25 June 2018 – New York, US

by Victor Rud

Public focus on President Trump’s comments earlier this month about readmitting Russia to the G7 group of the most advanced democracies has somewhat dissipated in light of the ensuing North Korea summit. Now, even that has been overtaken by the controversy over immigration. But these were no off-the-cuff comments; they were made before, during and again after the G7 summit in Canada.  Make no mistake, however. “Sanctioning”– as in rewarding, not punishing– Russia would propel Putin ever more. It would be another entry in a catalog of Western fecklessness and would both materially and predictably degrade America’s global security posture.

Memory is short.  President Truman wrote in his diary, “I’m not afraid of Russia.  They’ve always been our friends, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t always be . . . so let’s just get along.” Fifty-three years later, in 1998, President Clinton prevailed on the G7 to admit Russia. Admission rules were for naught, and the “can’t we just be friends” moment allowed Putin to leverage admission to the club into a hecatomb. Membership was the eau de cologne for Russia’s path of domestic tyranny and imperial imperative, as a self-assured Russia began to up-end the international order that the West had secured for generations and represented by the very G7. First, the Kremlin solidified its grip on its internal empire marketed as the “Russian Federation.” Putin walked to the Presidency of Russia on the bodies of hundreds of civilians, killed a year later in a string of apartment bombings in Russia, a false flag operation of the FSB seeking to pin it on the Chechens.  Following the resulting atrocities in Chechnya, we saw a roll call of domestic and international terrorism, invasions, occupations and annexations in Georgia and Ukraine, use of women and children as human shields, assassinations, castration of prisoners, carpet bombing, the destruction of Malaysia Flight 17. Putin’s contempt for the West played out as miniaturized nuclear (Polonium 230) and chemical (novichok) warfare in Big Ben’s front yard. And his hardly concealed hacking of our and European elections and infrastructure broadcast his disdain.

Iranian President Rouhani, Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan, 2017

But it’s worse. Fully a year before Russia’s admission to the sanctum sanctorum of Western democracy, Putin’s ideologue, Alexander Dugin, together with General Nikolai Klokotov of the General Staff Academy, authored the Foundations of Geopolitics, Russia’s blueprint for assaulting the West.   I wrote earlier about the battleplan–from Brexit, to the hacking of elections in Europe and the US, to the splitting of the Western Alliance, to the shattering of societal and political cohesion in Europe and the U.S.  Turkey was to be turned, Ukraine, as an independent and democratic counterweight to Russia, was to be erased, and Iran was to be the key to a Russian-Islamist alliance against America.  Russia 9, the West 0.

Yet Washington turned a blind eye to the future. Why? Throughout history tyrants have clearly announced their intentions.  (Remember the little painter from Braunau?) But it’s no more complicated than their targeted victims simply not believing it all.  They expected, rather hoped, that the tyrant du jour “can’t be serious,” “it’s all just talk,” etc. Ultimately, however, the innocence of successive Administrations in the White House distills to an inability to assimilate who and what it is that we’re dealing with. Putin (as did his predecessors) functions in an entirely different solar system than do Western democracies and is only understood if we are prepared to “believe the unbelievable” or to “accept the unacceptable“.  Otherwise, he and Russia’s pedigree and continuing trajectory as a predator state are unfathomable by any Western parameter.

The opposite, however, is not true and in this regard some of our Russian experts, with all due respect, are simply wrong. Thus, for example, Fiona Hill, formerly with the Brookings Institution and now with the National Security Council in the White House, wrote in her book about Putin that he is “unable to understand the mindset of Americans and Europeans and their political dynamics.” Somehow, he has managed rather well.

Our ineffectiveness is partially rooted in Calvin Coolidge’s dictum, “the business of America is business”. We are hard wired to graft our domestic commercial/cultural experience onto dealing with Russia. We are driven by a mercantile instinct for “stability” and “management.” And that means “negotiation” looking toward “agreement.” At a conference last year I said, “[T]he one exception to our trying to superimpose our commercial heritage in dealing with Russia is that we tolerate and encourage the very kind of behavior that we would never tolerate in a business setting–endless breaches of agreements by the other side of the table. And the only exception to our lack of predictive capacity is that we have a superb predictive capacity concerning Moscow’s breach of the very next agreement. Inexplicably, we simply ignore the breaches, always coming back for more.” It’s Pavlovian.

