Plans to stop Russia show NATO and the West are in denial

By Masha Gessen
September 4, 2014

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For more than six months now, since Russia annexed Crimea, Western politicians and analysts have been asking what can make Vladimir Putin stop or retreat. It’s the wrong question, and the policies that have flowed from the resulting debate have been misguided, because they are based on the fallacy that the West can do something to influence Putin’s actions.

Putin has always been a master of the public lie, both of the bold-faced variety and the mixed-message variety, and for the last six months he has used this skill to keep the West playing catch-up in Ukraine. It’s a game the West is losing.

Western politicians, for their part, have heeded only those of Putin’s statements that they want to hear — or at least ones that make sense in their picture of the world. Leaders have chosen to believe that Russia invaded Ukraine to protect vital strategic interests: the need for a “buffer state” between itself and NATO. They have validated Putin’s avowed concern about the fate of ethnic Russians in Ukraine. And right now, they are going along with a charade Putin is playing out regarding cease-fire negotiations with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko – negotiations that Putin’s press secretary managed to disavow minutes after the fateful telephone conversation concluded on Wednesday.

And then there are the statements and actions that Western politicians have chosen to ignore: the threat to use nuclear arms, which Putin has taken to repeating casually; the military exercises intended to menace the Baltic states and, most recently, Kazakhstan; the testing of a nuclear-tipped missile for the first time since such testing was banned by a bilateral U.S.-Russian treaty in 1987.

Putin, his television channels, and his ideological emissaries have explained this saber-rattling in no uncertain terms. It is a clash of civilizations, nothing less than a confrontation with the West over the very values at the core of “the Russian world.” The current view is that international law and all Western alliances are parts of a conspiracy to limit Russia’s ability to protect and spread traditional values. So-called strategic interests and the fate of ethnic Russians are merely pretexts for battles in the new worldwide conflict.

Is there anything that can be done to stop a man driven by the idea of fighting such a conflict? Can we really expect Putin to change his mind about his historic mission because of banking or visa restrictions? No.

There are certain things that simply cannot be changed; the mind of a despot is one such thing.

All human beings at times encounter insurmountable difficulties. We generally deal with them in one of two ways: either we pretend they’re not happening, or we find ways to minimize the damage and remain whole in the face of adversity. The former never works, yet somehow the entire Western political establishment refuses to acknowledge the difficulty with Russia’s leader is insurmountable.

The West hopes its actions can change Putin’s. Negotiating with Putin, trying to second-guess him, validating his bad-faith negotiations, searching for a solution that can mollify him – all of these approaches are willfully based on a false assumption. The very premise of realpolitik in this situation is a lie.

So what would be the right thing to do in the face of this hostile, aggressive, and reckless reality?

First of all, face the facts.

Then, use the entire arsenal of financial and political sanctions at once – the idea behind staggering them is based on the faulty premise that they can influence Putin’s behavior. Staggering the application of sanctions gives him, and the Russian economy, time to adjust. Instead, sanctions should be imposed for the simple reason that it is wrong to enable Putin’s Russia by doing business with it; the right thing to do is to stop.

After that, do what can be done to physically protect those who are being attacked and those who are at risk: Ukraine, the Baltics, and – the most important criterion of all – anyone who asks for protection from this scourge. That probably means arming Ukraine and taking up positions in the Baltics. Yes, this puts the West on the verge of actual military engagement, but it is not only strategically dangerous but also morally corrupting to stand by and watch while Putin pounds unprotected neighbors.

It is likely that none of this stop him. But at least it may keep us from falling into an abyss of lies and helplessness.

PHOTO: A member of the Ukrainian special forces sits on an armored vehicle near Kramatorsk September 4, 2014. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

56 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Literally every sentence in this article is wrong or deliberately deceiving.

Masha Gessen just can’t get over the fact that Russia is a traditional country that does not accept liberal gay values. So she wants the West to bomb Russia.

Posted by Iskander05 | Report as abusive

And the point of this article is what – to counsel inaction in the face of agression? The sanctions and military mobilization may not be “te answer” – but they have limited Putin’s advances in Ukraine and offer deterrance, if not to Putin, then to those around him.

Posted by DonD1977 | Report as abusive

What does the author perceive as Putin’s true ultimate goal?

