Putin and the Americans (Blake Rutherford On Politics)

The second season of the very good cable television show "The Americans," a drama starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, debuted recently on FX. If you haven't seen it, Russell and Rhys play KGB spies living in deep cover as parents operating a travel agency in Washington, D.C. during the escalation of the Cold War. It is intense and thrilling spycraft, and, like its characters, richly complex.

Even a fictional portrayal of bygone era has its prescient moments, and during the show’s first season one of the American FBI operatives observed, "This isn't a Cold War. There's nothing cold about the covert violent exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union."

That came to mind as Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Crimea, an autonomous republic in southern Ukraine, to seize control of it. He succeeded and has set the region on a perilous course toward economic instability and perhaps armed conflict.

In his only public address since the incursion, Putin condemned the United States by saying, "[W]e have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner . . . But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally." (1)

Putin’s comments also stirred the memory of former Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright, the longest serving chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in history. As Randall Woods observed in his definitive biography, "Fulbright was a Wilsonian internationalist who continued to believe that the hope of the world lay first in regional groupings and then in a world federation whose member states surrendered a portion of their national sovereignty for the common good." (2)

Fulbright supported George Kennan’s strategy of "long-term patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies," which later inspired the Truman Doctrine, influenced future presidents, and has continued to play a role in US-Russian affairs.

Today, Rep. Tom Cotton is the only member of Congress from Arkansas to sit on the foreign relations committee of either chamber, and three weeks ago, he co-authored an op-ed with fellow Republican and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on the situation in Crimea. Complete with interesting ideas, it also had a refreshingly anti-partisan tone.

"Congress returns to Washington facing the biggest international crisis in years," they wrote. "Yet we also recognize that the roots of Russia's actions last week to invade and control Crimea are complex, and they predate President Barack Obama's tenure. This challenge is truly bigger than our partisan divides."

Within a day of the incursion and by executive order Obama imposed sanctions that banned visas for Ukranian officials and froze assets of certain Russian officials involved. As one Obama administration official told The New York Times, "These are by far the most comprehensive sanctions applied to Russia since the end of the Cold War — far and away so."  

Putin seems to have anticipated Obama’s defense, at least as it pertains to individual sanctions. Less than two years ago, Putin began a process to have Russians officials repatriate assets they held abroad, and those that participated in Crimean incursion are rumored not to hold foreign assets. But that is really beside the point. As a first step, the action was swift and symbolic.

The House of Representatives passed a bipartisan aid bill for Ukraine that included loan guarantees, aid for democracy-building initiatives, and funding for security. That bill initially stalled in the Senate. 

The condition of the Ukrainian economy exposes its broad vulnerability. Over the next two years, Ukraine is projected to owe $40 billion merely to service its existing debt obligations and fund its budget deficit. But because of the dynamics within that country, including rampant corruption, it remains to be seen how much immediate effect economic aid can actually have. (3)

Europe is in a unique position of leadership because of its trade relationship with Russia and its dependency on Russian oil and natural gas. Europe receives about 30 percent of its natural gas from Russia, delivered primarily by a pipeline that runs through Ukraine. Putin has been known to shrewdly cut off supply, which he has done in Ukraine and Belarus before, so Cotton and Rubio were apt to note it and call on the U.S. to open up exports of domestic natural gas to our "allies and partners in the region so that they are less susceptible to Russia’s efforts to use energy as a weapon." (4)

In the past, however, broader sanctions have been met with reluctance by both the EU and America. For example, Germany, has been hesitant to issue an embargo on oil and gas fearing shortages and price spikes. Great Britain has never wanted to jeopardize its position as a financial haven for Russian assets. And the United States, despite a modest $40 billion trade relationship with Russia, has been leery of broader sanctions that might adversely affect American businesses like Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Exxon Mobil, Boeing, General Motors and Ford, to name a few.

But none of that is to say that economic aid, security aid, and trade restrictions (or an embargo, as Cotton and Rubio propose) are meritless, particularly as a means to instill confidence in the Ukrainian economy, build up its self-defense force, and deter Russian military expansion into eastern Ukraine. (5)

But there are greater questions.

Putin’s incursion into Crimea is, like his war with the Republic of Georgia in 2008, another sign that his intentions are worrisome. Certainly, too, is our misunderstanding of Putin's motives despite the efforts of three different American presidents and other world leaders. As Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Applebaum observed in Slate, "In many European capitals, the Crimean events have been a real jolt. For the first time, many are beginning to understand that the narrative is wrong: Russia is not a flawed Western power. Russia is an anti-Western power with a different, darker vision of global politics."

The strategies offered by Cotton and Rubio as well as the efforts pursued by America and Europe speak only to the moment. Yet, there is a longer game that Putin intends to play. In the time between now and then, a refined perspective of containment would serve our national and international interests well, lest we find ourselves watching a program like "The Americans" in a state of renewed pessimism, unable to distinguish truth from fiction.   

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(1) Putin’s reference to "the bear" is rather humorous considering the symbolism of 1984 presidential campaign, which included this television ad from the Reagan-Bush campaign, perhaps the finest presidential campaign ad ever conceived.

(2) It is worth reading "Fulbright: A Biography," a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, to better understand Fulbright’s profound influence which, like Kennan’s, has bearing on the current situation, certainly much more than I am able to provide in this piece.

(3) Economic aid has not always been effective in Ukraine. For example, in the wake of the global financial crisis, the International Monetary Fund directed $17 billion to Ukraine on the condition that it work toward balanced budgets. It did not. But it’s not merely budget deficits and debt. Consider that the current per capita income in Russia is three-times that of Ukraine. In Romania and Poland it’s more than double. A substantial amount of Ukrainian debt is held by Russia; Russia is Ukraine’s largest supplier of energy; and Russia is Ukraine’s most significant trading partner. 

(4) It is questionable how much gas the U.S. can export, how quickly, and to where. Still, domestic gas production frees up former suppliers to ship their gas elsewhere. For example, Qatar quadrupled its supply of gas to Europe since 2008, and now accounts for a tenth of Europe’s imports. Increased supply leads to increased competition leads to lower prices, which is ultimately how it works. This puts pressure on Russia’s ability to move product at a particular price point, which James Surowiecki of The New Yorker explains quite clearly.

(5) This possibility concerns more than Cotton and Rubio. Sen. John McCain, perhaps anticipating conflict, called on America to provide "lethal and non-lethal" military equipment to Ukraine, and last week Obama sent fighter planes to Poland and to a NATO operation covering the Baltic States.

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(Blake Rutherford is vice president of The McLarty Companies and previously was chief of staff to the Arkansas attorney general. You can follow him on Twitter at BlakeRutherford. His column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)