“We have spent thirty years trying to integrate Russia into the international system, and now we are trying to kick it out again.”
These words — from a senior British official — sum up the disappointment and bewilderment of western diplomats struggling to handle Russia. They face two imperfect options: inaction in the face of Russia’s territorial aggression, and reacting so strongly that they unravel the international system that has sustained order for the last five decades.
As pro-Russian protesters declare a “people’s republic” in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, Western leaders are smart to focus on deterring Putin from expanding beyond Crimea. But the West needs to think more about how its actions are seen beyond the Kremlin. The consequences of Crimea could be even more dramatic at a global level than within the post-Soviet countries.
In his March 18 speech, Putin expressed three ideas that Europeans have rejected since World War Two — nationalism that is not tempered by the guilt of war; identity defined by ethnicity, rather than geography or institutions; and social conservatism based in religion.
Yet these ideas remain popular outside the West. Just look at the Middle East, where Iran and Saudi Arabia are both defending their “people” across borders. China may one day want to defend its citizens overseas, in the same way that Putin sees himself as the defender of ethnic Russians. If other countries view Russia’s actions as cost-free, they could carry out copy-cat incursions.