John Kerry and Michael McFaul in Moscow. You can't say they didn't try.

Photographer: MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Treat Russia Like the International Poison It Is

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Russia’s ambassador to Washington is disappointed. Despite great potential for cooperation, Sergei Kislyak told an audience Tuesday at Johns Hopkins University that the two countries are locked in “unfriendly discussions.” Wouldn’t the world be safer and more stable if these two powers got along?

With apologies to Ambassador Kislyak, the answer to this question is no. Contrary to his protestations, Russia is not invested in protecting the world order. It is dedicated to undermining the organizations, agreements and laws that comprise it.

We all know the most egregious incidents. The Russian air force has bombed hospitals and humanitarian convoys in Syria. Its army has occupied Georgian territory for eight years. Its hackers have pilfered e-mails from leading Democrats. Its “little green men” have annexed Crimea. Just last month, a Dutch commission of inquiry concluded that the Russian government provided separatists the missiles that shot down a civilian airliner flying over Ukraine in 2014.

Russia also poisons the international system in small ways. In 2014, the former head of Australia’s anti-doping agency accused Russia of running a national program to give athletes performance-enhancing drugs. It continues to support Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as head of the International Chess Federation, despite his chummy visits to rogue states like North Korea and Iran.  His recent plan to hold the international chess championship in Iran has drawn protest from the U.S. women’s chess champion, Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, because Iran requires women to cover their heads with a hijab.

Then there is Russia’s abuse of Interpol, the international agency for coordinating law enforcement between countries. Normal countries use Interpol to bring criminal fugitives to justice. Russia uses it to exact political retribution. In 2013, Moscow began requesting a “red notice” to arrest William Browder, a hedge fund manager, who is seeking justice for the Russian state’s detention and murder of his former lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. Russia has also tried to issue red notices for other foes of Putin, such as anti-corruption advocate Nikolay Koblyakov and Vladimir Ashurkov, a political reformer associated with opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

All of this recent history discredits a lot of recent U.S. foreign policy. Since the end of the cold war, American presidents have promoted Russia’s integration into the international system, from the creation of the NATO-Russia council in the 1990s to Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2012. The theory was that if you treated Russia like a responsible member of the international community, it would start acting like one.

This turned out to be wrong. This November marks the 10-year anniversary of Russia’s radiation poisoning of one of its former spies, Alexander Litvinenko. Since this murder in London, Putin’s Russia has evolved into a full-blown rogue state. Now some of the original proponents of the strategy to integrate Russia into the world order say the policy didn’t work.   

Michael McFaul, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia and was the architect of the first-term policy to “reset” relations with Russia, told me the U.S. had hoped to “moderate” Russia’s negative behavior “by making them stakeholders in these international institutions.” McFaul said he believed that in the 1990s and 2000s that this was the right policy. But he said it’s time for a new approach: “Russia under Putin today is not interested in being a stakeholder or responsible member in many of these international institutions. Rather, they seek to weaken them or in the case of NATO to undermine them completely.”

Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense under Obama who focused on Russia and Eurasia, told me this week that part of the problem is that the U.S. and its Western allies have not punished Russia for its violation of international norms and rules. “When we don’t enforce the rules of the international community, then the international community and the institutions will fail to make responsible actors out of countries like Russia,” she said.

The U.S. and its allies need a new strategy. Call it inoculation. Instead of seeking Russia’s participation in international institutions, the U.S. should work with its allies to protect these institutions from Russia.   

For McFaul, who is today a scholar at the Hoover Institution, this means giving up for now on letting Russia back into the Group of Eight industrialized nations, and setting clear benchmarks for restarting the NATO-Russia council. Farkas, who is now a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the U.S. should declassify intelligence that proves Russia’s culpability in trying to undermine U.S. allies.

Browder last month proposed a plan for Interpol to create a two-tiered system. Speaking before a human-rights commission in Congress, he said that transparent countries like the U.S. would have their red notice requests processed immediately, whereas countries like Russia, known to abuse the system, would have their requests reviewed by a panel of objective and independent experts before being sent out to member states.

Recognizing Russia’s bad faith in international institutions also requires a new U.S. approach to the U.N. Security Council. Obama has placed a premium on U.N. approval for any U.S. intervention overseas and for economic sanctions. Even though the House of Representatives ended up rejecting his 2011 intervention in Libya, the administration argued it was legitimate because the U.N. Security Council approved it.

In 2016, this kind of thinking is dangerous and antiquated. Russia doesn’t limit its military interventions based on the whims of the U.N. Security Council. It also uses its veto on the council to shield its allies from censure and sanction. Over the weekend, Russia proved this point when it vetoed a French resolution to stop Russian bombing in Aleppo, Syria. Why should U.S. presidents invest this body with prestige when the Russians so nakedly undermine its legitimacy?

None of this should preclude diplomacy with Russia. The U.S. and Russia should still have channels to discuss nuclear stockpiles and other matters. But as Secretary of State John Kerry has learned in his fruitless engagements, Russian promises are worthless. Everyone in U.S. politics, with the exception of Donald Trump and a few other extremists on the left and right, understands this. Russia is a pariah.

Pariahs are not asked to cooperate on challenges to the global commons. They shouldn’t get to host events like the World Cup, as Russia is scheduled to do in 2018. They should not be diplomatic partners in U.S. policy to disarm other pariahs like Iran. No, pariahs should be quarantined. With Russia, it’s the very least the U.S. and its allies can do to save the international system from a country that seeks to destroy it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net