Russian President Vladimir Putin learned a valuable lesson in 2013, when President Obama laid down his famous “red line” against chemical weapons use in Syria — a problem that Mr. Putin “solved” and thus headed off an American attack on Moscow’s longtime ally.
The lesson was that Mr. Obama was weak and Washington would not act to deter Russian actions under his watch. In short order, the world saw the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine by force; the Russian-sponsored uprising in eastern Ukraine; and the Russian military deployment, along with Iran, in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad; and the ouster of the Syrian rebel forces in Aleppo.
The lesson the West should learn is that Russia will push until it hits a wall.
If you study Russian history, as any intelligent geopolitical analyst should, the expansionist tendencies that have consumed the Kremlin quickly become evident — tendencies that long predate the violent birth of the Soviet Union. The Russian empire under the czars, at one time, stretched from Poland to San Francisco — yes, the Bay Area was once controlled from Moscow. You can actually go visit the old Fort Rus there on a warm sunny, California day. It was only after Alexander II needed money after the Crimean War that Northern California and Alaska were sold off to the Americans. History does repeat itself.
Under Mr. Putin, the Russians are not America’s friend. They are attempting to undermine NATO, pressuring Eastern European nations to come back into the Kremlin’s fold and undercutting NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan. The Kremlin very much will attempt to influence events around its borders and to weaken American power in the world, as they have effectively been able to do under President Obama. However, not being our friend doesn’t mean that Russia must be our enemy.
Yes, the Russians will attempt to influence elections and put American democracy in as bad a light as possible. (With Hillary Clinton’s complete corruption, they were pushing on an open door.) What Mr. Putin did was no worse than what Mr. Obama did in Israel or in Ukraine, or what Mrs. Clinton herself did in Moscow.
Mr. Putin needs an enemy to divert the voters’ attention from his failure to wean the Russian economy away from its reliance on oil and natural gas. He has failed to make even a dent in the massive corruption endemic to Russia, corruption that starts in Moscow and filters out to the hinterlands. A robust, dynamic, diversified economy cannot develop in this environment. America will be that bogeyman until Mr. Putin leaves office.
Until that day, America must coexist with Russia. And there are in fact many ways we could partner together for the good of the planet.
The fight against terrorism is obviously one of these areas. The fight against Christian genocide is another. However, President-elect Trump must set some real red lines for Mr. Putin — lines that cannot be crossed. The most obvious line needs to be in Europe and the NATO alliance. We have signed a treaty with the former Soviet republics in the Baltics. They cannot be abandoned. Mr. Putin must have no doubts about our resolve here.
Israel is another example. The U.S. can no longer support regimes that openly want to destroy our best ally in the region. Mr. Trump, thankfully, has no illusions about Palestinian behavior and does not dance to the left’s anti-Israel narrative. In word and deed, Mr. Trump appears determined to honor his promise to recognize Jerusalem as the rightful capital of Israel.
Israel has moved to secure a working relationship with Russia in the Middle East, as Russian and Syrian planes roam the skies of the Levant. After the red line for Israel is established, perhaps Mr. Trump could work with Russia to help secure Israel’s future. That would be a great test of Mr. Putin’s promised openness to America under the new U.S. president.
• L. Todd Wood is a former special operations helicopter pilot and Wall Street debt trader, and has contributed to Fox Business, The Moscow Times, National Review, the New York Post and many other publications. He can be reached through his website, LToddWood.com.