Identifying Putin’s pressure points will help inform the future of U.S.-Russia policy
At a Foreign Relations Committee hearing today to discuss what comes next for U.S. policy towards Russia, U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) recalled the success of our Soviet Union strategy and asked the witnesses to detail potential pressure points for Russia and Putin. Romney argued that we must then apply more effort to those pressure points should the U.S., in lockstep with our allies, be successful at preventing Putin’s goal of re-establishing the old Soviet Union.
A full transcript of the exchange can be found below the video.
Senator Romney:I don’t want to oversimplify our successful strategy relative to the former Soviet Union, but we outcompeted them militarily, economically, and they finally cried uncle—whether that was from internal pressure or just a collapse of their competitiveness, I really can’t say. But most successful strategies focus on a couple of things that are the most effective. And I don’t know what those items might be.
I’m just going to ask each of you to help me think about what should we really focus on. There’s so many things we need to do as we confront a Russia that we can’t trust, a Russia that is assertive, aggressive, and brutal.But are there some things that we’re really not getting right yet? That we’re not focused on sufficiently that really ought to become the focus of our strategy? I hear a number of us thinking about [the] need to restrict their economy. It’s challenge when they have oil and gas and coal and…uranium in such abundance. I mean they’re always going to have enough money and the Russian people put up with awful things, in part [because] the alternative is going to a gulag. So, where’s the pressure point? Where [are] the places we really ought to be applying more effort if we’re going to try and change the course of Russia trajectory? Ambassador, why don’t I begin with you and then turn to Dr. Kendall Taylor.
Former Ambassador John Sullivan: Well, I think Dr. Kendall Taylor made the point in her opening statement, the key is Ukraine. So, it’s interesting, Senator, you mentioned the word “competition.” Putin doesn’t like competition. He lost the competition in Ukraine. The Russians lost the competition in Eastern Europe. The Eastern Europeans—when I hear the Russians talk about, well, your NATO is just moving west.
What they don’t acknowledge is their own behavior—the Russian behavior—has pushed those Eastern European countries to the west, excuse me, NATO moving east, the Eastern European countries. They lost that competition. So, what is [Putin] resorting to? War—the oldest, one of the oldest, forms of competition. Now we can compete on ideas, economy, etc. He’s chosen the venue now to wage a war in Ukraine for his Russkiy Mir—his Russian empire.
He can’t win that. We can talk about weapons systems and how much financial support the United States, as opposed to our allies, can provide. If we don’t defeat his imperial mission in Ukraine, then the world, the system that the United States and our allies and partners in the whole world, including China, have benefited from over the 75 plus years since the end of the Second World War, that will drive a final stake through it. The U.N. Security Council is already, unlike in 1990 when there was aggression by Iraq invading Kuwait, Security Council authorizes what became Operation Desert Shield in Desert Storm, but that was a U.N. Security Council-authorized, voted by the Soviet Union to expel militarily Iraq from Kuwait. That’s not going to happen again.
So, I think Putin has chosen the place where we’re going to compete, and he’s chosen war because he’s lost every other form of competition.
Romney: Thank you.
Dr. Andrea Kendall Taylor: So, I’ll just foot stomp the Ukraine piece, and it’s so important for everything the Ambassador said, but I mean, it is critical that Russia is defeated, that Ukraine wins because it will help Russians shed their imperial ambitions. And it teaches future Russian leaders important lessons about the limits of military power. I think it’s critically important and we shouldn’t overstate it. I think on that front, what we’re lacking—obviously, there’s more we can do in terms of attack arms and longer-range weapons—but one thing I am also concerned about is I don’t think the Biden Administration or Washington in general has a story about what happens to our support after the counteroffensive.
And I think that shapes Putin’s calculus. It’s what convinces him that time is on his side and that the United States will tire. And so, if there are things that the U.S. Congress could do to demonstrate that we will have credible deliveries of weapons out into the future, I think that shapes Putin’s calculus about our staying power.
So, if we could have something like that, I think it would be critically important. And having you all, the President, and the Administration, make a case to the American people about why this matters. I am concerned that we see some public support for Ukraine waning, and that is what Putin is counting on. But your question was bigger than that. And I don’t think that there is any magic point of leverage that we have. This really is a long-term confrontation. It is almost like the kind of containment 2.0 on an updated version. And so it is about constricting and constraining through sanctions, through export controls, by tightening those regimes. It’s about strengthening deterrence in Europe. We have to be able to credibly commit to enhance and maintain deterrence in Europe.
The Europeans unfortunately can’t. This war has shown that Europe is not ready to defend themselves and that the United States must remain committed for the foreseeable future, although we can encourage them to build the European Pillar within NATO. We have to grow the coalition of countries countering Russia, we have to mitigate the Russia-China partnership, and we have to continue to work to weaken autocracies’ grip.
There will be a post-Putin Russia. I’m not optimistic necessarily about what it looks like, but there could be an opening that didn’t exist before. So, the civil society pieces, supporting investigative journalism, all of those pieces, anti-corruption—I mean, that’s what the lifeblood of Putin’s regime. The more the U.S. Congress can do on our real estate markets, on all of those types of things where we have seen so much progress in the aftermath, it’s just staying the course and doing it for the long-term because it is a long-term confrontation.