A Western Strategy for a Declining Russia

CAMBRIDGE – The Aspen Strategy Group, a non-partisan group of foreign-policy experts that former US National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and I co-chair, recently wrestled with the question of how to respond to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. And now NATO is wrestling with the same question.

While the West must resist Russian President Vladimir Putin’s challenge to the post-1945 norm of not claiming territory by force, it must not completely isolate Russia, a country with which the West has overlapping interests concerning nuclear security, non-proliferation, anti-terrorism, the Arctic, and regional issues like Iran and Afghanistan. Moreover, simple geography gives Putin the advantage in any escalation of the conflict in Ukraine.

It is natural to feel angry at Putin’s deceptions, but anger is not a strategy. The West needs to impose financial and energy sanctions to deter Russia in Ukraine; but it also must not lose sight of the need to work with Russia on other issues. Reconciling these objectives is not easy, and neither side would gain from a new Cold War. Thus, it is not surprising that when it came to specific policy recommendations, the Aspen group was divided between “squeezers” and “dealers.”

This dilemma should be put in long-term perspective: What type of Russia do we hope to see a decade from now? Despite Putin’s aggressive use of force and blustery propaganda, Russia is a country in decline. Putin’s illiberal strategy of looking East while waging unconventional war on the West will turn Russia into China’s gas station while cutting off its economy from the Western capital, technology, and contacts that it needs.