Since Russia moved into Crimea, there has been a strong desire in the United States to “do something” to stop Vladimir Putin. The general problem, we’re told, is that there just aren’t any good options.
This strikes me as both unimaginative, on the one hand, and a great example of what Robert Gates deemed the “militarization” of American foreign policy, on the other. The reality is that there are just not any good military options for countering Russia in Ukraine, and there aren’t going to be given prevailing geography, history, and nuclear capabilities.
But just because Vladimir Putin has pursued a military strategy for achieving his political goals in Ukraine, doesn’t mean that the U.S. response has to be in the military realm. Nor does it mean that Washington is limited to boring old economic sanctions, which increasingly seem to be the only tool in America’s foreign policy toolbox in situations when military force is inappropriate.
In fact, the broad components of what could be an effective response to Putin’s annexation in Crimea are already being pursued by the U.S., albeit not in the right configuration. So far the U.S. response has mainly focused on two fronts. The first is a public relations campaign to rally international opinion against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
This PR campaign began nearly immediately when Obama administration officials like John Kerry painted Russia as living in a 19th century world. It has continued ever since through high profile gestures such as the UN General Assembly Resolution denouncing the Crimea referendum, and President Obama’s excellent speech in Europe last week. The goal, as the administration has made clear, is to isolate Russia diplomatically, even as it seeks to target it economically.
However, there are two problems with this PR campaign. The first is that it is not working and unlikely to work in the future. As Ian Bremmer and the UN General Assembly vote made clear, Russia is simply too large of a player to be completely isolated, especially given that many important countries are not nearly as offended by the annexation as the United States.
The second, more serious problem with the global PR campaign is that it is aimed at the international community. This is the wrong audience since it is not the one that keeps Putin in power, which is his primary concern. Indeed, not only was the Crimea annexation popular in Russia, but trying to isolate Russia is likely to further entrench support for a nationalistic leader like Putin. The more besieged Russians feel, the more appeal Putin has at home.
Besides the global PR campaign, the U.S. has tried to pressure Russia through economic sanctions. These sanctions have been targeted at Putin’s inner circle as well as the wealthy businessmen and institutions that help prop up his rule. The logic behind this approach is that if Russia’s oligarchs fear their financial interests are being threatened, they will pressure Putin to halt and possible rollback his aggression in the Ukraine.
The problem with this approach is that they are unlikely to do this. To begin with, these men have derived their influence and wealth from their association with Putin. They have little incentive or ability to challenge Putin without undercutting themselves. Moreover, as noted above, the annexation of Crimea is extremely popular with the Russian people. This puts Russia’s oligarchs on even shakier ground in trying to confront Putin.
A better approach would be to combine the two aspects of the West’s current response. Specifically, the United States should undertake a PR campaign aimed at turning the Russian people against Putin’s inner circle and the oligarchs in Russia more generally. Done right, this can gradually undermine the legitimacy of the Russian Federation under Putin as a whole.
As is well known, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is rife with corruption at every level. Like all autocracies, this corruption can persist because information is tightly controlled to limit people’s knowledge of it. The United States and Europe have extensive means to collect information on the all the corrupt elements of the Russian Federation. By exposing this information, they would be able to gradually undercut the Russian people’s support for the system Putin has built. Of course, at any time the U.S. and Europe could agree to withhold further information if their demands on Ukraine are met.
The biggest question would be in what manner should they would distribute the information? One possibility is simply publishing government reports about corruption in Russia. I would advocate against this approach as Russians and people generally are likely to view these reports as inherently biased. A better approach would be to strategically leak the information Washington and Brussels uncover to reporters with international reach. Another possibility is that the U.S. and EU could anonymously publish the information on social media websites, much as Russia posted Victoria Nuland’s private phone conversation trashing the EU.
Whatever medium the West used to publish the information, this policy would appropriately target what Putin holds most dear—his grip on power—in a way that can effectively undermine it. It would also be fairly cheap. The larger principle should be kept in mind for future crises—namely, the U.S. and the West don’t have to respond to challenges on the terms set by the countries challenging them.