If the U.S. recognizes Russian President Vladimir Putin for his foreign policy ideology and interests, it can better counter him.
So who is Putin?
Well, he is highly intelligent and capable of extreme aggression. But he is not a Russian neoconservative dedicated to building a revivalist Russian empire at all costs. Nor is Putin an unstable maniac like the Vodka-sodden leader of the Russian ultranationalist party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Instead, Putin is a bold realist: confident in his conception of priority interests and determined to see them rendered.
But Putin's realism puts basic security concerns first. These concerns include Russia’s preserved territorial integrity, the stability of Russian energy export markets, and the maintenance of credible nuclear strike forces. Were the United States to overtly challenge any of those interests, Putin would likely superescalate against U.S. interests.
Even then, Russia’s territorial integrity and nuclear strike forces do not surpass their U.S. counterparts. And the emergent reality of dominant U.S. global energy supply will gradually dilute Putin’s power regardless of his actions. In large part that's because the cost of shale production is falling in a manner that systemically undercuts Russia's main export, crude oil. It is for that reason that Putin is so determined to see the completion of his Nord Stream II pipeline to Germany. His last gambit for Russian energy-based political influence and foreign capital generation is Europe’s long-term link to the Russian energy industry.
But what of Putin’s other interests?
When it comes to responding to Russian covert action in cyberspace and country towns, or Russian military actions in Ukraine and Syria, U.S. decisions are made with a very careful assessment as to how Putin might respond. And while this is the prudent course of action, Putin knows that U.S. policymakers assess their Russia-related decisions in special consideration of what he might do in response, and he uses that understanding to cultivate a false image of himself as prospectively unstable. That’s why Putin is often so flippant in his threats of nuclear war and in his delivery of specialized brutality.
It has worked: President Barack Obama danced to Putin's waltz, and President Trump ... well, who knows what his Russia game is?
The right U.S. remedy here is clear. It should respect Russian history, culture, and its priority interests (where they do not represent territorial appropriation, as in Ukraine), and pursue shared interests such as in areas of counterterrorism. But equally important, we must accept that Russia (at least under Putin) and the U.S. have very few areas of alignment.
Most crucially of all, the U.S. must recognize that its second-tier interests in relation to Russia (the first tier being the preservation of U.S. security, NATO-European stability, and economic dominance) conflict with Putin's second-tier interests. Putin wants veto control over the Ukrainian government, Bashar Assad's continued power in Syria, an Afghanistan that drains U.S. lives and treasure, and the usurpation of U.S.-led international order by a Chinese-Russian feudal order. We want the opposite outcomes and must push back to attain them.
And because Putin is a realist, U.S. pushback with pragmatic aggression can compel the Russian leader to change his behavior. We've seen it before.
During Russia's summer 2008 invasion of Georgia, President George W. Bush sent U.S. Air Force resupply planes into Tbilisi, Georgia's capital. Bush called Putin on his bluff to endanger those aircraft. That signaled Bush's resolve and forced Putin to the table. Similarly, in Syria, U.S. retention of influence in eastern Syria will ultimately force Putin to more concessions as he struggles to afford his expensive military presence there. High-grade U.S. cyber-strike capabilities could also impose a cost calculation on Putin's conception of the Internet as a launching pad for strikes against the West.
Still, the major takeaway is that Putin can be influenced in each of these cases. He can be influenced, because his critical national interests are not affected by the U.S. influencing. And while he will respond in some fashion, ultimately Putin recognizes that the U.S. has more power than he does. He fears that power and will be corralled by it, but only when it is practiced.
The bottom line?
Assessing the Russian leader for the realist he is and the second-tier interests he holds, the U.S. should use its power to stand up for its second-tier interests. Doing so, the U.S. will restore the balance of power in its favor.