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

Another unbiased reporter (sarcasm intended).

Posted by SR37212 | Report as abusive

The real question here is ‘why does Reuters publish such biased drivel?’ Ms. Gessen offers nothing of any substance in her article – in her rather limited world view they grey-zone does not exist, i.e. Mr. Putin is the leader of the ‘black hats’ and Mr. Obame the leader of the ‘white hats’.

If we follow Ms. Gessen’s advice we might as well skip diplomacy and start WWIII tomorrow – that will teach Putin a lesson. People like her, who are filled with such a level of personal hatred towards people like Mr. Putin cannot be trusted to write well-balanced articles, based on facts.

Posted by Iceman13 | Report as abusive

To the comments above:
Pretty sure the article is listed as “opinions of the author”. So any argument regarding bias and lies is a fallacy.

Also, if you look at the few lines of author’s bio next to the article you can see that this person probably has more credibility to his/her opinions about the subject than most.

Posted by Terror | Report as abusive

Look her up here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masha_Gesse n

By just looking at the picture on this page, Freud would have debunked her forever.

Posted by mcanterel | Report as abusive

It is incredible that Reuters publishes this kind of hateful garbage. The author obviously wants a war with Russia but stops just short of recommending that. Neither NATO nor the US, or for that matter Ukraine, have anything to gain from a war with Russia. Those itching for such a war should just read some history books and drink more cold water, or maybe in case of Ms Gessen prune juice.

Posted by lolek | Report as abusive

Ah NATO. Oh NATO. I remember thee NATO. And t remember thee ‘the West’. Oh, The West. Freedom. Human Rights. Justice.
Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya (to mention only the most recent deeds).

Masha-thinks-her-readers-are-idiots.

Posted by mcanterel | Report as abusive

I am ready to wager Mrs Gessen would rather see tens of thousands of her compatriots killed in a war of aggression against Russia, out of resentment they refused to let her selfish LGBT ideology forced down their throats.

Uglier human beings are maybe possible. Not sure though.

Posted by mcanterel | Report as abusive

What a tedious article. A war with Russia, we are talking nukes here and we all lose. As good as anyone’s defenses may be, something will always penetrate them. I don’t see China and North Korea doing nothing if we decide to go to war with Russia. WWIII, what a great idea.

Posted by gwfnyc | Report as abusive

The author is spot on.

Posted by Wgward | Report as abusive

I agree with the author, Ms. Gessen, that Mr. Putin and his military will not yield to further turned up sanctions. These Russian leaders are determined to have the Eastern part of Ukraine and in an ancient way, typical of Babylon and the less artful Assyrians, to intimidate and obtain tribute from the Kiev Government.

The second part of my last sentence may be hyperbole, however, Russia has escalated through the following succession of military events, since taking Crimea. Separatist terror failed to hold Donetsk and the Russians introduced mercenaries, such as the Vostok Battalion. The Ukraine army routed the mercenaries from Sloviansk and Mr. Putin lowered his pretenses by brazenly sending in regular army tank and artillery units.

The Russians have saturated E. Ukraine with regular army fighters, who do not clearly wear identifying insignia, except for their full battle uniform, specialized weapons and personal protection vests. They are moving artfully, with professional battle tactics through the countryside, but Ukraine is not their country. The Ukraine army is fighting desperately for the freedom of its land. It has enjoyed the results of higher morale and the Russians and their proxies (so-called separatists: sons of Russian pensioners — an oversimplification, perhaps) were paying dearly in lives and injuries.

I am with Ms. Gessen in speculation about how far Putin and his people will escalate this conflict. I doubt nuclear war, but this battle zone may be used by Putin as a test area for a renewed active form of neo-Soviet aggression. Their propaganda machine is large and active, its labels, depersonalizing and threatening. Putin and his people are not joking. They should be met with a wider array of military weapons and tactics, as well as with offers of better alternatives of peace and restored economic cooperation if they “give up and just go home”. There is still time for that possibility.

Posted by Glacier23Hike | Report as abusive

Your thoughts are wrong.

Posted by james469 | Report as abusive

Russia is and has been the agressor.The Soviet Union occupied practically all of Eastern Europe incl. a part of Austria for a very long time.
Russia invaded Finland in 1939, Eastern Poland 1940, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afganistan 1979, Georgia, 1992,. Chechnya 1999, Georgia 2008, Crimea (Ukraine) 2014, Ukraine Mainland 2014. However other conflicts involved multiple countries like in Lybia, Yugoslavia, Iraq etc.

