Experts from the leading U.S. think tanks continue to debate an appropriate response to Russia in the wake of MH17.

It remains to be seen if Obama's policy toward Russia will be changed in the future. Photo: AP

The crash of flight MH17 shocked the world and finally convinced experts from the leading U.S. think tanks that it was time to propose an overhaul of U.S. policy toward Russia and Eurasia. U.S. experts began to champion a more aggressive stance towards Russia as part of a stepped-up effort to convince Moscow to take steps to end the violence in Ukraine.

For example, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and current Brookings Institution expert Steven Pifer noted that “the target has to be Moscow” because the West has had no way of swaying the decisions of the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. However, “outrage is not a policy,” according to Pifer.

The problem is that action steps toward Moscow have been difficult to draw up, meaning that U.S. expert responses have run the gamut between cautious sanctions and military action. Wary of Russia’s actions post-MH17, U.S. experts see a paradigm shift in order but are unsure of how to implement it.

If the West does not act now, it will be perceived as weak

U.S. think tanks agree with Pifer that outrage is not a policy. But what no one wants is for Western outrage to be replaced by the “usual … international shrugging of shoulders.”

U.S. experts lament the shrugged-shoulders response because it may prove even more detrimental to the West than misguided action. Why? Because inaction would show the world that the West is “unable, and even unwilling” to respond to Russia’s actions and “defend its own.” Put another way, if the U.S. and EU do not act, they could be perceived as weak, eroding global perceptions of the West.

And this a “dangerous time” for the West to signal its unwillingness to act, warns Thomas Wright of Brookings. “Further Russian aggression could be in store – not to mention the lesson that other actors may possibly draw.” If the West is perceived as weak, regardless of its actual capabilities to retaliate or intervene, state actors will respond as if the West is weak.

For example, the Western media was awash with outrage after Russia annexed Crimea. But it was unclear “what kind of energy and unity the West would be able to bring in responding,” Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) said. And “sure enough, there was not a particularly strong response.” It was then that the West was portrayed as a sleeping giant.

In the same way, U.S. think tanks are afraid of doing nothing post-MH17 because it sends a message to the world that aggression goes unpunished.

“The challenge that comes with long-term policymaking,” Tim Boersma of Brookings cautions, “is that as time heals wounds, it cools ambitions.” So U.S. think tanks call in earnest for the MH17 tragedy to be a trigger for the West to intervene before outrage gives way to apathy.

“Sanctions will not make Putin back off”

The European Union and the United States recently announced a new round of sanctions said to have much more ‘bite’ than those preceding it. But Mikhail Krutikhin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) indicated that the choice by Western governments to “restrict their companies’ participation in the Russian oil and gas industry” may actually be the “continuation of a process begun in 2008” by Putin himself, essentially keeping Western governments away from Russian oil and gas. On top of that, Dmitri Trenin – Director of CEIP’s Moscow Center – said “sanctions will not make Putin back off” because he “knows that if he were to step back, pressure on him would only increase.”

On August 6, Vladimir Putin did not back down. In retaliatory sanctions in response to those of the West, Putin restricted agricultural imports from all countries imposing sanctions on Moscow. This is the latest addition to the political brinkmanship being played by Russia and the West in which both sides jockey for influence.

The threat of military intervention looms

“If past is prologue,” says CFR’s Janine Davidson, Putin may very well send Russians “who look suspiciously similar to Russian special operations troops” into Ukraine under the “pretext of a ‘peacekeeping’ or ‘humanitarian’ mission.” After all, Poland just recently warned of possible Russian direct intervention in Ukraine. But could NATO intervene preemptively?

U.S. think tanks are hesitant to consider U.S. boots on the ground because in March, U.S. President Obama specifically ruled out U.S. military action in Ukraine. But five other options have been explored by separate think tank groups in recent days: more sanctions, arming Ukrainians, unlimited intelligence sharing with Ukraine, a “full-on” communications strategy to counter Putin’s disinformation campaigns, and an effort to engage with Putin and his inner circle.

The likeliest option is of course the first: sanctions. But then again, if U.S. experts have learned anything in recent months, it is that Moscow’s latest actions have been unpredictable and must be countered unpredictably. Similarly, Janine Davidson from CFR wrote that, “If we continue to try to predict Putin’s behavior based on what we think is ‘wise’ versus what he is actually doing, we will continue to be surprised.”

Is it too late to build trust with Russia?

Might the U.S. hearken back to the Soviet era by utilizing Reagan’s policy of “trust, but verify,” like an expert from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests? Or might Reagan’s policy toward the Soviet Union still not be enough for modern Russia? Perhaps the U.S. will apply Secretary John Kerry’s related policy of dealing with Iran to Russia, too: “Verify and verify and verify.”

To be clear, U.S. think tanks aren’t calling for Russia to become an international outcast. They suggest that “the aim of sanctions should not be to isolate Russia permanently or to make it a pariah state” as the Western media has done.

Nor are think tanks calling for a ‘Cold War II.’ U.S. scholars cite different reasons to support their arguments. Some say that Russia couldn’t win a Cold War anyways while others say that, Russia and the U.S., while mired in a soured relationship, are certainly not in a bipolar world any longer.

Viewed broadly, U.S. think tanks appear to be trying to develop a new framework for dealing with Russia. If Russians with nostalgic historical memory still “pine for an empire” – to invoke the Russian-born, American novelist Keith Gessen – then the U.S. paradigm must shift accordingly. Creating a new paradigm may be the only way for Russia and the U.S. to avoid leaving behind the legacy of a proxy war in Ukraine and new global perceptions that view the West as weak and hesitant to act.