Changing Putin: The U.S. and Europe must find something that works

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The Obama administration has not yet mastered the art of obtaining civilized behavior from Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin.

It may be that the task is impossible — that Mr. Putin is a throwback to some of Russia’s autocratic, despotic czars and that he will remain fairly impervious to U.S. actions. Russia’s conduct, however, is not conducive to interconnected, 21st-century relations, which include respect of arms accords.

Mr. Putin’s recent leadership has been appalling and not beneficial to Russia. Seizing Crimea from Ukraine did not change Russia’s relationship with it, which has been governed by the presence of the Russian naval base there. Russian support of the Russian-Ukrainian separatist thugs got Moscow nothing. Russia’s behavior in the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner was shameful, to the point of being reckless and inhuman. Whatever Russia gained in terms of a demonstration of power, it lost in the world’s perception of it as a serious, responsible nation.

That said, the sanctions imposed by the United States and Western Europeans in response are flawed. The intent is that economic punishment would lead Mr. Putin to change course. The problem is that Russians are used to economic hardship and do not throw leaders out over that. The second flaw in U.S. policy is the assumption that Mr. Putin would change his behavior due to Russian discontent. He is firmly on top in Moscow.

The trick for American leaders would be to gain his confidence and persuade him that he is damaging himself and Russia with his irresponsible behavior. He should also be reassured that no one is courting neighbors Georgia, Moldova or Ukraine for imminent EU membership.

Mr. Putin puts a lot of stock in national and personal pride. He needs to understand that he could do irreparable harm to both through his actions in Ukraine.

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