Although it is certainly tempting to punish Putin’s bad behavior by giving him the silent treatment, such a policy is likely to be counterproductive. The fundamental problem with such a policy of isolation is that it will merely serve to confirm his fears and suspicions, while accomplishing little else. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine was clearly motivated by insecurity. Putin, along with much of Russia’s defense establishment, has interpreted NATO expansion and the development of ballistic missile defenses as attempts to encircle Russia militarily. Similarly, Ukraine’s potential accession to the European Union represented, for him, an attempt to isolate Russia economically.
Many in the West have dismissed those fears. They profess that NATO expansion is not designed to counter Russia. And they insist that sovereign states have the right to join international organizations of their choosing. Those arguments are certainly valid. But regardless of the intentions of NATO and the EU, and the rights of their new and prospective members, the fact is that the expansion of the two organizations has stoked Russian insecurity.
The central task for the Obama administration is therefore to alleviate Putin’s insecurity, which is the primary source of the Russian actions that the United States finds so objectionable. That task cannot be accomplished, however, without dialogue. To be fair, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, have engaged in a number of substantive discussions over the past several years. Unfortunately, since authority in Russia is so centralized, Obama can really only begin to alleviate Russian insecurity by engaging directly with Putin.
President Obama surely realizes this. As a presidential candidate in 2007, he insisted “we need a president who is willing to talk to all nations, friend and foe…If we take the attitude that the President just parachutes in for a photo‐op after an agreement has already been reached, then we’re only going to reach agreements with our friends.” Now that the administration has negotiated pivotal agreements with Cuba and Iran, it is time for Obama to make good on that promise with regard to Russia.
Of course, one conversation will certainly be insufficient to dispel deep‐seated suspicion that has built up over a number of years. For that reason, an Obama‐Putin meeting at the United Nations must not be a one‐off event. Instead, it should mark the beginning of an ongoing dialogue between the two leaders. Although that dialogue may yield few concrete benefits early on (and probably engender a good deal of frustration), it is the only way to convince Putin that Russia has more to gain through cooperation rather than confrontation with the West.