As Russia advances, America's response remains unclear

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Barack Obama,Russia,Vladimir Putin,Foreign Policy,Ukraine,Malaysia Airlines Disaster,Becket Adams

“[S]anctions are a dead end," Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said last week after the White House announced its latest efforts to increase pressure on Moscow, "nobody needs them.

“[W]e have to implement retaliatory measures," he added.

As it turns out, Russia’s “retaliatory measures" include a year-long ban on the import of various food and agricultural products from the West, representing the latest development in the quickly deteriorating relationship between Washington and Moscow.

And as Russia turns its eye towards expansion, its annexation of Crimea complete, its troops amassing on Ukraine’s border, the White House's next step is unclear.

America’s response to Russia's provocations has so far relied entirely on diplomacy and economic sanctions, the latter applying to a variety of Russian business interests, including banks and several close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The U.S. diplomatic efforts have so far proven futile, but at least the sanctions have widespread support from U.S. voters, a likely sign that Americans are not at all interested in a military response to Moscow’s actions against her neighbors.

Roughly 57 percent of U.S. voters say they support economic sanctions against Russia, while only 15 percent say otherwise, according to recent report from YouGov. The survey of 990 adults, which was conducted from July 26-27, also found that roughly 29 percent of respondents are undecided on whether they approve or disapprove of the sanctions.

But supposed support from the American people aside, will sanctions actually force the Russian bear back into its cave?

The answer is unclear.

Based on Russia’s recent behavior, its lashing out and outright mockery of Western powers, it’s tempting to say the sanctions are not working and that the U.S. should consider a much more forceful response. Further, it's worth noting that even President Obama himself said last week that he's not sure if the sanctions strategy is working.

“[W]e don’t know yet whether sanctions are working,” Obama said at a press conference, responding to a question from NBC News’ Chris Jansing. “Sanctions are working as intended in putting enormous pressure and strain on the Russian economy.”

However, “in terms of capital flight,” he said, the Russian economy has more or less comes to a screeching halt.

“We are doing exactly what we should be doing,” he said, adding that “sanctions are working the way they are supposed to be.”

Confusion over whether this is the best approach has leaked over to the U.S. media, where even members of the press have started to question the efficacy of the White House’s current strategy.

Based on the thousands of Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s border, Moscow's threat to ban all Western flights and the recent ban on Western agricultural products, it doesn’t seem like Moscow is afraid of U.S. sanctions, ABC News’ Jon Karl said last week.

“So the bottom line,” Karl said, “is that U.S. sanctions on Russia appear to be doing zero to convince Vladimir Putin to back down.”

All of this is to say that the U.S. is stuck in an interesting spot: Does the White House abandon sanctions for a more forceful —perhaps even armed — response to Russian aggression? Does the U.S. abandon sanctions and simply leave Russia alone? Or does the White House continue to amp up economic pressure with yet another round of sanctions?

Unfortunately, there are problems with each of these options.

First, Americans do not want an armed confrontation with Russia. That much is clear. Indeed, despite popular outrage over Moscow’s recent behavior and its possible role in bringing down a Malaysian passenger jet over Ukraine, few, if any, want the U.S. military to go toe-to-toe with Russia. The idea of “boots on the ground” or airstrikes in Russia is likely not even being considered by the White House. Barring some jarring, cataclysmic event, it just isn’t going to happen.

Second, the U.S. can abandon the issue altogether, leaving Ukraine and others to fend for themselves. But this would likely be unwise in the long-run. As we’ve learned again and again, expansion unchecked can lead to very deadly consequences —consequences that would directly affect U.S. national interests. The White House would be prudent to monitor and play an active role in international events as they unfold. This does not necessarily mean that military action is required. Rather, it simply means the U.S. probably shouldn't resign itself to the sidelines as total inaction will likely will lead to trouble later down the road.

This brings us to our third point: Does the U.S. merely increase economic pressure by applying more sanctions?

The problem with this option, as we've been slow to learn, is that the U.S. can’t give the Kremlin a good kicking without also giving itself a bloody nose, as a colleague of mine once said.

Following the so-called 2009 “reset," the U.S. has partnered with Russia on a range of international and economic issues, from business deals to space exploration. So to punish Russia with even tougher sanctions would also mean to inflict a certain amount of damage on the U.S.

For example, if the U.S. tried to block Russian flights from landing in the U.S., this would of course hurt U.S. businesses. And this applies to basically any form of business that Russia does with the U.S., whether it involves exports or imports. Obviously, sanctions on Russia won’t destroy the U.S. economy, but it's unclear whether the likely downsides will be worth it considering we so far have very little in terms of measurable success. Remember, not even the president can say whether the sanctions are working.

Does Washington let up on the economic pressure or does it twist until Russia's arm snaps? And can this be done without hurting U.S. business interests?

This brings us to our final point: As America's least terrible option going forward, will sanctions, along with Washington's unpopularity and decreasing influence in the area, convince Russians to reject the West? That is, will the White House’s actions against Moscow convince Russians to draw inward, to fall back on their own leaders and thinkers and to reject whatever positive influences may have made their way into the country after the fall of the Soviet Union?

If Russia withdraws from the West, the great danger is that men such as Alexander Dugin, the “mad philosopher who is redesigning the brains of much of the Russian government and public,” according to National Review, will continue to guide and influence leaders in the Kremlin.

“Liberalism, is an absolute evil," said Dugin, who holds a terrifying amount of influence over Putin's regime. "Only a global crusade against the U.S., the West, globalization, and their political-ideological expression, liberalism, is capable of becoming an adequate response. ... The American empire should be destroyed.”

So as the U.S. will likely inflict damage on itself with tougher sanctions, will it also encourage Russia to withdraw from the West, driving it deeper into dangerous territory? Will Russia emerge from this struggle more angered and aggressive than before?

If people like Dugin already have the hearts and minds of the Putin regime, then arm-twisting from the United States will likely do little to reverse Moscow's course. To many in the Kremlin, this struggle is about much more than mere political games. Russia will likely put up with a broken arm if it means not having to succumb to pressure from the dreaded West.

The U.S. can no longer act as an observer on foreign policy, failing to recognize the growing threat from Moscow, but it must act now in its interest. America would be foolish to sit by idly and watch as Russia sets its sights on the West, gearing up to retake areas lost after the Cold War.

Unfortunately, thanks to Obama's naive and amateurish foreign-policy team, the way forward is unclear and the U.S. doesn't appear to have many options. Tougher sanctions will likely hurt U.S. interests, but again, this appear to be the best of three lousy choices, the other options being inaction and military force.

This is where years of neglect and poor leadership in the White House have put the U.S. on the national stage.

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