Posted by al43 | Report as abusive

A cease fire? Putin is getting scared of NATO and EU sanctions.

Posted by HeilPutin | Report as abusive

Masha preparing slides for captain Obvious. Everyone knows simple facts but the greed is stronger than fear for some and fear is stronger than reason for the others. He is redirecting internal frustration and aggression towards outside and will only stop if he is short of resources or if the he considers the risks for his power as significant. The aggression will not develop in a straight line but will fluctuate like quotes on stock exchange. But the trend is clear.

Posted by Hwam | Report as abusive

Reuters, I am surprised at you ;) I’m left wondering how many young men and women, that had chosen journalism as a career path, could have used this opportunity to be published or recognized.

http://www.journalism.cuny.edu/career-se rvices/for-employers/

http://journalism.berkeley.edu/donate/su pport-journalism/

http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/page/ 57-for-employers/57

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Sigh . . . so true. Jewish oligarchs no longer own Russia because of that Putin.
Anything happening in Gaza lately?

Posted by HeroinofKosova | Report as abusive

It is good to see that not everyone at Reuters has been blinded by russia’s naked aggression and what the west is doing does not even amount to window dressing. Putin is going to lead to russia’s downfall not her renaissance.

Posted by rlm328 | Report as abusive

An excellent analysis, especially pointing out the tendency by some apologists for Russian imperialism to validate Putin’s specious and deceitful claim that “humanitarianism” is the driving force behind his invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. It is opportunity that is driving Putin, his continuing efforts – supported unfortunately by the Russian Orthodox Church as well – to gather up all Russians in the “near abroad” under the same national roof. All in an effort to aggrandize Russian power and intimidate his neighbors. That Putin and Russians are shedding crocodile tears over the “loss” of their captive neighbors – the Baltic States, Ukraine,etc – is revolting. Putin has never accepted the full sovereignty of the latter.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

This opinion article is horrible. I would expect proper grammar and having someone write an article that actually shows some in depth knowledge of the situation. Tell Ms. Gessen to find another job, please. Her work is not up to the standard I would expect from a news agency such as Reuters. I feel like I am reading the work of a teenager.

Posted by Cranberries | Report as abusive

This FL Republican voter agrees with the premise of this article.

1. All possible sanctions at once – now.
2. Position 2 brigades of US troops in Poland – now.
3. Aid for Georgia and Ukraine – now.

Posted by jbeech | Report as abusive

I’m going to agree with another commenter. This article is not up to the standards of a professional journalistic venue such as Reuters. There are glaring grammatical mistakes, the opinions are juvenile at best and based on shallow assumptions that take no account of “the grand scheme of things”.

Posted by Andariel | Report as abusive

The author presumes that US/NATO position is such because they are being fooled by Putin. She may be assured, however, that Putin is not the only person playing the game. Both sides know Sun Tzu, and both sides know that both sides know Sun Tzu.

Posted by rdavi | Report as abusive

Did McCain and Graham approve this article. Good Lord another expert in foreign affairs and military planning. Much more accurate that the President’s staff of advisers. May the two Senators would share the microphone with this expert.

Posted by harry7738 | Report as abusive

Very good article – thank you, Author for saying the TRUTH. Some people do not like truth – they are from the same dough as Putin – persistent liars.
And after all, unity of Western countries will stop Putin !

Posted by freedomforus | Report as abusive

This writer exposes her viewpoint by suggesting that Russia is the “aggressor”. To protect those of our own nationality is an accepted international cause to step in (example GB re Falklands). Of the refugees from Eastern Ukraine 80% sought refuge in Russia so this vote with their feet amply demonstrates their ties. If Russia was given space to protect their people and had then chosen to press on toward Kiev the West would be fully entitled to spout all this vitriol and threats against Putin. As things stand he is vilified as an invader rather than a patriot.

Posted by baglanboy | Report as abusive

@rdavi Putin knows not only Sun Tzu, but also Mein Kampf, and his strategy is much closer to the latter.

Posted by FUD312 | Report as abusive

This article coincides with my opinions.

