There are all sorts of reasons to be stunned and perplexed today. Stunned by the reintroduction of the fears and phobias of the 20th century into 21st-century international affairs. And perplexed by the explanations offered for Putin’s actions in Ukraine by the world’s best and brightest.
1. How Does the West Read Putin?
Here’s one explanation that has prompted many nods of approval: Putin isn’t quite in his right mind. As Madeleine Albright has said, “I think that either he does not have the facts, or he is being fed propaganda… It doesn’t make any sense… Putin is, in many ways, I think, delusional about this.”
And Brent Scowcroft: “He’s a person full of venom, because he thought that [the Soviet Union’s] collapse was taken advantage of by the West, or especially the U.S. to take advantage of Russia… now we’re strong again; you can’t push us around anymore…”
My question is this: If Putin is “delusional” or he “is living in another world” as Chancellor Merkel has suggested, or if Putin is “full of venom” because he sees that the United States is strong, why did these observers not notice these things until now? Why has Putin chosen this moment and not an earlier one to blow up the world order? And if he is really all that “delusional,” the Western measures to constrain him are hardly sufficient.
I suspect that all the explanations aiming at provoking doubt as to Putin’s rationality and inadequacy have their origins in something other than dispassionate analysis. If Putin just suddenly lost his mind, this lets the political and expert community off the hook for failing to alert us to what was coming. If the West is dealing with an unexpected deviation from the norm, this means that the previous policy toward Russia was essentially correct. The theory of Putin’s “insanity” or “irrationality” would save so many analytical reputations.
Other explanations fit the traditional “realism” mantra. Here is a line from Kissinger: “Ukraine can never be just a foreign country” (meaning it can never be just a foreign country for Russia, of course). That means you can forget about the fiction of Ukrainian sovereignty. Just let Russia do what it wants, and don’t start quarrels with it. From this point of view, Ukraine is not a state in the classical sense of the term.
There are a couple more arguments from the Realist playbook that I predict will become quite popular in the current debates on Russia, because they will spare everyone the headache of having to comprehend the new reality. (The irony is that these arguments will end up replicating Kremlin patterns of thought, but I digress…) What are these explanations? First, that Russia is merely reviving its traditional great power politics; it has always sought external conflicts to enhance its might. Indeed, this does seem to present a convincing explanation of Putin’s macho bullying. Nevertheless I have a couple of questions: If Realists do understand the nature of Russia’s “great-power” politics, why did they fail to predict its revival? Or did I miss these predictions? Realists, until recently, tended to support the U.S. “reset” policy, which has been instrumental in allowing Putin to expand his ambitions. Why is it that even the shrewdest of Realists has insisted that the United States and Putin’s Russia have “shared interests”? Why did they contribute to the creation of an impression that Russia could be persuaded “to advance U.S. goals”?
Here is another version of the Realist’s song, from Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is very upset by the widespread declarations of the “end of the post-Cold war era,” which she interprets as the return of the Cold War. (But if this were true, then Russia would have to be returning to its Soviet-era format…) En route to her critique, Anne-Marie Slaughter repeats the Kremlin’s main argument that we are all sinners; who is the West to judge? She writes, “The United States would do well to tone down its sanctimony. Putin’s annexation of Crimea violated international law. But so did the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the NATO intervention to protect Kosovo, even if the latter was, to many, including me, a legitimate violation.” But if we were to pursue this argument to its logical conclusion, then we would have to agree that all the rules and treaties should be thrown into the dustbin.
There are a couple of other “truths” that could only raise questions as to why some representatives of the Western and Russian elites have so much in common. Slaughter concludes, as do many Russian officials, that Ukraine and the rest of the new independent states “will flourish over the long term only if they have strong relationships with both Russia and the EU.” This is a version of the Finlandization scenario. But then why aren’t the states that are now drifting between Russia and Europe already flourishing? And what should we do with the countries that do not “flourish” in this way? Convene a new Yalta conference and sign a new “areas of interests” pact?