Russia jack booted the very international order that is based on precisely a complex of these very “agreements”.  (It’s encouraging to know that in his interview with Oliver Stone in The Putin Interviews, 2017, Putin said, “We have to stick to certain rules. Otherwise international relations cannot be built.”) But it was not unilateral.  Western flaccid response ensured the implosion. Russia’s war against Ukraine and occupation and annexation of its territory is now in its fifth year.  That was the very reason for ejecting Russia from the G8.  Yet Russian aggression has grown in scope, brazenness, and consequence to us. Western pusillanimity in Ukraine led to Syria led to the Potomac. We see the fallout in China and North Korea.  It will get worse.

And so, we have this: (1) we were warned twenty years ago of Russia’s impending assault on the international order and the US specifically; (2) we ignored the warning and tried to “make nice,” (3) we were unable to prevent that assault; and (4) we have been casting about for years, ruminating how to react, defend, respond.  It doesn’t occur to us to conceive a policy that would place Russia on the defensive, compelling it to turn inward.

But what about the White House now having provided, albeit in limited scope, defensive weaponry for Ukraine, or having bolstered our military presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltics?  Laudatory as they are, these measures are years late, are defensive and accordingly limited in scope and purpose, and therefore necessarily surrender the status quo to a war criminal on the other side of the line.  Admitting Russia to the G7 in the first place helped fuel the resulting disaster now requiring precisely those defensive measures. This time, however, with its established record Russia’s readmission to the G7 would be a felony, making us knowing and intentional aiders and abettors of Russia’s international marauding. We can then provide even more military aid . . .  though perhaps not, because we will need it ourselves.

And what of President Trump’s explanation, five days after his initial comment about Russia’s readmission? “If Vladimir Putin were sitting next to me today . . . I could say, ‘would you do me a favor? Would you get out of Syria? Would you do me a favor, would you get out of the Ukraine. . . .’ If he were at that meeting, I could ask him to do things that are good for the world, that are good for our country, that are good for him.”  This is hardly convincing. (1) Admission to the G7 is not necessary for talking. (2) Merely talking is not only not enough; it has been counterproductive. We’ve been talking with furrowed brow and faux angst for 18 years–and what exactly have been the results? (3) Do we seriously believe that  Putin will defer to our judgement as to what is good for him?

Predictability in international relations has no price. Readmission to the G7 would cement Putin’s understanding of our “mindset and political dynamics,” regardless of the political party at the helm.  That understanding is clear and correct–we exhibit no consistency, constancy or direction, whether grounded in principle, logic, morality, or strategic self-interest. Each Western overture, each reset, each excuse, each encomium, each soccer match is an accelerant propelling Putin in his self-assurance. Readmission would accomplish that immeasurably. Our temporizing will have become permanent. Despite the otherwise obsequiousness of especially Germany and France, for now on this issue the G5 (sans Italy) stand firm. We can do no less.


Feature Photo – Putin chairs the Presidential Council for Strategic Development and Priority Projects, 2017 – Kremlin.ru, 2018

Inset photo – Rouhani, Putin and Erdogan, 2017 – Wikimedia Commons, 2018

DefenceReport’s weekly recap is a multi-format blog that features opinions and insights from DefRep editorial staff and guest writers. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports and analysis, which are based on independent and objective reporting.


By Victor Rud

In addition to Defence Report, Victor Rud's commentary on US/Russia/Ukraine affairs has been carried by, among others, Forbes, the Atlantic Council, Foreign Policy Association, Centre for Global Studies, and the Kyiv Post. He has been practicing international law for 35 years, and among other matters served as special counsel to a member of the US delegation to the Helsinki Accords Review Process. He was the Past Chairman of the Ukrainian American Bar Association and now Chair of its Committee on Foreign Affairs. Mr. Rud is also the Senior Advisor to Open Court, an NGO in Ukraine, and a graduate of Harvard College and Duke University School of Law.