Ž. Pavilionis and D.J. Kramer: The folly of dialogue with Kremlin
French President Emmanuel Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were among the leading figures attending the recent St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, at which they met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader traveled to Vienna this week to meet with Austria's leadership. And media reports indicate that President Donald Trump is interested in hosting Putin in Washington in the near future. There almost seems to be a race in engaging with Putin, including in Lithuania.
There are a number of factors that explain the outreach to Putin among European and Asian allies: increasing hybrid activities by the Kremlin (especially in the countries along or near Russia's borders), corruption, propaganda, direct or indirect support to local radical groups, as well as unpredictable American policies and a weak leadership in the EU and certain European capitals. While recent developments coming from Washington might be regarded as a cause for concern, it would be a serious mistake as a result of those concerns for European leaders to reengage with Putin in the false hope of normalizing relations. G-6 leaders should ignore Trump's wholly misguided suggestion to revive the G-8 by bringing Russia back into the fold. Similarly, it would be a major error if Trump were to host Putin in the Oval Office. Such a move would open the floodgates in Europe to host Putin.
Putin is not a "balancer" to relations with the United States. Any efforts to attempt to return to business as normal with Putin's regime would undercut the important, united, transatlantic effort to stand against Putin's ongoing aggression in Ukraine, his military efforts in Syria, his increasing human rights violations at home, his attacks on Russians living outside of Russia, and his interference in Western domestic politics and elections.
Putin has done nothing to warrant a return to normal. On the contrary, his offensive in Ukraine continues with the death toll mounting on nearly a daily basis, as does his support for the murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad; Russian hybrid warfare elsewhere continues uninterrupted. The recent poisoning of Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom is only the latest instance of Russian security services seeking to carry out assassinations in the West.
Sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU for Putin's invasion of Ukraine arguably helped keep Russian forces from encroaching further into Ukrainian territory. But Russian proxies continue their military campaign in the Donbas region with overt support from Moscow. Putin has the blood of thousands of innocent Syrian civilians on his hands after intervening in 2015 in a brutal fashion to prop up Assad and keep him in power. And very recently, Ukrainian and American authorities detected another major crippling computer virus that Russian hackers sought to plant into the global system.
Putin was "re-elected" in March in an "election" in which the outcome was known before the votes were cast because the leading opposition figure was denied the opportunity to participate and the campaign was rigged heavily in Putin's favor. He does not deserve the congratulations offered by many Western leaders for a process that was essentially illegitimate. He continues to scapegoat the West, the EU, NATO, and the United States as threats to Russia, and he refuses to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of his neighbors. Putin's crackdown inside Russia has created the worst human rights situation since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Putin, in other words, remains a serious, if not existential, threat to the West. He shares none of our values and fewer and fewer interests with us. Corruption is Putin's greatest export – though we, shamefully, also import that corruption into the West. We need to do a much better job of cleaning up our own systems and stressing the importance of transparency.
Any contacts with the Russian government should come with a clear understanding that we are dealing with a corrupt, authoritarian regime that is determined to remain in power at any cost. Recognizing that fact underscores the folly of sustained dialogue with Russia at the highest levels.
It means that sanctions against Russia for its invasion of and ongoing aggression against Ukraine must remain in place, and even ramped up, unless and until Russia withdraws all of its forces from Ukrainian territory and respects that country's sovereignty and territorial integrity. It means that sanctions on Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses and massive corruption – the Magnitsky sanctions which Lithuania recently passed in parliament and imposed – should remain in place absent any form of justice and accountability inside Russia.
It also means that we should support Russia's neighbors such as Ukraine and Georgia in their aspirations to join the EU and NATO. Finally, it means that we remain true to our values and principles upon which our countries were founded. Re-engaging with Putin and seeking to cut deals with him at the expense of others would undercut those values and principles.
These are challenging times with growing unpredictability originating from Washington. By contrast, there is all too much predictability coming from Moscow, and we should realize by now that seeking normalized ties with Russia will be impossible as long as Putin is in power, his forces are in Ukraine and Syria, and his disdain for the West, democracy and human rights drives him to engage in threatening behavior.
Instead of taking part in the folly of dialogue with Kremlin, instead of falling victim to the Kremlin's agenda, we should construct a long-term transatlantic agenda to support the transformation of Russia into a liberal, democratic European state and reinvigorate EU and NATO enlargement to the East after ten years of granting Putin a de facto veto over such enlargement. We cannot risk, losing countries and populations to a Putin sphere of influence. We must initiate proactive policies in Europe's East together with the core group of the most important European capitals. It's always better to sit at the key table, then to be on the menu.
Žygimantas Pavilionis is the former Lithuanian Ambassador to the United States and MP of the Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats. David J. Kramer is a Senior Fellow at Florida International University, author of Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin’s Regime, and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.