Here are some more variations of the Kremlin’s song:
The Kremlin is reacting to the chaos in Ukraine, as well as to the strengthening of Ukrainian nationalists and the threat of Ukraine’s joining NATO. It is also responding to Kiev’s attempt to sign the Association Agreement with the EU and the desires of the Russian-speaking population to return to Russia; Moscow has to react to the humiliation Moscow suffered at the hands of the West and the United States.
These explanations all but mirror the Kremlin’s rhetoric. They are efforts by the Putin Apologists’ Club to lay the groundwork for a new “transactional consensus” with Putin’s Russia. The justification for this scenario is that the West can’t afford to put the boots on the ground and risk military intervention for Crimea, or even to save Ukraine. That means it has to make peace with Putin; it has too many commercial interests at stake.
What we are witnessing is the composition of a new mythology. Those who only recently argued that Russia has lost all imperial ambitions, who counseled that Putin should be persuaded to cooperate in achieving Western strategic interests, who engaged Russia in the “reset” and “Partnership for Modernization,” today are on the podium again.
You can easily tell who the new mythologists are by the political language they employ. If you hear that Ukraine is a “failed state,” that Russians can be consolidated only by means of great power politics, that Russia has a historical right to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors, that Ukraine therefore must be sacrificed, then you know whom you are dealing with.
The most vocal members of the Apologists’ Club are still German politicians and experts. Ralf Neukirch in Spiegel Online presents a shocking picture of the German political debate on Russia: Essentially, it’s dominated by a desperate search for excuses for the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine. Just look what Germany’s two former Chancellors have said. “I find it entirely understandable,” says Helmut Schmidt of Putin’s move. Gerhardt Schröder admitted that he himself (like Putin!) hadn’t always respected international law.
What is more sad, alarming, and shameful: 200 German intellectuals signed a letter addressed to Vladimir Putin expressing “their understanding of the Russian reaction to the Ukrainian developments” and wishing him “strength, resilience, and luck.” The letter can only give further ammunition to the critics of the West who argue that the liberals democracies have forgotten their principles.
The question naturally arises: What are the motivations behind the German desire “to understand” Putin: commercial interests; the old German guilt for the invasion of the Soviet Union; the idealization of Russia, which is identified with the Kremlin’s rules; anti-Americanism; fear of destabilizing Russia; the old memory of the German-Russian pre-war tandem? Perhaps, as one German diplomat explained, Germans still follow Otto von Bismarck’s axiom that they must have a special relationship with Russia. It’s a deft 19th-century dodge to avoid 21st-century responsibilities.
German journalist Christian Neef admits, “The view Germans have of Russia is skewed by romanticism and historical baggage. Without taking a sober look at Moscow, we will never find an adequate strategy of dealing with Putin’s conservative, anti-Western approach to power.” Bernd Ulrich in Die Zeit, acknowledging that “Putin is successfully driving a wedge into Germany,” says that the Ukrainian story and Russia’s role has forced German society to start a discussion on the most sensitive issues related to the German political mentality: “Putin has got us talking to each other again. Hopefully.”
How lonely must German President Joachim Gauck feel as he watches his country’s Ostpolitik unfold. He once gave a speech saying that “politicians always have to take responsibility for their actions. But they also have to live with the consequences of their omissions. He who fails to act bears responsibility, too…. The consequences of inaction can be just as serious, if not worse, than the consequences of taking action.” When he said this, he must have had German politicians in mind, too.
2. How to Justify the Acquiescence
With all of the simplistic formulas to explain Russia’s actions, we run the risk of seeing them crystallize into mythology over time, unless we counter them now. Let’s try to counter a few formulas before they become myth:
The Ukrainian crisis is tantamount to the opening act of a new Cold War.
