Mark Adomanis observes that the Russian government is not going to be won over by Hillary Clinton’s “Russia and China will pay a price” rhetoric:
But what I know, what anyone who has paid even passing attention to Russian foreign policy over the past decade ought to know, is that the Russians will not respond favorably to a campaign of intimidation in which they get nothing and give up everything. The United States has tried this approach before, particularly with regards to Georgia, and it was a resounding failure. In fact the bad blood built up by the constant US hectoring of the Bush years, constant attempts to force unilateral concessions from the Russians, was the main reason that the reset was considered necessary in the first place. Clinton and Obama have generally done a quite good job of modestly improving the US-Russia relationship, but they seem oddly determined to scuttle all of those improvements over disagreements on a country (Syria) where no easy solutions seem to be on offer.
The old routine where Western governments pretend by turns to be mystified and then horrified by a Russian foreign policy view gets old pretty quickly, and Clinton’s remarks to the “Friends of Syria” remind us why. If Western governments believe the Russian position to be illegitimate, that’s one thing, but frequently telling the Russians in public that Western powers consider the Russian position illegitimate provokes without achieving anything. The current approach seems to be founded on the assumption that the Russian government can be “shamed” or embarrassed into changing its view, as if the Russians secretly accept that their view is indefensible and just need to be prodded into admitting it. The official U.S. position is that it wants Russian help to remove Assad from power, but then U.S. officials seem to go out of their way to vilify Russia (perhaps for the benefit of critics back home) and China to a lesser extent. How this is supposed to elicit cooperation from other governments is not clear. The Chinese have already rejected Clinton’s remarks, since China’s government is no more likely to respond well to public derision than Russia’s is, and it’s probably more likely to take offense. If anything, these remarks will probably push Russia and China closer together and make it more difficult to induce either one to change its position.
Clinton’s criticism can be taken as a sort of backhanded compliment of the Russian and Chinese position. If Russia and China “don’t believe they are paying any price at all,” then the Russian and Chinese position isn’t inexplicable or incomprehensible. That position could conceivably change if their costs began to increase. That is what several people pointed out in the discussion concerning Russia and realism. Having said that, Clinton’s public criticism doesn’t make sense for two reasons. First, it isn’t clear how Russia and China will be made to “pay a price” in a way that doesn’t involve inflicting damage to other U.S. and allied interests, and it definitely isn’t clear why making Russia and China “pay a price” on Syria is worth it to the U.S. and our allies when weighed against those other interests.
Aaron Ellis recently made related observations on the poor quality of diplomacy in the U.S. and U.K. dealings with Russia on Syria. Ellis outlined the right way to practice diplomacy with Russia, and contrasted it with what the U.S. and Britain have been doing:
One, respect their interests and treat them the way a great power ought to be treated, even if it is obvious they’re not one. Two, be honest about your own interests and don’t try to trick them, though they may be trying to trick you. Three, don’t be a hypocrite, no matter how hypocritical you think they are behaving. Essentially, keep in mind Ronald Reagan’s dictum: trust, but verify.
If this is “best practice”, both the United Kingdom and the United States have badly mishandled the Russians during the Syria crisis. They have not tried to safeguard their interests in the country should Bashar al-Assad fall, nor have they taken seriously their view of the crisis, as Giles Marshall argued they should in these pages last month. Rather than be diplomatic about their differences, some Western officials have publicly attacked Russia, as the US Ambassador to the UN did in February.
This wouldn’t be smart diplomacy even if the U.S. and other Western governments didn’t need Russian cooperation on other issues, but we do. As Ellis went on to say, the U.S. and Britain have been putting the conflict in Syria ahead of other issues that actually matter much more to us:
For months now, the conflict has preoccupied Anglo-American diplomacy, yet there are many other issues that are much more important to us than Syria and which require Russian support – or at least acquiescence. If we continue to bungle things with the Kremlin, it will become less cooperative on Iran and Afghanistan, even taking a zero-sum approach.
That is ultimately why insisting that Russia will “pay a price” on Syria is a serious mistake for the U.S. If Russia starts to “pay a price” because of its position on Syria, it might very well demand that the U.S. pay a much higher price for Russian cooperation elsewhere.