Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin's op-ed in The New York Times provoked feelings ranging from personal indignation to physical revulsion among various U.S. government officials. But the most surprising and perhaps unprecedented aspect of Putin’s public relations ploy is that his arguments resonated more powerfully with the American public than did President Obama’s justifications for armed intervention in Syria.
A corrupt autocrat who himself is no stranger to using brutal military force is more in tune with the concerns of war-weary Americans than our own democratically-elected president. It is arguably one of the more embarrassing low points of the U.S.-Russian relationship in post-Cold War times.
Rather than taking advantage of the current stalemate in intervention plans to reflect on how to more productively engage Russia and avoid similar situations in the future, U.S. politicians continue to wield ineffective morality wars against Putin, a strategy that has proved futile many times over. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) chose to target Putin’s anti-gay policies, an important but completely unrelated issue to the Syria dilemma. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed Putin’s arguments as proof that America is indeed “exceptional,” successfully perpetuating the mentality that many non-Americans resent.
And the latest attempt to further degrade the diplomatic relationship comes in the form of a countering op-ed in Russian newspaper Pravda by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Does McCain use this opportunity to suggest more constructive ways for Russia and the U.S. to move forward and leave this spiteful, tit-for-tat rivalry behind? Quite the opposite — the piece is a patronizing appeal to Russian citizens: “I believe in the greatness of the Russian people…You deserve a government that believes in you and answers to you.” McCain also inserts a derogatory claim that Russia’s international stature rests on alliances “with some of the world’s most offensive and threatening tyrannies.”
All of these assertions would be harmless to the U.S.’s diplomatic standing if such appeals actually did something to bolster Putin’s domestic opposition, but they don’t. Over the past two years, Russian democratic activism has been impressive and strong, but just not strong enough. Russian activists remain hopeful, but understand that the road to change is painfully long and difficult. And diatribes by U.S. politicians about how terrible or evil Putin is do not constitute some magical jolt of power that will give the opposition the momentum it needs. Only Russians can transform their country into the democracy they envision, and the U.S. has to learn to accept the frustration of watching from the sidelines.
In the meantime, Congress and the Obama administration must start scrutinizing their political tactics when working with Russia. As NYU scholar Mark Galeotti argues in a recent opinion piece, “It is always easier to assume one’s critics are fools and scoundrels rather than taking their views on board.” Indeed, it is easy to list Putin’s myriad faults as a reason to discredit any position his government adopts. The much more difficult but beneficial approach involves divorcing moral objections from the need to co-exist and interact productively with this difficult partner.