President Obama was right to say that “this is not another Cold War that we are entering.” This is true enough, but not because the past cannot be repeated. Rather, it’s true because we are facing a new reality, and a new kind of confrontation between Russia and the West. It is no longer about the clash of ideologies or the struggle between systems and camps, as was the case during the Cold War. But perhaps you would argue that Putin is offering a new ideology. If so, you must first answer a couple of questions: What, precisely, are the contents of this ideology? And what country could we view as a loyal member of the Russia-led club?
We are witnessing a much more complex phenomenon than the return of the Cold War. Vladimir Putin isn’t just attempting to dismantle the post-Cold War settlement; he is undermining the remaining elements of the post-Yalta order. This order was devised by the winners of World War II to prevent certain kinds of wars from happening again (specifically, to dismantle any potential justification for annexations or violations of another country’s borders). Putin is trying to assert his right to interpret the global rules of the game in such a way that Russia may violate them with impunity. The Cold War, by contrast, was marked by both sides’ adherence to the rules (with the notable exception of the Caribbean crisis).
The Kremlin’s behavior toward Ukraine was spontaneous; it was forced to react to events in Ukraine.
Wrong! In fact, the Ukraine crisis is proof that the Kremlin has begun to experiment with the Putin Doctrine, which was in development long before now. Russia’s actions with respect to Ukraine are part of the Kremlin’s preventive doctrine, which seeks to ensure the survival of autocratic rule by restoring militarism and a fortress mentality in Russia. This is the essence of the doctrine formulated in the Kremlin over the past two years (although some of its components have been in development since 2007). One of the key premises of the doctrine stems from the fact that Russia is entering a period of economic recession. This recession has advanced beyond the point at which it could be either dismissed or ignored, and it was running the risk of generating a crisis that the regime would be unable to prevent. The Kremlin team understands this; it hopes to restore militarism before Russians start taking to the streets. The Kremlin recognizes both the gravity of the situation in Russia and its inability to control this situation under the framework of soft authoritarianism.
Ukraine has become the testing ground for this aspect of the Putin Doctrine. Had there been no Maidan, the Kremlin could likely have counted on some other pretext to implement the doctrine. To catapult Russia into this new mode, the Kremlin had to shock the world by turning the chessboard upside-down. There are other side effects of the Ukraine crisis, of course; It has allowed Russia to demonstrate its imperial ambitions and its hatred of the Maidan. But its main purpose was to force Russia’s transition to a different survival formula. Thus, the key problem is not how Russia can come to terms with a post-imperial life, as many in the West believe. The problem is that the Russian political elite and major part of Russian society too are convinced that Russia can’t survive in the other format. They may even be right…
This is not to say that the Kremlin had this specific crisis in mind the whole time as the instrument of forcing this transition; there are simply too many circumstantial factors that require adaptation on the part of the Kremlin’s tacticians. Crimea, for instance, probably wasn’t in the cards before Yanukovych lost power. Nevertheless all of these events are being shaped with a general goal in mind: returning Russia to its traditional philosophies of survivalism and mistrust of the outside world.
Revanchism to maintain the status quo.
It is now de rigueur to call Russia a global revanchist power. Even those who previously argued that Russia was a post-imperial power and a pillar of the postmodern world have now switched to acknowledging its revanchism. It is important to understand why the Kremlin has taken on this new role, thereby sacrificing the way of life previously enjoyed by its elite (cozy integration into and corruption of the West, aided and abetted by so many helpful Western hands). Was it a drive for hegemony, or other ambitions? Was it growing frustration with the West’s ham-fisted attempts to cure Russia of its inferiority complex? Perhaps the Kremlin wanted something. Maybe it wanted the West to accept the Kremlin’s new demands.
Hardly. The Kremlin has always had trouble formulating exactly what it wants from the West. What kind of “deliverables” could they extract from the West anyway? Any deliverable you care to name has already been offered by the West at one time or another.
