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Opinion: It's time we turn the tables on Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint news conference with Germany's chancellor following their meeting at the Kremlin, in Moscow, on Tuesday. That day the Kremlin said it pulled back some Russian troops but the U.S. and NATO have rejected the claim.
Mikhail Klimentyev
/
Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint news conference with Germany's chancellor following their meeting at the Kremlin, in Moscow, on Tuesday. That day the Kremlin said it pulled back some Russian troops but the U.S. and NATO have rejected the claim.

Brett Bruen was a U.S. diplomat for 12 years and served as director of global engagement in the Obama White House. He now teaches crisis communications at Georgetown University and runs Global Situation Room, a public affairs firm.


When is the crisis in Ukraine going to end? According to the White House, it's largely up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. I fail to understand why we are letting him decide the timeline, let alone the terms and trajectory of the security situation in Europe.

The United States and our NATO allies need to start imposing some of our own deadlines. Congress is currently considering a series of preemptive punishments against Russia. Yet, I fear that would be a major mistake. Why would we want to give up what little leverage is available for us to try and change the Kremlin's calculus?

Moscow likes lists. So, we should give them one: Russian troops need to be back in their regular barracks by March 1. The country returns to direct negotiations and implementation of the Minsk agreement process for resolving the crisis in Ukraine by that date. It does not recognize the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine as independent. It also stops flying within 5 feet of American fighter jets, as Russian military aircraft did last weekend. Lastly, we must draw a big red line around meddling in the midterm elections.

Sanctions and some other serious steps would be triggered if any of these timelines or terms are violated. I remain highly skeptical that simply expanding the existing economic penalties we have imposed on Russia will deter or force a deviation from an invasion they've already undertaken. Instead, we need to focus on what really worries Putin: increasing domestic disgruntlement.

Biden needs to deliver a direct message to Moscow. You either start acting like a normal nation or we are going to steadily turn up the temperature on some politically and personally sensitive points. We will begin by dropping a new batch of intelligence about the Kremlin's corruption and mismanagement each month. Even something as simple as sharing the truth about Russian soldiers who have died during the occupation of Ukraine would help to stir public sentiment against Putin. As imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has already demonstrated, these revelations can be really damaging, especially coupled with costly foreign adventurism.

Putin may undertake a ground invasion, but the United States can launch an information invasion of his country. We should focus on piercing his propaganda with biting satire and amplifying brutal critiques of his leadership from Navalny, along with other democracy activists. As we did during the Cold War, mass translations of books, movies and information into Russian would help to counter the Kremlin's official, closely controlled narrative. While the Russian government may try to shut down civil society organizations and media, we now have tremendous technology to help activists and journalists circumvent censors and monitors.

We ought to also take a page from the International Olympic Committee's playbook. Because of Russia's systematic efforts at cheating, it is competing in the Winter Games not as a country, but a mere sports organization. Similarly, if the Russian government continues cheating in its interactions with other nations, it should be stripped of the privileges and protocols accorded to those who follow the rules. No invitations to summits. No high-level meetings with American officials. Like with Iran and North Korea, restrict Russian officials' travel in New York City, as well as Washington, D.C. Putin wants prestige. Yet, if he so blatantly flouts fundamental principles of international law, the United States should make every effort to deny him those opportunities.

There is certainly a great deal that depends on the Russian leader. Nonetheless, the Biden administration has got to stop putting Putin in the driver's seat so often. Such a reactive response has enabled him to dominate the global agenda and distract us from other critical priorities.

Yes, we may lose ground on the very limited areas where Russia has played a somewhat constructive role, like talks around Iran's nuclear development. But I would argue Russia's brazen breach of international laws is an even greater threat. It is beyond time for us to start setting some of our own expectations and expedite the process of bringing this crisis to a close.

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