The West has very few options left to curb further Russian aggression in the Ukraine.
After seizing Crimea many naively hoped that Russia would be content with having secured its access to the Black Sea and the future for its Black Sea Fleet base, and would not continue further efforts to destabilize Ukraine and seize more territory. These hopes have now been dashed, as Russia continues to sponsor and facilitate internal unrest throughout eastern Ukraine and amass armed forces along the Ukrainian border.
What lessons should the West have learned from Russia’s actions? Two stand out as most important.
The first is that the West totally misunderstood Vladimir Putin and his motives. When Putin took power in 2000, there was a belief that he would continue the policies initiated by former Russian President Boris Yelstin and that Russia would remain a vanquished power after its Cold War defeat. It was obvious from the outset, however, that such perceptions were flawed: Putin aggressively began to restore Russia’s place on the international stage by reinvesting in military armament, imposing a de facto authoritarian regime and, like Soviet leaders before him, vilifying the west as being responsible for the economic hardships faced by Russians, all in an effort to reignite Russian nationalism. All the while, Putin also fooled many of his international counterparts by simultaneously speaking the language of global integration, democracy and cooperation.
The one distinct advantage Putin enjoyed during his first Presidential term, which ran from 2000 to 2008, was the United States’ and other western states’ preoccupation with the global War on Terror and deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was both that preoccupation and the blindness of the so-called post-Cold War liberal order that allowed Putin to solidify his place at Russia’s helm.
Putin even used his pledge to support the War on Terror to crack down on domestic opponents and civil society movements, claiming they were trying to insight rebellion or were organized by terrorist groups, and to restore the cultural norms that had made the Soviet Union so effective at controlling its own people.
The other significant lesson that can be taken away from recent events in Ukraine is the poverty of western strategy – which currently consists of sanctions, calls for “immediate talks” and empty rhetoric – about how to deal with the emerging world order.
While the sanctions have been somewhat effective, they take time if they are to serve as an effective deterrent and Putin has shown little care for the disastrous impacts they are likely to have on the Russian economy when it comes to his quest for national glory.
As for “immediate talks”, how many times must we watch an ineffective but stern-looking John Kerry enter a room with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, only to emerge within hours looking dejected while a confident Lavrov mocks western strategies?
It was also obvious from the start that the strong and threatening rhetoric emanating from western leaders who demanded Russia cease its actions would not be backed up by action.
Putin, in fact, had been testing western resolve well before he seized Crimea. He played diplomatic chicken over Syria, which proved to him just how weak western policy makers were and how fundamentally they misunderstood Russia. Their ineptitude created the perfect opportunity for Putin to push into Crimea.
From the start, the West wrongly assumed that Putin could be reasoned with and that both parties had a vested interest in avoiding another Cold War. While avoiding a second Cold War may be true for the West and NATO, it doesn’t hold true for Putin.
There is little doubt now that Putin is interested in a partitioned Ukraine at the very least and he may not stop there.
The sooner the west accepts this fact and begins to strategize accordingly (i.e. containment), the better chance of success in deterring further Russian action they will be.