The Kremlin is looking for something else entirely. Russia adopted revanchism, rather, because the man in the Kremlin came to conclusion that the Russian system could not be preserved any other way. Putin understood that the Russian system of personalized power could no longer be reproduced by means of imitating the West and integrating members of the Russian elite personally with the West. For now and the foreseeable future, the West must not be imitated but rejected and contained.
To that end, Russia seeks to lay claim to the right to interpret the rules of the game however it sees fit. It isn’t interested merely playing the role of global spoiler. The Kremlin wants to play the part of the Arbitrator—or, if the West is not ready to accept this, it would settle for recognition of its role as the world’s enfant terrible, whose whims and outbursts must be automatically forgiven. I imagine the Kremlin reasoning like so: The West will not kick us out of international institutions out of fear that we will become totally uncontrollable. But even if the West kicks us out, who cares? You want to go back to the G-7? Fine with us. We’ll take our ball and go hang out with the other kids in the G-20. You want us out of the Council of Europe? Are you sure you want to do that? You should think twice about releasing the bear. The Apologists’ rhetoric tells us that they have heard and understood these warnings.
From communism to lawless order.
The Soviet Union offered communist ideology to the world; Vladimir Putin offers the world something much more exciting than ideology: his services as interpreter of basic legal principles like legitimacy, legality, self-determination, and territorial integrity. It is an unsurpassed irony that Putin, the destroyer of the legal system, would now seek to play the role of interpreter of legal principles, and he would interpret them in his own way.
The Russian President has recently shown us that he is continuing his search for justifications for his new global role. By invoking the concepts of the “Russian World” and “Russians as a divided nation,” Putin has begun to tinker with the explosive revanchist ideas that Europe attempted to lay to rest in the 20th century. Notably, the concept of the Russian World undermines Putin’s other brainchild—the idea of the Eurasian Union. It remains to be seen how the Kremlin will attempt to resolve this contradiction. To be sure, he can easily live with the ambiguity, leaving the world mystified as to what he means.
In fact, Putin could mean anything, or he could mean nothing in particular. He wants you to keep guessing. This is part of the new survival formula for the Russian matrix. Soviet leaders tried to legitimize their rule with the communist idea. Putin has de-ideologized the Russian matrix, offering instead a rather bizarre package of incompatible ingredients. In this he resembles the 19-century socialist Eduard Bernstein, who said, “The movement is everything. The final goal is nothing.” Putin might say it like this: “Survival is everything; justification is nothing.”
3. Are We in for a New Confrontation?
How serious is the threat of a new confrontation between the West, which is now playing the role of the defender of the status quo, and the new Crusader? Putin has proven that he is not a dogmatist, and he has a wide range of tools at his disposal. Russia will not necessarily be invading other countries and annexing their territory. Rather, the Kremlin is aiming at creating a perpetual air of suspense and uncertainty. There are a number of destabilization scenarios at Putin’s disposal: Russia could go further into Ukraine; it could destabilize the Ukrainian southeast, as it is now doing in supporting the separatists who are seizing the official buildings over there; or it could invade Kazakhstan under the pretext of protecting the Russian-speaking populations there. The Kremlin will also attempt to create its new Internationale made up of those who dislike liberal democracies. There are quite a few such actors around the world, including in the liberal democracies—both on the left and on the right—who are ready to justify and legitimize the new anti-Western crusade. One has only to listen to the Western left-wing intellectuals and the leader of the French Right, Marine Le Pen, who have defended the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine.
No one knows how this experiment will shake out—not even Putin’s team. But that doesn’t matter to them. The purpose of this experiment is to postpone the leader’s inevitable political demise by playing a deadly game of chance. But by raising the stakes of this game, the Kremlin is heightening the suspense. Moreover, the Kremlin is drawing the entire world into the game—and not just as spectators.
