Jeffrey Sommers

Jeffrey Sommers, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and a senior fellow at its Institute of World Affairs, is visiting faculty at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, Latvia.

DECEMBER 10, 2015

The Syrian crisis presents an opportunity for a real “reset” with U.S.-Russia relations. Policy and opinion makers in both countries poorly understand each other. The United States presents policy objectives in the normative language of democracy, delinked from concrete interests. Meanwhile, Soviet policy used a discourse of communism, untethered from its realpolitik agendas. Current Russian policy, however, is shorn of ideology; maintaining progress can only advance in a stable world, not through upending states from Egypt, Iraq, Libya to Syria, while hoping democracy follows.

Sanctions have not brought Russia to heel in Ukraine.Putin wants partnership with the West, but is not willing to be its supplicant.

The architect of U.S. Cold War policy, George Kennan, warned at the end of his life, in 1998, that President Clinton’s policy of advancing NATO east risked war. By winter 2014 Russia perceived Ukraine as NATO’s next entrant. An expansionist Russia could have handily taken Ukraine in response to the Maidan protests, but this would have meant a new Cold War, or worse. An unending string of U.S. policy experts predicted that annexation of Ukraine by Russia was fast forthcoming. But Putin never took Ukraine, or even the Donbass.

What happened? It’s clear Putin never intended to seize Ukraine, or even the Donbass — even though domestic pressures weighed heavily on him to act. Instead, Putin’s actions signaled that the status quo over NATO’s forward movement must change. The Donbass was his leverage. Putin is a tough nationalist, but rather than fueling the fire of Russian revanchism, Putin is actually the one carefully dousing those flames.

U.S. and E.U. sanctions on Russia have not brought Russia to heel in Ukraine. The sanctions’ effects have been muted. Sanctions only worked to turn Russia to China on trade while working toward a national import substitution-based economy at home. Both results are against U.S. and E.U. wishes. Putin wants partnership with the West, but is not willing to be its supplicant. Meanwhile, many in the U.S. and E.U. genuinely wish to support democracy in Ukraine.

The United States and Russia will not reconcile their worldviews soon. Yet they can pursue common objectives in the Syrian-ISIS crisis that over time could expedite resolution of that challenge. Ironically, a bruised Ukraine could emerge as the victor if the European Union, Russia and the United States re-establish a framework for greater cooperation. It’s time to reconsider the effectiveness of U.S.-E.U. sanctions on Russia and whether they harm, more than advance, the broader goals of the United States, the European Union, not to mention Ukraine.

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