How Putin might react to sanctions on Russia

In the week since Malaysia Airline Flight 17 was downed in eastern Ukraine, many have asked, “What can we do?” Politicians around the globe are struggling to figure out how to react to Vladimir Putin. His seemingly absent approach to the horrific disaster of the shoot down of MH17, his continued insistence that Ukraine is at fault, and his ongoing militarization of the conflict with Ukraine are reprehensible. Nevertheless, the question remains: What can we do?

Multiple rounds of sanctions have had little impact on Putin’s actions in Ukraine, exacerbated by the fact that the U. S. and Europe cannot agree on the depth and strength of sanctions. Military options are unrealistic. Diplomatic attempts to work with Putin have led nowhere. The result? A collaboration of nations united by their anger and mistrust of Russia, but unable to make any meaningful difference. The vitriol and rhetoric being directed at Putin is not shocking, but is counterproductive. Consider Senator Dan Coats of Indiana. Last week , Coats issued a list of demands of Russia that was as audacious as it was absurd. His rhetorical attempt to “demand full and complete cooperation with the ongoing investigation” and “demand an immediate stand down in Ukraine” will accomplish nothing. While I certainly agree with the sentiment behind the demands, I disagree with his approach.

The black and white, them vs. us standoff that characterized the Cold War should not be the path forward. Now is not a time for demanding, but a time for understanding the other side and working together. We need to recognize whom we are talking to. Vladimir Putin is a proud product of the Soviet Union as evidenced by his assertion that “breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century”. Putin served as a KGB agent and grew up under the regimes of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, leaders who were not shy about using military force to ensure political gain. We’ve seen how he reacted defiantly in Crimea, ignoring the international community and in so doing, gaining popularity in Russia. His approval ratings have soared to 83 percent. For many Russians, Putin evokes the Cold War, superpower days of the U. S. S. R., and they like that.

We certainly cannot ignore the downing of flight MH17 – in fact this action could be deemed a war crime, but the world’s condemnations of Putin, the world’s focus on punishing and isolating him, is backfiring. I fully subscribe to the notion of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, and this is just the time for that. If we continue on this path of the world vs. Russia, I predict Putin’s internal approval ratings will continue to soar. His inclination to lash out at the West by strengthening relationships with bad actor allies will work against U. S. negotiations with Iran and Syria. Russia will strengthen ties with former Soviet republics. We’ll see increased cooperation between Russia and Cuba. And, if sanctions are strengthened, the impact they will have on Russia could grow, but the likelihood that they also boomerang and impact Europe, increase as well.

As untenable as it might seem, the world needs a cooperative Russia and an approach that fosters that cooperation. Our diplomats should be pushing harder at the highest levels to engage, better understand, and improve communication with Putin. World leaders need to stop pushing Putin into a corner from which he feels the need to prove himself, as this will perpetuate his need to establish a strong sphere of influence, as his predecessors of the former USSR illustrated.

Now is the time to bring him to the table, face to face, to encourage discussion and negotiation. This does not mean we sweep aside his transgressions, but that we acknowledge them sternly, while also acknowledging his and Russia’s role in the world, thereby giving him the confidence and security he and his country needs. As difficult as it will be to put aside feelings of anger and mistrust of Putin, it is necessary. Remember, Putin has illustrated a willingness to work with the West on Iran and on arms reductions. The recognition that Putin is a proud man who needs a bit of coddling is a critical component of a strategy that aims to work smartly with Russia. While it’s easy to publicly loathe and condemn Putin, shouldn’t we instead be thinking of ideas that could lead to a more collaborative world environment?

So, what can we do about Russia? Perhaps, a different approach should be considered.

David A. Kalis is the Author of Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser: A True Story of Risk, Corruption, and Self-Discovery Amid the Collapse of the Soviet Union. He can be reached via www.davidakalis.com or on twitter @thedavidkalis.

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