Thomas Graham was the senior director for Russia on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2004 to 2007.
NEW YORK — President Obama’s decision tocancel his September meetingwith President Vladimir Putin was heartily welcomed by a broad swath of the American political class. In the view of many American critics of Putin and the Kremlin, it was about time to punish Russia. Were it not for Russia, their argument goes, not only would Edward Snowden now be facing justice in the United States, but President Bashar al-Assad of Syria would have been removed and the civil war ended, Iran would have forsworn its nuclear weapons program, and Ukraine and Georgia would be flourishing democracies solidly anchored in the West.
Why is Russia always at fault? Why the persistent calls to punish it?
To be sure, Russia often takes positions contrary to those of the United States, and the Kremlin is an easy target for criticism. Putin’s pugnacious style, his evident glee at poking the United States in the eye, along with his mounting appeals to xenophobic, baser sentiments to shore up his domestic position, all rub Americans the wrong way.
Yet the vehemence of calls for punishment is divorced from the real challenge Russia poses on the world stage. The truth is that the country is now less of a threat than at any time since World War II, and its potential to shape global affairs pales in comparison with that of the United States.
Russia is not the Soviet Union; it offers no compelling ideological alternative, nor is it about to invent one. And even though Putin harbors dreams of restoring Russia’s pre-eminence throughout the former Soviet space, China, various Islamic movements and Europe are all contesting Moscow’s influence along its periphery and, at times, within Russia itself.
Cold War reflexes still play a big role in the current tensions with Moscow, even if the Russian menace is not what it used to be. The generation that sits atop America’s national security apparatus, occupies leadership positions in Congress and heads its editorial boards came of age in the later stages of the Cold War and remembers how the Soviet threat concentrated minds.
Ironically, the decreased menace of a onetime superpower also encourages the temptation to blame Russia, for few believe it can impose any serious costs on the United States. No robust commercial relationship or delicately balanced economic interdependence is at risk, as it would with China. There is no threat of military confrontation, given Russia’s diminished conventional capabilities. And even if Russia remains the only country that could annihilate the United States in 30 minutes, who fears intemperate words will cancel the logic of mutually assured destruction?
A deeper, unacknowledged psychological reason also drives Americans to blame Russia. Simply put, it has denied them the final, morally satisfying victory in the Cold War by refusing to take the path to free-market democracy they prescribed as the endpoint of the exit from totalitarian communism. Victory is complete only when your enemies decide to emulate you. That is what Germany and Japan did after World War II, and that is why Americans look back at that war as the "good” war and at those two countries as their closest of allies today.
Putin’s Russia has refused to take that path and every day takes a step toward a different destination guided by Russia’s undemocratic political tradition. And so Americans lash out at Russia.
This lashing out, however emotionally satisfying, comes at a significant cost. Most damaging, it obscures the extent to which Americans create their own problems and shifts attention from what they can and should do to overcome them — whether it’s protecting national secrets from the likes of a Edward Snowden or developing and executing a consistent, intelligible policy toward Syria and Iran.
Moreover, Americans seem to lash out at Russia with increasing vitriol as their frustration grows with the political dysfunction in Washington and ineptitude of U.S. foreign policy. In other words, the intensity of the criticism has less to do with Russia’s behavior than with the state of America’s progress in overcoming its own deficiencies.
None of this means that the United States should not criticize Russia. But it should do so only when the link between Russia and whatever issue arises is clear and significant — and when American steps are likely to induce changes in Russia’s behavior that advance concrete goals. Canceling the summit meeting in Moscow fails on both counts.
The other ways of punishing Russia that have been bruited —boycotting the Olympics, admitting Georgia into NATO, accelerating the U.S. missile defense program — are also unlikely to have much positive effect. Rather, if the United States really wanted to stand up and send a message to Putin, it would put its own house in order and demonstrate that it has the creativity and wisdom to craft, and the will and skill to execute, policies to advance its interests.