Vladimir Putin is a bully and a despot: Appeasing him overtly is certainly wrong. But Russia must be handled with cleverness and care and NATO, with its unnecessary overreach on Ukraine, failed to do so
Vladimir Putin is a bully and a menace. Standing up for his victims will always feel right, and appeasing him overtly would certainly be wrong. But Russia must be handled with cleverness and care. The West has put itself in an awkward position by overreaching unnecessarily on NATO membership for Ukraine.
Matt Johnson recently argued in Haaretz (Forget NATO: Ukraine’s Problem Is Russian Imperialism) that the main driver behind the current crisis in the region is not NATO but rather the Russian president’s imperialism and rejection of Ukrainian independence. No doubt this is true: Putin covets Ukraine in a way that factors into his grievance at Russia being “plundered” at the end of the Cold War.
But big power diplomacy is not quite so cut-and-dry. By toying with an extension of the Western military alliance to a few hundred kilometers from Moscow, NATO handed Putin a pretext that looks reasonable to his people, which is a tool this kind of despot will happily employ.
Moreover, by extending NATO to the steppe its member states would be undertaking commitments that many among their people are far from eager to honor. Polls show that favorability toward NATO is painfully low in key countries like Germany, France, Italy and Spain, which would be confirmed on the ground by anyone who talks to the people. So there is a fakery at play, of a sort that rarely prospers.
What is needed now is a way for the West to quietly climb down from that without making it look like appeasement – for a bully, once appeased, may well return demanding more. A reasonable strategy would be offering Ukraine accelerated EU membership instead, alongside genuinely punishing sanctions against Russia.
It’s a relevant part of the equation that Ukraine’s independence is a new thing: Russia, Austria-Hungary and even Poland controlled its territory for centuries. And it is saddled with a large ethnic Russian minority because the internal Soviet borders were designed to scramble populations, dilute local nationalism and make secessions difficult.
I was based in Eastern Europe and visiting Ukraine as an Associated Press reporter during the 1991 independence drive, as the Soviet Union was falling apart. Euphoria swept through towns like Cernovtsy and Lviv; people were literally dancing in the streets. It was a time when Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” was quoted without irony by ordinary citizens. I quite believed it then as well, but history had other plans.
Russia under Boris Yeltsin was content to let Ukraine and its other dominions go, and focus on making Russia Russian again. That changed when Putin, ex-KGB officer and nostalgist of empire, took the reins at the turn of the millennium.
Putin’s Russia is universally credited with the botched poisoning of pro-Western Ukrainian leader Viktor Yuschenko in 2004; ten years later Russia seized the strategic (and widely Russian-speaking) Black Sea peninsula of Crimea; Russia aids rebels in Ukraine’s east, is suspected of cyber-sabotage, and has now amassed over 100,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders. The feared outcome is not only invasion, but also the installation of a puppet regime.
The history of despots everywhere is one of military adventurism based on invented pretexts to distract from oppression and misery at home. But Russia’s outrage at Ukraine’s prospective NATO membership is actually not fake, and is not limited to Putin.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization defines its raison d’etre fuzzily, but there was no doubt at the time of its 1949 establishment: to deter further Soviet expansion after the loss of eastern and central Europe. In Russian eyes it remains an anti-Russian outfit and a tool of the United States.
Russia’s weakness under Yeltsin enabled NATO to bring in the former Warsaw Pact states after the communist collapse. But the alliance was more cautious with Ukraine, back then. NATO leaders understood Russia’s sensitivity when it came to an actual former constituent republic of the Soviet Union.
And they were aware that Ukraine itself was badly divided between the pro-Western camp and supporters of reliance on culturally and geographically more proximate Russia (the latter including but not limited to ethnic Russians, perhaps 20 percent of the population).
The USSR purposely scrambled borders and populations to make sure there were significant Russian or at least Slavic populations in as many of the republics as possible; and so, the Trans-Dniester part of Ukraine was tacked on to majority-Romanian Moldova (causing tensions that persist to this day), whereas the Donbas and Crimea regions, with heavy Russian-speaking populations and proximity to Russia, were included in Ukraine; versions of this happened in the Baltics and Caucasus as well.