It’s important to recognize that Putin can tolerate a high degree of cognitive dissonance as he plays this game. Having played the role of the Terminator, he can just as easily switch to the role of the Peacemaker by offering the West his “normalization” platform. This is exactly what he tried to do when he called President Obama on March 30 to suggest that the two leaders search for a “diplomatic solution” together. This call was followed by Kerry-Lavrov dialogue on March 31, in which Russia in fact tried to persuade the United States to strike a new Munich deal on Ukraine. The nature of the proposed deal, roughly, was the following: agreement to endorse a new Ukrainian constitution that would transform the country into a loose federation and would enshrine its “Finlandization” (that is, its acceptance of a non-aligned status). The Kremlin’s proposal would lead to the reconstruction of the Ukrainian state under foreign control—and we can all guess who would have a key role in that process. Russia, for its part of the agreement, would generously agree not to invade Ukraine.
The American side, declaring that no decisions could be made about Ukraine without Ukraine, did not accept the trade off. But the Kremlin knows it only has to bide its time. On April 1, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier renewed his push for a diplomatic solution at a meeting with his French and Polish counterparts in Weimar. You may recall that this Trio had most recently attempted to persuade the Ukrainian opposition to sign an agreement preserving Yanukovych in power through 2014 (i.e. the Agreement of February 21)—an agreement that was immediately rejected by the Maidan. It is this agreement that the Kremlin is still attempting to restore even today. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, in his article in the Guardian on April 7 praised the efforts of the Trio: “We support the appeal by the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Poland to implement the 21 February agreement.” If they are really on the same page, then the three European countries endorse the return of the corrupted Yanukovych regime, which will immediately bring a new Ukrainian Maidan! Or perhaps Lavrov misunderstands the position of the Trio? Then their position is so murky that it is susceptible to misinterpretation!
One should not be misled: the Kremlin’s support of international high-level talks on Ukraine, with the participation of the EU and the United States, is aimed at one goal: creating an international mechanism of “crisis solution” in Ukraine which in fact will mean a mechanism of external governance dictating Ukraine’s reconstitution. Guess who is planning to play a key role in the international “crisis group” for Ukraine?
Thus, the Kremlin is not sticking to only one, “hard core” scenario. It is ready even to “help Ukraine” economically, as Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov declared, if Kiev accepts Russia’s terms, include the demand to restructure the Ukrainian state, change the government and “legitimize the situation around Crimea.” Isn’t it an amazing example of diplomatic art—first, we suffocate you, and then we offer to help you, if you agree to be shackled!
However, the threat of the Russian incursion will be always on the table, for two reasons: first, it is a means of pressuring the West to agree to the “normalization” scenario; second, it provides the West with a ready-made justification for coming to an eventual agreement with the Kremlin (“This is hardly the best of all possible deals, but at least we’ve avoided the worst one!”)
Putin apparently hopes that the West will eventually be ready to grasp at his outstretched hand and embark on a new reset. The West is expected to legitimate Putin’s status quo, which will not in any case bind the Russian leader in any way. On the contrary: International acceptance of the new status quo will give Putin carte blanche to violate it again.
4. War President and War Country
Let’s put it bluntly: What Russia did to Ukraine is normally called “war.” It makes no difference that Ukraine is doing its best not to respond to Russia’s military moves. Putin has become a wartime President—a transition he has been gearing up for since the August 2013 trade war with Ukraine. Russian society, completely demoralized by militaristic propaganda, has consolidated around its flag and leader (he now enjoys 80 percent approval ratings). This isn’t the first time he has attempted to consolidate the country on a war footing. In fact, it’s his third attempt. (In 1999 Putin consolidated Russia by starting the second Chechen war, and in 2008 he provoked the war against Georgia.)
Wartime consolidation, however, is short-lived, and it will eventually be followed by public discontent with the regime. This means that Putin has to constantly plunge Russia into wars or into a search for new enemies (external enemies are always better for producing the patriotic mobilization) in order to feed the militarist paradigm. But even with the success and popular support he is enjoying today, he has still been unable to translate these gains into the popular acceptance of his apparent rulership-for-life (50 percent of Russians tell pollsters he should leave office after his current term expires in 2018). Therefore, his military adventurism will sooner or later backfire: It might be exploited by a new authoritarian leader attempting to become Russia’s new Savior; or Russian society might seize the moment and free itself from the fortress mentality. The second scenario appears unlikely at this point, but then again we are living in a time of surprises.
