LONDON–For a self-professed Christian who has long used the dangling cross he wears around his neck as a tool to define his public persona, it comes as little surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin would make such a public showing out of his belief in original sin. But, it turns out that the version of original sin that Putin likes best isn’t the religious version, but a political one.
In the Russian strongman’s favorite telling, Western nations promised a teetering Soviet Union on the verge of collapse in 1990 that if Moscow agreed to remove Soviet troops from East Germany, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would vow to never expand further east than Berlin. But then, as the story goes, the West broke its word almost immediately and sought to humiliate Russia, going so far as to attempt the expansion of NATO and the European Union to Russian borders. So naturally, in the heroic Putin narrative, Russian troops were forced to invade Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 to protect its homeland against the aggressive actions of the United States and its European allies.
As Harvard historian Mary Elise Sarotte has proven, this is a complete and utter fairy tale. While there was some discussion 25 years ago this month between then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl about whether an integrated Germany could exist as a half-NATO nation or whether the West should accede to Moscow’s hope that NATO would never expand to eastern Europe, it was roundly rejected.
The most damning rebuff to the Putin narrative came in an interview with Wossiskaya Gazeta and Russia Beyond the Headlines last October 15th, when an interviewee familiar with the negotiations in 1990-91 said, “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either.”
The speaker? None other than former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev himself.
Yet, as Putin continues to spin the myth of humiliation to justify Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine, some Western observers are convinced that Russia is winning the war of words. Some suggest that Putin’s actions are a sign of Russia’s renewed strength while others worry that the former KGB operative is in the driver’s seat in Europe, splitting the NATO alliance and undermining the EU while fueling a new Cold War. However the situation in Ukraine is resolved, many seem resigned to the fact that Russia will never embrace the West, which should instead prepare itself for a long twilight struggle.
There is no question that the situation with Russia right now is dangerous. But the pundits who think that Russia has the upper hand are mistaken. It’s a misreading of history to believe that Europe, the U.S. and Russia are destined to be long-term adversaries. After all, the world didn’t endure five decades of the Cold War just so we could slip back into a Cold War posture at the first sign of trouble.
The situation in Ukraine isn’t about Russia’s strength; it’s about Russia’s weakness. After all, what did Putin do? He sent members of the Russian army, which spends $78 billion a year to Ukraine’s $1.6 billion, across his own peaceful border to start a local war in the last country in Eastern Europe that was threatening to abandon Russia and turn to the West. As many have written, his real fear isn’t to have a NATO-aligned Ukraine on its border, but a prosperous, Democratic Ukraine on its border, showing Russians a shining example of what life could like with the West.
Meanwhile, Russia’s economy just got downgraded to junk status. Inflation is in double digits. One in five banks are reportedly on the verge of collapse. The value of the ruble has fallen 50% against the dollar. The president of Russia’s regional banking association is warning that the country will soon face a wave of bankruptcies. And Russia’s own central bank is cautioning that the economy will shrink as much as 4.7 percent if oil prices don’t climb above $60 a barrel. There is little question that Western sanctions imposed over Ukraine are punishing the Russian people harder than ever, and they have less patience with the former KGB agents in positions of power who continue to get rich while the rest of the country suffers.
Then, there is the head of Russia’s main state news agency, Dmitry Kiselev, who warned this month that while the Soviet Union pledged never to use nuclear weapons first, Russia’s current military no longer recognizes that limitation. Now, ask yourself this: does a country that really feels strong about itself talk openly about its nuclear arsenal? After all, not even a weak, isolated Muslim nation like Pakistan brags about its nukes.
Putin knows that the West could completely collapse the Russian economy within months. All it would take is to act on the suggestion made by the United Kingdom last August that Russia be cut completely out of the international payment system, known as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT. Russia relies almost entirely on the Belgium-based system to process domestic and international payments. Fear of such a move is so great that one of Russia’s top bankers warned that it would be like declaring war, while Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev pledged that Russia’s response “would know no limits.”
And yet, despite all of this, Russia is still on track to boost its defense spending by 30 percent in 2015, as part of a long-planned upgrade of the Russian military. Putin’s greatest critics have long charged that he hopes to create a union of former Soviet states – but dramatically boosting military spending while the country rots from within didn’t work out so well the first time, and there is little reason to believe that it will work now, either.
Instead, the West should recognize this for what it is: a desperate play to fan the flames of Russian nationalism by a President who has no other answers. And there is absolutely no reason why the U.S. should let him go down this road without trying to stop it.
It may seem like a naïve hope at this point, but as geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan has written, Putin has no respect for Europe – only America. And it must be America that leads. The U.S. should take a velvet and hammer approach.
On one hand, it should intensify sanctions that squeeze Russia’s ability to do business, crack down on Russian money laundering, use U.S. natural gas to reduce the EU’s dependence on Russia, and lead an all-out international effort to boost aid to Ukraine–all while keeping one finger on the SWIFT trigger.
On the other hand, the White House should privately reach out to Putin. It should affirm Russia’s proud history, acknowledge that expanding NATO to Ukraine–with its 1,000 year association with Russia–was a bridge too far, and offer to help restart Russia’s embrace of democratic reform. It should accept Putin’s idea of a “greater Europe from Dublin to Vladivostok,” invite Russia to join NATO on a special membership track, and work with Moscow to help it begin to adopt a version of NATO’s standards for democracy and transparency.
For good measure, we might remind Russia that if it continues to isolate itself by reclaiming its historic territories, there will likely be nobody there in the future when China decides it wants Siberia back and reclaims the vast energy-rich territory it was forced to cede to Russia in 1860. Once a precedent is established, there is no telling where it might lead.
If Putin really believes in the messages of hope and forgiveness embodied by that cross hanging from his neck, he’ll pull back from his Ukrainian folly and open his eyes to the better future that integration with the West can bring to his people. Now is not the time for the U.S. and Europe to give up on Russia. Now is the time for the West to do everything in its power to help Russia realize its vast potential.