What Reagan can teach us about handling Russia

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Story highlights

  • Shahbandar: For Putin, the Cold War did not end; it has been merely re-branded
  • Sometimes, as Ronald Reagan discovered, embracing escalation is the only way to step back from the brink

Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense official, serving under President Bush and President Obama, and currently serves as a Strategic Communications Advisor in Washington. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)In 1985, a young Robert Gates, then CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence, warned President Reagan that US covert assistance to Afghan resistance fighters battling Soviet forces and their Afghan communist proxies risked serious Russian retaliatory escalation.

In a memo, Gates outlined that if the US were to amplify the quality and quantity of the armaments beings supplied, that the Russians "would have to consider more seriously more dramatic action." Senior Pentagon officials echoed that fear of Soviet escalation, warning the Reagan White House that a significant escalation of US covert lethal assistance to anti-Soviet rebels would risk a Soviet invasion of Pakistan -- an outcome that could very well have triggered World War III.
    The State Department in turn warned that that upping the ante and supplying US advanced weapons that would directly cause the deaths of Russian soldiers would only undermine ongoing negotiations with the Soviets in a variety of "higher priority" fields -- from arms control to peace talks.
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    Reagan defied them all and eventually authorized the supply of advanced MANPADs -- shoulder-mounted missile launchers -- to the mujahideen -- changing the course of the war and paving the way to a Soviet defeat. World War III did not break out. Moscow relented and signed a peace accord in Geneva in 1988. In other words, the Russian Bear blinked.
    Today, policy insiders warn that confronting Putin's recent escalatory moves in Syria would only invite further chaos both in the Middle East and even possibly Europe. Obama has opted to not authorize even plausibly-deniable covert action in Syria, such as providing MANPADs to rebels, in large part because of fear of the Russian reaction.
    But sometimes, embracing escalation is, albeit counter-intuitively, the only way to step back from the brink. History teaches us that maintaining a veneer of plausible deniability works, even if it is an "open secret" that the US is playing a role in supplying the weaponry that would ultimately kill Russian soldiers.
    The Kremlin is banking that its recent doubling down on both its rhetoric and military action in Syria will deter the Obama administration from taking any policy decision that would remotely risk a wider conflagration.
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    Russia's Minister of Defense this week essentially openly threatened to shoot down US and allied warplanes if they targeted Assad forces; he did so because the Kremlin has come to accurately understand this administration's cautious "second and third order effect" approach to policy -- particularly when it comes to Syria.
    In numerous discussions with the anti-Assad Syrian opposition, White House officials voiced their stance that concern of Russian retaliation was a big factor in the administration's reluctance to increasing the level of military aid to the rebels.
    Earlier this year, an exasperated Kerry told an aid worker on the sidelines of a donor conference on Syria, "What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia?" When he said that, he was reflecting an internal decision by the White House that Russia's intervention and presence in Syria had established a fait accompli that risks wider conflict if Washington were to attempt to shift the military balance on the ground there.
    Putin still sees an adversary in the Obama administration -- despite numerous entreaties by senior Obama deputies to assuage Russian concerns that the Americans were bent on encircling and weakening Russia. In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, it was clear that Putin -- who has been in power since 2000 -- perceives US policy in a linear continuum. From his perspective, the US sought to take advantage of Russian concessions at a time when the economy had collapsed and the military was in disarray. Regardless of who is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Putin believes that compromise with Washington is a zero-sum enterprise.
    Yet, Kerry returns time and time again to the negotiating table with his counterpart Lavrov, despite announcing a suspension of talks on Syria due to Russian expansion of its air strikes and role in the siege of the northern city of Allepo. Instead, he would do well to take heed of Ronald Reagan's prescient analysis of how to effectively negotiate with Moscow.
    The Gipper warned that when it came to negotiating with the Kremlin, "We cannot afford to mortgage our security to the assessed motives of particular individuals or to the novel approaches of a new leadership, even if we wish them well." In other words, American national security interests are best served when not taking Moscow's stated intentions for seeking "mutual interest" (in this case, a common fight against terrorism, ISIS, etc.) at face value.
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    Reagan deeply respected Gorbachev and believed that he was genuinely interested in reform and improving bilateral relations. But the centerpiece of Reagan's engagement strategy sprung from the belief that the Kremlin was more prone to taking risky expansionist policies when the Russians believed that they had the strategic advantage over the US. Diplomacy worked because Reagan chose to negotiate, but didn't back down from military confrontation.
    So it was no surprise that as the Wall Street Journal reported, intercepted phone calls between Russian officials and Iranian counterparts caught them boasting how "easy" it was to stop Obama from retaliating when Bashar Assad gassed to death 1,500 civilians in August 2013. Where Obama saw a diplomatic victory, the Russians perceived a weakness to exploit and an opportunity to brazenly escalate.
    Obama administration officials counter that Putin's actions in Syria are "self-defeating." Somehow, Putin has yet to get the memo. That's because for Putin, the Cold War did not end -- it has been merely re-branded. And until we have a US President who understands this fundamental point, Russia's carte blanche military intervention in Syria will only serve to undermine US strategic interests in the region -- if not worldwide.