Russia is a declining economic power that plays an outsized role in world affairs owing to its nuclear arsenal and aggressive behavior. Russia remains resentful over the Soviet Union’s collapse and NATO’s expansion to its borders. Knowing that time is not on its side, Russia may engage in risky actions to prop up its position in the near term, and these actions could lead to war. In the interest of peace, President Trump should invite President Putin to a series of summit meetings and give Russia the opportunity to become America’s partner in security. In exchange, Russia must act constructively in international affairs.
The Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. Newly constituted Russia experimented with democracy and a market economy, but it was tough going. In the 1990s, its gross domestic product (GDP) fell by close to 40 percent and inflation was very high. Millions were pushed into poverty.
During this difficult transition period, NATO expanded toward Russia’s borders. Devoid of natural barriers, Russia relies on strategic depth for its defense. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the distance from the nearest NATO border to Moscow was almost 1,000 miles. After NATO expansion, it narrowed to 400 miles.
Russia’s interests were also ignored when NATO imposed regime change in Serbia, Iraq and Libya, countries with historic ties to Russia. When the West supported Russian democratic forces, Russian authorities viewed this as attempted regime change in the Kremlin itself.
Mr. Putin assumed the presidency in 2000 and largely reversed earlier steps toward democracy and a market economy. He built his legitimacy on a strategy of economic growth and nationalism.
He was lucky on the economic front. Oil and gas make up 16 percent of Russia’s GDP, 52 percent of its budget, and more than 70 percent of its exports, and oil climbed in the 2000s from $24 to $100 per barrel. Mr. Putin used the money to reduce poverty and modernize the military.
Mr. Putin created a narrative of Mother Russia being threatened by the West, and promised to defend her and give Russians back their pride. He offered his countrymen easy military victories against Georgia and Ukraine and the capture of the Crimea. Intervention in Syria made Russia look like a world player. And he “stood up to the West” by interfering in its domestic elections and harassing NATO planes and ships. With a job approval rating above 80 percent, and firm control over the government and security forces, Mr. Putin is effectively president for life.
The future, however, is not promising. Oil has been hovering around $50 per barrel and Russia’s GDP contracted in 2016. Sanctions imposed after the invasion of Ukraine continue to take their toll. Long-term demographic trends could result in a 25 percent decrease in Russia’s population by 2050.
Russia’s geostrategic position is vulnerable. It has no valuable allies and its neighbors are mostly adversaries. In the East, it faces economically ascendant China and technologically superior Japan; in the South, rising Islam; and in the West, NATO, whose defense expenditures are 10 times higher than the Kremlin’s.
Knowing that long-term trends are against Russia, Mr. Putin may take risky military gambles in the short term to shore up his position at home and project strength abroad. Personally, Mr. Putin has absorbed the lesson that after regime changes in Serbia, Iraq and Libya, their leaders were killed or imprisoned — he doesn’t want to be next.
America should try to reverse the current trend toward progressively worse relations with Russia. To avoid a military conflict sparked by miscalculations, America should choose to engage and communicate with Russia rather than to isolate it. Mr. Trump should have a series of summit meetings with Mr. Putin and offer him an American partnership in security.
Mr. Trump will have no illusions about his counterpart. Internally, Mr. Putin’s political opponents are routinely assassinated and free media are silenced. Externally, Russia invades and undermines its neighbors, and plays the spoiler on the world stage. Still, past American presidents worked with Stalin and Mao, who murdered millions, Brezhnev, who invaded Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, and Deng Xiaoping, who ordered the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Engagement and firmness are not mutually exclusive. Mr. Trump needs to be very clear that America will not tolerate the invasion or subversion of NATO members, including sabotaging their democratic processes. Similarly, provocative Russian actions near NATO ships and planes must stop. Beyond this, there is room to negotiate.
Mr. Trump can reassure Mr. Putin that America is not seeking regime change in Russia or further NATO expansion near its borders. Mr. Trump can offer help in lifting most of the sanctions in exchange for peace in Eastern Ukraine. But some sanctions must remain in place to reflect the Crimea conundrum: Mr. Putin will never give it back, and the international community will never recognize its seizure. The summits will help Mr. Putin domestically with the optics of Russia being treated again like the great power it considers itself to be. In exchange, Mr. Russia must act constructively on Iran, ISIS, Syria and Afghanistan.
We should offer Mr. Putin a climb-down strategy rather than corner him, risk a miscalculation, and find ourselves in a nuclear war. Will this new reset succeed? We don’t know. But America must try, again and again, for the sake of world peace.
• Dan Negrea is a New York private equity investor.