The key question is this: What will happen with Russia and the space around Russia between now and the moment when Putin’s crusade begins to backfire?
5. On the Western Reaction
If the Kremlin is primarily driven by the goal of shifting its personalized power regime into a new survival model, then the West is mistaken to react merely to the external manifestations of the Putin Doctrine. So far the first round of the Western sanctions over Crimea have apparently been aimed at allowing Putin to save face and stop his Crusade, lest a few of his loyalists feel some (minor) pain. It was just a shot across the bow, letting Putin know that the West was prepared to follow up with more serious punitive measures. The second round of sanctions, coming from the United States, has more punitive substance, but it also implies that the West has accepted the new status quo following Crimea’s annexation by Russia. From the Kremlin’s point of view, these actions could be construed to mean that the West doesn’t want to irritate Putin or make him feel cornered by attempting to roll back his Crusade; they only want him to promise not to upset the status quo again.
In an interview on a Russian television station, Sergei Lavrov said, “If they are willing to accept the first reality, then they will definitely have to accept another one.” He was referring to the West’s acceptance of the interim Ukrainian government, which, according to Lavrov, means that the West must also accept the annexation of Crimea. In a recent interview, Senator Dianne Feinstein demonstrated that Lavrov’s logic, at least in this case, is correct:
I’m a student in college of Russian history. Any student of Russian history knows how important the Crimea was and is to Russia. Khrushchev gave the Crimea, ceded the Crimea, essentially to Russia [sic] in 1954. He did it for, I think, reasons of interests to Russia. The Crimea is dominantly Russian, a referendum was passed. That, I think, has been done.
(As a student of Russia’s history, Senator Feinstein should also know that Crimea is much more important to the Crimean Tatars than to Russians.)
If one were to follow Lavrov’s logic to its conclusion, the West’s acceptance of Crimea could lead to Western endorsement of “other realities.” Why not? Lavrov himself is sure that the West would not fight back. As he tweeted on April 12, “The world order is being restructured. This is a painful process. But the West has to accept it…”
In his interview on Russian television, Lavrov issued an ultimatum to the West demanding that, during the April 17 high level talks, “all Ukraine, including the regions have to be represented.” This could have meant only legitimation of the Ukrainian fragmentation. Moreover, Lavrov was sure that Chancellor Merkel’s position was compatible with the Kremlin’s posture. “Chancellor said that…the model of future means that interests of all sides should be balanced. I support her every word and I call our Western partners to listen to Chancellor Merkel”, advised Lavrov. We’ll see soon whether the Russian Foreign Minister has read the German Chancellor correctly.
For the Kremlin to accept the existence of “red lines,” the Russian leader and his team must understand that crossing these lines would have disastrous consequences for their regime. It is a generally accepted view in the West that economic and financial sanctions against the Russian elite—at least the part that is responsible for decision-making—would constitute such a red line. Acceptance of this view is the result of a belief in the crucial role of globalization and economic and technological “interdependency.” Russia is part of the global economy, and limiting the ruling team’s (and the oligarchs’) access to the Western financial system will reduce the money flowing into Putin’s wallet, bringing them to heel—or so argue the “globalists.” Russia is too incorporated into the Western trade and financial system; Putin can’t risk being cut out of it.
Describing “a new kind of containment,” Michael Mandelbaum says that “Putin can’t survive without the revenues globalization provides him to buy off his people and the former Soviet republics.” Thomas Friedman has also backed this idea of financial containment. Both may be correct, but only if one looks at the distant future.