Putin and Russia can only be affected by massive sanctions–and even then, Russia may defiantly sputter along for a few years.

Unless Western powers make a strong stand now, with painful sanctions–Putin will be back in the news later–with more land grabs and ‘little green men’ destabilizing portions of the former empire of the Soviet Union.

Either stand on principle or fall on appeasement.

Posted by MaskOfZero | Report as abusive

It does not seem fair to me that many of those who criticize do so by discrediting its author for reasons unrelated to the article.

Posted by FlipCoin | Report as abusive

The United States currently provides about 25 percent of these common-funded budgets, and will continue to do so after the addition of the new members. source NATO

So as countries join and costs increase, the US still pays 25%. So this will cost more $$$. So how much longer can a bankrupt nation, that cannot secure its own border let the moochers of Europe drain our resources? Both with NATO and the UN. The rest of the free lunch free loaders of NATO bleed the US. You Europeans are the real welfare rats of the US. I don’t believe my countrymen should bleed for your living well at the expense of my nation.

On other fronts, alliance leaders pressed NATO countries to follow through on commitments to spend 2 percent of their nations’ gross domestic product on defense. Only four NATO nations meet that threshold: the U.S., Britain, Greece and Estonia.
Komorowski said that Poland would raise its defense budget to 2 percent of GDP in 2016 and would encourage other members to increase defense spending as well.
So the other 24 Nations fail in this. Source: Fox, NATO

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

First the US superpower with its NATO/EU coalition have failed in two wars that have been going on for longer than a decade. Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of these two forays have cost the United States. 4,487 American lives, 32,223 wounded for Iraqi Operation Freedom, Operation New Dawn another 66 deaths, and 301 wounded. 2343 deaths in Afghanistan, and wounded 17,674. The financial cost is at about $5 Trillion, plus interest borrowed on the War debt is still to be calculated, and Afghanistan isn’t over in lives and cost. With a debt in the US approaching $18 Trillion. Also the United States has $118 Trilliion in unfunded liabilities. I think you people better learn to deal peacefully with your neighbors, don’t be conned by the EU. Using the US as its muscle.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

I see Vlad’s internet trolls are out in force tonight.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

No just facts bosisjimbo. Got any. What country do you live in. Only Estonia, Greece,UK, and the US pays its fair share of the NATO priceline.com. for EU defense. Germany is a deadbeat along with the rest.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

By the way borisjimbo, when the drugs or alcohol, or both wear off, here is a link for US debt. http://www.usdebtclock.org/

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Garbage ‘article’. Stop warmongering.

Posted by DimiKay | Report as abusive

NATO Deadbeats: poor funding by these hypocrites.
Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Turkey (1952), Germany (1955), Spain (1982), the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia (2004), and Albania and Croatia (2009).

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Russia is pathetic. Suggesting the use of nuclear weapons and killing thousands. They would rather destroy the world than bend to anything Western. Russia’s economy is flat lining and only resources remain.

Posted by KNoose000 | Report as abusive

More frightening than this article is the OBVIOUS fact that Russia actually has trolls posting propaganda on a news site like Reuters. And in a shockingly unsophisticated manner, almost comical.

Nonetheless the Author is correct in asserting that the only way to stop a despot is through force. Rational argument doesn’t work, and any human being who has lived past the age 15 knows that.

Posted by 1man1vote | Report as abusive

In this situation, first thank you for the botched twentieth century:
Thank you, Stalin and Hitler, but not least, thank you Ronald Reagan, Margareth Thatcher and other politicians who had no foresight.

They left Gorbachev and prepared wisely the wars of future.

“Dark side of the light.”

Posted by songster | Report as abusive

This article is a good reminder that the gist of the problem is not how to stop Russia but how to stop NATO.

Posted by Biscayne | Report as abusive

Russia let the West play around freely for the past 24 years, so enough is enough.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Ignore Putin, that’s his back yard. We should take this opportunity to take Canada and Cuba maybe the oil producing parts of Mexico too.

Posted by paulny | Report as abusive

Masha Gessen hates Russia so much that she is prepared to make her native country any possible harm. She is a stupid, ugly and aggressive person with really sick mind.