The pivot towards a more aggressive Ukraine policy came at the height of America’s short-lived moment as the world’s hyperpower, at a summit of NATO leaders in Bucharest in April 2008. The U.S. investment bank Bear Sterns had just collapsed, but the Bush administration betrayed no premonition that global economic meltdown was just around the corner. Nor was there much understanding of the catastrophe that its Iraq invasion would become.
In a fit of hubris emblematic of the moment, NATO leaders affirmed Ukraine’s right to be a member as well, free of outside interference.
Support for NATO membership was rather low at the time in Ukraine itself, where people feared poking Russia in the eye. Then came 2014, when Ukraine’s divisions exploded on the streets. Ukraine’s pro-Russian president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to sign a free trade agreement with the EU (which domestic rivals had negotiated) triggering mass protests (known as the Maidan Revolution) that led to his ouster.
Russia’s reaction was the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the fomenting of rebellion in the eastern (and largely ethnic Russian) Donbas region. That in turn caused Ukrainian support for NATO membership to shoot up, and current polls show a majority desires it; moreover, the intention, framed as a right, to NATO membership is now enshrined in a Ukrainian basic law
Into this tinderbox stepped NATO leaders meeting in Brussels last June, when they reiterated Ukraine’s right to membership. Such an admission of Ukraine to NATO would mean that, due to Article V, not only the U.S. but every one of the other 29 member states would be obliged to support defending it against Russia, a nuclear power run by a KGB kleptocracy with a despot at the helm.
Are people in Denmark and Belgium eager to go to war with Russia to preserve the integrity of the Soviet Union’s often nonsensical internal borders (which in 1991 became de facto international ones)? How many of them even know where they are?
Russia’s main condition for defusing the crisis is that NATO back away from this nominal open-door policy towards Ukraine. In a world where the West is afraid to fully recognize Taiwan lest China bristle, is this actually a ridiculous demand from Moscow?
Home of world-class culture and sweeping historical dramas, Russia prizes a self-image as a great power, of the kind that can claim a zone of influence. The U.S. has had similar ambitions vis-à-vis the Caribbean (if not the Western hemisphere and, in a way, the world). From Moscow’s perspective, the Ukraine situation is not unlike California seceding from the U.S. and then being invited into the Warsaw Pact. To head off such a scenario, Russians might back engineering a friendly government in Kyiv.
It would be an aggression by Russia and a disaster for Ukrainians. But not every aggression in history has triggered a response. Responses, when they occur, are generally presented in idealistic terms, but what drives them are often interests. As one example, Europe’s primary interest is to not impede the one-half of its gas supply that comes from Russia (the critical Nord Stream 2 pipeline was completed just last fall).
The world community overlooks countless injustices, delivering mostly slaps on the wrist. The Chinese oppress the Uyghurs. Turkey’s Erdogan locks up his critics. Israel occupies the West Bankers and Hamas enslaves the Gazans. There is no global cop, and dictatorships run riot.
Despite high hopes 30 years ago, Russia is now one of them, with its manhandling of the opposition, domestication of the media and meekly captive courts. But the government the U.S. once labored to restore in Kuwait was no democracy either. Indeed, the U.S. itself, under Donald Trump, took enough steps toward Putinization to erode its moral high ground. Losing the right to lecture others about best practice is one consequence of electing someone like Trump.
No one can say what will happen in coming weeks; a single cynic may decide. If Russia invades, it might be only in the east, or the capital could be targeted. Either way the Ukrainians are likely to find themselves militarily alone.
Russia will find assets frozen, diplomats expelled, and so on. At such times there is reluctance by democracies to truly squeeze a country run by despots, lest a long-suffering populace suffer even more. But Russia has reached the point at which such concerns are put aside.
Because of Europe’s energy dependence it will fall to the U.S. to lead determined maneuvers like removing Russia’s banks from the SWIFT system, making its entire leadership persona non grata wherever possible, impeding its import of computer chips and other essentials, and more. The West should seek regime change as a goal for Russia, the same as many people would like to see with Iran.
Is this the best that we can do for Ukraine? That is a bigger issue, an unanswered question of international relations, and a basic conundrum of the human condition: When do we intervene?
We like to think there is a structure for global governance – universal norms and historical precedents, multilateral institutions and international law. But when push comes to shove, the world is mostly a jungle. If it ever ceases to be so, we will have a truer civilization, and the end of history may perhaps be spoken of again.