But to expect that “the financial containment” of Russia will bring results anytime soon would be a mistake. For the time being, in fact, it is helping Putin achieve his short-term agenda. I would argue that the Kremlin must have been aware of the scale and kind of sanctions that were coming. The current sanction pain is still bearable for the Kremlin team, considering their hope that switching to a new mode will guarantee their further survival. Moreover, the Kremlin has prepared itself for these sanctions. (Russia is preparing changes to federal law that would compensate the elite in the event that foreign assets are frozen.) For the time being, the Kremlin will use the sanctions as a justification for its transition to a militarized state.
Moreover, Putin is certainly no “Davos Man.” Yes, he connected to the world through globalization, but in a different way than most. The Russian ruling elite has used globalization to corrupt the West, and it will find the ways to use the laundry machine it has created (with the assistance of many Western helpers) to circumvent the “financial containment.” Think not? Ask yourself, how many people in the West have we seen who would agree even “to sacrifice a little” in order to stop Putin?
Anyway, Western sanctions—even if they did seriously affect Putin’s inner circle—are merely efforts to deal with the effects of Putin’s actions rather than their causes. Sanctions cannot force Putin’s regime to transform itself, which would in turn transform his foreign policy doctrine. They cannot change the current model of Putin’s rule—the Besieged Fortress. Could you imagine what would happen if the Kremlin were to backtrack on Crimea, when about 80 percent of Russians support the anti-Western Crusade? Putin would be politically dead in an instant. He can’t stop this rollercoaster, and furthermore he will have to find new ways to demonstrate that no one can force him to back down. This is a road leading Russia down into the abyss.
Meanwhile, the Western response demonstrates not only continuing confusion of the liberal democracies but their loss of trajectory as well. They are trying to react to the unfolding new reality by addressing only tactical issues. At the moment Western tactics are limited to attempts to build an assistance package for Ukraine and the sanctions package for Russia. But neither the donors nor the Ukrainian government know how to apply conditionality in such a way that it will guarantee that the assistance will help to transform Ukraine rather than reproduce the corrupted system. Meanwhile, the IMF terms could easily ignite Ukraine’s south and east and provoke a real rebellion there. The sanction package for Russia is an even murkier deal; even a “third round” of Western sanctions can’t restrain the Kremlin’s revanchism unless it is combined with coordinated efforts by the Western democracies to dismantle the laundry machine they created with Russia’s help. This means the West, too, must be prepared to suffer some pain to its commercial interests. Have we seen any signs that the West is ready for that?
Western tactics can’t compensate lack of the strategic vision and readiness to think about the new world order. Moreover, Walter Russell Mead was right to say, “We are unlikely…to have a sensible Ukraine policy unless we have a serious Russia policy.” The liberal democracies have to admit that their previous Russia policy, based on the three premises “engagement, accommodation, and imitation,” does not work any longer. Their desperate attempts to find a new version of containment that will not obstruct engagement and cooperation have become an object of mockery in the Kremlin and only strengthen the Kremlin’s feeling of both impunity and contempt. “Russia has ruined the world order.” “We have to help Ukraine.” “We are concerned and worried.” The non-stop Western lamentations only demonstrate the West’s disorientation.
One has to admit that, even if the West formulates its strategy of dealing with the ruined global scene, it can’t change the nature of the predatory authoritarianism that has emerged in Russia. True, this pressure could become a factor accelerating the Russian crisis, in which case it would become a game changer. But what would a crisis bring to Russia and the outside world? Wouldn’t the West do anything in its power to prevent the crisis and the collapse of the Russian matrix? In order to guarantee this change for the better, Russians would have to concentrate on building an alternative. The sooner, the better.
The post-Cold War era is over. Many now accept this as fact. But hiding behind new myths and hoping that the problem will go away on its own would merely extend an invitation to the revanchists to push further.
We have to give Vladimir Putin credit for doing something positive. He has swept the cobwebs off the current world order. However, we still don’t know whether this has been enough to shock the liberal democracies into beginning the process of rethinking things. Maybe another shock is in order…