage done to Russia will prove politically destructive. Putin certainly is riding a political tiger. However, he has no clear exit strategy for safely dismounting this dangerous beast. That is a fundamental predicament.
How can the West and the United States exploit this political advantage? Putin’s only salvation may rest in the West’s impotence in responding effectively to what needs to be done at a time when Western leaders universally suffer from unprecedented levels of high unfavorability ratings by their citizens. Only President Obama is at or above the 50% level.
No matter who replaces Obama, the next American president faces the growing perception at home that Russia is the enemy. Both Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford have cited Russia as a potential existential threat to the U.S. Further, the Pentagon is now planning for what the secretary euphemistically calls “full spectrum warfare” and issued his “four plus one” guidance that explicitly calls for deterring and if necessary defeating in war any one of four contingencies against Russia, China, Iraq and North Korea while also destroying the Islamic State (and containing a second contingency at the same time).
What should the U.S. do? First, common sense and not confrontation is the best means to exploit Putin’s political weaknesses. By threatening Russia, his public will rally around Putin. This does not mean granting concessions. It means being smart not petulant. It also means shifting NATO’s strategy to local defense based on a “porcupine” posture with emphasis on Stinger-like anti-air and Javelin anti-vehicle missiles all reinforced by alliance capabilities to blunt Russian cyber, propaganda, intimidation and other non-conventional forms of war.
Second, the U.S. needs to dial back on belligerent rhetoric. By all means plan for “full spectrum war.” But do not use a PR bullhorn to announce what is being done. Teddy Roosevelt applies—speak softly but carry a big stick.
Third, a Track III is needed. Track II entailed discussions between former senior officials on both sides as appetizers to facilitate more formal talks between government. In a Track III, both sides would provide the rationale and arguments underpinning the specific policies of their two governments that would be available for public view and reaction. The providers would be “experts” not directly connected to their governments but with substantial experience and perceived as “honest brokers.”
To repeat, brains not brawn beats Putin!