Posted by Denouncer | Report as abusive

I only have one question to ask, Was the overthrown Ukrainian government democratically elected? If you can answer that question, that is all you need to know. But let us give you some more facts. victoria nuland (assistant secretary of state U.S.A.) admitting to helping liberate ukraine by “investing $5 billion” “to insure a prosperous and democratic ukraine”.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaR1_an9 CnQ
Or the goal of NATO and the U.S. to encircle Russia with Nuclear missles
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Th_VAUkp P7w
People on the internet are better informed than most americans. Just go online and do the research, most people can figure this out.

Posted by jimtruth | Report as abusive

NATO and the EU missed the window of opportunity months ago,Soon as he placed 40,000 troops on Ukraine’s border they should have dittoed him, Called his bluff & backed Ukraine to the Hilt. Coupled with harsher sanctions he would have backed out.Fact is he saw weakness & prevarication & seized the moment.

Posted by malcy700 | Report as abusive

VERY INTERESTING ARTICLE, but incomplete. Mrs Gessen seems to forget that Putin’s aggression started immediately after the Maidan protests which ousted Yanukovitch from office. The reasons for Putin’s aggression in Ukraine are the very same reasons Yanukovitch was fighting the protesters in Maidan:

It is a fight between a system based on Corruption and Nepotism on the one hand (Putin), against a system based on true Democracy on the other (Maidan). The people in Maidan were ready to give their lives to escape the hell of Putin-style Nepotism and Corruption. Their hope was that in joining the European Union they would finally benefit from true power to the People, or Democracy.

The whole Russia-vs-the-West paradigm which Putin and his state-controlled media are instilling in the population is mobilising Russians to accept a state of war and thence quell any idea of questioning his corrupt and nepotic government.

Posted by FUD312 | Report as abusive

This article is more of the same stuff “use the entire arsenal of financial and political sanctions at once” the author here suggest continuos attacks even the use of arsenal with financial.

Have you ever thought that by supplying weapons to attack Russia is just trying to use a proxy army to attack. Do you think for one whole minute that that proxy attack will be returned at US as well as proxy immediately?

I guess that means you are willing to place a possible nuclear attack decision on the US (millions killed immediately and for years to come)in the hands of a mafia of murder Inc wanna be third world country. If this takes place I assure you that not only politicians heads will be rolling in the streets but their masters as well!

Posted by GKRIII | Report as abusive

Hillary Clinton has adopted a new muslim name for 2016 Race – Seldim Bin Layd

Posted by jackdanielsesq | Report as abusive

The article is a blatant piece of double standards the West is based on, let alone hatred and off-tone remarks.
Under Eltsin Russia was a whipping boy and could be pushed around to serve America’s interests. What under Putin? Obama and others, eat your hearts out. They are so sorry about Crimea and South Ossetiya, what about Kosovo, Libiya, to name a few. Putin’s foresight is beyond western understanding, which causes so much headache for them. The true Russian will die but will not surrender what their fathers shed blood for. Obama, do not poke the bear.

Posted by alezzo | Report as abusive

NATO’s problem is that over the years they have played army….instead of being one. And Putin knows this. But, on the flip side, what has the Russian army done of late except get kicked out of Afghanistan after a failed campaign.

Posted by brnwtrs7 | Report as abusive

Pure propaganda. Read William Engdahl “Full Spectrum Dominance” on the weaponization of the pretext ‘Democracy’ for ‘regime Change’ by government funded NGO’s like the NED.
http://openukraine.org/en/about/partners

Posted by JPHR | Report as abusive

Masha Gessen is absolutely right .. one of the very few writers with courage and knowledge .. Putin and his gangster buddies in the Kremlin have murdered her jounalist friends in Moscow for speaking this truth ..

the West and President Obama above all are despicable .. they know the facts about the “Mafia State” lead from the Kremlin .. but they have not explained the facts to the American people for ten years but pretended that Putin is a normal leader of a democratic nation ..

Posted by carlloeber | Report as abusive

There is nothing the West can really do to Russia other than sanctions. Just look at Iran.

Do you really think we can go to war against another nuclear armed state??????

The author is truely dillusional

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

Russia isn’t some kind of undefeatable superman. By sheer size, and economically, Europe is far stronger than Russia, and simply needs to invest more into their military. The Baltics, Poland, Ukraine etc, could get a EU military subsidy, because they might need to militarize more than others.

Posted by Rcca307 | Report as abusive