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