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At the public kickoff of a discussion in Aspen, Colo. about U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates joked that his favorite definition of diplomacy was "petting a dog and saying 'nice doggie' until you can find a rock."
Sometimes U.S. global strategy can be as haphazard as that. But something close to a coherent, consensus policy toward Russia emerged over four days of debate by the Aspen Strategy Group, a gathering of senior current and former officials, plus some think-tank leaders and journalists. The discussions were off the record, but members were encouraged to share the contours of the debate and its conclusions.
The discussions converged on an approach that resists President Vladimir Putin's push in Ukraine, while continuing to engage Russia economically and politically. "Don't give in to Putin, but don't give up on Russia" is how one participant summed up the group's conclusion.
"How can we deter Putin from further aggression in Ukraine and drive up the costs to him while, at the same time, keep the lines open to him on nuclear security, proliferation and Iran?" That's how Nick Burns, a Harvard professor and the group's director, summed up the discussion in a message after the conference.
The Aspen discussion mirrored the official debate taking place in Washington. The balance of Republicans and Democrats was roughly equal, and the conclusions were somewhat more hawkish than Obama administration policy. But, like the White House, the group agreed on the need for engagement and "offramps" that open a path for Russia to accept a sovereign but non-hostile Ukraine.
The plan to send humanitarian aid, administered by the International Committee of the Red Cross, in Russian convoys across the border into eastern Ukraine was just taking shape as we met, with some arguing that this was a face-saving exit for Putin and others countering that it was a cover for Russian invasion.
One continuing theme was the fundamental weakness of Russia, despite Putin's cocky attempt at "redux" that seeks to reassert Soviet-era prerogatives. One presenter described Russia's demographic disaster: a shrinking population; a chronic health crisis that puts Russia between Tanzania and Angola in male life expectancy; a dearth of entrepreneurship, so that the nation ranks below Alabama in patents awarded over the past 10 years.
Given these devastating numbers, noted a panelist, it's clear that Russia is in decline. The question is whether Russia will experience a sudden decline or a gradual one. The consensus was that U.S. interests wouldn't be served by fast decline and the resulting instability.
At the beginning of the retreat, there was sharp criticism of "Putinism" and its arrogant assertion of Russian power. Some argued that Putin was "delusional" in thinking he could restore the prerogatives of the Soviet Union. But others cautioned that Putin's actions were a predictable reaction to Russia's humiliation after the crackup of the USSR - and that the United States (unlike the impulsive Putin) should play what one former Cabinet official called "the long game."
Putin had made three big mistakes in Ukraine, noted one commentator. He thought the battle for eastern Ukraine would be a walkover for his covert proxy forces, as Crimea was; he thought the pro-Russian separatists could be controlled; and he thought the newly elected government of President Petro Poroshenko would be weak and short-lived.
On all three factors, he miscalculated.
As the Aspen discussions progressed, participants focused increasingly on positive steps the United States could take to complement the negative pressure of sanctions. Helping Poroshenko's Ukraine to become a stronger, less-corrupt nation was a priority, and one participant suggested that the United States lead an international reconstruction program for the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Helping Ukraine resist a Russian invasion was a consensus point. There was agreement that a direct U.S. or European military intervention was unlikely, but many participants argued that it would be wise to send lethal-weapons assistance to Ukraine. Several also noted that the U.S. should quietly advise Ukraine on ways to make an invasion costly for Russia.
Through the four days of discussion, there was a tension between the "squeezers" and the "dealers," as one participant characterized the meeting's hawks and doves. But interestingly, the split didn't fit party lines. In the freewheeling discussion, Democrats sometimes argued a tougher line than Republicans.
The Aspen group was celebrating its 30th anniversary, under the chairmanship of Harvard professor Joseph Nye and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.
Suffice it to say that this is the way the policy-formulation process is supposed to work in America, but rarely does.