Over the past several months, President Obama and his Western colleagues have engaged with Vladimir Putin on numerous occasions to try to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Obama and Putin have spoken nine times and met briefly in France in June; German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken with Putin on close to 40 occasions and met him in France as well as in Brazil during the World Cup.
The problem is not lack of dialogue with Putin. The problem is the leader in the Kremlin who seeks to destabilize his neighbors and prevent them from democratizing and integrating more closely with the West at the same time he cracks down in ugly ways inside his own country.
Were Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other countries in the region to succeed, their progress would pose a serious challenge to the thoroughly corrupt, authoritarian system Putin oversees in Russia. This is why Putin intervened with Ukraine’s plans last fall to sign agreements with the European Union, and why he invaded Ukraine in late February after Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv. Nothing scares Putin like the ouster of like-minded authoritarian leaders by popular movements calling for an end to corruption and a brighter future with the West. That was true in 2003 and 2004 with the Rose and Orange Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, respectively, with his ongoing support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria after several other tyrants in the Arab world fell from power in 2011, and now again with Ukraine.
With record-high popularity ratings, one would think Putin would feel more secure in his position. But before his move into Ukraine, Putin’s numbers, while still relatively high compared to many Western leaders, had plateaued. The Russian economy was already in trouble before the West started imposing sanctions for the invasion of Ukraine. The Russian system is completely corrupt, with estimates of Putin’s own worth reaching the tens of billions of dollars. (Should Russians see their standard of living decline and food products they’ve grown accustomed to buying become scarce because of the ban put in place in response to the West’s sanctions, Putin’s support could drop.
For more than a decade, Putin has perpetuated the myth that the West and the United States in particular are Russia’s top security threats. He does this to justify his repressive means of control over society, bolster a narrative that his leadership represents the best bulwark against such a threat, and deflect attention from domestic concerns. This is not new. Following the tragic hostage-taking of a school in Beslan in southern Russia in 2004 in which some 300 people were killed, largely at the hands of a bungled rescue operation, Putin said, “Some want to tear off a big chunk of our country. Others help them to do it.”
In his bellicose speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, Putin said, “Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force—military force—in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts…. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?”
Russia’s military doctrine from 2010 cites as Russia’s top “external military danger” the enlargement of NATO and its military infrastructure “closer to the borders of the Russian Federation.” The reality, of course, is that Russia’s most secure and stable borders are with those countries—Estonia, Latvia,
Lithuania, Poland, Norway, and Finland—that are members of NATO and/or the European Union.
Citing this history is not to suggest that Putin is all rhetoric and no danger. On the contrary, a paranoid Putin is very dangerous for Russia’s neighbors and for internal critics. Just ask Georgia, which Russia invaded in 2008, or Estonia, the victim of a Russian cyberattack in 2007, or Moldova, which has endured trade cutoffs, or Ukraine today.
At the end of the day, Putin wants to destabilize Ukraine and other neighbors to make them unappealing to the West. Putin fabricates a threat to ethnic Russians in Ukraine to justify his invasion; the reality is there were no such threats, but more importantly he doesn’t give a damn about their welfare. After all, he doesn’t care about the rights of Russians living in his own country as evidenced by his nasty crackdown on human rights there and the import food ban. Whether Ukraine creates a federal model or some other form of governance is of no interest to Putin; fomenting chaos and separatism in Ukraine are his main objectives.
This is why calls by some commentators for Western leaders to “explore a quiet compromise” with Putin over the crisis in Ukraine and to “understand the Russian leader’s concerns, his demands, his ideas for possibly de-escalating the situation”are pointless, even counterproductive. Putin is not interested in de-escalating unless that would help him with his number one priority: staying in power.
Indeed, Putin is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power, including, it appears, invading Ukraine under the phony pretext of a “humanitarian intervention.” Making matters worse, through his control over television programming, Putin’s propaganda has tapped into an increasingly ugly mood among Russians (see this “Bike Show” over the past weekend in Sevastopol) that will be hard to tamp down—and may even spin beyond Putin’s control. This makes Putin, and now even Russia, a serious threat. To deal with this challenge requires even tougher sanctions, including adding Putin himself to the sanctions list, and the provision of military assistance by which Ukraine and other neighbors—and not just NATO members—can defend themselves. The last thing we need is a renewed search for accommodation with Putin.