“I guess I’ll shake your hand,” huffed Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper as Russian President Vladimir Putin approached him at the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, last Saturday, palm outstretched. “But I have only one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.”
Putin has certainly been hearing that refrain from Western leaders a lot over the past several months. Ever since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who had aligned himself with Putin, was ousted in a popular revolution earlier this year, an insurgency has been simmering in the Russian-speaking eastern Donbas region of the country. Putin has condemned the post-revolutionary government as “fascists” trampling on the rights of ethnic Russians (a claim which is categorically untrue), and it has long been suspected that he has forces in the Donbass assisting the rebels, just like the Russian troops that poured into Crimea before its dubious independence “referendum” in March. And observers on the ground recently reported that massive convoys of tanks and artillery were moving through the separatist-held areas, while the Russian army was massing on the border with Ukraine. Hence the sanctions the EU has slapped on Russia, not to mention Harper’s buttonholing of Putin this weekend.
This strategy, however, is doomed to fail, because it fundamentally misconstrues Putin’s worldview. The West sees Putin as a rogue, an anachronism, fully aware that he sits in a world order bound by rules and norms yet defying that order by proclaiming that his might makes right. To them, he is “in another world” (in the words of German chancellor Angela Merkel), committed to “nineteenth-century” ideas of power politics (US Secretary of State John Kerry). But what they miss is that Putin thinks much the same of them.
The reason why is rooted in two divergent understandings of what happened in Europe twenty-five years ago. As I discussed in my last article, the West interpreted the fall of the Berlin Wall as a mandate to spread its institutions across the European continent. In effect, they believed that the Cold War had not merely ended; it had been won. Gone was the military need for European solidarity; now the purpose of institutions like the EU and NATO was to bring free markets and democratic politics, the fruits of victory, to Eastern Europe in a new era of international peace and cooperation. Liberal democracies would take center stage as the natural leaders of world politics, and after a period of economic and political restructuring, Russia would perhaps someday join this grand coalition.
But that was not how Russia saw it. NATO was a military alliance formed for the sole purpose of containing Moscow, and it was impossible not to see its encroachment into Eastern Europe as a strategic threat. To the Kremlin, the rhetoric of democracy and freedom was being used as a shield to win supremacy over Eastern Europe and diminish Russia’s role in the region. And Putin is not the only one who feels this way—former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the end of the Cold War, feels betrayed by a West he says pledged to him that NATO would not expand after the Cold War and that Russia would be treated as a partner in the new international order. Instead, NATO and the EU both pushed eastward, admitting the former Communist states and brushing aside Russia’s objections to intervene in the civil war convulsing the former Yugoslavia.
And even Putin’s diatribes on the travails of the Russian diaspora across Europe are not complete fabrications. For example, the Baltic country of Latvia refused upon independence from the USSR to grant citizenship to ethnic Russians living within their borders, instead restricting it to descendants of those who had been citizens before 1940 (when Stalin’s tanks rolled in). Despite a loosening of these restrictions over the years, many Russians still do not have citizenship today, and they are deprived of a political voice despite their numbers. Harmony Center, the political party representing the interests of Latvia’s ethnic Russians, won the most votes in the two most recent parliamentary elections yet was frozen out of talks to form a government both times. Although somewhat understandable in light of Harmony Center’s affiliation with Putin’s United Russia Party, this continued marginalization indicates that a reaction against Russia has been a very real consequence of alignment with the West for countries in post-Cold War Eastern Europe.
So, while Putin’s actions with respect to Ukraine may be blatantly illegitimate, his grievances are in some sense understandable. The whole mess in Ukraine started when President Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the EU, sparking the protests that ousted him. What the West saw as a victory for universal values of freedom and transparency, Putin saw as another domino falling in the quest of NATO and the EU to make Eastern Europe their exclusive sphere of influence—and their moves to offer Ukraine eventual membership only confirmed his suspicions. Many in Russia agree wholeheartedly with this assessment, and until the West understands this and finds some way to respond that acknowledges Putin’s frustrations, he will continue to manipulate events in Ukraine to secure what he sees as his country’s best interests.
Obviously, NATO and the EU cannot retract the offers of accession they have made to Ukraine, nor should they: the prospect of eventual membership is necessary to drive reform in that country at a time of acute economic crisis and widespread corruption. And Putin will likely prove an unreliable partner, making any sort of rapprochement with him tricky at best, not to mention a prospect Ukraine will implacably oppose. But the West can and should put pressure on Ukraine and other post-Soviet states to make sure that fear of Putin does not turn into a nationalist, anti-Russian backlash. Extending an open hand to Putin on this issue without making any concessions on democracy and the rule of law is the best—perhaps the only—way of showing that the West is sincere in its intentions. If Putin is ever prepared to engage with the West as a partner, as Gorbachev was, then this step should be a good trust-building measure, and it promotes human rights if nothing else. While some might argue that responding to one aspect of Putin’s concerns validates his whole twisted narrative of a neo-fascist conspiracy in Ukraine, that is not the case: if Moscow’s genuine grievances are being addressed, any future power grabs by Putin will only isolate him further due to his lack of a legitimate pretext. In any event, it is more than blustering at him on the sidelines of an international summit will accomplish.