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

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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